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Old War Logics, New War Realities

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started with the aim of compellence which then turned unsuccessful. After that, the strategic attempt included many elements of new wars, such as deliberate shelling of civilians and sexual violence. How to respond?

A New Global Order? History and Power Politics

By Mary Kaldor, London School of Economics and Political Science

Military force can be hugely destructive. It can be used as a terror weapon against civilians. Or it can be used as a show of force to deter enemies or to reassure domestic populations. But that is not the same as winning. What Thomas Schelling called “compellance”, making the enemy do what you want them to do, has become extremely difficult because of the effectiveness of all types of military technology. This is the lesson that should have been learned from the wars that have taken place since 1945 – Korea, Vietnam, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, or the recent western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. What I call “new wars” have to be understood as a way of getting around this fundamental problem. The word “new” is perhaps a misnomer. The distinction between “old” and “new” wars is not so much an empirical distinction – a descriptive distinction between earlier wars and the wars of now. Rather, it is a conceptual distinction, about a different logic of war. Old Wars, according to my definition, were about compellance; they were defined by Clausewitz as “an act of violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil our will”. They were deep-rooted contests that ended in victory or defeat. As Clausewitz explained, such wars tended to the extreme as each side tried to win.

What are new wars?

New wars, by contrast, are not about winning or losing. Rather, they are about using violence for other purposes, to generate fear as a basis for extremist ideologies or to make money through setting up checkpoints, taking hostages, looting or smuggling. The Sunni-Shi’a division in Syria, for example, was a consequence rather than a cause of the war. The war began in response to demonstrations for democracy, but it was transformed into a sectarian conflict both by the Government, which deliberately targeted Sunni areas, and, by armed opposition groups funded by private donors in the Gulf. Rather than tending to the extreme, new wars tend to persistence. They are very difficult to end, as the various warring parties need violence to reproduce themselves. New wars often begin as a response to social pressures for democracy. They can be understood as a way of channelling democratic discontent into identity based (ethnic, religious, or racial) tension that play into the populist narratives of authoritarian leaders. They can be viewed as a social condition – an alternative to bourgeois capitalism, a system in which power relations are continuously reproduced through violence.

The war in Ukraine began 2014

So how do we define the war in Ukraine? The Russian side bears a considerable resemblance to the sorts of regimes that characterise new wars. It is similar to the Milošević regime in Yugoslavia or to Assad’s Syria. Putin has been fighting new wars ever since he came to power – Chechnya, Georgia, Syria. Through these wars, a narrative is constructed in which a kleptocratic criminalised regime increasingly defines itself as a great power based on ethnic Russian nationalism. The war in Ukraine actually began in 2014 and can be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to suppress the democratic demands of the Euro-Maidan and to promote ethnic tension. It came straight out of the Gerrassimov playbook; the Russian Chief of Staff wrote an article in February 2013 where he coined the phrase non-linear war to describe a new type of “special operation” in which the use of information technology, special forces, and internal opposition can rapidly produce a
“web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and civil war”. It can be argued that the new phase of the war is an expression of Putin’s need to sustain and reproduce the ideology that underpins his political position.

What does the war mean for Ukraine?

The Ukrainian side, however, is different. In places like Bosnia and Syria, armed groups came to resemble each and took on the ethnic logic combined with predatory behaviour. Erstwhile democratic protestors, who did not to join the armed opposition, became civil society actors; they were the humanitarian first responders; they collected evidence of war crimes; they played a mediating role in local contexts; and they countered sectarian and extreme patriarchal narratives. For Ukraine, this is a contest along the lines of the old war logic. It is a contest between Putinism (the criminalised ethnic nationalist system) and a civic state. Almost the entire country is mobilised in the war effort behind the type of activities typically carried out by civil society actors; in particular, the emphasis on international law and the efforts to collect evidence of war crimes is unprecedented. Moreover, the dominant idea of Ukraine is civic rather than ethnic – that is to say, an idea of a political entity that includes Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Crimean Tartars and so on; an idea that was cemented in the Maidan protests. While Ukraine has its own oligarchs and has experienced pervasive corruption, huge efforts are being made to reduce corruption and preserve the social infrastructure.

The outcome of diplomatic solutions

But how long can this be sustained? Is there a risk that this could change, and we could see a new war on Europe’s doorstep? While the war may have begun as a classic invasion along old war lines, perhaps because of the hubris associated with being in power too long, it seems to be turning into a long attritional struggle in the Donbass region. On the Russian side, we can already observe many of the characteristics of the new wars – deliberate shelling of civilians, sexual violence, what appears to be systemic looting, mad and terrifying disinformation campaigns. It is conceivable that, on the Ukrainian side, hatred of Russia could come to be directed against ethnic Russians and that the widespread arming of civilians to resist Russians could be used for looting and other crimes as shortages mount, weakening the Ukrainian civic spirit. There is also the risk that the main effect of economic sanctions on Russia, needed to express outrage, will further fragment and criminalise Russian society. Any diplomatic solution, which of course is preferable to continued fighting, would be likely to freeze current territorial positions allowing extremist criminal gangs to control the Russian occupied parts, as happened in Crimea, and maintaining permanent pressure on Ukraine, perhaps in the form of constitutional interference, as was the case in the earlier Minsk agreement.

Invasions cannot accomplish “compellance”

What can be done to avoid this? Western countries are balancing on a tightrope between the risk of escalation and annihilation, the consequence of ttrying to win along old war lines and supporting Ukraine in all possible ways to prevent Russia from winning. What we are learning from this experience is not only are invasions wrong and illegal, but they can never succeed in old war terms. They cannot accomplish “compellance”. But they can succeed in producing the new war social condition. Military force at the disposal of civic democratic states needs to be organised in defensive and non-escalatory ways, to protect civilians and uphold international law, in order to deter and prevent invasions. But it is also important to promote civicness, which is the best antidote to new wars. In concrete terms, this means economic help to Ukraine and also finding ways to promote civic elements inside Russia – anti-war protestors, conscientious objectors, or human rights defenders. Ending purchases of oil and gas could be positive not just for climate change, for example, but as a way to end the rentier system that underpins kleptocratic dictatorships as in Russia.

Mary Kaldor
Mary Kaldor Photo: Mary Kaldor

About Mary Kaldor

Mary Kaldor is Professor Emeritus of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. She has pioneered the concepts of new wars and global civil society. Kaldor is the author of many books and articles including “New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era” (3rd edition, 2012), “International Law and New Wars” (with Christine Chinkin, 2017) and “Global Security Cultures” (2018). Additionally to her academic engagements, she was co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a member of the International Independent Commission on Kosovo and convenor of the Human Security Study Group, which reported to Secretary General of NATO, Javier Solana.


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