April 22, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Track Suit Invasion: Russian Special Ops in Ukraine
The recent photographic evidence identifying some of the alleged local Ukrainians seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine as Russian military intelligence and special operations personnel further bolsters the assessment that Russia has, for all intents and purposes, already invaded Ukraine. By using the slimmest margin of deniability, Russia continues to attempt to change the facts on the ground, without resorting to a large-scale uniformed military operation that would constitute an internationally-defined invasion. Once these intelligence-driven destabilization and psychological operations efforts have created enough tension and sufficiently altered dynamics of the upcoming May elections, Russian troops will then be “invited” into the newly seized regions as a locally requested stabilizing force.
In essence, Russia is using its paramilitary intelligence operatives (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye, or GRU) to create an astro-turf insurgency that mimics a grassroots one. The presence of an estimated 40,000 Russian troops near the border of the two countries serves as a distraction, acting as a false trip wire signifying a possible “uniformed invasion” while operatives wearing civilian clothes and uniforms sans insignia are already conducting a more effective and very real incursion. This “track suit invasion” hinges on leveraging the considerable intelligence resources Russia has in eastern Ukraine, a region with a sizable ethnic Russian population. Intelligence, psychological, and information operations are easier to conduct in a common language and culture, an advantage Russia is fully exploiting as it creates and leads so-called “homegrown” resistance. With detailed area knowledge and understanding of local security and political dynamics, Russian intelligence personnel have been successful in seizing the levers of local power.
When conducting an operation, the only reason an intelligence officer uses sources is when the officer can’t perform the task directly, lacking access or cover. The closer an intelligence officer can get to the operation firsthand, the greater the chance of success. While traditional intelligence operations are done in the shadows using local proxies, Russia is conducting its shadow operations in broad daylight with its own valuable operatives, calculating that the deniability that comes from wearing a mask will provide enough cover from international pressure to accomplish its mission of determining Ukraine’s future.
True local insurgents or trouble-makers wear masks to hide their identities from their friends and neighbors, particularly in the uncertain beginnings of a crisis. The Russian operatives now in Ukraine wear masks to protect their identities from the knowing eyes of intelligence and paramilitary officers from attentive NATO and Ukrainian services. The value of maintaining this fiction through clothing and balaclavas was highlighted by the recent evidence confirming the identities of Russian GRU personnel photographed without masks. Such evidence makes the fiction harder to maintain but not impossible. The downside of using covert personnel in a rather overt operation in an age of ubiquitous camera phones is that rival intelligence services can create a photo album of spies, an invaluable resource. Russia has apparently weighed the risk of exposing the identities of a handful of covert operatives’ unfavorably against the giant gain of a compliant Ukraine (or at least the eastern Ukrainian regions that Moscow values most).
Moscow’s tactics are not new; fomenting unrest to destabilize a perceived enemy is classic geopolitical dark arts. What is new is Moscow’s overt use of covert action as a strategy of achieving its goals while avoiding the worst of international repercussions by literally masking an invasion.
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