Image of December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor courtesy of Flikr user US Army. Image of December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor courtesy of Flikr user US Army.

By Christopher Davis

As of May 1st, it appears that the position of the relatively new government in Kiev has become increasingly untenable. Armed gunmen have seized government buildings in three of Ukraine’s eastern provinces after the failure of the military (first the regular army, and second the newly created national guard) to restore order. In response, the Ukrainian president order the restoration of conscription. Meanwhile, the administration continues its planned economic policy of austerity, with its known economic shocks, despite the political instability of the country. Through a combination of threats and direct action, Moscow through all of this has been able to maintain significant pressure on Kiev, obstructing if not outright preventing Kiev’s ability to build legitimacy and establish order. Washington’s and Europe’s timid response in the form of targeted sanctions does not appear to be sufficient to compel Moscow to reverse course. Thus, by the nature of force, Moscow seems to have secured a very strong political position to control the outcomes in Ukraine’s turmoil.

However, it was not by force alone that Russia attained this position. In fact, it’s current advantages can be more attributed to the deft exploitation of strategic surprise rather than the actual use of force itself. Surprise can be operationally defined as attacking in a time, location, or method unanticipated by the adversary. And in the modern globalizing world, an “attack” does not necessarily have to be through military force. In this scenario, it appears that Moscow achieved surprise both politically and militarily, with the West ill-positioned to respond effectively. Washington and its allies failed to anticipate Russia’s attack in three ways: the willingness to attack, the time of the attack, and the methods of the attack.

Not Anticipating the Willingness to Attack

When Russia initiated military drills prior to its occupation of Ukraine, Washington publicly acknowledged for the first time the possibility of a Russian attack on Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Moscow against any military action while his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, denied any intention to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity by claiming that the drills were regularly scheduled exercises. In the available public record, this appears to be the first time that Washington realized Russia’s intention to attack Ukraine. Unfortunately, as the materialization of the intention was fulfilled through the operationalization of the actual attack, there was no window within which Washington could feasibly deter the military action. Therefore, this represents a failure of the first order: not anticipating the strategic intention of the adversary.

The collapse of the Yanukovych government and the formation of a new pro-West administration in Kiev were met with applause in Washington. But the light of this success also blinded strategists to Moscow’s potential responses. Like the campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan (and like many other campaigns in military history), it was assumed that the fulfillment of the immediate object was the culmination of the conflict itself, leaving the United States unprepared for what comes after the desired end-state is fulfilled. This provided an opening for Moscow’s decisive use of force.

Not Anticipating the Time of the Attack

Given Ukraine’s long, close history with Russia; it is not surprising that Moscow exercises a significant amount of cultural, political, and economic influence in the country. This network of personal, ideological, cultural, and institutional relationships provided a mechanism through which Russia could act very quickly and very decisively. In only a matter of days, Moscow organized the seizure of Crimea through a combined political-military campaign with no loss of life. Moscow came close to realizing Sun Tzu’s ideal of disarming the enemy without conflict. Its agents continue to provoke, mobilize, and organize resistance to Ukraine’s political center in Kiev – note that these same forces remained largely dormant during the months of the Maiden protests. It was not until after the collapse of Yanukovych’s government that Moscow put these resources into play. Washington’s inability to anticipate the timing of Russia’s attack so soon after the new government was installed in Kiev rewarded Moscow with significant strategic and political space to exert its influence in Ukraine with minimal, locally-organized resistance in opposition.

Not Anticipating the Methods of the Attack

Lastly, Washington was not prepared for the combined political-military-information campaign launched by Moscow. As the Kremlin’s political leaders threatened, cajoled, and deceived, the special forces and intelligence services embarked on an extensive campaign of subversion. Spontaneous political uprisings appeared across Ukraine’s east while Ukraine’s own security services, including the army, failed to respond effectively. Meanwhile, Russian media – both state and privately owned – repeated Moscow’s assertions regarding why and how the crisis unfolded. The three-prong attacked effectively disarmed Ukraine’s security forces, disabused the West of any meaningful collective response, and mobilized the domestic audience to support the endeavor.

As it appears, Russia effectively achieved strategic surprise in Ukraine. Whether this was accidental or deliberate remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the exploitation of this achievement magnified the effectiveness of the minimal use of force. Ukraine appears helpless and Washington and the West unwilling to challenge Moscow’s decisive use of force.

Without any meaningful assets or plans in place in Europe to deter the Russian action, Washington was left scrambling to organize its allies to impose what amounts to symbolic sanctions. What the sanctions fail to accomplish is the reversal of Russian gains or the deterrence of further provocation. This posturing can only amount to the establishment of a political accommodation, which Washington appears currently unwilling to do. Consequently, the facts on the ground dictate the de facto conditions of the status of Ukraine, and by the decisive use of force through the mechanism of strategic surprise, this is decisively in Russia’s favor.