Q: What do the following events in these former Soviet republics have in common?
Uzbekistan requiring all television and radio transmitters to be equipped with "self-destructing devices." Tajikistan mandating that old car tires be disposed of not in the capital city, but in a dump 25 miles away, lest they be used by protesters in flammable barricades. Latvia joining Lithuania in banning Russian state TV broadcasts. Kazakhstan passing a law permitting censorship and limiting protests during states of emergency.
A: They're all meant to prevent Russia from doing to those countries what it's done to Ukraine.
If it isn’t immediately clear how those arguably wacky measures are supposed to help guard against… whatever it is that Russia is doing, that’s because events in Ukraine have ushered in some pretty dramatic changes to what constitutes an invasion and/or a war. And so the leaders of the former Soviet republics are reacting unevenly and abruptly to a new and unprecedented threat for which they're totally unprepared.
Russian thinkers have long observed that the West generally underestimates the importance of political and psychological factors in war. Maybe they're right; experience with counterinsurgencies and other flavors of low-intensity warfare, particularly since 9/11, has demonstrated that the socio-political elements of fighting are a challenge for the West in general, and for the US in particular.
For decades, Western developments in warfare have focused on advanced and esoteric technologies like stealth, precision munitions, and drones. And preferentially, the Western concept of warfare involves big armies getting out there and slaughtering the hell out of each other. The idea being that eventually all of the slaughter will result in one side being unwilling or unable to continue, at which point that side will give up (or cease to exist). The savagery of this approach is at least matched by some conceptual — though not necessarily ethical — clarity.
The further the US gets from a conflict in which soldiers in uniform slug it out with soldiers in different uniforms until someone cries "Uncle!", the less comfortable the US gets. Information warfare in particular gets a bad rap in the US; attempts to use it are regularly rejected as distasteful propaganda, and therefore discouraged (well, not always). Professional thinkers in the US tend to channel the broader nature of conflict into three more-or-less politically palatable directions: diplomacy, open war, and economic measures.
Worse, the report suggests that continual attempts to destroy the enemy's will to fight will require a shift 'from war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.'
Soviet doctrine stated that war involves two key aspects of warfare that work in tandem: the socio-political and the military-technical. Soviet planners expected to spend most of their time preparing an environment in advance of any actual fighting by depleting the enemy's political will to oppose the Soviets. They did this via “active measures — for instance, propaganda campaigns, disinformation, and the sponsoring of Western peace movements.” Then, if those approaches proved unsuccessful in achieving the desired outcome, the measures would become increasingly active, and Special Forces units would infiltrate to start eroding political and military command and control structures. Only then would the rest of the army move in and complete the takeover.
Sounds like what happened in Crimea and what's happening in Eastern Ukraine, right? Well, Dr. Stephen Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told VICE News otherwise. Softening up the enemy with intelligence units before an active involvement of Special Forces had been "a part of Soviet doctrine, but this form of warfare is entirely new and not well understood.”
It seems that Russian military theorists have been keeping themselves busy since the fall of the Soviet Union by evolving their understanding of conflict. Blank said there hasn't yet been much academic study of these new approaches to warfare, but there is ”Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy,” a paper released earlier this month by the National Defense Academy of Latvia that tries to figure the Russians out.
The paper puts forward 10 elements that characterize Russia's new model of warfare. Some elements — like a shift away from blowing things up and killing people, and launching attacks on the enemy’s will to fight — have immediate advantages. (Namely, less blowing up things and killing people.) But the shift to an approach largely dominated by psychological warfare and “a combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns” has some pretty dark implications.
To start, these kinds of things are much harder to counter, because they rely on feelings rather than on easily observed things like tanks and planes. Defense planners prefer the objective world of measurable data over the squishy world of sentiment. People in the former Soviet republics know that they need to do something to defend against this new kind of warfare, but they haven’t the slightest idea what that may be. And so they're doing seemingly insane things like equipping TV and radio antennas with self-destruct devices.
Worse, the Latvian report suggests that Russian-style attempts to destroy the enemy's will to fight will require a shift “from war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life."
Sound familiar? Keep in mind that the idea that countries may have to be perpetually at war as a natural condition in order to fight effectively when there's finally actual shooting is purely speculation. Last May, President Obama declared that the Iraq War, "like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands." This pronouncement even lead some commentators to assert that "the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future."
Thing is, maybe the US is just now stumbling upon a new reality that some very smart Russians have already figured out. Shortly after 9/11, critics objected to the idea of a “Global War on Terror,” arguing that it was too open-ended and indefinite. However, as Russia has demonstrated in Ukraine, and as those former Soviet Republics have demonstrated in their bizarre responses, this may simply be how wars are fought now.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan