Russia’s “Little Green Men” might start being involved in military conflicts further away from the motherland.

By Zsófia Baumann

The soldiers who entered East Ukraine in 2014 were wearing unmarked green uniforms. They came to occupy government buildings, create upheaval and ignite a revolution. They also claimed not to be Russian (at least according to the official standpoint of the Kremlin). However, the rest of the world knew that the “little green men”, as they later became known, were indeed Russian special forces soldiers. In the past three years, Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis has become clear, and the “little green men”, a premonitory of Russian involvement, have started to appear elsewhere.

For some time now, it seems that Russia is ahead of the world in playing the game of asymmetric warfare. Often dubbed as nonlinear war or hybrid warfare, it incorporates a blend of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, as well as information and cyber warfare. Modern threats have become more complex and range from cross-border insurgencies and terrorism to cyber attacks and propaganda campaigns. As a result, both state and non-state actors now use the full-spectrum of modern warfare, expanding the nature of warfare into new dimensions. From its use of the “little green men” to occupy Crimea and fuel an insurgency in East Ukraine, to its cyber operations to meddle with the presidential elections in the United States and France, Russia hopes to undermine its adversaries. By creating instability and distrust between allies and stalling countries’ integration to the “West”, Russia makes use of the aforementioned full-spectrum of modern warfare.

Since the 2014 crisis, it has become a possibility that Russia would apply the same tactics to infiltrate other neighboring countries such as Belarus, Georgia and the Baltic states (the later being NATO member countries), invoking the same excuse as it did in East Ukraine: the protection of Russian minorities. Although Russia did not go as far as sending its special forces into NATO territories, its “little green men” appeared in Belarus earlier this summer. According to local sources, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms were spotted in the city of Vitebsk in July, close to the Russian border. This instantly raised fears that Russia will use its joint military exercise with Belarus (Zapad-2017) in September to infiltrate the country and overthrow the regime in Minsk.

These fears turned out to be unfounded. However, the 7-day joint military exercise highlighted one thing: Russia is preparing to defend itself from the very type of threat it poses to its neighbors and adversaries. Zapad-2017 was focused on practicing two of the four main types of modern warfare: conventional and asymmetric. During the exercises, they rehearsed a scenario in which illegal armed groups from the make-belief country of Veshnoriya penetrated Russian and Belarusian territories. Russia was, amongst others, testing its ability to deter other countries’ “little green men” from infiltrating its territory.

According to Anton Shekhovtsov, Fellow at University College London, there are three conditions necessary for Russia to deploy its “little green men”. First of all, these hybrid forces can only be sent to Russian-speaking regions, where they blend in with the local population and cannot easily be detected. Secondly, they must arrive covertly, meaning they should ideally be sent somewhere close to the “motherland,” across the border. Finally, this covert deployment presumes poor border controls and a weak administration in the target country. Hence, Ukraine was a perfect target, just as Belarus or Georgia would be.

However, it seems like Russia is looking to deploy them further from home, not only in former Soviet states. Officially, Russia has been involved in the Syrian conflict for over two years in support of the Syrian government, with the mission of fighting terrorism and specifically targeting the Islamic State. Recently, however, Russia’s “little green men” appeared on the battlefields of Syria as well. The men were spotted in a video made by the Islamic State in October 2017 and are believed to be affiliated to the Wagner group, a private military group formed in the Ukrainian conflict three years ago. Even though Russian law prohibits the employment of private military companies, the Wagner group is known to have played an important role alongside conventional Russian forces in the Syrian war.

Does this mean we can anticipate more of these “little green men” turning up in unstable countries or other hotspots of the world? Maybe. They can be used to create uncertainty and instability, but their impact is limited. Nevertheless, their appearance can indicate Russian interest and is worth paying attention to, despite what the Kremlin tells us. As Ilya Varlamov, a Russian opposition blogger, points out: “Intuition tells us if something looks like a Russian soldier, rides on Russian military equipment, and says it’s a Russian soldier, then it’s probably a Russian soldier.”

Cover Picture: green plastic soldiers, Pexels