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."

Some have referred to the strategy as "hybrid war." Here's how The Washington Post's editorial board described the concept on Wednesday:

[It is] a conflict waged by commandos without insignia, armored columns slipping across the international border at night, volleys of misleading propaganda, floods of disinformation and sneaky invasions like the one into Crimea. In this hybrid war, a civilian airliner was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, but the triggerman or supplier of the missile was never identified; artillery shells are fired but no one can say from where; Russian military material and equipment appears suddenly in the villages and fields of eastern Ukraine. While people are being killed, as in any war, and while Ukraine has mustered its forces admirably to push back, this hybrid war features an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in ­deception.

But is this approach really new? Deception, after all, is as old as war. And Putin's particular style of deception recalls the Soviet strategy of Maskirovka (masking), which was developed in the 1920s and defined by the Soviet Military Encyclopedia as "complex measures to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, military objectives, combat readiness and plans."

"[T]he idea is to create political uncertainty and ambiguity in order to make it hard for an enemy to know how to respond militarily," Stephen Badsey, a professor of conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K., told me by email.

During the Cold War, the Soviets hatched scenarios for making incursions into Western Europe that in many ways resemble Russia's behavior in Ukraine—"for example, a fire-engine crew crossing into West Berlin to help with a fire, followed by police, followed by soldiers, who then refuse to go," Badsey said. "Putin learned all this as basic early in his career, as did all his generals."

In drawing on these decades-old techniques, he added, Russia has now pulled off the "first ever opposed but successful seizure of territory of one UN member by another since the UN's foundation in 1945," leaving the U.S. and its Western allies "confused and uncertain as to how to respond."

Ultimately, Russia's invasion/incursion/aggression/staycation in Ukraine isn't quite Maskirovka, and it's not an entirely new breed of warfare. It is, perhaps, new tactics in the service of an old strategy. It's a "total system of measures designed to deceive and confuse the enemy," as one U.S. military study described Maskirovka in 1981. But it's also the sleek, social media-savvy propaganda campaigns of Russian news outlets like RT.

The question now is whether 20th-century alliances like the EU and NATO, which will both hold major summits on the Ukraine crisis in the coming weeks, are equipped to effectively respond to Russia's enigmatic actions in the region—whatever you call them.