When Russian intervention forces occupied the Crimean peninsula in February 2014 in a coup de main, NATO was still committed in Afghanistan. After more than ten years of counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, the crisis in Ukraine triggered a reorientation towards its original purposes of defense and deterrence. During the same year, at the NATO summit in Wales, it was decided to enhance the speed and capability with which NATO forces could respond to a crisis.
The subsequent Warsaw summit in 2016 added rotating multinational contingents in its eastern member states in order to signal the entire alliance’s commitment to their defense. Below these adaptations at the level of NATO, national armed forces are being reformed and rearranged because of the shift in threat perception. This analysis focuses on the military forces of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The tactics and capabilities Russia has brought to bear in eastern Ukraine in particular serve as the benchmark according to which these Western forces are being shaped.
At first glance, stabilization missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be more complex tasks for militaries to execute than conventional combat against foreign peers. However, a revived Russian military is posing fundamental challenges to NATO and its members, as it has been deliberately designed to offset Western strengths and to capitalize on NATO’s weaknesses since 2008. One major element of these “New Look” reforms was technological; in particular, a focus on highly modern standoff weapons such as long-range cruise missiles, anti-ship and anti-air missiles, and equipment designed to disrupt enemy radio and satellite communications. While Western forces enjoyed unimpeded air superiority and secure communications in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither could be counted on in a potential clash with Russian troops, significantly increasing the risk of casualties.
During Russian operations that led to the occupation of Crimea and the escalation in Donbass, respectively, the government obscured and denied the involvement of its troops. The Kremlin touted units deployed to Crimea as “local resistance fighters”, and entire army formations supposedly consisted of “volunteers currently on vacation”.
In reality, Russia pursued its objectives in both theaters through a combination of local sympathizers and Russian troops that at least initially consisted of low-footprint special operations and expeditionary forces without insignia to keep the narrative of local resistance alive as long as possible. Apart from this focus on deniability and ambiguity, the coup de main in Crimea and later Russian operations in the Donbass have little in common.
The Crimean operation in particular, carried out by light expeditionary forces, is a unique case since its success was in part enabled by a local population that largely viewed the existing Russian naval base at Sevastopol as legitimate. (end of excerpt)
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