The Rebirth of Total War

May 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

In the wake of Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and the ongoing criminal destabilization of Ukraine, the art of war takes a new twist. Hailed by some as a ”new war” and by others, including myself, as ”war on the cheap”, Russia’s employment of mercenaries, proxies, rent-a-mobs, PsyOps and profound economic pressure herald the return of Total War.

National defence, transmogrified
The transformation of war as we know it challenges and shakes the western society to the core. War, and the defence against war, used to be the realm of the military. A strong military: tanks, aircraft, missiles, ships and manpower; used to serve as guardian of society – the deterrence offered by military capability, as an extension of pacts, economic prowess and political finesse, acted as a guarantee against opportune assault. That simplistic belief can now be regarded as derelict.

Trust and focus on purely military means as bulwark against aggression makes the western society yet more vulnerable. In contrast to Russia, the west devotes precious little interest to the game-changing aspects of ”civilian” factors – because they lie outside of the orderly and delineated realm of national defence. This, the difference between an innocent, purportedly peaceful society and a profoundly aggressive one, is a fundamental imbalance that Russia is now exploiting to the full.

A Russian Spring
The change is essentially motivated by Russia’s interpretation of the Arab Spring, wherein unarmed popular revolt sparked the overthrow of military dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – and threatened Bashar Assad’s Russian-backed rule of Syria. The lessons were not lost on the Russian general staff, who immediately set forth to strengthen its counter-measures and ultimately embarked on emulating the practice of multi-dimensional warfare for its own use. The result is clearly evidenced by events in Crimea and Ukraine. In a fit of supreme irony they even adopted the name, calling it ”Russian Spring”.

The implications and opportunities of an ”Arab Spring”-type conflict drawn by Valery Gerasimov, chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in january 2013 – and the evidence afforded by Russian conquest in Ukraine as analyzed by the Latvian National Defence College in a report by Jānis Bērziņš – proves beyond a doubt that western society, including its military establishment, is well behind the curve in understanding how society in its entirety must be leveraged to defend against, and prosecute, war.

The pervasive war
War – or conflict if you will – as seen from the popular horizon, has long been thought of as a purely military event. The hoary Clausewitzean adage that ”war is the continuation of politics by other means” still holds true in the 21st century, with the exception that war is no longer a particular state separate from peace by dint of a declaration: it is a permanent and pervasive condition that incorporates the entire society whether we acknowledge it or not.

Classic military strategy calls for employment of military assets in a distinct sequence: build-up of overkill capacity at the weakest point (Schwerpunkt) of enemy defences; execution, employing surprise and swift manoeuvre to encircle and neutralize the enemy in the field; occupation of the enemy interior.

The ”new” military strategy, while ultimately aiming toward achieving the classic result, thinks ”outside the box” and avoids the classic use of military assets, except as a tool of intimidation and persuasion. The modern aggressor chooses to operate in a grey zone where the victim state is held in suspension between war and peace, in an environment where traditional pacts, rules and conventions are rendered void or impotent.

Innocence, brutally shattered
This is of course nothing new, except to starry-eyed idealists and daydreaming heads of state. The west has been at war with Russia since, well, forever. Interspersed by short outbreaks of actual shooting wars and superficial alliances, east and west have engaged in battles of economy, ideology and territorial domination since the days of the Mongol hordes. We have been engaged in total war for so long, through overt and covert diplomacy, through intelligence and counterintelligence services, that we have forgotten what peace is like. The peace we think we have had is but an illusion.

A strategy of the intangible
But I digress – let us return to the present. Latvian defence analyst Jānis Bērziņš describes Russia’s military strategy as divided into three interrelated levels. The first, doctrinal unilateralism, or the idea that the successful use of force results in legitimacy, is proven by the weak reaction of the United States and the European Union.

On the second level, strategy adhers strongly to legalism, at least at face value. The use of ”referendums”, ”decrees” and the establishment of sham legal bodies such as the self-styled ”Donetsk People’s Republic” are integral to this strategic level.

On the third, it operates on the core concept of plausible deniability. By employing proxies and non-recognized parties, such as Chechen ”volunteers” and ”local self-defence militias”, through intimidation by ”pre-planned exercises” and ”normal rotation of forces”, Russia can act decisively without bearing responsibility or standing accountable for destabilizing events. When these three layers interact, the ”normal” conduct of diplomacy and armed defence is circumvented, and a new status quo established.

Seen as a whole this strategy acts entirely in a grey zone where legality and, consequently, illegality, is both defined and undefined at the same time, and thus up for interpretation according to desire. The framework of western society, as indeed the clauses and definitions governing intrastate and suprastate agreements and statutes, is fundamentally reliant on legality. The west cannot disregard legality and procedure as it would obviate their own legitimacy and make the west as brazenly lawless as Russia in the process. By pretending to honor legality, and demanding that its victim follow international law, while itself undermining and shunning every aspect of that same legality, Russia steals a march on its law-bound opponents.

The apparent downside of this strategy is that it is excruciatingly obvious and traceable to Russia despite any denial or statement to the contrary. Once Russia is convincingly and factually denounced as lying through her teeth, the strategy becomes a liability. On the other hand, by then the strategy has already produced results on the ground that Russia, coming out of her cloaked state, can assume responsibility for, ipso facto.

Changes in the Character of Armed Conflict According to General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff (slightly edited)

Changes in the Character of Armed Conflict According to General Valery
Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff (slightly edited)

Misinformation comes of age
Widening the scope of war to encompass every walk of life is a natural progression not only for Russia but for every nation. This is a function of several factors, chief among them the import of information technology: it is no longer possible to hide aggressive machinations from the public thanks to – or because of – broadcast and social media, satellite and other monitoring technology, cellular technology and ubiquitous information sharing devices. In olden times the population knew only what priests, demagogues and state-controlled newspapers told them. Today, everyone has the potential to know everything at once – yet the same factor also works in the reverse: everyone has the potential to be misinformed or oblivious about everything, all the time.

Against that background, and according to COS Gerasimov, the main guidelines for developing Russian military capabilities by 2020 are:

i. From direct destruction to direct influence;
ii. from direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay;
iii. from a war with weapons and technology to a culture war;
iv. from a war with conventional forces to specially prepared forces and commercial irregular groupings;
v. from the traditional (3D) battleground to information/psychological warfare and war of perceptions;
vi. from direct clash to contactless war;
vii. from a superficial and compartmented war to a total war, including the enemy’s internal side and base;
viii. from war in the physical environment to a war in the human consciousness and in cyberspace;
ix. from symmetric to asymmetric warfare by a combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns;
x. From war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.

Jānis Bērziņš summarizes it brilliantly: ”Thus, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population.The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary, making the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country.”[my italics]

Events in Ukraine provide ample if not abundant proof of concept. From the very start, Russian state-controlled media and numerous western proxies acting either per instruction or as parrots of propaganda, have been busy projecting words, images and concepts that serve to undermine Ukraine’s and the west’s will to resist. RT, Ruptly, Rossiya1 and a veritable army of paid internet trolls and sympathetic ”useful idiots” have drummed home the message that Kyiv is run by a fascist junta, that Ukraine is a failed state, that Ukraine cannot hope to exist outside a Russian sphere of influence, and so on ad nauseaum. This effort has successfully, at least in part, swayed the Ukrainian public and caused significant numbers to question and turn away from effective resistance. On the other hand it has also galvanized formerly indifferent spectators against Russia and has helped fill the ranks of loyal Ukrainian volunteer units. Time will tell if the strategy is productive, or actually counterproductive.

An inherently chaotic strategy
The strategy has one other feature that also constitutes its major flaw: it is inherently chaotic. Its distribution and execution is largely beyond control and may well spin decisively off target, leaving Russia exposed and unable to prosecute its aims by any other factor than outright classical military intervention. This too is evidenced in Ukraine by the formation of non-sanctioned, unsupported militias and self-styled ”councils” that work at cross-purposes to the planned effort; by opportunistic gangsters taking advantage of power vacuums and, tangentially, by the comedy of domestic Russian regions calling for annexation by Russia to rectify glaring injustices and economic plight.

The strategy of total war exposed
The report written by Jānis Bērziņš offers many key points of how intelligence, counterintelligence, subversion and manipulation act in unison to produce strategic results. The individual factors are neither new nor decisive in isolation – they have been part of the diplomatic and destabilization playbook since Sun Tzu – what is new is the singular concentration with which they are brought to bear. In his report Bērziņš relates how the phases of a new-generation war play out, thus:

First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).

Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

Third Phase: intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.

Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

Fifth Phase: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units.

Sixth Phase: commencement of military action, immediately preceded by large-scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. Employment of all types, forms, methods, and forces, including special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, and secret service intelligence, and industrial espionage.

Seventh Phase: combination of targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, continuous airforce harassment, combined with the use of highprecision weapons launched from various platforms (long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons).

Eighth Phase: roll over the remaining points of resistance and destroy surviving enemy units by special operations conducted by reconnaissance units to spot which enemy units have survived and transmit their coordinates to the attacker’s missile and artillery units; fire barrages to annihilate the defender’s resisting army units by effective advanced weapons; airdrop operations to surround points of resistance; and territory mopping-up operations by ground troops.

It is interesting to note that events in Ukraine has yet to progress beyond the Fourth Phase, although elements included in the Fifth and Sixth phases – extensive use of private military companies, subversive missions and special operations forces – are also in evidence. Subsequent phases bring the conflict fully into outright war in the classical sense.

Implications and consequences
Defence against this ”new” Total War is materially different than what is required against ”normal” territorial aggression. Strong, pervasive and ever-vigilant state security services; permanently strict border control; watchful and active intelligence and counterintelligence; internet and telecom surveillance; financial overwatch, especially of foreign as well as domestic NGO’s and GONGO’s (government-operated NGO’s) operating in the interior; strong anti-corruption measures; weapons control; infrastructure security and investments in systems redundancy – all of this and more is critical to the readiness, preparedness and survival of the state. Not surprisingly, these measures are often wanting for funds and competence in western society, and, many of them tend to push the state toward militarization, clear or borderline infringement of civic rights and overt control normally attributed to totalitarian states.

To successfully defend its sovereignity the nation must therefore increase its awareness and perforce become more closed, contrary to the general drift of increased openness and free movement of people, goods and information across borders – i.e. diametrically opposed to the principles of the European Union.

Can Russia’s “new war” circumvent NATO’s Article 5?
As seen in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has managed to throw the state into considerable disarray, judging by open source information. While opposition to Russia among the population continues to be strong, and increasing, subversion, sabotage and destabilization has wrought extensive damage and is close to achieving its primary aim: to dismember the country and render Ukraine without effective governance.

What if Russia were to project similar force against a NATO member country, up to but not including transgressions that would invoke the all-important Article 5? Firstly, the country under attack could certainly receive combat and non-lethal support of a kind that Ukraine clearly could not. Secondly, NATO would most likely be more diligent and swift in identifying and declaring hostile events as Russian acts of war, thereby triggering Article 5. Thirdly, should an acute threat materialize, NATO would be pulling out all stops, militarily and diplomatically, in a manner it cannot do for Ukraine. All of this makes it very much harder for a Russian aggression to succeed in e.g. the Baltic States as it has in Ukraine. The alternative for Russia would be an all-out war against the most powerful alliance in the world.

That leaves Russia with one final option for continued geopolitical destabilization in Europe: to go after the remaining non-NATO members in the region – Sweden, Finland and Moldavia. That, however, is an altogether different kettle of fish, for another day.



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§ 2 Responses to The Rebirth of Total War

  • This is a very concise, thoughtful, and sound analysis of the ongoing situation. As far as it being a template for a ‘new warfare’ I would agree that it is playing out almost exactly along the trajectory that you and Jānis Bērziņš have specified. However, as for it being a template for wars in general, I believe it has in its aggregate rather limited applicability. Certainly many of the aspects of this new warfare have applicability independently or used in tandem with other strategies. Ukraine may prove to be unique in its susceptibility to this new-generation war. Ukraine has for decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union had intertwined military, security, intelligence, and industrial sectors which all served to make the arduous advanced preparation laying the groundwork for such warfare a far easier and less time consuming ordeal. It also is in direct proximity to the Russian Federation so that their military projection of force is that much more magnified. The number of countries with such features and in such contexts is limited, which in turn limits this doctrine’s general application.

    • jkylander says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I concur with your view in general and insofar as Ukraine is a unique battleground – indeed, every conflict is unique WRT geopolitical and socioeconomic context – that said, and bearing in mind that the conflict likely develops reactively from Kremlin’s POV, it goes to prove that the arsenal of subversive measures are more debilitating than traditional military thinking gives it credit for. If I were Lithuania for example, I’d be paying much attention to security, demographics and socioeconomic infrastructure in the Vilnius-Marijampole sector, rather more than on forward deployment or military acquisitions.

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