The Kremlin has begun the next stage of its operation in Ukraine, introducing large numbers of regular forces onto the scene in southeast Ukraine and basically taking over the "separatist" movement, which it orchestrated to begin with. International discussion continues to use language like "Russia is supporting the separatists," etc., but this has been obsolete for some time. Within a matter of weeks rhetoric will probably catch up to the current reality. By then, however, Russia will have likely moved on to the next phase of escalation.
By now anyone who closely follows news from Ukraine (such as the author) has become aware of the recurring patterns in the Kremlin's behavior and rhetoric:
1. Denial of involvement in the current stage of the operation to Western and domestic audiences. On the international level, this slows international responce because suspicions require time to be confirmed and proven beyond a doubt. By the time incontrovertible facts have been presented and influential players are convinced and discussing what action to take, Moscow has already moved on to the next stage.
2. Admitting to limited benevolent involvement in previous stages of the operation to a domestic audience after the fact and only as necessary. This allows time for society to become accustomed to the new situation, and it is always easier to justify things after the fact, particularly if the operation was successful.
3. Silencing any domestic grassroots protests (through incarceration, intimidation, changing the status of an increasingly activist organization to "foreign agent," which means that the organization is presumed to receive foreign funding, painting troublemakers as "Maidan orchestrators" or worse, etc.). Visible figures such as pop musicians or relatively harmless opposition leaders are permitted to have their opinion as long as there is no popular resonance.
4. Multivector domestic information control consisting of: firm control over TV stations and, to an increasing degree, radio, online news portals, and even social media; blocking of certain websites, YouTube videos, etc. Creation of a kind of virtual reality through all influential media channels that demonizes Ukraine and Western powers and promotes a kind of "benevolent" Russian fascism. Citizens may have a different opinion as long as it is perceived that there are few of them and they have no influence.
5. Multivector international information* campaign directed primarily at perceived potential allies in Western and Central Europe (which the Kremlin hopes to estrange politically from the Anglo-Saxon world) involving: recruitment of foreigners to flood online articles and posts with pro-Russia and anti-West comments to create the appearance of a majority opinion and demoralize those who think otherwise, intimidating journalists, and publishing articles in support of Russia. Close tabs are kept on sentiments in influential circles and on economic, political, and military factors through intelligence gathering, which helps the Kremlin determine which steps it can get away with.
*The information aspect of the war has caught the West largely off guard, particularly techniques of influencing popular perception through social media and disinformation. This will likely be one of the main things the West will have to develop a response to and/or protection against for future conflicts.
6. Use of confusing distractions that contribute to uncertainty and hesitation, such as imposing suspicious humanitarian convoys on Ukraine and allowing various "accidents" to happen such as shooting down a passenger liner.
7. Hints of future stages of the operation are given in public statements by influential political figures and thinkers to a domestic audience. These hints help prepare the Russian audience for likely future events, avoiding any shocks that could rile people up. These statements also apparently serve as signals to the media about what to talk about and cover. But they are also clues for international players.
Now that these patterns are becoming ever more apparent, people are paying more and more attention to hints coming out of Moscow. The Kremlin may be gradually losing its element of surprise as international players clue into their game and learn to read between the lines. The other day hints were given that Kazakhstan may be a future target of Russian operations. After all, it has a large Russian speaking population and is tightly integrated with Russia despite some movement towards China. Putin said that Kazakhstan didn't have its own statehood before the Soviet Union. Similar things were said about Ukraine in the years leading up to its invasion. Putin was also noted to have mentioned Russia's nuclear arsenal twice in a recent statement, which can be perceived as a warning to western military leaders.
If we use our imagination a bit, what kinds of disruptive things might we be able to envision happening next? (Russian leaders often label this sort of thinking "Russophobic sentiments")
- after much fighting and casualties, Russian troops establish a land corridor to Crimea and resume water and electrical supply to Crimea coming from Ukrainian territory
- as control of Donbass is secured by Russian forces, coal mining and military factors there resume their operations (to Russia's benefit), which is painted as averting a humanitarian disaster, which Russia leverages to try to gain international acceptance of its "peacekeeping" presence in the region.
- Russian troops press far enough into central Ukraine before western powers respond that their later retreat into southeast Ukraine is perceived as an "acceptable compromise."
- some costly disaster overloads Kiev's budget at just the wrong time, such as a dam burst on the Dnipro River or an explosion of the Chernobyl containment facility, neither of which would be unequivocally traceable to Russia
- an atomic bomb "accidentally" detonates in a location that is not unequivocally perceived as being an obvious military target (such as near some medium-sized town in a state bordering Russia or Ukraine), leaving other atomic powers uncertain as to how to respond or who exactly is to blame; meanwhile the Kremlin denies responsibility and promises to find and punish all those involved
- Moscow contributes to a military conflict in another region of the world, tying up the West and drawing attention away from the post-Soviet region
- Moscow pressures or blackmails Kazakhstan into become a Russian protectorate due to "dangers in the region" and begins the process of absorbing it into the Russian state
- chemical weapons cause civilian casualties in a large city in southeast Ukraine, and Moscow blames the incident on Kiev and uses it domestically as justification for a full-scale invasion of the country (which has already occurred) to protect local civilians against Ukrainian atrocities
- Moscow preemptively cuts off its oil and gas pipeline to Europe just as Western Europe is preparing to provide Ukraine with armaments to support it in the war
- Putin could die suddenly, and everyone would be left wondering what happens next
As for poor Ukraine, which has little say in the fate of its own country, we can expect to see increasing military mobilization and low-budget guerrila warfare, which Ukrainians historically have plenty of experience in. The first could be undercut by budget constraints and even bankrupcy or default, while the second will be much harder for Moscow to target and eliminate. The degree of guerrila resistance is also a wild card that Russian military experts will have be unable to predict or control. No matter what the military outcome, Moscow will have become Ukrainians' arch-enemy for years to come. Ukraine's economy also faces a substantial likelihood of collapse, though it seems international financial institutions will display a willingness to shore it up.
Within Russia, the Kremlin will endeavor to quelch any popular protests, focusing on organizers and networks. A weak spot are mothers of Russian soldiers, who will be impossible to demonize in media propaganda. Major shifts in public sentiment are always a possibility, despite the propaganda, but the Kremlin apparently feels it has this under control for now. Given the nature of the Internet, certain videos could potentially escape censorship and be distributed and viewed millions of times in a matter of days. Things like this could lead to an uncontrollable exponential rise in dissent. Russians will experience a decline in their standard of living due to sanctions, but public attention will be focused on the benefits of national unity, supporting domestic production, and military successes near Russia's borders.
Internationally, it seems likely that the West will begin to offer more and more military support for Ukraine and make increasingly menacing NATO maneuvers. NATO has apparently halted Russia at least twice in the past ten years and could do so again, though Russia would continue its covert operations while halting its overt movements. This assistance, however, may come when Russian forces are already deep into Ukraine, and Russia could negotiate for a truce that leaves them with half of Ukraine — the previously envisioned swath of land from Lugansk to Transdnistria along the southern part of Ukraine.
Obviously Russian intelligence is keeping tabs on everything that would influence the success of its operations, and each successive escalation appears to be the right thing to do given the current circumstances and the geopolitical understanding of Kremlin strategists. If Russia has decided to send in large numbers of troops and take back the Donbass region from Ukrainian forces, that means they have calculated that the benefits outweigh the risks. While their calculations could be off, it seems more likely that they would misjudge the likelihood of popular uprisings and grassroots processes than of official sanctions and military response.
It will be interesting to come back to these notes in some weeks and months and see what, if anything, has come true.