New Report: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiI’m today releasing a report of mine, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right that, as the title suggests, explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…

I reproduce the Executive Summary below, but the report is available in both PDF and hardcopy here or from Amazon.


Executive Summary

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. (more…)

Surviving the Trumpocalypse: first thoughts…

trumpocalypsenowPerhaps we should have been warned by the American predilection for zombie apocalypse dramas, that it was a precautionary signal from deep within the zeitgeist. I write this with not all the states declared, but the all-but-certainty that Donald Trump is going to be the next US president, swept into the White House on a tide of populism, nativism, spite, and downright anti-intellectualism, such as to make the whole Brexit affair look positively mannered and statesmanlike. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Let’s not exaggerate Trump’s actual impact on the world. Amidst the eschatological angst, it is important at least to start by noting that — as every president has had to discover — he (and someday she) is just one person. Even an aligned Congress can act as a brake on some of the more lunatic or destructive policies, as will the very machinery of government. Besides, Trump gives little evidence of being details-oriented or having any clear sense of a vision, which will mean that he may well prove more willing to let the machine grind along, so long as he gets enough photo ops and adulatory mentions. Yes, there is no question that a Trump presidency will have serious, dangerous implications, but here the very framing of the US political system — designed, after all, to make executive power hard to apply — and his own limitations may be useful.
  2. It’s winter in Central Europe. Whether or not Trump actually means anything he said, especially his backpedalling from US commitments to the defence of NATO allies, nonetheless this must be a real concern in the Baltics and Central Europe. Ultimately, there is no reason to believe Russia has any territorial designs on NATO states, but it will, if it feels it has the chance, bully and intervene. More to the point, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, even Belarus are going to have to come to terms with a future in which they are unlikely to be able to count on serious Western support and protection. Putin may have pushed for a Yalta 2.0 division of Europe, but this election essentially hands him the half of that deal he wanted, by default.
  3. The Kremlin’s glee must be tinged with a degree of nervousness. Nonetheless, the Russians never expected Trump to win, and their calculus was based on trying to ensure a Clinton presidency was weakened from the gate. Yes, Trump has been bizarrely positive about Putin and there is the possibility of a Putin-Berlusconi-type mutual man-crush as ageing, soi disant alpha males find fellow reinforcement in each other. But much of the Kremlin’s geopolitical playbook has been based on it being the unpredictable, risk-taking party, relying on the West to be the responsible adult, the force for stability and reason. Trump’s friendship is hardly an asset on which to rely, and his balance an even less stable foundation. The Kremlin might actually feel it has to be a little more cautious and predictable, precisely because it is dealing with someone who actually internalises the kind of devil-may-care belligerence Putin affects.
  4. Syria will burn. Between Trump’s open desire to get some more bombs dropped, and his expressed willingness to deal with the Assad regime as a lesser evil to Islamic States, we can expect no push for peace and regime change in Syria. Eastern Aleppo may itself prove a harbinger of this war.
  5. History restarts, and democracy loses some of its force of appeal. The notion that the end of the Soviet idea in 1991 meant that history had ended and liberal democracy had won has long been debunked, but this is pretty much the final spadeful of earth on its coffin. It is unlikely that, for the moment, American democracy will have anything like the same power of example, just at the time when Europe is in a populism and legitimacy crisis of its own.
  6. The security concerns are global. Trump appears to be unconcerned with climate change — the single greatest global security threat — and almost relishing a more confrontational approach to geopolitics. I can hardly see him interested in development aid, or disaster relief, or humanitarian foreign politics in general; his basic calculus appears to be a short-termist profit maximisation for USA Inc. This is bad for everyone, whether American or Zimbabwean, or from somewhere in between.
  7. Some hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. There always needs to be some hope, but I confess this morning I am scrabbling around in the corners of this particular Pandora’s box to find any. It may galvanise Europe to be more serious in defending itself from overt and covert threats, no longer being able to count on the big brother across the ocean. At the very least hitting the 2% of GDP NATO target expenditure more consistently would be a plus.

New article: ‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 09.23.14Just a quick note, that an article of mine has appeared in the latest issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 2, a special issue on ‘Proxy Actors, Militias and Irregular Forces: The New Frontier of War?’ pulled together by Alex Marshall of Glasgow University. It emerged from an excellent workshop that Alex convened last year on this important and under-researched topic and the issue includes, along with all sorts of first-rate material, the always-great Vanda Felbab-Brown on Afghan militias and an interesting conceptual piece by Robert and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. My contribution, Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, places recent Russian practice very firmly within an historical tradition going back to pre-Soviet adventures. Here’s the abstract:

Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias,
gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created
a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’.
However, not only are many of the tactics used familiar from Western operations,
they also have their roots in Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian practice. They are
distinctive in terms of the degree to which they are willing to give primacy to
‘non-kinetic’ means, the scale of integration of non-state actors, and tight linkage
between political and military command structures. However, this is all largely a
question of degree rather than true qualitative novelty. Instead, what is new is
the contemporary political, military, technological, and social context in which
new wars are being fought.

Purging Purgin, Pushing Pushilin (full version)

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving?

News just in that Denis Pushilin has just been elected interim speaker of the parliament (People’s Council) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), replacing Andrei Purgin. Pushilin, who had held that role May-July 2014, used language fit for the 1930s, when he explained Purgin’s ouster as following an attempt by him

“to disrupt the meeting of the People’s Council, when the deputies had to listen to false declarations made with the aim of increasing tensions and destabilizing the situation.”

(more…)

Right Sector and Wrong Directions in Ukraine

MukachevoThe unfolding story of Mukachevo (Mukacheve) is in many ways both a tragic consequence for Ukraine’s recent trajectory and also grounds for potential optimism.

The tragedy is that while post-Maidan Ukraine was never the neo-fascist construct believed of Pervy Kanal TV (and a note to the trolls: don’t conflate the Maidan with the Poroshenko regime; the one toppled Yanukovych, the other was subsequently elected), there is no escaping the crucial role played by various ultra-nationalists that, yes, did include fascists. Subsequently, in the name of responding to the Russian-orchestrated rebellion in the Donbas, and also because it did not dare challenge this fraction given its lack of connection with its own security forces, the government granted them considerable autonomy and has continued to do so.

(more…)

South-Eastern Ukraine: the “Baked Alaska Conflict”

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

I never knew it could also come flambé; that makes the parallel even more apt

What can we call the miserable, simmering-occasionally-boiling-over war in south-eastern Ukraine? While writing something for a Serious Publication, I came up with the analogy of the baked alaska. For those of you who don’t know this delightful dessert, it’s ice cream on a cake base, covered with meringue which is then quickly cooked. Now, there is nothing delightful about the Donbass war, but the baked alaska does give us a useful simile even if one which, for wholly understandable reasons, the Serious Publication thought seems a little too light-hearted for such a bloody and miserable conflict.

I can’t see Minsk-2 or any other initiatives leading to a meaningful political settlement and the region’s reintegration into Ukraine for some time yet. But nor do I see a plausible “Crimean variant” with the Donbass incorporated into Russia. So, at heart, the conflict is already frozen.

At the same time, though, Moscow and its local proxies/puppets/allies (at different times, they have different roles, and we ought not to forget that they have a worrying degree of agency themselves) have adopted and will probably maintain a strategy of tension. At the borders of the region they control, we see constant small- and medium-scale attacks intended both to put pressure on Kiev and also as a form of political “reconnaissance by fire”. While a major offensive of the sort that would lead in all probability to an increase in the sanctions regime may be unlikely, if they see an opportunity for smaller-scale, local advances, they they can gladly exploit it. Again, I don’t see this changing.

Frozen at heart, decidedly hot at the edges: I give you the “baked alaska conflict.”

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