Beyond Kiev. From New Wars To Hybrid Confrontations

By Giorgio Cuzzelli

From "The CoESPU MAGAZINE - the online Journal of Stability Policing – Advanced Studies" Vol. I – Issue 1 – Year 2022

Page 9

DOI Code: 10.32048/Coespumagazine4.22.7

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The conventional conflict taking place in the heart of Central-Eastern Europe, which sees the Russian Federation opposed to the Ukraine and to the Western world, must not make us forget that in different parts of the planet other conflicts survive and are perpetuated. Such conflicts have posed for years a permanent challenge to international peacebuilders, and in the same time appear unlikely to see a solution in the short term.

The conclusion of the Cold War that took place thirty years ago, in fact, generated a series of resettlement conflicts, which on one hand decomposed states weakened by the disappearance of their sponsor power - the Soviet Union - and on the other baptized a new international order, inspired by the winner of the confrontation, the United States. The initial affirmation of this new order - and its subsequent, progressive relaxation - nevertheless had significant repercussions on the balance of international affairs and, indirectly, also on war phenomena.

The first consequence was the advent of globalization. Globalization, however, by its nature could not help but erode the prerogatives of states, on one hand exposing them to further risks of implosion, and on the other favoring the affirmation on the scene of multiple non-state actors of considerable potential, some benign, others not. In this context, of particular importance was the affirmation of religious-inspired transnational terrorism, a complex phenomenon in which different forms of conflict have converged - all animated by the common desire to oppose the established order - and which has kept the world busy for over thirty years. 

The second effect was the emergence, alongside the non-state actors mentioned so far, of nation-states hardly enthusiastic about the new order imposed by the winner, antagonists to varying degrees of the United States and therefore potentially revisionist of the post-Cold War settlement. Nations that are also endowed with considerable potential, even though they are not able to confront the hegemonic power on a level of complete parity, and are therefore forced to adopt an asymmetric posture to face it .

From the point of view of war, the simultaneous affirmation of non-state actors and revisionist powers has led to the emergence or exacerbation of forms of conflict which are inherently asymmetrical, variously described by scholars of the last thirty years as New Wars, Wars of the Fourth Generation or Hybrid Wars, mainly due to their nature, their context and their players. The West, for its part, engaged first in a head-on confrontation with the terrorist threat - a Global War on Terrorism of essentially counter-insurrectional nature. Subsequently, however, advanced nations found themselves in increasingly difficult situations in terms of legitimacy and sustainability of the engagements in political and moral, before than economic, terms. More recently, in face of state and non-state challenges as mentioned so far, the First World has initiated yet another doctrinal reworking, producing in rapid succession the concepts of surrogate wars, remote wars and, finally, multi-domain operations .

In essence, although it may appear that recent events in Eastern Europe have turned back the clock of history towards classical, all-out, kinetic confrontations between sovereign nations, in reality the international sphere is still characterized by a multitude of confrontations, essentially local, not necessarily military in nature, which require a concerted effort to be understood and addressed, and which pose to peacebuilders multiple challenges in order to find a solution. To underestimate them or, worse, to forget them under the impression of ongoing events could have dire consequences. The world does not stop in Kiev.

TEXT

The conventional conflict taking place in the heart of Central-Eastern Europe, which sees the Russian Federation opposed to the Ukraine and to the Western world, must not make us forget that in different parts of the planet other conflicts survive and are perpetuated. Such conflicts have posed for years a permanent challenge to international peacebuilders, and in the same time appear unlikely to see a solution in the short term.

The legitimate concern for a war on our doorstep that can lead to a final, catastrophic confrontation for mankind must therefore not lead us to look away from other situations that still require all our attention, and which need to be well understood in order to be addressed correctly. Situations that are the result of the evolution of long-term trends, which have led to complex, articulated confrontations demanding extremely difficult, if not apparently impossible solutions to be stopped.

The conclusion of the Cold War that took place thirty years ago, in fact, generated a series of resettlement conflicts, which on one hand decomposed states weakened by the disappearance of their sponsor power - the Soviet Union - and on the other baptized a new international order, inspired by the winner of the confrontation, the United States. The initial affirmation of this new order - and its subsequent, progressive relaxation - nevertheless had significant repercussions on the balance of international affairs and, indirectly, also on war phenomena.

The first consequence was the advent of globalization as the main tool for building that political and economic interdependence which, in liberal thinking, represents the preferential vehicle for building peace among nations. Globalization, however, by its nature could not help but erode the prerogatives of states, on one hand exposing them to further risks of implosion, and on the other favoring the affirmation on the scene of multiple non-state actors of considerable potential, some benign, others not. In this context, of particular importance was the affirmation of religious-inspired transnational terrorism, a complex phenomenon in which different forms of conflict have converged - all animated by the common desire to oppose the established order - and which has kept the world busy for over thirty years. A phenomenon that on one hand seemed to expropriate the traditional states of their monopoly of war, and on the other was certainly helped significantly in its worldwide spread by the technological, information and financial tools made available by globalization.

The second effect was the emergence, alongside the non-state actors mentioned so far, of nation-states hardly enthusiastic about the new order imposed by the winner, antagonists to varying degrees of the United States and therefore potentially revisionist of the post-Cold War settlement. Nations that are also endowed with considerable potential, even though they are not able to confront the hegemonic power on a level of complete parity, and are therefore forced to adopt an asymmetric posture to face it (Haass, 2020).

From the point of view of war, the simultaneous affirmation of non-state actors and revisionist powers has led to the emergence or exacerbation of forms of conflict which are inherently asymmetrical, variously described by scholars of the last thirty years as New Wars, Wars of the Fourth Generation or Hybrid Wars, mainly due to their nature, their context and their players. The West, for its part, engaged first in a head-on confrontation with the terrorist threat - a Global War on Terrorism of essentially counter-insurrectional nature. Subsequently, however, advanced nations found themselves in increasingly difficult situations in terms of legitimacy and sustainability of the engagements in political and moral, before than economic, terms. More recently, in face of state and non-state challenges as mentioned so far, the First World has initiated yet another doctrinal reworking, producing in rapid succession the concepts of surrogate wars, remote wars and, finally, multi-domain operations (Freeedman, 2017).

The fragmentation resulting from the end of the bipolar order as well as the progressive erosion of the authority of certain states and their consequent failure - partly caused by globalization and partly by the emergence of non-state actors - are at the origin of a series of irregular conflicts that contemporary authors such as Kaldor, Smith and others define as New Wars or Wars among the people. Typical examples cited by scholars are the disputes that began in the 1990s in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa as well as Central and West Africa (Kaldor, 2012 and Smith, 2007)

Although they have many characters typical of insurgency, in reality these disputes lack the foundations of it. The new wars are in fact fought for identity issues - local, regional, ethnic, religious - and not for ideological or political reasons of a general nature. Hence the associated concept of the privatization of war. Nonetheless, the aim is always the same: to bend the will of an opponent in order to acquire or maintain power, usually at the local level, at the most regional. The center of gravity, therefore, as in insurrectional activities, is represented by the population. However, New Wars tend to establish a political control of the population not through the construction of consensus, as it is typical of insurgencies, but by the use of fear and the systematic imposition of terror. In addition, they are partly financed with predatory methods, which obviously demands the continued use of violence. On the ground they are fought locally, employing small infantry formations and using guerrilla procedures. Such formations generally use unsophisticated or obsolete weaponry and equipment, and have very limited mobility and logistics. Basically, they use mostly second-hand, surplus equipment, live in the area and move little. The characters are, as mentioned at the beginning, essentially non-state actors - insurgents of various kinds, terrorists, local militias, war lords, tribes, private companies - who from time to time join forces or fight for control of the territory. The absence of certain interlocutors, the complexity of the situations and the asymmetry of the contenders therefore make solutions difficult, and any intervention expensive as well as very risky. 

In the words of a scholar (Schuurman 2010),

‘success in such conflicts no longer depends on the ability to inflict massive destruction, but rather on the ability to remove popular support from the adversary, separating the insurgents or terrorists from what they need most. ‘

Consequently, New Wars have a devastating impact from the point of view of human security. In fact, the goal is to control the population, and fear is the preferred way to achieve it. To attain their ends, therefore, the contenders use simple and brutal but particularly effective methods of mass violence. From collective rapes in Bosnia, to mass graves in Kosovo, to machetes in Rwanda. The first consequence of systematic violence are mass flights, which reverberate inside and outside the borders, causing massive humanitarian crises. At the same time, these conflicts develop in an overall framework of legal anarchy, which makes the application of humanitarian law very complex, both from the point of view of prevention and of repression of war crimes.

Organized crime, local or transnational, is frequently an additional source of trouble and mischief. This presence, although motivated solely for profit, plays an important role in supporting the contenders or in the appropriation of resources. In addition, in certain circumstances, the concurrence of interests between ,criminals, outlaws and rival factions tends to artificially prolong the conflict, further exacerbating situations. In essence, the war turns out to be good business for everyone, and it is convenient to continue it.

Finally, where other geopolitical or economic considerations overlap the local identity motif - regional ambitions, power projection, exploitation of raw materials - New Wars often see the intervention of foreign powers or transnational economic interest groups. These external subjects generally act through third parties, such as local militias or private security companies. Third parties with which it is possible to deny any contiguity if necessary.

In parallel to New Wars, another notion very popular since the early Nineties has been the Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) (Lind, 1989).

According to this idea, modern warfare has gone through successive phases until it has become in contemporary times ‘an evolved form of insurrection that uses political, economic, social and military tools to convince the adversary that its objectives are unattainable or too expensive.’ (Echevarria, 2005). An evolved form of confrontation that also resorts to terrorism and psychological warfare where it is unable to compete on equal terms. Basically, in order to wear down a stronger opponent, conventional warfare has become progressively irregular and, above all, asymmetrical. Thus excluding ipso facto conventional confrontations in the future, and at the same time assuming that armies will have to be reinvented to face this particular threat. However, this hypothesis has been denied by subsequent events, where conventional military instruments - far from disappearing - have continued to play a crucial role in the definition of power relations between states and have been able - when used for good reason - to come to terms with uprisings, in urban environments as well as in the countryside. Adapting is difficult, but not impossible, as demonstrated by the Israeli army in its struggle against Hezbollah and Hamas.

In reality, as we know, asymmetrical wars have always existed and their renewed formulation is simply the result of the use by non-state actors of the increased opportunities offered by globalization (Haass, 2020). The aim is always to bend the opponent's will, but the conflict necessarily becomes non-linear due to the disproportion between the contenders.

Chechen Wars fought in the 1990s in the Caucasus, Hezbollah operations in Lebanon since 2006, the Hamas intifada and the 2008 Gaza war, the Iraqi and Syrian conflict from 2004 to the present, the terrorist offensive of lone wolves and Quaedist cells in the West are but the most recent response of less-gifted actors to the technological supremacy of advanced countries. A response that is also combined with an unshakable will to resist and prevail at all costs over the adversary, materialized by an unconditional willingness to sacrifice for the cause, an aspect that the West, however, struggles to understand.

The techniques used, which present, as mentioned above, an absolute discrepancy between the contenders - think of the comparison between improvised devices and tanks in Iraq, or between Palestinian incendiary balloons and the Israeli Iron Dome - have the immediate aim of creating surprise, of neutralizing the opponent's material superiority, of wearing him down, of causing unsustainable losses, and of obtaining an advantage, usually local, in the short and medium term. In the long term, however, by hitting in unexpected ways, and by increasing and exploiting collective insecurity, the asymmetrical offense is able to manipulate the political and human environment, compromise the opponent's will to fight as well as his cohesion and the military advantage that comes from technology. Basically, it tends to throw the antagonist off-balance by playing on the political, economic and human costs of resistance and response. Not coincidentally, all techniques already evoked in the late Nineties military theorists in the aftermath of Western victories in the 1991 Gulf War and in the Balkans (Qiao and Wang, 1999).

For this purpose, the non-state asymmetric fighter makes use of a whole series of competing elements, made available by globalization, which he exploits with great skill. He uses primarily the opportunities offered by low-cost and easily accessible emerging technologies, such as cyber weapons, unmanned aircraft and basic missile systems. Secondly, often striking in an apparently disproportionate way he conveys a message of disruptive effectiveness that affects the internal dynamics of the opposing nation. This message impacts both on his target audience and on international public opinion, amplifying the effectiveness of his actions and enhancing the legitimacy of his cause. In this he exploits the full spectrum of contemporary media, from the Internet to social. Third, he systematically uses transnational political, logistical and financial sanctuaries. Finally, he exploits the gaps of international law to act undisturbed.

If non-state actions are complex to address but none the less manageable, asymmetrical initiatives pursued against the West - in particular the United States - by so-called revisionist powers are of a very different stature. Revisionist powers which, moreover, employ asymmetrical means with different goals. Defensive purposes for Russia, which feels threatened within its borders, suffers the overwhelming power of the United States, and in some way has to compensate for it. Offensive purposes for China, which aspires to regain a central position in international affairs, but realizes that the gap to overcome to achieve parity with the United States is enormous, and therefore tries to hit the opponent where it appears most vulnerable . A survival purpose for the Iranian regime, which believes it must protect itself and the nation from an adverse regional context, and therefore seeks - by attacking - to carve out a security perimeter that goes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. And goals of survival and strategic autonomy also for the North Korean regime, which relies on the one hand on nuclear weapons and on the other on Chinese patronage to keep itself afloat in a dangerous balance between Washington and Beijing (Jones, 2021).

We are therefore talking about the so-called hybrid wars, which are not so hybrid, as we shall see, and not even so new. Already postulated by the Chinese Qiao and Wang in the 1990s this form of confrontation was redefined in 2005 in the United States by Hoffman on the basis of the Iraqi experience, as an amalgam of different forms of war, which brings together conventional skills, irregular procedures, terrorism and criminal activities. This definition was then used to describe Hezbollah's war against Israel in Lebanon in 2006, and it resurfaced in the West in 2014, to explain Moscow's modus operandi in the first phase of the Ukrainian crisis. In reality, hybrid methods of warfare such as propaganda, disinformation, subversion, deception, sabotage and other unconventional techniques have always belonged to the Russian political-military tradition - first Tsarist and then Soviet - as well as to traditional Chinese thought. . They were also used by the West, as part of the containment of Soviet expansionism, from the 1920s to the end of the Cold War. The novelty of the attacks seen in recent years lies, if anything, in their versatility, speed, scope and intensity, which are in turn facilitated by technological innovation and the increase in global connectivity (Weissmann et al., 2021). Incidentally, the Russian Federation has in turn accused the West of practicing hybrid warfare, notably through the so-called color revolutions, and so has the People's Republic of China, with regard to the support given to the causes of Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

In their most recent manifestation, hybrid offenses use military and non-military means, both conventional and unconventional, both covert and open, to exert growing political, diplomatic, economic and military pressure, direct and indirect, locally and internationally, aimed at progressively wearing out and finally breaking the cohesion of a society. Thus compromising its capacity for resistance, and forcing the government or the ruling class to yield. Pressure that is also exercised in an intermediate posture between peace and open war - in a gray area - and is therefore particularly destabilizing and difficult to counter. Here is evident the combination between the founding principles of Chinese military thought - the indirect approach aimed at compromising the opponent's will to fight - and the psychodynamic techniques developed by Soviet-era scholars to destroy the capitalist enemy. The ultimate goal is in fact to win against a stronger opponent, possibly without a fight, and the way is the manipulation of his mental processes.

The immediate aim is therefore to obtain temporary strategic supremacy through local or regional superiority, while in the medium and long term the hybrid fighter aims to provoke a reckless reaction - thereby creating further pretexts for the use of force - or to take the control of territories without a shot being fired, to influence the politics of opposing coalitions, nations and factions, and finally to support transnational agents in the pursuit of their goals of power.

The means, as mentioned above, are the most varied, albeit well-coordinated as part of an overall strategy at the national level, defined and implemented in the inter-ministerial context, and decided by the political elite. Basically, it is unthinkable that the blatant attacks by Russian hackers on the US electoral system took place on the autonomous initiative of the security services of the Ministry of Defense, without the active involvement of the Foreign Ministry for an evaluation of the effects, and without the endorsement of the top political authority. As well as the attacks by Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf, the Houthis' missile launches against Saudi refineries, or the systematic penetration of the US military-industrial complex by Chinese intelligence agencies.

Hybrid warfare today is conducted through a skillful combination of violent and non-violent operations, directed against the main nodes of government and command of the adversary, industry, communications, critical infrastructures and the population that benefits from them. . Anonymous means, occult state organizations, drones and missiles, local and transnational agents, militias and private companies, spies and special forces are used for this purpose. Disturbances of a political and social nature, riots and unrest, economic- and energy instability are generated at a distance. The preferred carriers are represented by sophisticated but cheap technologies. The war of information, which manipulates the audience - be it political, social or economic - through the use of trolls and proxies, who artfully spread artificially-manufactured information. The cyber war, both state and non-state, which penetrates management networks in order to damage the exercise of government activity and the daily life of society, to generate insecurity, and to acquire information. The clandestine operations, aimed at espionage and hidden destabilization activities. In the most extreme cases, semi-clandestine missile proliferation is used, using carriers of uncertain origin.

Basically a form of war, conventional and innovative at the same time, which mixes consolidated methods - violent and non-violent - and cutting-edge technologies with the absolutely traditional aim of bending the will of the adversary, acting primarily on the opposing political power and on the population that supports it.

So far we have described, in great detail, the asymmetrical offenses of the last period, the purpose of which was initially - and still is, and probably will be in the future - to oppose the technological, military and organizational supremacy of the West. A West which, faced with this reaction, appeared in difficulty. The reasons for this difficulty are many, and in part they have already been highlighted. In addition to the tiredness of a twenty-year counter-insurgency effort - the global war against terrorism and its substitutes - there are indeed many political, economic, cultural and moral concerns about the opportunity to continue to act in areas of crisis. This in face of the often controversial results in terms of effectiveness, duration and legitimacy. Consequently, if from a conventional point of view the prevailing trend has remained that of maintaining a substantial technological advantage over the main contenders, as regards asymmetrical opponents it is now preferred to avoid frontal engagements. In other words, an indirect approach is being adopted, in which third parties fight wars while advanced countries limit themselves to directing, supporting and contributing in a limited way, taking care not to intervene in full strength. This is the most recent concept of fighting through intermediaries - proxy wars - or surrogates - surrogate wars - or remote - remote wars. Whether remote, surrogate or through an intermediary, these wars start from one principle: operations on the ground are conducted by others, from time to time local militias, third-country forces or transnational private companies (Mumford 2013, Krieg and Rickli 2019). The supporting power typically steps in to provide an intelligence framework, air, land and naval fire support, specialist communications components, and medical support. It acts directly with its own special forces only to mentor the local ally militarily, and to conduct ad-hoc operations, usually clandestine, aimed at achieving its specific objectives. In the case of a multinational commitment, an overt assistance mission, such as in the Sahel, or humanitarian support activities can be associated with indirect kinetic operations. In this context, however, technology plays a fundamental role in making the intervention remote and reducing the risk, as well as the cost. Just as intelligence support can be provided remotely with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance, fire support can also be provided remotely, for example by using cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of kilometers away or by using selectively air power. Basically, today nations are able to conduct a remote military campaign, obtaining the same results as in a direct intervention and paying a very low price. This is the case of the U.S. intervention in Syria, managed through the Kurdish militias. All this without necessarily affecting the consensus, but rather increasing it. At the same time, however, the political, legal and moral implications of such a way of acting are evident, as well as the risk of slipping into forms of conflict beyond control. Russian and Iranian behavior, also in Syria, is an example of this. Handling remotely a conflict, or substituting for participation, can be fine, as long as a context of international legitimacy and respect for human rights is maintained.

On the other hand, the situation is different as regards the fight against hybrid wars. It is in fact evident that the response to an offense brought to a state organization - and to the society that it frames - as the centers of gravity of a nation certainly falls outside the sphere of responsibility of military instruments, even if such an attack is absolutely military in its inspiration. When the challenge involves politics, institutions, the economy, society, communication and public order at the same time, the answer can only be synergic and integrated at the government level. All the more so when the offense invests a system of alliances, in which several member states find themselves having to face such threats, the response must become intergovernmental, and in this case as well, invest more levels and dimensions.

In conclusion, although it may appear that recent events in Eastern Europe may have turned back the clock of history towards classical, all-out, kinetic confrontations between sovereign nations, in reality the international sphere is still characterized by a multitude of confrontations, essentially local, not necessarily military in nature, which require a concerted effort to be understood and addressed, and which pose to peacebuilders multiple challenges in order to find a solution. To underestimate them or, worse, to forget them under the impression of ongoing events could have dire consequences. The world does not stop in Kiev.

REFERENCES


 


 

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