The Civilianization of War

From Ukraine to the South China Sea, states are using civilian proxies to counter the might of modern militaries.

On April 8, Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops recaptured a government administration building in the eastern city of Kharkiv from pro-Russian demonstrators. Over the previous weekend those demonstrators had stormed the building, along with government buildings in the neighboring cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. After taking the building, the protesters had called for intervention from the Russian army, which lurked just over the border with some fifty thousand troops, presumably ready for action after more than a month of training exercises.

Ukraine’s acting interior minister Arsen Avakov announced that the building in Kharkiv had been retaken without violence. This news was no doubt a relief to the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev, which undoubtedly wished to avoid creating a dramatic pretext for an invasion by the Russian army poised next door. However, the pro-Russian occupations in Donetsk and Lugansk continue, with the Ukrainian security forces vowing to use force if the demonstrators don’t relent.

The simultaneous assaults over the weekend by seemingly well-drilled and hooded young men are widely viewed to be a follow-on phase to Russia’s recent seizure of Crimea, an operation that successfully employed similar tactics to capture Ukrainian military bases and government offices there. From a wider perspective though, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine demonstrate an expanded “civilianization” of combat operations. We have long become used to civilian militias mounting insurgencies to resist occupation armies. Now we can observe a nation-state’s employment of civilians (or special-operations soldiers acting as civilians) in the vanguard of offensive military operations designed to seize and hold territory.

Although perhaps a surprising development to many, this trend is a logical consequence of both the current media-saturated age and the incredible lethality of modern military technology. It is also a trend for which Western policymakers and military planners seem largely unprepared. That will have to change if these leaders are to avoid some damaging strategic setbacks at the hands of less scrupulous adversaries.

Why civilians are now the best assault troops

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his advisers may be hoping that the pro-Russian agitators in eastern Ukraine incite a violent clash with Ukraine’s security forces, thus creating a casus belli for an intervention into eastern Ukraine by the Russian army. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made this very accusation against Russia at a Senate hearing on April 8th.

Under this scenario, Russian army “peacekeepers,” in the form of traditional tank and mechanized infantry brigades, would assault across the border for the declared purpose of protecting vulnerable ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Although certainly a possibility, Putin and his advisers likely realize that such an outmoded approach would stimulate a global backlash against Russia, especially by critical players such as Germany that have thus far largely accommodated Russia’s recent actions in Crimea.

Much more likely will be a steady and methodical civilian-led unconventional warfare campaign in eastern Ukrainian cities, funded and organized by Moscow and led in the field by Russia’s intelligence services and special-operations forces. The goal of this campaign will be to organize pro-Russian resistance to Ukrainian government institutions, gradually discredit the government in Kiev, intimidate neutral and pro-Ukrainian populations in the area into passivity, and ultimately create legitimacy for the idea of a pro-Russian region in eastern Ukraine under Russian sponsorship. This style of political-military operation very likely stands a better chance of achieving Moscow’s goals, compared to an old-style invasion by tanks, infantry and artillery. If successful, it would also show that “civilianization” of modern offensive military operations has come of age.