In 2014, Russia’s influence campaign and unconventional warfare efforts in eastern Ukraine demonstrated all the hallmarks of operations in the gray zone – indirect approach and (im)plausible deniability – just below the threshold of open conflict. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russian intelligence services – the Federal Security Service (FSB), Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), as well as Military Intelligence (GU) and Special Forces (SSO) – were operating in Ukraine. Russia reportedly also tasked Chechen special forces and the Russia-sponsored infamous Wagner group with assassinating Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and other key Ukrainian leaders, hoping that decapitating Ukrainian leadership and installing a pro-Russian government would be swift.
Arguably, in response to the 2014 eastern Ukraine crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began training Ukrainian intelligence officers and special forces in 2015, and presumably the U.S. military and other NATO allies have provided similar type of training to the Ukrainian military. For now, Western states have been providing weapons and ammunition overtly in unprecedented quantities, but should Kyiv fall, it is likely the supply of lethal aid would turn into a covert activity. Further approach, commentators suggest, may include the West sending Special Operation Forces (SOF) and conducting covert activities including training, psychological operations targeting Russian forces, and potentially even using drone strikes to aid the Ukrainians. Some argue that supporting and opposing insurgencies is precisely the CIA’s cup of tea and experience acquired in the past 20 years is likely to come in handy. Others still have called for the 1980s Afghanistan covert action-style playbook – when the U.S. assisted the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union (Operation CYCLONE) – leveraging classic covert action through CIA and irregular warfare through U.S. SOF.
Ukraine, of course, is not Afghanistan. Whereas in Afghanistan the key objective was to contain communism and bleed dry the Soviet Union, the key Western objective in Ukraine is to aid the Ukrainians in their liberation efforts against a vastly superior occupying force and to protect the borders of NATO member states. Options for doing this, while attempting to de-escalate the war and signal support to allies and determination to Russia, are indeed limited. Nevertheless, signaling, de-escalating, and limiting war through covert action is not new. During the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders on occasion used covert action to demonstrate resolve to the other superpower and to reassure local allies. Therefore, covert action certainly should be a viable policy option for the Western states aiding Ukraine. However, covert action cannot be and must not be the only strategy. Covert action operations stand a greater chance of being effective when used in concert with broader diplomatic efforts and strategy.
Providing covert support to Ukraine under similar operational principles as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or indeed elsewhere, is not without challenges, however. U.S. support to rebels in Syria is a good more contemporary example of how things can go wrong very quickly and how weapons supplied to the rebels ended up in the wrong hands, specifically an al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. There are similar challenges in Ukraine. In 2018, Congress banned the distribution of U.S. arms to Ukrainian militia – Azov Battalion – linked to neo-Nazis, who are now part of the Ukrainian National Guard. Some American legislators want to make sure there is accountability and that weapons will not end up in the hands of such paramilitary groups. However, separating to whom the weapons are distributed would not only be a herculean task due to the fluid nature of the situation in the field, but also practically impossible. Ultimately, the question is would the Ukrainian National Guard truly decide not to arm a pro-Ukrainian faction in the thick of the battle for survival?
Covert action rarely comes without consequences. The blowback from arming the Afghan mujahedeen did not end as the credits rolled on the film Charlie Wilson’s War. Operation CYCLONE was driven by an alluring tactical objective that grew into a ten-year covert action program. Instead of accepting responsibility for the policy failure in Afghanistan, policymakers claimed that the people the U.S. government sponsored in the 1980s in Afghanistan were the people the U.S. was fighting 20 years later and Operation CYCLONE was subsequently blamed for the rise of Islamic militancy and al-Qaeda. Most significantly, Operation CYCLONE was not used as part of a broader political strategy for Afghanistan specifically, one that would have included other policy tools such as diplomatic efforts. Therefore, any covert action operations by Western states in Ukraine must consider long-term strategic objectives in Ukraine specifically and more broadly in Europe vis-à-vis Russia. As of right now, it is unclear what these strategic objectives are for Ukraine or, indeed, for Russia. Supporting an insurgency in Ukraine is not a long-term solution and continued multi-track diplomatic efforts are pivotal.