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Is Putin Redefining 21st Century Warfare?

The Russian president’s moves reflect greater concern over what constitutes aggressive geopolitical behavior. By Janine Davidson

Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post is worth a read. The authors wisely observe that Putin’s aggression in Crimea—like in Georgia in 2008—reflects the future of great power conflict. Putin is not playing some sort of 19th-century geopolitical game, they argue, but rather he is “redefining 21st-century warfare”:

…Putin is no longer bound by the constraints of nation-state warfare. Years of confrontations with separatists, militants, terrorists and stateless actors influenced his thinking. In Crimea, Putin debuted a pop-up war—nimble and covert—that is likely to be the design of the future.

I could not agree more, and in fact, I would take this idea one step further. As savvy as Putin is, his moves reflect greater global trends that challenge our conventional (Western) legal and cultural notions of what constitutes “war” versus “crime,” or other forms of disruptive or aggressive geopolitical behavior. Our separate law enforcement, intelligence, and military bureaucracies have clearly defined roles and missions that align with these rigid constructs. And our national security and international relations architectures—largely forged between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries—bound how we think about and deal with threats to international order.

For example, the international laws of war are based on the nation-state system; and they are clear about what defines a “lawful combatant.” At a minimum, soldiers in “real” armies are required to wear identifiable insignia, carry weapons openly, and remain under command of a responsible state authority. Accordingly, our soldiers are legally authorized to do things in warzones that police could not do at home (like shooting to kill); while police, not soldiers, are allowed to patrol our streets and exercise restraint in the use of force. These laws—and the structures and bureaucracies we have built around them—have created gaps that sophisticated adversaries—state and non-state—have learned to exploit.

Traffickers, insurgents, terrorists, drug dealers, cyber criminals, and pirates all actively exploit the separation that Western societies and the international community try to maintain between crime and war, and thus, law enforcement and the military. Insurgents conduct kidnappings by day and launch military-style raids by night as part of a holistic strategy that crosses the boundaries of traditional law enforcement and military. Responding to this threat confounds both military and police, who need to determine on the spot which of them is legally allowed to respond to which types of attacks and by what means. Pirates operate with impunity knowing that they are unlikely to be overtly attacked by navies on the high seas or tried in a proper court of law upon capture. And drug lords, from Latin America to Los Angeles, challenge—and in some cases have defeated—local law enforcement using military tactics and high-end military weapons, including RPGscrudely-fabricated tanks, and submarines.

Meanwhile, Putin, as a head of state, can deny he has invaded Crimea, by claiming that the troops occupying buildings, holding territory, taunting Ukrainian soldiers, and intimidating the population could not possibly be under his command because they wear no military insignia on their military-like uniforms and are not, he claims, formally reporting to him up their chain of command. The Chinese play a similar game when they claim that their “civilian” China Marine Surveillance Fleet of coast guard-like ships that harass Japanese and Filipino fishing vessels in the East and South China Seas could not possibly warrant a military response from navies in the region (even though they reportedly coordinate with the Chinese Navy).

In all, these seemingly disparate challenges reflect an understanding by potential adversaries about the limits that Western society and the international community have placed on themselves in conducting warfare and responding to criminal behavior. “Bad guys” will continue to exploit the existing gaps, presenting threats to human, national, and international security in the coming decades if we, as governments and international institutions, do not develop better ways and means to respond.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.