Omar Ashour: In Ukraine, Russia Fights Like ISIS

About the similarities between the tactics employed by the Russian army and ISIS, the perception of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Middle East, and how Ukraine should build a dialogue with the countries of the so-called Global South

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Ukrainian Prism’s Associate Fallow Olga Vorozhbyt  for “The Ukrainian Week/Tyzhden” spoke with Prof. Dr. Omar Ashour, a British Professor of Security and Military Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and the University of Exeter (UK), author of the book “How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt”, about the similarities between the tactics employed by the Russian army and ISIS, the perception of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Middle East, and how Ukraine should build a dialogue with the countries of the so-called Global South.

We are publishing a shortened summary of this conversation below. To access the complete version, please click here to view the full video.

Dear Omar, thank you for coming. Recently, I have seen lots of your publications and commentaries on Ukraine as a defence analyst, though your main focus and the book which will soon be released in Ukrainian (At the time of the publication, it has already come out — Ed.) “How ISIS Fights. Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt” is another noteworthy contribution. What motivated you to start researching Ukraine?

First of all, thank you for the kind invitation. It is really a pleasure and honour to be here. And there’s no other place else I’d rather be. About the book — it is a personal story, and it is more of a scholar’s story of curiosity. I’ve observed a tactic employed by ISIS that aided them in securing a very fortified position that other conventional formations failed to take. Despite a significantly smaller and very light force, ISIS managed to take control of that position in less than 10 minutes. And when I saw that, I took a moment to ponder and tried to understand how that happened. This is not even a strategy; it’s a mere tactic, and it upset the military balance in an unforeseen way.

The broader picture was my great interest in understanding how the weaker side fights back. Certainly, ISIS was an extreme case in all aspects: not just in terms of ideology but also in terms of its size and organisation; they have almost always been outnumbered and outgunned, they had no air defence, no air force, no proper armour, no proper artillery, fighting almost every organisation and every state that exist. There is no state or local sponsorship, and yet, despite this, they managed to capture over 120 towns, cities, and villages from the Southern Philippines all the way to Western Africa.

On the other hand, I was not just looking at ISIS. Once the project kicked off, it focused on weaker states—those with fewer resources, a smaller population, and limited capacities—engaging in conflict or being attacked by stronger states. In short, that was the project’s initial aim. I was looking at five states as well as five non-state actors. ISIS was among the non-state actors in this study. And then, I found myself writing an entire book on the subject.

But now, in my research, I’m transitioning to other cases. When it comes to the state actors I mentioned, Ukraine has actually been one of the key cases for me. This led me to study Ukraine’s initial counter-offensive in the summer of 2014, which brought me here in 2016. This is the counter-offensive which liberated Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Mariupol, and other towns and villages in Ukraine. I wanted to dive deeper into the subject, and so, that’s the story of how it started.

I understand that in a prologue to the Ukrainian translation of your book “How ISIS Fights”, you aim to draw parallels between the tactics of ISIS and the Russian army in Ukraine. So, what are the similarities in these tactics?

The prologue is based on a study that is still forthcoming, and it’s going to be published in English and Ukrainian. The study’s title is “How Putin’s Army Fought Like ISIS in Ukraine, 2014-2022”. The idea behind it dates back to 2016, when I met Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers and started talking about this project. Some soldiers who had been stationed in Crimea began recounting the circumstances leading to the annexation of Crimea. While listening to them, I said to myself,  “Oh, wait a minute”. Because I heard this modus operandi (or way of operating) before. I heard about it, I saw it, and I studied it in a place like Raqqa, a city in Syria, in 2013. So, how did Raqqa fall? Essentially, Raqqa didn’t collapse due to direct military assault. There was a destabilisation attempt inside the city using various false-front organisations, as well as incidents of kidnapping and assassinations targeting opinion leaders and influential individuals who might have resisted. There was a very comprehensive intelligence, mapping and identifying individuals susceptible to bribery, potential targets for assassination, and those who could potentially switch sides. There was also a wave of terrorist acts, bombings, and so on aimed at creating enough instability. And once there was enough instability and terror created in the city, ISIS just secured its victory with conventional [weapons – Ed.]. There were no amphibious or air assault operations similar to the ones conducted by the Russians in Crimea, but they were mainly technical. This means cars and pickup trucks with heavy machine guns on them. In this way, ISIS were able to capture Raqqa. Essentially, Raqqa fell for the first time in 2013 due to a mix of terror tactics, information and psychological operations. And that was about it.

Fast forward to January 2014, and there was a series of similar Russian infiltration operations targeting the security establishment, civil society, and politicians. There were attempts to map out society, identifying individuals who were supportive, those who could be bribed, those who could be assassinated or removed, as well as those who could be imprisoned. And there were also various false front organisations, groups that claimed to stand for one thing while engaging in activities that were entirely different. In a way, there were numerous state-funded militias. ISIS didn’t have the capacity to do that. On top of that, you have the destabilisation, the information operations, and the psychological warfare that created enough instability in the peninsula. After that, the Russians secured victory using their own bases, including the naval base in Sevastopol, among others. They conducted amphibious and air assault operations, not to achieve victory but to secure it, which is a very ISIS-like way to fight.

As you know, later on, we found more and more similarities. There is Donbas, and there is Crimea. In the Donbas, in 2014 and 2015, the Russian-led forces used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over 600 times. ISIS were the masters of IED warfare. Russian-led forces in Donbas, though, were not at the level of ISIS but just a little below. Yet, they’ve been using it fairly effectively, including tactics such as vehicle-borne, i.e. car bombs, but vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, including remote control ones. Hence, we’ve seen quite a significant usage of the IEDs. Fast forward to 2022, and I was told by the Ukrainian emergency services that the Russians left behind over 18,000 IEDs, unexploded ordnance, as well as other types of explosives in the Kyiv Oblast. This was done to cover their retreat and the retrograds.

Some of these IEDs were left in places that had no military value whatsoever, such as children’s playgrounds or people’s apartments, which is a clear indication that this has been purposefully done to inflict damage. Again, such use of IEDs, either for military purposes, the retrograds, or simply harming civilians, is a very ISIS thing to do.

Another thing we’ve been seeing is the weaponisation of sexual violence. ISIS has very explicitly weaponised sexual violence, especially against the Yazidis in northern Iraq. Well, Russia did the same thing. Pick any town from Kherson to Kharkiv. Choose any area, including Kyiv oblast. There is substantial documentation and evidence indicating a clear weaponisation of rape and sexual violence. Essentially, it serves as a psychological terror tool within a broader psychological operation, and yet again, it embodies a signature ISIS tactic.

On top of that, add the abuse of religion. Rather than letting religion convey a very humane and unifying message, it was used as a highly divisive and extremely polarising tool by both Russia and ISIS for military purposes, to mobilise and recruit soldiers. ISIS were the masters of taking religious texts out of context, reinterpreting them in a seventh and eighth-century manner, and then using multimedia tools to attract followers to compensate for the losses they suffered on the battlefield. They were highly successful at using this type of religious-based propaganda. ISIS enlisted thousands or even tens of thousands of mercenaries, varying by time and location. This influx of new recruits provided the organisation with a crucial lifeline.

In Russia, you will find the patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, blessing the soldiers of the Rosgvardiya, General Zolotov – despite the shocking documented evidence of what the Rosgvardiya has done in Ukraine. This includes the Kadyrovtsy regiment, which is a part of Rosgvardiya, at least in its name. So, basically, [the Russian Orthodox Church — Ed.] is using religious symbols and religious figures to bless and mobilise new recruits for the war, trying to inspire them.

The same thing happened earlier in Chechnya. Kadyrov has been using his father’s legacy, who was an official mufti of Chechnya fighting against Russia, and Kadyrov switched sides to give some religious credentials to whatever he was doing. There are horrible scenes depicting some of his followers chanting Allah Akbar on the ruins of Mariupol. You see no military objects behind them but just a residential block. Probably, elderly people and children were living there before. Yet, Kadyrovtsy are chanting religious slogans, which is very traumatic, but in my opinion, they were using this to not only legitimise their actions but also to mobilise new recruits. Again, it’s a very ISIS thing to do.

Based on what you’ve told me about these similarities, if ISIS is a terrorist group, then is Russia a terrorist state?

Yes, Russia has been resorting to terrorism and using terrorist methods. It is very clear. ISIS was a combination of many things, including a terrorist organisation. ISIS also ran cities and cleaned streets; they had their own governance and administration, their economic portfolio. So, you could actually be whatever you were, but you could be a terrorist as well. This certainly has legal implications, but international law is simply not catching up. International legal institutions are now producing more and more legal measures against non-state actors who have been using terrorism. Yes, there are sanctions in place against them. There are sanctions against the people. You can press criminal charges, put them on trial and imprison them. Sometimes, even some states resort to targeted killing. Yet, in the case of Russia, it’s a state actor and a nuclear state. I don’t know if there will be a change in the legal repercussions of a state using terrorist methods, especially if its crimes have been clearly documented, and not just by my study but by numerous human rights organisations, as well as other governments. There have to be implications for that.

You’ve compared the Russian and ISIS war tactics. Based on this, could we suggest some good counter-tactics to what Russia is doing?

Primarily, the initial step is prevention, right? This involves fortifying your defences. Nevertheless, this is all pre-fact; we’re already engaged in the battle.

The counter-tactics employed against ISIS can partially be used against Russia as well. Not all of it, though. By this, I mean the four-pillar strategy that was used against ISIS, which included the air campaign and engagement of the partners on the ground (because Americans opted not to engage in direct face-to-face combat, choosing instead to support local partners on the ground, including the Iraqi forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and others). The third pillar involves information and the hybrid campaign, if you wish, such as the information and psychological operations. Then, there is the fourth pillar — fixing the core structure because ISIS, for example, did not grow out of nowhere. There was a damaged structure, societal issues and dysfunctional politics behind its growth and expansion.

Hence, we can draw some lessons from there, particularly regarding the air campaign we’ve discussed. General Zaluzhny had written a long essay [for The Economist – Ed.] where he stressed the importance of not just air parity but of air superiority. Parity… well, nobody wants parity. Because parity will keep you where you are, and instead, you want superiority to be able to advance. So, when it comes to air superiority, I think everybody realises its importance right now. There are also issues of mobilisation and military reserves that must be addressed. So, this is like the partners on the ground, the U.S. or the soldiers in this case. You need more partners. You need to expand your list of friends and allies because, in a very interesting way, Russia is now fighting you with North Korean munitions against the South Korean munitions you have. This tells you that it’s very important to expand your alliances because once the South Korean munitions are gone, you will need to find new ones.

Moreover, effective counterpropaganda is very important, whether in Ukraine or outside of Ukraine. Regarding long-term goals, it’s worth highlighting that the political environment that brought about Putin must also change. At some point, this will have to be addressed, probably not just by Ukraine alone but by Ukraine and all of its international partners, potentially engaging some members of the Russian opposition as well. Once again, the environment that led to the current situation didn’t emerge out of nowhere, and it’s clear that certain domestic political issues in Russia nurture such behaviour towards their neighbours because, as we all know, this is not the first war that Russia started.

Over the last years, Ukraine has, to a certain degree, developed its relations with the Middle East, and, with the ongoing war in the region, by that I mean the war of Israel against Hamas, is now in a challenging position. What advice would you offer to Ukrainian diplomacy regarding which positions to maintain in order to preserve the partnerships we have already established in the region?

I have repeated this advice multiple times to Ukrainian officials, colleagues, and academics: essentially, adhere to international law. Stay consistent. It is important to condemn terrorism. It is equally important to condemn occupation, forced deportation, and so on, settlers colonialism, for example. If we are talking about the Middle East, it is also incredibly important to agree on a strategic peace deal that can last in the context of the two-state solution. That’s the main message.

There is a danger of becoming selective. Let’s be very clear: Ukraine has suffered from occupation. It is fighting a war of liberation. A significant percentage of its population was forcibly deported from the occupied areas. And you’re suffering from colonial settlers in Mariupol, in Crimea, in other places. Also, in Crimea, where the numbers are very high.

This is a known pattern for many places in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Therefore, you will have a lot of sympathy and support when these issues are emphasised, and this has to be done within a wider communication policy.

Jordan’s foreign minister [in November 2023 — Ed.] appealed to the European states [on November 13th 2023 – Ed.] and asked them to offer the same support against Israel’s crimes in Gaza as in the case of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. How often, since the 7th of October, do you hear about the relevance of the Russia-Ukraine war and the war between Israel and Hamas?

The war in the Middle East served Putin well in many ways. First, it has completely diverted the media attention. There were local Middle Eastern channels in Arabic, covering Ukraine 24/7, with correspondents stationed in multiple cities in Ukraine. It brought the news about Ukraine to countless Middle Eastern households. But now, that changed completely. Ukraine is not in the spotlight anymore. The focus is primarily on Gaza and on what’s happening with Israeli forces. Also, there is another aspect to it: the comparison. When it comes to Ukraine, people don’t know the background [of the Russian-Ukrainian war – Ed.].

There is this long term, the “Global South”, and I don’t like it. It’s very misleading, but lacking a better alternative, I tend to use the term “so-called Global South”. Many people in the so-called Global South don’t know much about the history [of Ukraine — Ed.]. They don’t know about the Holodomor, about the Soviet legacy here. They don’t know about the war that started in 2014. Many of these details elude their understanding. But what they see instead are babies and children killed in Gaza and see no condemnation [from the West – Ed.]. They also see that when Russians commit these war crimes here [in Ukraine – Ed.], it is always followed by a lot of condemnation. What they see are double standards. And this started from the very beginning. And you try to convey to them that there’s no need to adhere to double standards. You can have your own position and say, yes, Ukraine is under occupation. Ukraine is suffering from multiple war crimes. And you can condemn what’s happening in Gaza: the occupation, the killing of children, and so on. There’s no need to pick and choose which war crime to condemn here. The same applies to the officials and the governments. Anyhow, we’ll see how this escalates. But if this continues, clearly, it won’t help the international rule-based order that Ukraine and every other state would probably prefer.

You have mentioned that Putin exploits this war in the Middle East. So, taking this into consideration, what would be the best approach for Ukraine and the EU states to avoid the double standards in this situation and to preserve these good relations with the countries in the Middle East?

Two issues there. Basically, we need a very consistent strategic communication policy among all of your governmental institutions. This policy should look or reflect on what the Russians are doing there and comment on it in terms of the war crimes, the documentation and so on, but also one asks to comment on the rest of the world, be quite aware of the details of what’s happening.

Consider the broader context; don’t focus solely on a single snapshot, like October 7th, or October 29th, and neglect the events preceding and following it. The more comprehensive approach aligns better with Ukrainian principles, which staunchly advocate for democracy, human rights, and adherence to international law. More or less, the 10 points that President Zelensky mentioned in his peace deal just to be reflected, not just for Ukraine, but also for everybody else who was in a similar situation.

You’ve mentioned Arab channels reporting extensively on Ukraine and the Russian invasion. What sparked their interest? Was it primarily due to the scale of the conflict, or were there specific factors attracting Arabic audiences to follow developments here?

Part of the reason is the sheer magnitude of the war. Part of it is because it has affected everybody, raising issues like energy and food security all over the globe. Another issue is that many of these countries are relatively small and share borders with larger nations. I mentioned this in some of the countries, including Qatar, for example, their heart is definitely with Ukraine, but their mind is with Russia. Why the heart is with Ukraine? Because they were in a similar situation. Before, they nearly got invaded by a larger state, such as Kuwait, which was invaded by a larger state, Iraq; they always felt threatened by bigger neighbours. And then, there you go, this happens in the middle of Europe. A larger state invades a relatively smaller state, trying to occupy its land, followed by horrendous cases of war crimes. So yeah, this would get their attention. If, God forbid, Russia is victorious in Ukraine and gets away with it, I think every other small state will be in a much weaker position, be it in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. They will be looking at their bigger neighbours who surely saw what has been done by Russia and may now contemplate grabbing a piece of someone’s land or even a whole country, knowing they will get away with it.

If Russia is defeated, I think many will consider coming back to hybrid warfare. Unfortunately, the Russian occupation of Crimea and the parts of the Donbas which employed ISIS-like hybrid tactics turned out to be relatively victorious and cost-effective. Russians grabbed Crimea and they got away with annexation, facing very limited sanctions. During the take-over, one member of the ‘self-defence militia’ was killed, so they didn’t even lose any soldiers. The serious sanctions came after the MH17 was shot down because European women and children were killed in the skies over the Donbas. So, for Russians, this undertaking has worked out 100 per cent.

When Russians tried conventional warfare… Of course, at first, they attempted a hybrid way, as well, trying to destabilise the situation in Kyiv, but they were not very successful. Then, they tried the conventional way by sending their troops. They incurred shocking losses– we are now talking about at least the entire force that attacked Ukraine on February 242022, being destroyed. If the losses are at 150,000 or more, that’s the force that attacked Ukraine at the beginning of a full-scale invasion. There are also dead, wounded, POWs, missing, and defected. So, for Russians, the conventional way turned out to be extremely costly. I think when Russia loses, and I don’t say if, I say when… I think many countries will be thinking about hybrid warfare again because while it was not always successful, in Crimea, it achieved a 100% success rate. In the Donbas, the success rate was 50/50. Instead, Kharkiv, for example, the Kharkiv People’s Republic lasted for 12 hours. It was declared on the 7th of April and toppled down to the 8th of April, 2014, not lasting even a day. This made it a 100% failure. It was less costly, nevertheless. Not only is it a highly effective way to fight, but it is also a very cheap way to fight. And therefore, such tactics may be repeated. So even when this ends, when Ukraine is victorious, you will need to shore up both your conventional and your hybrid defences.

In the Ukrainian Catholic University, we have been speaking about the smaller states facing the bigger states, so this leads to my final question — how do we make modern-day David the most effective in his fight against Goliath?

How much time do you have? That’s enough material for a whole conference.

Well, let’s make it in three sentences.

Well, in three sentences: leadership, people and army. You need high-quality leadership able to inspire and to raise the morale and bravery. You need to invest in your armed forces, and these investments will depend on the way you want to fight. Because now we need choice-making strategies. Ukraine needs to decide how to approach this. You also want to fight as a combined arms army, similar to how NATO is. This way, you must invest more in your air and other forces; otherwise, you’ll have to fight the way you do it now, which is an artillery-intensive army, and in that case, you’ll need to expand your artillery tools and munitions. Either way, the part of the state budget allocated for the defence needs to be way above the 2%, which is the recommended NATO barrier.

And most importantly, the people. I think what saved Kyiv is that Ukraine had a people’s army. Actually, this is what has been saving and protecting Ukraine all along. There are all those folks, the volunteers, who collect donations to buy drones and equipment, medical kits, and first aid kits. Everybody is involved. You have over 40 million people who are involved in the support of the army. So, this is a broad overview, but there are many more details to delve into. But it is this combination of leadership, army, and people that has helped numerous countries that are smaller and weaker to succeed.