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Can Small States Fight Like Insurgents?

The Russo-Georgian War demonstrated the futility of a small power, even with a NATO-trained military, attempting to slug it out with a great power in a conventional war in an open countryside. But what if the small country eschewed set piece battles and tried to fight back asymmetrically, like an insurgency? Reihan Salam, writing in The Atlantic thinks they should give it a try ( hat tip to John Robb):

Georgia's Guerrilla Option

...So what are the Georgias of the world to do? Weak states might take a page from the most fearsome non-state actors: guerrillas and criminal gangs. During its 2006 military campaign in Lebanon, Israeli forces severely degraded Hezbollah’s military capabilities, but Hezbollah survived. Hezbollah continued to use a variety of asymmetric attacks throughout the conflict to spread fear throughout Israel’s civilian population. The resilience of Israeli society saw to it that Hezbollah could do no lasting damage, but Hezbollah exacted a stiff price all the same.

It would be sheer insanity for Georgia to wage a Hezbollah-style terror campaign against Russian civilians. But in a detailed scenario about the Chechen fight for independence, John Robb devised a potentially very effective strategy that draws on the guerrilla playbook. Just as Russia disrupted Georgia’s critical infrastructure in 2006, Georgia might consider identifying key economic chokepoints - ports, power plants, long-distance electrical transmission lines, and of course natural gas pipelines - and training unconventional military forces to deliver crippling blows. While Russia would be prepared for a few discrete acts of sabotage, they would have a hard time dealing with a rolling, unpredictable series of attacks targeting multiple locations. By disrupting Russia’s infrastructure, Georgia could inflict severe pain at relatively low cost.

The cost differential would be remarkable. The small state would be using intelligence assets and covert-ops "sleepers" to inflict outsized economic damage. The large state would be waging conventional war, a very expensive action that is costly in treasure, blood and international reputation. Perhaps the proper 21st defense strategy for small powers is to invest in building a world class foreign intelligence apparatus and special operations arm while leaving territorial defense to well-organized and trained but decentralized popular militias, supplemented by a small service of professionals.

What mitigates against using this strategy? Authoritarianism and illegitimate governance. Popular militias are well positioned to become insurgents against their own regime and special operations pros are particularly adept at pulling off coups. Tyrants of small states may decide they are better off appeasing powerful neighbors than trying to defend against them.

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Reader Comments (4)

After reading such a theory, one can do little more than roll one's eyes skyward, mumble "Experientia docet stultos..." and count to ten before drafting a response.

Launching an insurgency against a powerful state to prevent them from supporting a separatist movement in your country? It does have a certain ludicrous ring to it, but hardly seems advisable in practice. First off, it presupposes the ability to think far enough in advance to build sleeper cells into your large neighbor. Many states can barely think past the next election or coup.

More importantly, it neglects the teensy-tiny issue that such actions would result in your little state not merely angering a larger, more powerful neighbor, but being labeled as a "state sponsor of terrorism", since, outside the context of declared war, that's what it amounts to when your citizens blow up civilian and military infrastructure in a neighboring state.

Here's a radical concept, a few handy do's & don'ts... Do negotiate cooperatively. Presume that groups within your borders who meet the standards for declaratory sovereignty laid out in the Montevideo Conventions 75 years ago are entitled to the right to self-determination, and act pre-emptively to grant them greater autonomy or federated status within your government, or the opportunity to peacefully separate. Don't target civilian population centers with multiple-launch-rocket artillery. Don't place your trust in treaty alliances that lack the pre-positioned forces or logistical supply routes to allow your treaty partners to actually provide the security that they notionally promise. Do consult a map. It comes in handy when making these judgments.

Just my two drachma,
Cleitus the Black

Aug 18, 2008 at 23:57 | Registered CommenterCleitus The Black

To be honest, I find the premise frustrating. This is less about the tactics of small states and large states and more about flexibility of the actor, state or non-state. So-called 'asymmetric' conflicts are really asymmetric in that one side chooses or is inhibited from leveraging certain advantages of the other. So-called 'asymmetric warfare', also called 'irregular warfare' has been a mainstay of U.S. Special Operations for decades. The problem has been the resistance from Big Army and the civilian leadership, who may or may not be influenced by Big Army (e.g. they come in with their own conception of war should be waged).

John Robb suggestion of infrastructure attacks are wrong. These can easily hidden from view, or worse, distorted by effective information operations to be threats on civilians.

Let's get the ideas right here. Asymmetrical warfare, or irregular warfare, is about opinions, both private and public. This is a war of persuasion and of perceptions. The pain on Russia would be minor as they then convince their people and 'fence sitters' that they are subject to terrorist reprisals and much increase their own security.

All operations should be considered with the informational effects in mind. The Georgians should focus on the global information environment and examine how global opinion, G8, NATO, OSCE, and EU can be mobilized in support of their actions. Georgia should adopt Hezbollah's tactics of placing combat cameramen everywhere and in every action. They need to decentralize their information distribution and do what they can to integrate global media. Last I checked, the Russians were conducting ethnic cleansing. The 'militias' were Russian proxies. Where's the media on this? Facilitate action, get footage, get information out, etc. The priority must not be on sending bullets downrange but information uprange.

What mitigates the use of this strategy? Internal myopia, lack of awareness, and probably the urge for big bangs regardless of effects.

Aug 23, 2008 at 20:54 | Registered CommenterMatt Armstrong

Cleitus the Black wrote:

"Launching an insurgency against a powerful state to prevent them from supporting a separatist movement in your country? It does have a certain ludicrous ring to it, but hardly seems advisable in practice."

I did not say that a small state should sponsor an insurgency in a larger state ( though I suppose that could possibly be an option) my post suggested that they could emulate their asymmetric fighting style rather, say, rush headlong into a head to head conventional battle they are apt to lose badly.

Wilsonian self-determination is an interesting concept but ultimately an atomizing one in practice since there will eventually be a scalar point of descending granularity where the resultant microstates lack economic viability - particularly in the absence of at least a regional regime of free trade.


There's nothing wrong with your suggestions and in fact they'd be beneficial as part of a full-spectrum asymmetric strategy. However, dishing out economic pain in Russia via systems disruption is viable given the hypercentralization of most systems to the "Moscow hub" and being able to inflict those costs are the best deterrent a small state can have.

Aug 26, 2008 at 3:20 | Registered CommenterMark Safranski

Georgia traded a territorial defense type force for a force that could conduct COIN missions for NATO and the US. If I were a defense planner for the Georgians, I wouldn't even bother buying artillery and tanks. Instead, I would buy the best shoulder fired weapons money can buy and train my force in small unit tactics. Of course, its very possible that the Georgia was required to develop such capabilities in return for American support. The trade-off must have been between having a territorial defense type force, but without American training, FDI, and political backing, and having a COIN force with America as a friend.

Aug 26, 2008 at 20:34 | Registered CommenterI Seerov
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