Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Counterinsurgency: The brutal but effective Russian approach

I’ve spent the last several days at the Naval War College, which hosted a big summary conference on counterinsurgency practices. One of the most interesting presentations was by Harvard’s Mark Kramer, who took issue with the assertion made in the American military’s counterinsurgency manual that each side in a COIN fight is vying to be ...

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I've spent the last several days at the Naval War College, which hosted a big summary conference on counterinsurgency practices.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Harvard's Mark Kramer, who took issue with the assertion made in the American military's counterinsurgency manual that each side in a COIN fight is vying to be perceived as legitimate by the population. The Russians, he said, in several campaigns both at home and aboard have strived not for legitimacy, but simply for control. And in each instance their operations were notably brutal but also quite effective.

I’ve spent the last several days at the Naval War College, which hosted a big summary conference on counterinsurgency practices.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Harvard’s Mark Kramer, who took issue with the assertion made in the American military’s counterinsurgency manual that each side in a COIN fight is vying to be perceived as legitimate by the population. The Russians, he said, in several campaigns both at home and aboard have strived not for legitimacy, but simply for control. And in each instance their operations were notably brutal but also quite effective.

He cited four major cases, beginning with western Ukraine and Lithuania from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Contrary to the current American view that “enemy-centric” approaches don’t work, he said, the Russian approach worked, probably because of its “unbridled violence” against anyone who got in the way. He noted that Nikita Khrushchev, then the head of the Ukrainian Communist party, told his security agents in 1945 that, “For one of ours, we will take out a hundred of theirs.” (Why does this line remind me of Sonny Corleone?)

Then, in Hungary in 1956, after an initial hesitant approach in October, the Soviets cracked down hard in November, and successfully crushed the anti-communist uprising. 

Most strikingly, he argued that even in Afghanistan, the nasty Russian approach was “partly successful, albeit at horrific cost for Afghanistan.” That’s not the conventional wisdom about what happened in the so-called graveyard of empires, so I listened especially closely to this part of presentation. The great shift in the Afghan war, he said, wasn’t the introduction of Stinger missiles (that is, the story told in the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War) but the coming to power of Gorbachev, who wanted to get out of Afghanistan. “They notion that Stinger missiles brought this about is just a fallacy,” Kramer said. “The first ones didn’t arrive until September 1986” — which, he said, was after Gorbachev had decided to get out.

Finally, in Chechnya, the Russians did not seek or win legitimacy, just effective rule. He said his interviews there indicate to him that again, they succeeded.

So, he concluded, the Russians have made a pretty good case for the efficacy of “enemy-centric” counterinsurgency operations — just as long as one doesn’t mind being extraordinarily brutal in those campaigns. This is of course a sharp contrast to the “population-centric” approach prescribed in the new American COIN manual.

AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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