Small States as Guerrillas

Taking a page from my friend John Robb, a bona fide visionary, I wrote a mini-piece last week on what weak states can do to counter strong states.

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.

Via Noah Schactman of Wired‘s terrific Danger Room, I came across this:

But, by late 2007, Israeli analysts saw war and the horizon for Russia and Georgia, Ha’Aretz observes. “The defense and foreign ministries started ordering military exports to Georgia be cut last year, thwarting a major deal for Israeli-made Merkava tanks… Senior Israeli generals apparently felt a showdown was imminent, and preferred not to get directly involved.”

Especially because Jerusalem “views cooperation from Moscow — which has been supplying Iran with arms and help in its nuclear efforts — as crucial to halting Iran’s drive” for atomic weaponry, the Jewish Week adds.

So after helping to train and equip Georgian forces, the Israelis developed, very understandably, cold feet. I tend to think this reinforces the point that states like Georgia will either have to rely on self-help, or they will have to develop unconventional coalitions — “asymmetrical” coalitions of other weak states — to defend themselves against powerful neighbors. During the Cold War, South Africa and Israel cooperated on nuclear weapons development, a relationship that was traditionally opposed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and supported by the Defense Ministry. Both states also cooperated from time to time with the ROC. Given that South Africa was a pariah state, this doesn’t seem like the most attractive model in the world. But states like Georgia, on Russia’s border, strategically isolated from would-be allies in the West, who are dependent on Russian energy, are pariahs of a different kind. They’d be wise to find friends — like Taiwan, Singapore, and, one would hope, like Israel, and perhaps like Rwanda and Ukraine and, in the future, Iraq and Colombia.

I realize this sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky. All of these are states I find sympathetic in varying degrees, yet I also recognize that the United States simply can’t extend, for now, the same collective security guarantees to them that we’ve extended to Holland and Japan. It simply won’t happen. So I’d like to see them deepen cooperation, exchange military and administrative personnel, share intelligence assets, etc. Of course, Singapore and Taiwan are trading states, Israel facing unique geopolitical challenges, etc., etc. There is plenty of reason this can’t happen.

One commenter, my friend Kuba, had some appropriately harsh words.

If I read your piece correctly, you seem to be suggesting the “guerrilla option” as a somewhat risky but potentially viable strategy for Georgian resistance to Russian domination. Such a strategy, quite aside from its ethical dubiousness, would be catastrophic for the Georgians. There are any number of obvious objections, ones which, quite frankly, I would expect you to anticipate. Much depends on whether Russia chooses to occupy Tbilisi and the Georgian heartland or, as seems to be the case right now, limit its military presence to its client enclaves (where Russian forces have already been deployed for quite some time, and seem to enjoy a high level of acceptance from the local (non-Georgian) population) and perhaps strategic zones abutting those areas.

If the Russians opt for total occupation, then guerrilla resistance would be justified but also extremely difficult – the region would be locked down by Russian troops, infiltration across the border would be extremely difficult, and resistance groups would have more proximate concerns than attacking Russian infrastructure. Without a general occupation, any sabotage activity – still extremely difficult to carry out given the problems of infiltration across a militarized border – together with the inevitable civilian casualties that would result sooner or later (no one has ever managed to run a clean insurgency, not even Mandela’s ANC) would turn Saakashvili’s Georgia from a beleaguered aspiring democracy into a state sponsor of terrorism. Georgians living in Russia would be at great risk both from the security apparatus and a jingoistic general population, and even harsh reprisals could be justified using the language of “the war on terror.” You are correct that European reliance on Russian energy sources would motivate the EU to take a stand on the issue, but that stand would almost certainly take the form of tacit support for repressive measures against Georgian sabotage rather than concessions rewarding violent tactics. A Georgian guerrilla campaign would invite serious Russian reprisals, place ethnic Georgians in Russia in jeopardy, and help legitimate Russian domination of the area by producing a real security threat (where hitherto there was nothing but the pretense of one) while undercutting the legitimacy of Georgia’s position.

Reihan, this isn’t just bad advice – it’s absolute poison.

All plausible. But I guess I’m primarily interested in the potential of this strategy to deter aggression. Nuclear explosions are also pretty horrible. Mark Safranski at the Complex Terrain Laboratory had a somewhat more sanguine take.

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.

This I like — the essential defense of the state would lie in its popular legitimacy. Make Georgia a Switzerland-like porcupine, and make clear that any attack on its territory will exact a stiff price.