Douglas London: The war in Ukraine is the perfect ground for Special operations and Intelligence. Depending on the degree of risk tolerance, Special Forces and intelligence operators can infiltrate into Ukraine clandestinely or work indirectly from near, or across the border, in order to equip, train, and support local insurgency groups.

About the author

Douglas London is a 34-year veteran of CIA’s Clandestine Service who retired in 2019. Mr. London spent the majority of his career overseas and served extensively across the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet republics and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station and one as a CIA Base Chief in a conflict zone.

In addition to his overseas experience, Mr. London was a CIA subject matter expert in counterterrorism, counterintelligence, Iran, cyber and hostile environment operations in denied areas. He also served as an intelligence tradecraft instructor. During his service, Mr. London spoke Russian and French with professional competency, and Arabic with limited proficiency.

Since his retirement, Mr. London has taught intelligence concentration courses at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, is a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Institute, and writes on national security topics.

He has been a contributor for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Just Security, the Hill, CNN Online and the Middle East Institute. Mr. London has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, PBS News Hour, NPR, NBC, ABC, BBC and al-Jazeera, and is frequently quoted by a wide range of national security reporters. He has lectured at universities across the US, Europe and been routinely interviewed on podcasts addressing national security and intelligence issues.

Douglas London is author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” Hachette Books, September 28, 2021,

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The war in Ukraine is the perfect ground for Special operations and Intelligence

The Interview

Thomas Lojek: What scenario do you expect for the Russian military after the initial phase of its invasion into Ukraine territory?

Douglas London: The invasion clearly has not advanced as Putin expected.

The Russian Army has struggled with logistics, command, control, communications and morale while encountering a surprisingly resilient opponent in Ukraine’s defense forces.

Nevertheless, the Ukrainian military can continue to bleed the Russian Army making further fighting too costly but is unlikely to expel it entirely from its territory in the long run.

Russia has significantly more firepower and resources and might be able to regroup and still overwhelm Ukrainian capabilities.

In the meantime, Russia can level entire cities to the ground with its artillery, missiles, and air force from greater distance and relative safety to inflict greater civilian suffering and perhaps seize additional ground.

Still, seizing a country’s territory does not equal pacifying it.

Especially not after destroying so much of it and further antagonizing the population which encourages greater resistance.

If Russian troops advance despite the costs – as they already seem to be willing to do after the first weeks of the war – Putin will face an even more difficult situation when his initial combat objectives are met and stalemate lends itself to a prolonged, widespread bloody insurgency.

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Putin turned to tactics that worked in Syria, Libya, and Chechnya. But Ukraine is a different battlefield!

Thomas Lojek: Why do you think the Russian military will face an insurgency in Ukraine – and to what extent?

Douglas London: Putin did not expect the level of resistance his forces faced and overestimated the capabilities of an army he believed to have been thoroughly modernized and professionalized.

When Ukrainians failed to greet his troops as liberators and his forces failed, he turned to tactics that worked in Syria, Libya, and Chechnya.

But Ukraine is a different battlefield.

While smaller, it retains a robust, well trained conventional force whose capabilities neutralized the advantages Russian forces enjoyed elsewhere such as air superiority and limited threat to its armor.

Moreover, anti-Russian sentiments and Ukrainian nationalism have grown for years in the country, long before the attack, giving its defenders high morale and resolve to resist.

Since Putin’s 2014 invasion in Crimea and the East, Ukrainians have spent years planning, training, and equipping for resisting a future Russian attack and occupation, something that Putin underestimated when planning to go to war.

Putin’s dilemma will soon come to a head: If he limits Russia’s offensive to the east and south of Ukraine, the result will be a geographical stalemate.

In this scenario, the Ukrainian government will have the freedom to resupply, reinforce and carry out a prolonged resistance that might even enable greater offensive operations and counterattacks while receiving significant military and economic support from its Western allies.

And if Russia decides to occupy the entire country, the tremendous costs in its own blood and treasure is likely prohibitive.

It would be hard to measure victory if faced with a bloody and protracted insurgency regardless of the amount of territory seized.

The supporting role of NATO and other Western Allies will enable a Ukrainian resistance that bleeds Moscow into untenable military, economic and political circumstances that exhausts resources and the public support.

Russia’s economy is already paying a high price for the invasion.

Ukraine shares its border with four NATO states: Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. These long borders are a counter-insurgency nightmare for any occupying force.

The United States, NATO, and its Allies have endless options to support a Ukrainian resistance to facilitate a long-term insurgency against Russian troops who will never be able to control and close the entire border.

And any Russian efforts to reach across the border into sanctuaries and supply lines risks triggering all-out war with NATO, something that, for the moment, Putin seems anxious to avoid.

In sum, if this transitions to a stalemate, the Russians can continue to inflict significant civilian suffering and demolish infrastructure but will likewise leave itself exposed to prolonged losses in a campaign from which it will be unable to achieve overall victory- -if that requires subjugating Ukraine.

Ukraine’s most significant battlefield success appears to be rooted in irregular warfare and special operations

Thomas Lojek: When can we expect to see the first signs of an insurgency against the Russian military in Ukraine?

Douglas London: We have it already in a way.

Ukraine’s most significant battlefield success appears to be rooted in irregular warfare and special operations striking in the enemy’s rear, its supply lines, and undermining the morale and will of Russian forces to fight.

But a more traditional insurgency is an extension of this when civilians and local militias operate with greater clandestinity against occupiers, often within territory under the enemy’s control.

An insurgency has its roots in civilian disobedience that often evolves into civil unrest and ultimately organized, violent resistance.

The model variously features militias and partisans which use guerilla tactics and asymmetrical warfare undertaken from clandestine cells operating underground against the occupying forces.

It is a process that takes time and features decentralized, often autonomous groups.

Traditionally, insurgencies become more lethal over time and generally don’t show immediate results, though the first month of fighting in Ukraine suggests that might not necessarily be the case.

Though the ongoing media coverage and the 24/7 propaganda from both sides may raise the expectation for an immediate, vicious and victorious insurgency against the Russians within weeks or even days.

These are understandable but unrealistic expectations.

If the Russians dig in, it could take months, maybe longer, until we see the full picture of what Russia awaits as an occupying force in Ukraine.

Progress might seem slow on the surface.

Resistance movements often take years to grow, organize, become efficient, and learn how to exploit the weakness in the occupation forces, not something that happens overnight, no matter how motivated and brave the resistance.

But once it has momentum, an insurgency can quickly spread, pick up steam and reach a meaningful offensive tempo.

Although reasonably close to home, Russia will be surprised and hard pressed to support such a fight over the long term.

The war in Ukraine is the perfect ground for Special operations and Intelligence

Thomas Lojek: What will we see on the operative level of this war, specifically: what are the operational options of the Western allies?

Douglas London: The war in Ukraine is the perfect ground for Special operations and Intelligence.

Depending on the degree of risk tolerance, Special Forces and intelligence operators can infiltrate into Ukraine clandestinely or work indirectly from near, or across the border, in order to equip, train, and support local insurgency groups.

They will provide continued guidance, training, intelligence and lethal aid to carry out effective campaigns of sabotage and guerilla warfare against the Russian Army on the Ukrainian territory.

It will be very “old school” Special Forces work as we know it from the “cold war” and the experience of the French and Norwegian resistance during World War II.

Intelligence will play a critical role in assessing the situation on the ground, identifying exploitable enemy vulnerabilities, measuring battlefield success, and distinguishing truth from disinformation.

Western allies need context and ground truth to manage successful missions and support Ukraine most effectively, and leverage intelligence collected to expose Russian propaganda and disrupt their planning.

But the Russians know how to play the intelligence game as well. They are a nation where espionage, intelligence, and the manipulation of information and public opinion have a long tradition.

Weapons of mass destruction to break the resilience of the Ukraine resistance

Thomas Lojek: How far is Putin willing to go?

Do you think he is able to give the order to include weapons of mass destruction in the military campaign to break the resilience of the Ukraine resistance?

Douglas London: I think it’s a risk to rule out any possibility as Putin is concerned.

Moreover, the more desperate and insecure he feels, the greater the risk of him escalating.

While not a high probability, I won’t rule out even a limited tactical nuclear strike but expect his assumption this would trigger all-out war with NATO, even if the weapon were used in Ukraine, makes it less likely.

It also offers questionable military advantages.

Use of biological or chemical weapons already integrated into Russian training is a greater risk.

History has taught us painful lessons about underestimating the willingness of despots to use extreme measures to reach their goals.

Chemical weapons would offer a means to minimize high Russian casualties one might expect if taking large, well defended, population centers.

It could be a tempting option should urban warfare in the bigger cities become too costly and tiresome for the Russian troops.

But if Russia is indeed backing off from attempting to secure Northern population centers and focused on the East and South, the likelihood, and temptations, decreases.

Russia has a history of removing leaders or political figures by assassination

Thomas Lojek: How likely is an internal revolt in the Kremlin or an assassination attempt on Putin to end the war?

Douglas London: Russia has a history of removing leaders or political figures by assassination or coup, some quiet and behind the scenes, others less so.

In the case of Putin, I think the possibility is low, but not negligible.

One would think it less likely from high inside the Kremlin, but Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was ousted by his most trusted lieutenant in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev.

Putin had twenty years to establish and secure his system of power and control in the higher ranks of Russia making it hard for any one individual to move against him.

It would likely take more time for the consequences of Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine to become so existential to other Russian leaders that the risk of acting against him becomes necessary.

The circumstances are probably not yet ripe, at least, not for now.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some exploration of moving against Putin comes from the Oligarchs at some point.

Not just the ordinary circle, but those who have greater fortunes and influence over Russian infrastructure provide them greater ability to act, and more serious risk if they don’t.

These multi-billionaires certainly have the political network and the money to get it done.

Maybe when they decide that the war becomes too costly on the economical side for Russia… and themselves, of course.

Many of them have already lost fortunes in the first weeks of the war.

They are powerful individuals.

Maybe at one point, they decide “Enough!”

I don’t think this scenario has a high probability, but it isn’t impossible as the war drags on, and the strain on Russia’s economy continues.

Douglas London is author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” Hachette Books, September 28, 2021,

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Photos by Douglas London