Five Ways to Make the Russian Occupation Unpleasant
The West has many ways to help Ukraine and make it much harder for the Russian military.
During my day job, I teach national security practitioners about irregular warfare. It is a complex subject involving multiple concepts: governmental legitimacy, conventional force, asymmetric military operations, economic levers, and of course competition for public opinion and the “will” of the people. It’s a world of insurgents, information and misinformation, and sometimes “little green men”.
So far, the US and NATO response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine has been primarily economic and political. It is designed to harm Russia’s economy and image. But we can also imagine a world where a state or group of states might want to take more active steps to preserve Ukraine’s independence, undermine Russia’s ability to wage its war of aggression by undermining its capabilities military and eroding support for the war at home. If there was a willingness to take such action, but on an irregular basis to minimize the risk of escalation, what would that look like?
Here are five ideas with some specifics on what states could do, purely from a hypothetical point of view, of course.
1. Donations of missile defense systems to the Ukrainian army.
Ukraine already receives surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles and combat aircraft. Some have argued for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. It’s not feasible. This would likely start with full airstrikes to suppress Russian air defense capabilities in Ukraine and Russia itself along Ukraine’s borders. This would put the forces of those enforcing the no-fly zone and Russian aircraft in direct conflict, both to establish the no-fly zone and to enforce it. Such a declaration of war on Russia is neither feasible nor sensible. On the other hand, giving Ukraine missile defense systems would somehow allow the Ukrainians to limit Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities with both air and ground missiles.
2. Donations of sophisticated and offensive drones to the Ukrainian military, which can be used to target Russian troop concentrations.
Currently, Ukraine has extremely limited remote weapon capabilities (for example, it has a small number of Turkish drones.) Supplying Ukraine with modern attack drones would give the Ukrainians the ability to more effectively target Russian troops and supply concentrations. This would force Russia to disperse its offensive weapon systems, slowing its advance and making it more difficult to concentrate its forces for assaults on major Ukrainian cities.
3. A wave of cyberattacks against Russian assets.
A recent cyberattack (supposedly carried out by hacker group Anonymous) shut down half a dozen government websites in Russia, including the official Kremlin website. These are visible and potentially effective actions, but cyber has much more capabilities. An area of St. Petersburg could lose electricity. A virus could force grounding of flights at a Russian airport. A gas or oil pipeline can be taken offline. In this crazy, unstable and dangerous world, who knows?
4. Information operations to disseminate information about the real events of the war to the Russian people.
Many Russians do not have access to the facts about what is happening and would be helped by access to the truth. Critical points to convey: Russia’s attack is an invasion; Russia targets and kills civilians; ordinary Russian troops are not quite sure what they are doing crossing Ukraine; Ukrainians resist the Russian invasion, because it is an invasion, and do not greet Russian troops with flowers. There are tools to circumvent Russia’s blocking of various media. (The BBCfor exampleannounced that it would return to shortwave broadcasting to Ukraine and parts of Russia.) The more Russians who know the truth about what is happening, the harder it will be to support the war.
5. Finally, the preparation for an insurrection in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Nobody knows for sure how this will end, but it is likely that Russian troops will remain in at least part of Ukrainian territory even after this phase of combat operations ends. They should not be allowed to stay “for free”. Any hypothetical country with an interest in undermining Russia’s grip on Ukraine will provide equipment, fighters and havens for those willing to take up arms in an insurgency campaign. This means a flow of arms, fighters and supplies to countries bordering Ukraine. More importantly, it means laying the groundwork for an insurgent force now, when the Ukrainians still control most of their own territory and communications network.
Who knows if any of these suggestions will be put into practice by Western policy makers. But, if nations, in theory, wanted to make it harder for Russia to gain control of Ukraine – and keep it – these measures would certainly make it harder.