Watch Out, Ukraine, America Is Giving You Counterinsurgency Advice
Why should Kiev listen to a country that lost three wars?
Walk away, Ukraine. No, run away. One U.S. expert is advising you to use counterinsurgency tactics to put down pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
This advice comes from the nation that got beat by insurgents in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Retired U.S. Navy admiral James Stavridis, former commander of U.S. European and Southern Commands, penned a piece for Foreign Policy arguing that 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.”
Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, offers seven tips on how the Ukrainian government should wage a counterinsurgency campaign in eastern Ukraine, where armed separatists have declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and seized government buildings.
Ukraine has sent in troops in what Kiev calls an “anti-terrorist operation.”
Stavridis calls his advice “counterinsurgency 101,” and sure enough, it’s fairly basic stuff that would not have been unfamiliar to French commanders fighting Algerian rebels back in the 1950s.
Better employ public relations to convince eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian population that they are part of a unified Ukraine, Stavridis advises. Improve the region’s economy. Control the borders with Russia and deploy military and police forces to protect the population from insurgents.
Stavridis also suggests the West should provide counterinsurgency expertise and equipment, 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.”
On the surface, it’s hard to argue with these ideas. Improving the local economy and improving public relations are no-brainers. Controlling borders and being able to put down rebellion is what separates a successful state from a failed one.
But solving eastern Ukraine’s crisis through counterinsurgency? Not likely.
As the Americans discovered in Vietnam—and the Russians in Chechnya—counterinsurgency is a long-term process. It’s hard enough for major powers to wage COIN for years. What about a smaller nation like Ukraine, beset by political and economic instability?
COIN integrates political and economic tools, but at heart it’s a military concept. Is Ukraine’s badly-decayed military up to the job? A Ukrainian Su-25 attack jet is pictured.
Perhaps most important is what they say in real estate—location, location, location. As the U.S. learned fighting the Taliban and Viet Cong, it’s tough to wage counterinsurgency when the insurgents have both a secure base of operations and a sponsor next door. The Viet Cong had North Vietnam, the Taliban had Pakistan—and eastern Ukrainian separatists will have Russia.
Stavrides acknowledges that securing Ukraine’s borders will be “challenging, given Russian resources and geographic position—especially now that they have annexed Crimea.” However, he believes that Western military assistance might make this feasible.
Should that happen, would anyone be surprised if the separatists mysteriously “obtained” advanced weapons? Or that well-trained “insurgents”—whom Moscow will swear are not Russian special forces—will appear on the battlefield? Or maybe a Russian helicopter or aircraft will “accidentally” attack Ukrainian government troops?
America and Russia at least had the luxury of conducting COIN unmolested. The U.S. worried about Chinese intervention in Vietnam, but nevertheless enjoyed a great deal of flexibility. Ukraine would have to operate with one eye always on its colossal neighbor to the east.
It may be that Western political and economic pressure can induce Russia to abandon its support for Ukrainian separatists. Perhaps Kiev could then restore control.
But if the Ukrainian government takes the counterinsurgency approach, it will only be because Russia allows it.