“Western experts,” reports Michael Gordon in the New York Times on April 21, see Russia’s military, “disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union,” now “skillfully employing 21st-century tactics” in East Ukraine “that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West.”
Many were initially caught off-guard when “the Russians used a so-called snap military exercise to distract attention and hide their preparations. … specially trained troops, without identifying patches, moved quickly to secure key installations.
Once the operation was underway, the Russian force cut telephone cables, jammed communications and used cyberwarfare to cut off the Ukrainian military forces on the peninsula. [They sent] small, well-equipped teams across the Ukrainian border to seize government buildings that could be turned over to sympathizers and local militias.
Russia’s hand may still be heavy, but it squeezes now instead of striking massive blows.
The dexterity with which the Russians have operated in Ukraine is a far cry from the bludgeoning artillery, airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles used to retake Grozny, the Chechen capital, from Chechen separatists in 2000. In that conflict, the notion of avoiding collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure appeared to be alien.
What does this portend?
The abilities the Russian military has displayed are not only important to the high-stakes drama in Ukraine, they also have implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO.
Now that Russia has attained a relatively painless success ― sanctions and international standing aside ― with its new clever, agile military, it may find it difficult to resist the urge to exercise its newfound capabilities again. In other words, while one set of clichés may be out ― iron fisted at home, ham-handed abroad ― another, however wrong or right, might need to be revived: the domino theory.