Imposing Costs by Other Means: Strategic Irregular Warfare Options to Counter Russian Aggression
America’s comparative advantage in conventional military power guarantees that its adversaries will seek to confront it below the threshold of traditional “war” in order to achieve their objectives. Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine demonstrates one aspect of this battleground with troubling implications for the viability of the NATO alliance. Eliminating sanctuaries of impunity, whether they be within the political space of the “gray zone” being manipulated by Russia, or physical territory utilized by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to launch attacks on the US homeland, requires the US to employ unconventional measures to compete and win.
It is time to unleash US irregular warfare capabilities. All the controversy over today’s “gray zone” challenges leads one to believe that the United States is an amateur player in this game. Throughout the 1980’s the United States successfully competed below the threshold of conventional war within the framework of “low-intensity conflict.” While the Iran-Contra affair and blowback from supporting the Afghan mujahedeen remain black eyes to US prestige, America successfully bled the Soviet Union without resorting to either nuclear Armageddon or conventional escalation. One can debate the minutiae, but the US achieved its strategic objectives at a relatively low cost. How can the US attain similar results in today’s operational environment where political willpower is the limiting factor? The answer is to enable what Russia fears the most: indigenous resistance movements along the lines of the “color revolutions” that shattered post-Soviet Russian influence in its traditional backyard.
Article 5 Dilemmas
The most pressing issue vis-à-vis Russia today is the United States’ commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Article 5 of the NATO charter requires that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against theman armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea reinvigorated the debate over NATO’s utility in the post-Cold War era. The toothless US response may have been justifiable given the lack of legal commitments to non-member Ukraine, but what if Russia takes perceived American weakness as an invitation for a repeat performance in the Baltic States, actual NATO members? Both Russia’s “new generation” hybrid warfare doctrine and Moscow’s allies in the region exhort the use of non-military asymmetric means and “fifth columns” in targeted areas to achieve strategic outcomes. Is America’s solution more armored road marches through Eastern Europe and combined training exercises? Does the US have the political will to actually pull the trigger on a conventional military response with the potential for escalation? Unlikely. Other concepts like “hybrid defense” and resurrecting variants of Cold War extended deterrence offer alternative solutions, but they don’t optimize limited fiscal and military resources to confront Russia.
The traditional mindset leads one to believe that when you need a tank, you need a tank. The prowess of American armor, especially when married with US airpower, is undeniable. It crushed Saddam Hussein’s attempt to seize Kuwait in 1991, and it once again delivered a crushing blow in the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While selectively validating the innate US superiority complex, America’s adversaries nonetheless realized that exposing themselves to a 120 millimeter round fired from an Abrams tank is not in their best interest. The solution? War by other means. In Iraq, this meant insurgency a la Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Carlos Marighella, overlaid with a jihadist veneer. In Ukraine, this meant Russia employing “little green men” to capitalize on indigenous ethnic Russian grievances and seize Crimea through salami tactics designed to plausibly stay below the threshold of prompting Western intervention. The key ingredient? Avoid American conventional military superiority, and paralyze its political willpower to employ unconventional options to successfully confront it.
Article 5 requires a collective defense against an armed attack; it doesn’t oblige a response against hybrid warfare, nor does it stipulate how a defense in either case should be executed. Instead of pretending that the US will actually go to war with Russia over an invasion of the Baltics enabled by subterfuge and disinformation, why not set the conditions for indigenous movements to thwart Russian occupation and block its strategic objectives? If Russia wants to invade the Baltics, no conventional state military response in the region will stand a chance. Russia demonstrated this in Georgia in 2008. The beauty of irregular warfare is its ability to impose significant costs with minimal resource expenditure. Robert Taber drew the analogy of fleas attacking a dog through protracted conflict to erode the opponent’s political resolve. Great powers throughout history, including the US, have suffered this when confronting nominally weaker foes.
Raise the Costs: Some Insurgencies are Good for the United States
This approach would succeed by raising the costs of Russian invasion to an unacceptable level. Executed covertly, it entails building indigenous resistance infrastructure to be unleashed once Russia crosses the line, bogging the great bear down in a morass of insurgency designed to nullify its comparative conventional advantage. This has historical Cold War precedent in the region: AECOB/ZRLYNCH was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program that supported the anti-Soviet Latvian Resistance Movement as part of the broader strategy of enabling underground resistance movements in Eastern Europe.
Executed overtly, the development of resistance infrastructure would proceed analogously to the covert approach, but it would serve as a signal to deter Russian aggression, fully broadcasting the capabilities of the hornet nest that Russia would be wading into. Recent support to the Syrian rebellion has set a precedent for overt backing to resistance elements by US Special Operations Forces. However, the Syria debacle offers significant lessons that must be learned for the future, namely the importance of developing underground and auxiliary capacity in addition to armed guerrilla elements, a critical but often-ignored element of Unconventional Warfare doctrine, as well as the significance of deliberate measures to mitigate divergent actions resulting from the adverse selection of proxy forces.
A key consideration for policy-makers is the role of non-violent and violent resistance within such a Baltic defense plan. Lithuania's defense ministry recently issued a manual entitled "How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War" that specifically discusses the role of organizing civil disobedience to counter hybrid warfare. Non-violent resistance has historical precedent in the Baltics against the Soviet Union, and evidence supports its potential effectiveness against Russia today. Even the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor during World War II, issued guidance on how to sabotage occupying forces with civil resistance. However, the outcome of the Syrian uprising demonstrates that both non-violent and violent resistance must be planned for as part of a comprehensive strategy.
The Paradox of Strategic Irregular Warfare
Irregular warfare options often present a debilitating paradox for the US and other stable democracies. According to Colonel (Ret) Mark Mitchell, a former commander of 5th Special Forces Group, politicians are most resistant to implementing irregular warfare measures when they are most likely to be successful. When introduced prior to or very early in a conflict, minimal resource expenditures may have outsized positive effects on strategic outcomes; however, informational ambiguity and the twin dangers of escalation and unintended consequences create political hesitation that prevents implementation of the necessary actions at the earliest stages. By the time policy-makers realize that the situation has degenerated into a real problem impacting US national interests (think Syria today) and decide to act, the opportunity to implement a decisive or even an efficacious low-visibility/low-cost solution has long since passed. Such solutions can still be implemented but are highly unlikely to deliver the desired results.
Some may point to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as an example of an effective irregular warfare solution executed without a long lead. Such an assessment ignores the effects of US relationships with the Afghan resistance groups as a result of the efforts to impose costs on the Soviets in the 80s. Absent those relationships, built and sustained over the better part of two decades and exploited by the “horse soldiers” like Colonel Mitchell, the US would not have been able to rapidly implement an irregular warfare effort in 2001.
In 1948, George F. Kennan recognized the need to employ “political warfare” against the Soviet Union, integrating all national means, both covert and overt, to achieve national security objectives “in the absence of declared war or overt force-on-force hostilities.” This requirement remains the same today. Eliminating sanctuaries of impunity, whether they be within the political space of the “gray zone” being manipulated by Russia, or physical territory utilized by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to launch attacks on the US homeland, requires the US to employ unconventional measures to compete and win.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Special thanks to Ambassador Michael Sheehan, former Ambassador-at-Large for Counter Terrorism and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, and Colonel (Ret) Mark Mitchell, former commander of 5th Special Forces Group, for their contributions to this article.