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The US must help the resistance wage the ‘other war’ in Ukraine

AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

The United States should assume a greater leadership role in enabling resistance networks in Ukraine and elsewhere. Correspondingly, The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) must follow the U.S. lead for supporting a Ukrainian insurgency in concert with other European partners.  

The good news is that advocating for armed Ukrainian resistance against Russian invaders is ‘pushing at an open door’ right now. By some accounts, an insurgency in Ukraine is quietly underway. This means that the Ukrainian government is setting the stage for underground and guerrilla operations against any long-term Russian occupiers or Putin proxies.  

Supporting a resistance movement should not be a fraught proposition for NATO or for the Biden administration — the alternatives are much worse. After all, the Biden administration explicitly left the door open for unconventional warfare in its Interim National Security Guidance (INSG). So, I remain hopeful that the United States can see to enable shadowy ‘fifth column’ work — because our mission in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region is only just beginning.   

On the spectrum of conflict, supporting an insurgency is a low-intensity alternative to Russia using its nuclear weapons in a high-intensity conflict. By no means is this approach risk-free. But the dangers of Ukraine not having Western support to its resistance efforts will only make other European nations more vulnerable. Consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine analogous to a massively lethal reconnaissance-in-force, probing and testing U.S. and Western resolve for the next phase of Putin’s revisionist designs.  

Demystifying unconventional warfare is relatively straightforward. Unconventional warfare is defined as “activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.” Unconventional Warfare is the ‘bread and butter’ for U.S. special forces — Green Berets — and during the Cold War it was factored into NATO planning for general war in Europe against the Soviets. Importantly, unconventional warfare was famously successful in Afghanistan by overthrowing the Taliban government in the early months after the 9/11 attacks.

The unconventional warfare goal in Ukraine would be to work with President Zelensky’s government to exploit Russian vulnerabilities by organizing and sustaining indigenous Ukrainian resistance forces. None of this requires U.S. ‘boots on-the-ground’ in Ukraine: Unconventional warfare is a “classically indirect” local affair, meaning it would essentially be a homegrown Ukrainian approach to fighting Russians.

I served as an intelligence officer in the 10th Special Forces Group in the early 1990’s so what’s playing out in Ukraine is eerily familiar. There, I was mentored, coached, and schooled by special forces practitioners. We exercised, trained and studied unconventional warfare and the Soviet threat. It’s not a stretch to suggest that an inept version of the former Soviet Union playbook is happening in Ukraine today. Roads are clogged by fleeing refugees, civilians are being targeted, Russian convoys are bogged down and artillery is causing lethal effects. What’s more, a humanitarian crisis is looming. But special forces are not on-the-ground in Ukraine, NATO is not fighting and intelligence is being used publicly in ways we could not have foreseen during the Cold War. We only wargamed and exercised what a conflict in Europe might look like during the Cold War. Now, with no U.S. combat troops deployed in Ukraine, we’re seeing a 2022 version of those scenarios playing out in NATO’s backyard.    

In time, Putin’s clumsy conventional invasion and misguided adventurism in Ukraine will tailspin into a messy counterinsurgency and a fight with the Ukrainian people. Put simply, Russians will be sucked into a costly campaign that they didn’t plan for. What’s more imperative right now is preparing to support Ukraine’s resistance activities — delivering the weapons and supplies President Zelensky needs — without triggering a conflagration.   

NATO has to come full circle from its Cold War roots. In 1990, during an Italian parliamentary inquiry, the Italian Prime Minister publicly confirmed rumors about the existence of ‘Stay-Behind’ networks in place as a contingency for an invasion by Warsaw Pact forces. The repercussions of these Cold War revelations were widely reported. Many European governments tepidly admitted that similar networks had been set up in their own nations as well. 

West European governments were so fearful of foreign invasion and occupation that they established and maintained ‘stay-behind’ networks throughout the Cold War, all the way to the 1990s. By 2014 those concerns no longer seemed academic or far-fetched. Russian adventurism in Georgia in 2008, Russia’s occupation of Crimea in March 2014, and now Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is evidence of reckless Russian expansionism. So, it would seem that past lessons of clandestine networks from the Cold War are very relevant today. 

President Richard Nixon once commented that there is a “hidden timer” running when a president sends troops into a theater of war. To be sure, this metaphorical timer was indeed ticking when General Creighton Abrams announced that he was going to take some risks in Vietnam in terms of “really getting going with the guerillas, the local partners, all that stuff.” That “stuff” was the clandestine and shadowy ‘other war’ that Abrams effectively fused with a more conventional fight in 1968. In the end, the “timer” Nixon talked about proved to be decisive. Americans lost patience in its foreign war and the ‘other war’ came too late.

 As the memories of Vietnam fade, there is still time now for the United States to press for the ‘other war’ in Ukraine and elsewhere, bearing in mind that the hidden timer is still ticking. 

Christopher P. Costa, the executive director of the International Spy Museum and a former career intelligence officer, was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018. 

Tags In Russia In Ukraine Resistance movement Russian irredentism Russia–Ukraine relations Ukraine Unconventional warfare Volodymyr Zelenskyy

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