The Ukrainian and North Caucasus insurgencies compared

The violent uprisings in eastern Ukraine differ from the insurgency that has been underway in the North Caucasus since the early 1990s in many ways – the mobilizing ideologies of the resistance movements are different, the terrain is different, the social context is different, the geopolitical implications are obviously very different, and so on. There are three differences, however, that strike me as particularly noteworthy: (1) the greater firepower of the Ukrainian insurgents; (2) the extent of media coverage; and (3) technological changes (the internet, digital cameras, smart phones, and social media) that account for what I will call the “crowdsourcing of intelligence” in the Ukrainian uprisings.

The firepower of the Ukrainian insurgents

The Ukrainian separatists today are much less socially-embedded in eastern Ukraine than were the insurgents in Chechnya, and they are supported by a much smaller share of the local population. However, they have one huge advantage that the Chechen insurgents did not have, which is extensive support from a neighboring great power.

The Chechen insurgency, even in the first war (1994-1996), received some support from jihadi organizations abroad in the form of money, supplies, and especially fighters. However, the extent of that support was limited because no states were involved and because it was extremely difficult to get foreign fighters and especially weapons into Chechnya from the outside. Georgia at the time was chaotic and weak, which meant that it was unable for some time to clear Chechen fighters out of the Pankisi Gorge which they were using as a safe haven for carrying out operations inside Chechnya. But as a Western-oriented, predominantly Orthodox Christian country, Georgia did not want Islamist militants operating on its soil. Neither did it want Islamist militants to provoke a war with Russia. (Georgia’s war with Russia, when it came in 2008, was precipitated by other developments.) Moreover, getting from Georgia into Chechnya meant crossing the watershed of the Great Caucasus Mountains, which is very difficult even during warm months and almost impossible during winter. As a result, most of the foreign jihadis who managed to make it to Chechnya crossed the Azerbaijani-Russian border into Dagestan and then went west into Chechnya.

In contrast, support from the outside has been enormously important to the Ukrainian insurgents, as many openly admit (and many complain bitterly that Putin has not fulfilled his commitment to protect his “compatriots” in eastern Ukraine by openly intervening). The extent of this support is both a consequence and a cause of the comparatively tepid public support the Donbas insurgents have received, in contrast to the extensive social support for the insurgents in Chechnya.

Like most Western specialists who have followed the conflict, I do not believe there would have been any organized violence in eastern Ukraine after the fall of the Yanukovich government had Moscow not launched a massive propaganda campaign to convince Russians and Russian-speakers that the new government was controlled by extreme nationalists, fascists, and so-called Banderites. However, what I want to emphasize here is the effect of Russian support on the lethality of the separatist resistance.

In Chechnya, the great bulk of Russian aviation losses resulted from accidents (the mountainous terrain and weather made it extremely difficult for military helicopters and ground support aircraft to operate in the conflict zone) or from gunfire, not from surface-to-air missiles.There were some instances when the resistance used MANPADs to down Russian aviation – in particular, on August 19, 2001 the insurgents brought down a Russian Mi-26 helicopter carrying 126 Russian troops using a 9K38 “Igla” MANPAD. But the Chechen resistance never had many MANPADs, and those that they did have were almost certainly captured from the Russians. Nor did they have any heavy weapons other than an odd captured tank, BTR, BMP, or Grad MLRS rocket launcher. Least of all did they have mobile SAM missiles like the Strela-10 SAM or Buk M-1.

In part, the greater firepower of the separatists in Ukraine can be explained by the kind of equipment that the Ukrainian separatists managed to capture from Ukrainian military depots in the early days of the fighting. It is possible that they got their hands on MANPADs that way, and they are known to have captured some BTRs and BMPs. But the great bulk of the heavy equipment in their possession has come from across the border. This doubtless makes them a more formidable fighting force, but it also means that they, too, like the Ukrainian military but unlike the Chechen boyeviki, have been killing civilians during combat, which cannot help their efforts to win over locals.

The role of the media

During the first Chechen war of 1994-1996, there was extensive and generally excellent coverage of the conflict, particularly by Russian journalists. That coverage helped turn the Russian public against the war, which in turn helps explain why the Yeltsin administration agreed to the Khasavyurt Agreement that brought the fighting to an end in August 1996. When the second war broke out in 1999, however, it was clear that the Russian government and military had concluded that unrestricted media coverage of the fighting was not a good idea. As a result, they imposed increasingly stringent constraints on media coverage of the war. Even after Moscow declared an end to the “combat phase” of the conflict in 2002, coverage of the North Caucasus was, and remains, very limited. That is particularly true in Chechnya, where the Kremlin-supported local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, has presided over a brutal crackdown on actual and potential opposition to his rule, including independent media coverage.

That has not been the case in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian, Russian, and other foreign journalists have covered the conflict in great detail. For the most part, they seem to have been granted access to the conflict zone with few formal restrictions. (Although some journalists have been detained, and three have been killed – two Russians and one Italian).  Indeed, the combatants on both sides seem to appreciate media attention. Many of the separatist leaders regularly hold press conferences and seem very happy to give interviews to journalists. Fighters on both sides of the battle lines also talk to journalists (and often make embarrassing admissions). There is also extensive video footage of the conflict on the internet through channels such as Ukraine News One, the pro-separatist site AnnaNews, the Russian sites LifeNews and Russia Today (RT), and ViceNews. (One can get a vivid and fascinating record of the conflict from the excellent ViceNews series, “Russian Roulette,” most of which is made up of relatively short videos featuring the journalist Simon Ostrovsky.)

Finally, it is worth noting that humanitarian organizations have also had access to the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, as evidenced by a report issued yesterday by Human Rights Watch on the use of destructive but notoriously inaccurate MLRS rocket systems by both government and separatist forces. The report was particularly critical of the Ukrainian forces for using Grad rockets against areas where civilians are present. Suffice it to say that Moscow would not allow HRW, or any other humanitarian organization, to conduct an on-site investigation into human rights abuses in Chechnya today.

In short, the outside world knows a great deal more about what is happening on the ground in eastern Ukraine than it did about the second Chechen war (or than it does today about what is going on inside Chechnya or the insurgency in the North Caucasus).

Crowdsourcing Intelligence

I have been struck by the role that technology has been playing in making public the kind of human intelligence in eastern Ukraine (and elsewhere, such as Syria and Iraq) that foreign intelligence services could only dream of in the past. The whole notion of “loose lips sink ships” seems to be absent from a conflict where almost everyone has a smart phone, digital camera, access to the internet, and a YouTube and/or Facebook account.

In addition, a new phenomenon has emerged in the past several years – private individuals or small groups who analyze and interpret open source information for public consumption. They in effect act like public intelligence analysts by carefully analyzing evidence from the internet (often by asking readers to help “geolocate” video and photographic images) to answer questions like the provenance of certain weapons, the evolution of combat operations, and conflicting claims by parties to a conflict.

I will have more to say about the crowdsourcing of intelligence in a future post, but for now let me single out two sources in particular for the high quality of the public intelligence they have been providing: The Interpreter online magazine’s Ukrainian Liveblog series and the Brown Moses/Bellingcat Blog. (Brown Moses is the pseudonym of a British blogger, Eliot Higgins.) I frankly doubt that Western intelligence agencies, despite their enormously expensive resources, are able to reach conclusions any more reliably, or any quicker, than these two low-budget, crowd-sourced sites on controversial issues like: “Who and what shot down flight MH-17?,” or “Are the Russians shelling Ukrainian border posts?”  They also provide a huge public good by making their data and conclusions immediately available to anyone interested (including intelligence agencies).