All eyes are on the frontline in Ukraine: the invaders’ offensive appears to have run out of steam. The defenders’ counterattack is looming. Much is indeed at stake there. But perhaps even more elsewhere. As the military pressure mounts, the Kremlin will also seek to distract and intimidate Ukraine’s Western allies, with tactics that fall below outright war. The West’s credibility hangs on its response.
The use of sub-threshold tactics may come as a shock to the sleepy, but they will not be new. The Soviet Union, throughout its history, conducted “active measures” against the West with great imagination and ruthlessness, outlined in a new book by Mark Hollingsworth (desecrating Jewish cemeteries to make Western countries look antisemitic was a particularly clever ploy).
The modern term is “hybrid warfare,” but the essence is similar, exploiting the features inherent in an open society, such as free speech, trust, and privacy, in order to weaken it. Examples include financing favored political causes, blackmailing or bribing politicians, silencing critics, sowing ethnic, demographic, religious, and regional divisions, and using propaganda to muddle decision-makers and sway public opinion.
One problem is that in the giddy complacency of the 1990s, the West largely dismantled its defenses against these tactics. Indeed we actively encouraged our opponents to buy influence in our countries in the guise of furthering trade and investment. We are now scrambling to plug the resulting vulnerabilities.
More difficult is that we lack appropriately calibrated responses. When Russia attacks us, we have (put crudely) four levers to pull. We can complain. We can expel Russian diplomats. We can impose sanctions. And we can start a war, where our conventional weaknesses make nuclear Armageddon an alarmingly likely outcome. One does not have to be a master of grand strategy to see that the first three options are these days not especially useful, and the fourth is so terrifying as to be almost inconceivable.
What do we do, for example, if Russian saboteurs start blowing up railway lines in Poland? Two such attacks were carried out in the Czech Republic in 2014. Or assassinating people? Or promoting civil unrest? Russia does not have to invent social, economic, and political stress in the countries it attacks. It just has to exploit it.
Matching these tactics exactly is hard. Russia is now a closed society. We can no longer fund independent media or opposition candidates. Western special forces are unlikely to venture deep into Russia to conduct sabotage attacks.
The first step is to look at history. During the Second World War, Britain pioneered the art of political warfare, chiefly against Nazi Germany. We should resurrect those skills. They are well outlined in the classic “Black Boomerang” by Sefton Delmer, the mastermind of these dark arts. It is out of print, and second-hand copies are strangely expensive: £100 ($124, €112) and upwards. The paranoid mindset of the people who run Russia is an asset here. Well-targeted rumors can be highly destabilizing. Promising ones might include “a purge is afoot,”; “the boss is on his way out,” and “the other lot are stealing more than you are.”
Second, we should use our friends’ expertise. Why not train and equip Ukraine’s special forces for cross-border sabotage missions? Perhaps we are doing that already (I hope so).
Most importantly: educate our public opinion. A well-informed populace is more resilient than an ignorant one, so speaking frankly about the dangers we face is not scaremongering but vital. We should also be blunt about the need for countermeasures. Not responding to an attack signals weak-willedness, and may be the most reckless answer of all.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.