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Surrogate warfare is the future of US operations in Ukraine and beyond

Car welder Ostap Datsenko, 31, places the Ukrainian Insurgent Army flag on items that will be sent to soldiers on the frontlines, at a welding workshop in Lviv, western Ukraine, Sunday, March 27, 2022. Ukraine’s military has put up a resistance to Russia’s invasion that has surprised some observers. One of its weapons is a parallel army of volunteers who are busy mobilizing funding and supplies ranging from body armor to cigarettes. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

A debate is brewing that centers on the U.S. implementing irregular warfare programs in Ukraine. Broadly speaking, there is a historic arc of irregular warfare experiences from ancient times through the Cold War, to the post-9/11 era that employs proxies and surrogates in struggles between great powers.

If true, it makes sense that U.S. special operations are employing surrogates in Ukraine for non-kinetic operations, by executing reconnaissance missions and countering Russian disinformation, as has been reported by The Washington Post. Moreover, there is a strong case to be made that irregular warfare should be institutionalized and brought into the appropriate military education center for establishing professional irregular warfare education. As has been suggested by stakeholders, this formalization is necessary to succeed against Russia and may require that Congress oversee Pentagon policymakers and U.S. special operations command to ensure greater integration for irregular warfare education, which is necessary for winning in this competition. 

Alongside these discussions, a quiet renaissance is ongoing — which proponents characterize figuratively as an “insurgency”  —  to intensify advocacy for irregular warfare as a  winning strategy. These irregular warfare strategies are the right operational design in terms of addressing the twin challenges of providing additional operational capacity without U.S. “boots on the ground,” and “other war”  irregular capabilities for the U.S. to indirectly contest Russia in Ukraine.  

Increasingly, surrogates are globalized and privatized for great power competition, particularly between the West and Russia. Consider how the globalized and weaponized Russian surrogate Wagner group, for example, is reportedly conducting combat operations in Ukraine, while simultaneously filling power vacuums in swaths of Africa where the United States’ influence is waning. Think also about how deadly attacks between U.S. forces and suspected Iranian proxies in Syria have reignited frictions between Washington and Tehran. War by proxies makes good sense to Iran.   

The following four points aim to strengthen the case for supporting U.S. surrogates and proxies in Ukraine.  

First of all, Russia is waging a disastrous war of choice in Ukraine. Putin’s misguided invasion of Ukraine opened the operational door for an appropriately scoped, U.S.-directed unconventional warfare capability; this means that the U.S. can employ indigenous surrogates, who can be overseen in close cooperation with Ukrainian special operations forces or their intelligence services. The goal is to identify exactly what Ukraine’s military needs are — crucially, its information gaps. Besides the obvious need for heavy tanks and aircraft, surrogates could be activated to address gaps by identifying the resistance potential of the indigenous population in Ukraine. 

Second, there are inherent risks of employing irregular forces against Russia, specifically, the unintended consequences of escalation. For instance, as a result of Ukrainian partisan external operations, the U.S. is vulnerable to Russian-spun disinformation. This is evident after what recently took place in the Russian border city of Bryansk, where Ukraine was accused of a “cross-border attack.” Or worse, Russia might score a propaganda victory by misattributing the U.S. as being responsible for an act of sabotage or terrorism. However, those risks can be offset by U.S. forces exercising tight control of surrogates, coupled with the U.S. continuing to declassify and publicly release intelligence that helps shape the information battlefield to counter Russian disinformation. 

Third, it is critical to recall that the stakes of proxies and surrogates were high during the Cold War, just as they are now. Both sides of the Iron Curtain, in a global contest for power, maintained well-armed conventional militaries and nuclear weapons for deterrence; however, the fighting was mostly done by proxies, in the shadows. In the post-9/11 era, it goes without saying that surrogates were indispensable in the counterterrorism fight. In either case, with implicit risks to surrogate operations, it is important to remember that the control and handling of surrogates is something that U.S. special operations forces do very well. So, if the media reporting on the intentions of U.S. surrogate operations is accurate, its design for Ukraine is not a fraught proposition.  

To face its enemies effectively, for 1,000 years the Byzantine Empire employed a clever strategy of diplomacy — comparable to U.S. unconventional statecraft — while also leveraging its sophisticated intelligence capabilities and a small but competent military, generally used as a final option to contest its enemies. The U.S. could do much worse than adopting elements of Byzantium’s Grand Strategy in Ukraine and beyond.  

Fourth, and last, Ukraine is a shooting war of Russian aggression within a broader great-power competition that’s playing out globally. In this conflict, U.S. lawmakers and Pentagon planners should strongly consider the lessons that can be derived from ancient Byzantium, the Cold War and counterterrorism operations that leveraged surrogates — and should consider funding future Pentagon surrogate initiatives.  

To put it succinctly, surrogates and unconventional warfare are “classically indirect”  and frequently localized approaches to fighting enemies. Enabling surrogates to respond to intelligence necessities is relatively straightforward and should be part of the overall strategic design for U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Surrogate work should be done in lockstep with Ukrainian special operations forces by exploiting Russian vulnerabilities, while tacitly acknowledging that Ukraine can oversee its own indigenous — and kinetic — resistance to Russia. 

Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, Walsh School of Foreign Service.  He is a former career intelligence officer and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Tags Cold War irregular warfare Politics of the United States proxy wars Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Wagner Group

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