New Challenges, Old Lessons, Same Places
It is going to be a long and cold winter in Ukraine. Let us hope the conflict in the Eastern part of the country does not, ironically, heat up and spread. In considering whether it will, it might well be useful for the West to brush up on some similarities with some previous winters, and a few summers, in the Second World War. A long time ago in western eyes, they are rather less so to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. And they are only yesterday to Mr. Putin’s little green men in the whole of Ukraine, and in the Baltic States.
We heard a lot about those men being infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine this spring, and rightly so because hybrid warfare is certainly something that is seriously exercising the minds of NATO planners. But much of the media attention has missed much of the deeper significance of Russia’s hybrid warfare, with honourable exceptions such as Mark Galeotti of New York University who has highlighted the considerable skill used by Russia in delaying significantly the time when the evidence of Russian military involvement in Ukraine outside Crimea became overwhelmingly. Mark Galeotti has also, and not coincidentally, stressed the links between the Russian State Security (FSB) and Defence (GRU) forces and Russian organised crime. Those links stretch well beyond Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic States, and well beyond Europe. Igor Sutyagin of London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has also highlighted both the build of Russian air and naval mobile intervention forces in Crimea and the potential for their presence in Lithuania (from Kaliningrad) and the North Eastern Latgale region of Latvia, which is close to the major Russian paratrooper base just across the border at Pskov.
They are right to stress these points, because the little green men don’t have to be infiltrated. They are already there and, to coin a phrase, “they haven’t gone away, you know”.
Why is this?
Quite simply, key locations such as the Odessa region and Riga in Latvia were favoured retirement or demobilisation locations for Soviet era military and naval personnel. Both cities have large populations whose first language is Russian. In Latvia, they or their families may well have EU citizenship. Given Riga and Odessa’s commercial importance for the Baltic States and Ukraine respectively, their presence offers many opportunities for gathering information and planting disinformation and stirring up discontent. In Odessa, that capability is boosted by the proximity of Transnistria in Moldova, but whose self-declared independence has not been recognised by anyone, including Russia, YET. When it suits them, Transnistrians can exercise their legal right to a Moldovan passport, which now gives them visa free access to the EU’s Schengen Zone, which makes it easy to link up with old FSB and GRU associates in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.
How does all of this fit in with not so old memories of the Second World War? In all too many ways. In early 1943 after Stalingrad the Soviet forces entered Eastern Ukraine and almost reached the Dnepr River, which would have virtually cut off northern and western Ukraine from what Mr. Putin calls Novo Rossiya. The equivalent today is the menacing moves along the Sea of Azov towards Mariupol. In the 1943 campaign, the Germans were able to counter attack the overextended Soviet forces and force them back to broadly the present Russian – Ukrainian border. They were only able to do this because they were strongly entrenched east of Donetsk and their rear was secure as they held the Crimea. A rather different story today. If Russia moves against Mariupol in the spring or seeks to stir up trouble in the Dnepr Bend cities such as Zaporozhe and especially Dnepropetrovsk then it is surely time to watch out. In recent weeks there have already been a worrying series of bombings in Kharkiv, the largest city in Eastern Ukraine which might either be the opening of another hybrid warfare front or a diversion ahead of further pressure near Mariupol and a potential land corridor to Crimea.
Something not so dissimilar might be one to look out for in Latvia. In 1944, like the cigarette and petrol smugglers of today, the soviet forces broke into the Baltic States in eastern Latvia and quickly reached the sea at the gulf of Riga, thereby cutting off large German forces in northern Latvia and in Estonia. The geographical barriers in Estonia – Lake Peipus and the river Narva at the town of that name on the Estonian – Russian border greatly helped the German defence then and the Estonian effort against smugglers now, but these don’t exist in Russian speaking Latgale. If you were a smuggler or a little green men commander, which would you choose?
it is time to put an awful lot of thinking caps on, not just in NATO and but in pan European services working with Ukraine and Moldova, especially Europol in the Hague Frontex Border Control Intelligence agency in Warsaw. Watch out Latgale and Riga, and especially watch out Odessa, Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk. Because you are being watched.
The author is a former Strategic Intelligence Analyst for the UK’s Customs and Excise Service. He has subsequently worked extensively in the Baltic States, Moldova and Central Asia, and particularly in Ukraine.