The Civilianization of War

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.

Ukraine is not the only example of this trend. In the South China Sea, it is China’s civilian maritime services such as its coast guard, its maritime-surveillance agency, its fisheries-enforcement service, and its civilian fishing fleet that is attempting to establish the legitimacy of China’s territorial claims over Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, Woody Island, and other places in the Spratly Islands. The gray hulls of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy may lurk over the horizon, just as the Russian army provided overwatch to the militiamen who took over the Crimea. But it is the civilians who in all these cases are leading the assault. And should Beijing decide to make a play for the uninhabited but Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, it seems highly likely that the first wave to storm these beaches will not be Chinese naval infantry but rather civilian nationalist activists—or at least soldiers dressed as civilians portraying Chinese patriots—there to settle historic grievances. The PLA would no doubt not be far behind. But the first wave will very likely be civilians.

What explains the civilianization of modern warfare? We have long become used to insurgent militias that have sprung up to defend populations and territory from enemy armies attempting stabilization and pacification. Insurgent militias have used the local population for protection from modern military firepower, to hide from occupation forces, and for logistical support. The most advanced military hardware and well-trained conventional soldiers have proven vulnerable to insurgent weapons and tactics. When insurgent forces have enjoyed a sanctuary in which to organize and train and the support of an outside sponsor, they have usually been able to outlast the political patience of Western stabilization campaigns.

Such insurgencies are defensive responses to occupation and are a fixture throughout history. The offensive use of civilianized assault forces by Russia, China and others is an interesting new trend. Just as Western occupation armies have been understandably reluctant to employ their massive firepower during stabilization operations, the conventional military forces responsible for defending Ukrainian bases in Crimea or outposts in the South and East China Seas are similarly flummoxed when confronted by the sudden arrival of crowds of civilians, especially when armed with cameras connected to global media-distribution networks. All it takes is a massacre to squander legitimacy and political support, as former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych can no doubt explain. Bold and unscrupulous leaders have now learned how to employ civilians both as shields and swords. The modern media-saturated age has only encourage the expanded use of civilianized defensive and offensive military operations and even increased their effectiveness.

Ukraine has one choice

Ukraine’s only choice is to prepare for unconventional warfare, either to defend against Russian subversion in the east, or to resist an occupation by conventional Russian ground forces. Ukraine’s enfeebled army, which now relies on handouts from the population to get by from day to day, would stand little chance against the Russian army in an old-school air and mechanized battle. Nor for the reasons stated above is this likely to be the scenario Russia prefers. With Russia having good reasons to prefer a civilianized unconventional-warfare campaign in Ukraine’s east, Kiev needs to prepare for this form of warfare to defend its territory and interests.

Ukraine’s government and security forces will have to organize for a counterinsurgency campaign inside Ukraine’s eastern cities. This will require making an honest assessment of popular support for Kiev in Ukraine’s east, unlocking how Russia’s subversion effort is organized and sustained, and evaluating both non-kinetic and kinetic methods of suppressing pro-Russian groups. Perhaps most important, Ukraine’s government and security services will have to outperform their Russian counterparts at global media and information operations. The success of these operations is will be linked to the tactics the security forces ultimately employ against the pro-Russian groups.

At the same time, Ukraine would be wise to prepare in advance for a hypothetical Russian army occupation. Mounting a violent insurgency against an occupying army is a very costly choice and one that Ukraine’s population would ultimately have to see through. Should Ukraine’s people reach that threshold decision, conditions for a successful insurgency in Ukraine seem good. There are many paths for assistance from western Ukraine to reach insurgents in the east, along with an inability of Russian forces to isolate the battlefield in the east from support. Ukraine’s insurgents would benefit from sanctuaries in the west for training, an essential requirement for a successful insurgency. Ukrainian insurgents would likely find support from abroad and even inside Russia itself. There are large Ukrainian expatriate populations in the West, along with a large military adviser base in the U.S. and West with deep experience in irregular warfare. Should the U.S. and other governments opt to support an insurgency in Ukraine, they could do so for a relatively trivial expense.

Actively preparing for an insurgency, in full view of Russia’s intelligence services, may be the best method of deterring intervention by the Russian army. Preparing an insurgency for eastern Ukraine would be Kiev’s version of escalation dominance, that is, it would convince Moscow that escalation would be the road to its defeat.

Likewise in the East and South China Seas, China’s neighbors must devise approaches to counter China’s offensive civilianized operations aimed at legitimizing China’s territorial claims in the two seas. As with Ukraine, the best line of effort for the countries resisting China should be media and information operations, with the goal of portraying China as the large bully that is aggressively using its power to steal from its weaker neighbors. A long multimedia story in New York Time Magazine in October 2013 (“A Game of Shark and Minnow”) described the unequal standoff between China and the Philippines over possession of Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, and was a considerable information success for the Philippines. By contrast, Japan’s recent media stumbles over its behavior in Asia during World War II has been very much an “own goal” and will likely make repelling a Chinese civilian-activist assault on the Senkakus a more challenging information operation.