Resistance campaigns are one of the oldest methods of waging war, and throughout the ages it has contributed to both victory and defeat. History has shown that the employment of resistance strategies has often been the grain of sand that stopped the most powerful military machines.

In the Peninsular War (1808), Spanish resistance fighters were a formidable foe to Napoleon’s army. In 1812, Russian Cossacks, masters of resistance, helped cut the French Grand Army to pieces on its retreat from Moscow. American military history is also replete with examples of resistance and anti-resistance warfare–from the time of the American Revolution through the Indian campaigns, the campaigns in the Philippines, and the Punitive Expedition into Mexico led by General Pershing. The Arabs, led by Colonel T.E. Lawrence during World War I, gave the world a very good example of resistance operations. During World War II, resistance forces were employed in France, Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Poland, the USSR, China, Burma, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Vietnam, the United States Government (USG) routinely employed resistance approaches. For example, OPLAN 35, a Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, or MACV SOG, was an operation that extensively used South Vietnamese Montagnard fighters, SOF and air strikes to cripple the logistics of the Viet Cong — a strategy and employment of air power very similar to those techniques used during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). Like OEF, OPLAN 35 offered policy-makers the prospect of a high political return with relatively low cost, operational flexibility and, in some circumstances, plausible deniability.

In 2001, OEF showcased the effectiveness of a modern day resistance strategy. In less than three months, U.S.-sponsored resistance forces supported by air power toppled the Taliban regime under the weight of a few hundred U.S. and coalition SOF and roughly 20,000 indigenous fighters. In the history of modern warfare, OEF may represent the greatest example of economy of force ever performed by a major power. The most significant aspect of the strategy used during OEF is that conventional ground forces were not considered part of the overall campaign plan and were introduced only after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Today, Operation ATLANTIC RESOLVE, or OAR, is the U.S. European Command response to Russian aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. OAR has provided U.S. SOF a unique opportunity to put a new face on the development of resistance strategies. The compelling difference between the resistance campaigns executed in the last 200 years and what U.S. SOF could achieve in OAR is primarily a function of preparation, strategy, and nature of the adversary. In previous U.S. campaigns, preparation and pre-crisis collaboration with Allies leading up to hostilities was nonexistent.  The aims of resistance strategies have been, with few exceptions, limited–designed mainly to divert enemy forces and materiel that would otherwise be available for other operations and no resistance campaign has ever been planned against a nation state as aggressive and formidable as Russia. A USG-led, whole of government resistance campaign that encompasses counter messaging, support to resistance and attribution could become a decisive economy of force solution, to current Russian unconventional activities and future Russian conventional attacks.


Russia’s unconventional warfare (UW) campaign to destabilize Ukraine and potentially other Eastern European nations (i.e. Baltic States and Moldova) is turning conventional military thinking on its head. Russia’s non-attributable UW tactics fly in the face of the idea of an increasingly civilized rules-based western world. Sending soldiers into a sovereign territory without markings and then denying their existence through a well orchestrated and massive propaganda campaign is bold and alarming. However, this kind of warfare is not new conceptually, and in fact Russian strategists have simply refreshed their 1930’s “Deep Battle” warfare strategies, which envisioned constant, varied and unpredictable attacks on an adversary through the depth of its formation, rather than decisive confrontational blows.  Instead of conventional attacks against enemy military formations, the bulk of the fighting is accomplished through the broad use of political, economic, informational and other non-military measures. This could include purposefully inciting minority populations through Russian media outlets to manifest a crisis to justify further conventional force intervention in-line with previous United Nations sanctioned operations and the creation of a resistance movement using indigenous personnel, surrogates or employment of “concealed” Special Operations Forces.

This asymmetric style of warfare has complicated and to date has paralyzed the response of Western militaries and NATO due to its unconventional style. Western defense structures, doctrine and even laws have evolved over the course of the 20th century to conduct large scale maneuver warfare by one state upon another and now must address this brand if state sponsored UW.  This emerging security threat mandates a different type of strategy and mindset to address an environment where Russia actively seeks to intimidate, coerce Allies, undermine NATO, and discredit the U.S. by creating, fueling or exploiting existing ethnic divisions in the European theater.


Since the invasion of Crimea, policy-makers and military strategists have struggled in defining and characterizing this new Russian way of warfare. Emerging concepts such as Hyper-warfare and other legacy definitions such as Foreign Internal Defense, Unconventional Warfare and Irregular warfare have all fallen short in providing a conjunct pathway in dealing with this new brand of Russian warfare.

The fundamental shortfall in current U.S. doctrine resides in how we prepare and counter Russian UW. For example, current U.S. UW doctrine is founded on the premise that U.S. SOF will infiltrate into a denied area, link-up in the woods with a guerrilla leader and then wage a U.S. sponsored UW campaign. However, this doctrinal model is not useful in preparing our NATO Allies to counter Russian unconventional approaches. To effectively counter Russian UW approaches planning, preparation and host nation link-up must be done well before the onset of hostilities. Instead linking up in the woods, SOF operators should be coordinating and planning with host nation: policy advisors, Public Affairs Officers, Chief’s of Defense, Ministries of Interior, Intelligence Services, SOF commanders, and U.S. Country Teams in a deliberate pre-crisis environment.

The desired end-state of this pre-crisis preparation is for Allies to: (1) possess the policy and legal means to seamlessly employ whole of government approaches that can effectively detect and identify Russian UW activities; (2) dissuade active and passive support for insurgent movements; (3) if required, host forces must possess the capability to surgically neutralize Russian covert and clandestine networks operating within their borders; and (4) if attribution and deterrence fails, NATO Allies and Partner Nations must have resistance networks established to disrupt and frustrate a conventional Russian invasion or incursion, with or without U.S. or NATO support. All of this must be accomplish while consistently maintaining popular support of the local population and international community. Current U.S. doctrine falls short in preparing U.S. SOF for operating in this 21st century environment.


Because of a general lack of understanding in what U.S. SOF can contribution to influence, resistance and attribution activities against Russia, it is not surprising that U.S. policy-makers and conventionally-minded strategists missed the strategic importance of U.S. SOF in preparing NATO Allies and Partner Nations (e.g. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) to counter Russian propaganda, to resist a Russian aggression, and to attribute Russian unconventional activities within their borders. U.S. SOF has a vital and leading role in assuring Allies and deterring Russian unconventional tactics but thus far, U.S. SOF capabilities have been largely ignored, marginalized and its full potential has been relatively sidelined. Consequently, the response by the Pentagon to Russian aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been largely a legacy, Cold War minded approach that has consisted of air policing, naval presence and deployments of conventional formations. Although visible reminders of US power and prestige, the employment of these conventional capabilities will have a minimal impact toward disrupting Russia’s unconventional approaches inside the borders of our NATO Allies and Partner Nations.  The likelihood of Russia rolling conventional combat formations across the borders of a NATO Ally is low, but the employment of unconventional warfare is real and on-going.

Therefore, developing Ally and Partner Nation influence, resistance and attribution capabilities must take a more prominent role. U.S. SOF can deliver highly flexible politico-military options for U.S. policy-makers and military strategists that can provide a wide range of coercive options from the execution of discrete actions such as building counter Russian resistance networks with our Allies to more overt operations such as counter messaging and surgical strike. SOF provides policy-makers a relatively low-cost means of dissuading, deterring or if needed, compelling Russia in situations that would otherwise be impossible because of tenuous domestic, congressional or international support and in instances in which vital U.S. interests are not at stake, but some action must nevertheless be taken.

Conventional methods of coercion, such as diplomacy, sanctions and traditional military intervention, have thus far proven insufficient to modify the behavior of Russia, which has routinely frustrated, and in a few instances has threaten U.S. interests around the globe. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has increasingly found itself trying to employ conventional means to coerce not only Russia, but also other nefarious countries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya and even non-state actors, often in situations where U.S. vital interests are not immediately at stake. Historically, such situational contexts have represented obstacles to conventional coercive mechanisms that, when used, have often complicated or worsened the strategic situation.

Support to Ally and Partner Nation influence, resistance and attribution activities can in rare circumstances be conducted unilaterally by U.S. SOF, in support of US. Country Teams, in conjunction with other international SOF, or in direct support of U.S. and NATO conventional military forces. The inherent flexibility of SOF provides the U.S. and Allies with a scalable coercive capability, which we could call “unconventional coercion” that is far better at withstanding counter-coercion strategies that are presently employed by Russia, and other state and non-state actors.

U.S. SOF support to Ally and Partner Nation influence, attribution and national resistance plans is a boots-on-the-ground strategy with three important psychological components that are absent in conventional coercive strategies.

First, unconventional coercion demonstrates commitment. In coercive diplomacy, nothing demonstrates commitment more than the introduction of ground forces. In the past, the U.S. has been hesitant to deploy conventional ground forces because of tenuous domestic support, friction within the international community or complicated geography on the ground. SOF support to Ally and Partner Nation influence, attribution and resistance strategies provides U.S. and international policy-makers with a menu of low profile response options that demonstrates U.S. commitment in physical terms and gives a psychological boost that enhances assurance and deterrence objectives.  Additionally, in the long-term, it can increase the capacity and capability of our friends to asymmetrically defend against Russian unconventional methodologies and also, more overt conventional military approaches.

Second, unconventional coercion provides legitimacy. Influence, attribution and resistance activities are in part a grass-roots activity that has the dual purposes of assisting both the military and indigenous population in creating a more secure environment and thereby, achieving U.S. strategic objectives. Additionally, a U.S. SOF approach blurs the hard-line image of U.S. heavy handedness because the activity is primarily conducted by host nation military forces and supported by the population.

Finally, unconventional coercion produces fear. Fear is a necessary component in coercion and a powerful ingredient in weakening Russian influence, Russian networks and modifying Russian behavior. U.S. SOF support to influence, attribution and resistance activities is a close-contact activity and can be far more effective in producing fear than sanctions, or other conventional approaches. Russia must perceive that conducting unconventional operations within the borders of our Allies and Partner Nations a risk that is unacceptable because of Ally attribution capabilities.

In today’s hyper sensitive political environment, the international community generally scrutinizes conventional coercion more closely; therefore, arbitrary limits are often placed on the types of military action that U.S. forces are able to conduct. On the other hand, by its nature, U.S. SOF support to influence, resistance and attribution is an activity that can be waged more aggressively than other methods of military activity, because it can be executed in a covert, clandestine and low visibility manner, with the full support of our Allies and Partners, but outside the probing eyes of the media and public scrutiny.

In order to fully appreciate the dynamics of U.S. SOF contributions in preparing counter-coercion strategies against Russia, three further advantages should be stressed. First, unconventional coercion provides a greater chance of achieving escalation dominance. Conventional coercion methods are inherently constrained by the overt nature in which they are designed and implemented. Conventional coercion is habitually constrained by restrictive objectives, rules of engagement, coalitions and domestic politics. When all these factors are combined, the net result is a reduction in the ability for the U.S. to inflict costs and, at the same time, can increase Russia’s capability to counter-coerce.

Unconventional coercion provides a much wider range of nonlethal and lethal options that includes psychological operations, civil affairs, intelligence collection, target acquisition, and surgical strike. Unconventional coercion can be, on rare occasions conducted unilaterally, in support of Ally and Partner Nation SOF or combined with conventional coercion strategies such as Flexible Deterrent and Response Options.

The advantage of an unconventional coercion strategy is simple: No matter where Russia chooses to increase pressure, the U.S. has the ability to overwhelm Russia in that area. Unconventional coercion can decrease the political costs to U.S, and, at the same time, makes it more difficult for Russia to escalate or counter-coerce. Additionally, because influence, attribution and resistance activities are planned and executed in close cooperation with Allies and Partners, the U.S. is in a much better position to identify and target Russian pressure points than conventional attack methodologies.

Unconventional coercion provides the U.S. with a mechanism for targeting Russian covert and clandestine networks militarily and psychologically by exploiting internal vulnerabilities. Militarily, unconventional coercion provides the U.S. the ability to discretely detect, identify, and neutralize nefarious Russian networks operating within Ally and Partner Nation borders, without the publicity of overt operations, such as air strikes or large conventional operations, which routinely lead to claims of collateral damage and ultimately weakens coercive action. Internally, unconventional coercion, and specifically a well organized resistance movement, presents Russia with a hostile indigenous population, which is a compelling threat to any regime.

Finally, a nation that promotes and supports a successful resistance movement has a great political advantage in that region prior to, during and at the conclusion of hostilities, particularly if the movement is ultimately supported by the arrival of U.S. conventional forces.

Unconventional coercion should not be considered a silver bullet in resolving all forms of international disputes. Like other coercion strategies, it does have its limitations. First, unconventional coercion requires time. Policy-makers conducting unconventional coercion must understand that it will require a long-term political and military commitment and is not without the possibility of some setbacks. Second, resistance movements fighting under conditions of great hardship develop extreme attitudes and become very jealous of their prerogatives to determine the postwar complexion of the country. This may make it difficult or impossible to establish a moderate local government in liberated areas. An extreme political faction that fights for a common cause against an enemy during a conflict could become a powerful trained and armed adversary of its own government.


The employment of U.S. SOF in countering Russia is an economy of force strategy that should be aggressively pursued. For U.S. SOF to successfully assist Allies and Partners in conducting influence activities against Russian propaganda, attributing nefarious Russian activities within their borders and preparing Allies and Partners in resisting Russian aggression; clear policies must be crafted, authorities and USG and host nation permissions must be granted, and finally, consistent and reliable long-term funding must be made available. In the end, however, successful unconventional coercion will also depend on the proper integration and application of the instruments of power, and more importantly, strategies that exploit the nuances of SOF.

LTC Mark G. Davis is the Executive Officer for the Deputy Chief for Support at the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in Mons, Belgium.  He has 23 years of Army and Joint Special Operations experience and has served in the following SOF assignments: Chief of Policy, Strategy, Plans and Assessments for United States Special Operations Command Europe (USSOCEUR), United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Special Operations Liaison Officer (SOLO) for the United Kingdom, USSOCOM J35 Chief of Plans, Special Operations RAND Corporation fellow, battalion operations director, and Commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th SF Group, detachment commander, 2nd Battalion, 5th SF Group; and special-operations observer/controller, SF plans officer and Chief of the Special Operations Forces Planning Division, Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La.

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