In Ukraine, a Distinct but Not New Mode of Warfare

With the upheaval in Ukraine, an old and neglected field of Russianist scholarship has been dusted off. Russian area studies, and the study of the broader Russian imperial region, was once so prominent as an independent field of study as to warrant its own “ology.” Sovietology was unique

in that it had feet firmly planted both in academia and in the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence communities of the U.S. government. As Russianists have flourished in the blogosphere, it has been interesting to note who has maintained academic commitment to generalizable theory, who has changed tone to offer more nitty-gritty policy prescription, and who has struck a graceful (or not) balance between the two. At a time when the need to speak to the world outside academia, and what means are proper for doing so, are subjects under active discussion, it is important to keep track of what it actually looks like when a section of professionals usually confined to academia suddenly find that everyone is listening. The Ukraine case offers a useful opportunity to track the variation in methodological approaches that academic bloggers have taken on this topic.


Here, I want to locate the Ukraine conflict as one case of a broader concept of sub-national warfare waged for inter-national objectives. This is a unique category of warfare, with a logic that is distinct from that of both traditional inter-state war and from civil war or insurgency.

This conflict involves two countries, in a dispute over territory, that have acted as main or secondary characters in European diplomatic history. If any international conflict looks like a traditional state-centric realist story, this should be it. And in fact, some scholars have announced the return of realism – in March at an ISA panel on the legacy of Waltz, John Mearsheimer proclaimed that Ukraine shows how realism is “like a bad penny” – it just keeps showing up (interesting sidenote: how might this conflict have looked different if we had followed Mearsheimer’s advice in 1993 and left Ukraine with a nuclear deterrent?).

Yet when the actual tactics of the case brought into consideration, this looks to be very different from a story about billiard-balls knocking into one another. First, the “attacker” has made deliberate efforts not to be seen“attacking.” The Russian military personnel that first showed up at the Crimean airports, and then made appearances organizing the rebel militias at Donetsk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, were notable for their lack of insignia – locals simply called them “green men.” This tactical-level anonymity was coupled with a diplomatic-level consistent denial from Russia of any involvement; Putin only admitted Russian involvement in Crimea a full month after the referendum for secession. Another tactic adopted has been the organized transportation of pro-Russia protesters, sometimes from Russia itself – a tactic already used domestically, when Putin supporters from the countryside were bussed into Moscow to counter the 2011-12 anti-regime protests in Russia itself. In general, Russian military involvement in Ukraine has occurred in this strange in-between place: everyone knows that it’s happened, but nobody can actually prove that it’s happened.

Widely circulated photographs purported to link the 'green men' in Ukraine with Russian military experts in Georgia Source: France 24

Widely circulated photographs purported to link the ‘green men’ in Ukraine with Russian military experts in Georgia
Source: France 24

In the vocabulary of IR theory, we cannot determine whether Russia is using what Tom Schelling termed ‘coercion’ versus ‘brute force.’ There is some coercion going on: diplomatic declarations to protect the lives of co-ethnics, the invocation of Crimea as a precedent, the amassing of military troops near the Ukrainian border, and the performance of military exercises along that border can all be read as signals communicating what Russia wants Ukraine to do and not to do. Mainstream IR theory tends to assume that states behave in this way – to establish credibility, whether in commitments or in threats, that they have the “power to hurt.” But in Ukraine, there is also brute force: the green men. If the Russian military personnel had worn insignia in Crimea, and if Russia’s diplomatic statements had matched her military actions on the ground, then Russian action Donetsk and Luhansk should – in theory – have been that much more effective as coercion. It would have been a credible signal. Yet Russia deliberately chose denial and anonymity. In a world of IR theory based on credibility and coercion, anonymity has no place (it’s puzzling).

In one of their first pieces explicitly linking the “green men” with the Russian military (the explicit link was since walked back), the NYT gestured at the idea that these tactics represent an analytically distinct ‘type’ of warfare, citing the term “special war.” Crudely conceptualized by former NSA counterintelligence officer John Schindler, special war is “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense,” and is used when a state is “unable or unwilling to fight major wars.” Put simply, it is international war conducted with sub-national means.

This is a big, dirty conceptual bucket; to specify inter-sub-national warfare a bit more rigorously (I don’t like ‘special war.’ Every concept is special – that’s what makes it that concept and not some other concept), it is useful to begin with comparable cases. The key features of the concept, if we base them on the Ukraine case, seem to be:

  1. Aggression from a subnational group with unknown, perceived, loose, or only informal connection with the “aggressor” state
  2. Formal denial of association with the subnational group, by the aggressor state
  3. Covert assistance to the subnational group, from the aggressor state
  4. Eventual annexation of or secession by the subnational group, or some similar outcome strategically advantageous to the aggressor state

While it is tempting to declare this concept the future of warfare (see: asymmetric war, international terrorism), in fact this type of warfare is nothing new. However, I contend that it is nevertheless distinguishable in its causes, logic, and consequences so as to warrant its own conceptual category that is distinct from both insurgency and inter-state war. A handful of historical cases serve as an initial demonstration of both the analytic distinctiveness and historical non-novelty of this type of warfare:

  • South Ossetia: Before the Russian military invaded the then-Georgian territory of South Ossetia in 2008, Russian passports were handed out to Georgian citizens in that area of Russian or Ossetian descent. This practice worked in tandem with Russian legal responsibilities to Russian passport-holders, and was viewed by some observers as a tactic for institutionalizing Russian authority in South Ossetia prior to actual Russian invasion and annexation. It was a preparation of the sub-national ground, and a precedent for the Russian tactics in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhask.
  • Panama and Hawaii: The history of U.S. covert operations bears significant resemblance to the cases of Russian involvement in South Ossetia and Ukraine. U.S. covert operations have involved tactics at the sub-national level for international gains like vote-rigging (Vietnam, 1966), coordination of military coups (Chile, 1973; Guatemala, 1954), fomenting of mass protest (Iran, 1953), or sponsorship of rebel movements (Nicaragua, 1981-90; Afghanistan 1979-89). The cases of Panama and Hawaii bear most direct resemblance to the Ukraine case, because each demonstrated a (1) clear pro-American subnational group, (2) formal non-involvement by the U.S., (3) covert assistance from the U.S., and (4) eventual outcomes strategically advantageous to U.S. interests.

Panama case: Panama was a province of Columbia from independence in 1821 to the secession of Panama and its establishment as a sovereign state in 1903. The issue of Panamanian separatism was tied up in a broader Liberal-Conservative struggle across Columbia that manifested as periodic outbreaks of armed struggle, the last of which occurred from 1899-1902 and was termed the Thousand Days War. Nicaragua was the U.S.’s first choice for a trans-American canal. When the U.S. failed to reach a deal with the Nicaraguan government, and then again with the Columbian government, the U.S. began to provide covert assistance to the Panamanian rebel cause. The treaty recognizing Panamanian independence contained language effectively guaranteeing U.S. rights in the canal zone – effective sovereignty – until the agreement was re-negotiated in 1977.

The 13-Member Committee of Public Safety, who sought the overthrow of Native Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani and annexation by the U.S.

The 13-Member Committee of Public Safety, who sought the overthrow of Native Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani and annexation by the U.S.

Hawaii case: Hawaii had been ruled by a succession of hereditary monarchies through much of the 19th century, and in addition to the native population was home to significant minorities of Asian immigrants and white American Protestant missionaries and settlers. The last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown by rebels: a 13-member group of American businessmen, planters, and missionaries called the Citizen’s Committee of Public Safety. The Committee sought annexation of the Hawaiian islands by the United States; in 1893 they disarmed the Royal Guard, incarcerated Queen Lili’uokalani, and declared a Provisional Government. Although there was no strategic cooperation with the U.S. military, the rebels were able to elicit the United States to station a company of marines from the U.S.S. Boston under the pretext of protecting the safety and property of U.S. residents on the islands. The coercive threat posed by the presence of U.S. military intervention effectively handcuffed the Hawaiian Queen from re-establishing government (this detail is particularly striking in its similarity to the Ukraine case, where Russian military presence across the border has handcuffed Ukrainian capacity to affect its rebels). The islands were annexed by the United States in 1898.

In his New York Times op-ed, John Mearsheimer connected the Monroe Doctrine (a motivating strategy behind these U.S. cases) with the overarching view that, he claims, defines Russian interests in the post-Soviet sphere. The history of U.S. covert operations has also generated a perception (in some cases true and in some false), similar to the case of Russia in the post-Soviet territories, that everybody knows that the U.S. is involved, but nobody can prove it – a perception that has grown into popular suspicion in some countries like Iran and Pakistan.  For further details on the history of U.S. foreign interventions, Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace and Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow! are authoritative sources.

  • Bangladesh: The 1971 East Pakistani rebellion against the West Pakistan government was led militarily by the Bengali resistance forces known as the Mukti Bahini. The rebellion had almost completed its 9-month duration before India formally entered the conflict on December 3rd.  Yet for the entirety of those 9 months, India provided economic, military, and diplomatic support to the rebels, and participated actively in the training of Mukti Bahini personnel and in the direction of overall Mukti Bahini military strategy.

Each of these cases features warfare conducted at the tactical level of analysis via covert, sub-national means, but towards objectives at the strategic level of analysis that were overt and in step with conventional IR theory. They demonstrate that, while the predominant features of the Ukraine case are remarkable and seemingly novel, they are actually part of a broader historical pattern that may be analytically distinct as to warrant its own conceptual category.

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One thought on “In Ukraine, a Distinct but Not New Mode of Warfare

  1. I really liked this post, thanks for keeping the conceptual issues at the forefront. Just a couple comments: I think it’s important to distinguish this category of “sub-national warfare waged for inter-national objectives” from proxy wars. It may be obvious, but I think it needs to be stated more bluntly because the two concepts seem similar on the face. In the case of Ukraine, we have essentially a “defender” which is facing attacks inside its own country. The “attacker” is a third-party state with interests in the defender country, and does what it can to covertly wage war against the defender under the guise of a rebel movement. Very different from a proxy war, in which two opposing countries use allied subnational groups in a third country to fight for their respective interests, usually providing material and strategic support.

    Also, do the bulk of CIA-orchestrated coups count as “inter-sub-national warfare?” (I’ll never like this term, too clunky). It’s the last criterion that they don’t meet, that of annexation, secession, or “some similar outcome strategically advantageous to the aggressor state.” I think the inclusion of this requirement makes the category too restrictive, and that if you do think it’s a necessary criterion for this very distinct category, it needs to be more specific or articulate. It seems to be able to include almost any outcome that entails a greater link between the subnational group and the aggressor state, which can mean almost anything. But even just the weakening or overthrow of the “defender” government could be a highly advantageous outcome for the defender state. You’re certainly right to point out that this type of warfare isn’t new. But I’d really like some justification of the requirement for annexation or secession (would overthrow also count?). Is there a similar-yet-distinct category that includes the first three criteria but not the third?

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