The current unpleasantness in Ukraine demonstrates the continuing power of indirect strategies in the 21st century. The Russian government is actively fomenting subversion in Ukraine just as it did in Crimea and just as it did in Georgia in 2008. (The Department of Defense defines subversion as: “Actions designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological or political strength or morale of a governing authority.”) It is doing so without the use of conventional military power –other than the threat of such force as demonstrated by Russian “military exercises” on its borders. Rather, the use of agitation and propaganda (agitprop), the clandestine use of its special operations forces and intelligence personnel, and other techniques are allowing it to try to achieve its objectives without firing a shot – officially at least.
John R. Haines, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where I direct research and the Program on National Security, quoted in a recent E-Note the Russian journalist Yuliya Latynina as saying that in all of this Vladimir Putin has found a “new kind of warfare.” She argues that “The modern West condemns the use of force by a state, but excuses violence if it comes from ‘activists,’ ‘community organizations,’ or ‘the people.’ This gives infinite freedom to malicious intent.” According to her this “New Warfare” employs four tactics: (1) using noncombatants as human shields, (2) using the media to craft a public relations narrative, (3) “accus[ing] others of what you are doing yourself,” and (4) capturing the hearts and minds of “liberated” persons. Whether this is new or old wine in new bottles is irrelevant, it is currently effectively achieving Russian short-term objectives.
There seem to be two additional ways to assist Ukraine – aside from sanctions, etc. – send a clear message but do not rise to the level of openly provoking Russia. The first way is to share intelligence with Ukrainian officials and provide low visibility internal defense and development support – such as security forces training – to Kiev as below the radar assistance adjuncts to more publicly observable sanctions and diplomacy. (Internal Defense and Development is “The full range of measures taken by a nation to promote its growth and to protect itself from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security.”) As the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reports, Georgia has some advice for Ukraine in protecting itself from Russian subversion:
This would show solidarity with Kiev without risking a full-on confrontation with Russia.
The second way is to turn the tables on Moscow and covertly support dissident communities within its borders. Say the Tatars of Crimea. Or Dagestanis. Or Chechens. Or other peoples far away from the centers of Russian power. This would provide Russia with a taste of its own medicine and show it the danger in opening the Pandora’s Box of stoking ethnonationalism in places such as Ukraine and the Transnistria region of Moldova.
For example, there are currently a number of Chechen and Dagestani foreign fighters in Syria. What if some of these fighters in the outflow from that conflict were told that the U.S. has no bones to pick with them as long as they went home and continued the fight? To be sure this is not an ideal policy, and is fraught with potential blowback, but it might be a point of leverage against Moscow. It will also be a bit of payback for Moscow not providing a full detailing of information about the Boston Marathon bomber suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the years before that attack. It could be deniable assistance or lack of barriers to such groups or it could just be selective leaks of assistance that was not actually happening that could stoke paranoia in Moscow. Welcome back to the future.