War: what’s in a word?

A few years back, one of the big discussion topics among international relations professors was the idea of ‘securitization’ devised by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies. Securitization theory suggested that security was ‘an essentially contested concept’ – i.e. that there isn’t an objective definition of ‘security’; it is what you say it is. Security is a ‘speech act’. By labelling something as a matter of ‘security’, you make a claim that it is of special importance, requiring a special response, including additional state resources.

Following this logic, various scholars then argued in favour of ‘securitizing’ certain policy issues – e.g. climate change, poverty, inequality, etc. They argued that they could push these up the policy agenda by relabelling them as matters of national security. People thus began speaking about ‘environmental security’, ‘human security’, and so forth.

Critics raised a couple of objections to the concept of securitization.

First, it’s questionable whether security really is a postmodernist ‘essentially contested concept’. Believing that one definition is as good as another is a form of moral relativism which denies us the ability to make valid judgments. Some things physically threaten life and property in a way that others don’t, and we have to have some word which helps us separate the one from the other. Some things are matters of security; others aren’t. It’s more than a ‘speech act’.

Second, labelling things as security issues when they aren’t produces bad policy. The security label tends to create a certain mentality which encourages a specific form of policy response –aggressive, secretive, heedless of people’s liberties, and so on. If you call AIDS a security threat, then AIDS victims become security threats also. The victims become social outcasts, they don’t come forward for treatment, and the disease spreads further. Securitization is not generally a good idea.

All of this is by way of an introduction to Mark Galeotti’s new report entitled Hybrid War or Gibridnaia Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Challenge Right, which was published today. In his Executive summary, Galeotti says:

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. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist … The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ … What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war.

My objections to this are very similar to those made against the securitization theory:

First, Galeotti, in essence, is attempting to engage in a ‘speech act’ – trying to make a claim that the Russian threat is of special importance because it is ‘war’, and that it therefore requires a special policy response. But war is a very specific thing, involving large-scale organized violence. It has its own laws, its own ethics, its own particular nature and dynamics. What happens when two armies fire multiple rocket launchers at one another is not in any reasonable way comparable to what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another.

Second, labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies. One can see this process at work in the discussions about ‘Russian propaganda’ and Russian ‘information war’. Framing this as a security issue, or even worse as a matter of war, has resulted in proposals to restrict freedom of speech and blacken the reputations of those who have unwelcome views. More generally, saying that ‘The West is at war’ with Russia encourages policies which raise tensions even higher, and make it increasingly difficult to engage in the sort of constructive dialogue which is required to overcome our mutual problems.

Certainly, Russia and parts of the West are engaged in political competition. Definitely, each side is trying to influence the population of the other. Absolutely, they have different ideas of how the world should be organized. But competition is not war. Labelling it as such is not helpful.

19 thoughts on “War: what’s in a word?”

  1. By Galeotti:

    “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. This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined.”

    and by you

    “… labelling the current tensions between Russia and the West as ‘war’ creates an unproductive, even dangerous, security mentality, and results in undesirable policies…”

    See, Professor? That’s what I was refering to in my comment to tyou previous blogpost. The Big Names themselves (and Galeotti is a Big Name, much quotable and thoroughly handshakable) said that we (Russia and so-called “West”) are at War (with capital “W”, dammit!). Galeotti is not the first to say that, and he won’t be the last. But he would be most noticible.

    Galeotti and the likes of him are indeed mantra chanting propagandists, a front line troopers in this new(?) War. We are talking about the people who make up the proverbial tail, which got used to the fact that it wags the dog whenrver it likes. And as for some cherished Western values to suffer ’cause it’s a war-time and security matters demant that – well, d’uh! Why are you acting so surprised? Really, Professor, you are not a child anymore, why are you claiming to be surprised by the hypocrisy?

    I we (Russia and so-called “West”) are at war (a notion that propagandons from the so-called Free World like to expouse most furiously these days) sp be it. And both of our sides should act as befitting two enemies at war, abandoning this old charade of “partnership” and “cooperation”, which mask the curent status of “neither peace, nor war, but we think that dialogue is important”.


    1. Exhibit “A” and a case study of the Western struggle to make a War against Russia kewl again:

      Yes. 7 y.o. girl from Aleppo in perfect English (note the impecable punctuation!) asks you, Westerners, to start a 3 World War against Russia. How can you resist a plight of an innocent child, who, according to her own tweets, lives without internet and electricity, and is afraid to day from Putin’s and Assad’s bombs? This youngster also knows what is “Holocaust” – and how to use hashtags!

      I can only quote Mikhail Zadornov’s trademark expression, used by him to describe the Americans, but now equally fitting to any shy and conscietous Westerner.

      And despite this being her “last” tweet, courageous girl still find inner stregth and Internet to ban Russian trolls, who dare to question the verity of her words!


  2. They’re just panicking, the western liberals. Their world is collapsing all around them, their beautiful mirage-world, where things change their essence when you use different words to describe them. Where your opponents are always deplorable.

    The world is collapsing, they’re panicking, and they need an evil, dark, all-powerful external force to explain this collapse. Obviously, admitting that it’s their politics that has been …ugh… – deplorable? – is not an option…


  3. I’m not quite sure why I continue to follow In Moscow’s Shadows. The quality of the writing seems to have declined, or at least streamlined to match mainstream narratives on Russia.


    1. I am amazed at your unscientific insouciance. When the tentacle slithers across your Canadian lawn and tears you to bits, I hope you remember your lack of concern. Putin is Satan.


    2. “Can the press go any lower than this? – Putin weaponizes killer octopus:”

      A good sense of humor from the authors.
      The real record is this article https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/russia-is-harassing-us-diplomats-all-over-europe/2016/06/26/968d1a5a-3bdf-11e6-84e8-1580c7db5275_story.html?utm_term=.4308327fcac1

      It is about how Putin’s agents at night, climb into the houses of the Americans “only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave”


      1. “It is about how Putin’s agents at night, climb into the houses of the Americans “only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave””

        They also spread dust in most hard to reach places, steal socks (always one of the pair), suck out the toothpaste and shaving cream and make the milk turn sour. Operation “Domovoi” [nods].

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually sort of disagree with your point. I fancy myself as something of a linguist and find that many of our problems as humans result in the imperfection inherent in words. Like that moment when you realize that Adam Smith and Karl Marx said basically the same thing. I wrote about this on my own blog after visiting Russia again this summer, though in regards to the Ukrainian crisis. The short of it was that I think terms like war, conscription, mobilization etc. all need to evolve. Conscription and mobilization for example – we see Russians going “voluntarily” to fight in Ukraine, just as we see Americans “voluntarily” re-enlisting despite our failing wars to fight the spectre of ISIS (who of course boast enlistment from across the globe.) War has also not been declared by the US in decades, by our own or international standards, because we’ve subverted the rules by first de-legitimizing the sitting governments of the places we want to invade, thereby hiding behind “democracy promotion” or whatever other clever term.


    1. David, read your blog entry. Some questions:

      1) Are you denying that there are, indeed, both fascists and neo-Nazis present both in the armed forces of the Ukraine (e.g. the so-called volunteer battalions of the National Guard) and various level of the administration? That by rehabilitating Nazi-collaborators, renaming streets in their name, renaming entire cities in the name of both “de-communization” and “de-Russification”, with sites like “Mirotvorec”, who are basically proscription lists of all undesirables, the current Powers that Be in the Ukraine did deserve all that scorn and hatred of people both in Donbass (who, as I’m typing these words, are shelled by the Ukr Military artillery – yet again) and in Russia, who then choose to fight against this not imaginary, by all too real threat to them and their families?

      2) Are you denying that a person can really go and volunteer to fight for a Just Cause in a foreign land? Was George Orwell or entire Abraham Lincoln Brigade, just a cat’s paw of their governments? Or you are going to cut them some slack because they are from the Free World, while in “Despotic Russia” ™ untermenchen have no free will and can’t decide for themselves?

      3) “However through creating a climate of fear (fascists in Ukraine) in response to that created by the Ukrainian regime (terrorists in Donbas)”

      a) Give me one official Russian government’s document which describes the current government in the Ukraine as “fascist”.

      b) I won’t ask you to provide me with the same concerning the current government in Kiev calling the people of Donbass “the terrorists”. I will ask you instead – do you know what their ATO stands for?

      4) “If someone said, “Russian state media is being used to scare Russians into thinking their narod in Ukraine are in danger, so effectively that many thousands have volunteered to help the separatists republics,” then we’d be having a better conversation.”

      Are you saying that’s a lie? That nothing threatens the lives of the Russophonic people, who dare not to share someone else love for Bandera and Schukhevitch?

      “”Ukraine seeks reform, and in so doing has inadvertently galvanized the far-right nationalist base due to rising anti-Russia rhetoric in modern discourse.” “

      Define “Ukraine”, which “seeks reform”. Is this “reform seeking Ukraine” = the current government in Kiev?

      5) “I heard about someone who was targeted as an “extremist” and was met by a Moscow official and told that an event he was hosting was canceled”

      No details, no names, no clues. Just ambiguous “I heard about someone…”. Yup, sounds legit! No reason to doubt this scary story! [nod. nod]

      6) “A professor at the HSE told me, “This makes it so obvious that Putin did it it’s not even funny,” whereas others scoffed at the idea calling it clearly a provocation.”

      And what did you expect? The Higher School of Economics is a cesspit of liberastia and handshakable protest against the Regime. Strangely enough, our “totalitarian” monster-president doesn’t send the whole lot of them to uranium mines.


      1. Define “Ukraine”

        Exactly. There was a successful coup (or ‘revolution of dignity’, if you prefer), and the constitutional order collapsed. And that was the end of the state of Ukraine, just like the Russian revolution of 1917 represented the end of the Russian empire.

        Given that some provinces have not accepted the new, constitutionally illegitimate regime in Kiev, there’s no reason or justification to assume (or pretend) that the territory of the former state of Ukraine somehow constitutes a legitimate state within the same borders. Civil war is the obvious next development in this situation, and it’s still ongoing.


      2. Hi, I think perhaps the very casual nature of my blog and amateur writing skills has inadvertently led you to believe that I buy into any of the American nonsense about Russia and Ukraine. For that I’m sorry, I just wanted to briefly mention things I was noticing. I’ll try to go through point by point and answer your concerns.

        1) I don’t deny that there are fascists in Ukraine, I know all about Yarosh and Tyagnibok and the regime’s complicity in their actions and statements. I think the de-Russification and de-Communization laws are dangerous at best and insane bullshit at worst.

        2) This is a tough one, but first I want to say you must have slightly misread this part when thinking Americans do it “freely” unlike “untermenschen” in Russia. I clearly state that we have done a great job of tricking people in their mid to late 20’s to re-enlist or join up for the first time to fight the spectre of terrorism, in whatever form we decided that it is taking, and moreover trick all of the citizenry that these people are “defending our freedom.”

        3) I don’t have government docs calling the regime fascist. The media has certainly drawn attention to Right Sector and Azov battalion. As above, I do believe there are fascist elements at work in Ukraine, but to the extent that some Russians are terrified of going to Ukraine is cause for concern (maybe their fault for misreading or believing too much internet sensationalism – just some things I have observed.)

        4) I think these last two weeks speak for themselves, when we have multiple Ukrainian leadership talking about the genetic problems of those in Donbas. As for what is Ukraine, let me try to describe my interpretation. I do believe there were some young liberals in and around Kiev who thought that they should try to “liberalize” and join the EU, and move “away from Russia,” perhaps lapping up all the anti-Putin nonsense spewed in every direction. I do believe that the US via Yatsenyuk incited political protest to make this happen, with the grand lie of EU integration within reach. What I think also happened was, indeed, the co-opting of the movement by the fascist groups from around Lvov.

        5) I could probably have left this out, but I wanted to talk about what I was hearing about the security apparatus, to then segue into Nemtsov. I chose to keep it ambiguous because I didn’t think it mattered that much, but I see your point. It was in regards to a punk music festival I was attending, and that was what we were told by the organizers as to why it was canceled the night before. Punk music is often labeled as some sort of “extremism” or another, due to the inherently violent nature. The same happens in the US, when I lived in Boston we had gigs and venues shut down by authorities regularly.

        6) Sure, which is also why I included that other people scoffed at the idea. I personally don’t believe Putin had anything to do with the killing, I just again wanted to present the information I was seeing/hearing.

        I’m really glad you brought up all these points. Despite my aforementioned amateur skills, I did want to keep things open for interpretation and discussion, rather than writing down my exact views for everything. I also want to elucidate the general obfuscation of damn near everything in regards to Russia, and perhaps in a sense admit that despite regular travel I still don’t have all the answers, and am trying to work them out/decompress in my blog.


      3. David, thank you for your response! I really appreciate it. Now, if you like, we can continue this discussion elsewhere (e.g. your blog) or is there just fine?

        As for some of your answers:

        2) No, I’m not talking about people singing up to whatever reasons into their national militaries for them to fight and die for some false causes. I’m talking about people voluntarily going to foreign countries and joining the fight on whatever side they feel represents the Just Cause. There were several American nationals fighting as volunteers both for the People Republics and for some of the Ukrainian NatsGuard battalions. There were others like them on both sides of the frontline in Donbass hailing from many countries – and not just from Russia.

        People like them are here not for money – pay and living conditions are miserable. There is something else, which made them drop whatever they were doing at the moment, travel hundreds of miles and risk their lives day in, day out, in a country, which is not their own. If they were mercs they’d rather join the “Blackwater” (or “Academi”, as it calls itself now).

        These people I’m talking about.

        4) “As for what is Ukraine, let me try to describe my interpretation. I do believe there were some young liberals in and around Kiev who thought that they should try to “liberalize” and join the EU, and move “away from Russia,” perhaps lapping up all the anti-Putin nonsense spewed in every direction.”

        I.e. that memetic girl with a placard, reading “I don’t want the Customs Union. I want lacy panties and the EU!”? She is in Moscow now. A lot of those who jumped up and down on Maidan are either seeking and arguing for emigration, or already abroad. Like another memetic symbol of “Revolution of Dignity” – the girl who read that poem “Никогда мы не будем братьями!” [We will never be brothers again!]. She is also in Moscow now.

        I don’t deny that there were so-called Ukrainian liberals present on Maidan – the supposedly more “hip”, educated, cosmopolitan strata of people. But besides them was a crowd made up of deceived people. People, who were repeatedly told by every possible propaganda outlet (and by “leaders of Maian” themselves) that the moment they will sign the Association Treaty with the EU, they will be living in Heaven on Earth – with vise free travel, billions of investments money in the Ukrainian economy, huge increase in both salaries and quality of life. And that “tyrant” Yanukivch is denying them their happiness. And Yanukovich is the puppet of Moscow.

        I can understand why some rural folks from Lviv or Invano-Frankivsk, a busloads of whom travelled to Maidan to fight for what they thought was a 100% assured ticket to La Dolce Vita could know nothing about the actual terms of the Association Treaty, about the cost to the Ukraine of implementing all needed reforms and of possible Russian reaction to this Russophobic festival of “Dignity”. But why the supposedly much more educated and intelligent so-called Ukrainian liberals didn’t know that? Maybe, because they are not as smart as they claim? Or they do know that, but kept the whole thing rolling because saw and opportunity for themselves to grab the power (Mustafa “Father of EuroMaidan” Nayyem says “Hi!”).

        None of them had any real plan of what to do. Some, out of stupidity, firmly believing in the fairy tale about all-powerful, generous and benevolent EU, saw no need for that. Others, with ulterior motives, wanted the power and their opponents dealt with (via most democratic “lustrations”), so they also didn’t plan.

        Only neo-Nazis knew why they were here on Maidan – to smash sculls of the policemen, to wreck havoc, to loot and to deal one way or another with “pro-Russian” Yanukovich, his cohorts and then spread their “One Language, One Country, One Nation” (c) view to pro-Moskal East and Crimea. They won. Corruption fighting is a fine chant and rallying banner for them, when you can gather angry people and sic them on this or that corrupt individual, and then plunder him.

        If you look on the whole issue from this perspective, then it turns out that probably no one was realistic or serious in this whole “corruption fighting” in the Ukraine. And no one is still.

        5) More or less we have here “He said, she said” situation. Hard to prove. As for “Punk music is often labeled as some sort of “extremism” or another” neither the current Russian legislation, nor anyone from the Kremlin power-holding dwellers had said anything like that. Does big music festival attract lots of people, who often engage in various, to put it mildly, “anti-social” behavior? Yep. What’s the job of the State/Police? Prevent any kind of illegal activities and violence. To achieve that there are various codes, procedures and laws which regulate the organization and set up of musical festivals. The organizers, if they want to comply with the Law, must cooperate with the law enforcing (and also emergency) services and fulfill their terms.

        Not hip and too “square”? I know. But it also works. So, instead of prescribing everything to the malevolence of the Man, maybe it’s better to understand that sometimes things work (or don’t work) due to bureaucratic rigidness and the red tape?

        Once again – thanks for your answers and good attitude, David! Carry on with your life and blogging!


      4. Here’s one pre-‘revolution’ opinion poll I like to share:
        …because I sorta believe in the base-superstructure concept. Well, up to a point.

        As you can see, the country was split 50/50 between the EU and the Eurasian Union.

        The (roughly speaking) eastern and western halves have been in conflict forever, economically and culturally. In 2004 the easterners won the election, but it was stolen (the first Maidan). The easterners gave in. In 2010 the easterners won the election again. And despite the fact that the government wasn’t really advancing their interests much, four years later the westerners made a ‘revolution’ and disposed of it (the second Maidan). Then civil war started.

        I believe this is the most accurate narrative that could be expressed in so many words.


  5. You missed a third point: even if what he describes is “war,” the type he describes is certainly not “new.” That anyone talking about US-Russia relations can conceive that geopolitics “fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies” is new has apparently never heard of the Cold War.

    I mean, that’s pretty absurd, but to be fair, it isn’t even the most absurd thing in regards to Russia that I’ve read today. Behold: The high-level committee that Congress is mulling creating would be tasked with “exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.” To anyone even briefly familiar with US foreign policy, this is how that sounded:

    Falsehoods: like Iraq’s WMDs; Agents of influence: like the largest spying apparatus that’s ever existed in human history; Corruption: refer to the president-elect and runner-up; human rights abuses: like a global torture campaign; terrorism: like backing the MEK, Al Nusra, and so on; Assassinations: the first remote control robot global assassination program… And those are just examples from 2000-onwards, not to mention the Cold War that Galeotti apparently forgot existed.


  6. Hi Lyttenburgh, I’ve copied our discussion over to the comments section of my post in question. I’ll be replying shortly as I’d like to continue this discussion. I am in the midst of finals, however, so it may be another day or so! Look forward to continuing our talk.


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