Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower.