References to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea as some sort of “19th-century behavior” misjudge the enormity of recent events. He hasn’t miscalculated; Putin is redefining 21st-century warfare.
Before Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008, he spent months deploying the traditional machinery of war: He rebuilt railroads and highways to move tanks and thousands of troops. He sent warplanes menacingly over Georgian territory. He also used state propaganda to muddle the narrative about who started the war.
But 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.
First, the hidden army appeared out of nowhere. Soldiers-of-no-nation were outfitted for troublemaking and street-fighting. These troops, denied by Putin, are also seemingly unconstrained by the laws, rules and conventions governing warfare – Putin’s biggest brush-off yet to international order. They are Putin’s hybrid of soldiers and terrorists: hidden faces, hidden command-and-control, hidden orders, but undoubtedly activated to achieve state objectives. The lack of an identified leader gums up the international community’s response: There is no general with whom to negotiate a cease-fire or surrender; if violence erupts, there is potentially no way to end it short of stopping each gunman.
These irregular forces are also a psychological menace for the local population and Ukrainians nationwide, who don’t know where else the hidden army awaits.
The second component of Putin’s 21st-century warfare is cyber. Calling it propaganda diminishes the insidious and poisonous nature of this information battle.
Cyber-tactics have been streamlined to Putin’s latest purpose: interrupting the communications of legislators and governance, even as the stream of Russian-language misinformation heralding the new war on “fascisti” continues to flow.
Putin has manufactured a version of reality to propagate the narrative he needs to destabilize Ukraine. He decided an ethno-lingual division was needed to achieve his objectives – and then cast parts. Now the story is being acted out on hundreds of fronts and posted on social media, a virtual live-stream of content for Putin’s argument of oppression, victimization and fear in Russian-speaking Ukraine.
Reality plays no role in all this. Itar-Tass ran a story last weekend, later picked up by Forbes and others, that 675,000 Ukrainians had recently sought political asylum in Russia. Recall that in August 2008, Moscow claimed that 2,000 civilians had been killed in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia into which it sent and still maintains troops. Human Rights Watch investigators later found that only 44 civilians had died. But Western news agencies cover Putin’s fake news as if it were worthy of debate. His distortions and the resulting intimidation slow responses to his actions and dilute the resolve of those who would stand against him.
Third, Putin is using financial markets as a polemical tool. With a personal net worth said to be in the tens of billions, he understands financial might. Russia’s wealth has allowed it to forge “partnerships” based on mutual financial interest, and Putin is relying on that web of connections.
Putin has familiarity with such tactics; in 2007, a cyberattack crippled Estonian financial markets for days after a dispute with Russia. Last week, after Russian markets plummeted more than 10 percent amid fears of war, Putin held a news conference scripted to calm investors. Consider how much money he might have lost, and regained, between Monday and Wednesday. Once he perfects his manipulation of markets, Putin can increase his personal wealth and further supplement the web of money that he believes makes him untouchable. It’s a self-propagating, invisible weapon.
Ultimately, these tactics create a chaos that he controls, a status quo that allows him to influence the politics and policies of Ukraine.
Putin moved into Crimea partly because it was a low-stakes way to test out his new warfare. Home to significant Russian military assets and a somewhat sympathetic population, Crimea is geographically isolated from the rest of Ukraine; Putin could confidently predict that there would be no physical response to his invasion by a globally exhausted West.
For years, Putin relied on the heavy, Soviet-style hammer. His recent actions suggest that traditional military and intelligence are no longer the means by which he feels he has to fight. While the West is focusing on the best response to his recent steps, Putin is most likely on to the next stages: determining which, if any, international protocols apply to his actions and how his tactics can be used elsewhere.
It’s time to give up the decadent belief that continental wars are over. Going forward, the terms by which the world is playing are Putin’s – a reality we all must recognize and for which we need an effective response.
Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis are independent consultants who advise governments and international organizations on foreign policy. They worked for Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his national security adviser during and after the 2008 war with Russia, McKew from 2008 to 2013 and Maniatis from 2006 to 2013.