Image courtesy of the New York Times. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Emile Simpson wrote in his book – War From the Ground Up – about the psychological aspect to warfare (p. 35):

“War is a competition to impose meaning on people, as much emotional as rational, in which one’s enemy is usually the key target audience. Defeat is not a ‘verdict’ handed out by an independent arbitrator of war; defeat is a perceived state which typically is violently forced (or successfully threatened) by one side upon the other.”

In a forthcoming paper for Military Review, I took a hack at defining this tricky psychological battlefield relationship/space – calling it the “human environment” (*as opposed to “domain,” which I prefer, but more on that another time).   I defined the human environment as “the sum of physical, psychological, cultural, and social interactions between strategically-relevant populations and operational military forces in a particular war or conflict.”

Either way one chooses to term it, we’re seeing this play out at the last Ukrainian military garrisons in Crimea –  in particular Belbek Air Base.  The Russians surrounded, and eventually took, the base.  Interviews provide a glimpse of the decision forced upon the trapped troops.

Air Force Major Vladislav Korgic, in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent, said:

“We have sworn an oath to the state of Ukraine and we must abide by that and bear the continuous pressure which as been put on us. We have to be constantly ready for attack. Our men are not combat troops, we specialize in aviation. The Russians are here with infantry, armor, spetznatz.”  But this oath comes at a price: “Look over there, my apartment, 200 meters away. [Major Korgic pointed at a bock of flat beyond the perimeter wall]  I have my wife there with our daughter; she is just seven years old. I have spent just two of the last 20 days with them. It pains me to know what they are going through. We have to remove our daughter from school, because of things which are being said about me. My wife has to put up with daily abuse…”

Colonel Igor Mamchur, deputy commander of nearby marine garrison at Simferopol, said that troops were to make the choice about what to do individually: “We’ve got apartments, we’ve got housing here, children that go to school.”  In the end, Colonel Mamchur said he decided to stay in Crimea, “I had a choice between duty and family – and I’ve chosen family.” 

These are horrifying decisions to outside observers, and reminds one of the strain that Major General William T. Sherman’s march to Atlanta and the Sea put on Confederate soldiers.  But there is one bright side.  The alternative is bloody violence.  In comparison, the threats and coercion in this Russian psychological warfare in Crimea could even be viewed as humane.

But try explaining that to Major Korgic’s seven year old daughter.