The legitimate alternative

‘The primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy,’ says the American army’s pamphlet FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. ‘Legitimacy is the main objective,’ it explains.

The Atlantic Council of Canada has just published a report on the conference at which I spoke last week on the subject of the war in Ukraine. The report notes correctly that several speakers criticized some of the actions of the Ukrainian government, but the author, Olga Radchenko, then counters this criticism with the comment that ‘Panelists failed to sufficiently address what alternative methods the central government could have employed to deal with an armed insurgency.’ Radchenko’s comment deserves an answer.

Governments naturally want to have a monopoly on the use of force within their territory. No self-respecting state is likely to sit back and do nothing about armed insurgency. It may therefore appear to be unfair to criticize the Ukrainian government for resorting to force to quell the uprising which took place in Donbass last year. But although that argument in favour of violence is superficially appealing, both the ethics of war and the optimal method of dealing with insurgency dictate that other alternatives be explored first.

Most (although not all) just war theorists would accept that there is a ‘presumption against war’. War is considered to be unjust unless the opposite can be proven. The burden of proof is therefore not upon those who would oppose it to show that there are better alternatives; rather it is on those who would wage it to show that there are none. Moreover, even though restoring order can be considered a ‘just cause’ for war, just cause alone is insufficient. Other criteria must also be met, such as having the legitimate authority to wage war, having a reasonable chance of success, and using violence only as a last resort.

Let us, however, put aside the ethics of the issue, and focus instead on the practicalities. What practical alternatives did the Ukrainian authorities have in spring 2014? In line with the advice of FM 3-24, the best alternatives would have been ones which enhanced the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Donbass. That would have meant, among other things, broadening the make-up of the government to include people who could reasonably be said to represent the rebellious areas; clearly disassociating the government from the far right groups, such as Right Sector, which had helped bring it to power; and giving firm assurances about the status of the Russian language.

Once protestors in the East seized buildings and weapons, and especially after the referendums in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics on 11 May 2014, the situation changed. The measures above would still have been useful, but more would have been required, in particular an effort to talk with the rebel leadership to find a political solution. That leadership was far from united, with a range of ambitions running from union with Russia to merely some concessions from Kiev about the Russian language and decentralization of power. The mass of the population probably stood far closer to the latter than the former. By striking a deal with the latter, the government had a good chance of detaching the population from the more extreme elements, and leaving them isolated. At that point, the insurgency would have been doomed. The opportunity for such a deal still existed even in late June when talks began between former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and representatives of the DPR and LPR. Instead, the talks were abandoned when President Poroshenko annulled his first ceasefire in early July, apparently in the belief that his army was strong enough to win a military victory.

Rodchenko’s use of the phrase ‘armed insurgency’ implies that what the Ukrainian government faced (and still faces) was from the outset a military problem, which therefore required (and requires) a military solution. But if we follow the advice of FM 3-24, then it is better to view it as having been (and still being) a legitimacy problem. In a similar analysis, Robert Thompson, author of the classic text Defeating Communist Insurgency wrote that insurgency is a political problem and that the solution must be political too. Military action which undermines the political solution is to be avoided, even if it is militarily advantageous. That implies that the wisest option for the Ukrainian government would have been to avoid military action and take measures to convince the population of the government’s legitimacy.

This remains true even today. The Ukrainian authorities maintain that the primary cause of the war in Donbass is Russian interference. But if the people of Donbass were to decide that the legitimate government of their region was the one in Kiev, then the Russians, deprived of any popular support, would have to leave. As FM 3-24 remarks, ‘Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.’

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4 thoughts on “The legitimate alternative”

    1. Indeed. The choice of words was clearly meant to legitimize military action, but instead merely further angered people who didn’t like being labelled that way, thus worsening the situation still further.

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  1. Question: was there, as a matter of fact, any effort whatsoever made to engage in dialogue of any kind with any of the “insurgents” or “rebels” (or whatever they ought to be called) at the early stages of this conflict? And by “dialogue” is meant something other than a command for them to cease and desist.

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    1. I believe that Yatseniuk may have briefly turned up in Donetsk in March or April, but only briefly. Thereafter, the first serious effort to talk was in late May during the first ceasefire, when Kuchma, I seem to remember met with LPR and DPR members. Around that time, the Ukrainian government also set up a ’roundtable’ with representatives from Donbas, but they did not include anybody from LPR and DPR, and the roundtable discussions were soon abandoned, in part, I think, because even the ‘pro-government’ people from Donbas were asking for things the government wasn’t willing to give.

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