Soldiers participating in ceremonial events to mark the 30th anniversary of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The False Promise of Arming Insurgents: America’s Spotty Record Warrants Caution in Ukraine

March 18, 2022
Lindsey O'Rourke

This is a summary of an article originally published by Foreign Affairs.

The author, an associate professor of Political Science at Boston College and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, writes that while covertly coming to the aid of Ukrainian insurgents may appear to be the prudent choice for U.S. policymakers facing an array of unattractive options, history suggests that this would be a risky gamble.

O'Rourke notes the United States' "remarkably poor" record for covertly backing insurgencies, explaining that "of 35 U.S. attempts to covertly arm foreign dissidents during the Cold War, only four succeeded in bringing U.S. allies to power." The author provides several examples ranging from Washington's covert intervention in the Syrian Civil War, to an escalatory U.S.-backed covert operation in North Vietnam, to a failed attempt to support Ukrainian nationalists during the Cold War. "The U.S.-backed Ukrainian partisans were simply no match for Soviet intelligence, which easily infiltrated and then brutally suppressed the movement. Indeed, the operation ended so disastrously for the U.S.-backed partisans that a declassified CIA history later concluded, 'In the long run, the Agency’s effort to penetrate the Iron Curtain using Ukrainian agents was ill-fated and tragic,'" she writes.

The author notes that under the current circumstances, particularly given Putin's decision to order Russia's nuclear forces on "special combat readiness," the United States should tread carefully. "Washington ... needs to be cautious about the risk that a covert operation could somehow be erroneously perceived by Moscow as an attack. Although this warning may sound alarmist, anyone who has studied the history of nuclear accidents knows that there have been plenty of disturbing close calls and false alarms in peacetime — let alone when Russia is engaged in major combat 500 miles from Moscow."

In considering possible unintended consequences of covert operations in Ukraine, O'Rourke writes: "It is impossible to know what the potential blowback from a ... U.S. covert action in Ukraine could look like, but there are already factors that should give policymakers pause. Those include reports that in recent years the CIA has been secretly funding a controversial ultranationalist Ukrainian military unit, the Azov Battalion — a group with neo-Nazi members that the FBI has tied to far-right extremist groups within the United States." If an insurgency does take hold in Ukraine and the U.S. backs it, she writes, U.S. policymakers should be prepared to stay involved in the country's affairs for the long haul, citing a 2010 RAND study that found the average modern insurgency lasts a decade and ends in defeat. "When one sees the images of courageous Ukrainians taking up arms to defend their homeland, fighting against long odds, the urge to help is hard to resist. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions," the author concludes.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs


Lindsey O'Rourke

Lindsey O'Rourke is an associate professor of Political Science at Boston College and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. 

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, shared via Flickr through the Public Domain.