Relative Weakness: The Secret to Understanding Irregular Warfare
By Dr. Douglas A. Borer and Dr. Shannon C. Houck
Irregular warfare is an approach to peer-to-peer competition that Congressional legislators and civilian policymakers must better understand. Irregular warfare is how the Taliban drove the Western Alliance out of Afghanistan, and it is how Ukraine is presently checking Russia’s invasion of its territory. As these cases show, in the year 2022, the weak have won (and can win) wars. Knowing how to fight from a position of relative weakness is the true secret to understanding irregular warfare.
One essential requirement is confessional. The United States is often weak, but it is usually unwilling to recognize, let alone admit, its common weaknesses. For instance, in Afghanistan (and subsequently in Iraq), the US went to war with a belief that inside every Afghan was an American waiting to jump out. All we had to do is show up, remove their bad leaders, show them how liberal democracy works, provide economic and technical aid, and they would all commit themselves to giving up the old ways of sorting things out and resolve conflict through peaceful means (Note: a commitment to peaceful conflict resolution is the primary requirement for a working democracy). It didn’t happen. Bottom line: Naïve western egocentrism contributed to war loss in Afghanistan, and nearly did so in Iraq. We need to stop thinking this way or we will lose more wars than we win.
Fortunately for Ukraine and its friends, Vladimir Putin showed the same wrong-headed egocentrism when he decided to invade. Putin believed inside every Ukrainian was a Russian waiting to jump out. This may have been true with some Ukrainians after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but after 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainians literally dug-in in the Donbas and started fighting the Russians. American military advisors, mostly Green Berets from the 10th SF Group, were authorized to conduct Foreign Internal Defense (FID). FID included training Ukrainian units in the science and art of guerrilla warfare, which is the oldest form of irregular warfare. At its essence, guerrilla war boils down to a weak actor gaining a temporary force advantage in tactical situations in which they can “get in, destroy the enemy, seize some useful gear, and get out” before the opponent can bring sufficient counterforce to bear. This is accomplished in part because of “home-field advantage,” meaning the Ukrainians know the terrain (both rural and urban) better than the Russians. FID also included many NATO allies providing advanced lethal aid and training to the Ukrainians (Turkish drones, British and American anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and the like). As such, before the invasion, even though on paper the Ukraine appeared much weaker than the Russians, in truth it fielded a more capable fight force than Putin ever imagined.
Adding to the miscalculation, Putin and his regime overestimated the readiness of their own forces, which are performing like amateurs in the field. What is the primary source of this military ineptitude? The answer stares the Russian elite in the mirror each morning. Putin is corrupt, the oligarchs are corrupt, and so is nearly everyone in the state system, including the officer corps. If you are not on the take, you are unreliable and useless to those who are. You can’t become a Russian General Officer without being corrupt. This happens because militaries prepare for war by repeatedly training with weapons and equipment and by conducting military exercises to practice what they might experience in wartime. Endemic corruption eats away at these critical activities, usually in the theft of expendables: fuel, food, spare parts, and even ammunition. On paper Russian Army units are well-trained and equipped. Their readiness reports are fraudulent. You can’t train up to standard if half the fuel for your vehicles has been redirected into the pockets of corrupt commanders. Spare parts are ordered and paid for, but never installed. Food and ammunition are sold on the black market. Old tires rot on the wheel as new tires are turned into bitcoin. The result is obvious: the Russians cannot conduct effective operations that require advanced combined arms maneuver warfare. About the only thing the Russian Army is marginally good at is lobbing artillery onto fixed targets at a distance. Unfortunately, they have a lot of long-range guns and plenty of ammo, despite the corruption.
Will Russia lose the war in Ukraine? Maybe. Its initial attack was based on the traditional strategic concept of “center-of-gravity.” Destroy the critical nodes: dismantle the enemy’s forces and take its capital city, and its ability to resist will collapse. This approach worked for the US in Iraq in 2003. But neither of those things happened in Ukraine because of Russians’ overconfidence bias: they overestimated their offensive prowess and vastly underestimated the Ukrainians’ staunch defense. The Kremlin has now shifted to a more limited goal of seizing territory in the East but doing so cannot succeed if the Ukrainians are willing to continue the fight and are assisted with the means of doing so by external supporters. Thus, this fight comes down to a mix of capability and will. Who has the advantage?
The long history of irregular warfare shows a final important element in cases where the weak win wars: superior leadership. Leaders are effective to the degree they are like their followers. No other world leader represents their people more than President Volodymyr Zelensky does for Ukrainians. His self-shot videos from the streets of Kyiv convey commitment and loyalty to the cause. Zelensky wears military-green t-shirts, he looks exhausted, all the while he and his family remain in harm’s way. He illustrates everything that it means to be Ukrainian right now. Zelensky’s message to his people is clear: he is fighting alongside them. Contrast this with how former President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani reacted when Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul. Ghani simply fled (allegedly with bags of cash). It is indeed an act of extraordinary leadership to remain alongside one’s people during the most vulnerable times. In the case of Zelensky, his brazenness has unified Ukrainians.
It certainly helps that Zelensky is charismatic, but let’s not forget that Putin is too. But unlike Putin, Zelensky has galvanized support from the international community. His speeches imploring NATO and world leaders for help convey emotion, history, humor, and are strategically tailored to each target audience. These efforts demonstrate an understanding of foundational principles of influence – a cornerstone of irregular warfare – and have contributed to widespread public support for Ukraine and invasion. Iconic landmarks project blue and yellow to show their solidarity for Ukraine, while a long list of companies and everyday citizens lend support monetarily, often in innovative ways. Meanwhile, Russian athletes have been banned from competition, businesses are cutting ties, and bars are pouring Russian vodka down the drains.
Psychology teaches us that few things unite people more than having a common goal, and perhaps more importantly, a common enemy. We should be careful not to underestimate the power of this factor in the current conflict. Social identification is essential for group cohesion and effective mobilization in stressful circumstances. This is demonstrated in experimental studies (i.e., see the Stanford Prison Experiment) and in real-world cases of resistance (i.e., Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Germany; summarized here). In this way, Ukraine may not actually be the underdog in this fight.
Where Ukraine holds the psychological advantage in a willing people eager to fight back, Russia commands its people to fight. Putin’s authoritarianism requires unwavering loyalty from a populace that must trust the state without questioning what it says or does. It punishes dissent. In Russia’s restricted information environment, liberal media outlets are silenced, and thousands of Russian protesters arrested. This kind of coerced compliance can achieve consensus in the short term but may ultimately backfire in the form of psychological reactance and mistrust (an effect researchers call information contamination). Moreover, urging conformity lends itself to groupthink and in turn non-optimal decision-making. The US encountered this hard lesson during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Russia may be learning it right now.
Looking ahead, the outcome of this war may come down to the decisions of a country born from the crucible of irregular warfare: the Peoples Republic of China. Since its founding in 1949, China has brutally repressed internal dissent, so its leaders see the world much as Putin does. However, unlike Russia, China has largely avoided embroiling itself in other people’s wars. It may be tempted to back Putin, but if China is honest, it may realize that Russia’s Achilles’ heel – corruption – permeates the readiness of its own military forces.