This article is summarising the conclusions of a research conducted over the Romanian mainstream and social media, seeking to identify the presence of secessionist and revisionist narratives, what are the conditions facilitating their presence, and who are the actors benefiting. The research was part of the project Revealing Russian disinformation networks and active measures fuelling secessionism and border revisionism in the CEE, conducted under the supervision of Political Capital, Budapest
Disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations as presented in Romanian mainstream and social media is primarily an illustration of home-grown mistrust between two communities lacking proper dialogue and knowledge of each other, a mistrust that, in addition, was historically cultivated as an instrument of manipulation during the decades of communism. External interference merely amplifies domestic content and provides every now and then the additional spin that serves the interests of – most often – Russia.
Given the highly negative track-record of relations between Bucharest and Moscow, the population on the whole tends to be quite resilient in front of openly promoted pro-Russian narratives (interaction rates with Russian media outlets such as sputnik.md or RT also remain low); however, Russian-backed local actors or ‘useful idiots’ whose agendas largely overlap with the Kremlin’s and who embrace similar rhetoric can be quite successful in their presentation of Romanian-Hungarian relations as irreconcilable. These also feed the Russian efforts to present Romania as a hypocrite, revisionist and interventionist state, aiming to reunite with the Republic of Moldova, and permanently interfering in Moldovan politics for that purpose – which is most often the focus of Russian propaganda. Only in isolated cases (such as a relatively recent interethnic incident in the Uz Valley over a war cemetery) are there signs of coordination between Russian outlets and the internal groups that are behind the flare in Romanian-Hungarian tensions.
Thus, the most frequent producers (and at the same time beneficiaries) of disinformation about Romanian-Hungarian relations are the (multiplying) far-right, nationalist, anti-liberal groups; political actors do jump on board when they identify an opportunity to harness interethnic tensions to collect votes, but generally refrain from translating inflammatory rhetoric into political action. Until recently, the theme mostly featured in the discourse of the more populistic Social-Democrats (absent any major far-right or otherwise radical political party in Romania, the PSD has tried to appeal to this particular electorate as well). Paradoxically, liberal and German ethnic president Klaus Iohannis tried to use the same language to recapture some of this audience not long ago, by playing on the requests for enhanced autonomy advanced by the Hungarian minority – but with mixed results, as he got a lot of negative fallout from some of his own core electorate.
In a sample of articles covering relevant events (Romania’s anniversary of its 1918 Great Unification, i.e. the reintegration of territories once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the above-mentioned inter-ethnic incident in Uz Valley followed by a row of rather undiplomatic exchanges) and containing key words signaling potential inflammatory content, less than half of the articles were in fact presenting positions against Hungary /the Hungarian minority in Romania. The general number of press articles containing unequivocal chauvinistic/ xenophobic assertions is rather low in Romanian media – which should not be mistaken, however, for the absence of such attitudes in the collective mindset.
The mutual social and cultural disconnect between the Romanian and Hungarian minorities are, on the one hand, the result of short-sighted government policies on both sides, which have generated socio-economic cleavages and inequality, and on the other side of occasionally deliberate attempts by both Bucharest and Budapest to maintain control over their respective communities in Transylvania and be able to use the rhetoric of secessionism when that served their interests. With the population in the rest of the country being rather ignorant of local realities in the counties with a sizeable Hungarian populations, perceptions were largely formed by government or political communication and the media. This has led to historically-based stereotypes, shaped both in the past (by the socialist regime) and at the present time (by nationalists and populists), whereby a common Romanian identity and the feeling of national solidarity are largely shaped by the rallying call to unity against a plethora of external enemies that have forever coveted Romanian territories – Hungary among them, also through its ‘internal agents’: Hungarian ethnics living in Romania. Calls for secession from the Hungarian minority and the interference of Budapest-backed elements in stirring local tensions have provided the element of truth that has strengthened the credibility of such narratives.
Looking at the discourse around Romanian’s Centennial anniversary and that of the Treaty of Trianon (2018), one can easily note that most disinformation/ misinformation revolved around the nationalistic, ethno-centrist narratives exaggerating the unique role that the Romanian population have played in achieving the Great Unification and romanticising the events surrounding it. This amounts, as described, to the creation (or continuation) of an alternative national history meant to use rather widely-shared feelings of victimisation to generate commonality of identity and purpose: ‘The Great Unification was made by the Romanian people. The help received during the process was not crucial or decisive’, ‘there are external, and internal occult forces acting to diminish/deny the importance of the 1918 Great Unification’, ‘reunification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova is of the greatest importance’, ‘Russia is aggressively promoting its policy of maintaining its sphere of influence/vassal states’, ‘there are important resentments among the European states (especially those who were on the losing side of the WWI) towards Romania’s Great Unification’.
These are further facilitated by the rise of nationalism, nativism and the irresponsibility of political discourse, whose populist tones cater to these audiences. Such topics are picked up by mainstream media – including those that overestimate the role that Romania played in WWI and the Great Unification, or calls for reunification with the Republic of Moldova, a kind of ‘border revisionism’, which continues to be seen by a significant part of the population as acceptable and thus forces politicians to at least not oppose it openly (thus adding more fuel to the fire and feeding the Russian messaging about Romanian revisionism).
More fringe nationalist media will also distribute a set of narratives about Hungary’s alleged subversive behaviour, its hidden agenda in dividing Romania by supporting the secession of the Hungarian majority Szekler Land, and generally its actions as a regional disruptor. Among these, ‘Hungary is supporting territorial revisionism in Szekler Land’, ‘Hungary has a hidden, historical plan to annex the territories it has lost as a consequence of the Trianon Treaty’, ‘Hungary is a vile state predisposed to mingling in Romania’s internal affairs’, ‘the ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania (and their political representatives) are hostile to the Romanian population’, ‘Romania holds military superiority over Hungary’. These fringe media republish one another intensively and fuel an ecosystem gathering anti-liberal, orthodox groups together with far-right and xenophobic ones. The vocabulary used in promoting the narratives in this set is usually xenophobic and chauvinistic.
In a context where fringe social and online media increasingly influence mainstream media and radical political positions often push the agenda of centrist parties more to the extremes, dialogue on thorny issues like Romanian – Hungarian relations, in a formal and considerate setting, as well as measures directed at reduction of inequalities among target populations are of paramount importance in helping bridge communities, while ensuring a healthy information space is also a key factor. And as the problem is not located only at a political level (which rather opportunistically uses its pre-existence and helps perpetuate the situation), civil society organisations have an essential role to play in addressing these issues at grassroots level.
What action can the CEE countries take against the “bad guys?” How to send out a clear message that political corruption, blackmail, organ trafficking, rape and other crimes have no place in our countries? And how can we protect ourselves from the worst criminals of the world?
The answer has three words: the Magnitsky Law. An unprecedented global initiative to pass legislation that would allow national governments to impose personal sanctions on human rights violators resembles a thriller movie more than anything.
Who was Sergey Magnitsky, the man whose name probably makes Vladimir Putin grind his teeth in anger? Why is there an undeclared hybrid war raging around this piece of legislation? And how can passing the legislation help the CEE region?
The story of Sergey Magnitsky – an auditor who changed the world
Eleven years ago, in November 2009, Sergey Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. The reason was neither old age, nor an unfortunate deadly disease. He was tortured, denied medical care, eventually dying of a gall bladder infection. Until the very last moment, he did not stop believing in justice and the positive power of rule of law. Each week, he submitted lengthy official complaints about the state of his health and the way he was treated, requesting contact with his family and proper medical care. During 358 days in detention, he wrote over 400 complaints and petitions seeking justice.
His name is often mentioned together with Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as a straightforward example of yet another Russian who paid with his own life for fierce criticism of the Russian political regime. Yet Sergey Magnitsky was never a member of the Russian opposition. He was a lawyer and accountant, working for British billionaire businessman Bill Browder and his hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management, which was until 2004 the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Before his arrest, Magnitsky was investigating a 230 million dollar web of financial fraud, allegedly involving Russian government figures misappropriating funds related to companies which were confiscated from Browder by a criminal group with close ties to Kremlin representatives. His investigations were completely apolitical, purely business-motivated.
Yet in November 2008 three representatives from the Russian Interior Ministry arrested Magnitsky. Ironically, the Interior Ministry officials who arrested him worked for the same officer he testified against. A year later, Magnitsky died in prison. His death has become a symbol of the fight against corruption and the oppression of human rights all over the world. Magnitsky was a tax lawyer and auditor who changed the world, and one who may yet change it even more.
Putin’s Biggest Enemy and International Crusade for Passing the Magnitsky Act
Magnitsky’s death set in motion a spiral of events no one could have anticipated. However, if there was ever a man who could make the impossible possible, Magnitsky’s boss – Bill Browder – was a likely candidate. This billionaire with influential connections at the highest levels of global politics turned almost overnight from one of the biggest advocates of appeasement with the Russian regime and the biggest foreign investor in Russia into, as some call him, Putin’s number one enemy.
His motivation was quite straightforward: there were no legislative tools to bring criminals responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice. So he decided to persuade the British and the American government to change the legal gamefield. Simply, this law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on individual human rights abusers — particularly those who played a role in Magnitsky’s false arrest, torture and death. However, eventually he decided to turn this into a global initiative, with the ultimate goal of persuading governments all over the world to implement their own version of a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. Browder has spent the last nine years fiercely campaigning for the law, and his efforts are bearing fruit.
Explaining the Magnitsky Act
Proponents call it the first solely human rights violations-focused sanction mechanism in the world. The Magnitsky Act, specifically, is a piece of legislation allowing individual countries to impose personalised sanctions on individuals violating human rights anywhere in the world. The measures which can be implemented include the power to freeze bank accounts and other assets, and ban individuals from entering a given country. As a result, the Magnitsky Act can be perceived as a tool to strengthen the foreign policy toolkit of individual countries. So far, seven countries have implemented the legislation: the US, Canada, the UK, and the three Baltic countries; the newest addition to this group is Kosovo, which passed the Magnitsky Act at the beginning of 2020.
However, it is not always sunny in the realm of human rights protection, and the piece of legislation does have a number of forceful critics too.
One of the strongest arguments against it concerns a fear of unnecessary antagonisation of Russia, while other critics call the legislation superfluous, given that there are already a number of recognised and effective international sanction regimes under the auspices of international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations.
A final common argument against it is the altogether defeatist retort that “sanctions will not change anything.” Taking each of these in turn however, reveals these concerns as largely misplaced and unfounded.
a) Universal Human Rights Protection Tool
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the law „a purely political and unfriendly act“. And just days after the US act was passed, Russia retaliated through deploying a number of countermeasures, including barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
More importantly however, even though the initiative was originally envisaged as a tool against a criminal group with close connections to Russian police and the ministry of finance, responsible for Magnitsky’s death, it has since developed much beyond that. Currently, sanctions apply to 148 individuals and entities suspected of human rights abuses and corruption worldwide.
The US government, for instance, has unilaterally imposed sanctions on 94 individuals and 102 entities from 24 countries, including South Sudan, Uganda, Iraq and Cambodia. Among the individuals listed, we find Myanmar officials responsible for the genocide of Rohingya; doctors and Chinese officials involved in illegal organ trafficking of Uyghurs; and warlords from Africa.
The most prominent individuals listed on the US Magnitsky sanctions list include: Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the daughter of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who is involved in political corruption; 17 individuals involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and, billionaire Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler.
b) Targeted Sanctions Mechanism
To address the second counterargument, unlike many international sanctions regimes, the Magnitsky Act, by targeting individuals rather than entire countries or sectors, avoids ‘broad-brush’ sanctions that can disproportionately affect more vulnerable citizens in target states.
This targeted approach also enables the direct sanctioning of malicious individuals and networks, even from countries that are considered to be allies or crucial for broader foreign policy priorities. For instance, the 2017 and 2018 US Global Magnitsky sanctions listed above involved Saudi and Israeli nationals, individuals from countries which are strategic allies of the US and, thus, unlikely to be the subject of broader international financial sanctions.
It is true that the EU already has the power to impose sanctions to promote international peace and security, prevent conflict, fight terrorism and defend democratic principles and human rights. Sanctions can be imposed upon governments of third countries (as is the case of Iran, Burma, Venezuela and others), or non-state entities and individuals. However, this current mechanism seems to be insufficient in ever changing geopolitical environments, and the context of challenges that democracies must face.
The EEAS has already undertaken steps to prepare a new sanction mechanism based upon the same principle as the Magnitsky Act.
It is very likely though that the EU will decide to omit Magnitsky’s name, to avoid creating an impression that the law is primarily anti-Russian. This would go directly against the main idea behind the new EU sanctions regime proposal, which is to enable the EU to impose visa bans or to freeze the assets of individuals from any country in the world who commit serious human rights violations and abuses.
Among the proposed crimes that would trigger such sanctions are: extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. If the law passes, this would send a strong message to those who may commit or be complicit in abuses that the financial centres and currencies of the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the US) are off limits.
Nevertheless, some EU member states still choose (or have chosen to) pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. One of the reasons for this might be that this piece of EU legislation is not without its flaws – the proposal only applies to human rights abuses and doesn’t cover corruption like the US version does.
The original version of the Magnitsky Act in the UK does not cover corruption either. The most likely explanation is that they prefer not to rely solely on the EU’s often slow and cumbersome foreign policy processes. Indeed, the Magnitsky Act can actually strengthen the foreign policy even of the member countries of the EU and make it less dependent on it. The Act enables national countries to pass sanctions more quickly and flexibly or pass them against those individuals whom a majority of EU members might not agree about.
c) Projecting Strong Global Message
It is important to maintain that the Act is not simply a symbolic ‘virtue signal’ of international law. Personalised sanctions are of course only one part of the anti-corruption puzzle, but they are an important tool in the arsenal. Such sanctions make it more difficult for criminals to launder illicit gains or continue to do such business in dollars, pounds or euros, the most common global currencies.
They will enable countries to freeze the bank accounts and assets of individuals within their own territories or local banks. They are a successful example of concrete action being taken against the corrupt and the worst human rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts the most – in their pocket. Indeed, as Browder himself states: “These types of individuals keep their money in the West, where property rights and rule of law exists. This led to the idea of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes assets and bans visas of human rights violators.”
Additionally, the inconvenience of being denied entry to the US, Canada, UK or the EU is also a significant penalty, as is the considerable stigma that comes with being sanctioned. Australia, for instance, is currently considering setting a new precedent in its version of the Magnitsky Act, by also including family members of targeted individuals into travel bans, such as children wanting to study at private schools and universities or parents seeking to go to hospitals.
In the words of Elaine Pearson, director of UN Human right watch: “By joining other countries with similar laws, Australia will be sending a strong message to abusive leaders everywhere that there are far-reaching consequences for their actions.”
Implementation in the CEE space
For Magnitsky-type laws to be effective and to have a meaningful impact, it is crucial that more states join in and introduce an equivalent of the Magnitsky Act. Besides the EU, Australia and Sweden, three countries in the CEE region are currently taking steps to pass the law: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. What then must these countries do, in order to successfully implement the Magnitsky Act, and ensure that its detractors are proven wrong?
Czech Republic: a one-man crusade
In the Czech Republic, the crusade to get the legislation passed has largely taken the form of a one-man show. The legislation is currently being advocated for by one Member of the Czech Parliament – member of the Czech Pirate Party, vice chairman of the committee on defence and the foreign affairs committee, Jan Lipavský. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, social-democrat Tomáš Petříček, a supporter of the EU version of the Magnitsky Act, seems reluctant to embrace a Czech version of the legislation. This could be, at least in part, a result of political pressure from his own political party and from the Czech president, both of which are known for their closeness to autocratic regimes such as Russia and China.
The Pirate Party is in opposition and therefore has very limited options to get any piece of legislation passed. This means that the chances for passing and implementing the Magnitsky Act by the end of the current political mandate in October 2021 are very slim, to say the least. Similarly to the EU approach, Mr. Lipavský has also decided to omit the name “Magnitsky” in the title and simply name it “The Law on Human Right Protection.” Primarily, because it is against the Czech common practice to name laws after people. Secondly, for reasons akin to the EU’s; to avoid allegations of intentionally targeting only Russian officials.
Slovakia: an outsider agenda
For Slovakia, the Magnitsky Act bears a unique meaning. Until this day, Slovakia is the only country from the CEE region which has a citizen who has been directly targeted by the Magnitsky Act. The US administration has decided to add to its sanction list Marián Kočner, a Slovak oligarch who is directly responsible for the murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Maria Kušnírová in early 2018. Similarly to the Czech Republic, Slovakia also supported the European version of the Magnitsky Act.
Nevertheless, Slovak political representatives have indicated their interest in the Magnitsky Act before the decision made by Washington. Like in the Czech Republic, the main driving force behind the legislation was a group of MPs led by a member of the Slovak Parliament and leader of the Political Party “Together”, Miroslav Beblavý. One of the promises he made during the political campaign was the promise of passing this legislation if re-elected. During the late February 2020 parliamentary elections, the coalition of liberal parties Together and Progressive Slovakia did not pass the threshold for entering the parliament. With no other political party having the implementation of the Magnitsky Law on its agenda, it is very unlikely that there will be any significant progress on this matter in the foreseeable future.
Romania: a victim of political power play
Out of the three CEE countries in question, the Magnitsky Law proposal got the furthest in Romania, being presented on the floor of the Romanian Senate. The main initiators of this legislation were three members of the Save Romania Union (USR); Adrian Prisnel, Iulian Bulai, and Cristian Ghinea.
Fighting corruption is the most important topic for the third biggest Romanian party and so it made sense for the USR to make this human rights initiative their own. New sanctions were to be made more “flexible” than the older, country-based ones, and were therefore predicted to have a “strong psychological effect” on the abusers. The main punishment was supposed to be the visa ban and asset freeze.
However the proposal was primarily focused on severe human rights abuses. Similarly to the UK and EU Magnitsky Acts, the Romanian proposal did not list corruption as a crime. However, this might come as a surprise for many observers, given that the proposal came from the so-called “anti-corruption” party.
When the three MPs submitted their proposal to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Romanian Senate in April 2019, they may have expected a positive reaction from fellow MPs. This was partly because, in 2018, 43 Romanian MPs signed a petition urging the government to adopt a ‘Magnitsky Act’, imposing sanctions on human rights abusers. It was also because the draft had been signed as a sign of support by 33 MPs out of 136, most of them from their own faction, but also by three deputies from the ruling Social Democratic Party and two from the National Liberal Party, the second largest party. Thus, there was an indication of broader support. However, the draft was finally declined by the Committee and only members of the USR ended up supporting it.
In the Romanian case, some claim that the Magnitsky Law became a victim of political power play. Indeed, it may well have been viewed by other Romanian political forces as a potential internal political weapon in political battles with the Social Democrat Party and in the ongoing attempt by the USR to take over support from the National Liberal Party, while also reinforcing its position in its tenuous alliance with the PLUS party, another reformist entity led by former European Commissioner and technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș.
Another possible explanation is that maneuvering against the proposal may also have simply been an attempt to prevent further antagonising Russia, with relations between the two countries at their lowest point in decades and dialogue practically non-existent. However, the USR was not completely discouraged by their loss. In January 2020, the leadership of the USR announced that they would seek to reintroduce a new version of the law.
There has been no progress on this matter ever since. Partially also because according to some, there is a sense that institutions like the DNA (Anti-Corruption Directorate) are strong enough to handle corruption, including transborder.
Also, the state had shown the will in the past to sanction individuals, such as denying Dmitri Rogozin the right to transit Romanian air space. In conclusion, there is very little urgency or impulse to the Magnitsky act and it is very unlikely it will resurface in a foreseeable period of time.
Why it matters
There are also key reasons, specific to the CEE region, for passing this piece of legislation. Primarily, it is about enhancing an international order based on universal values, which is equipped with mechanisms for preventing their extortion.
CEE countries stand to gain from a rules-based order that has powerful enforcement mechanisms, as opposed to a more transactional system, where their negotiating power is likely to be limited. A piece of legislation strengthening their foreign policy in the name of human rights is an epitome of such an order and a logical addition to a national diplomatic toolkit of post-Soviet countries.
At a more profound level, the Magnitsky package, with its both human rights and anti-corruption dimensions, should become part of an expanded arsenal of tools to compete in the 21st century geopolitical arena. Creatively used, it can simultaneously be leveraged for deterrence purposes, but also for lawfare especially against those foreign adversaries that instrumentalise corruption to manoeuvre, exploit and weaponise certain vulnerabilities within the CEE space. The region is particularly prone to malign foreign interference via corruption, clientelism and lack of transparency. The comprehensive Magnitsky legislation could be seen as an important step in enhancing regional resilience to hybrid operations.
CEE: a hybrid target
Recent years have seen frequent hybrid operations intent on meddling in the internal affairs of CEE countries on the part of both Russia and China, clearly indicating that neither of them respects the sovereignty of the CEE region countries. Such influence operations include, but are not limited to, strategic corruption, espionage, blackmail, performed through hacking, as well as other forms of cyber attacks, including the spread of hostile propaganda and disinformation in both the public and virtual space – with a recent spike since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can recall attempts of espionage in Poland from Chinese-owned Huawei in 2019, the attempted state coup in Montenegro in 2017, and the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, to name but a few. Or the very recent “Koněv affair” where the decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and far-right civil actors.
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.
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.
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.
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.