Blurred Lines

AUTHOR:  Oscar Jonsson

PUBLISHED BY:  Georgetown University Press

REVIEWED BY:  Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor

Oh, for the days of clarity when nations declared war on their adversaries with courteous diplomatic notes and formal declarations by telegram, as Austro-Hungary did with Serbia to start World War I in 1914. Today, such notifications may occur rudely by tweet, if they occur at all.

Instead, we face a blurred state, where we don’t know with certainty whether nations are in an actual state of war because they no longer state so emphatically. What’s worse is when only one of these nations believes it is at war and the other ignorantly thinks there is still peace between them.

That’s the situation we have today between Russia and Western states, according to Oscar Jonsson, in The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace. Jonsson is the former director of the Stockholm Free World Forum think tank and was once a subject-matter expert for the Swedish Armed Forces. He writes that Western states have taken actions they perceive as being short of war — sanctions, democracy promotion and information operations. In Russia’s understanding, however, these amount to war and represent a direct threat to the regime’s survival. Put another way, NATO and European Union states believe their actions don’t cross any long-standing, accepted red lines that would mean war; Russia believes they have crossed that line.

Take the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Russia sees them as a form of war that the West has orchestrated to topple friendly governments on Russia’s borders. Moscow understands this as the West’s main geopolitical tool to achieve its political objectives. The revolutions amount to a form of warfare that presents Russia the unpalatable options of meekly accepting changes in such governments as a fait accompli; invading these countries either outright or covertly, with “little green men” not officially affiliated with Russia; or responding in kind, aggressively, with its own information-war measures of nonkinetic composition.

Russia traditionally understands the character of war as armed violence, applied to a political goal while explicitly rejecting nonmilitary means, Jonsson writes. But, because the West is employing nonviolent means so effectively, Russia believes they are equivalent to violence and represent a change to war’s character. In response, Russia has sharpened its focus by blurring these boundaries.

Russia’s political and military leaders will not state publicly and unilaterally that their views on the character of war have changed. Such a declaration would, among other things, go against the concepts that inform international law, most notably the concept of armed attack but also the Russian federal law “On Defense,” which relies on an understanding of war defined by armed violence, Jonsson states. They believe it was the West that changed the character of war to include offensive nonmilitary means with no such public declaration. The disconnect comes from the West seeing no need for a declaration because it considers its nonmilitary measures as aimed at avoiding war, whereas Russia sees them as amounting to war.

The Western understanding has been more binary, with a war/peace divide, Jonsson writes, while the Russian understanding of war has always been closer to the view of permanent struggle and insatiable insecurity. There is a clashing of visions between how Western states construct security based on the idea of expanding democracy and the rule of law, and that of the Russian leadership whose power is predicated on the absence of both. Russia views Western constructs as designed to destabilize autocratic states’ grip on power and cause their populations to revolt in the name of Western values. Even if NATO is not interested in or in a position to launch a military offensive against Russia, Jonsson writes, NATO is still positioned well to threaten Russia with nonmilitary means that would undermine the legitimacy of and may even serve as an existential threat to Russian leadership. The mismatch between perceptions of war is generated by a fundamental mismatch in national interests, values and the desired world order. This means the underlying conflict will not be solved by a detente.

If nations conceive that the use of armed violence is losing its relevance as a criterion for the onset of war, what legitimizes the other forms of violence becomes more arbitrary and more a matter of perception. An example is Western sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. The West stated these were a very limited response in lieu of acting more forcefully. However, the Russian leadership interpreted the sanctions as a form of warfare to engineer regime change in Russia.

Russia misinterpreted Western actions and intentions, its understanding colored with equal bits insecurity and paranoia. This can turn Western states’ actions into a perceived master plan to dismember Russia. Jonsson states this acknowledgement is not an argument against sanctions or similar measures because they can have ethical or strategic benefit, but rather a call for awareness among policymakers about the consequences when provocative words don’t match the stated limited intentions of actions.

The West first needs to acknowledge that its fundamental assumption about Russia is fallacious, Jonsson states. Western nations believe it is up to them to choose whether they enter a war with Russia, an assumption that underlies every action that simultaneously seeks to punish Russian hostility while “avoiding escalation.” The problem is that this view assumes the current situation is one of peace. A Russian leadership that sees itself and its interests targeted with nonmilitary subversion is one that equates such actions as equivalent to use of force — that is, as acts of war. Russia believes the West has blurred the traditional borderline between war and peace with such actions. The West does not. But, Jonsson reminds us, it is only necessary for one party to see itself in the blurred area for war to exist.

Maintaining that a war is active, albeit with nonmilitary means, Russia has expanded its tools in the information sphere. These span from state-controlled international news media and nongovernmental organizations to troll factories guided by the presidential administration and intelligence and security services’ active measures that are amplified in social media. All of these have a unified goal to undermine societal cohesion and support for Western unity, according to Jonsson.

What is Russia’s war aim? It wants to stop what it sees as the West’s encroachment into its spheres of influence in neighboring countries. It may even desire to reverse the tide. Hence, Russia’s approach seeks to destabilize not only the cohesion in individual states but also the broader West, which is manifested in the EU and NATO, Jonsson writes.

Because Russia views the West as having blurred the boundary between war and peace, it will respond in kind to further blur the battlefield with its own increased use of nonmilitary means. This understanding of battling an existential aggression underlies why Russia is more determined, more willing to take risks, and more proactive than a complacent West that believes itself to be in a period of peace. Even though Russia’s power base is weaker than the West’s, Jonsson states that to succeed a unified and determined West needs to acknowledge being in a conflict with Russia. Western policymakers need to be exposed to Russian thought on war and security to avoid the recurrent temptation to base their Russia policy on wishful thinking and best-case assumptions. Their own survival may depend upon it.  

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