The war in Ukraine could draw the United States and its allies into a yearslong shadow war with Russia, supporting a Ukrainian insurgency that’s well positioned to continue fighting even if the country falls in the coming days.
President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union message Tuesday night, took a small step in the process of hardening Americans for extended tensions ahead.
“Putin has unleashed violence and chaos,” Biden said. “But while he may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing high price over the long run.”
He added: “This is a real test. It’s going to take time.”
As people everywhere watched Ukraine’s people fighting back valiantly against Russian attackers and the West come together in ways both symbolic, bathing the world’s landmarks in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and substantive, battering the Russian economy with sanctions while funneling arms to Ukrainian forces, the full scope of what’s to come isn’t known.
But there are already signs that things are about to get much bloodier in Ukraine. And Russia experts believe Ukraine’s fighters are likely to need the support of the United States and its allies for years to come.
America and its allies are therefore in for a long, hard fight – one that will probably smash soon into Americans’ computers and that may at times threaten to go nuclear. China will watch closely to see how the West responds to aggression.
Fighting insurgents, then backing them
The U.S. military will take great pains to avoid becoming directly involved in defending Ukraine, a non-NATO ally, against nuclear-armed Russia’s invading troops. Covert U.S. action is possible. But experts seem to agree that the most likely scenario is yearslong support for a probable insurgency in Ukraine.
That is ironic. As the U.S. military recovers from two decades of fighting counterinsurgencies against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida and its spinoffs in the Middle East, America is now poised to perhaps support insurgents in Ukraine against Russia — just as America backed bin Laden in the 1980s, when the Mujahideen he helped fund were fighting scores of thousands of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, eventually killing nearly 15,000 of them.
In fact, Michael Vickers, who ran the CIA operation then, said Tuesday that he foresees a similar battle ahead in Ukraine.
Vickers believes Russia, with its nearly 200,000 troops in and around Ukraine, may eventually prevail over the Ukrainian military, and Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, may at some point fall.
But that will hardly be the end of it, Vickers told a Center for Strategic and International Studies audience. Putin’s troops have “no prospects,” he said, of being able to occupy the country in the long run against the survivors from a force of “several hundred thousand” Ukrainian troops and civilian combatants in a nation nearly the size of Afghanistan with a population of more than 43 million.
If the West supports an insurgency in Ukraine, Vickers told the CSIS forum, “Russian casualties will be through the roof.”
“This could be an insurgency that is bigger than our Afghan one in the 1980s in terms of things we could provide them that would really hurt Russia,” he said. “And then, if Putin pulls out and installs a puppet government, that government’s not going to last hours.”
Ukraine has all the elements that contribute to a successful insurgency, Vickers said: external support, a motivated population, a mobilized force of military personnel and citizen militias, plus neighboring territory in Eastern Europe for resupply, training, recovery and safe haven.
“Ukraine has all the conditions going for it,” said Vickers, who also served in senior Pentagon positions in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
But the United States needs to take certain steps "right now" to get ready for this shadow war, said Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer who was deputy director of the Senate Intelligence Committee staff before becoming an analyst at CSIS.
The U.S. government must quickly develop more intelligence sources inside Ukraine and identify who will be the leaders of a possible insurgency, and they may not come from the ranks of Ukraine’s military, Harding told the CSIS audience.
Western governments also need to pre-position supplies inside Ukraine as soon as possible, before Russia’s forces have a stronger grip on the country and when doing so will be less escalatory, Harding said.
Those supplies include weapons, humanitarian goods and secure communications equipment, and will be “absolutely critical,” Harding said.
Just before the CSIS forum took place, Roger Zakheim, a former general counsel and deputy staff director at the House Armed Services Committee, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Title 50 capabilities,” meaning CIA personnel, could work with Ukrainians to provide them weapons and to conduct operations such as, he said, destroying the roads that Russian combat vehicles are taking to Kyiv.
Vickers said this campaign needs to be waged vigorously from the start.
"Gradualism is a bad idea,” he said. “Insurgents get war weary.”
So do voters in the countries supporting the war. And media attention tends to be fickle.
Putin, meanwhile, will try to increase the costs on Western nations that are helping Ukrainian rebels.
While most experts think Putin is unlikely to invade a NATO ally, if he grew desperate enough, he might take military action against, say, a supply post in Poland, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former top Russia expert at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and now an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, at an event last week.
Eliot Cohen, a CSIS expert, made the same point at Tuesday’s event. Cohen envisioned Putin, if in dire straits because of an insurgency or the effect of sanctions at home, launching a cruise missile strike on a location — in Poland, for example — where anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons might be shipped into Ukraine. Putin’s aim in such a strike would be to test NATO’s resolve to defend any member from an attack, Cohen surmised.
“That’s one of the ways I can imagine this expanding,” Cohen said. “Putin may very well decide, ‘Ok, I’m going to once again roll the iron dice.’”
Another response from Putin — especially if he is locked in a long-running struggle with the West — is likely to be cyber warfare.
Putin is going to see sanctions as an attack by the United States on Russia’s economy, and he could respond to it with a counterattack on the computers that underpin the U.S. economy, the experts said.
Putin has already hit banks and other infrastructure in Ukraine, and he might later “hit home here in the U.S.,” potentially affecting electricity, fuel supplies or even hospitals, Harding said.
The world would then have a live test case of how cyber war can escalate and it might have “some dangerous real-world effects,” she said.
“Putin will see sanctions as an act of war,” Vickers said. “He will respond, and we need to prepare for that.”
Harding warned that the world’s attention on Ukraine will probably wane, and the economic fallout from sanctions and the pushback from Putin in cyberspace and beyond will create pressure to step back from the fight. People must be prepared for an eight-to-10-year conflict ahead, she said.
“How do you communicate to the European alliance and to the American people that this may come back at us and we need to be ready for that?” Harding said. “And we need to hold our ground if we're going to push back against a tyrant who may very well not be completely within his senses.”
Cohen agreed that this is a long-haul struggle, but at the same time, the West needs to move now “at scale and with a sense of urgency” to take actions, he said.
“Really big aid packages from Congress” would signal U.S. resolve that “we’re going to be in this big time,” he added.
Before Biden’s State of the Union address, Cohen said he hoped the president signals “the duration, scale and urgency” of the challenge.
Whether Biden did so in full Tuesday night, he will have more to say in the days ahead.