Taking a Spoon to a Gunfight

April 2, 2014

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Taking a Spoon to a Gunfight: The West Dealing with Russian Unconventional and Political Warfare in Former Soviet States

As the Russians now try to reach a diplomatic solution in order to consolidate their gains in Crimea – as evidenced by Putin’s call to Obama and SECSTATE’s meeting with the Russian foreign minister – it is useful to try to understand how Russia has used all of its elements of national power to achieve its objectives.

While the United States has spent the last decade-plus trying to learn to “eat soup with a knife,” the Russians have been reaching back to some tried and true methods from the Cold War.  Some in the U.S. national security community want to continue to focus on expeditionary counterinsurgency warfare and armed nation building while others long for large-scale maneuver warfare along the lines of the Fulda Gap.  However, while we debate these two forms of warfare and the proper balance between them, the Russians are practicing something different: unconventional warfare in support of political warfare to achieve its strategic objectives.

A friend asked me recently if the Russians were conducting unconventional warfare in Ukraine and in particular in Crimea.  Even a superficial analysis shows that they are using much of the standard definition of unconventional warfare:

activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla forces in a denied area.

With the backing of Russian special operations forces, the Russians aided and exploited Russian-speaking Ukrainians who appeared to form some kind of resistance – as feigned as it might have been – against the Ukrainian government.  Certainly in Crimea the objective was to coerce the population into voting for cessation from Ukraine, which the Russians have achieved. Broader Russian objectives in Ukraine are to coerce and disrupt the current government and, in the long term, possibly overthrow it as well.  There is some evidence that Russian advisors have been assisting pro-Russian factions to form variations of an underground and an auxiliary in Eastern Ukraine. They also seem to have been developing some elements into overt action arms to politically mobilize the population against the Ukrainian government and conduct psychological warfare.

Of course the unconventional warfare campaign was only a supporting element to the overall Russian strategy.  Not only has Russia employed all the elements of national power in this endeavor, it has also deployed significant ground combat conventional forces in Crimea and on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders.  Whether those forces are supporting the unconventional warfare campaign or vice versa, the fact is that they have effectively integrated multiple military and intelligence capabilities to achieve their strategic aims.  Unconventional warfare is not solely a special operation. An effective strategy and campaign plan may call for the orchestration of various joint military and interagency capabilities to achieve the desired effects.  It appears that the Russians are doing this very well in Crimea and Ukraine.

Some may question whether this is unconventional warfare at all since there have been relatively low levels of violence. So far there has been no force-on-force conflict.  While they have shown us many elements of unconventional warfare, what we are really seeing is unconventional warfare employed in support of political warfare.  George Kennan described political warfare as all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.   More recently Joe Celeski (Colonel, US Army, SF Ret) provided a deeper description:

The purpose of political warfare is isolate, erode, manipulate, exhaust, wear down, attrit, overthrow, reduce, replace, or create conditions to coerce a belligerent government or regime to acquiesce to national objectives, without going to war.

The Russians have not gone to war but they are clearly employing all elements of national power to achieve national objectives.

Why is it important to understand the Russian use of unconventional and political warfare?  I am afraid that the Russians may not stop in Ukraine.  While they may shift to diplomacy as the main effort (knowing full well the West is very keen to achieve a diplomatic solution) this may be only temporary as they continue to prepare the environment in other former Soviet states so that they can continue their plans once the gains in Crimea and Ukraine are consolidated.

So what are the United States and its allies to do?  Just as the Russians do not appear to want to go to war, the United States and its European allies do not either. However, the Russians appear very willing to use all means at their command to achieve their national objectives.  The question is whether the United States and its allies can determine an attainable political end state and then effectively employ all ways and means to achieve it?  If we are able and willing, the way to begin might be to develop a strategy and execute a campaign to counter Russian unconventional and political warfare.  I believe once we understand Russia’s strategy and how it uses unconventional and political warfare we can determine how to best attack that strategy – which, as Sun Tzu said, is really the highest form of warfare.  And maybe we can put down the spoon and take all the right weapons to the gunfight.

Regardless of what we end up doing, one thing should be clear to us: we are very likely to see continued threats from unconventional and political warfare and we need to develop strategies to counter them.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel.


Photo credit: Sasha Maksymenko

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10 thoughts on “Taking a Spoon to a Gunfight

  1. This is a particularly excellent paper providing one of (if not) the best description of “how Russia has used all of its elements of national power to achieve its objectives.”

    It will be interesting to see whether they continue to apply these methods in a move into additional areas bordering their country — having a large ethnically Russian population. Whether their methodology would work in geographical areas lacking an ethnic Russian population of any magnitude is another question.

    My personal hope is that the U.S. have the common sense to recognize that all powerful countries (Russia is one of them) have “Spheres of Influence” into which competing powers interfere at their own risk. The U.S. has absolutely zero national security interest at risk in the Ukraine and we should put aside the costly and generally failed perception / policy of attempting to spread democracy around the world. The cost of that policy as demonstrated by our failed efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc has placed this nation on the path to bankruptcy. It has harmed the U.S. economy and provided America with nothing of actual value in return.

    If Putin and Russia want the Crimea or Ukraine, let them have it unopposed. Opposing Russian aggrandizement in their sphere of influence will lead to another strategic failure for this nation.

    Anyway, great paper. As a thought, send a copy to the White House’s National Security Staff.

  2. Nice article and should be forwarded to folks in State Dept, CIA, DoD et al. who are continuing to muck around in Ukraine. Before this country goes broke, the zealots and true believers within the Washington beltway must begin to divest themselves of the fallacious belief that the US is the global policeman.

  3. i think the “sphere of influence” school of thought particularly foul. It renders the thoughts, desires, rights and basic humanity of millions of people nugatory. They become so many serfs to parceled out amongst the barons. It is well beyond dishonorable and into foul.

    It also has a practical difficulty. Who decides what constitutes the actual sphere of influence? Will there be a confabulation of the batons? Who is a baron? How will it be enforced? And ultimately it gets down to self designated barons parcelling out people. Morally scabious behavior that is. Foul.

    There is one thing I disagree with in Mr. Maxwell’s article. It is a matter of semantics really but still important. Russia does not appear to want to go to war. Their caginess seems to indicate that. The West absolutely doesn’t. That is apparent from the hand wringing inaction. But the Russians appear much more willing to go closer to the edge than the West. They appear much more willing to chance provocative acts in the belief the West will back down. There is great danger in that. Danger the West is bringing upon itself.

  4. Soros, U.S. State Dept. funded Ukrainian Renaissance, no?–this led to the right-wing coup. It follows that the West pursued unconventional warfare first, only were unprepared to follow through, no?

  5. Is there really anything ‘unconventional’ about Russian actions in Crimea or with respect to the sitting government in Kiev? They’re using
    all instruments of national power – diplomatic (through Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry), ideological (through the Russian-speaking populace of Crimea), military (the the Black Sea Fleet and various Airborne and Mechanized division and brigades on the eastern side of the border), and
    Economic (through Gazprom) to compel, coerce, and deter, for (perceived) vital national interests. That’s pretty conventional. In fact, it’s the most
    conventional of conflicts to begin with – those that arise from a ‘security dilemma.’ And we’ve handed that to the Russians on a silver platter.

  6. This is indeed a fine paper and I’m not surprised the military men understand what Russia is doing far better than the politicians and State Dept — not to mention that the military can also allow for the possibility much like their Ukrainian army counterparts that the best solution is to negotiate in order to defang separatism.

    Thus far the US response has often been second rate, not only with SecState Kerry, but including with the propaganda war and the stubborn insistence until recently that locals couldn’t possibly take up arms against Kiev after what they saw as an illegitimate coup that now condemns them for doing what the Maidan did in Kiev and western Ukraine. This ‘insurrection for me but not for thee’ charge of hypocrisy, as well as the info ops attempting to ‘prove’ that the Maidan was a CIA/USAID project have been Russia’s best cards in the propaganda war. The ‘proxies’ (or at least those who are viewed that way by the Eastern Ukrainians) for example the EuroMaidanPR crew have often played into Russia’s hands by making comical threats against Russia or the Southeast that the Ukrainian army simply was unwilling or unable to deliver.

    Of course shooting unarmed Donbass civilians or even militiamen with lots of civilians around them is a far cry from fighting the Russian army doing a full blown invasion. I still think if Russian troops and tanks actually did pour across the border after the initial shock and awe phase and successful conquest of Donbass with very light casulties the Russians would cross the Dnieper near Dnepropetrovsk (a city that leans even more strongly toward Kiev than any of the Donbass) and begin to take heavy casulties in urban combat slugging it out for that city (not unlike the U.S. forces invading Iraq not encountering fierce resistance until they hit the big river at An Nasariyah).

    Putin knows Ukrainian soldiers may shrink from killing fellow citizens but there would be enough who wouldn’t shrink from urban combat or more likely guerilla warfare to make an invasion a costly affair, even before the economic fallout. Hence the unconventional warfare Putin has resorted to without the full Monty of actual ‘little green men’ as opposed to Russian volunteers and increasingly armed up local Ukrainian allies such as the ‘Army of the Southeast’. And the local Ukrainian citizen proxies have proven to be sufficiently disciplined and trained (but remember some of these guys were in the Ukrainian Army and a few are Soviet veterans of Afghanistan with vaguely fond memories of the USSR) that they’ve convinced Gen. Breedlove that they’re actually active duty or reservist Russians! I think Gen. Breedlove’s staff needs to reconsider that the new Ukrainian government has both a loyalty and legitimacy problem (however you want to emphasize the former or the latter) and work hard on the political side. Because let’s face it, no American ally or government viewed as an American proxy can simply go into Donetsk and Lugansk and kill the number of people it would take to put down the rebellion Grozny 1994-style. Even many in the Western media who loathe Putin would have a hard time defending such carnage, hence the current stalemate which favors Russia’s demands for ‘federalization’ of Ukraine.

  7. 1) With respect to carl’s comment, yes ‘spheres of influence’ seems grotesque, until a U.S. with severe economic problems starts trying to convince Nicaragua in 2020 that hosting a Chinese PLA Navy base at the mouth of the proposed Chinese Panamax alternative canal is a bad idea. I think the root of all of this was best summed up by the idea expressed by David P. Goldman aka the Asia Times Spengler that ‘Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Play Chess’. The State Dept. thought if the EuroMaidan ‘won’ in Kiev that the rest of Ukraine would simply fall into place if enough IMF or EU bailout money was put on the table. They didn’t seem to have a plan for Russia exploiting the genuine regional divides and grievances against the new government before it had the chance to legitimate itself through elections in May.

    2) With respect to Scott Forster’s comment, yes the US could ‘pivot back’ to Europe. But consider that this will only tend to bolster the position of those in Beijing who would encourage even more Chinese support for Mr. Putin and a warm Chinese embrace of the new ideology of ‘Eurasianism’ or at least a step up in dumping the U.S. dollar through bilateral trade deals in which Russia agrees to accept yuan.

    3) With respect to the comment that Russia’s unconventional warfare tactics only work where there is a sizeable portion of the population that sympathizes, I think this is basically correct, but I would caution that recent op-eds from official Washington like WaPost author David Ignatius seem to confess a fear that Putin could use Reaganesque strategies to undermine his opponents. That is to say, that Putin having learned from the playbook the US used to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (we can all debate how much Bill Casey at the CIA or the Polish Pope’s roles played into it) could now turn this playbook against the West’s tottering institutions. Starting of course with the European Union and perhaps ultimately the U.S.-German alliance, since Putin is a German speaker and is offering Germany a role as the key technology provider for a Russo-Chinese Eurasian economic hub that is going to be a lot more formidable than the ‘USSR 2.0’ jeering commentary have thus far suggested.

    What I guess I’m getting at is that the economic rot of the southern EU, especially in Orthodox Christian Greece, creates an opening for Russian political warfare to undermine the EU. Especially since the EU essentially robbed Greek Cypriots and some British military retirees on that Mediterranean island of their savings. While many individuals consider only rational factors which clearly prevail, don’t underestimate the role of revenge and populist anger that has been building against the European institution the U.S. helped midwife in part to ‘win’ the Cold War and ‘secure’ the peace after it. The prevalence of the ‘EU(SSR)’ talking point among Euroskeptics reinforces for me my conviction that Moscow’s new ideological virus isn’t Communism, Eurasianism or right wing nationalism. It’s collapse-atarianism.

    Convincing Europeans including former Hungarian citizen and Putin arch foe George Soros that the EU is doomed to break up like the late Soviet Union (which it resembles in the Russian language Evro-pitsky Soyuz) is the first step to getting Greeks to actually think they can overthrow their eurocrat overlords, either by elections or SE Ukraine style armed insurrection, and return to the drachmae. Such a return of course being impossible without major Russian and Chinese investment into the country if not ‘yuan-ization’ like Argentina pursued dollarization. D.C. hasn’t even begun to imagine what Putin might be thinking of doing if his ‘win streak’ of Finlandizing Ukraine continues. Can you see a nice semi-permanent station for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Chinese Mediterranean guest squadron by 2020 alongside the U.S. Navy at the Piraeus? I can.

  8. Last thought on this thread — considering that Finland enjoys both excellent relations with Russia (90% of its gas is Russian) and the EU, plus one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, ‘Finlandizing’ wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for Ukraine! Yet to ‘finlandize’ is taken as an insult or the worst possible outcome for the Ukrainian people. In reality, only a hardy few are discussing the economic train wreck that is Ukraine even before the gas price hikes, however ‘unfair’ (we should bear in mind Ukraine defaulted on its contract with Gazprom, the hikes may be usury but it isn’t as if the billions in arrears were simply made up by the Russians).