Ukraine hangs at a precarious moment, twisting in an uncertain wind. Russian troops are still massed along the eastern border, and President Vladimir Putin seems intent on keeping his options open: Will he choose invasion, destabilisation or negotiation?
The most likely path forward seems to be a Russian attempt to destabilise Ukraine through a covert campaign. The United States and its Nato allies should lean in to help the Kiev regime prepare to conduct counterinsurgency operations, given what appears to be obvious Russian support to violent separatists.
Step one should be assessing the potential for an effective insurgency and understanding the historical and cultural pressures that create it. The good news about the Russian annexation of Crimea is that it effectively reduces the remaining Russian ethnic population in the rest of Ukraine. While exact numbers are hard to define precisely, most observers believe the remaining pro-Russian ethnic population is around 15 percent: hardly a critical mass, let alone an oppressed majority. The bad news about the annexation – in addition to losing a significant chunk of territory and the Ukrainian Navy – is that
Counterinsurgency 101 has a few basic ingredients, and many Western nations have recent first-hand experience in this complex activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, the new regime in Kiev will need sound advice, political support, economic assistance, security equipment, logistical support, and intelligence analysis. Here are the seven specific lessons for Ukraine’s Counterinsurgency 101:
1. Undercut the insurgency by all political and economic means.
In practical terms, this means a powerful campaign of strategic communications that makes the case – a strong one – that a unified, cohesive Ukraine is a home to all Ukrainians, whatever first language they speak and from wherever their ancestors hailed. A sincere and inclusive message will win over some number of ethnic Russians (but fistfights in parliament don’t help). A significant part of the message is that Ukraine’s best future lies not in policies that are pro-Russian or pro-Nato, but pro-Ukrainian – meaning the freedom to evaluate where the best opportunities for the nation lie. This can be a powerful force in undermining an insurgency’s message of hate, separatism, and total alignment under Russian domination.
2. Provide an economic future that makes sense.
The West must offer healthy economic inducements in the form of International Monetary Fund grants, EU assistance, and US funding – all of which appears to be on track and in the pipeline. Much of counterinsurgency is in providing alternatives to the “employment options” offered by insurgent leaders; fortunately, most young people would rather have a job or an education than be out planting car bombs. Providing funding to allow Kiev to offer those kind of job inducements is key.
3. Protect the population of Ukraine from the effects of the insurgents.
This means strong military and police presence where necessary, controlling violence in demonstrations (which must be allowed in a democratic nation), using sensible strategies to keep government services flowing, retaking government buildings with a minimum of force, and continuing to deliver government services – from marriage licenses to courts of justice – in order to undercut counterinsurgent strategy.
4. Get control of the borders.
This is a lesson painfully learned in Afghanistan and Vietnam, but crucial to a successful counterinsurgency strategy. This will be challenging, given Russian resources and geographic position – especially now that they have annexed Crimea. This is where Western military support in intelligence, surveillance, information sharing, logistics, basic equipment (such as night-vision devices and communications gear), and advice and training could be very valuable without escalating the situation.
5. Defend and protect from cyber attacks.
In this emerging 21st-century of conflict, a fifth element of must be understanding the plans and strategy of the opposition in this medium, and working to counter it. There is a role for traditional information sharing using signals intelligence, overhead sensors, and technical assistance here, but the fundamental activity is occurring in the cyber-world. Ukraine is under constant cyber attack from Russia and needs help and protection in order to operate effectively in countering a violent opposition.
6. Legitimise the new government in Kiev.
Popular elections, due to be held in early May, are crucial to countering the insurgent narrative of an “illegal putsch” that has taken the capital by force. Thus far, the elections are on track and demographics favour a strongly pro-Kiev vote.
7. Provide military capability to counter insurgents.
Russia has and will continue to supply intelligence, weapons and ammunition, and probably troops (in the form of Spetznaz) to guide their insurgency to destabilise and delegitimise Kiev. This pressure will only ramp up after the upcoming elections. The West should consider military-to-military assistance (short of boots on the ground), including intelligence, information, advice and mentorship, defensive weapons systems, tactical signals intelligence capability, small arms, light sensors, canine assistance, and other classic counterinsurgency tools for the Ukrainian military. This could be done easily through Nato channels given the alliance’s excellent military-to-military partnership with Ukraine.
Fighting insurgencies is hard work, as we have learned all too clearly in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But we have learned lessons that can and should be applied in these early days. Hopefully, Russia will choose neither an invasion, nor an active role in supporting an insurgency. And there is still hope for negotiations and a course of action that leaves the future in the hands of the people of Ukraine, not those pulling levers in Moscow.
But if Ukraine faces a Russian-sponsored insurgency, we have tools that can be applied. And we should be ready.
James Stavridis is a retired four-star US Navy admiral who teaches at the Tufts University School of Law and Diplomacy.