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President Biden has already declared that neither U.S. nor NATO military forces will be deployed to the conflict sparked by Russian forces pouring across Ukraine’s borders. The dangers of escalation are simply too great, especially given the volatile threats Russian President Vladimir Putin has made regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Direct involvement, the thinking goes, is just too risky.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. won’t be indirectly involved. From gathering intelligence on the ground to training potential civilian partisans in guerrilla warfare, it’s extremely likely the U.S. and NATO will seek to influence events on the battlefield. Here’s how that might work.
According to former U.S. Army Ranger Tom Amenta, there are advantages to having on-site, operational intelligence gathering in Ukraine that can’t be equaled by remote technologies like satellite imagery or radio signal interceptions.
“The value of boots on the ground [in intelligence] is that you get a ‘finger tip feel’ of what is going on,” said Amenta, co-author of the book The Twenty-Year War, in an interview with The Daily Beast. Such intel gives U.S. military observers “a feel of the people and of the battle space and allows for the ability to gauge the situation, almost in real time, and see what is going on with the Russians and Ukrainians to assist commanders in planning.”
Amenta’s co-author, Dan Blakely, another former Ranger, agreed that having local operators for sourcing information would be invaluable in the Ukraine conflict.
“Not only do you get the real-time HUMINT (human intelligence) of what the Russians are doing, but you can have a real pulse of the continued capabilities of the Ukraine military [and] learn the weaknesses and capabilities of our enemies,” including “what weapons, vehicles, aircraft, tactics, and troop units they are using.”
Blakely added that such intel was vital for developing “future strategic plans should the U.S. and NATO allies get involved.”
When it comes to gathering HUMINT, one option for elite U.S. forces is the use of Special Operation Groups (SOGs). Amenta described the typical SOG as a small, covert, reconnaissance task force, often made up of intelligence agents from the NSA or CIA, paired with Special Forces soldiers like Green Berets or Delta Force commandos. In order to avoid detection, the SOGs are able to work undercover within local populations.
“These men and women are extremely skilled in blending into environments, gathering intelligence and also being able to work with and help guide [and] assist local military forces,” Amenta said.
Because secrecy is of paramount importance, SOGs working in Ukraine would likely be limited to just a few officers in each unit. But Amenta framed it as an issue of quality over quantity, saying that the “training, raw intelligence, and ability to rapidly ideate and think strategically is what wins the day here.”
But not everyone is in favor of using SOGs in Ukraine.
Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the research director at the security consultancy ℅ Futures LLC, said the risk that an SOG team or a NATO equivalent could be killed or captured, and linked back to their countries of origin, means that the risk far outweighs the reward.
Putting U.S. intelligence gatherers on the ground in any capacity is just not a “viable option,” Bunker said. “In my opinion it is too escalatory given the fact that both the Putin regime and the U.S. are nuclear armed powers… We simply do not want NATO or U.S. forces and Russian forces getting into direct contact with one another.”
Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Hal Kempfer, who served as a U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Officer, said that it’s “very possible” that the U.S. has spies on the ground in Ukraine. But Kempfer also said a safer option to avoid escalation would be to utilize Ukrainian nationals to gather vital HUMINT information and pass it on to their counterparts in the U.S. and NATO.
“We don’t really need to have [U.S. or NATO spies on the ground] because we can deal directly with Ukraine forces, many of whom we’ve trained, and trained to a standard where they can provide tremendous intelligence capability,” Kempfer said.
“They’ve essentially mobilized the entire nation. You have federal law enforcement [mobilized]. They’re really good at observing and reporting. And good at avoiding detection while they do that. So a lot of them might be wearing civilian clothes and collecting intelligence,” he added.
Even if U.S. special forces did not enter Ukrainian territory, that does not mean they won’t be playing a vital role. One of their most important functions might well be training Ukrainian soldiers or ordinary citizens in the tactics of guerrilla warfare they would need to resist the occupation of their homeland. Just such tactics were employed by Mujahideen fighters during the Soviet-Afghan war of the late 20th century—tactics that eventually forced the Soviets to withdraw.
On Friday, the BBC reported that at least 18,000 assault rifles had been handed out to the citizens of Kyiv, and the international community is rife with speculation that the conflict could devolve into a prolonged anti-Russian insurgency.
That’s partly because Ukraine is almost the size of Texas, with a population of about 43 million people. About 70 percent of the population is concentrated in urban areas, meaning that: “We could be looking at house-to-house fighting in which tens of thousands of armed defenders face the invading forces,” said research director Bunker.
In the event that the major cities were pacified by the Russian forces, an occupation phase would then begin during which “Ukrainian civilians and the relatives of the insurgent fighters” would be targeted, Bunker said. “Along with the brutality of such an occupation this would begin to strain the Russian economy to logistically support the deployed force.”
Former Ranger Amenta agreed with Bunker that Russian forces could get bogged down in a potential quagmire. “Once you take the territory you are no longer the aggressor. [Then] you are in static positions that restrict your freedom of movement, and you’re an easier target,” Amenta said. “And two hundred thousand Russian soldiers against 43 million people that don’t like you—that’s a really hard thing to accomplish.”
In the event of a prolonged insurgency that might turn into a war of attrition, the U.S. and NATO would likely see it in their own interests to provide training and munitions to partisan fighters, in similar fashion to what the U.S. did in Europe during the Nazi occupation.
When asked, a senior U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast that the U.S. would not rule out training Ukrainians. “We’re going to continue to look for ways to support the Ukrainian armed forces, and to help them defend their country,” they said.
Former Marine Colonel Kempfer, who cited similar efforts conducted by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, described training host-nation personnel as “a traditional Army Special Forces mission.” Amenta agreed, calling such training the Special Forces’ “bread and butter.”
“They’d be teaching [Ukrainian partisans] how to use things like Stinger anti-air missiles and javelin anti-tank weapons to slow down Russian tanks and helicopters. They’ll also teach ambush and guerilla warfare techniques, especially things that can destabilize or slow down the Russian movement, and, if they were attempting to hold territory, to make it very difficult for them to keep it.”
One major question might be where would such training take place. If U.S. forces are barred from entering an occupied Ukraine, nearby NATO allies like Poland and Romania would seem like potential candidates. American troops arrived in both of those nations this week to help them defend against potential Russian incursions, meaning that the personnel needed for setting up guerrilla warfare schools may already be in place.
The trouble with basing training camps in NATO countries, said Kempfer, is that the Kremlin might see that as aggressive interference within its sphere of influence.
"If you train partisans in Romania or Poland and then they return to Ukraine [to engage Russian forces]—how would Putin view that? You have to look at the political volatility of that.
Kempfer also pointed to Putin's KGB background and his penchant for being ruthlessly vindictive against any perceived threat.
"This is someone who used a nerve agent to assassinate dissidents on British soil... My concern would be that if we brought [the partisans] to a NATO country Putin could take some sort of overt military action against that NATO country and that would cause a massive escalation. The other concern is that he would use covert means against that country to destabilize the situation in and around where we're doing the training. That's very much in his kit bag."
Kempfer said that one solution might be the use of virtual or online training. “From an operational risk perspective, that’s the safest thing we can do,” he said.
Kempfer also discussed the possibility that many members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. and Western Europe might see themselves as beholden to return to their homeland to take up arms.
“I fully believe that’s going to happen,” Kempfer said, and also mentioned that such an influx of voluntary foreign fighters could provoke Putin into unfairly claiming deliberate interference by the U.S. or NATO.
“There’s reality and then there’s whatever Russia wants to say,” Kempfer said. “It’s all fun and games until someone throws a nuke.”
Shannon Vavra contributed to this story.