The Seven Lessons of Counterinsurgency 101 in Ukraine

How to fend off the Russians, in seven simple steps.

Ukraine hangs at a precarious moment, twisting in an uncertain wind. Russian troops are still massed along the eastern border, and President Vladimir Putin seems intent on keeping his options open: Will he choose invasion, destabilization, or negotiation? The most likely path forward seems to be a Russian attempt to destabilize Ukraine through a covert campaign. The United States and its NATO allies should lean in to help the Kiev regime prepare to conduct counterinsurgency operations, given what appears to be obvious Russian support to violent separatists.

Step one should be assessing the potential for an effective insurgency and understanding the historical and cultural pressures that create it. The good news about the Russian annexation of Crimea is that it effectively reduces the remaining Russian ethnic population in the rest of Ukraine. While exact numbers are hard to define precisely, most observers believe the remaining pro-Russian ethnic population is around 15 percent: hardly a critical mass, let alone an oppressed majority. The bad news about the annexation -- in addition to losing a significant chunk of territory and the Ukrainian Navy -- is that Crimea will become a base and staging area for insurgent operations throughout eastern Ukraine.

Counterinsurgency 101 has a few basic ingredients, and many Western nations have recent first-hand experience in this complex activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, the new regime in Kiev will need sound advice, political support, economic assistance, security equipment, logistical support, and intelligence analysis. Here are the seven specific lessons for Ukraine's Counterinsurgency 101:

1. Undercut the insurgency by all political and economic means.
In practical terms, this means a powerful campaign of strategic communications that makes the case -- a strong one -- that a unified, cohesive Ukraine is a home to all Ukrainians, whatever first language they speak and from wherever their ancestors hailed. A sincere and inclusive message will win over some number of ethnic Russians (but fistfights in parliament don't help). A significant part of the message is that Ukraine's best future lies not in policies that are pro-Russian or pro-NATO, but pro-Ukrainian -- meaning the freedom to evaluate where the best opportunities for the nation lie. This can be a powerful force in undermining an insurgency's message of hate, separatism, and total alignment under Russian domination.

2. Provide an economic future that makes sense.
The West must offer healthy economic inducements in the form of International Monetary Fund grants, EU assistance, and U.S. funding -- all of which appears to be on track and in the pipeline. Much of counterinsurgency is in providing alternatives to the "employment options" offered by insurgent leaders; fortunately, most young people would rather have a job or an education than be out planting car bombs. Providing funding to allow Kiev to offer those kind of job inducements is key.

3. Protect the population of Ukraine from the effects of the insurgents.
This means strong military and police presence where necessary, controlling violence in demonstrations (which must be allowed in a democratic nation), using sensible strategies to keep government services flowing, retaking government buildings with a minimum of force, and continuing to deliver government services -- from marriage licenses to courts of justice -- in order to undercut counterinsurgent strategy.

4. Get control of the borders.
This is a lesson painfully learned in Afghanistan and Vietnam, but crucial to a successful counterinsurgency strategy. This will be challenging, given Russian resources and geographic position -- especially now that they have annexed Crimea. This is where Western military support in intelligence, surveillance, information sharing, logistics, basic equipment (such as night-vision devices and communications gear), and advice and training could be very valuable without escalating the situation.

5. Defend and protect from cyberattacks.
In this emerging 21st century of conflict, a fifth element of must be understanding the plans and strategy of the opposition in this medium, and working to counter it. There is a role for traditional information sharing using signals intelligence, overhead sensors, and technical assistance here, but the fundamental activity is occurring in the cyber-world. Ukraine is under constant cyberattack from Russia and needs help and protection in order to operate effectively in countering a violent opposition.

6. Legitimize the new government in Kiev.
Popular elections, due to be held in early May, are crucial to countering the insurgent narrative of an "illegal putsch" that has taken the capital by force. Thus far, the elections are on track and demographics favor a strongly pro-Kiev vote.

7. Provide military capability to counter insurgents.
Russia has and will continue to supply intelligence, weapons and ammunition, and probably troops (in the form of Spetznaz) to guide their insurgency to destabilize and delegitimize Kiev. This pressure will only ramp up after the upcoming elections. The West should consider military-to-military assistance (short of boots on the ground), including intelligence, information, advice and mentorship, defensive weapons systems, tactical signals intelligence capability, small arms, light sensors, canine assistance, and other classic counterinsurgency tools for the Ukrainian military. This could be done easily through NATO channels given the alliance's excellent military-to-military partnership with Ukraine.

Fighting insurgencies is hard work, as we have learned all too clearly in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But we have learned lessons that can and should be applied in these early days. Hopefully, Russia will choose neither an invasion, nor an active role in supporting an insurgency. And there is still hope for negotiations and a course of action that leaves the future in the hands of the people of Ukraine, not those pulling levers in Moscow.

But if Ukraine faces a Russian-sponsored insurgency, we have tools that can be applied. And we should be ready.



Threat of Justice

Israel fears prosecution in The Hague, and the Palestinians know it. But does the world’s war crimes court want to get involved?

At the beginning of April, Palestine submitted applications to join more than a dozen international organizations and treaties. The move was a calibrated step in Palestine's elaborate dance toward recognition as a fully sovereign state. The bid provoked all the expected responses: The Palestinians' backers applauded the move, while Israeli and American officials argued that "unilateral" steps toward recognition were provocative without a comprehensive peace deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned "the Palestinians will get a state only though direct negotiations, and not through empty declarations."

One important international organization, however, was not included in the flurry of Palestinian paperwork: the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Hague-based court, which can prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, has preoccupied Israeli officials for years. Consequently, the decision not to play the ICC card was intentional: Palestinian officials explicitly held out the prospect of taking that step if Israel does not make concessions. "If Israel wishes to provoke us further," said Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour, "then we will continue to seek the membership of other international treaties and agencies, such as the ICC."

Palestinian officials understand well that Israel and the United States dread the prospect of ICC involvement in the conflict. That fear is understandable. In theory, an ICC investigation could become a major factor in the diplomatic equation and even expose senior Israeli officials to prosecution for war crimes.

But legal theory is one thing and practical realities are another. The actual behavior of the ICC suggests that Israel is greatly overestimating the danger that the court poses to its policies and its officials.  

First, the theory. The largest category of crimes covered by the ICC is war crimes, and that's the one most likely to be relevant in an ICC investigation. Over the years, Palestinian officials -- and some international observers -- have accused Israeli forces of an array of these crimes. The famous Goldstone report -- commissioned to examine the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict -- accused Israel of attacking civilian infrastructure, depriving civilians of medical care, and abusing detainees. It concluded that Israeli violations "fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the [ICC.]" Israel responded quickly and aggressively to all these charges and referred several possible violations by its forces for criminal investigation.

The most worrisome area for Israel is not its battlefield performance but its behavior as an occupying power. International law imposes special obligations on states occupying foreign territory, and Israel's settlement policy puts its officials in potential legal jeopardy. The ICC's underlying charter, the Rome Statute, includes among its delineated war crimes "the transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies..."

That language is ominous enough for Israel. Worse, the nature of decision-making on the country's settlement policy could put its senior leadership in the court's crosshairs. Violations committed during military operations would likely focus on mid-level and perhaps senior military commanders; settlement policy almost by definition goes to the very top of the Israeli government. And that is the scenario that haunts Israeli politicians and lawyers.

It is conceivable that an ICC investigation would produce indictments for its settlement policy. But how likely is that, given the court's performance to date? There are many reasons to think that a Palestinian move to join the ICC might not produce a full investigation, let alone indictments of senior Israelis. Both the court's overall performance and its specific approach to Palestine suggest that the court's prosecutor will avoid entangling the court in the Middle East morass.

The court's record is highly cautious, particularly when it comes to choosing which investigations it will launch. Most of its investigations have come when sovereign governments have asked the court to investigate the activities of rebel forces or militia groups on their territory (in places including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, and Mali). In two situations, the court has acted at the behest of the U.N. Security Council (Darfur and Libya).

By contrast, the court has steered clear of situations involving conflict between different states and those that have strong geopolitical overtones. It hasn't investigated Afghanistan or the Russia-Georgia conflict, for example, even though both have featured serious crimes that national authorities have not addressed.  

The court's own record with Palestine also suggests that it would be eager to avoid involvement. Palestine's first contact with The Hague came during fighting in Gaza. In January 2009, Palestinian authorities dispatched a minister to formally give the court jurisdiction over its territory. Then-ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo met the Palestinian minister and helped him file the necessary paperwork. But the bid soon bogged down in the vexing legal question of whether Palestine is a state (only states can give the court jurisdiction over territory). For more than a year, the prosecutor sought opinions from all sides. Finally, he punted. In April 2012, he closed the Palestine file, noting that it is not the court's job to determine statehood.

Moreno-Ocampo's successor as chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has also been careful on Palestine. After the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a state in November 2012, she might have simply accepted Palestine's declaration of jurisdiction. Instead, she put the ball back in the politicians' court, insisting that Palestine must make a new jurisdictional declaration.  

Behind the scenes, Israel has been working hard to ensure that Palestine doesn't take the next step. Shortly after the Gaza conflict, it initiated a quiet dialogue with Moreno-Ocampo. Israeli officials have also periodically pressed their American counterparts to state publicly what U.S. officials tell the ICC privately: that Washington would oppose any court involvement in the conflict. And pressure from Washington may be the key here. The relationship between the court and the superpower has improved dramatically, almost miraculously, since George W. Bush's first term, and the prosecutor no doubt understands that investigating in Palestine would threaten that reconciliation.

If Palestine does take the ICC plunge, the result may not be what it expects. The court might simply sit on the issue. The ICC's brand of justice isn't plug-and-play. The court's prosecutor gets to decide whether a full investigation is warranted, and nobody can compel her to launch one. The court has bided its time on a number of potential investigations. There is no clear reason to believe that Palestine wouldn't join the court's "cold case" file.

The prosecutor might also decide that Palestinian crimes should be her priority. Palestine can't pick and choose the criminal activity it refers to the court; it can only refer a situation in its entirety. And that means, if Bensouda takes up the investigation, Palestinian conduct would be just as vulnerable as Israel's. "Hamas's deliberate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians would be easy to prosecute both legally and factually," according to Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London. "So they would almost certainly be prosecuted first."

In short, then, ICC involvement is likely to remain only an abstract possibility. Israel sometimes seems to be working from an old script about the ICC, in which the court would actively seek to prosecute government officials. But evidence from the past decade suggests that the ICC is as eager to avoid that scenario as Israel is. As for the Palestinians, one former ICC official told me, "An ICC referral...is most useful as a threat. If ever the Palestinians acted on it, their leverage would immediately evaporate and it is difficult to imagine that what they would gain in return from the ICC would be worth it."