Category Archives: Current Affairs

Of Plagues and Pestilence

Plague in the streets Picture via Medievalists.net

“There was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the Emperor Justinian,”

Over corpses which split open and rotted in the streets with nobody to bury [them];
• Over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs….;
• Over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked…and became tombs…and they continued adrift in the waves;
• Over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses…;
• Over highways which became deserted

Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Marhe: Chronicle, Known Also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin,
Part 3, translated Witold Witakowski (1996), pp74-75

“Then came Justinian’s plague, a world-historical event that killed a large part of the population, necessarily wrecking every imperial institution including the army and navy.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward N Luttwak,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2009, Kindle loc 4092.

Interesting Times.

We live in interesting times. In many ways it feels like the Spring of 1939 and not Spring 2020. It is unlikely to presage the end of the world, but it does remind me of being in Iraq in the summer of 2008, watching the global financial crisis unfold, and thinking to myself that I was witnessing the end of an era.

My two takeaways from what we have seen so far are neither new nor earth shattering. We are going to see much more attention focused on security as a whole, encompassing resilience and by necessity (in the future) societal cohesion, and less attention to defence in the singular; and that the pandemic will accelerate already extant fissures, faultiness and by extension conflicts and instability.

Security versus Defence.

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted above all else except our inherent human frailty, is the importance of resilience. I suspect many have been unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resilience capacity. A perceived lack of Intensive Care Unit capacity, panic buying of toilet paper and a comprehensive shortage of medical PPE came as an unpleasant surprise to many. It should not have.

I attended a number of resilience conferences and workshops over the course of 2018 and 2019 and the themes of which were clear.

  • Our globalised system could deal with a regionalised issue, but no-one could envisage a globalised shock.
  • The complexity of the modern globalised system meant that resilience was assumed in and vulnerability assumed out because no-one could map the vulnerabilities effectively (the system was too complex).
  • National supply chain integrity could not be assured.
  • Most countries had outsourced critical components of the manufacturing base (or entire sectors) overseas. In some areas manufacturing had become highly centralised both geographically and corporately.
  • There was no spare (Role 3 or national civilian) medical capacity within Europe.
  • In some cases resilience capacity had been designed out – how many modern houses and flats have a pantry where you can store one to two weeks’ worth of food?
  • A less robust resilience capacity. Resilience costs, there are reasons why we have outsourced manufacturing overseas (it is cheaper) and stockpiles have largely been minimised or reduced all together (they cost to build up, maintain, and depreciate over time (hands up who can remember the impact of resource Account Budgeting on MOD stocks…).

I suspect therefore that resilience on its broadest sense will come to the fore. RUSI has been ahead of the curve here (full disclosure – I am a RUSI member) and in particular Elisabeth Braw (@elisabethbraw ) and RUSI’s Modern Deterrence programme.

The first function of government is not the defence of its people but, I would suggest, the security of its people, encompassing the ability to provide for their basic food, clothing and shelter requirements, maintaining public order and then defending from external hostile threats. As resilience costs, I suspect we may see a knock on to defence budgets.

The COVID-19 Accelerant.

The pandemic has stressed both national and international systems. At the national level governments are walking the tight-rope of preventing health systems from being over-whelmed through a strategy of containment, versus the economic and social impacts of a massive contraction in the economy caused by containment. Societal cohesion is being threatened. This is not new, but COVID-19 is exacerbating the extant fissures and inequalities. In the UK, as in the USA and India many families live pay cheque to pay cheque. India has put in place a lockdown, but does not have a robust system to provide food to its poor. In the USA the demand for foodbanks is growing exponentially. In San Antonio (Texas) – not a place normally noted for urban squalor and deprivation the San Antonio food bank fed 10,000 families last Thursday.
Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands, recognising that meeting the immediate demands now will place stresses downstream.

One striking aspect of the pandemic is also the immediate reliance placed on those frontline workers who are (financially) often rewarded minimally: supermarket shop assistants, delivery drivers, care home staff and health care professionals. It would be foolish to think that this will not drive social and political appetite to address the wealth inequality the increasingly underpins modern societies and which has already been recognised as a growing issue of concern. If it is not an issue, the fact that this pandemic is also the world’s first infodemic where public health messaging has been delivered into a contested and sometime hostile information environment should also give us cause for concern about the impacts of this pandemic on cohesion and security.

Lastly the pandemic is likely to act as an accelerant on already extant international fissures. All international politics subordinate themselves to domestic considerations, and the pandemic has seen a perceived increase in unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism. The USA has arguably abdicated its role as world leader, the EU has confirmed its north south split, and the idea that the pandemic will hasten the roll back of globalization is not far-fetched.

We live in interesting times; I wish that we didn’t, but we do. Times of stress and crisis are also however, times of challenge and opportunity. Professionally we would do well to think on how to maintain an edge when means are limited. Certainly strategic and institutional agility will be a highly desirable commodity in the future.  The role that information and disinformation has played in this first infodemic of the 21st century should also give us pause for strategic and institutional consideration, not just on information, but the blurring lines between defence, security and the role of the military today. On a broader basis the pandemic should also challenge us to think of the why and wherefore of what we do as a society, I for one have never subscribed to the opinion that the worth of a person is rested in their economic output.

So, interesting times, may we rise to them.

Further Reading:

RUSI Modern Deterrence

Piketty Capital and Ideology

Shortlink http://q.gs/F9r2f

Putin’s Problems in the East Are Our Problems From The East

(Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

“From the time of imposing sanctions against Russia, the US and most of EU (sic) member-states openly states openly state that the end goal of sanctions is to undermine the socioeconomic situation in the country to provoke social upheaval and overthrow Putin’s regime

Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality’.

There is a lot going on in Russia at the moment, and while we beat the drum of Russian dastardliness we need to understand the Russian perspective; a cornered bear is dangerous. The prospect of Russian regression and collapse may not be imminent, but the prospect of Putin’s regime collapsing is what drives the Kremlin’s calculations, and Putin has a problem.

It’s all about the economy, stupid, and Putin needs to grow his. Unfortunately as this perceptive piece from Bloomberg makes clear, Putin’s room for manoeuvre in his regard is strictly limited. The Russian economy is growing by an average of 0.5% a year according to the IMF, it should be growing at >1.5% (IMF) but even a 2% growth rate would not enable Russia to start catching up with its peers (IMF) and, as every Russian strategist from Svechin onwards knows:

“…the strategist must take into account the entire rear, both his own and the enemy’s, represented by the state with all its economic and political capabilities”

Svechin, Aleksandr, ‘Strategy’ p69.

Putin also needs to improve the economy as quite frankly, the people are hurting. One in four Russian children now live below the poverty line according to Russian statistics, and a recent poll by the Levada Center indicates that two thirds of Russian families had no savings to speak of.

The IMF and others have suggested various ways that Russia could reform in order to improve its economic prospects, but these reforms will either create social unrest or directly impact on the Russian state sector. Again, going back to the Bloomberg piece it is pretty clear that in a kleptocracy such as exists in Russia, Putin cannot afford significant reform to the public sector as that would prove an existential threat to him:

“The employees of various branches of government and state companies are Putin’s most reliable support base. Putin’s billionaire friends have gotten rich from state procurement, and now that many of them are under sanctions, it remains the only source of their continued prosperity.

Bershidsky Leonid, Bloomberg

Putin is the most powerful, but he is not all powerful. It is also clear that Putin is increasingly following the dictates of the Emperor Severus’ deathbed advice to his sons:

“…agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men”

Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 16.

So Putin is in a bit of a fix, a Catch 22. He needs to placate the masses while keeping his power base, the oligarchs and security forces, on side; it is a difficult balancing act. At the moment he is trying to position himself above the fray, using the plausible deniability of his adhocracy to apportion blame beneath him; he is the wise (albeit increasingly remote) Tsar. But the social contract is fraying, and as it frays so to are the numbers of protests increasing and participation broadening.

The protests, which show no sign of abating represent a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and broad unhappiness with the entrenched corruption of the Putin regime. Yet it is this selfsame corruption that sustains Putin’s power. This Meduza article represents the best analysis of the protests that I have seen to date; I imagine it is thorny reading inside the Kremlin.

So we should all be cheering in the West at the prospect of a triumphant liberalisation of Russia? Probably not, or at least not immediately, because if a transition was to happen, then like all transitions it would be a period of great uncertainty, great opportunity and great risk. Transitions need to be planned for, and the Russians have been planning for such a transition (or the threat thereof) for years; it’s all a Western plot don’t you know?

The opening quote was taken from an article written in the Russian ‘Journal of the Academy of Military Sciences’ in 2017. The entire article is well worth reading with it’s somewhat paranoid tones reminiscent of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion‘. Yet this strain of Russian strategic thinking has been apparent for some time. In Ben Macintyre’s riveting book ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ it is quite clear that Yuri Andropov, the then Soviet premier, was convinced that the USA and NATO was preparing a first strike against the Soviet Union and ordered Operation Ryan to confirm this. Ofer Friedman’s excellent book Russian Hybrid Warfare also lays clear the origins of Russian thinking in hybrid warfare (gibridnaya voina) and makes it clear that the origination of this belief lies in the deep rooted belief that the Soviet Union was defeated by the West through the use of ‘methods and techniques based on political, economic, ideological and other non-military types of subversion‘ (page 97), with the continuing conviction that Russia remains targeted by such today.

So what does this mean for us? All politics are ultimately domestic, and as we look at Russian foreign policy we need to bear in mind two factors:

  • Regime survival;
  • Regime transition (2024)

Regime survival is the foremost consideration of all Russian (Putin) policy decisions, foreign and domestic; it trumps all other considerations. Regime transition, refers to the fact that Putin, under the current constitution, is due to leave office in 2024 and with no obvious successor, is the paradigm under which the broader regime (the oligarchic kleptocracy) is now operating. The strategic culture under which the Russian military operate is one in which the West represents the existential threat. We need to tread carefully, engage constructively, and carry a big stick.

Bibliography:

Brychkov and Nikonov, ‘Color Revolutions in Russia: Possibility and Reality‘ in Russia’s Journal of the Academy of Military Science. Translation by Boris Vainer and accessed through FMSO.

Svechin Aleksandr, ‘Strategy‘ East View Publications, Minneapolis, 1999.

Cassius Dio, ‘Roman History, Volume IX, Books 71-80‘, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1863.

Fridman Ofer, ‘Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicisation’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018.

Recommended Websites:

Foreign Military Studies Office

Meduza

Moscow Times

Carnegie Moscow Center

In Moscow’s Shadows

Russian Military Reform

Shortlink http://q.gs/F97O0