Understanding Russia’s Proxy War in Eastern Ukraine*

*Moderator’s Note: This excerpt is part of a longer article published by the Centre for Security Governance on their website Security Sector Reform – Resource Centre. It is reprinted here in part with the permission of the author. You can read the full article here or via a link on the CFPS website.

Since April 2014, Russia has been waging a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, through its increasingly escalating support of pro-Russian separatists in the ersatz Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic. Although Moscow has repeatedly denied supporting the pro-Russian separatists, it is clear that these rebel militias are not some rag-tag grassroots self-defence organizations, simply protecting the Russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine, but are actually well trained, well equipped, and seasoned fighters.

While no war has officially been declared by Moscow, Russia’s covert and increasingly overt support has been crucial in financing, equipping, providing personnel, and supplying intelligence to the pro-Russian separatists. However, it was not until rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, with a Russian supplied BUK surface-to-air missile, that many in the Western media and policy circles began to wake-up to Moscow’s significant physical and material support for the pro-Russian separatists.

With regards to equipment, Moscow’s aid has moved beyond simply providing small arms, light weapons, and rations. Since June, it has involved an increasingly steady supply of heavy weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, Strela-2 shoulder-fired missiles, Grad rocket launchers, as well as the BUK surface-to-air missiles responsible for downing MH17. United States intelligence and Ukrainian government officials have also shown that Russian heavy artillery has repeatedly fired into Ukraine from within the Russian side of the border.

Pro-Russian separatists have certainly used terror to exert control over the population in areas occupied by the rebels, where the United Nations has estimated that more than 800 people have been abducted in eastern Ukraine alone since April. However, a significant proportion of the Russian-speaking populace of the occupied pro-Russian strongholds of eastern Ukraine have also offered tacit and even overt support for the pro-Russian separatists.

What threatens Putin the most is not the relative military threat that NATO and the European Union pose, but the fact that the expansion of these clubs into the former Communist states of Eastern Europe has historically brought a general trend towards both democratization and economic liberalization. Such trends directly threaten the authoritarian order in Moscow under Putin.

So Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and current de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine should not come as a surprise. Moscow has during the past 80 years actually invaded foreign countries and planted the flag to claim territory. Indeed, Russia’s recent actions look strikingly similar not only to Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, but also to the past Soviet invasions of Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. It also mirrors Moscow’s crushing of anti-Soviet revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Moscow’s failed attempt to forcefully quash pro-independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia in the final days of the USSR.

Moscow’s proxy war in Ukraine is a prime example of an increasingly resurgent and atavistic Russia flexing its muscles, and should not be taken lightly. It’s time for EU members and their Western allies in NATO to act together against the authoritarian, revanchist and imperialistic behavior of Putin, and send a message that such behavior is unacceptable. The EU and NATO nations must also speak loudly to send a message to all Ukrainians who yearn for democracy, human rights and individual freedoms – that the Western democracies stand in solidarity with them.

David J. Meadows holds a PhD in Political Science (Dalhousie), with expertise specializing in the politics of Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia, and is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University.