© Washington Post
Reports that the CIA is running training programs to prepare Ukrainian forces for unconventional warfare bear an uncanny similarity to a long-exposed Cold War-era project. If history is any judge, it is likely to end the same way.

A tranche of allegations recently published in the press, ostensibly sourced to "five former intelligence and national security officials familiar with the initiative," claims that America's top spy agency has been, since 2015, conducting training for select Ukrainian military and security personnel. According to the speculation, the program aims to develop skillsets associated with unconventional warfare (UW), a form of conflict often referred to as insurgency. These reports say that the training takes place in the US, and is overseen by the CIA's paramilitary arm, the Special Activities Division.

An unconventional approach

The Department of Defense defines UW as:
"activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary or guerrilla force in a denied area."
The term 'guerrilla force' is further defined as:
"a group of irregular, predominantly indigenous personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory."
If the press reports are to be believed, the CIA is actively training Ukrainian citizens to resist a Russian occupation. One reading of this would be that Washington is creating a capability designed to inflict a follow-on cost to any future Russian military invasion and occupation of Ukraine, something Russia insists it is not preparing for. Another reading, given the fact that both Ukraine and the US consider Crimea and the Donbass to be territories that are illegally occupied, is that the CIA could be training Ukrainian forces to conduct offensive guerrilla warfare on lands either controlled directly by the Russian government, which has been the case in Crimea since 2014, or controlled by anti-Kiev separatists, as in Donbass. Either version would be cause for alarm in Moscow.

From Nazis to communists

If true, the reported CIA activity would not represent the agency's first foray into organizing Ukrainians to fight against the authority of Moscow. At the conclusion of WWII, the CIA established close contacts with two Ukrainian resistance groups, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought alongside Hitler's Nazi Germany against the Soviets.

Initially, the support was geared toward facilitating the unconventional warfare activities of OUN-UPA fighters. Agents were identified and recruited with the assistance of the West German Gehlen Organization, named after General Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Nazi German military intelligence (the 12th Department of the German Army General Staff-Foreign Armies East, or FHO) on the Eastern Front during World War II.

Gehlen controlled numerous networks of agents who continued to work on behalf of Nazi Germany up until the end of the war. After the fighting ended, the United States took control of the 12th Department and, with Gehlen still at the helm, transferred it and its network of agents to US control. Gehlen's organization would provide the US with Ukrainian individuals under its control, who were trained by the US Army in West Germany, and then dispatched to eastern Poland/western Ukraine, where they helped coordinate an active resistance which continued up until 1955.

Once the Soviets had defeated the paramilitary arm of the OUN-UPA, the CIA transitioned its focus away from unconventional warfare toward political covert action, funding a variety of publications which were used to disseminate anti-Soviet propaganda both inside Ukraine and around the world. This effort was known by the CIA cryptogram 'AERODYNAMIC', and continued up until the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Repeating history?

According to press reports, the CIA is carefully vetting the personnel receiving the UW training to ensure that ideologically incompatible persons, for example, those affiliated with neo-Nazi organizations, and potential Russian double agents, are not brought into the program. There are two problems with this scenario as presented: First, the segment of indigenous society most suitable for sustaining a long-term post-Russian occupation resistance is the modern-day incarnation of the OUN-UPA.

On the one hand, CIA support for this group would provide it with a base of indigenous support inclined to make violence against Russia. On the other, the present day OUN-UPA successor movement has been taken over by Ukrainian nationalists given to embracing neo-Nazi symbology and ideology. However, the recent willingness of US military attaches assigned to Kiev to freely associate with members of the Ukrainian military who openly brandished neo-Nazi badges and patches on their uniforms indicates that the association with Nazi ideology may, in fact, not be the show-stopper logic would indicate it should be.

The larger problem for any modern-day reincarnation of AEODYNAMIC is that, to have any chance of success, it must be completely covert. The fact of the matter is, if the average American citizen is reading about it in the media, then the program is no longer covert.

Is the secret out?

There is no reason not to believe that the CIA has, in fact, been running a UW training mission for Ukrainians. However, at the same time, there is also no reason to doubt that the media hype in recent days is less about preparing for the worst, but rather to create the perception in Moscow that such operations are, in fact, being prepared, in an effort to influence Moscow's next moves. The possibility of a concerted UW threat because of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine has a certain deterrent value. Likewise, any Russian response, both politically and militarily, to a possible UW threat reduces the resources Russia can deploy in support of any potential invasion.

However, the fact that this story was leaked to the press by "five former intelligence and national security officials familiar with the initiative" is more indicative of a controlled release of information than a massive failure of operational security. Covert paramilitary operations are among the most highly classified and compartmented activities undertaken by the CIA. Knowledge of such programs is kept extremely tight and entrusted only to those personnel who have a need to know. These same personnel are usually sourced from the same community that is carrying out the operation, and as such are extremely sensitive to the need for secrecy - especially in such a case as this, where the lives of those being trained could be put at risk in the event of any inadvertent disclosure.

That five former officials entrusted with such information simultaneously decided to go public, even in an anonymous capacity, should send red flags flying for anyone assessing the viability of the information being shared. While it is not beyond the capacity of the CIA to undertake such training, it is also not beyond the capacity of the CIA to go through the motions of such training for the sole purpose of having the program leaked to the Russians for deterrent value. This kind of psychological operation is more aligned with the covert political action the CIA is known for.

Moreover, given the CIA's poor track record in recent decades when it comes to mounting covert operations targeting Russia, there is every probability that the Russian security services have not only been monitoring the operation since its inception, but have been helping guide it, directly or indirectly, using their own considerable intelligence resources. Regardless of its goals and objectives, the CIA's effort to resurrect AERODYNAMIC appears doomed from the outset, and likely to join its Cold War predecessor in the trash bin of history.
About the Author:
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer and author of 'SCORPION KING: America's Suicidal Embrace of Nuclear Weapons from FDR to Trump.' He served in the Soviet Union as an inspector implementing the INF Treaty, in General Schwarzkopf's staff during the Gulf War, and from 1991-1998 as a UN weapons inspector. Follow him on Twitter @RealScottRitter