Russia's Little Green Men in the Ukraine

Updated on October 14, 2019

During the Ukraine-Russian military confrontation in 2014, Ukraine was a breakaway region of the former USSR (Russia). It was one of the best regions and one that Moscow did need to stay within its orbit. However, Putin didn't like it when Ukraine declared itself its own sovereign nation and looked towards NATO for help.

Thus, Putin used his "little green men" in an ingenious manner and took over Crimea, which was part of Ukraine. He did this by having small battalion-size groups between 700-1000 men from various formations. Unlike in normal times, none of the troops committed had any insignia on them for identification purposes. One could only tell if they were Russian by their dialect (Ukrainian is similar to Russian) and their armaments. Locals coined them "little green men."

War in 2014

When Ukraine started its quest to join NATO, Putin ordered a buildup of Russian units along the disputed border but was always supporting the pro-Russian factions in the Ukraine. These forces were armed and paid for, in some cases, by Russia. Most of them were militias with little real military training or police units.

Some of the Ukraine army did have defectors. One such rebel organization was the Donetsk People's Republic Army (DPR). This group had about 40,000 fighters. As 2014 continued, by summer, all-out war broke out and Russian artillery units just across the border poured their bombardments on the Ukrainians. Russia used its tactic in the Crimea, in the Ukraine, to infiltrate Spetsnaz units to the DPR to organize and train them. The Ukrainian Army was superior to them, in most cases. But, there were just too few of them.

In July, the Ukrainian forces had carved out several pockets of the DPR in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Their plan to isolate them and cut their supply off from Russia was working, despite a lack of forces and frenzied DPR resistance. By August, the Ukrainians had encircled most of the DPR and cut their lifeline to Russia off except for Highway 21, which led from the Donetsk urban area to Russia. Most of the highway was controlled by DPR forces but it was a tenuous hold and one the Ukrainians cut before but lost in seesaw battles.

Battle of Ilovaisk

The problem for the Ukrainians was that all their forces available had been used. They had no real reserves. The only available forces were their own militia and Anti-Terror forces, both had received little military training or combat experience.

Beginning Aug. 5, these forces attempted to cut the highway from the south by way of Ilovaisk, a town of 18,000. The DPR militia has seized it and other towns and it was thought that they would fall easily. On the 10th, the first of several attempts to take the town was tried using a few hundred men and a few tanks. Another attempt failed led to a stronger attempt on the 18th, using 600-800 men. Unknown to the Ukrainians, the DPR had fortified the town and defended it with over 300. Ilovaisk was only important to their strategy because it was a key railway and road junction to the south into Russia. It could also be used by the Ukrainians for supply.

The battle for Ilovaisk went on until the 22nd, and the Ukrainian forces were only to secure half the town. But Russia had already infiltrated many units into the area to help the DPR secure the critical road and Ukrainians simply had a lack of units to cut the road.

Putin was still gravely worried about the whole area was still cut off and in various pockets. Putin sensed that without Russia intervening, Ukraine might just pull off the DPR destruction as their supplies dwindled. The concern was real, especially in the Luhansk areas.

Putin Invades

The first Russian battalion-sized groups entered on August 23 and, by the 24th, both sides were fighting one another. The Ukrainians were in disbelief but their military units stood their ground. A total of 4000-6000 Russian troops would enter Ukraine, some 100 tanks, all supported by plenty of artillery from Russia. The total number of troops across the Ukraine border came to 90,000.

The Donetsk region was invaded by these "little green men" with no insignias for identification, just like in the Crimea. A total of 4-6 battalions from the following parent organizations turned the tide for the DPR. Before their entry, it was a battle up for grabs but leaning to Ukraine, after the Russian intervention, it became a disaster of epic portions for Ukraine as units tried to retreat to safety. They would lose nearly 1000 men near Ilovaisk as Russian troops violated a ceasefire and slaughtered those evacuating.


After the area had been secured, Russian units rotated in and out of the captured area into 2015. Ironically, despite the secrecy and Putin's lies about not invading Ukraine, social media was the first to prove this by numerous young Russian soldiers posting photos and messages about their exploits. One commented that he thought his unit was on a military exercise because that was what they were told. Others stated they had no idea they were in Ukraine. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, Putin eventually conceded the truth about Russia's intervention!

The units invading were:

  • 18th Gds Mechanized Brigade
  • 21st Mechanized Brigade
  • 331st Reg.\98 Gds Para Division
  • 137th Gds Reg.\106 Para Division
  • 33rd Gds Air Assault Brigade
  • 2nd Spetsnaz Special Forces
  • 8th Ind. Mechanized Brigade


  • - Battle of Ilovaisk
  • - Ilovaisk
  • - Anti Terrorist Operation Daily Summary
  • Russian Forces in Ukraine - March 2015, Royal United Services Institute
  • - Ukraine Military Dispositions
  • Kyiv Post
  • Reuters
  • Daily Mail


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