Russia's Slow-Motion Invasion of Ukraine

Is Putin waging a new form of warfare, or a very old one?
A pro-Russian rebel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Is Russia invading Ukraine? Ask Ukraine, and the answer is yes. Ask Russia, and the answer is no ... ish. Ask the United States, and you'll learn that Russia, since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in March, has been demonstrating a "pattern" of "escalation of aggression." U.S. officials have avoided labeling Russia's "incursions" an invasion, perhaps to dodge the diplomatic and military implications of doing so.

What we know is that there are currently more than 1,000 heavily armed Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine and 20,000 Russian soldiers massed on the border, according to NATO. We know that armored vehicles and military equipment have been rolling into Ukraine from the direction of Russia in the dark of night; that Russian paratroopers were recently apprehended by Ukrainian authorities; that a massive convoy of Russian trucks entered Ukrainian territory without Kiev's consent earlier this month. If you believe the Kremlin and pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatists, the Russian troops in Ukraine are on vacation, the captured Russian paratroopers entered Ukraine "by accident," the Russian government is not directing and arming the rebels battling the Ukrainian military, and the truck convoy was delivering humanitarian aid. Then again, Vladimir Putin once declared that the "little green men" occupying Crimea were local self-defense forces who had gone shopping for Russian military uniforms, only to later admit that they were—surprise!—Russian soldiers.

The reality is this: Russia and Ukraine are effectively at war, and have been for some time, though Moscow has recently decided to operate more openly. If international reaction to the fact that one major European power has invaded another seems remarkably muted, that's in part because the Kremlin has adopted a bewildering strategy over the last five months of disguising its actions, head-faking toward peace, and slowly escalating its aggression—what Michael Weiss has characterized as war by "slow, seditious drip."

It's a shape-shifting, slow-motion invasion that we don't quite know what to make of. Is Russia forging a new template for warfare, or dusting off Soviet models?

Putin's "pattern of escalating aggression," to borrow a phrase from the Obama administration, is confounding. Sometimes, it looks like this grainy image from NATO of a Russian military convoy lugging artillery through Ukraine:

DigitalGlobe via NATO

Other times, it takes the shape of this 280-truck humanitarian-aid convoy:

Reuters/National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine

Or this military vehicle in Crimea, betrayed by a license plate:



Peter Pomerantsev, for one, believes Putin is reinventing 21st-century warfare. Writing for Foreign Policy in May, Pomerantsev argued that Russia is waging "non-linear war" in Ukraine—an "avant-garde" strategy based on the premise that conflict, in today's globalized world, is multidimensional, no longer pitting nation-state(s) against nation-state(s). The Kremlin has calculated, for instance, that sanctions in response to its actions will be weak since the alliances implementing those punitive measures—the EU and NATO—matter less these days than Russia's economic relations with multinational companies and Western countries where Russian oligarchs park their money.

Others have made similar arguments. "The hallmarks of non-linear warfare are operational confusion, mistaken identity, and a sense of brittleness and crisis," Marc Ambinder observed in April. "Russia has actually mastered psychological warfare, a 21st-century art, and is using 21st-century tools to wage its campaign."

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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