Shadow Wars For Me, But Not For Thee


While watching the fourth episode of The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen, I was mesmerized by the thrilling tale of John C. Fremont and Kit Carson. Specifically, the tale of their exploits in what was once the Mexican province of California. Having successfully charted the Oregon Trail (yes, the legendary video game is actually based on history, who knew?), the ambitious Fremont was summoned to the White House by (my favorite U.S. president) James K. Polk (otherwise known as “Young Hickory” to Andrew Jackson’s “Old Hickory”).

When meeting with President Polk, Fremont, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was given his next mission: to chart the origins of the Arkansas River. Unofficially, however, Polk–an unapologetic expansionist–informed Fremont that his true mission was to venture beyond the hazardous Rocky Mountains, enter into California, make contact with any American settlers living in the Mexican-controlled territory, and stir up a revolt. Officially, he was a surveyor. Unofficially, he was an agent provocateur.

The goal for Polk was to get the American settlers living in California to coalesce, wage a revolt against Mexican rule (which wasn’t that hard to do, since California was a far-flung province that Mexico’s nascent “empire” could not hope to maintain–especially given the competition for control of that fertile and geostrategically vital territory between the British Empire and the United States). Because California was so distant from the core of U.S. power, and because any hint of U.S. military overt military force aimed at conquering the important territory would be viewed by London as a direct threat, necessitating the more powerful British military to intervene to stop an American annexation of California, the Americans had to employ guile and extreme stealth.

Fremont, his loyal partner, Kit Carson, and a band of heavily armed fellow “surveyors” sojourned from the confines of the United States into California. When they arrived in present-day Sacramento, they found a band of American settlers–approximately 1,000 Americans lived among a population of mostly Mexican settlers, but also among Brits, Swedes, Germans, and purportedly a few Russians–all of whom were true Hellraisers and most of whom were disenchanted by Mexican rule. The Mexican provincial government was so weak that few knew or had ever seen their nominal Mexican governor and Mexican law forbade the American settlers from fully owning the property they lived on, causing resentment among the Yanks.

A famous painting of the Bear Flag Revolt that Fremont ignited.

Fremont’s cabal of U.S.-backed malcontents were akin to what Georgetown University (and former mercenary) professor Sean McFate would describe today as “Shadow Warriors.” These men used guerrilla tactics and propaganda techniques to incite the minority group of American settlers in California against Mexican rule. They formed the nucleus of what would become known as the Bear Revolt. Without these moves, it is unlikely that any American uprising against Mexico would have taken place when it did–and even if it had occurred, it is unlikely that it would have been successful.

The original bear flag representing the California Republic.

Thanks to Fremont and his band of proto-shadow warriors, though, the Polk Administration’s annexation policy for the Pacific Coast region of North America was an unequivocal success.

Poison Pill Populations in Foreign Lands

In today’s parlance, we might refer to the minority American settlers living in California as a “poison pill” demographic. Such instances of foreign ethnic groups forming enclaves in other states, such as ethnic Russians in the Crimea or elsewhere throughout Eastern Europe, were common practices that the imperious Soviet Union (and their predecessors of the Tsarist-led Russian Empire) engaged in to ensure that far-flung regions would remain hewed to the larger Russian fold.

In order to boost their claim on the distant California, Mexico’s government had encouraged settlers from all over the region to flock to California and build up the province’s economic capacity via rapid population growth. The region had already been the site of a massive trade in animal Hydes and its bucolic Pacific Ocean-access bays could be used to boost international trade heading to the Asia-Pacific and the west coasts of Central and South America. Polk and his fellow expansionists back East wanted access to this market and those ports.

As far back as Thomas Jefferson, in fact, American leaders had envisaged the United States possessing ports along not only the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, but also along the Pacific. Notably, as John Lewis Gaddis outlines in his seminal work, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, U.S. policymakers desired to move the young republic’s western frontiers as far away from the “core” of the original 13 states along the eastern seaboard as possible.

During the American War of Independence against the British, for instance, London had not only employed its seaborne forces against the American East Coast, but they had also inspired the Native American tribes living in the Ohio River Valley to wage war upon the Americans in present-day Kentucky. England had hoped to open up a second-front against the Americans to the 13 states’ west, penetrating what was an otherwise porous and ill-defended frontier while their forces along the East Coast tied down the bulk of the Continental forces.

After that experience, American policymakers knew that they could simply not leave things to chance. This was one of the main reasons which impelled a succession of American leaders to embrace westward expansion writ large.

Similarly, the Russians have historically desired access to warm-water ports. A massive country, like the United States, the Russians have been boxed in along the northern belt of Eurasia. While they have enjoyed access to the ocean, their northern geographical location has meant that most of their strategic ports are in frigid waters. In other words, historically, Russia’s navy has been hindered by the wintery conditions of their territory (ironically, these same wintery conditions that very often prevented Russia from becoming a true maritime empire like the British or even the United States continually saved them from being conquered, as was the case when Napoleon’s army and, later, Hitler’s forces invaded from their exposed western borders).

Russian borders, like early America’s, have always been unstable and threats–particularly from their west and to their south–have emerged which compel Moscow to take increasingly aggressive military actions against those perceived threats. Then, of course, there was the fact that much of the global trade was conducted along maritime trading routes. To have access to that wealth and that trade, one needed reliable access to warm water ports. What’s more, to be able to effectively project one’s power, one needed reliable access to warm water ports. Under the reign of Catherine the Great, Russian settlers effectively colonized Eastern Ukraine.

The Russians then took the port at Sevastopol, along the Black Sea. Here was Moscow’s path to a major warm water port. From this vantage point, the Russian Navy would have the ability to balance against their erstwhile foes in Turkey; they could project force from beyond that point into the Mediterranean Sea. Russia has striven to expand its influence well beyond its borders and to exert power not just on land, where it has traditionally had many advantages, but also to develop naval capabilities beyond the historically limited means the Russians have possessed.

During the heady days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union would often decry perceived colonialism practiced by the maritime imperial powers in Europe and, ultimately, in the United States. But, whether discussing the various Cossack-led expeditions deep into Central Asia or into Eastern Europe, the Russians of both the imperial era and the later Soviet period were colonizers just like their contemporary great powers. It’s just that Russia did its colonization via land rather than sea. Personally, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.

Anyway, one Russian technique was to imbue a desired but distant land with a hodgepodge of ethnic Russians. Eventually, the ethnic Russians living in these desirable and distant foreign lands, would require the “assistance” of Moscow to avoid persecution or some other perceived injustice; Moscow would ride to their supposed rescue and, ultimately, the land would be conquered.

During the Cold War, the Soviets returned the important Crimean peninsula to nominal Ukrainian control. Yet, they maintained their naval base at Sevastopol. The handoff of Crimea to Ukraine was entirely superficial–especially since Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea were brimming with ethnic Russians that the Soviets and, later, today’s Russian Federation could claim to be interested in “defending” against injustice perpetrated on them by the Ukrainian government.

When the Crimean peninsula was taken by Russia in 2014, it was done by a combination of ethnic Russians loyal to Russia but who had been living in Ukraine. These forces were augmented by well-armed and well-trained soldiers who wore no identifying marks on their uniforms. Like John C. Fremont and his band of “surveyors,” the unmarked soldiers who stormed the Crimea were, in fact, Russian troops who had been given a degree of plausible deniability by their lack of official standing. Moscow has continued to deny that the “little green men” (named so because of their green uniforms) who had invaded Crimea were, in fact, Russians.

A famous image of Russian “little green men” in the Crimea in 2014.

This may seem preposterous to you and I, but diplomatically, lacking verifying evidence proving that the “little green men” were actually Russian soldiers dispatched to reclaim Crimea for Russia by Vladimir Putin, the Russians are able to obfuscate, inveigle, and deceive their way through that crisis. Just like Fremont and his raid on California, no one in the West believed that the Russians were not responsible for the invasion of Crimea. And, even fewer took the plebiscite which was held shortly after the Russian invasion which returned Crimea to Russia as being legitimate. Yet, here we are.

Waging an American Shadow War

As Sean McFate assesses in his magnificent work, American rivals have gotten better at shadow warfare than the United States. Putin did nothing new in Crimea. You can see that the United States employed eerily similar tactics to conquer California. Ultimately, the world accepted this as fact (just as the world has come to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea). What’s more, the stunning success that Russia enjoyed in the aftermath of that operation means that they will continue to focus their efforts on achieving Vladimir Putin’s revanchist foreign policy on waging more shadow wars in the future.

Just as the Mexican government decried America’s shadow war to capture California, the United States’ continual cries over Russian malfeasance in Ukraine (and elsewhere) has done little to convince Russia’s leadership not to continue its shadow wars against their neighbors. And, clearly, few in the United States (myself included) favor outright warfare with the nuclear-armed Russians. Instead, the United States must return to its historical roots of waging shadow wars against its enemies.

Additionally, just as with Fremont and his band of U.S.-government-backed insurrectionists, the goal of the shadow warrior is to provoke and incite the established authority into acts of aggression that will make them seem as evil as they claim. In so doing, the hope is that it will encourage more discontentment with the status quo and empower the insurrectionists even more. This, then, gives the appearance of an entirely organic and local movement when, in fact, it is entirely a state-sponsored action of destabilization as a means of annexation.

Washington should return the favor elsewhere in the world. More importantly, if the leadership in Washington is truly committed to rolling back Russian presence in what should independent areas of their “Near-Abroad,” then the United States should send its own shadow army into Ukraine and other potential Russian targets in Eastern Europe with intentions to defend these areas from further Russian aggression at all costs (that is, until an amicable deal can be crafted between Washington and Moscow that will mitigate the rising tensions between our two great powers).

The Russian government, as led by Vladimir Putin, are a pack of conservative imperial nationalists, not unlike the tsars of old. They are also somewhat akin to the aggressive expansionists who dominated 19th century U.S. politics and strategy. Ever since the end of the Second World War, the West has lied to itself that the “Liberal International Order” that was usually underwritten by American military power and money will prevent a return to the bad old days of territorial aggression and legitimization through conquest.

Alas, this is no longer the case.

The new Age of Empires is here and it will be fought in and among the shadows. The United States used to fight like this. Further, the American West was, in large part, won through such nefarious means.

Why should we expect a rival actor, which shares some historical, geographical, and cultural similarities with the United States, to act any differently?

In order to survive and thrive in such a cutthroat world, then, the United States needs to reestablish its old playbook, and embrace the darkness more than it was previously willing to do.


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