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The Inauguration of 21st Century Political Warfare: A Strategy for Countering Russian Non-Linear Warfare Capabilities
U.S. Policy & Endstate
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy towards Europe has focused on fostering a “Europe whole and free,” which is taken to mean a secure, prosperous, and culturally integrated community of nations, built on shared values of free and open societies, democratic governance and respect for human rights, and market-oriented economic policies. During the same period, Russia came to be viewed as a partner rather than an adversary, reinforcing notions of a peaceful post-Cold War order. Events in Eastern Europe since early 2014 have called those assumptions into question. The Russian Federation under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has sought to revise the European status quo through force and intimidation for the first time since 1945 through the seizure of the Crimean and through Russian support for separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
These actions have destabilized Eastern Europe and placed NATO states on Russia’s borders – particularly the small Baltic States – under threat. In order to uphold NATO Article V collective defense commitments and to ensure the future security of European integration, it is necessary to develop a strategy to assist in the security of the Baltics and other NATO states from Russian “non-linear warfare” of the sort displayed in Ukraine in the past eighteen months. Failure to do so will incentivize to further Russian intimidation of countries on its periphery, and potentially splinter the NATO Alliance if it becomes clear that the Allies will not honor their commitments to each other’s defense. Ultimately, Europe’s future as an integrated, peaceful, and prosperous community rests on the ability of NATO and the United States to counter Russia’s aggressive actions.
The Russian Threat
It is increasingly evident that Russia’s perceived support of the post-Cold War order was born of Russia’s weakness and inability to block the rapid geopolitical changes that transformed Europe in the 1990s, rather than the endorsement of them. President Putin and his coterie of advisors view the West as an inexorable threat, determined to contain Russia and prevent its return to great power status. Furthermore, Putin and his supporters believe that the former Soviet states constitute a region of Russian “privileged interest,” where Russia should retain special rights and political influence, regardless of the desires of the independent peoples in each of these states. It was this desire to wield veto authority over the political trajectory of Ukraine that led to Russian intervention when the Ukrainian people overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich for refusing closer EU integration. Putin, who has consolidated power within Russia and is now the ultimate arbiter of Russian foreign policy decision-making, sees the United States and the NATO Alliance as fundamentally opposed to Russia’s interests. He is determined to drive wedges between NATO member states, thereby weakening the Alliance and raising questions of its credibility as a defensive and deterrent force in European affairs. Russia seeks to accomplish this by playing upon differing political opinions and agendas between and within NATO states, as the recent visit to Crimea by a right-wing French delegation illustrates.
A key component of Russian geopolitical thinking that informs non-linear warfare is the notion that democratic “color revolutions,” such as Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, are actually American plots to oust pro-Kremlin politicians and install leaders friendly to the West. Whether Putin and his regime truly believe their own conspiratorial rhetoric or simply use it as a means to drum up popular support for their agenda is immaterial, as it serves as an effective tool for mobilizing popular support for their actions. Russia claims the right to protect Russian-speaking populations regardless of the sovereign status of their country of residence, and uses this as a means to justify hostile political and military action to undermine a target government in the same manner that the U.S. supposedly does with democratic revolutions around the world. Non-linear warfare operationalizes these movements through political and paramilitary support to Russian-speaking populations within Russia’s neighboring states as a means to destabilize the political and social unity of the target country.
At the operational level, Russia’s influence and intimidation efforts proceed through a mix of coercive military and non-military tools (including propaganda, economic pressure, and cyber operations) often referred to by Western commentators as “hybrid warfare” but known within Russian military doctrine as “non-linear warfare.” This style of warfare was developed by Chief of the Russian General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov in a 2013 article in a Russian military journal, and first employed in Crimea. It seeks to maximize Russian strategic advantage through information operations and deniable troop deployments to sow dissent and instability, primarily amongst Russian-speaking populations within the target countries. These groups can then act as a “fifth column” under Russian military supervision to undermine an opponent without escalating to major combat operations or foreign intervention, which the Russian Armed Forces in their present state would not be able to withstand. General Gerasimov noted in his exposition on non-linear warfare that in this form of conflict, non-military measures should outweigh military tools by a ratio of 4-to-1, and the military component should be weighted towards the very end of the campaign so as to deliver a coup de grace once the prior use of non-military tools have maximized confusion amongst the enemy. Even then, military forces are to be employed under the guise of peacekeepers or private military contractors in order to provide plausible deniability of Russian actions.
It is worth noting that for all of this doctrine’s potency as a tool for subverting governments in Russia’s “near abroad,” non-linear warfare was born of Russian military weakness. The Russian Armed Forces are far from the massive force designed to overrun opposition in Western Europe with thousands of tanks, artillery, and aircraft. Though the military is currently in the middle of a long period of rearmament and organizational reform, they are not currently able to win in a conventional conflict against NATO forces. Non-linear warfare is designed to prevent such a confrontation with NATO while still achieving Russian strategic aims by avoiding the appearance of outright aggression, and using hostile but non-lethal policy tools up until the moment military forces are employed to secure the ultimate objective. Russia assesses – perhaps correctly – that absent overtly aggressive movements against a NATO country, other members of the Alliance will be unwilling to come to each other’s defense.
The Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 exemplifies non-linear warfare methodologies. While the Crimean case was unique in certain key ways, it also showcased several techniques that would almost certainly come into play in any Russian effort to employ non-linear warfare against NATO states on its periphery. This effort began in late 2013 as the Euromaidan Movement in Kiev – protesting President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement and subsequent alignment with Russia – began to gain supporters. Russian media sought to portray the movement as a collection of Western liberals and Ukrainian neo-fascists seeking to pull Ukraine away from Russia’s conservative, traditionalist “Eurasian Bloc.” Russian commentators also sought to discredit the Euromaidan protestors with the claim that the U.S. had manufactured the entire movement from whole cloth as a means to draw Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence. This media campaign, which extended for months and indeed continues today, served to instill fear within Ukraine’s large Russian speaking minorities in the south and east, effectively convincing these populations that they were under threat of a hostile takeover at the hands of rabidly anti-Russian political parties. It became very easy to mobilize pro-Russian sectors of the Ukrainian polity against the new Ukrainian leadership when Russian speakers were afraid that they would face outright oppression under the new order.
The Euromaidan protests in Kiev culminated with President Yanukovych’s flight to Russia on February 21, 2015. The next day, President Putin reportedly gave ordered the Russian military to seize Crimea. This operation began with the infiltration of Russian “Spetsnaz” special operations troops in civilian clothing, as well as the clandestine movement of conventional airborne units under the guise of standard supply and administrative personnel transfers to Russian bases on the Crimean Peninsula. The Spetsnaz troops were the first to take action, working with local pro-Russian citizens to seize Crimean regional government buildings in Simferopol on February 27th. The next day, Russian naval infantry units from the Black Sea Fleet in Sebastopol seized strategic locations throughout Crimea. Russian airborne and mechanized units – all in uniforms without national markings – followed, and the peninsula was quickly secured under Russian control. Throughout the opening phases of the invasion, Russian maintained that it had taken no action in Ukraine, and that all armed personnel (and even heavy armor and weapons systems) belonged to Ukrainian citizens seeking to shake off the yoke of the country’s new “fascist” dictators. Within days, Russian media was calling for Crimea’s annexation. In a referendum held just two weeks after the invasion, Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, allowing Putin to justify Russia’s actions as measures to ensure that Crimean Ukrainians could exercise the right to self-determination.
Certain aspects of the Crimean operation were unique in that Russia already had forces stationed on the peninsula and could move more into the operating area under cover of routine military supply shipments. However, other aspects of this operation, including the informational and political components, the leveraging of pro-Russian civilians inside the target country, and the swift movement of military forces under deniable means are all applicable to other countries on Russia’s periphery. Estonia and Latvia, both NATO states, have sizeable Russian minorities that Russia could employ as an internal “fifth column” as it did in Crimea. Tensions between Russia and the Baltics have increased synchronously with events in Ukraine, and Russia has repeatedly conducted incursions of Baltic airspace with military aircraft in the past year. Should tensions continue to rise, it is not inconceivable that Russia would attempt to use non-linear warfare techniques to intimidate the Baltic states and discredit NATO as a viable Alliance willing to come to the defense of its member states.
The Political Warfare Strategy
Efforts to counter the Russian non-linear military threat will require a comprehensive “political warfare” strategy of the sort first envisioned by George Kennan in 1948 as a means to counter hostile Soviet influence and subversion in Eastern Europe. Kennan defined political warfare as “the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” A more recent draft political warfare policy defines it thusly:
The overall U.S. purpose in the field of political warfare is to maintain an advantageous position on the world stage without resorting to defensive or offensive war by countering aggressors’ attempts to gain advantage over subject states or by subverting the government of a subject state whose actions are inimical to U.S. interests.
Methods for achieving these objectives include political pressure, information and influence activities (IIA) and special military operations to prevent or undermine the adversary’s hostile policies.
In relation to Russian hostile activity on NATO’s eastern frontier, political warfare tools offer U.S. and Allied policymakers flexibility, as these tools can be matched to counter Russian actions and are unlikely to be misinterpreted as overtly aggressive acts. Furthermore, NATO states are currently divided on the role that conventional forces can play in deterring further Russian aggression. While Eastern European states such as Poland and the Baltics may see the presence of Allied troops on their soil as a reassuring deterrent to Russian action, Western European states fear that the presence of such forces could be seen as aggressive in its own right and could negatively impact future cooperation with Russia. Political warfare skirts these concerns as it primarily employs non-military means to reinforce the security of those countries that find themselves under threat of Russian non-linear subversion. Furthermore, current operating concepts for political warfare (all of which remain nascent as of this writing) call for the employment of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in a light-footprint fashion, and explicitly in a supporting role to non-military policy tools. This strategy envisions the employment of political warfare as a complement to, and supporting element of, traditional diplomatic and economic activity in Eastern Europe, and not as a stand-alone measure designed to resolve tensions in the region by itself.
Should the President determine that NATO allies are under threat of subversion by Russian non-linear warfare techniques, this strategy envisions the deployment of a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force for political warfare under the leadership of the State Department, with support from the Intelligence Community and US Special Operations Forces, which would use diplomatic, informational, cybernetic, and discrete military measures to counter hostile Russian action. Specific operational components of this strategy are outlined below:
Political Outreach and Organization
Political outreach by the U.S. State Department to minority political organizations in potential Russian target countries could serve as an effective preventive measure for “target hardening” to prevent these countries from becoming fertile ground for Russian non-linear warfare activities. This is necessary as some Eastern European countries maintain policies that are repressive of Russian minorities. Estonia, for example, does not guarantee full citizenship to its Russian-speaking population, even for people born on its soil. Such policies could easily lead to a disenfranchised Russian minority, which Putin could leverage as both the justification for and means to undermine these states’ sovereignty.
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported the creation of moderate leftist European political parties in order to provide left-leaning European activists a space to conduct political activities that was nevertheless free of communist influence. In coordination with the governments of those countries that could fall victim to Russian non-linear aggression, the U.S. – working through NGOs like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute – should attempt similar outreach with those parties representing Russian-speaking populations. These parties can help organize Russian minority groups and allow them to peacefully advocate for their rights by working through the democratic process. The State Department should also actively encourage the governments of these countries to adopt policies that are inclusive of minority groups and to address corruption and poor governance issues that disproportionately impact Russian minorities, in order to avoid providing an incentive for those groups to align with Putin.
As political warfare is primarily a “battle of narratives” in which information and influence activities (IIA) take precedence, information operations specialists, public diplomacy professionals, and even public affairs personnel must be the main effort of any political warfare campaign. It will be the mission of these units to provide timely and accurate information about Russian actions and to counter false Russian propaganda about the situation in the allied state. This must include all modern information media, such as televised news, online newspapers, and social media tools. Messaging efforts must be directed towards multiple audiences, including the international community, the people of the victim country and especially its Russian-speaking minorities, and finally to the public within Russia itself. Each track must promote a unified narrative, namely that Russia is acting as an aggressor despite the lack of overt troop movements; that the government of the NATO state is a victim that presents no threat either to Russia or to its own Russian-speaking minorities; and that NATO must support the victim state if the Russia is to be prevented from exercising veto power at will over its neighbors.
Social media operations must include a covert component, whereby IIA professional, operating under Title 50 covert action authorities, promote the U.S. political narrative through their presence on social media. Russia reportedly employs large teams of social media actors, each of whom uses dozens or hundreds of fake online “personas” to promote a unified media narrative in support of Russian policy goals. In Russian non-linear warfare scenarios, this technique can be used to direct anti-Western propaganda towards Russian minorities within a target states. Often the message promoted by these personas is demonstrably false, but as Western leaders lack credibility on the matter given their official positions, it is necessary for online actors with no visible ties to Western governments to provide a true and accurate message, in the target language, to counter this propaganda.
Military Support and Counter-Unconventional Warfare
Military forces are deliberately placed in a supporting role in order to emphasize the political nature of the campaign and to prioritize those non-military policy tools that both Russian and American planners recognize as pre-eminent in hybrid/non-linear warfare scenarios. However, U.S. Special Operations Forces will play a critical role in assisting the militaries of potential victim states in preparing for Russian aggression.
First and foremost this should take place as training to host-nation police and military quick-reaction forces that would be most likely to respond to political unrest or to Russian covert troop deployments. U.S. forces should provide training in effective, restrained, and professional police responses to rioting and civil unrest. Since every action that the host government takes in response to Russian covert aggression will be recorded and used for propaganda purposes, it is critical that response units on the ground not overreact or apply excessive force in their efforts to contain pro-Russian protestors or rioters. Even in the event that Russia infiltrates Spetsnaz troops in civilian clothing to seize key government buildings as it did in Crimea, it will be critical that the host nation police and military forces respond with an effective balance of speed, restraint, and precise force in order to avoid giving credence to Russian narratives. U.S. Army Special Forces groups have extensive experience in conducting operations in this manner, and have the specific mission of passing on these skills on to foreign partners.
U.S. Special Operations Forces also have, by virtue of their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive experience in “counter-organization” activities. In conjunction with the Intelligence Community, SOF are able to track – and if necessary disrupt – the recruiting, intelligence, logistics, and propaganda arms which are necessary to sustain an underground political and military movement. They can teach these techniques to host nation special operations units, or even partner with them (in an Article V scenario) to dismantle the networks Russia uses to move support to political and military units infiltrating the victim state. SOF and the Intelligence Community can also assist host nation forces in developing the intelligence fusion capabilities required to respond to the complex circumstances that characterize a Russian non-linear assault. During the invasion of Crimea, Russia was able to secure the key terrain so rapidly that the peninsula was effectively under Russian control before Ukraine could even prepare a response. Better intelligence fusion during the early stages of a non-linear campaign could allow the host nation military to anticipate Russian covert military actions and respond effectively as they occur. U.S. SOF developed unparalleled intelligence fusion, analysis, and dissemination capabilities that have proven highly effective for maintain situational awareness in counterinsurgency operations, and could be useful in providing the intelligence required for countering Russian non-linear operations.
Finally, SOF can prepare for the potential Russian occupation of all or part of a NATO ally by working with host nation forces to prepare stay-behind and resistance networks. This was a core mission of U.S. Army Special Forces during the Cold War, and remains a staple of U.S. unconventional warfare doctrine for such an eventuality. In conjunction with host nation forces, U.S. Special Forces teams can conduct “UW in a Proactive Fashion” by conducting liaison, planning, and training with groups who would remain behind enemy lines in the event of Russian occupation and form the nucleus of a resistance movement. This way, the critical early stages of an unconventional warfare effort – identifying a resistance group, covertly meeting with that group, and establishing trusted relationships – would already be complete and ready for employment in the event of Russian occupation.
Conclusion – Beating Russia at Its Own Game
Russian non-linear warfare is effective because it secures strategic goals while managing escalation and denying obvious grounds for foreign intervention. There is no clear role for a NATO Article V response to hostile propaganda, political coercion, or minority unrest. Even in the final military stages troops are deployed covertly and swiftly enough as to present NATO with a fait accompli. Traditional NATO responses, focusing on the deployment of massed conventional forces for deterrence or to compel a Russian retreat are counterproductive to these scenarios. Massive troop deployments in these scenarios would give the impression – with the assistance of Russian propaganda – of a militarized response to civilian political activity, further inflaming the situation.
Instead, the political warfare strategy seeks to meet Russia in this “gray area” where force is employed covertly and with restraint, and in which information operations and political activity take precedence. This strategy is not meant for employment in a vacuum, and traditional deterrent activities by conventional military forces are still required to prevent Russian escalation from non-linear techniques to overt military aggression. However, this strategy can succeed in meeting and defeating Russian aggression without escalation, and ideally without resorting to force at all.
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