In the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to seriously consider how it will address strategic deterrence of peer and near-peer rivals in the future. The recent buildup of Russian forces on the border of Ukraine, allegedly as many as 175,000, and the exponentially increasing military assertiveness towards Taiwan, particularly in the form of aerial incursions, are of great concern. These actions indicate that the U.S. may find itself, by proxy, in a large-scale conflict with two nuclear-armed peer rival states soon supporting its allies in the respective regions.
After twenty years of fighting, Americans have lost their taste for war and flag-draped coffins, so U.S. decision-makers and senior military leaders need to find workable alternatives. Similarly, many U.S. allies have seemingly lost confidence in its level of long-term dedication to supporting them militarily should the need arise. These options should highlight a limited role of U.S. military intervention and large-scale troop mobilizations yet still project power and deter aggressive actions by hostile state actors. This article seeks to build off strategies proposed in an earlier publication and expand on using irregular, hybrid, and proxy warfare for strategic deterrence.
What is Irregular, Hybrid, and Proxy Warfare?
During World War II, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Office of Strategic Services (OSS) engaged in unconventional “ungentlemanly warfare” behind enemy lines. The Global War on Terrorism and subsequent “small wars” have renewed some of these tactics and added elements to redefine the methodology as irregular warfare. Special operations and even conventional forces now engage in stability operations, foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency (COIN), counter-terrorism, and unconventional warfare (DoD 2020).
Proxy warfare is a state getting another actor, state or non-state, to fight their war for them. This method was ubiquitous during the Cold War and has begun to make a resurgence in today’s low-intensity conflicts (Brown 2016). For example, Iran uses Hezbollah and the Houthis to strike at their enemies. Russia utilizes mercenary firms like the Wagner Group in Syria and Libya to exert influence, and the U.S. provides Israel with intelligence and material support to combat mutual adversaries.
Hybrid warfare is an amalgamation of the two where unconventional forces work with proxies to accomplish a common goal. Russian activities in Ukraine are the best modern example of hybrid warfare where Russian Spetsnaz work alongside pro-Russian paramilitaries fighting Ukrainian state forces (Galeotti 2016). Hybrid warfare is a more overtly “hands-off” approach to military interventions but covertly still very much directing operations and strategies.
Irregular, hybrid, and proxy warfare have influences far beyond the “small wars” and can have far-reaching geopolitical impacts. In World War II, irregular warfare played a significant role in disrupting Axis operations and, in modern conflicts, helped reduce a militarily superior state forces’ footprint. Proxy wars are still a means of weakening a rival that affords some measure of plausible deniability but has a highly destabilizing effect on the conflict region. Finally, hybrid warfare combines the two methods and uses clandestine and diplomatically justifiable means to establish hegemony or influence power structures in an area.
The Sources of Conflict: Enemy at the Gates and the “Two Chinas”
To better conceptualize how these asymmetrical warfare methods can project power and bolster strategic deterrence, one must understand the background and nationalist motivators of the brewing conflicts in Ukraine and Taiwan. Both areas’ disputes present complex geopolitical challenges that run far more profoundly than territorial expansion and regional hegemony as it would appear on the periphery. The deep ethnic, cultural, and historical connections associated with the respective conflicts directly oppose the ideological divides that place both China and Russia into discord with Western democracies like the U.S. and Europe. These divisions set the stage for the initiation of global strife, not unlike the conditions that sparked both World War I and World War II. Ukraine will likely be the first flashpoint to spark a large-scale military engagement that draws in external states. However, many global security experts believe that an unrestrained Chinese incursion into Taiwan is still five or six years away at the earliest. Still, China might become emboldened into hastening its timeline if a war in Ukraine sufficiently distracts Western powers that they can exploit adequately based on their current military strength.
Russia’s aggressive posturing towards Ukraine is twofold. The first is rooted in claims of an ethnocentric and cultural connection between the two states. There are many historical ties to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to Czarist Russia, such as the introduction of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to the region. There are also roughly eight million ethnic Russians predominately living in eastern Ukraine and have a closer cultural connection to Russia than the more European-aligned western provinces. Russia’s ethnocentric motivation for the appropriation of Ukraine is not unlike Hitler’s justification of the Czech Sudetenland annexation in 1938. The second is geopolitical and economic motivators. Ukraine is rich with oil reserves and airable farmland integral to the former Soviet Union’s financial markets that Russia seeks to restore during its current economic hardships. More pressing is the idea of an “enemy at the gates.” Ukraine has been increasingly seeking to solidify its ties to Europe through petitions to join both the European and NATO. Russia wants to renew its superpower status and views these moves by Ukraine as a direct threat to its regional hegemony and places rival forces dangerously close to its borders. Understanding the ethnocentric and political/economic human security factors that drive the current tensions is crucial to understanding how the international community can aid in deescalating the conflict.
The Chino-Taiwanese tensions are similar to that of Russia and Ukraine but have less nationalistic motivators, and instead, the “reunification” focuses primarily on regional hegemony and strategic gain. China gained territorial claims to Taiwan from the Japanese immediately following World War II but broke away in 1949 following a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang resulting in the latter’s mass exodus to the island. Subsequently, the global community has struggled to formally recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and self-governance over geopolitical concerns with the Chinese mainland and CCP, specifically trade and economic markets. However, the true motivation for China’s absorption of Taiwan appears to be hegemonic, especially in asserting greater control over the South China Sea. China’s strategy seems to be eroding Taiwan’s resistance through “grey zone warfare” (wearing down defenses) and economic pressure to limit external state support.
Staring Down the Bear and the Dragon
The U.S. and its allies have to find a means of deterring hostile acts by Russia and China without becoming embroiled in a full-scale military conflict with either or both. Similarly, the U.S. has lost the international community’s confidence in the wake of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and needs to reassert itself as a significant power in global politics. Sanctions and similar actions have been largely ineffective in curtailing the hegemonic activities of either rival state, so it must pursue more coercive alternative solutions. A subtle and less confrontational strategy is cultivating and training civilian defense forces in the respective regions to transition into an insurgency quickly should either Russia or China invade Ukraine or Taiwan. In addition, the Slavik and Southeast Asian regions have a history of successful resistance movements against more extensive and technologically-superior forces. The U.S. and its partner states could exploit this affinity for insurgency in both areas to create strategic deterrence by proxy.
The U.S. successfully forced Soviet forces to withdraw from Afghanistan with Operation Cyclone during the 1980s by arming and training Afghan mujaheddin, especially with the deployment of man-portable surface to air missile weapons. However, this limited support would not adequately deter a hostile invasion force or long-term occupation of either Ukraine or Taiwan. Instead, cultivating a partisan resistance movement among the civilian population might provide enough challenge to give Russia and China pause before committing a large force to take and hold the desired territory. Operations that closely resemble the covert and clandestine activities in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II and Operation Washtub in Alaska early in the Cold War might create that necessary strategic deterrence and show the U.S.’s commitment to its allies.
Ukraine would be the easier of the two nations to stand up a civilian militia because many cities and provinces already have active ones. For example, Kyiv’s Territorial Defense Forces are civilians who regularly train in soldier skills and covert actions like sabotage and espionage. The U.S. and regional partners could easily supplement and expand on the established militias to become a genuinely dissuasive fighting force hidden among the population. Moreover, Russians have a long memory and might reconsider becoming entrenched in another lengthy counterinsurgency campaign like Afghanistan, especially in a neighboring state where it could become subjected to reprisal attacks within its borders.
Accomplishing this civil militia strategy in Taiwan may present more significant challenges for several reasons. First, Taiwan does not have the same civilian militia forces established that Ukraine already has. Most of the “military” training provided to the Taiwanese civilian population consists of first-aid and personal safety and security awareness. The U.S. and its regional partners would first need to recruit and train willing volunteers. Here, they also run the risk of compromise by the prolific Chinese intelligence infiltrators in that country. Second, the prospect of massive military casualties does not readily dissuade Chinese military strategy. In this case, the focus of the insurgency in Taiwan would need to be on disruption and destruction of logistical support to the occupying force, making it too expensive in equipment and resources over personnel.
Being an island nation, Taiwan is exceptionally vulnerable to naval blockades that the U.S. and its allies could not easily circumvent without the potential for an international incident like the sinking of a U.S. civilian flagship or the downing of a commercial cargo plane. Finally, establishing security force advisory units or foreign internal defense trainers in Taiwan would likely provoke a response, potentially militarily, from China, and they could legitimately argue it was reasonable under Jus ad Bellum – justification for war. Covertly training a civilian militia would negate any deterrence factor and require the U.S. to use clever gamesmanship to have the desired effect without inciting a military response.
In closing, the U.S. desperately needs a more proactive strategy to counter and mitigate the increasingly hostile behaviors of Russia and China towards Ukraine and Taiwan, especially in its weakened appearance post-Afghanistan withdrawal. Similarly, the American people have lost interest in foreign military interventions that decision-makers cannot easily justify in terms of national security interests domestically. The U.S. and its allies will need to develop a deterrence strategy that will largely avoid the potential for provoking open-warfare with a nuclear-armed peer rival state.
Regarding global security, Ukraine appears to be the more pressing conflict, but Taiwan could quickly follow if open hostilities break out in the other theater. Russia’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to challenge the sovereignty of its neighboring states, and the U.S. will have to dissuade renewed attempts to annex these contested areas persuasively. Supplementing and expanding the current civilian militias to create World War II-style partisan resistance movements will allow the DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic) strategies to impact Russian aggression towards Ukraine more effectively. Unfortunately, Taiwan will be much more challenging to achieve the same effects. It will require incorporating a more profound demonstration of partnership from the other Southeast Asian and Pan-Pacific states in supporting a Taiwanese insurgency. Thankfully, a conflict over Taiwan appears to be several years away still, and the U.S. can begin covertly developing civilian militias similar to Ukraine’s to reveal when tensions escalate to indicate an invasion is imminent.
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Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.