“Special War” Goes Mainstream

One of the main missions of this blog is spreading the idea that intelligence matters in the real world, and that a lot of important activities involve covert action that is anything but transparent; many media types, unacquainted with such dark arts, are skeptical of these notions, however, and sometimes this is a hard sell. One upside to the Ukraine crisis is that it’s brought some of these usually secret shenanigans into a bit of sunlight before the world.

For months I’ve been explaining that this all amounts to what I term Special War, and it’s something important that the Russians excel at across the board; regrettably, the United States does not. Ukraine is a realtime laboratory for the whole range of Moscow’s Special War activities, especially provocation. Slowly, the Mainstream Media is starting to notice.

Today’s New York Times has a good article explaining how Russian intelligence, specifically GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, is pulling the strings in Eastern Ukraine, employing special operators to cause mayhem and weaken Kyiv’s already flagging grip on the region. Of course, I’ve been telling you this for weeks, but it’s nice to see the MSM take notice, particluarly when they cite….me:

But masking the identity of its forces, and clouding the possibilities for international denunciation, is a central part of the Russian strategy, developed over years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and American officials say.

John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the Naval War College, calls it “special war”: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”

And one country, Mr. Schindler noted in an article last year in which he coined the term, that particularly excels at special war is Russia, which carried out its first post-Soviet war to regain control of rebellious Chechnya back in 1994 by sending in a column of armored vehicles filled with Russian soldiers masquerading as pro-Moscow Chechens.

That’s good to see. As Ron Burgundy might say: “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” Hey, it’s a start. We can’t have a real public debate about Ukraine – and Putin’s nefarious actions more generally – until people understand what’s actually happening. I’ll be reporting on the next stages of the Kremlin’s Special War for Ukraine as they unfold…watch this space.



57 comments on ““Special War” Goes Mainstream”
  1. Kind of glad we are not that good at some aspects of “Special War” as they violate our values as citizens in a democracy. Special War, like other kinds of war, is an extension of politics. In the case of the old USSR or even “Russia today”, there may be no contradiction with any of these modalities as the political goal is the projection of power without regard for the liberty of those involved/affected. If ours is the defense of liberty, tactics that violate this precept undermine the whole strategy, a form of shooting oneself in the foot.

    1. 20committee says:

      I share some of these concerns, actually, but Special War is a lot cheaper than actual war, which has priced itself out of the market, mostly, anyway. Having witnessed some recent US actual wars badly mishandled, I find the Special kind more appealing. Not to mention the Russians aren;t giving us a choice in the matter. My colleague Steve Knott has written lots of excellent stuff on how things resembling Special War are actually very much part of the US political tradition, back to George W…and I mean Washington. 🙂

    2. As someone once said, ” Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. ” The US may have ” high values ” but will the US win on the world stage ? I wouldn’t bet on it.

  2. Ihor Molodecky says:

    “Special war” as conducted by Russia has been working very well to date, but will the the very act of shining a light on it and making it more transparent denigrate it’s effectiveness?
    Even though the Kyiv government is on a huge learning curve as how to govern under really lousy conditions, the generals of the SBU come from the same KGB origin as the Russian FSB. So they can’t be totally clueless as to what is going on. Could it be that the number of successful ways to respond is limited? In your opinion how should the Kyiv government be responding?

    1. 20committee says:

      Kyiv has thee big tasks which cannot be delayed: 1. Purge its special services of at least the high/mid-ranking Kremlin agents & sympathizers. 2. Understand Russian SW moves fully. 3. Counteract them through offensive counterintelligence ASAP. Can be done.

  3. Arto Pulkki says:

    “a good article”


    Have you read this and care to comment reg NYTimes/State Dept “direct evidence”?


    1. 20committee says:

      If you don’t think GRU is running the show in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” you are so clueless about Putin’s Russia that I can’t help you.

      1. Arto Pulkki says:

        I didn’t say nor write that – on the contrary.

        I did ask about “direct evidence” as shown in the article, and didn’t get one.

      2. 20committee says:

        This may shock you, but intel operations are designed to not leave “direct evidence.” FYI.

  4. Either you are so misinformed as to how Ukraine got into this mess or you’re just plain ignorant. Bashing Russia shows me at least that Western propaganda has you right where they want you.
    The US is not a democracy of the people any longer, it’s a police state that is fast becoming a fascist dictatorship. The separation of powers as delegated in the constitution have fallen into the hands of a powerful world banking scheme who hold the world hostage in the most covert operation ever unleashed. Where ever you are doing your research on world affairs, is most likely regulated and sanctioned under the watchful eyes of those who manufacture truths to their goals. With the revelation of a free internet communication network in use by today’s society, the lies and deception are being challenged evermore. Let me suggest you start with a video Documentary that will get you thinking along wider lines of understanding.

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hb2i06gk8dw&list=WLA0QPrlK-ccmeiOI8znc0UA&index=108

    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqRyUQzokYs&list=WLA0QPrlK-ccmeiOI8znc0UA&index=109

    1. 20committee says:

      Please adjust your tinfoil, it’s messing with your signal.

  5. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    TV talking heads wonder when and if Russia will invade Ukraine. As John Schindler notes, they already have, and they’re very good at disguising it.

  6. Ever since I heard of Schindler’s “special war” theory last September, I’ve pondered whether I like it or not — but then, war isn’t something you “like like” – as you do a Facebook kitty. There’s the Catholic theory of “a just war” which should have as its goals the ending of war. Does it fit?

    I wonder how some of its aspects are to be distinguished from what used to be called “CIA dirty tricks” — and maybe it’s not. For those who don’t want to endorse drones and mass killing, “special wars” is an attractive alternative. And indeed, any moral person has to ask why we wouldn’t opt for “special wars” that are more efficient, require much less troops, seem brainier, and are more pin-pointed. That is, a drone might have “collateral damage” or hit women and children or wedding guests while going after the fighters who deliberately mingle among them — there’s lots of angst about drones become of the remoteness of the operation of them. Then massive numbers of troops — as in the “surge” in Afghanistan — that just seems to get lots of our soldiers killed, and not win the war anyway — precisely because we live in the age of “special wars” which the Russians and the Taliban for that matter are really good at.

    So wouldn’t we rather have an intelligence agent parachute in and assassinate the Pakistani ISI operative who is sustaining the Taliban, or infiltrate a political party, or get inside the prime minister’s office, or whatever it is that you do, instead of massing troops around borders and trying to drone away militants. In the old days, that’s what the CIA did, and it worked in some places, but it got a bad rap.

    That’s my question then. Once “special wars” gets going, how will it deal with the bad rap? The Russians and even some Ukrainians think the US has mercenaries parachuted into southeastern Ukraine already (we don’t); what if we start really doing that sort of thing?

    Next, there is so much wrong with the military — scandals in the top leadership, suicides, massacres of civilians, PSTD– as I’ve noted before, I think this is a mismatch between the reality of what war is, and the PR campaign that the armed forces insist on retaining, which implies that you “learn a skill” and “get a job” through the military — meaning that the poor people who come into this setting think their goal is to get a skill and be assured of a job, instead of going into dangerous places and killing people. So that begs the question: can we make “special wars” with *this* army?

    In general, I’d like to see less contractors in the armed services and government in general — most problems we’ve had — think of Snowden – are related to them. So would “special wars” be done with contractors? I think it would be better to have permanent, trained, regular armed services doing this.

    We also need more HUMINT, foreign languages, education — how will that be assured? Can existing academies like West Point create the cadres of the “special wars” or does some other academy have to be created?

    Finally, what about the moral problem of “becoming like them”? The Russians are good at “special wars” because they’re cynical nihilists exploiting illiberal ideas like nationalism or Eurasianism. Can you get good at “special wars” and remain decent?

    1. 20committee says:

      Catherine: I’m on the road today so, briefly: This really comes down to deep-seated issues of doctrine and intelligence culture. The US approaches such matters radically differently than Russia does, or ever has, and generally speaking that’s a good thing. There is simply no danger that the US IC will turn into Russian “special services” – that would be tantamount to a cat becoming a dog. Simply, US intel lacks any coherent doctrinal approach to much of anything….which is why we are not good at all at Special War. Frankly, we cannot even think in such terms. It’s all tactics, no strategy. This must change.

  7. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Long-awaited sequel.

  8. John Mitchell says:

    The United States excelled at special war when it fomented revolutions in many of Russia’s former satellites. Where did Putin learn these tactics? From us.

    Pat Buchanan:

    Perhaps some history is in order.

    Compare how Putin brought about the secession and annexation of Crimea, without bloodshed but with popular approval, with how Sam Houston and friends brought about the secession of Texas from Mexico, and its annexation by the United States in 1845.

    When the Mexicans tried to retrieve a disputed piece of their lost Texas territory, James K. Polk accused them of shedding American blood on American soil, had Congress declare war, sent Gen. Winfield Scott and a U.S. army to Mexico City, and annexed the entire northern half of Mexico, which is now the American Southwest and California.

    Compared to the Jacksonian, James Polk, Vladimir Putin is Pierre Trudeau.

    Even in Eastern Ukraine, it is hard to see a moral issue. For the Kiev regime is loudly denouncing as “terrorists” the Russians who are taking over city centers by using the exact same tactics the Maidan Square demonstrators used to seize Kiev.

    If it was heroic for the Svoboda Party and Pravy Sektor to fight police and torch buildings to oust Viktor Yanukovych, the elected president of Ukraine, upon what ground do the usurpers who inherited his power bewail the same thing being done to them?

    Is there not glaring hypocrisy here?

    And where do we Americans come off piously damning what the Russians are doing in Ukraine?

    A decade ago, the National Endowment for Democracy and its progeny helped to foment the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the Orange Revolution in Kiev, and countless other “color revolutions” to dethrone unresponsive regimes and bring those countries into America’s orbit.

    In the last decade, Putin has learned how to play the Americans’ game. And before winding up in a conflict we managed to avoid over four decades of Cold War, perhaps we should call off this game of thrones, and consign NED to the boneyard.


    1. 20committee says:

      Alas, no. I would listen to my cat discuss strategy & intel operations before Pat Buchanan — FYI. Suggest you do the same.

  9. wildninja says:

    John, did the NYT actually talk to you or just give you credit for something they found in print or on the web? I’m curious. At least they gave you credit. The more I write the more I notice people, er, “borrowing” verbiage as if they said it that way first.

  10. mark says:

    I assume you have heard about Ed Lansdale, who was very talented at organizing this sort of psychological warfare. He was effective in several countries, including our own, although this was not a good thing – and we’re suffering the consequences to this day.

    We have always been at war with Eurasia.

    “There are no victories in these wars. They don’t want victory, they want duration. George Orwell wrote that in 1984.”
    — Joan Mellen

    Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries–indeed of all the world–cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries. ….”
    “Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world–or to make it the last.”
    — President John F. Kennedy, September 20, 1963 speech to the UN calling for an end to the Cold War and converting the Moon Race into an international cooperative effort, two months and two days before he was removed from office

    1. 20committee says:

      Landsdale was an amateur.

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