This is my fourth commentary on a series of articles in The Economist that deal with the nature of wars over the next few years. The first dealt with the general nature of war in the next few years, the second with the (unlikely) prospects of great power conflicts begun by miscalculation and the third with the threat to the stability imposed on the nuclear powers by the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.
The fourth article deals with what The Economist thinks is the more likely sort of war we will see or fight: “the concept of a “grey zone” in which powers such as Russia, China and Iran can exercise aggression and coercion without exposing themselves to the risks of escalation and severe retribution. Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague describes this approach as “guerrilla geopolitics”.” The authors call it “constructive ambiguity.”
“A key aspect of grey-zone challenges,” the article explains, “is that they should be sufficiently ambiguous to leave targets unsure how to respond. If they do too little, they will face a series of small but cumulatively significant defeats. If they do too much, they risk being held responsible for reckless escalation. As Hal Brands of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute argues, grey-zone tactics are “frequently shrouded in misinformation and deception, and are often conducted in ways that are meant to make proper attribution of the responsible party difficult to nail down”. They are drawn from a comprehensive toolset that ranges from cyber attacks to propaganda and subversion, economic blackmail and sabotage, sponsorship of proxy forces and creeping military expansionism … [and] … The clearest recent cases of grey-zone challenges are Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, China’s assertive behaviour in the South and East China Seas and Iran’s use of proxy militias to establish an arc of influence from Iraq through Syria into Lebanon. All three countries recognise and to some extent fear superior Western military power. But all of them also see vulnerabilities that they can exploit … [and, further, we need to understand that] … A Russian grey-zone strategy is to undermine faith in Western institutions and encourage populist movements by meddling in elections and using bots and trolls on social media to fan grievances and prejudice. The result, the Kremlin hopes, will sap the West’s capacity to respond resolutely to acts that defy international norms. If Russian cyber attacks did help to get Donald Trump elected, they have been astonishingly successful in their broader aim, if not in the narrower one of relieving Ukraine-related sanctions.“
The Economist notes that “There is no evidence of Chinese complicity in Russian-style hacker attacks on the West, but officially sanctioned trolls send out hundreds of millions of social-media posts every year attacking Western values and pumping up nationalist sentiment. The advent of Mr Trump serves Chinese aims too. His repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership removed a challenge to China’s regional economic hegemony, a key objective of its grey-zone strategy. And the American president’s hostility to free trade and his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord has allowed Xi Jinping to cast himself, improbably, as a defender of the international order.“
“Grey-zone success,” the article goes on to explain, “depends on patience and an ability to blend together all the instruments of state power in ways that pluralistic, democratic societies find harder to achieve. Hybrid warfare may be as old as warfare itself, but in Ukraine Russia provided a near-textbook example of it in its modern form, using a variety of techniques: sophisticated propaganda that stirred up local grievances and legitimised military action; cyber attacks on power grids and disruption of gas supplies; covert or deniable operations, such as sending “little green men” (soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms) into Crimea and providing weapons and military support to separatist irregular forces; the threat of “escalating to de-escalate”, even including limited use of nuclear weapons. All this dissuaded the West from even contemplating a military response of any kind. Whenever the sale of defensive weapons to Ukraine was mooted in Washington, Mr Putin threatened to expand and intensify a war in which he claimed not to be a participant.“
Mr Putin, the article says, and I agree, has, thus far, been very successful at achieving a number of strategic aims in Ukraine:
- First, he never wanted to “win” a war in Ukraine, his strategic aim was, and remains, to reverse that country’s attempt to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence;
- Second, he needs to discourage other countries, such as Belarus, from trying anything similar; and
- Third, he wants to stoke nationalist and anti-Western sentiment at home.
“The effort has not been without cost,” The Economist says, because, “Sanctions have hurt. Making Crimea a viable entity will take time and lots of money. Most important of all, NATO has rediscovered some of its sense of purpose. But neither Mr Putin nor any likely successor would hesitate to apply the same hybrid-warfare techniques in the future should the need arise.“
China’s strategic aims are more traditional:
- First, and foremost It wants to be the East Asian hegemon; and
- Second, it wants to be a coequal global superpower with America ~ Russia does not, as I think I might, perhaps, understand the Chinese strategic calculus, “count” as a global superpower ~ rather, Russia, like India, ranks as a great power but one which can be “contained” to its own region.
The article says that China “has been able to cow most of its neighbours into sulky acquiescence while avoiding a direct confrontation with American naval ships, which did not want to risk a major incident over what China portrayed as maritime policing.” That’s almost picture perfect use of “constructive ambiguity” to accomplish part of both strategic objectives.
The article concludes by saying that “Hybrid warfare is hard to deter unless the target state itself resorts to hybrid strategies. Mr Brands sees no reason why America and its allies cannot play that game too. America has potent economic and financial tools at its disposal, along with an arsenal of cyber weapons, expert special forces, a network of alliances and unmatched soft power. But the West tends to think about conflict in a binary way: you are either at war or at peace; you win or you lose. Its adversaries are more attuned to conflict somewhere between war and peace, and to blurring distinctions between civil and military assets in pursuit of their goals. So for opponents of the rules-based system, the grey zone will remain fertile territory.” And therein lies the problem, I think: Western leaders like Presidents Marcon and Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Ministers Abe, May, Rutte, Trudeau, Turnbull all see “war” as a binary choice ~ you’re either fighting or your’e not, while Putin and Xi see it as spectrum wherein actual armed conflict is only one of many, many choices. We, in the US led West, are not “playing” the same strategic “game” as our competitors … that’s a mistake on our part.