Guerrillas on the Bench: Operationalizing Resistance in Ukraine and Beyond
By Dr. Nicholas Krohley
The new great game is under way. The rules-based global order is unraveling, and America’s rivals are making moves. Russia has staggered wildly into Ukraine, undeterred by the West. China is flexing its economic muscles across the Global South, currying high-level influence among dictators and democrats alike—while steadily massing resources for a potential move on Taiwan.
Within this chaotic environment, the US special operations community has embraced “resistance” as its core value proposition. Whereas conventional forces are posturing to deter or defeat our adversaries using the latest technologies and weapons platforms, capabilities like Special Forces are to be employed in subtler ways, maneuvering across the competition continuum to cultivate and weaponize resistance movements worldwide. This vision, articulated most notably in NATO’s Resistance Operating Concept (known colloquially as “the ROC”), sits at the heart of contemporary American thinking on special operations.
How, then, do we explain the general irrelevance of the US special operations community’s resistance paradigm to the war in Ukraine? Notwithstanding the embarrassing innuendo of occasional press reports, the Ukrainians have charted their own distinct path to counter Russian aggression. The notion that American special operators are pulling the strings of the Ukrainian resistance (or that the Ukrainians are reading from a script that we have provided) is farcical to anyone with direct experience of the chaos and spontaneous ingenuity of the front lines. America’s experts in resistance are sitting on the sidelines, with little prospect of getting into the game.
The Ukraine case study should be enough to sound alarm bells regarding the prevailing resistance paradigm. But it gets worse. The ROC may well pay lip service to the importance of non-kinetic effects, the information environment, and civil resistance. But what tools exist in the current special operations toolkit to operationalize any of this?
The ROC offers nothing practical for those seeking to deliver non-kinetic effects. Indeed, the parallels to the Surge-era Counterinsurgency field manual are striking: both documents offer a compelling narrative of non-kinetic actions that ought to be carried out and non-kinetic effects that ought to be delivered—with precious little guidance on precisely how any of this is to actually happen.
In reality, US special operations forces deliver effects in keeping with the concrete skill sets that they possess. America’s Tier 1 capabilities, and the wider Special Forces community, remain overwhelmingly focused on kinetic action. They are at home on flat ranges and in shoot houses. Civil matters and non-kinetic effects are beyond (or, perhaps more accurately, beneath) their line of sight. The special operations component of Civil Affairs, meanwhile, has neither the skills nor the stomach (not to mention the permissions) to catalyze clandestine civil resistance activity in an environment like Kherson or Crimea. Finally, PSYOP is increasingly an e-capability, and is presently on an embarrassing time out.
How is anyone from within the US special operations community going to actually practice resistance—barring the limited set of prospective scenarios in which they might live out the “guerrillas in the mist” fantasy of leading partner forces in a kinetic irregular warfare campaign? Indeed, what is the risk/reward calculus for such activity in a war like the one presently taking place in Ukraine, where the presence of American combat forces on the front lines would mark a radical and reckless escalation?
Elsewhere, consider Chinese activity across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Through debt-trap diplomacy and corruption-enabled elite capture, the Chinese are achieving de facto occupation through non-kinetic means. What is America’s unconventional warfare strategy to enable resistance? What analytical methods and planning frameworks do we have on the shelf to tackle this challenge? In the event we were to develop such a strategy, who within the special operations community could implement it?
These are not rhetorical questions. The fact that there are no compelling answers—and the fact that these questions have not been front and center within the development of the resistance paradigm—exposes a fundamental problem within the enterprise.
How, for example, might we work with local partners to organize, equip, and enable segments of the populace within Cambodia or Colombia to resist Chinese encroachment? These would be wholly non-kinetic lines of effort, requiring a nuanced contextual understanding of grassroots civil dynamics and ever-shifting social, economic, and political factors—paired with the requisite tradecraft to operationalize that understanding, and a carefully considered stance vis-à-vis permissions and sovereignty. At present, the US special operations community has none of this. Nor is there any evidence of substantive interest therein.
The simple truth is that the US special operations community—and the US military as a whole—does not take civil matters seriously. This is evidenced by the lack of capabilities and resources that are brought to bear in this domain. This leaves the military with little to nothing to offer within the roughly 90% of the competition continuum that is not dominated by an enemy or adversary. This is untenable, particularly due to the fact that the US military is the dominant instrument of American foreign policy.
A reckoning is due within the resistance community. What, exactly, does resistance look like across the competition continuum? Not in theory, but in practice in specific contexts and countries. There are few answers to be found within the ROC. The evangelists of resistance must re-frame their value proposition in accordance with the realities of the competitive environment, with the understanding that every situation will present a distinct set of risks and opportunities. In this respect, one of the most critical missing pieces in the pivot from resistance in theory to resistance in practice is the glaring absence of an investigative framework to understand how contextual factors shape those risks and opportunities.
It is time for new thinking, and for the addition of new tools within the toolkit of resistance. Our foremost practitioners of resistance have been sidelined in the defining kinetic conflict of our time. At the exact same time, one woman on social media has done more to ferment resistance and destabilize the Islamic Republic of Iran than anything emanating from the entire US government. The special operations community must get over its contempt for all things “civil”, and get serious about the delivery of non-kinetic effects. Alternatively, they can get used to riding the bench.