Saturday, November 22, 2014

Strategy (3): Special War

What have minor conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Novorossiya, Chechnya, the Baltics, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and Hungary have in common? All are examples of Russia involved in what is known as 'Special War'. So what is it? 


April 15, 2014 - BBC report earlier this year from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine where men in unmarked uniforms take control of Government buildings. It's unclear who they are: rebels, agitators or hostile state actors. 

The conflict in Ukraine is a good example of what is known as Special Warfare -- an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Also diplomacy, misinformation and disinformation play an important role in Special War. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims.

An excellent example of good misinformation is this (source): the facts are true, Putin was where the article says he was. The event also happened in real life. In that regard this news item is entirely credible: it's just that it never happened. The story is entirely made up. 

The recent conflict in Ukraine is a good example of Special War. Here are two recent examples of how information plays a role, in what must be seen as something much broader than simply propaganda, waged for the benefit of civilians.

Ukrainian television broke the news this week of a cloak and dagger story involving an attack by Russian FSB agents on the Dutch Government delegation tasked with repatriating the remains of the casualties of downed passenger flight MH17. (Source) It may explain a lot of this

Another example might be the Potemkin mass graves constructed out of pictures from the Chechen War and images of the victims of the crashed flight MH17.  (Source) Here's another, just from today:


John R. Schindler, a strategist, author, and commentator (about) with years of experience in intelligence and counterintelligence work in the NSA, the Naval War College and the Department of Defense, explains Special War thusly.

The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching. Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. (...)

What is needed instead [instead of high intensity operations] is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war.” (...) There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than the US, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris.

Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations - but the Israeli model has its limits.

In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.

Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments.

Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.

Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimidates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely.

The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures - a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.

Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting.

The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. 

In recent months we’ve had a public demonstration of the Kremlin’s acumen in Special War, above all with the near-bloodless seizure of Crimea by Moscow’s “little green men,” while lately Ukraine has been subjected to the full covert arsenal of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU: spying, subversion, agitprop, and terrorism, much of it executed through cut-outs and proxies. (...)

It’s important to note that the Kremlin’s Special War is waged against the West in toto, not just Ukraine. For Putin to achieve his easily decipherable strategic aims — dividing NATO and bringing the European Union to heel while keeping the United States on the margins, thereby assuring Moscow’s free hand in Eastern Europe and restoring Russian greatness — he must demoralize and divide those in Europe who seek to challenge rebounding Russian influence in Europe and hegemony in the East.

This is where the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence agencies, what they call the “special services,” come into play. As I’ve discussed previously, Russian espionage against the West is at an all-time high, equal to if not exceeding Cold War levels. In many Western countries, GRU and its civilian counterpart, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), have at least as many intelligence officers posted as the Soviets ever did.

States that are members of NATO and the EU are of particular interest to Moscow as it seeks to divide alliances and conquer without fighting. No European country better illustrates how Russia wages Special War than Hungary, which is a member of both NATO and the EU. Russian intelligence is highly active in Hungary (...)

Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.