Ukraine has opened a new front in its battle to drive out the Russian invader – in Russia. But it is oddly coy about admitting that it has sent troops, fired artillery, and flown drones into its neighbor’s territory.
The operations of Russian citizens, carrying Ukrainian military ID, wearing Ukrainian uniforms and attacking from Ukraine, remain officially opaque. It is Kyiv’s contribution to what’s become known as “hybrid warfare” in the “grey zone” of contemporary conflict.
The two terms provoked books and a tsunami of excited opinion from an army of pundits when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014.
Back then, “Little Green Men” in peculiar two-tone sport-hunting uniforms – and Russian military fatigues – appeared in Crimea.
When it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, these men were actually Russian troops, Vladimir Putin quipped “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform”.
Moscow’s official line was that the men who raised the Russian flag over Simferopol and stormed Crimea’s local parliament were “self defense units” of pro-Russian Ukrainians anxious to bring their territory under Moscow’s rule.
By the time Moscow admitted that its troops were actually in Ukraine, a large chunk of the 23-year-old, former Soviet nation was under Putin’s control.
Now, on a small scale, Ukraine is adapting those same tactics to try to secure strategic effect.
The Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom for Russia Legion – which fall under Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence structure have been conducting short cross-border raids into Russia.
While the terminology and methods may have evolved, there’s nothing new about the tactic. Aside from Russia, South Africa’s apartheid regimes used similar techniques through the 1970s and 1980s, attacking the Frontline States of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Pretoria sent troops on cross-border raids to destabilize the independent African nations opposed to its racist rule. They often posed as local liberation fighters in classic “false flag” attacks against civilians, trying to undermine support for liberation movements.
These groups were frequently formed of fighters from Angola, or Zimbabwe, to add “authenticity” to the atrocities they hoped to attribute to others. They were often led by white men in blackface camouflage.
The long term aim and many times, the result – was to keep the nations supporting South Africa’s internal liberation struggle permanently off-balance.