How to keep Russia from winning in Ukraine: Get sneaky

Russian tanks blitzkrieging through the Ukraine. Airplanes shot out of the sky. Soldiers killed in combat. Missiles pound Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people. Civilians leaving their homes in the middle of winter, seeking refugee camps that do not exist. 

The world stands in cognitive dissonance as it witnesses the first military invasion of a European country since the Nazis’ conquest for Lebensraum

What’s going to happen next? What should we do? What can we do? Plenty. 

First, we need to upgrade our strategic IQ. 

The West views war like pregnancy: Either you are or are not. War is the failure of peace, and diplomacy is its arbitrator. This vision is enshrined in the laws of armed conflict, the writings of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, and the conventional warfare paradigm (think: World Wars I- and II-style fighting). However, clever people know that it’s not war or peace; it’s war and peace. Both coexist, always. Cunning adversaries such as Russia and China leverage the space between war and peace for devastating effect. They use weapons like cyberattacks, lawfare and malign disinformation to wage war but disguise it as peace to our rigid minds. As a result, we take the hit but do not punch back. It’s like strategic Jujutsu, a martial art that uses the enemy’s weight against them, except that our adversaries use our war/peace paradigm against us. 

Curiously, we used to think about the nuance of war and peace during the Cold War but since have forgotten it. On the surface, the U.S. and the USSR maintained a cool veneer of peace while kicking each other under the table; we engaged in proxy wars, secret wars, blackmail and every other dirty trick you can imagine. Now we are confounded by simple questions like, “Is a cyberattack an act of war?” Questions like this make the conventional warrior’s head explode. Rather than confront the obvious, we bury our cognitive dissonance in buzz-phrases like “gray zone” warfare and the oxymoronic “wars beneath the threshold of war.” We urgently need to upgrade our thinking about war and peace. 

Second, it’s time to get sneaky. 

Once we realize that war and peace coexist, our strategic options multiply. Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War” that all war is deception, something our adversaries know well. Russia is a disinformation superpower and China is not far behind, with its Three Warfares Strategy. It’s time for the U.S. to give back.

Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, we do not need to lie; Russian state-TV describes Ukraine as a neo-Nazi junta that commits genocide and is being liberated by Russian peacekeepers. The truth is always more powerful than deceit, so let’s provide “Pirate VPNs” so that oppressed people everywhere can google whatever they want. Riffing on Winston Churchill during WWII: Let’s give them the tools and they will finish the job. Let them decide for themselves, and if they desire a more honest government, perhaps we can help.

Similarly, let’s support a Ukrainian insurgency, should a viable one emerge, and make life tough for the Russian occupiers. Only conventional warriors think war is over after the last tank-round is fired, but as Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” The U.S. has the primo tool for the job — Army Special Forces, or “Green Berets” — created early in the Cold War to infiltrate communist countries, covertly raise insurgencies, and topple Russian-backed governments. In military parlance, it is called “White SOF” (Special Operations Forces) because it requires living and working alongside insurgent groups for long periods of time and without much support from the U.S. military. This is a different skill set than “Black SOF” — jumping out of black helicopters at night to bag bad guys like Osama bin Laden. (Green Berets do that, too.)

However, there’s a hitch. If our troops get caught or killed on Ukrainian soil by Russians, it ends badly; Putin would have a propaganda WMD, much like a Gary Powers show trial. Or, worst-case scenario, Russian and American troops start shooting each other and it somehow ends in nuclear Armageddon, as President Biden fears. This is not hyperbole. The only law that matters in war is the one of unintended consequences. 

To avoid World War III, Special Forces should be based in neighboring NATO allies such as Poland or Romania; Ukrainian guerrilla units could covertly cross the border and rotate through the Green Beret base for recuperation, training and equipping. Stinger missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles and improvised bombs would stymie the Russian occupation, and are easy to hide. At first, the objective of the guerrillas would be survival and recruitment but, as the insurgency grows, they could establish separatist enclaves in western Ukraine and keep pushing eastward. Over time, Moscow might decide that holding on to Ukraine is not worth the cost and voluntarily leave the place or cut a deal. 

If the insurgents cannot push out the Russians, they still can make their lives so miserable that the occupiers become inert, as happened to the Russian army during the Soviet-Afghanistan War. It’s Mao Zedong’s “Protracted War” strategy and it works against a stronger military if certain preconditions are met, something U.S. power can help shape.

Warfare is getting sneakier, and we need to get sneaky with it, as our adversaries have already done. If Putin wants to make Russia a pariah state, let’s help him by covertly engineering “color revolutions” across the Russian empire, propping up neighboring countries with a long history of enmity against Russia, and ridiculing Putin’s fragile ego on the world stage. (The man rides half-naked on a bear, after all — can’t we do something with that?) There’s more, too: cyber, false flag operations, political warfare.

Some will blanch at the thought of the U.S. dabbling in the dark arts, but is it somehow better to lose honorably than to win dishonorably? History does not think so. Warfare has changed and so must we. We still operate under the “old rules” — conventional military firepower, economic sanctions, formal diplomacy and international law. But none of it deters Russia, China, Iran, or won in Iraq or Afghanistan. We need to embrace the “new rules” of war that stress cunning over brute strength.

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, professor at Georgetown University, and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Tags Joe Biden Laws of war Special Forces Vladimir Putin

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