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The example of Russia in Crimea and the lesson for Africa

Those who are fighting today against the splintering of Ukraine are the same as those who are working behind the scenes to break up Mali and who are financing the rebellions in eastern DRC in order to create a new republic in the Kivu tomorrow

What is being taught in military academies? Are you comfortably seated? I am going to take you on a virtual tour of strategic studies at a military academy. We will study the Ukrainian crisis based on a strategic studies textbook that is widely used for the training of the Russian and Chinese military, but also in a number of business schools across the world.

The book is called the Art of War, written by the Chinese strategist and tactician Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.). The central principle of Sun Tzu’s model of military strategy is to use cunning to bring the enemy to lay down his weapons and surrender before the battle has even begun. In other words, according to Sun Tzu, the best military strategist is he who wins the war without having to fight, simply by using cunning, bluff and timely disinformation to confuse the enemy, giving him false hope at the start of hostilities only to completely disillusion him in the end.

Let us take the Ukrainian crisis as a case study, as is done in military academies. We will use the ten main strategies recommended by Sun Tzu to win a war without fighting, in order to find out who, in Ukraine, has the best chance of winning the current showdown between the United States of America and Russia.

1. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.’ Once you have identified the enemy’s plan you must constantly, in doing battle, give an impression that belies the bellicose attitude he expects from you in the circumstances. Thus, your counter-offensive must be invisible; you must know how to lie and above all give the enemy no chance to understand you or figure out your true reaction to his warlike intentions, of which you must always feign ignorance.

In this case, the objective of the West is to proceed from an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union to the adhesion pure and simple of Ukraine to the EU. But above all, it is to secure Ukraine’s adhesion to NATO in order to cut it off completely from Russia, the lease of the naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea to the Russian navy would thus not be renewed, depriving Russia of her rapid deployment capability in the Mediterranean in the event of a war with NATO, as in the recent intimidation operations in Syrian ports, when President Hollande advocated bombing the country, and in Egyptian ports following Morsi’s ouster, when the USA threatened to cut military supplies to Egypt.

President Yanukovych, Moscow’s man, feigned ignorance of the harmful consequences of signing the association agreements – and stopped at the last minute. That is when the West came into play, inventing a popular revolution. The Euronews television claimed that according to an intercepted conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the 88 deaths on Independence Square were the work not of President Yanukovych but of the opposition paramilitary, backed by the members of the coalition currently in power in Kiev, in order to deal a fatal blow to a presidency that is hostile to the European Union and to NATO.

But how can they be so sure of it? This is what Euronews had to say on the subject : One or more of the snipers who fired on the militants on Euromaidan had occupied the headquarters of the National Bank of Ukraine in Kiev. There, investigators discovered spent casings corresponding to the bullets found in the bodies of the victims. Moreover, these were the same bullets that were used to attack the riot police and the opposition protestors. In all: 88 dead.

Russia looks on, aware of what is happening, invisible, inaudible, absent – and does not intervene. What it wants is to take back the entire Crimean Peninsula, but without a fight. How to achieve this? It is the West that will help her by playing a game of chess, without taking into account the pawns of the opponent, who is also playing, but secretly. And now, it is Sun Tzu’s second strategy that enlightens us regarding President Putin’s behaviour in this crisis.

2. ‘A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory.’ Sun Tzu explains that according to this principle, in war one attacks only when one is sure of winning. Otherwise, one waits as long as necessary for the situation to turn to one’s advantage.

Many western politicians, such as US Senator John McCain on 15 December 2013, passed through Maidan Square in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to support and encourage the angry crowd, its anger well stoked and guided. On 19 February, our allegedly peaceful demonstrators launched an assault on the police. At the end of the riots there were 26 dead, including 9 police. And this is what President Obama had to say, in Mexico where he was on an official visit: “I want to be very clear as we work through these next several days in Ukraine that we're going to be watching closely, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protestors.” Later on, in the plane returning from Mexico, according to an AP release, it was Ben Rhodes, security advisor to President Obama, who talked to reporters on Air Force One, saying: ‘We consistently oppose any of the violence by all sides, but the responsibility is on the government to pull back its riot police, to call a truce and to engage in a meaningful discussion with the opposition about the way forward… because too many Ukrainians are feeling like their own aspirations are not being met in this government.’

These three American personalities had already fallen into the trap set by President Putin: they had clearly chosen their side. Through their actions and words they unwittingly acknowledged paternity of the demonstrations on Independence Square in Kiev. This acknowledgement was then used by Russia to discredit Western interlocutors following events that seem to have been totally unforeseen by both sides, but up to what point? We will see in the next strategy which side favours the ultimate goal over multiple pseudo temporary victories.

3. ‘For the skilful strategist, the main thing is victory, not a lengthy campaign.’ That is to say that for a good military strategist, what counts is the elements taken as a whole, it is the ultimate result of all the operations and not of sporadic little day-to-day victories. We have looked at the objectives of both sides: in the end, the West wants Ukraine to join NATO in order to deprive Russia of its access to the Mediterranean. Whereas Russia simply wants to annex Crimea to guard against such an eventuality. Indeed, Crimea is Russia’s sole access to warm water.

Elsewhere, to the north, it is cold sea and if the West were to start a war against Russia in wintertime all its ships would be blocked in the frozen waters of the Baltic or North Seas. It would be defeat before the battle had even begun. In the succession of events that took place in Kiev up to the ousting of the president, it was the West that seemed to hold the trump cards since it was the West that was dictating the pace, and even the choice of the new leaders, whom it speedily recognized. Even if they had just overthrown a democratically elected government, what did it matter? Democracy is a big lie that exists at the expense of those who believe in it. Especially since regular elections would take place in one year. And during negotiations President Yanukovych had accepted to bring these elections forward. Not fast enough for the West, which had him ousted barely 24 hours after the signature of this agreement with the opposition. Here, it is the West that entered into a lengthy campaign. Moscow was silent.

President Putin was stuck in Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Subsequent events show that this silence was calculated. Apparently, what interested him was the final victory and not the intermediate operations.

4. ‘He who is skilful at keeping the enemy on the move by holding out the prospect of an opportunity, ensures his superiority.’ According to Sun Tzu, you must always push the enemy towards greater mobility to lead him where you want him to go, in order to finish him off. On 6 February 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland arrived in Kiev and met the three main Ukrainian opposition leaders: Oleg Tiagnybok, Vitali Klitschko and Arseni Iatseniouk, who subsequently became Prime Minister. The next day, in an interview with the daily Kommersant Ukraine, President Putin’s special advisor Sergey Glaziev stated: ‘As far as we know, Mrs Victoria Nuland has threatened to blacklist the Ukrainian oligarchs if President Yanukovych does not relinquish power to the opposition. This has nothing to do with international law. (…) It seems that the United States is counting on a coup. (…) The Americans are spending $20 million a week to finance the opposition and the rebels, including the delivery of weapons.’

Commenting on Senator McCain’s visit to Independence Square on 15 December 2013, Alexey Pushkov, a member of the Russian parliament (the Duma), told Kievski Telegraf, the Ukrainian daily: ‘Representatives of the European Union and of the United States are directly implicated in the political showdown in Ukraine. (…) Do they intend to establish a new colonial regime there?’

At this point we already observe that the Russians are creating a perfect diversion. Having pushed the Westerners to be more mobile and to travel several times to Kiev, whereas they themselves have not budged an inch from Moscow, they have been able to force the Americans to choose a priority: a change of power in Kiev. It is into this trap that the Russians will lead them and where they will occupy them for quite some time, while they are free to secretly put the finishing touches to the invasion of Crimea.

5. ‘The skilful strategist is so subtle that he has no visible form. The skilful strategist is so discreet that he is inaudible. Thus, he is the master of the enemy’s destiny.’ The skilful strategist eludes the enemy. He must communicate as little as possible and withhold information. When he does communicate, it is to convey unexploitable or false information to the enemy.

When President Putin gave his only press conference on 5 March 2014 exclusively for the Russian press, he swore on the head of his great-grandfather that he had no troops in Crimea. And that the military that were seen without national insignia on their uniforms were in fact local self-defence forces. Viewed from the West, this was a lie. But looking at it more closely, President Putin was merely conning them. And he supplied a capital piece of information that was not understood by Western strategists. Indeed, when he denied that there were any Russian, i.e. foreign soldiers in Crimea, he was telling them that, officially, Crimea was already Russian and that the forces present in Crimea could therefore not be considered as invading forces but as forces that were already at home, in their own nation, their own republic, hence the designation ‘local self-defence forces.’ Unfortunately, the subliminal message was not properly analysed and understood by Western ‘strategists’ who, instead of immediately looking into the Crimean situation, continued their posturing, as usual, talking of a Russian de-escalation of tension even though the latter had just informed them that they had already proceeded to the second half of the game to which the West had invited them.

In Paris, a conference on Lebanon was transformed into a discussion on sanctions that would be taken against Russia if it was not nice and did not remove its forces from Crimea and return them to their base.

The next day, in Rome, a conference on the chaos left by NATO in Libya was transformed into a debate to inform European public opinion that Europe really did intend to do something.

One continued to organize pointless conferences, to-ing and fro-ing between European capitals and Kiev, even though the barycentre of the crisis had already long moved from Kiev to Crimea. An extraordinary mini-summit on Ukraine was even organized in Brussels on 6 March and, right in the middle of the meeting, President Putin sent the participants a little present: the dispatch that arrived on news desks in Brussels at 12 o’clock, stating that the Crimean parliament had unanimously voted in favour of joining Russia and that a referendum would be organized to validate the vote barely ten days later.

6. ‘To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’ A skilful strategist is not violent, he does not humiliate his adversary. He leads his adversary to transform himself and to recognize his inferiority. He thus has no need to fight. In Crimea, the Russian special forces arrived in uniforms without insignia and surrounded all the Ukrainian military bases, but without forcing the Ukrainians to leave their bases. The problem is that the regular occupants of those bases were no longer free to come and go. They had to choose: either they waited stoically for events in Kiev to produce a miracle to dislodge the Russians, or they surrendered. Many chose to surrender without even trying to defend themselves. In any case, they were not under attack.

At the same time, without even waiting for the referendum, at the airport in Sevastopol, psychological pressure was ramped up a notch: immediately after the vote of the Crimean parliament all flights to Kiev were scheduled as international flights. Ukrainian currency was progressively taken out of circulation and replaced with Russian roubles. For the first time in history one witnessed the faultless application of Sun Tzu’s theories: winning without a fight. The United States was completely taken in.

7. ‘In ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents. Invincibility is in oneself, vulnerability is in the opponent.’ A true strategist uses timing to win all his battles. His cunning makes him impervious to the threats and bellicose actions of the enemy. He thus becomes invincible. But it is not enough. He must win. For this, a skilful strategist must know how to wait for a moment of weakness of his enemy before taking action and delivering the coup de grâce. Once the annexation of Crimea was secured, Russia knew that the operation itself would drastically weaken the West in the operations to come. But the West mistakenly thinks that President Putin will stop at Crimea.

He knew that he had long been destabilizing his adversaries, who were incapable of innovative initiative. President Obama announced a series of sanctions, first on visas. It seemed like a bad joke. ‘In 1994, you forced Ukraine to get rid of its nuclear weapons, promising help in case of attack. And now that its territory is being dismembered you are threatening to withhold visas? What are you playing at?’ In reality, President Obama cannot do much. Right now the Russian president is the sole master of the game. He is holding all the trump cards. He can do as he wishes, when he wishes, and how he wishes. The worst of it is that all the gesticulating of the West merely shows how powerless it is.

First because it does not have the money to wage a war against a power such as Russia, but also because the slightest economic sanction will immediately backfire. For example, according to information published on 7 March 2014 by the French economic journal Challenge, as soon as President Obama threatened to freeze Russian assets, in a single day, on Thursday 6 March 2014 the Central Bank of Russia moved the gigantic sum of several tens of billions of dollars from accounts in the United States to Russia and various tax havens. If this kind of operation were to continue it could, in the medium term, lead to a veritable banking and financial cataclysm in the United States. It is a classic case of the biter bit.

Still on Friday 7 March 2014, the Bloomberg agency gave another analysis and forecast. Bloomberg reported that on 1 September 2013 Russia held $160 billion in banks in 44 countries, whereas on that same date, 24 countries had deposited $242 billion in Russian banks. Western countries can freeze up to $160 billion worth of Russian money. The Russians can freeze up to $242 billion worth of Western money. According to Bloomberg in Washington, the country that has the most to lose is France, whose banks have invested $50 billion in Russia, followed by the United States, whose banks have invested $35 billion in the largest country in the world, Russia, with its 6.5 million square miles.

Worse, once again according to Bloomberg, we have it from the mouth of Sergey Glaziev, the Russian president’s advisor, that in case of American sanctions Russia would be obliged to renounce the dollar in favour of other currencies and create its own payment system. (…) If the United States freezes the assets of Russian public institutions and private Russian investors, Moscow will encourage everyone to dump U.S. Treasury bonds. Moreover, if sanctions are imposed, Russia will have to renege on the reimbursement of loans from American banks.

The die is cast. Russia is invincible and has even identified the enemy’s weak spot. Consequently, the odds are that, after Crimea, it knows that it can annex first the former Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia, before swallowing all the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that voted for President Yanulovych at the last presidential election. Without of course forgetting the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldavia, at the border with Ukraine, which also has a Russian majority and since its independence, proclaimed in 1992, has been asking to join Russia. At this point we come to another of Sun Tzu’s strategies.

8. ‘You may advance and be absolutely irresistible if you make for the enemy's weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy.’ To advance, you must avoid hand to hand combat with the enemy, and limit yourself to hitting him only there where he is unprotected. For strategic withdrawal you must place yourself in recesses unknown to the enemy or outside his control.

Since the blitzkrieg in August 2008 against U.S. ally Georgia, under Sakashvili, the conquered territories are the weak spot of the West. ‘You had led Georgia to believe that you could help it in case of war with Russia. And it did what you told it to do. When it was bombed, you didn’t show up. So, what is your word worth?’ Russia’s humiliation of little Georgia is a big stain on the United States’ credibility and, even today, the two disputed territories are in fact under Russia’s control. This is why it is easy to predict that these are the first territories that Russia will annex after Crimea. Again according to Sun Tzu, the easy victory over Georgia in just four days does not mean it should be repeated today in Ukraine. And President Putin is well aware of this.

9. ‘Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.’ Tactics and strategy must always be adapted to new situations. It is not because a solution worked once that it will always work. If one repeats the victorious tactics of the past one runs the risk of facing a seasoned enemy who has had time to study one’s strategy and how to deal with it. For a skilful strategist, each situation is unique and merits a unique strategy. While the Americans repeated the same costly recipe in Iraq and Afghanistan that they used in Vietnam, Russia avoided repeating in Ukraine the victorious tactics it had used in Georgia, with hundreds of shells shot from tanks and combat helicopters. Because obviously, whereas the American allies were unprepared in Georgia, it is unlikely that they would have been surprised and remained passive a second time. Indeed, we were told that American F16s were flying towards Estonian and Polish skies. Just as President Putin remained silent during the events in Kiev, before swallowing Crimea, today no one knows what strategy he has prepared for the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. Since Sun Tzu recommends that one should not repeat victorious strategies, one can wager that he has something completely different in mind for the eastern regions – but what?

10. ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’ The skilful strategist must always keep three things in mind: be master of the environment, the battleground, know the enemy in detail and know yourself in order to be able, above all, to detect your own weak spots before the enemy does. To be a strategist in the Russian secret service one must speak several languages, English among them. But all texts and communication among members of the FSB are coded exclusively in Russian. The CIA has a Russia department that cannot match the formidable strategic mastery of English by Russian spies. Or the Russian’s highly detailed knowledge of Americans. There is also a network composed of American Russians who hold American passports and can gain access to any post in the American administration.

This explains the impression that nothing the Russian president’s counterpart says surprises or upsets him. As for the environment, Russia is 6.5 million square miles, the United States half that. Whereas Americans in Russia are concentrated in a few big cities in the West, Russians in the USA are scattered throughout the country. They have become Americans for all intents and purposes. Russia need only study their behaviour to know all there is to know about Americans.

To come back to Ukraine, the regions that interest Russia are the Russian-speaking regions, where the population is Russian and which Russia therefore masters, even sociologically. This is not the case of the USA, which, in Ukraine as in Afghanistan or Iraq, always gives the impression of engaging in potential war zones anywhere on the planet without ever mastering the terrain, as in a video game in which it is enough to replace one map by another and continue pulling the trigger - which has led to useless wars that have literally ruined the United States of America.

President Putin is well aware that the other side is playing it by ear, from Iraq and Syria yesterday to Ukraine today. Finally, with a confused American president who makes generic threats and is totally incapable of any initiative regarding Ukraine, if there is a master of the universe today in terms of military strategy, that master is Vladimir Putin. He knows his enemy, the USA, he knows the terrain, Ukraine, and he is aware of the new power of his country, the new military strength of the country since the war in Libya, which he mentions whenever he wants to mock American strategists who had thought they could establish democracy in Libya and are now organizing a conference in Rome to request the help of the Russians to straighten things out over there.

For his part, President Obama gives the impression of not knowing either his Russian counterpart or the complexity of the Ukrainian situation, otherwise he would not have suggested to those they had put in place in Kiev to ban the Russian language. Worse, he seems to be unaware of his own weakness, that of a ruined country that cannot offer anything to 47 African countries that he has invited to Washington, merely to mimic the encounters that are held every two years between African and Chinese leaders.


In a communiqué on 22 January 2014 the White House announced that President Obama had invited 47 African heads of state to Washington. He was careful to exclude three, from the Central African Republic, Egypt and Guinea Bissau, who were accused of taking power through coups, without benefit of elections. How to explain that in Ukraine the American administration itself is forcing the hand of Russia to recognize the new regime in Kiev that is also the result of a coup? Is a coup in Europe different from a coup in Africa?

On 17 February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. The West applauded. Serbia brought the affair before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the judicial organ of the UN that ruled on the secession of Kosovo, validating it by its decision of 22 July 2010 in these terms: ‘the declaration of independence of Kosovo did not violate general international law, or resolution 1244 of the Security Council, or the Constitutional Framework.’ However, the ICJ added that it “is not required by the question it has been asked to take a position on whether international law conferred a positive entitlement on Kosovo unilaterally to declare its independence or, a fortiori, on whether international law generally confers an entitlement on entities situated within a State unilaterally to break away from it.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, was pleased with the ICJ’s decision and declared : ‘The independence of Kosovo is irreversible (…) This opinion clearly states that Kosovo's declaration of independence is not contrary either to international law nor to Resolution 1244 as France has always maintained and I am delighted.’

Question: Why is the West happy to encourage secession in Kosovo and in South Sudan yet pretends to be an ardent defender of international law and the intangibility of borders in the case of Ukraine? How is Crimea in Ukraine different from South Sudan or Kosovo? The answer is that there is one rule for some and another for the rest and that this is the stock in trade of some countries, the same who took it upon themselves to play policeman of the world and dole out good and bad points to the naïve candidates for democracy, all the better to despoil them. Contrary to what happens regularly in Africa, from Eritrea to South Sudan, Russia did not help Crimea to declare its independence but rather to join an already large entity. Any new independence weakens the country that loses a piece of its territory. But it also weakens a new state that is not viable.

Those who are fighting today against the splintering of Ukraine are the same as those who are working behind the scenes to break up Mali and who are financing the rebellions in eastern DRC in order to create a new republic in the Kivu tomorrow

Russia will continue to surprise the Americans. What message were the Russians sending to the Americans when they set the date of the referendum to validate the annexation of Crimea by Russia to coincide with the end of the Sochi Paralympics on 16 March 2014?

Unlike Russia, the strategies of the Africans are grossly predictable to their Western enemies. Insofar as they are capable of understanding that the West is the enemy of Africa. There is a real cultural and intellectual backwardness of the population in Africa that prevents it from understanding that it must establish a balance of power with the West in which its own standpoint would be taken into account. But this cannot happen in the classic relationship of institutionalized beggary in which the one who holds out his hand to receive is always the one who obeys.

This is why there does not exist in any African country a serious project to spy on the West. Africans mistakenly think that they are the friends of the Europeans and never ask themselves how the Europeans see them: as simple slaves, albeit very well educated ones. Western television stations may give the impression that they hate President Putin or Russia, but an element remains that no one can ignore: whatever their relations in the future, they will have to pay Russia due respect. They have already begun. To wit, the way everyone is beating about the bush over pseudo sanctions that never come about. It is because of this element of respect that I am paradoxically optimistic about the future of relations between these two enemies of today. I cannot say the same about Africa. In order to be respected we will have to stop holding out our hand, it is an indispensable condition before we even begin to talk about military strategy or spying on the Europeans.

Yaoundé, 8 March 2014

N.B: this text is protected by copyright and it is strictly prohibited to use it for commercial purposes such as publication in paid-for newspapers or on Youtube, without my written permission.

* This article was translated from French for Pambazuka News by Julia Monod.



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