Taking a Spoon to a Gunfight


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