Our book discussion continues on David Kilcullen’s latest book, The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, today we will discuss chapter 4. If you need to get caught up, Part One of the discussion can be found here and Part Two can be found here. We originally discussed this project here and here, the book summary from Amazon can be found here. So far it looks like we will be able to stay on schedule for the rest of the book:
May 29, 2020 – Chapter 5
April 5, 2020 – Chapter 6, Epilogue, Wrap Up and Questions I would ask the Author
Honestly, as soon as I read the description, I have most looked forward to this chapter. But before we dive in, like in previous articles, I think the best way to go over Chapter 4 is to cover some terminology, hit the wavetops, and then dive into the details. I have also included some of the terminology from Chapters 1,2 and 3 for reference.
Terminology (Chapter 1-2)
The West or Western – (All definitions are quotes or summaries taken from Kilcullen and should be used when discussing this book):
is used to describe a particular military methodology that is an approach to war that emphasizes battlefield dominance, achieved through high-tech precision engagement, networked communications, and pervasive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. It is characterized by an obsessive drive to minimize casualties, a reluctance to think about long-term consequences of war, a narrow focus on combat, and a lack of emphasis on war termination-the set activities needed in order to translate battlefield success into enduring and favorable political outcomes.
Dragons – Capable state adversaries exemplified by Russia, China (big) North Korea and Iran (little dragons)
Snakes – Weak or failing states and non-state actors such as Libya, Iraq, Iran and various terror and transnational crime organizations.
Convergent Evolution – The way in which unlike actors confronting a similar environment can come to resemble each other.
Offset Strategies – policies implemented to ‘side step’ our conventional power or to stay below the threshold of a massive response.
James Woolsey – CIA Director 1993 – 1995
Terminology (Chapter 3)
Democratization of lethality – lethal capabilities that were formerly utilized almost exclusively by nation-states, i.e. cyberspace, the urbanization of war, the connectivity explosion and transformative technologies, utilized by non-state groups and hyper-empowered individuals.
Fitness Landscape – the combat environment where adaptation occurs…a fitness landscape maps the potential combinations of characteristics for a given organism in that environment, so that any point on the landscape represents a particular combination.
Terrorism – (not in the book verbatim but I think is necessary to understand the overall conversation) from Oxford – The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. [emphasis mine] from FBI.gov :
International terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).
Domestic terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.
Terminology (Chapter 4)
Liminal – “comes from the Latin word for a threshold and is used in anthropology to describe the ambiguity experienced by people or societies transitioning between two states of being. Things that are in limbo, transitioning, or on the periphery, that have ambiguous political, legal, and psychological status—or whose very existence is debated—are liminal.”
Liminal Geographies – “recognize thresholds not as sharp lines but as transitional zones, while in warfare guerrillas, militias, terrorists, and resistance movements are all liminal actors.”
Liminal Warfare – “exploits the character of ambiguity, operating in the blur…” grey zone,”” the fog of war.
Liminal Maneuver – “it is neither fully overt nor truly clandestine; rather it rises to the edge, surfing the threshold of detectability, sometimes subliminal, at other times breaking fully into the open to seize an advantage or consolidate the gains before adversaries can react.”
The focus of Chapter 4 is one of ‘Woolsey’s Dragons’ in which Kilcullen discusses one of our great competitors, Russia. A slight disclaimer that I think I need to get out of the way up front: I was a Russian speaker when I went to language school as part of the Special Forces pipeline in 2002 and since have always followed the wavetops of Russian affairs. Occasionally, over the last 7 years I have been a listener of the John Batchelor Show and one of his weekly guests is Stephen F. Cohen. Here is a portion of Cohen’s bio from Wikipedia:
American scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University. His academic work concentrates on modern Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia‘s relationship with the United States.
Cohen is married to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the progressive magazine The Nation, where he is also a contributing editor. Cohen is a founding director of the reestablished American Committee for East–West Accord which was revived in 2015.
Cohen has been accused of being a Russian apologist quite often (see examples here and here.) I don’t think that this site is a place to argue politics so we will leave all of that aside, but I do think that it is important to understand some of the things that will inform our discussion. I believe it is important to listen to all sides and make judgments based on many different perspectives. I am not here to push politics and will not do so but, this level of self-awareness will be key to understanding Kilcullen’s discussion on Liminal War and the ambiguity in which this warfare is being waged. This will all make sense by the end of today’s discussion. Alright, disclaimer over.
Chapter four begins with Kilcullen patrolling Norway’s northern border with Russia in an area that is not as clearly defined as one would think. An area whose history is of a people torn between two sides of conflict and who may, if tensions further rise in the Artic, be once again. Kilcullen described how the Russians may be using the conflicts of the Middle East and the displacement of refugees to test the borders of neighboring countries by flooding them in-mass with those refugees. Is this legal? Are they testing a countries reaction? Are they encouraging this? Are they trying to strain a potential adversary’s social welfare systems? All of these or none of these may be true. This is liminal warfare.
The discussion of liminal warfare turns from the potential humanitarian crisis of refugees to possible Russian involvement in the Brexit vote and 2016 Presidential election. Did the Russians actually hack democracy? Was this an “act of war” as some in the media claimed? Is there any actually proof? According to Kilcullen, one’s belief in Russian interference:
became a Rorschach test: observers’ prior assumptions and personal biases explained their conclusions more than the evidence itself…the ambiguity is sufficient for a political denial in an environment of fake news and partisan media. Indeed, fostering a fragmented, polarized political and media environment can become a military objective in its own right, since it increases the scope for maneuver by widening the zone of ambiguity.
Kilcullen then identifies other areas of ambiguous conflict:
cyberspace, energy markets, the electrical grid, space and missile systems, agitation and propaganda, and political warfare against NATO and in Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa.
Russia After the Cold War
Kilcullen provides a very long detailed discussion about Russia after the Cold War. In many ways, this is the most in-depth and comprehensive look at the impacts of losing that war had on Russia that I had ever read in one place. The effects of this defeat has created the environment for Liminal War because the Russian status as a near peer threat was so severely damaged. Kilcullen states:
It is impossible to understand Russia’s evolution since the Cold War without first acknowledging the impetus for that evolution: the intense adaptive pressure on Russia after the Soviet collapse, the fitness landscape of unipolar American dominance and the way thee factors shaped Russian military adaptation.
Since I have been a relatively regular reader of Russian issues none of this was really new to me, but to see how devastating the defeat was for Russia laid bare was pretty eye opening and important. Here are some key points about the Soviet collapse:
- There are many reports that NATO gave assurances that if the Russians peacefully withdrew their military from East Germany and other former Soviet States, NATO would commit to not expanding beyond Germany’s eastern border.
- Westerners exploited the collapse to build immense personal fortunes which helped create a mafia state dominated by scavenging and extraordinarily violent oligarchs.
- 22 oligarchs ended up owning 39 percent of the economy.
- In the 1990’s the life expectancy fell for Russian men by 8 years and 2 years for women.
- Capital flight averaged $1.5 billion a month (1989-2001)
- The number of people living in poverty across the former Soviet Union rose from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million in 1998.
- Russian GDP fell by half while mortality… rose to the rate of a country at war.
- Western governments then meddled in Russia’s electoral process, intervening to ensure Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996.
- Ethnic Russians were now “stranded” in other countries and subjected various forms of discrimination.
Kilcullen details NATO expansion and Western involvement in the Yugoslavia and the Baltic States moving the alliance’s borders some 400 miles towards Russia and eventually right up to the Russian border itself in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Kilcullen’s words:
It’s difficult to overstate how threatening this appeared from Moscow’s standpoint. Perhaps more than most countries, Russia is defined—one might say haunted—by its history. In the years after 1945, Russia—scarred by four invasions from the west in less than 150 years (Napoleon in 1812, the British, French, and Ottomans in the Crimea in 1854; imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914; and Hitler in 1941)—had built a buffer of client states along its borders.
Adaptation in Defeat
Kilcullen discusses many of Russian adaptations like low-yield nuclear weapons that could be employed in a limited war and how the military was refined and shaped by the two Chechen wars culminating in the 2008 Five-Day War with Georgia. The Geopolitical importance of Georgia is clear and threat of potential NATO membership was ominous for the Russian State as they began to agitate and prepare the battlefield in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The goal was to provoke a Georgian “first strike” that could be quickly exploited where troops could be maneuvered to secure territory. The Russians also employed widespread cyber and information warfare to disrupt and shape the ensuing narrative by delaying the messaging and sowing dissent.
The theory of Liminal Warfare and liminal maneuver space are defined as remaining below the response threshold of overt conflict and above the detection threshold of covert operations. Kilcullen emphasizes:
…the response threshold is determined not by ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability but by decision-making capacity—making it a political and diplomatic threshold rather than a military or intelligence one. [emphasis mine]
The fact that the response threshold is politically driven rather than capability-dependent emphasize the reality that liminal warfare is a form of political warfare—that application of a combination of military and non-military means to achieve fundamentally political objectives.
Liminal warfare exploits the “window for political action” when decisions are made…dithering. Russia considers non-military measures, political, diplomatic and economic as a part of war where war is not declared but rather begins unnoticed though pre-conflict shaping. Which brings us back to self-awareness.
For me, the most important part of this chapter is self-awareness, an acknowledgement of our personal biases and how that can create an environment where we can ‘see’ and find evidence of our own preconceived notions in the ambiguity of liminal war. These personal biases are then exploited to sow confusion, dissent and misdirection. That is why I chose to put the very large, very open disclaimer about who I am at the beginning. As warfighters, we must first recognize the points from which our decisions are being made to ensure that we are not being exploited into making decision that ultimately help our adversaries.
We are all vulnerable to this sort of exploitation. I know that several missions that I have been a part of were based on bad intelligence where the enemy fed us information to raid a house or source that was actually helping us. But this goes far beyond the battlefield and into the news that we consume and the shows that we watch on television. We must avoid cherry picking the evidence that we want to see because it supports our preferred narrative because in the long run, making these mistakes will cause much more harm than good. While this may not be entirely new, I believe that we are in a liminal war where our adversaries remain ambiguous and shrouded.