Warfare in the age of dragons – interview with Dr. David Kilcullen

Dr. David Kilcullen is the author of the newly published The Dragons and the Snakes – How the Rest learned to fight the West, Oxford University Press.

The genesis of the book goes back to February 1993 with the confirmation hearing of James Woolsey as director of the CIA. At the time he captured well the strategic Zeitgeist of the emerging unipolar era – “we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Today, the dragons (Russia and China) are back again.

Robert Kagan was talking about the (geopolitical) jungle that grows back. Your latest book has more of a Game of Thrones (GOT) vibe: the return of the dragons. In short, from GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] to GOT. The emerging changes to the character of war, the ways in which the dragons are practising warfare are at the core of your new book. Based on your observations, how did the character of contemporary war change?

The book is about military adaptation. It’s about how both state and non-state adversaries responded to us in the period since the Cold War. We created the fitness landscape within which all of our adversaries are adapting, and the event that created that was the 1991 Gulf War. It showed everybody how not to fight the US. The next big event was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that showed everybody that you can fight the US and you can succeed, but you need a completely different model – small modular low-profile groups that operate autonomously among people in a protracted conflict. What we’ve seen in the 17 years since we invaded Iraq is that adversaries have learned from each other and also reacted to the environment that we created by avoiding and going around our conventional strength. 

Today we live in a security environment where the dragons operate and fight like snakes (embracing non-state types of activities like cyber-militias, subversion, political warfare) and where the snakes have acquired the capabilities of traditional dragons and sometimes fight like a state. That poses for us a dilemma going forward. If we are thinking about the future of war, we can’t just decide to stop worrying about terrorism and to get out of dealing with the snakes, because that threat is real. We can’t just go for great power competition, because we are dealing with hyper-empowered non-state actors that now have access to all kinds of technology and capability that didn’t exist a decade ago. We can’t just ignore that. By the same token we can’t continue to primarily focus on non-state actors, because states have adapted and evolved specifically to exploit our tunnel vision on terrorism since 2003. I emphasise 2003 rather than 2001, because it was the invasion of Iraq that got us bogged down, not so much Afghanistan. The 2003 moment highlighted the limits of the Western way of war – a very high-tech precision-centric approach that emphasizes battlefield dominance and is characterised by a narrow focus on combat.

What we’ve got to do is cover a much broader range of threats with a much more agile approach, which suggests to me a lighter footprint, with greater emphasis on agile responses to a wider variety of threats in a wider variety of places. We have to become more capable of dealing with both state and non-state threats at the same time and in many of the same places. In Syria, for example, we have significant non-state threats but also state adversaries that are playing a multi-level game. That is actually pretty typical and is happening in many of today’s operating environments. The traditionally neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare is breaking down and we are going to need forces that are cheaper, more agile, more modular and are able to respond in a seamless fashion to a wider variety of threats. We need to be swing-role: a multi-role aircraft can do multiple missions but can do only one mission at a time, while swing-role aircraft can seamlessly shift in mid-mission to a different type of task. That is the kind of mindset that we need to be emphasising – forces that can do not only multiple things, but can transition seamlessly among tasks in the middle of a mission.

China has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war.

Is this more along the lines of what general Charles Krulak was arguing in the 1990s with his three-block war concept (humanitarian, peacekeeping, high intensity), shifting from one to another, but with a new dimension – great power competition?

It is beyond the three-block war. It is more like 16-block war with multiple domains – cyber, space, political and economic warfare, alongside the physical and electromagnetic domains. One of the points I make about China is that we are dealing with an adversary that has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war. In fact, what they do in practice is to mobilise multiple dimensions of national power that are way beyond our traditional military domains. Even if we could conceive of a lot of what the Chinese are doing as warlike, it is not clear that the Ministry of Defence of any Western country would be in charge of the response. We need to think carefully about reconceptualising what we mean by war.

Russian way of warfare

I think one important question that should be raised is what did the dragons learn from the snakes of the post 9/11? I mean the attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, shaping hearts and minds, the grievances they are cultivating and exploiting – all are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. To me the dragons of the day behave like insurgents, they are really insurgent powers trying to overhaul a certain type of international order.

The clearest example here are the Russians that in the Western Military District have actively copied ISIS models of warfare to create super-light brigades that operate in a distributed fashion with small combat teams and a weapons mix similar to what we’ve seen from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. They have directly copied the ISIS manoeuvre model in the way they are operating. Another example is also Russian: Moscow fielded a wide array of autonomous and new armoured systems into the Syrian campaign, learned important lessons and triggered a series of adaptations based on that operational experience.

In the book, following Stephen Rosen, I draw a distinction between wartime and peacetime adaptation. When you are in wartime adaptation mode, it’s a process of unconscious evolution (and actually co-evolution) between you and the adversary. Wartime adaptation is a direct response to enemy action and one result is that over time you come to resemble your adversaries. The process works both ways: states are borrowing non-state techniques and applying them in their own ways as an enabler to conventional military operations, while non-state groups are borrowing from states. One example is the way that Hezbollah evolved from a classical resistance movement to a regional actor that operates more like a state (both in the 2006 war against Israel, and later in Syria supporting Assad), combining conventional and irregular methodologies. Another example is the way we operate now in Afghanistan with CT [counterterrorism] pursuit teams that work on the ground in ways that are very similar to how the Taliban operate. It is one example of us evolving to look like the adversary. The flip side of this is that the modern Taliban, and in fact ISIS during the fighting in Iraq and Syria look a lot like us – the way they operate with artillery, tanks and vehicles in a light cavalry swarm. They are adapting to look like us. In a co-evolution environment we are in a tit-for-tat adaptive process with adversaries. 

By contrast, in a peacetime environment – and this applies to all the countries that haven’t been so heavily involved in the War on Terrorism: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – they were free to sit back, watch us struggle, identify strengths and weaknesses in our approach, come up with concepts to enable them to improve and build capabilities that would counteract Western dominance. In the case of Russia it’s a bit of a combination – they watched us struggle in 2003 and learned a lot from that, but they also had their own adaptive learning curve from the internal conflicts in Georgia, North Caucasus or Ukraine.

Is fighting at the edges – a new type of out-manoeuvring and out-competing the West? What does a liminal warfare playbook like the one practised by Russia entail in a frontline ecosystem?

Liminal means threshold. Liminal warfare is about threshold manipulation. It is a style of warfare that the Russians in particular have perfected, which is about riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability so a lot of their activity is literally sub-liminal (“below the threshold” of perception), and we don’t even notice what is happening. They manipulate their signature so as to only pop up into the ambiguous zone of operations long enough to achieve very specific short term goals and then to drop back down into the sub-liminal environment before we can respond. It is about manipulating their own signature, it’s about creative ambiguity and it’s about time – operating in the blur of the “gray zone” and surging rapidly to achieve key objectives and quickly getting back below the threshold of response before we can react.

There a few techniques that they apply. For example, reflexive control, a theory with a long history in the Russian political warfare. Another is decisive shaping, where the decisive phase of operation is not the manoeuvre phase, but the pre-manoeuvre shaping phase. Some Russian strategists  want to win the operation before the first tank rolls or before the first airstrike goes in. If they don’t believe they already won, the tanks will never roll. That means that a lot of liminal warfare is political warfare, economic warfare, weaponisation of oil and gas, the use of special forces in very small numbers to work with local groups, and then rapid strike ops.

At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. 

In the lead-up to the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a “passportisation” program where they offered any Russian-speaking Georgian citizen a Russian passport. They did that for months before the operation. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of newly-created Russian citizens inside Georgia and were able to invoke the responsibility to protect their own citizens. This whole shaping phase happened before the operation began. When we think about the manipulation of oil and gas in the Crimea operation in February 2014, mid-winter, Russian political warfare was heavily focused on targeting Germany to prevent NATO from reacting. A big part of that campaign was to say to the Germans, do you really want to pick a fight with Russia in the middle of winter, when you depend on Russian oil and gas to provide heating to a majority of German population? At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. All built on the idea of escalating to de-escalate: they move quickly to seize a key objective early on, presenting an enemy with a fait accompli and later de-escalate their rhetoric in order to negotiate from a position of strength. Crimea is the perfect example of this. While “escalate to de-escalate” is an idea that originally came from Russian nuclear strategy (although Russia watchers disagree whether a formal doctrine in this sense ever existed), they’ve applied it in many other fields of activity since then.

Chinese way of warfare

So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G – what is the essence of the Chinese way of warfare?

The Chinese way of war is about “conceptual envelopment”, expanding the concept of war to the point where they are able to manoeuvre in a space that is outside of our definition of conflict. In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything. In this sense, controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbours all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments, these are all described in the 1999 Unrestricted Warfare (written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui) as non-military war operations. The two colonels dramatically broaden the definition of war going beyond battlefield dominance, emphasising “trans-military” and “non-military war operations” by leveraging society and the international system to achieve a military goal with non-military means. The authors of that document talk about combination strategies that mix lethal and non-lethal, military and non-military means (including criminal networks or civil organisations) bringing into play a whole variety of competitions and combining them in a seamless architecture, similarly to what we’ve been talking about with the Russians.

In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything.

There are three broad strands in the Chinese way of war. One is Unrestricted Warfare, which later became the Three Warfares doctrine in 2006 – cyber warfare, public opinion/information warfare and lawfare. The second is the change of China from being a land-based power (which it has been since the middle of the 16th century) to being both a maritime and land power. This is a gigantic transformation. When Xi Jinping came to power, one of his first military announcements talked about the imperative to move away from the idea that the land is more important than the sea and become a real maritime power. It’s incredibly important to understand the geopolitical implications for the global security environment of China going from being a land power to now challenging the US at sea in the Western Pacific, building a militarised archipelago of islands in the South China Sea and bases elsewhere, toward being able to project power globally. The third is the conventional modernisation of Chinese land forces, which goes along cyber, space, and long-range precision fires, as well as advanced manoeuvre forces and special forces, and “informationalisation” of battle networks. If you contrast Russian with Chinese developments, Russia has a small, but very capable set of niche assets at the high end of the technology spectrum. The Chinese, in contrast, are doing high-tech at scale.

There is a sense of overlapping, in both theory and practice, between the Chinese URW [Unrestricted Warfare] and how Gerasimov is framing warfare. Do the dragons learn from each other? In the end, both are building A2/AD [Anti Access/Area Denial] zones in their immediate proximity or creating new facts on the ground (the bridge linking Russia with Crimea, the artificial islands) that give them the opportunity to claim entire regions (Azov Sea or the South China Sea).

We know that the Russians and the Chinese have exercised together, jointly, over the past few years, that they share information and compare notes. I don’t think it is clear that they are consciously collaborating, but I do think that like every other adversary that we have, they are all responding to a similar set of circumstances that we created, and even if they are coming from different starting points, they are co-evolving in a way that makes them to begin looking increasingly similar to each other. Yes, there is some collaboration, but in some ways it is more interesting than that conceptually, because they are independently co-evolving towards similar solutions, with a similar set of challenges. There is also a very significant element of territorial/spatial expansion in the way that both Russia and China think about what they are trying to do. We tend to think in a very manoeuvre-centric way, they tend to think in terms of shaping and in a spatial control way.

Obviously, China and Russia have a very different set of strategic circumstances. China is a rising power that is trying to cement its role as a major global player, whereas Russia is a power that is in a long-term decline. What the Russians are trying to do is create a sort of trade space, where they can expand their capabilities now while they still can, so that they have something to trade later, when China in particular becomes a major threat to them. One of the paradoxes here is that China and Russia are currently cooperating with each other against the West, but in the long term they are actually potential adversaries and geopolitical rivals. This is where any Western retreat is not going to result in peace and harmony, but in a new Cold War between China and Russia, rather than China, Russia and the West.

Beyond COIN

Professor Hew Strachan talked extensively in his writings about the danger of the strategic influence of operational level solutions. Is the failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success and into a better peace the main lesson of the post 9/11 era?

I make the point in the book that we are extraordinarily good at achieving particular battlefield results, but extraordinarily bad at translating those battlefield results into long-term political outcomes. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. The repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into a better peace remains a key reason for these inconclusive wars that ultimately contribute to internal unrest across the world.

The rise of populism in the West and the collapse of confidence in elites and establishments of all kinds are in some ways connected to the failure of our military models to deliver what they claimed. We told people for 25 years that they’ve got the best military in the world and yet they can see with their own eyes that that military isn’t delivering on the ground. So, this leads to a cognitive dissonance that results in a collapse of confidence.

There is a dynamic interaction between strategy, technology and tactics. You have a particular strategy, which leads you to develop particular kinds of tactics and particular kinds of technologies. Once you have those technologies and capabilities in place, they actually limit your choices of strategy. You are not able to just choose any strategy, but you are channelled by the kinds of capabilities that you have. Then you start adopting strategies that privilege and optimise the effect of your existing organisation, concepts and technologies and that is what we’ve been doing really since the Cold War. We have to step back a little bit from that dynamic interaction between operations, tactics, strategy and technology, to think about adaptation as a separate thing, consider how our adversaries are adapting, consider if it is possible to shape their adaptation in ways that favour us.

A key component of the security environment that you are describing are the dragons that learned to fight like the insurgents and embraced an insurgent toolkit to fight the West – competing and subverting the Western minds for example. In this sense, shouldn’t we act more like a counterinsurgent in our response? As a former COIN [counterinsurgency] practitioner, what do you think we should preserve from the COIN portfolio? A civil-military fusion maybe?

I think there is a lot of value in our Iraq/Afghanistan experience that translates directly to dealing with today’s environment: the need for integrated civil-military effects, the requirement for robust and properly-resourced civilian agencies to partner with the military, the need for political leaders to fully engage in the problem-set, and the importance of narrative. That said, one of my key points at the end of the book is that we need to get out of the business of occupying and attempting to govern remote places over the long term in a large-scale way: we can go long, or we can go big, but we shouldn’t try to do both. So, in that sense our approach should perhaps draw more from Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense, rather than large-scale neoclassical COIN.

Going Byzantine

How should the Western way of warfare change in order to respond effectively to the adaptations and variations in the operational environment?

There are broadly three potential courses of action.

The first is doubling-down: keep doing what we are doing now, just do it harder, spend more money on the same kind of capabilities we are building now. That is not going to work because our adversaries have already adapted, so to continue what we’ve been doing is not going to change the environment.

Secondly is to embrace the suck – accept that our primacy will decline and just try to manage that in a way that achieves a soft landing. That is not going to work either, because for a soft landing to work you need a successor that is capable enough or willing to do the job of stabilisation and friendly enough to the US and the West that it wouldn’t be a total disaster for us to allow a handover. We don’t have any such successor.

Third is some sort of a Byzantine strategy – a holding strategy to enable a potentially acceptable successor to emerge. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD, while the Byzantine Empire survived for another 1100 years until the fall of Constantinople. So how did they manage to achieve another 1100 years of primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Roman Empire? In the book I describe a number of things about how they operated. They were very capable of selectively copying from adversaries in terms of technologies, techniques, ways of operating, they learned from their wide range of enemies and incorporated those lessons into their own very adaptive, flexible way of operating.

Secondly, they got out of the business of occupying and governing entire provinces as the Romans had done, and focused instead on agile mobile forces that could react at long distances to a wide variety of threats, stabilise the environment and step back. They were also able to build constellations of capable local allies that could do a lot of the work in-between interventions. They maintained a selective edge and mastered some key technologies that other people couldn’t master, such as Greek Fire, a high-tech defensive tool. Most importantly, they focused very heavily on resilience at home, on building an effective civil and military and economic system that was resilient to shock, that was not optimised for efficiency in the absence of shock, but optimised for resilience to shock. We just need to look at what is happening to COVID-19 to realise that the modern world we’ve created with Western military systems since the Cold War is hyper-efficient but at the same time is also very fragile because it relies on efficiency in the absence of shock. A Byzantine model would ask how would we make all our systems more resilient to shock? This would possibly mean decentralisation, lower tech, more play space in our systems so they don’t rely on very precise integration of multiple moving parts. An urbanised world depends on very complex interlocking systems and when one part collapses, it all collapses. We are living and watching that happen.

In a world in which the West is no longer militarily dominant, a Byzantine approach would suggest ways to hold the line – in their case for more than a millennium – in order to allow the world to change, so that there is a viable successor and the adaptive approach of our adversaries becomes less threatening.

Lastly, we need to move away from a solely battlefield-centric conception of war and embrace a more holistic approach that broadens the notion of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance, and adopt a more flexible model of statecraft. In short, as JFC Fuller would say, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.

Please describe the contours of a reconceptualised and expanded notion of war that should become the new normal for any Western strategist.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space. Modern war is fought in a crowded, cluttered, electronically connected, mostly urban and coastal environment, against a complex mix of adaptive state and non-state adversaries who copy each other’s techniques, and are often seeking to overwhelm us through a large number of small simultaneous challenges, rather than a single big threat. They tend to prefer decisive shaping (winning the conflict before the first shot is fired) and creative ambiguity (rather than fully covert or clandestine operations) as a way to avoid our conventional strength. The most important thing we can do to adapt to this kind of war is to get out of our defensive crouch, and begin operating aggressively to shape them rather than wait to be shaped ourselves.

When discussing a future posture of the West, I am wondering if you take into consideration the idea of a concert of democracies able and willing to defend the legacy and the Western order?

The transition from US primacy might be to another leading power, but it might also be to a concert of powers and ideally a concert of democracies, involving India, Europe, Latin America and Asian democracies. I don’t think this path is particularly likely, primarily because Europe and other countries (Australia is a good example) are so dependent on US security guarantees that these actually undermine their ability to fulfil that role. In some ways president Trump’s approach in forcing European allies to do more and withdrawing blanket American security guarantees, while unpleasant and done in a very vulgar way, actually is pointing to something important, which is that we have to have countries stepping forward and taking responsibility for their own resilience and their own defence. 

Firstly, the US will not be able to carry the burden forever and secondly, the American people have signalled now in multiple elections that they don’t want to do it anymore. In many ways the coronavirus shows the equally dangerous risk of being so dependent on China economically, and you could argue that in the military sphere there is a similar risk – which is allies’ dependence on the US. Our countries are so dependent on China economically and so dependent on America militarily: the coronavirus teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on China in the economic sphere, while in the military sphere the last 20 years teach us that we need to break out of our dependence on the US. This will be good for everyone – it will allow the US to be more agile and responsive. Small allies are never going to compete with the US-led way of war but they can specialise in other forms of war that the US doesn’t have a good understanding of. The classic example would be Estonia, which is not a major player in the system-of-systems Gulf War-type warfare, but is leading the way in creating “defensive cyber home guards” within local defense associations or preparing a defensive guerrilla warfare/resistance warfare model. If we want to broaden the alliance response, we have to focus on our comparative advantages, with different nations doing different things.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? Our internal cohesion seems to be an easy prey for the insurgent outside powers. General Mattis warned in the last chapter of his memoirs: ”What concerns me most as a military man is…our internal divisiveness…we are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fuelled by emotion and a mutual disdain”.

The short answer is I don’t know if it is possible to recreate that sense of unity and move past the polarising divisions that have really crippled our ability to respond to the current crisis. But it is imperative to do that. Otherwise we are going to be destroyed.

The interview was first published in Small Wars Journal, in May 2020.

Dr. David Kilcullen is a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales. He served 24 years as an army officer, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. In the United States he served on the writing team for the 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review, then as Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, where he designed the Regional Security Initiative and served in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. He served in Iraq as a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, and as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Multinational Force—Iraq through 2007, before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State in 2008-2009. He was lead author for the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Handbook, and founded the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team in 2009. Dr Kilcullen was named one of the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009.

EU Can’t Afford to Lose the Battle for the Balkans

China, Russia and the USA are using the corona pandemic to strengthen their positions in the Balkans, although their divergent interests threaten both the region’s EU perspectives and its long-term stability.

Over the last two months, the corona pandemic has thoroughly changed the world in many different ways, on the global, regional, local and individual levels. 

One of those changes has been the accelerated return of geopolitics, as manifested in the Balkans by China, the Gulf states, Russia, Turkey, and the US, who have been using medical assistance, political and PR moves to pursue their interests and strengthen their positions, with the mediation of some of their new (or old) allies in this volatile region.

These geopolitical moves are undermining the Balkans’ EU perspectives, and with it the region’s long-term stability, since for the past two decades hopes of EU membership have been the main, if not the only protection against the potential chaos underlying the region’s unresolved ethno-political issues. 

The EU response to this challenge was initially marred by a major blunder, as EU countries blocked exports of their medical equipment to other member and non-member countries, triggering furious criticism, from Italy and Spain, to Albania and Serbia.

Feeling shunned by the EU, in one of the most precarious moments of recent history, may prove to have been the last drop in the Balkans’ overflowing bucket of frustrations and dismay, and the final proof to local leaders that their interests will be better served in alliance with some other foreign actors.

At the end of April, the EU eventually corrected its course and provided a whopping €3.3 billion package for health, economic and social challenges in the Balkans. Yet this intervention may be coming too late for at least a part, if not all of the Balkans, where the EU has lost much – if not all – of its influence. 

In recent years, months and weeks, the region has been slipping away from the path towards the EU and its democratic practices, and turned towards autocracy, nationalism, corruption and other foreign influences. 

While EU leaders and officials are still pondering what further steps they should take in the region, most of them still do not seem to grasp the urgency or the seriousness of the situation. Even those who are aware of the risks seem to be at a loss as to what to do in the difficult and troubled region where – as some of them believe – they have already tried everything. 

Whether because of the EU’s ignorance, its own mounting internal problems, or because of the Balkans’ traditional complexity, the region is still far from the top of the EU agenda. The EU seems to have forgotten how dangerous the Balkans can be – for itself, the continent and the entire world – when divergent foreign influences rekindle the region’s unresolved national, religious and ideological differences.

The most flagrant such example happened more than a century ago, when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which triggered the start of World War I. 

The Balkan powder kegs smoulder again

As this anniversary draws near, the geopolitical situation in the Balkans seems to be ever more complicated and dangerous. 

In addition to the new health, security, economic and social challenges caused by the pandemic, the region is witnessing a rekindling of many of its old problems, such as rampant corruption and internal ethnic & political divisions. Furthermore, most of the Balkan countries are already gearing up for elections this year, adding yet another flammable ingredient to the volatile concoction. 

Many experts and reports have been pointing to the serious democratic downturn in the region.

“The breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, which experienced the greatest gains after the end of the Cold War,” warned the Freedom House’s global ‘Nations in Transit’ report, published on May 6.

The report noted a considerable decline in democratic practices in Montenegro and Serbia, as well as in the EU member Hungary. These three countries were “no longer democracies,” the watchdog organisation concluded, and added them to the group of ‘hybrid regimes’ with the rest of the Balkan countries.

The latest developments across the region have added more reasons for concern.

In recent days alone, Albania has seen clashes between the police and opposition supporters and activists over the disputed demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana. The demolition was carried out overnight, against the advice of EU officials and their efforts to find a compromise solution. The subsequent violent protests reflected growing tensions between the ruling and opposition parties.

Similar tensions are simmering in Montenegro, where the ruling regime of Milo Djukanović has been facing off against the opposition parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church, ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year. The situation is no better in Serbia, where supporters of the ruling and opposition parties have been holding reality show-style protests against each other, while gearing up for parliamentary elections in June.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, a complete political deadlock has been blocking the formation of a new government in the BiH Federation entity for some 18 months now, since the 2018 general elections, and is also preventing the adoption of the 2020 state budget. The latter will delay Bosnia’s upcoming local elections, which have currently been postponed until November, but will be delayed even further until the state budget is adopted.

In both Kosovo and North Macedonia, the governments’ efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have from the very beginning been overshadowed by political and personal battles. North Macedonia is also distracted by the preparations for its general elections, while in Kosovo the Constitutional Court is set to rule on the recent controversial toppling of the government and indicate how a new government should be elected.

The EU is squandering its influence in the region

The local and regional power struggles in the Balkans have been augmented in recent years by various global actors, which have exploited the steady decline of EU interest and influence in the region to strengthen their positions and pursue their individual interests.

Since the early 2000s the Balkans have been yearning to join the EU, which was supposed to provide the region with more job opportunities and better living standards. Yet equally important was the fact that only EU membership could fulfil another Balkan dream; to enable all the region’s ethnic groups to live with their ethnic kin within the same borders.

It has been this second motive that made the EU the only option able to guarantee the region’s long-term stability and enable the gradual transformation of its nationalist ideals. All other options, meaning the absence of the EU and the presence of divergent foreign influences, would inevitably add fuel to the local ethno-political quarrels, thus destabilising the region in the long run.

Nevertheless, in recent years the enlargement process has gradually screeched to a halt. 

The region never fully recuperated from the impact of the 2008-9 global recession, and its readiness and capacity for economic and social reforms weakened as politicians and politics became more and more conservative.

 The global recession has strengthened conservatism and undermined internal cohesion within the EU too, which has weakened the Union’s readiness to accept new members. 

As a result, the accession process – which was both the EU’s technical toolbox and its only strategy in the Balkans – has become an exercise in bureaucratic procrastination, a game in which the Balkan countries pretended to still be willing to reform while the EU pretended to be ready to accept the new member states.

The Balkan summits in Sofia and London in May and July 2018 were the turning point, as they revealed that enlargement into the Balkans had effectively, albeit not officially, been taken off the table. At those meetings, the EU leaders – increasingly troubled by their problems back home – would not even allow use of the word ‘enlargement’, using terms like ‘connectivity agenda’ instead.

The Balkan leaders got the message loud and clear, and started turning more and more towards their historic allies: the Serbs towards Russia, and the Bosniaks towards Turkey and the Gulf countries – as well as towards the new, wealthy kid on the block – China. The Albanians, on the other hand, had always been linked much more closely to the US over the past two decades, but America’s new, chaotic foreign policy under Donald Trump threatens to change that too.

Global actors use the pandemic to strengthen their Balkan grip 

The new European Commission appointed at the end of 2019 seemed to be aware of the growing trouble in the Balkans, and appeared determined to restore at least some of the influence the EU has lost during the time of the previous Commission. Yet its efforts have been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the EU’s initial abysmal reaction to this difficult challenge made things only worse.

On the other hand, China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts, and used the situation to gain additional leverage in the region by sending masks and other medical equipment early on.

Their assistance – in line with their strategic orientation in the Balkans – focused on Serbia, the biggest country and biggest market in the region. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić did not spare the theatrics in thanking China and Russia for their aid, as it helped the country to fight the coronavirus while at the same time boosting his own popularity ahead of the elections.

China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts.

With every new planeload, Vučić and other Serbian government officials made major public displays of gratitude, while Russian and Chinese flags, as well as billboards boasting ‘a friendship of steel’ with China and ‘historic relations’ with Russia lined the streets of Belgrade.

On the other hand, this assistance raised many eyebrows. Some experts warned that a significant portion of the Chinese aid deliveries seemed to be of poor quality, or that it was superfluous. Others questioned why the Russian health assistance was being coordinated by the Russian Ministry of Defence, why it includes military personnel, and why these military teams were allowed to move across the country, and even into Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, without any oversight or control.

In neighbouring Kosovo, meanwhile, America was also using the pandemic to pursue different but equally self-serving and potentially even more detrimental tactics. Thanks to the direct intervention of Richard Grenell, the acting Director of the US National Intelligence, the US Ambassador to Germany, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, the government of Albin Kurti was toppled in Kosovo on March 25.

Grenell pushed for Kurti’s removal as he was standing in the way of a US-sponsored agreement intended to at least nominally resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. The no-confidence vote in Kurti’s government opened up a new and complicated legal and political crisis in Kosovo, which is threatening to undermine Kosovo’s ability to deal with the health, economic, social and all the other consequences of the pandemic.

Over the last two months Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and all the other Balkan countries eagerly awaited and carefully counted the planeloads coming from China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states, as they meant not only a difference in fighting the pandemic, but also indicated the status of each country in relation to a different global actor.

The EU comes back strong, but is it too late?

The EU eventually realised that China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ and Russia’s military-driven health assistance was threatening to undo years of the EU’s strong presence in the Balkans. 

On March 26 EU leaders finally agreed to set dates for the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, yet this move was too little and too late to make a major difference. 

This step, which for the EU was just a small technical move, but which it nevertheless delayed, had been eagerly awaited by these two countries and the rest of the region for years – but it was almost completely buried under the avalanche of reports related to the fast-spreading pandemic. 

At the same time, EU leaders are still withholding the visa-free regime for Kosovo, despite the fact that the European Commission has proposed this already back in 2016, having concluded that Kosovo’s authorities had met all the agreed criteria. People in the Balkans see these and many similar cases as examples of the EU’s own inconsistency, duplicity and constantly changing criteria.

On April 29, the EU came back strong, announcing a massive package of financial assistance for the region. This included €38 million of immediate support to the health sector, as well as exclusive access to EU instruments and medical equipment; almost €1.2 billion euro in aid funding for the region’s social and economic recovery; and almost €2.2 billion to support businesses and public sector investments.

EU officials in Brussels, as well as around the EU and in the Balkan capitals, also stepped up their communication efforts to make sure that the Balkan peoples and their leaders understood that the Union still cared for the region.

The news was welcomed across the Balkans, although in Serbia it was still overshadowed by the Serbian government’s ever more emotional reactions to the much smaller gifts coming from China and Russia. 

The fact was not lost on Western officials and local experts. Many of them have expressed concerns that Vučić may have ‘passed the point of no return’ – that he may have concluded that, at least during his reign, Serbia’s future looks brighter in alliance with China and Russia, rather than with the EU.

The EU tried to further restore its position in the Balkans by holding a virtual Balkan summit on May 9, an event that was originally supposed to take place in Zagreb as a part of Croatia’s presidency of the EU.

The joint declaration which the EU and Balkan leaders adopted during the conference reiterated “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and stressed that the EU’s support to the region went “far beyond what any other partner has provided.”

Yet by the end the Balkan leaders and their citizens remained clearly unimpressed by the event, whose biggest achievement seemed to be the fact that it was held in such a difficult situation, and which, once again, deliberately avoided even mentioning the word ‘enlargement’. 

As EU leaders and officials now ponder how to move on with the pledged assistance, including the conditionality that will be applied, experts say that the Union is still far from securing its position in the Balkans, warning that they cannot afford to lose it.“The European Commission promises €3.3 billion to help the Western Balkan countries mitigate the impact of the pandemic and bring them closer to the EU. Without a fundamental change of direction, however, this initiative comes too late,” a leading Balkan expert Dušan Reljić said in his analysis published on May 5.

The Sino-Russian “axis” is a partnership of strategic convenience, not an authoritarian alliance

Bobo Lo was previously Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Moscow. He has written extensively on Russian foreign and security policy, with a particular focus on Sino-Russian relations.

Turkey and Russia are bound to fall out of love in Syria

By Ana Maria Luca| Bucharest

When the Syrians took to the streets in 2011 after the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan uprisings, surprisingly for the outsider, the Kurds did not immediately join in. There were some protests here and there, but nothing was politically coordinated. There was also no outreach to the rest of the Syrians protesting in Daraa, Homs or Idlib.

Interview: Adapting Europe to 5D warfare

Julian Lindley-French

Motto: Europe’s elites have not forgotten their history, they are just ignorant of it.

We sat down with Professor Julian Lindley-French, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, London.

Q: Two years ago, in Norway, NATO organised one of the most important exercises since the Cold War, and especially since the security environment shifted dramatically in 2014. What does Trident Juncture 20181 tell us about NATO’s readiness and ability to reinforce an exposed ally?

A: We have a dangerous asymmetry between General Gerasimov’s “30 days crash force” and NATO. The issue is that in 30 days the Russians can cause chaos. Beyond the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), the Tailored Forward Presence in South-Eastern Europe, the Very High Readiness Joint Taskforce (VJTF) and even in the case of the NATO Response Force (NRF), we are looking at 30 days’ notice to move. The NATO dilemma is that the bulk of its forces could not move in any strength prior to “D plus 30”. The problem with the Kremlin is that there is a direct link between its sense of domestic vulnerability and this huge Russian force of arms.

It is a mixture of political weakness and local military superiority. My great fear is a worst-case scenario in which Russia would present Europe with a territorial fait accompli. It would achieve a limited political and military victory [editor’s note: e.g. crossing the border into one of the Baltic states and seizing a piece of territory] before NATO would mobilise and would ask: do you want to go to war over the Baltic states?

My sense is that European politicians, faced with such a scenario, would not act. It is important to demonstrate that we can again undertake Article 5 operations, but you’ve got to look at how long it takes to get everything in place. That is the weakness. We should never underestimate General Gerasimov and his staff.

Military power still has a major role to play in influence. We’ve got to understand that Realpolitik and Machtpolitik is back.

Professor Julian Lindley-French

They’ve looked systematically at our weaknesses, at our seams, and worked how to exploit them if the President gives the “go ahead” order. Vostok 182 was testing aspects of this. The problem is that our forward-deployed forces are simply not backed up with anything to get there in time. If you can’t move the heavy forces quickly, to wherever you need them in an emergency to back up your forward-deployed forces, you lose deterrence value.

That is why the latest NATO initiative – the so-called Four Thirties3 (developing 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air squadrons, four combat vessels ready to use within 30 days or less) – will plug a dangerous gap between the spearhead forces, the immediate follow-on forces (the NATO Response Force), and the bulk of NATO forces, which would take up to 120 days to mobilise in an emergency.

Q: “Fort Trump” in Poland or “Fort NATO” on the broader eastern flank? What should be prioritised – political cohesion in NATO or, for the sake of a credible bilateral deterrent message, a Fort Trump in Poland? In a way Warsaw is tired of waiting for Old Europe to provide credible security guarantees. Another solution is the proposal of Gen. Ben Hodges to fix the mobility problem in Europe.

A: It will take years to fix the mobility problem. Let me be really radical. Do you really think that the Americans and the British will use NATO in an emergency? The Americans plus the three major European powers (Britain, France, Germany) wouldn’t wait for a committee meeting in NATO to act. The bilateral US-Polish thing makes sense in terms of dealing with the issue. It doesn’t make sense in keeping NATO together.

But if NATO is not actually delivering deterrent value, what’s the purpose? If it is all about being nice to each other when being nice makes us more insecure, there comes a point when that is simply too dangerous. I would strongly argue that the Polish have a point.

Photo: Shutterstock

But the key issue here is Americans not being overstretched. The Chinese and the Russians are coordinating, and they will make life for America as difficult as possible. The problem with this equation is a weak Europe. If Europe would be stronger that wouldn’t be an option, but it is. It all comes back to Europeans not doing enough. The only option is to make the trans-Atlantic relationship work.

Q: The collapse of MENA and the massive influx of immigrants into Europe massively changed the political climate; to some extent it has produced a tribalisation of Europe. On the one hand we have this need to prepare for the return of great-power competition, while at the same time Europe should have the operational ability to wage post-9/11 campaigns to stabilise fragile and failed states.

A: This is NATO’s “360 degrees” dilemma. It is not only geographical (east, south, north and west); it is also across the conflict spectrum. If you are not prepared to invest in high-end power projection capabilities, then at least invest in mass. The UK is investing in highend assets.

What you need for stabilisation is a lot of mass. The Italians, the Spanish, even the Germans should be investing in mass. If you cannot be the top of the spear force, then you provide the bulk behind it. This cannot go on. It is a Groundhog Day.

We have this range of threats – from mass movement of people, terrorism, instability, to high-end strategic peer competitors. We have to cover both. Britain is investing in essentially a high-end small force built around a maritime amphibious Navy to go with the Americans. But we are not investing in a continental army. In a sense we are going back to a very British, 19th-century army – a small professional expeditionary force.

It’s like a SWAT team for high-end operations. But the real bulk is in the Navy. The Queen Elizabeth4 is a good way of buying influence with the Americans, but not a very efficient way of defending Central and Eastern Europe. What this means for continental Europe is that you need France and Germany to lead the defence of the continent. Europe is too dependent on over-stretched American combat forces.

Q: The conclusion of the bi-partisan Congressional Commission on the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy is that “deterrence is weakening and war is becoming more likely” as the perception that the US can decisively defeat military challenges is fading. The background is the return of great-power competition, as well as the erosion of the US’ military edge. Why this crisis? What are its implications for Europe?

A: It’s classic IR (international relations) theory. Robert Gilpin talks about cycles of systemic change. What happened is that the cycle of systemic change has accelerated because of the nature of globalisation.

The reality is a hegemon at the end of its time. For about 20 years after the end of the Cold War we thought about America as the hegemon and us like the hegemonites, and we’ve become complacent. Revisionist powers with anti-status quo agendas have emerged.

The trouble is that we in Europe are living in a community fantasy. Everyone outside Europe understands spheres of influence, balances of powers, zero sum-game geopolitics. That is the stuff of statecraft. Europe is the exception.

Military power still has a major role to play in influence. We’ve got to get our heads around that because of what happened in history, and understand that Realpolitik and Machtpolitik is back. I would love the world to operate in the community logic so central to the idea of the European Union. But the essential struggle in South-East Europe is a struggle between zero-sum Machtpolitik and the community concept of international relations.

Q: How would you describe the changing character of war and conflict today? What is driving it? How should we describe the Russian and Chinese ways of war? The British Chief of Defence Staff usually quotes Chris Donnelly (at the Institute for Statecraft) who said that Russia aims at creating “new strategic conditions. Their current influence and disinformation campaign is a form of “system” warfare that seeks to de-legitimise the political and social system on which our military strength is based. And this undermines our centre of gravity, which they rightly assess as our political cohesion.”

A: The revisionist powers are practising what I call a systematic fight of 5D warfare – the use of force to underpin a strategy of Disinformation, Destabilisation, Disruption, Destruction, and all leveraged together by Deception.

The unfree world is engaged in a continuous war at the seams and margins of the Alliance, employing all the above for comparative strategic advantage. They combine to form a new method of warfare that spans the hybrid, cyber, hyper warfare spectrum.

Future war will be a complex matrix of coercive actions, all of which will form part of a new escalation of conflict designed to blackmail the target into accepting what could be perceived as unacceptable actions. China and Russia are studying our societies; they are looking at our alliances and working on our vulnerabilities to apply pressure, in pursuit of revisionist ends, using a myriad of coercive means.

The Russian objective is a sphere of influence, an implicit rebuilding of a Warsaw Pact, in forcing countries in Central and Eastern Europe to look back at Moscow, instead of Brussels or Washington. Russia’s strategic goal is to conduct a continuous low-level war at the seams of democratic societies, and on the margins of both the EU and NATO, to create implicit spheres of influence.

China’s objective is the domination of its near abroad and keeping the Americans out. For both Russia and China this is a strategic competition and military power is the key ingredient. In many ways it is an arms race similar to the pre-WWI world where we have these autocratic regimes determined to change the international system.

Q: Are you worried about the imbalance on the Eastern Flank, especially in the Black Sea region?

A: What we need to carry out is a series of mega-exercises where we develop the capacity to move large amounts of forces quickly. The primary weakness of the Alliance’s deterrence posture is the lack of a heavy conventional reserve force able to support front-line states in strength, quickly, and across a broad conflict spectrum, if the threat comes from several directions at once.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is revolutionising warfare to such an extent that future war will be conducted simultaneously from the low end of the conflict spectrum to the high end.

Professor Julian Lindley-French

We need a big exercise in Central Europe that will move in different directions, able to support the national forces under pressure. We need a rapid-reaction heavy force. That is the plug that is still missing between our forward deployed forces and the whole NATO command structure; that could take between 90 and 120 days. The American presence in Europe is not big enough (around 3 BCTs – Brigade Combat Team5). The Europeans are going to be effective first responders in a crisis. But such an answer should be built around mass.

If we can demonstrate to an adversary that the threshold is too high to act – that is what deterrence is all about. It is not Russia that worries me now. Russia is being aggressive in its near abroad because of the nature of the regime. Russia is not systemically threatened. It is because Russia is so vulnerable domestically that it becomes more dangerous and its actions become really threatening. The simple fact is that the Russian military is too big for an economy half the size of the UK. This is dangerous.

Q: In your writings you talk about “coercive escalation” as a way for Russia to intimidate its victims and prey [upon them]. What role do these very specific investments in A2/ AD capabilities play in this broad, coercive escalation ladder? What is their implication for deterrence calculus, and for the ability to defend the most exposed US allies?

A: The anti-access/area-denial bubbles in Kaliningrad and Crimea are the basis of coercive operations. Let’s take the Suwałki Gap. Imagine the Russians gradually putting more pressure.

We have the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in the Baltics, an information campaign started, a destabilisation operation started; we see the wrapping-up of the forces in Kaliningrad and Belarus, and you got this increased pressure that basically says to NATO, “pull your troops out, we are going to close the Suwałki Gap, take the Baltic states back and there is nothing you can do about it.”

What we could do about it is start holding exercises which give the impression of neutralising Kaliningrad or even Crimea. The problem for the Russians and Gerasimov is that they don’t have sufficient mass themselves to cover the huge Russian borders. What we are not doing is being systematic in our analysis of how we would make life uncomfortable for President Putin and General Gerasimov.

Q: How would the Fourth Industrial Revolution (with AI and big data) change war?

A: A revolution in military technology is underway that will be applied in future on the twenty-first century’s battle space by enemies armed with AI, big data, machine-learning and quantum-computing. The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on changing war is incredible.

 It is revolutionising warfare to such an extent that future war will be conducted simultaneously from the low end of the conflict spectrum to the high end. The new technologies and the interactions between them are changing the character and conduct of war. They accelerate the pace of warfare, accelerate the speed of conflict and shorten the decision action cycles.

When you’ve got machine learning so fast that when humans intervene, it actually makes the whole process less efficient; when you have swarms of drones actually talking to each other about how to exploit vulnerabilities in defence systems – this is going to completely change warfare. Quantum computing will be essential if we are going to be able to defend against hyper-war.

It is about understanding and seeing the patterns. One of the big problems in 5D warfare is understanding when an attack is actually an attack. That will need high-level computing power. Add the hypersonic weapons and we will have the perfect storm.

I made this film about the sinking of the HMS Queen Elizabeth. It was about swarms of intelligent drones launched by an unmanned underwater Russian vehicle backed up by Iskander anti-ship missiles, and it showed how vulnerable a contemporary deployed NATO maritime task-force can be because they haven’t invested in proper defence systems.

This is the message I come back to. Europeans need to demonstrate firepower, but it should be 21st-century fighting power. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change the nature of fighting power. The Americans, the Russians and Chinese are driving this forward. The Americans are offsetting the future and the Europeans are not, and this could create a massive interoperability gap. The true test of solidarity is that we need to invest in the right capabilities.

This interview is published in conjunction with Small Wars Journal.