Panic, slaughter and lies
Ten things you need to know if Putin attacks Ukraine
With the Brits sending short-range anti-tank missiles to Kiev, Russian social media posting videos of missile systems heading towards Ukraine, and all diplomatic progress halted, the chances of Putin hitting the start button for the invasion of Ukraine are higher than ever.
I live in hope that it’s all, still, for show — dramatic intimidation efforts aimed at disrupting Western unity, scaring the Ukrainian people and bringing down the Zelensky regime. But when a nuclear armed state is run by a crazed narcissist, with total control over media and a cowed civil society, pessimism of the intellect must prevail.
With this in mind I want to explore what might happen and what the stakes might be. Our image of warfare, since the turn of the 21st century has been highly asymmetric: drones versus Afghan militias; American tanks rolling across desert, enjoying by total air superiority; one-sided electronic warfare battles .
Even some politicians I speak to lack the vocabulary to make sense of what’s about to happen — let alone the ordinary news viewer, or voter. So here are ten concepts to help understand what happens when two “peer adversaries” — ie states armed with modern weaponry — go to war.
1. Hybrid warfare. Sometimes called greyzone warfare, this is a mixture of disinformation, corruption, crime, assassinations, political destabilisation, election rigging practised by both sides during the 1948–91 Cold War, mostly in satellite countries.
What makes Putin’s application of it different to, say the CIA in Latin America in the 1990s, is:
It is, today, aimed primarily at destabilising the core advanced democracies and undermining belief in democracy;
during the past decade Putin’s strategists concluded it is more effective than traditional military threats, and invested heavily in it
the hybrid effort is centrally controlled and “instrumented” — ie the constant focus of military/civilian analysts in Moscow, with a high intensity of inputs and outputs. It’s the main show, not the sideshow.
I do not subscribe to the US liberal view that Trump/QAnon and the US alt right is primarily a creation of Russian intereference; but Russian manipulation of these forces, and the willing collaboration of elements of the US Republican right (and British conservatism) with Putin’s oligarchy has certainly contributed to it.
As a result, the USA has neither the political will nor the capability to defend Ukraine.
Since late 2019, with regard to Ukraine itself, it’s clear Putin has moved beyond the pure hybrid war stage: British government and security sources believe his efforts during the next phase are increasingly likely to involve violence.
2. Policy. War, said Clausewitz, is “is just a continuation of policy by other means”. Throughout the 20th century Soviet military thinkers fine-tuned this approach, segmenting the practice of conflict into policy, strategy, operations and tactics. These, in turn, have become widely understood and precise concepts in post-Soviet Russian political science. So if we want to understand what Putin is trying to acheve, we must start with “policy”.
Putin’s policy is to reverse the economic and geopolitical humiliation inflicted on Russia at the height of US geopolitical dominance in the early 2000s — decisively and permanently. In place of the “unipolar” world order, which fell apart after the global financial crisis, Putin wants a tripolar order: Russia, China, America.
Russia is to become the co-equal of the USA; the international architecture designed around US post-1945 hegemony is to be dismantled; the EU is to be sidelined and fragmented as an international player — it will be, metaphorically, the chess board, not one of the chess players.
Russia is to have de-facto control over the territory of the former Soviet Union, and a major say in the affairs of neighbours like Finland and Sweden.
For this to happen, NATO — which extended its mutual defence guarantee into Eastern Europe in the 1990s — has to be proven a busted flush, and the EU’s “common foreign and security policy” made to look like a joke. All attempts to democratise the ex-Soviet space, and the Middle East — which Putin and Xi Jin Ping call “colour revolutions” — are to be crushed.
Russia’s actions against Ukraine since the Euromaidan uprising of 2013–14 have to be understood in that context. What happens next in Ukraine is not a self-contained spasm, which might be contained once it’s over. It basically one stage in an attempt to redraw the geopolitical map of the world.
You may wish to acquiesce in that, or to resist it, or ignore it — but you have to understand it, because it will affect everything else about the world you live in, from climate, to anti-poverty, to human rights to your the internal politics of your own country.
3. Strategy. The draft treaties presented to the USA/NATO by the Russian foreign ministry in December have to be understood as a reckless ultimatum. True, Putin may be asking for a lot with the aim of getting a little — but the treaties contain a remarkably open outline of Putin’s strategic goal.
First, they propose a direct, bilateral agrement to carve up Europe between the USA and Russia. The EU is completely sidelined, NATO treated as the mere appendage of the Pentagon.
Second, they call for the demilitarisation of Eastern Europe and the withdrawal of NATO troops to their 1994 positions — including in the Balkans.
Third, Putin wants a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine cannot join NATO, and Ukraine reabsorbed into a soft federation with Russia.
The desired end-state, then, is not just the disappearance of Ukraine’s national sovereignty , together with its fledgeling democracy, but a strategic veto by Russia over any political changes in East Europe, the Baltics, the Nordic countries or the Black Sea which it deems a threat to its own security.
4. War aims. There’s a mode of thinking in the West that says: to avoid war, give Putin what he wants. But that’s not how the Kremlin thinks.
It’s no accident that, even now, despite mobilising >100 battalions’ worth of armour to the border, he has not stated a demand on Ukraine itself.
Russian strategic thinking is opportunist, with suddenness, activeness, deception and the creative exploitation of chances far more central than in the West’s traditional mixture of defensiveness and “risk management” (combined with occasional reckless, hubristic nation-building adventures like Iraq/Afghanistan).
The possible war aims could be categorised as follows, from small to large:
a) Force the West to accept the permanent annexation of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics, (LNR/DNR) ending sanctions over their seizure
b) Force the West to legitimise the annexation of Crimea achieved in 2014, end sanctions related to it, and reopen the water supply to the peninsular from the River Dniepr (see map).
c) Visibly fragment and destabilise NATO, forcing major EU states to withdraw from the sanctions regime, or to refuse co-operation with self-defensive measures by NATO members (in some cases — as in France — under threat of a far right, pro-Russian electoral challenge)
e) Force the Ukrainian government to surrender its independence, accepting soft federation, puppet status and reversing democratic reforms. The prize here would be a government in Kiev that calls for an end to Western sanctions on Russia/Belarus.
f) Bring the Ukrainian government to collapse, with nationalists clamouring for a wartime dictatorship, the far right and paramilitary groups perpetrating human rights violations, neutralising Western claims to be defending a “pro-Western” democracy. (Here’s where any “false flag” operations Russia might stage against the LNR/DNR or Transnistria would fit the narrative)
g) With Ukraine as the example, force non-NATO neighbours (Finland, Sweden) to sign no-NATO membership pledges, de-escalate their militaries and cancel recent procurement decisions (eg Finland’s recent decision to buy the F-35).
h) Force the West to end all sanctions imposed in response to the above and accept the strategic peace offered in the draft treaties.
I have no idea what Putin actually wants, but you would not mobilise thousands of armoured vehicles from as far away as Vladivostok for less than (a). The only thing we can be certain of is that if one of these aims is achieved, Putin’s next question will be: should he move to the next aim?
5. Operations. The Soviet Union bequeathed decades worth of political-scientific thinking about warfare, embodied in the concept of “operational art” — in which war, politics and economics are viewed on a continuum, not separate spheres of activity.
From Great Purge victim Mikhail Tukachevsky through to today, Russian operations have been designed around “the concentration of forces necessary to deliver a strike, and the infliction of continual and uninterrupted blows of these forces against the enemy throughout an extremely deep area”.
In the Second World War the concept of “deep battle” was framed, primarily, around ground operations. Today, with warfare conducted across five “domains” (see below), you have to expect a Russian offensive to achieve depth everywhere. That’s why media conjectures like “maybe they’ll only stage a provocation at the border” are misconceived.
In the 21st century, deep operations are concretised into Russian thinking in two ways: through the mixture of armed and information operations known as New Type Warfare and in the concept of Reflexive Control. The aim is to achieve the same effects as deep battle, only using “80% information, 20% violence”.
New Type Warfare, as outlined by Russian general Andrey Kartapolov in 2015, moves through phases (see translated graphic below):
Phase I. Economic, political and psychological pressure; disorienting the leadership of the enemy country; spreading dissatisfaction among the population; preparing armed opposition detachments and sending them into the potential warzone.
Phase II: Covertly deploying special forces, cyber-attacks, reconnaissance and subversion, deploying new weapons systems
Phase III: Classical warfare combined with large-scale information effects. Seizeing territory; destroying enemy armed forces through the “entire depth of his territory”. Using precision weapons, drones and unconventional strategic weapons (eg lasers, hypersonics).
Phase IV: Liquidate resistance with artillery and air strikes. Establish full control over the “state-victim”.
No impartial observer of the Ukraine conflict could fail to conclude that we are currently in Phase I and on the cusp of II.
As for “reflexive control” it’s just a logical development of the concept pioneered in the USA by John Boyd (and famously obsessed over by Dominic Cummings) — getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle (the so-called OODA loop).
Done scientifically, using the most advanced digital technologies, this means more than just acting faster, and forcing the enemy to react. It means controlling the enemy’s way of thinking about the battlefield, making them do things against their own interest — or as the Russians put it: “conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action”.
[By the way, all advanced militaries attempt to do a version of reflexive control — it’s not some specially ‘devious’ Russian thing. But in combination with the overt goal of destroying democracy and the rule of law, ‘reflexive control’ for Putin is more than simply a battlefield technique].
6. Domains. All warfare now takes place across five “domains”: land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. If you think we have seen this already, in the two Gulf Wars, think again. Even the Second Gulf War, and much of the subsequent Afghan conflict, was essentially a “space enabled” war — and there was little by way of cyber infrastructure to attack in both cases.
Deep battle, in the 2020s, involves: attacking or jamming enemy satellites to take GPS, emergency services comms, satellite imagery etc offline; paralysing enemy cellphone, internet and financial transactionsinfrastructure with cyber-attacks; massive virus and DDoS attacks across civil society; missile and air strikes on bridges, power stations, dams, key government buildings and the physical internet; plus traditional land, sea and air combat.
Given the forces were highly asymmetric during the Gulf and Afghan conflicts, it’s again worth spelling out what happens when two advanced militaries go to war with each other.
Air: The attacker seeks to achieve superiority by destroying the enemy airforce on the ground, taking out satellites and AWACs planes; attriting the enemy over several days (so that they run out of serviceable planes, pilots, ammunition and fuel in the right place)
Sea: The naval battle is a cat and mouse game where what can be seen can be destroyed, until the missiles run out. A modern naval exchange of fire hasn’t really happened at scale since the arrival of guided weapons, stealthy submarines etc — but basically the north of the Black Sea would host a rapid and one-sided naval conflict, with Russia sinking or neutralising all of Ukraine’s tiny navy in short order.
Land: On land, as we know from the Gulf Wars, we would see massive and deadly missile, rocket and artillery strikes, now enhanced by drone attacks following the experience of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The the aim is to destroy the enemy’s willingness to fight. This means destroying the willingness of ammo truck drivers to get in their vehicles, the willingess of tank commanders to manouver, and disrupting the command and control infrastructure of ground units.
Achieving victory on land is essentially a mixture of technology and scale. Both sides have cluster munitions and would use them to lethal effect (with inevitable civilian casualties). Both sides have a doctrine of “echelons” — the understanding that the first wave of attack or defence might get wiped out, but that eventually one side will run out of the means or the willingness to fight.
We have never seen a massive, peer-to-peer conventional conflict in Europe since 1945. But the civil society implications are predictable. From the very outset there would be panic and paralysis — at supermarkets, hospitals, banks, transport hubs. Not only physical but social resilience would come under severe strain.
I hope this brief outline of what it might involve redoubles your determination to STOP IT HAPPENING.
Because, over and above what it does to Ukraine, it will create a template for all future wars — just as Franco’s massacre of civilians in Malaga, and the German bombing on Guernica did in 1937.
7. Objectives. It is highly unlikely that Russia will attempt to occupy a major Ukrainian town or city. First, because that’s where the irregular civil defence forces will mobilise; second because conventional forces will find them easier to defend; third because reputationally it will involve massive loss of civilian life.
Instead, the military objectives would stem logically from the operational goals. For example, you could achieve “Western recognition of LNR/DNR annexation” simply by rolling troops into the Donbas, attacking Mariupol (see map), destroying all Ukrainian forces between there and Crimea, and then calling a halt.
But if Russia wants to collapse the Ukrainian government by going beyond a mere occupation of the Donbas, the map dictates the possible scenarios. They are:
a) A big conventional land attack from Russia into NE Ukraine
b) The above plus an amphibious/helicopter assault out of Crimea to seize the mouth of the Dniepr
c) The above plus an attack out of the breakaway Russian enclave of Transnistria (formerly part of Moldova), to threaten Odessa
d) All of the above plus an attack out of, or by, Belarus down the River Dnepr to threaten Kiev (see map below).
Ukraine fields (by my calculation) 28 battalions of wheeled-armoured and tracked vehicles, including tanks, divided into four command centres (North, South, East and West). Logic dictates that, in order to prevent them concentrating against the 100+ battalions already deployed in Russia, the threat of an attack out of Belarus, Crimea, the Donbas or Transnistria has to be real.
If Putin decides to move to Phase II of New Type Warfare we could quickly see sabotage, “little green men”, false flag operations and significant information warfare, not just in Ukraine but at its periphery .
8. NATO. Biden and the other powerful NATO leaderships have decided they will not fight to defend Ukraine.
Even for ultra-imperialist hawks, it’s clear NATO just does not have the military power to stop Russia — even if it had the political willpower. The sight of British planes skirting German airspace to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kiev (with a maximum range of 800 metres) tells you just how disunited NATO is likely to be in response to any attack.
However, what they can’t do militarily, the Western powers have warned they will make up for economically.
The biggest economic sanction available is the shutdown of the SWIFT interbank processing system in Russia, together with ending rouble convertibility into dollars, combined with deniable cyberattacks — and a wave of sanctions and wealth seizures that would put the Russian oligarchs out of business. An additional sanction — controversial in Germany — would be to cancel the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline.
But Russia has spent a decade reducing its own vulnerability to such measures — so they may not act as an effective deterrent. In addition, Europe itself is highly vulnerable to a shutdown of Russian oil and gas.
All wars have a habit of spiralling out of control — especially ones between big states, in domains that have never been fought over (like space and cyber). Every major event — from the Second Gulf War, to Afghanistan, to the global financial crisis and the Arab Spring — has escaped the control of elites who thought they were in charge of the situation.
That’s because we live in a world of complex and incomplete systems, which interact in ways that defy the arithmetic-based thinking of those whose power is derived from closed, simple systems like banks, oil, police states or tech monopolies.
If Russia attacks Ukraine militarily, then the baseline achievement for NATO would be to stay unified in its own self-defence — ie to maintain a credible guarantee to Poland, Estonia and the rest that they will be defended if attacked, and keeping an open door to Finland and Sweden for collaboration and eventual membership (should their populations wish to join).
In all circumstances a war in Ukraine would change the geopolitical certainties of the Western hemisphere fundamentally. Big, conventional war between developed countries to redraw the map — deemed impossible since 1945 — will be a fact, and all subsequent generations will have to accept that fact.
9. Tactics. As a journalist, I’ve only experienced conflict at the tactical level. Artillery rumbles in the distance; shells land close enough to shake the ground; bullets whistle (hopefully) over your head. There’s fear and chaos.
Because the media sees war this way, so does the public — as a mess of tactical stories about hope and despair and minor shooting engagements. Add to this all the amateur footage on social media, and our experience of conflict at a distance is granular tactical chaos.
But in the big picture, tactical events are secondary. As an aide memoire, to understand the scale of the power imbalance we’re talking about:
A “battalion tactical group” in the Russia/Ukraine context is roughly 750–1,000 soldiers, with 40–50 tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles; a brigade is three of these plus more long range artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. A modern Russian/Ukrainian brigade (they use the same basic tech and organisation) can attack on a front maybe 4km wide, and defend a front maybe 15km wide. Glance at a map of the region to realise that means “front lines” will be highly fluid. The entire Ukrainian army, plus its reserves, could not defend the border with Russia end to end.
Russia has something like 7–800 advanced fighter jets, plus 3–400 strike aircraft and, say, 100 strategic bombers. Ukraine has 51 advanced fighter jets, maybe 60 strike aircraft and no long-range bombers.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet contains at least 18 frigates and corvettes with long-range anti-ship missiles, plus at least six submarines. Ukraine’s navy has one missile capable ship. More importantly, Russia has equipped Crimea with enough land-based anti-air and anti-ship missiles to deny all other developed world navies access to the Black Sea, if it wants to.
In space, meanwhile Russia has tens of military satellites, while Ukraine is entirely reliant on the USA for satellite intelligence.
10. What can we do? If the shit hits the fan, the natural response of the neoliberal ruling elites is to ask: what’s the technocratic fix? Or “what does Putin want, and how do we do a deal to head off conflict”?
The problem is, geopolitics at this scale is apt produce crises for which there is no technocratic solution. The point is to stop the crisis happening well in advance by engaging actively in geopolitics, diplomacy and enhancing the resilience of your own democracy.
Since most Western politics is reactive and domestic focused this is hard to do. So instead our leaders have played tennis with Russian oligarchs and fantasised about “global” power projection. There are, in addition, a lot of politically active people who would prefer, for entirely laudable reasons, to concentrate on something more uplifting than this prospect.
If Russia attacks Ukraine with a mixture of military, hybrid and energy warfare, the West has no obligation to defend Ukraine, nor does it have the political willpower, nor — say the Western analysts I speak to — does it have the effective firepower.
Nor, I suspect, is civil society strong enough in some countries — the USA, France, Italy, even Britain — to withstand a sustained disinformation and destabilisation campaign by Russia. That’s the price we pay when conservative elites decide to wage culture wars against progressives, minorites and democratic institutions.
What we can do is to impose punitive sanctions, enhance the resilience of our own societies, shore up NATO as a primarily defensive alliance and — for the EU countries — strengthen the EU’s strategic autonomy.
We can say to Putin: this far and no further. There are parts of the left — social-democratic pacifists, not the pro-Putin tankies — for whom even this will be too much. They will call — as I have done this week — for peacemaking, cross-border solidarity, for human rights and international law, just as Labour’s ill-fated leader George Lansbury did in the early 1930s, faced with imperialist re-armament.
But ultimately, if we want to maintain democracies as a shield from under which the left, the labour movements and minorities can fight for social, economic and climate justice, we have to defend those democracies using the tools available. At some point the left has to move from the Lansbury stage to the Attlee stage, painful as it will be for some.
There will, for certain, be cross-border protests and solidarity against the drive to war. But there’s not going to be peace and stability in Europe until Vladimir Putin is driven from office by a mass, popular democratic movement, and his allies— from Orban to Le Pen and the Italian and Austrian far right — defeated.
NATO says it’s a defensive alliance. The peoples of Europe and North America have the ability, through the ballot box, to make that pledge a reality.
A strong, defensive-only alliance, of what the Germans call wehrhafte democratie —(democracies militant in their own self defence) — is what NATO should become, irrespective of the outcome of the Ukraine crisis. That means imposing new conditions on the countries — like Turkey and Hungary — that are, themselves, slipping into Putin’s orbit and becoming oligarchic states.
We should offer support to Ukraine, including arms, money and intelligence — but not combat troops. If NATO were to engage in armed conflict with Russia, it would open the door to a continental-scale war, which some European democracies would not survive — even if nuclear war could be avoided.
That means, in the UK parliament, Labour and other progressive parties should support sanctions on Russia; support the provision of arms, aid and intelligence to the Ukrainian government — while maintaining scrutiny and parliamentary accountability, to prevent Tory adventurism drawing us into a needless conflict, and subject to strict human rights guarantees.
One concrete condition should be no UK collaboration with, or arms to, the far-right paramilitiaries currently incorporated into Ukraine’s territorial defence units.
The biggest contribution we can make to peace, and peacebuilding, is to promote strong, progressive civil society movements in both Ukraine and Russia, implacably opposed to the nationalist oligarchics that run these countries today, and committed to a rapid democratic transition. That’s something the neoliberals have shown little appetite for.
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