Tag Archives: strategy

Book of the year prize 2018

Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.

fridman

Continue reading Book of the year prize 2018

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The use of force

There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.

Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:

In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.

To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.

So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.

First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.

Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.

And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.

Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

Continue reading Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?

Crackpot theory no. 9: Assume the worst

As I was typing my last blog post, an objection to it occurred to me. It goes something like this: ‘For sure, Russia at present has no intention of cutting underwater communications cables, but we believe that it has the capacity to do so, and so we must assume the worst and put in place defences against it, just in case.’

I call this the ‘assume the worst theory of international relations.’ Its underlying principle is ‘better safe than sorry.’

It’s a theory which is pretty commonly held, and used to justify defence budgets around the world. Vladimir Putin is a believer. On two occasions he has quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that it is not intentions which matter but capabilities. British Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach’s statement about Russia’s anti-underwater cable capability can be seen as following the same logic.

Superficially, the assume the worst theory makes senses. After all, why not take measures for your safety? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? But measures always impose costs, and if the measures aren’t required then it isn’t a good idea to waste resources on them. Moreover, it just isn’t true that threat is a matter solely of capability, divorced from all intention. If any country in the world has the capacity to cut underwater cables, then it’s the Americans. But Mr Peach doesn’t cite America as a threat to British communications. This is because he’s confident that the Americans won’t ever use that capability against the United Kingdom. Behind the ‘assume the worst’ logic is another assumption, one made about the people and things you seek to protect yourself against. You don’t assume the worst about everybody and everything. It would be absurd to do so.

In any case, successful human relations rely on a degree of trust, in other words on not assuming the worst about others. Also, successful human endeavour always requires a degree of risk. Were we to apply to the assume the worst theory to everything we did we would find it impossible to do anything. As one writer put it, if cavemen had assumed the worst about fire, they’d have banned it, and we’d still be living in very cold caves.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the theory is that in reality assuming the worst doesn’t necessarily help prevent it. Indeed it can have the opposite effect. It is precisely by assuming the worst that people ensure that the worst comes about.

This year we are still in the midst of commemorations of the 100th anniversay of the First World War, a war which begun precisely because two major political leaders – Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – followed the advice of their generals to assume the worst about the international situation.

As Christopher Clark has pointed out in his book The Sleepwalkers, European politicians were well aware prior to 1914 of the likely scenario which would produce a general European war. They knew that a war between Austria and Serbia could escalate into a war between Austria and Russia, and thus into a war between Germany and Russia and so also Germany and France. This scenario was quite commonly discussed, and it was the knowledge that this was how things could turn out which made sure that they did turn out that way.

When Austria issued an ultimatum against Serbia, Russian generals, being well acquainted with the scenario above, immediately began to assume the worst and to argue that the Russian state must take measures to defend itself in case the worst came about. As historian Bruce Menning has discovered, the Russian Army knew that in the event of war with Serbia, the Austrians would also secretly mobilize their forces along the border with Russia. Russia’s mobilization plans depended upon railways which ran close to the Austrian border. The generals, therefore argued that if Austria mobilized against Serbia, Russia must also mobilize against Austria, just in case. Russian ministers, meanwhile, were also aware of the potential war scenario. They therefore assumed that if Austria was preparing war against Serbia, it must also be preparing for the larger war which the scenario said would follow, and if that was the case, it must be because Germany was pushing Austria into war. The ministers assumed the worst about the way events would go and about German intentions. They therefore coaxed the Tsar into ordering a mobilization of the Russian army. At first this was to be just against Austria, but the generals insisted that – again, assuming the worst – it must also be against Germany.

At this point, the German generals told the Kaiser that while Russian mobilization didn’t necessarily mean Russia was going to attack, Germany couldn’t take that chance. Germany could only win a war against France and Russia if it struck first. If it let Russia mobilize without a response, then if the worst came to pass, Germany would be destroyed. It had to assume the worst and declare war.

Returning to the story about Britain, Russia, and the underwater cables, we can see how repeated stories about the potential Russian ‘threat’ push Western states into hostile rhetoric and actions, and so pretty much ensure that Russia does indeed end up being an enemy. One could say the same also about talk in Russia about the ‘Western threat’. Assuming the worst is often a very bad idea. Instead of thinking of what one should do if the worst comes about, it is better to think about how to prevent that happening in the first place, and that means ramping down the talk about threats, not ramping it up.

What’s the objective, and how does this help achieve it?

Today the Canadian government announced that it had added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries deemed to be permitted destinations for the export of firearms. This does not necessarily mean that Canadian companies will immediately start exporting weapons to Ukraine, but it does mean that they are now allowed to do so.

Ukraine, of course, is hardly short of firearms. It’s hard to see what difference a few from Canada will make. Nevertheless, one can see this as another victory for Canada’s Ukrainian lobby, coming just a day after the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence issued a report on Ukraine which included a recommendation to add Ukraine to this list. The report drew heavily on statements by Ukrainian officials, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, and some other Canadian-Ukrainian activitists such as Taras Kuzio and Lubomyr Luciuk. The fact that the government acted on one of its recommendations within a day must be something of a record for speed.

There’s a lot wrong with the standing committee’s report, which you can read here. I won’t bother listing all its problems, but they include a poor understanding of the origins and nature of the war in Donbass, and an extremely one-sided perspective on all issues relating to Ukraine and Russia. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What concerns me is the detachment of the policy recommendations from any clear objective, and the lack of evidence to support the recommendations.

When presenting any policy proposals, what one needs to do is first explain one’s objective, and second explain how the recommended policies will help one to achieve the objective. If the objective isn’t credible, and if the policies won’t help one achieve it, then the recommendations are worthless. In this case, the defence committee report recommends, among other things, that:

  • Canada expand its training and support of the Ukrainian army.
  • Increase its commitment to the OCSE monitoring mission in Donbass.
  • Advocate for a ‘peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that respects its territorial integrity’.
  • ‘Provide lethal weapons to Ukraine … provided that Ukraine demonstrate that it is actively working to eliminate corruption.’
  • Add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List.
  • Encourage cooperation between Ukrainian and Canadian defence industries.
  • Assign members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine’s cyber-security operations.
  • Expand sanctions against Russia.

My question to the committee is this: ‘What is this all meant to achieve?’ The report doesn’t actually lay out any objectives, so we can’t tell whether these recommendations are relevant or how one could measure their success. This is a pretty serious failing.

About the only place where there is a hint of the committee’s idea of what it hopes for is a section entitled ‘Conflict Resolution and Prevention in Ukraine’. In that section, we are told that , ‘Canada and the international community are trying to find peaceful solutions to the conflict in Ukraine’ So, the committee wants to promote peace in Ukraine. But what does the committee think a peaceful solution would look like? That’s not clear, as the report doesn’t say. But it does cite Paul Grod as follows:

Mr. Grod noted that, as long as Russia is not prepared to ‘have a resolution and stop the ongoing conflict and military aggression,’ Minsk II will never be implemented. In his opinion, Minsk II is ‘stale-dated’ and the ‘simple way’ to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Ukraine is ‘to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists’ in the Donbas region; Russia must agree ‘to stop the war in Ukraine.’

In other words, the objective is the total surrender of rebel Donbass, and the chosen means of achieving this end is ‘to force Russia’s hand’ – i.e. coercion.

This is dumb. It’s dumb because it is totally unachievable. The rebels in Donbass aren’t just going to give up. The report says that the rebels have 35,000 men under arms. I have never heard of an undefeated army of that size simply deciding one day that they’ve had enough and will lay down their arms to their enemies and put themselves at their mercy. It won’t happen. The report seems to think that everything depends on Russia, and that if Russia can simply be coerced sufficiently it will abandon Donbass. It won’t. Russia won’t stop supporting the rebels without receiving something extremely tangible in return. Complete Ukrainian victory of the sort apparently favoured by the defence committee is a fantasy.

The report says that, ‘Witnesses told the Committee that Canada and the international community must stand together in trying to find a peaceful solution to the armed conflict in Ukraine.’ So, if a peaceful solution can’t take the form of the total surrender of Donbass, what could it take the form of? The only two alternatives are: a) a negotiated peace settlement, and b) a complete ceasefire, perhaps enforced by peacekeepers, dividing the sides and in effect freezing the conflict. Will the report’s recommendations help achieve either of those?

The answer is no. A negotiated settlement would have to take the form of something like Minsk II, but unconditional support of Ukraine of the sort proposed by the committee doesn’t provide any incentives to Kiev to change its current policy of refusing to enact the Minsk provisions. The report’s recommendations merely encourage Kiev to carry on its current course. The recommendations therefore undermine peace, not promote it.

As for the frozen conflict option, the Canadian recommendations are equally irrelevant. The report spends a lot of time talking about a potential peacekeeping operation. This is absurd. There is currently no peace to keep. In any event, the committee totally supports the Kiev government’s line on what a peacekeeping operation should consist of – forces deployed throughout the rebel republics, including on the border with Russia. Neither the rebels nor Russia will ever agree to this. It’s pointless proposing it. Insisting on this formula serves only to rule out the possibility of an alternative which could actually stop the killing – a peacekeeping force along the front lines. By rejecting this latter formula, the Canadian committee is once again working against peace, not in favour of it.

What we see here, therefore, is a stubborn refusal to choose achievable objectives combined with recommendations which are in any case detached from any objective, and without the provision of any evidence that the recommendations can help produce successful results. The committee, for instance, favours increased sanctions versus Russia without providing any data which shows that sanctions have in any way altered Russian behaviour in a desired way, justifying the decision solely on the basis of unbacked assertions by certain interested parties. This is not ‘evidence-based policy.’

There was a time when Canada was seen as a peacekeeper and an ‘honest broker’ in international relations. Alas, those days are in the past.