Russians have mastered how to wage war in the 21st Century

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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War seems like a simple affair. You get the biggest army. You invade enemy countries. And then, when you win the war, you make them submit to you will. This is how we have done it for thousands of years, and it has always worked.

But from 2001 onwards, the entire logic of war seems to have been turned on its head. The United States has, by far, the biggest and best armed forces in the world. It is possible that they also have the most sizeable military edge over its competitors that any empire has ever enjoyed. Could the US military on its own take on the entire of the rest of the world combined and win? I don’t know. Probably not. But it is not an absurd proposition. They might. This has never been the case for any other empire at any point in history.

So then how does the most powerful army the world has ever seen, an army which is surrounded mostly by relatively powerful allies who share its goals, keep winning wars and yet still lose the peace? The United States has won every war it has entered since 2001. And in every instance, it has managed to inflict greater damage to her own interests than if she had not entered the war at all.

Russia is not fully responsible for the cultural dynamics (the “culture wars”) flaring up in our countries, but they are the most consistent sponsors and greatest beneficiary of our divisions.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Contrast this to the ways in which Russia has been waging war in recent years. Russia is not in any way equivalent to the Soviet Union in the military and economic space. The Soviet Union was a worthy and almost equal rival to the United States for a good chunk of the 20th Century. But contemporary Russia? Its economy is the size of Sweden’s, or Italy’s. Its military, which used to be able to go toe to toe with NATO, barely competes with Britain’s, or France’s, or Germany’s – on their own. Let alone the might of the United States or China, or the combined might of NATO.

But Russia is nevertheless as active in international war as the United States. And it is winning consistently. How? It seems that Russia understood as early as 2008 what the NATO allies are slow to recognise even in 2017. Power in the age of an interconnected global culture linked together through the internet and characterised by information overload bears little to no correlation to the size and number of your bombs.

Unrelenting war

Instead, political power at home and geo-political power abroad reduces to the relative power of your narrative compared to that of your enemy. Russia has considered itself at war with NATO since the abortive attempts of Georgia, a former Soviet territory, to join the defence bloc in 2007-2008. And since then, Russia has waged unrelenting and increasingly escalating war against the West’s information, cultural and political infrastructure.

Most see Russia’s interference in the US election in 2016 as the pinnacle achievement of these efforts. But that would be a tragic misunderstanding of the conflict we are facing. The crowning achievement of Russia’s war has been the effective deconstruction of the moral and intellectual bases that have sustained liberal democracy in the West.

This political and economic model which has sustained the achievements of the West for decades is now moribund. We still practice its rituals, such as voting and buying shares, without conviction, and the old press is still speaking as if it’s 1994. But the West has not has not seen the levels of mistrust and hostility towards its fundamental institutions of power since the 1930s. Increasingly, our young value democracy and certain civil liberties less and less. Our societies have never been as fragmented and militant, again, since the 1930s.

The United States took years, billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to achieve such results in Iraq, in a fundamentally fractured society. Russia has achieved relatively similar results with just millions of dollars and no boots on the ground within our fundamentally unified societies. And, to be clear: it is not an election or two that have been hacked. It has been our entire political culture.

Our societies have yet to develop defences against these kinds of attacks. It is not yet clear whether they will before these attacks alter the character of our societies beyond recognition. But whatever the case, we need to smarted up, and fast. Russia is not fully responsible for the cultural dynamics (the “culture wars”) flaring up in our countries, but they are the most consistent sponsors and greatest beneficiary of our divisions. And until we all recognise that our shared interests need to come before our partisan preferences, the world around us will continue to unravel.

Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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