During the war in Vietnam, the United States military adopted a policy they called “hearts and minds”. The theory underlying this policy was that if you show unity and sympathy towards the civilians affected by conflict, then you will they will support your side, or your proxies, in the the military conflict rather than the opposing side. Civilian support networks will make a difference to the outcome of the war in the long run, because the costs to an army of occupying hostile territory are substantially higher than those of occupying territory comprising friendly civilians. Military costs tend to be whole orders of magnitude higher than the costs of operations to support civilians during a war; and because wars are often won or lost over the issue of money and the parties’ respective abilities to keep funding the conflict, money spent in civilian support in the course of war is well spent and will achieve a disproportionate outcome compared to expenditure of equivalent sums in military support.
From this concept, which remains in force today, emerged the United States Agency for International Development and a range of NGO’s intervening to provide international support to civilians amidst armed conflict. It is now common to find a range of NGO’s addressing the humanitarian needs of civilian populations affected by war. The activities of these organisations may be funded privately, or through government agencies, or via a mixture of both. Either way, support for civilians is regarded not just as the right thing to do but also strategically sensible. If the civilians support the military forces present in their region, because they see tangible support for them, then this strengthens patriotic feelings in those people and this may overcome the sorts of ideological, linguistic or ethno-nationalist rationales for warfare proffered by the respective warring parties.
In the Vietnam War, the United States herself rather undermined the “hearts and minds” policy they professed to adopt by carpet bombing contested rural areas of the country with carcinogenic defoliants, thereby ruining the lives of affected civilians and generating massive resentment amongst the affected civilian populations against both the US armed forces and the proxies the Americans were supporting, the south Vietnamese. This played into the hands of the north Vietnamese, America’s opponents in the war, who obtained the assistance of Vietnam’s rural populations to continue running supply lines through the Vietnamese jungle which in turn led to more carpet booming of those areas with defoliants, and thus a vicious downward cycle of harm to civilians fostering resentment against the Americans and south Vietnamese added substantially to domestic support for the north Vietnamese, with the result that the north Vietnamese army was able to wage war effectively over an enormous distance and ultimately to overrun the south Vietnamese capital Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The term “hearts and minds” became one oof ridicule as a distinguishing feature of the misguided war policies of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it fell into disuse. Nevertheless the theory was a valid one even if the practice in the Vietnam case was not, and this approach has been an integral part of civil conflict intervention ever since. That is all the more the case since international humanitarian support for afflicted civilians in a ciivil conflict is less politically contentious than active military aid - at least usually. It is easier to maintain plausible deniability as to the fact of a country’s intervention in a foreign civil liability, the greater the proportion of that intervention is limited to humanitarian aid as opposed to providing weapons, munitions and materiel.
The effect of adopting a “hearts and minds” policy is variable. In the recent US-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan (2001-2021), an active “hearts and minds” policy did not seem to achieve much, perhaps because the conflict had substantial ethnic overtones and because the cultural values that divided the NATO forces and the Afghan people were so broad. However in the war arising out of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ethno-religious aspects to the conflict are far more nuanced. Ukraine has had a historical ethnic fissure of a kind, between those people who predominantly speak Ukrainian, living in the northerly and westerly parts of the country; and those whose people predominantly speak Russian, living more in southerly and easterly areas. Nevertheless, despite (at least until 2014, when the first Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory took place in recent times) this division being reflected in the electoral demographics of Ukraine, the differences between the two linguistic groups could be overstated. It was true that those people living in areas in which Russian was the predominant language, until 2014, perhaps looked more to Moscow for political direction; but there was nevertheless a sense of common national identity and common religious practices.
Notwithstanding Ukraine’s tragic recent history in which both war and Stalinism forcibly depopulated large parts of Ukraine and replaced ethnic Ukrainians with ethnic Russians in the south and east in particular, post-Soviet Ukraine had demonstrated a significant level of national identity. Significant shows of Western support for Ukrainian nationhood, in particular but not only the abolition of the obligation to hold a visa for Ukrainian citizens to enter the Schengen Zone in 2017 (a privilege not afforded to Russian citizens), cemented common Ukrainian nationhood, a progressive process ever since the Maidan Revolution of 2014 overthrew the Moscow-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich who subsequently fled to live in Russia. Ever since then the concept of common Ukrainian nationhood, irrespective of linguistic divides, has become ever more closely cemented.
This is why an active “hearts and minds” policy is important in the content of the war in Ukraine, particularly in the south and the east that have and continue to suffer military bombardment and destruction at the hands of the Russian Armed Forces. We are now in the second phase of the civil conflict in Ukraine, in which the parties face the reality of stalemate that typically follows the first bloody part of a territorial war in which they combatants struggle to seize territory. Once the period of seizure is over, and each has seized what they can, as quickly as they can, front lines are dug in and the line of actual control becomes notoriously difficult to adjust as each and every settlement becomes the target of vicious street-fighting in what develops as painfully slow progress trying to break through the front line. This is what we have found in the most recent phase of the war in Ukraine, as the sides fight over the smallest settlements for weeks or months with a view to achieving some imagined tactical advantage that will permit them some radical breakthrough. In the meantime, the remainder of the country, both in free Ukraine and the occupied territories, remains mostly at peace.
Even where (as in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, two frontline cities in the Ukrainian conflict at the time of writing) the warring parties are unnervingly close to one-another, the parties have demarcated their territorial expectations and it is not expected that there be any imminent battles for any of Ukraine’s major cities. The Ukrainians have held Zaporizhzhia throughout the war, and the Russians, while possibly having contemplated laying siege to the city in the early period of the war, seem to have backed off. In Kherson, the population proved too hostile to early Russian occupation and the city, based on the west side of the Dnipro River near the mouth of the river, was never going to be easy to defend. In the end, after the Russian armed forces attempted but failed in a siege of the nearby city of Mykolaiv, serving as a garrison town for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the region, they withdrew from Kherson in November 2022 and then flooded the city by blowing up the Nova Kakhovka dam located upstream on the Dnipro River as an act of retribution and defiance. Now the Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces stand off each against the other on opposite sides of the river, but the situation remains calm if tense. The interim line of control has been drawn, at least for now, in this the stalemate second stage of the conflict, and the parties are not challenging the de facto territorial positions each of the other at this stage.
The second, stalemate, component of a civil conflict can last for a long time, in many cases several years, before there is progress to a third stage of enhanced violent conflict in anticipation of a political resolution as the parties attempt to redraw the stalemate borders in advance of a negotiated agreement that more often than not they anticipate being imposed upon them by outside powers in response to some dramatic shift in international geopolitical events. (We have already discussed that the geopolitical event most likely to transform the civil conflict in Ukraine in the direction of this third stage might well be the death of the current President of Russia; this is an event that could take place soon or it might be several years away in the future.) In this intervening period, in which stalemate is the expected and recorded norm in the history of civil conflicts, adopting a proactive “hearts and minds” policy is extremely important. Where there is fighting in the second stage of a civil conflict, it typically disproportionately affects civilians, particularly in rural areas. That is because it is small settlements that are being fought over. Moreover rural and suburban areas are more likely to have been depopulated through the loss of their male populations, conscripted to fight in the war and leaving women and children behind in conditions of penury.
Moreover civilians often feel under a perpetual reign of terror during this second stalemate stage of a civil conflict, because specific tactical objectives may still be pursued using military force. At the time of writing a series of attacks by the Russian Armed Forces upon the port and grain storage facilities in the principal Ukrainian port of Odessa are underway, in an attempt to renegotiate a failed deal mediated by Turkey in which both Russian and Ukrainian grain could be exported from Black Sea ports to enter international markets and keep down global food prices. The deal collapsed because Russia complained that the prior agreement reached was of little value to it given the stringency of banking sanctions being imposed against her. She is therefore seeking to renegotiate the deal and to do this she is engaged in an exercise of destroying Odessa’s port and grain infrastructure so as to minimise the quantities of foreign revenues, that Ukraine desperately needs to sustain her civilian population and maintain her war effort, as a form of negotiating leverage. This behaviour, typically cynical but regrettably common in the course of extended civil conflicts, creates terror and trauma for the civilian population of Odessa and her environs and those civilians need support.
Moreover periodic attacks upon frontline cities such as Zaporizhzhia and those in the contested Donetsk oblast region cannot be ruled out, especially where there is active front line fighting in these areas.
In this context, of a military stalemate that may continue for some time until geopolitical events of one kind or another compel a transition to a closing stage of the war in Ukraine, it is essential to keep the civilians in free Ukraine on side and supportive, and to help them understand that their lives are better under the regime of free Ukraine headquartered in Kyiv than it ever would be under Russian occupation directed from Moscow. This is particularly important in the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine which for the most part are where the active front line in the war remains hot. Civilians, particularly outside the major cities, are easily forgotten but in a large agricultural country like Ukraine they form a substantial majority of the population. Even in the larger cities such as Zaporizhzhia on the front, foreigners are rarely seen although they do exist in small numbers. In the more remote settlements, foreigners are rarely if ever encountered. People in these settlements lack access to food, medical treatment, and basic public services, particularly as they have been hollowed out by the departure of their menfolk to the front line.
This is where the “hearts and minds” policy steps in. The war in Ukraine is in substantial part an ideological one, and it is (or should be) easier to win ideological conflicts than ethno-nationalist ones. That is because the differences between the sides are not cemented so much in history but instead in rival visions of the optimal form of political organisation for a society and recent historical experiences and impressions about the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, and subsequent years of Russian political domination of parts of south and east Ukraine, were grim periods for the Ukrainian people. The Russian political system is premised upon distrust, paranoia, the prevalence of the police state and the ubiquitousness of the security and intelligence services. This is not a pleasant yoke under which to live and it is certainly not free. In devoting greater resources to “hearts and minds”, assisting in civilian reconstruction and providing for the basic needs of deprived civilian populations along the front line, inevitably being aware that part of the assistance provided will go to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces, we may hope to continue to persuade the previously equivocal people of south and east Ukraine, many of whom continue to be predominantly Russian speakers, that life in free Ukraine is better.
In this way, we will preserve their loyalty to free Ukraine and this will be an essential component in the contours of a final political resolution of the war in Ukraine whenever that may take place. In the meantime, during the period of stalemate, it is an extended exercise to implement a hearts and minds policy over several years. It is already manifest that there is donor fatigue and news interest fatigue over the war in Ukraine, that has already gone on a lot longer than many imagined that it might. It is increasingly hard for privately funded NGO’s to continue implementing a hearts and minds policy in the most critically affected areas of Ukraine. This is therefore the cue for western governments to step in. They need to contribute more funding to the NGO sector, as a cheaper alternative than military support to achieving their political goals in Ukraine which are to expel the Russian Armed Forces and to maintain the integrity of the European political map in the face of the largest single act of wanton violation of that map since World War II. Spending money on “hearts and minds” is money well spent. Expenditure of those governmental funds may need to be overseen by a civilian army of bureaucrats and supervisors from the donor states, because Ukraine remains a significantly corrupt country, particularly in the war-torn regions. Nevertheless the presence of such people, who are far cheaper than tanks, missiles and bullets, would ever further reassure the people of the affected conflict zones that the West is mindful and supportive of their interests and would itself contribute to an effective hearts and minds policies.
Leaving the implementation of such a policy to a handful of NGO’s who find private resources available to support them ever more difficult to attract in the long stalemate that accompanies the middle period of any civil conflict is unrealistic and unfair to those NGO’s, their donors and their volunteers who are also dwindling by reason of perceived decreased focus and attention on the part of the international community. Now is an essential time for an active “hearts and minds” policy in Ukraine. It should be government-led, and it is Western money well spent in our ideological confrontation with the malign colossus of Vladimir Putin’s modern Russia.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.