Options for the West to Address Russia’s Unconventional Tactics

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.


Jesse Short was enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry and served in the Republic of Iraq between 2005 and 2008.  He currently works as a security contractor in the Middle East and recently finished his M.S. in Global Studies and International Relations from Northeastern University.  He can be found on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/jesse-s-4b10a312a. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  The Russian Federation’s limited forms of warfare against western states and associated influence in other regions challenges the world as it is conducted below the threshold of war.

Date Originally Written:  March 3, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  March 25, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a veteran of the infantry in both the United States Marine Corps and United States Army. The author believes in checking clear threats to western states with strong and decisive, but intelligent responses. This article is written from the point of view of western states under the threat of the ‘unconventional’ actions of the Russian Federation.  

Background:  Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has established its foreign policy in the last ten years on interrupting and negatively influencing the stability of other states. This foreign policy has largely gone unanswered by the international community and only serves to reinforce the use of these actions by Russian actors. Georgia was the first case and Ukraine is a much more dynamic second example of this policy[1]. These two policy tests have proven to Russia, and in some sense to other states like China, that limited forms and unconventional forms of coercion, intimidation, and violence will go unchecked so long as they do not go too far with these actions. The West’s lack of imagination and adherence to one-sided western rules and laws are its glaring weakness. This weakness is being exploited relentlessly with little meaningful response.   

Significance:  Since around the time of Russia’s incursion into the Republic of Georgia in 2008, Putin has been operating unchecked around the world. Putin’s actions have been disastrous for what is an already tumultuous world order. If continued, these actions will create more direct and indirect issues in the future and increase the threat to western stability. 

Option #1:  The West influences Russia within its border.

The equal and opposite response to Russian transgressions around the world would be to attempt to spread misinformation and potentially destabilize Russian society by targeting the citizenry’s trust in Putin and his government. The aim with this approach is to distract the Russian government and intelligence services to preoccupy them with trouble within their own borders as to limit their ability to function effectively outside of their state borders. 

Risk:  While this approach is opposite to what actions most western societies are willing to take, this option can also have severely negative consequences on a political level in domestic politics in the West. While Russia can take similar actions as a semi-authoritarian state with little repercussion, the proposed actions would be a bigger issue in western democracies which are at the mercy of public opinion[2]. Russian media also has greater pull and influence within its community than western media does in the West, so Russia can shape its truth accordingly. Another large issue is that the Russian people should not be made to suffer for the actions that are mostly to be blamed on what appears to be their poorly representative government. This option could serve to galvanize polarity between Russians and western citizens unjustly if discovered. Finally, it is unlikely that western intelligence services would be given the support or be able to maintain the secrecy required to conduct these actions effectively without it being made public and having even more severe consequences once those actions were exposed[3]. 

Gain:  A misinformation campaign or the exposure to hidden truths covered up by the Russian government may have a positive effect on Russians and their relationship with / control of their government. Exposing voters to what their government is doing around the world with state funds may influence that relationship in a more positive manner. Also, if things did work out according to plan, Russia may be forced to withdraw somewhat from its politically divisive ventures in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and perhaps Africa and Belarus.     

Option #2:  The West responds outside of Russia.

Western states could act more aggressively in checking Russian support of small political factions and insurgencies in specific regions. The issue of Russian occupation in the Republic of Georgia and Russian material and personnel support in eastern Ukraine are the best places to start. A greater commitment to supporting the incoming regime following Ukraine’s upcoming elections and the involvement of western states in more intensive training and operations with Ukrainian forces would be a welcomed adjustment of policy[4]. The West’s turning of the other cheek that has largely followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics send the wrong messages to the friends and enemies of western powers.

Risk:  The risks that are ever-present with a stronger approach to Russian interventionist tactics are mainly geared at avoiding a larger conflict. The reason behind Russia’s low-intensity application of force and influence is to scare the faint-hearted away[5]. It is working. No state wants a war. War with Russia would not end well for any party that is involved. While war is unlikely, it is still a possibility that needs to be considered when additional states become involved in these limited conflicts. Again, politics must be factored into the commitment of force with warfighters, financial support, or materiel support. Democratic leaders are going to be hesitant to become involved in small wars with no strategy to back them up. Afghanistan and Iraq have already done enough damage to western powers with their lack of direction and their continued drain on resources to no end. 

Gain:  Showing aggressive states that their divisive actions will be met with a sure and solid response is the best thing that could happen for international stability in the coming years. The negligence the world community has shown to an overaggressive Russia and China in recent years has set a very dangerous precedent.  

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] United States Congress: Commission on Security Cooperation in Europe. (2018). Russia’s Occupation of Georgia and the Erosion of the International Order: Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Second Session, July 17, 2018.

[2] Zakem, V., Saunders, P., Hashimova, U., & Frier, P. (2017). Mapping Russian Media Network: Media’s Role in Russian Foreign Policy and Decision-Making (No. DRM-2017-U-015367-1Rev). Arlington, Virginia: CNA Analysis and Solutions. 

[3] Reichmann, D. (2017). “CIA boss Mike Pompeo says ‘leaker worship’ compromising American intelligence”. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/3554008/mike-pompeo-leakers-us-intelligence/

[4] Deychakiwsky, O. (2018). “Analysis: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine”. U.S. Ukraine Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.usukraine.org/analysis-u-s-assistance-ukraine/

[5] Khramchikhin, A. (2018). “Rethinking the Danger of Escalation: The Russia-NATO Military Balance”. Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/01/25/rethinking-danger-of-escalation-russia-nato-military-balance-pub-75346.    

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