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The Kremlin’s Little Green Duds

In the decade since the European Union forged a stronger partnership with the Eastern European countries on Russia's doorstep, the Kremlin has tried desperately to reassert its sphere of influence, even launching illegal incursions into Ukraine. Yet it is now clear that Russia's efforts have backfired spectacularly.

STOCKHOLM – Five years ago this month, a small force of “little green men” – soldiers wearing no national insignia – seized control of a police station in Sloviansk, a small village in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. Thus began the second stage of Russia’s campaign to dismember Ukraine, following its illegal annexation of Crimea that March. As the Kremlin’s own statements at the time made clear, Russia’s goal was to establish a semi-independent statelet – “Novorossiya (New Russia)” – in Southern Ukraine, and reduce the rest of the country into a kind of Greater Galicia.

The pro-Kremlin insurgents comprised an odd mix of nationalist hotheads and “volunteers” from the Russian special forces. Though Russia supplied them with “humanitarian aid” and sophisticated weaponry, the expectation was that they would mobilize popular support to see the Novorossiya effort through to its conclusion.

But Ukraine did not crumble. Following a presidential election in May 2014, it began to repel the invaders and restore order. To salvage at least some of his gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed regular Russian Army forces in Ukraine. And in September, a political agreement brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – the Minsk Protocol – essentially froze the situation in place, with lines drawn between opposing tank brigades.