War is no longer just about bullets and bombs. There are new, more subtle, less bloody ways to wage it.
Vladimir Putin has a full arsenal of sophisticated weapons, not all of which go bang. He also has a lot of great reasons to not use them. Which doesn’t mean he won’t.
His Ukraine gambit is fraught with risk, and nobody knows where he’s going with it. He might not know himself. But in terms of the evolution of warfare, both his strengths and his vulnerabilities are remarkable.
With that in mind, let’s divide twenty-first-century weaponry into four categories — military, propaganda, cyber, and economic — and discuss amongst ourselves.
Putin knows it’s harder to get out of hot wars than into them — Russia had its own Afghanistan quagmire to learn from. And hot wars are rarely popular. Recent polls show three out of four Russian citizens already detest him. Does he think soldiers coming home in body bags will improve that?
The old shock-and-awe-type war has been shown, over and over, to be needlessly destructive and prohibitively expensive. It sucks in resources and sets back economies. It pisses off the home front and spews unintended consequences all over.
Yes, Putin has been building a gleaming new high-tech military, and he might just want to take it out for a spin. This would be hugely reckless, even if it’s just a quick smash-and-grab of a few token towns in the Donbass. A swift military victory might be good for a short-term ratings boost, but the risk of economic and financial retaliation, as we’ll see, hardly seems worth it.
He also needs to consider that Ukrainians seem unwilling to go quietly. While they would surely lose any land Putin chooses to seize, there will be plenty of bang on both sides, with plenty of casualties to show for it. And every detail will be recorded on smartphones and shared on YouTube.
The military option seems like a loser in a hundred ways, though Putin may feel otherwise.
As Americans have learned the hard way, starting with our own election in 2016, Putin’s people are really good at using the internet and social media to launch targeted propaganda. And they get better at it all the time.
Putin has built a propaganda infrastructure, and there are untold numbers of smart young people making a good living, learning an assortment of insidious trades. Think of them as soldiers in a new kind of army.
Young Russians today get a first-rate education, especially in math and computer science, but they’re hurting for opportunity. This leaves a lot of smart but idle minds open to careers in Putin’s state-of-the-art propaganda shops. There’s a rich base of institutional knowledge to draw on and learn from, going back to the old KGB — a proud tradition of disinformation, mass disruption, false flags, psy-ops, and all those other Cold War-era dirty tricks that now scale so beautifully to the internet.
This new kind of army doesn’t kill, it manipulates. Which might be more effective in the long run, and is certainly far cheaper. But does Putin really appreciate that?
Of course, propaganda isn’t the only field where a talented young Russian can get a good government job. There’s also cyber, and it’s the cyber aspects of this conflict — and all conflicts from now on — that are truly frightening.
In a hot war, Putin would need to carefully weigh the amount of blood he’s prepared to shed, against what his citizenry is prepared to tolerate. But how much more tempting is it to go bloodless, to wage your war in cyberspace? Why blow stuff up in Ukraine when you can mess around with infrastructure in the West?
Think of the havoc he can wreak, not just in Ukraine, but anywhere in Europe or North America. Those soft, pampered Americans will not take well to days or months without heat, electricity, internet, or all three. War takes on a whole new meaning when the tactical goal is to cut off the enemy from cable TV during the Super Bowl.
Does Putin have any idea what a week with no internet would reduce us to? Let’s hope not.
Given the geopolitical realities of the Ukraine conflict, Putin is undeniably stronger in the first three kinds of weaponry, especially with the West rightly reluctant to meet force with force. But it’s in the fourth area, economics and finance, where he’s seriously weak. And he knows it.
The West might have more to lose in a cyber war, but everyday Russians will feel real economic pain from the kinds of sanctions now on the table. Putin is up against overwhelming financial firepower that he can neither match nor afford to ignore. The biggest Russian banks could end up excluded from the international banking system, which could tank their entire economy.
Putin’s own personal wealth in the West could also be targeted, though he might not care. He lives the life of a tsar as it is, and he knows he can never leave Russia. So while he likes having access to those billions in western banks, he won’t go hungry without them.
His oligarchs are another matter. He needs to keep them happy, and they won’t like these sanctions one bit. These guys spend much of their lives in Europe, buying soccer teams, superyachts, and high-maintenance wives. They depend on western banks to launder their money, and to invest it once it’s clean. Some of them could end up stuck in Russia forever, avoiding western warrants. We can only imagine what those wives think of that idea.
Remember, sanctions were the big reason Putin supported Trump in 2016. That whole Manafort-Deripaska plot was about getting the 2014 sanctions lifted, so the oligarchs could again have full access to the world banking system. Sanctions have been a major headache for the oligarchs ever since, and now Putin is on track to make them worse.
Not that Putin would be shooting blanks in the economic war. He has threatened to shut off natural gas supplies to Europe, which he can — and just might — do. But since the revenue from that gas props up his entire kleptocracy, he’s probably just teasing about that.
He teases a lot, which is perhaps the point. Putin may yet roll tanks all the way to Kyiv, but to what end? His goals are fuzzy, and he seems surprised that the fractious West might actually get it together to put up a credible fight.
There are dozens of moving parts here, and a lot can go wrong. Sanctions can backfire. Minor incidents can spin out of control. Any miscalculation could escalate into a global showdown that leaves Russians broke and Americans freezing.
Yes, Putin is the world’s most dangerous man, but he seems to be playing a weak hand. For all his power — for all his prodigious weaponry in this new type of war — his brinkmanship looks, more and more, like an elaborate bluff.
I may have to eat my words, but I’m watching for signs of him trying to save face.