The United States should take a greater leadership role in building networks of resistance in Ukraine and elsewhere. Accordingly, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) must follow the lead of the United States in 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 an open door” right now. According to some accounts, an insurgency in Ukraine is quietly underway. This means that the Ukrainian government is preparing the ground for covert and guerrilla operations against any long-term Russian occupiers or Putin proxies.
Supporting a resistance movement shouldn’t be a difficult proposition for NATO or the Biden administration — the alternatives are far worse. After all, the Biden administration has explicitly left the door open to unconventional warfare in its Interim National Security Guidance (INSG). So I remain hopeful that the United States can see to enable the dark work of the “fifth column” – because our mission in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region is just beginning.
On the conflict spectrum, supporting an insurgency is a low-intensity alternative to Russia’s use of its nuclear weapons in a high-intensity conflict. This approach is by no means without risk. But the dangers of Ukraine not having Western support for its resistance efforts will only make other European nations more vulnerable. Think of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as analogous to a reconnaissance in massively lethal force, probing and testing US and Western resolve for the next phase of Putin’s revisionist plans.
Demystifying unconventional warfare is relatively simple. Unconventional warfare is defined as “activities enabling a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by and with clandestine, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a prohibited area” . Unconventional warfare is the “bread and butter” of US special forces – the Green Berets – and during the Cold War it was factored into NATO’s planning for a general war in Europe against the Soviets. It is important to note that unconventional warfare had notable success in Afghanistan in overthrowing the Taliban government in the first months after the 9/11 attacks.
The goal of unconventional warfare in Ukraine would be to work with President Zelensky’s government to exploit Russian vulnerabilities by organizing and supporting indigenous Ukrainian resistance forces. None of this requires U.S. intervention on the ground in Ukraine: unconventional warfare is a “classically indirect” local affair, meaning it would essentially be a local Ukrainian approach to fighting Russians.
I served as an intelligence officer in the 10th Special Forces Group in the early 1990s, so what’s happening in Ukraine is eerily familiar. There I was mentored, coached and trained by Special Forces practitioners. We practiced, trained and studied unconventional warfare and the Soviet threat. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that an inane version of the playbook from the former Soviet Union is happening in Ukraine today. Roads are clogged with fleeing refugees, civilians are targeted, Russian convoys get bogged down and artillery causes deadly effects. In addition, a humanitarian crisis is looming. But special forces aren’t on the ground in Ukraine, NATO isn’t fighting, and intelligence is being used publicly in ways we couldn’t have foreseen during the Cold War. We just played war games and practiced what a conflict in Europe might look like during the Cold War. Now, with no US combat troops deployed in Ukraine, we see a 2022 version of these scenarios playing out in NATO’s backyard.
In time, Putin’s clumsy conventional invasion and misguided adventurism in Ukraine will escalate into a messy counterinsurgency and a fight with the Ukrainian people. Simply put, the Russians will be dragged into a costly campaign they did not foresee. What is more imperative at this time is to prepare to support Ukraine’s resistance activities – delivering the weapons and supplies that President Zelensky needs – without starting a conflagration.
NATO must come full circle from its Cold War roots. In 1990, during an Italian parliamentary inquiry, the Italian Prime Minister publicly confirmed rumors of the existence of “Stay-Behind” networks in place in the event of an invasion by Warsaw Pact forces. The repercussions of these Cold War revelations have been widely reported. Many European governments have timidly admitted that similar networks have also been set up in their own countries.
Western European governments were so fearful of foreign invasion and occupation that they established and maintained “remainer” networks throughout the Cold War, well into the 1990s. In 2014 , these concerns no longer seemed academic or far-fetched. Russian adventurism in Georgia in 2008, the Russian occupation of Crimea in March 2014 and now Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine are proof of reckless Russian expansionism. Thus, it would seem that the past lessons of Cold War underground networks are very relevant today.
President Richard Nixon once said that there was a “hidden timer” that ran when a president sent troops into a theater of war. Admittedly, that metaphorical clock was indeed ticking when General Creighton Abrams announced that he was going to take risks in Vietnam in terms of “really getting started with the guerrillas, the local partners, all that stuff.” This “stuff” was the clandestine and obscure “other war” that Abrams effectively merged with more conventional combat in 1968. In the end, the “timer” that Nixon spoke of proved decisive. The Americans have lost patience in their foreign war and the “other war” has come too late.
As the memories of Vietnam fade, there is still time for the United States to push for “the other war” in Ukraine and elsewhere, bearing in mind that the hidden timer is still ticking.
Christopher P Ratingexecutive director of the International Spy Museum and a former career intelligence officer, served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.