PISM Strategic Ark 2024

Western Complacency in the Face of Eastern Aggression: An Urgent Call to Reassess Security and Military Readiness.

Dr. John Bruni
SAGE International
Adelaide, South Australia
31/05/24
KEY TAKEAWAYS

 

  1. Frustration Among Experts: There is palpable frustration among international security experts due to political leaders not heeding their advice on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. This frustration stems from perceived political stonewalling and a lack of decisive action.
  2. Political Inaction and Fear: Political elites in the U.S., EU, and Europe acknowledge the harm caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, they avoid tougher actions against Russian forces due to fears of nuclear escalation by Putin, potential American responses, and the implications of a decisive Ukrainian victory.
  3. Putin’s Objectives: Experts believe Putin seeks the complete reintegration of Ukraine into Russia, viewing Ukraine’s independence as historically offensive. Thus, he will not be satisfied with partial territorial gains.
  4. Misalignment of Perceptions: There is a disconnect between politicians and national security professionals. Many politicians, shaped by a belief that high-intensity warfare was a relic of the past due to nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence, fail to grasp the renewed relevance of great power conflict.
  5. Historical Context: Before the war, Europe’s reliance on Russian energy was seen as a stabilising factor. The war’s disruption of this dynamic has forced Europe to seek alternative energy sources, significantly impacting Russia’s economy.
  6. Russia’s Economic Shift: Russia has attempted to circumvent sanctions by selling oil and gas to India and China at reduced prices. However, these relationships are strained by India and China’s need to maintain good relations with the West.
  7. Western Military Complacency: Western militaries have shrunk due to the end of conscription and reliance on high-tech solutions. The belief that technology could replace manpower has led to a lack of preparedness for large-scale conflicts.
  8. Drone Warfare: The Russia-Ukraine War has seen extensive use of drones, highlighting their role but also their limitations in modern warfare. High-tech solutions alone are insufficient without robust conventional forces.
  9. Public and Political Disconnect: Western societies and politicians are generally risk-averse and anti-military, influenced by a lack of recent experience with large-scale war. This detachment weakens national security preparedness and resilience.
  10. Call to Action: The author emphasises the need for Western politicians to take security professionals seriously and for societies to recognise the importance of military readiness. The Op-Ed concludes with a warning to Australia to address its military and political shortcomings in the face of potential threats from China and North Korea.

***

Upon my return from Warsaw, where I was invited to participate in a high-powered panel on the Middle East by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) Strategic Ark conference series, I was struck by one major observation. The palpable sense of frustration among the assembled international security elite on official political actions on Russia.

Many people at the military, diplomatic, think tanker and scholarly levels seemed to be saying the same thing. The political elite was neither listening nor keen on taking advice from international relations and security experts. They continue to plod along as though the Russia crisis in Eastern Europe could be waited out or wished away. That fast-tracking weapons shipments to Ukraine would only encourage Russian President Putin to escalate and expand his war in Eastern Europe. This sense of frustration stems from what appears to be deliberate political stonewalling and side-stepping, where American, EU and European national politicians, to greater or lesser degrees, acknowledge the harm caused to Ukraine and European security by Russia’s invasion, but do not want to enact a tougher, more consistent approach against Russian forces. Why? The only answer I could conclude was fear.

Fear that Putin would order a nuclear demonstration or limited attack in or near Ukrainian territory.

Fear that such a demonstration or attack would elicit a strong American response or no response at all.

And then there’s the fear that if nuclear weapons use could be avoided entirely, shipping weapons and distributing them to Ukrainian forces quickly and efficiently might cause significant Ukrainian victories leading to the withdrawal of Russian troops. The logic here is that a defeated Russia could pose more of a problem for European security, in the long term, than a victorious one.

So, our politicians hope that those within the Russian state will realise that Putin will not achieve his maximalist objectives. That this realisation, may bring Putin to the negotiating table and he will eventually see the rationale of not getting everything he wants. But Putin will not be satiated by occupying a chunk of Ukraine. As many seasoned professionals pointed out, Putin finds the entire notion of an independent Ukraine an offence to his historical sensibilities. This was also made abundantly clear from his recent historical treatise with American journalist, Tucker Carlson. Consequently, he would not be happy with a peace settlement that allowed him to keep what was already under Russian occupation, or even a larger expanse the Russian army managed to secure. Indeed, this war is a war for the extermination of the Ukrainian state and the country’s reintegration into Russia.

EU and European national politicians see things very differently from those employed by them to craft national security policy.

Many politicians were brought up during a time when it was believed that high-intensity, great-power war was over. The advent of nuclear weapons prevented this. That international trade and commerce would limit international competition to the pursuit of economic profit. These fine ideals were crushed in February 2022, but there were signs in other parts of the world, notably in North Africa and the Middle East, where large-scale fighting and high defence expenditures were not ‘a thing of the past.’  Where violence was often used to sort out competing economic interests, as well as the primacy of cultural, sectarian groups or political ideas. But in the arrogance of Western self-belief, no one believed that great power war had a place among countries wedded together in the pursuit of economic activity.

Before February 2022, Russia was a major European trading partner sending the lifeblood of manufacturing, oil and gas to fuel European industry and heat European homes. But the war broke this relationship completely. Europe’s oil and gas supply chains swung away from Russia and toward North America, the Middle East and Australia, denying Putin’s Russia its only major source of income. To be sure the Russian leader did manage to use India as a willing middleman to circumvent international sanctions, and to sell his excess oil and gas to that other major market, China. However, he did so for prices far under what he had previously sold to Europe.

The problem for Putin is that India is much more of an international player these days and must be mindful of not upsetting its more important European and U.S. investors and trading partners. Modi’s India will help Russia out of a sense of gratitude for India’s long-standing relations with the USSR during the Cold War and with the Russian Federation during the immediate post-Cold War period, but there will be some hard limits to this. European and American trading partners bring India better civilian and military technologies, business opportunities and industrial standards geared to a global market. If Modi’s India wants to compete on the international stage, burning its relations with the West in favour of Russia would not be the way to go. Similarly, much has been said about Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Being an unalloyed autocracy, it certainly has much in common with Putin in terms of seeking to counter the West.

But Xi’s China, like Modi’s India, is no black-and-white model of autocracy. Unlike Russia, Xi’s China still values its trade with the West despite its deep antipathy for political liberalism. Indeed, presently, as China is expected to enter a period of rapid population ageing and decline, the economic aspects of this are expected to hit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatchiks and the Chinese people hard. A softer landing for China is only possible with good relations with the West and that will mean moving on controversial issues like the Uyghur genocide in Northwestern China, the Han colonisation of Tibet and the persecution of other minorities long the target of the CCP’s ‘special attention.’

The other thing that Xi or his successor might have to move on is belligerence against Taiwan. But are the autocracies seeing their potential disadvantages?

Putin was swept away by his own soaring anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, so much so that he has painted himself and his followers into a corner. If they lose the war, they might lose power and the wealth that goes with it. Modi has a problem in that his political agenda for the sectarian supremacy of Hinduism within India may well inspire Western antipathy or even hostility as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-encouraged sectarian violence and discrimination against, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other denominations increases or becomes an institutionalised way of life in India. Xi’s China is similarly on a precipice. Faced by an economic crisis at home, the prospect of Sino-American confrontation off the Chinese coastline and along its ‘near seas,’ the likelihood that Xi will choose war to resolve its most pressing political issue – that of Taiwanese integration to satisfy a jaded population and CCP cadres cannot be dismissed lightly. Like Russia, China has a leadership that is intractable and is now personalised under the authoritarian rule of one man. When this happens to a country, all decisions stop being oligarchic, where compromise is critical to the legitimacy and functioning of the state. The art of survival in such a state demands obedience and submission to the leader. The system becomes brittle and crisis, whether internal or through war, makes the state vulnerable. Such a state is almost always one crisis away from collapse.

But then there is the West. Following World War II, Western leadership and society were scarred by that existential crisis, and leadership knew that to defend democracy the armed forces had to be strong and integrated within the state governing structure and connected to its people. This was usually through regular public displays of a national mythos coupled with an expectation of service to the state through conscription. Many of a certain generation had military experience and/or knew of the trauma of war and were prepared to defend their state in the style of that old Roman adage, ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’

But, as time passed and memories faded, the horrors of war looked distant, a thing of Hollywood movies designed to entertain rather than to remind.

Complacency set in and the way governments in the West used their militaries became different. They were no longer connected to the people. The end of conscription in many countries during the 1970s saw the rise of the all-volunteer force. By the 1990s recruitment and retention problems were endemic among multiple Western armed forces within their all-volunteer force structures. If given a choice, young people entered the civilian workforce where the pay was better, the hours of work regulated to a steady, general expectation of a 9 am-5 pm pattern. No one wanted to volunteer their time to get up at 5 am, be exposed to relentless parade ground drill and work on mundane but critical survival skills until the late hours of the night. That required a discipline that Western societies were just not seeking. As a result, all-volunteer force structures shrank across the West.

Monopolistic defence companies convinced governments that they could cope with the loss of personnel since new technologies coming online would be able to replace the need for mass and large numbers of human operators. But these technologies were so expensive that over time, even the richest Western country could afford fewer of them. National security elites were marginalised to their respective bubbles as the rise of those supporting neo-liberal economics entered the fray. They contended that the age of war was over. That nuclear weapons had ended the need for great power competition. That the United States was the world hegemon and that even its less-than-satisfied economic competitors such as Russia and China would eventually soften to a neo-liberal U.S.-led international order. When wars happened, they were usually small-scale affairs by historic standards, limited to the confines of counterinsurgency (COIN)/counterterrorism (CT) operations in under-developed countries where Western military technologies could impose ‘solutions’ onto local populations. By 2022, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western militaries were small, tailored to multinational COIN/CT operations, were short on basic weapons like artillery, could not mass-produce ‘war-winning’ technologies whether they be fighter planes, main battle tanks, warships, submarines or large and small missile types. Indeed, defence industries were running out of skilled manpower for the bigger projects, just as the militaries themselves were running out of skilled operators. The solution? Drones. The Russia-Ukraine War is the first war to have used drones on a mass scale. Simple drones use a level of technology that is easy to scale up, although others will soon be at the same cost and complexity as crewed systems. But despite the media hyperbole about drones, they by themselves are not ‘war winners.’ They are simply another battlefield tool. Because of their smaller carrying abilities, drones do not have the same levels of firepower as crewed systems when deployed against enemy forces. So, the idea that conventional militaries can be replaced cheaply and easily with AI drones is farcical, especially when one remembers that for every weapons system developed, there are countermeasures. The much-lauded HIMARs battlefield rocket system can be spoofed by Russian electronic warfare (EW). The U.S. is said to be inferior to the Russians in EW capabilities.

But then there is the far more profound issue at stake.

To the average observer, war is about soldiers, sailors and airmen. It is about killing and about being killed for one’s country. Uncomfortable notions for politicians to get their heads around. Politicians are sensitive to their electorates and the electorates of today are generally anti-military and lack any sense of national community uniting them, making them extremely risk-averse, and in the words of former U.S. Army General Ben Hodges, self-deterring. We can speak in terms of multi-cultures, multi-genders and various other identities but harking back to the old days where the military had a special social and political value because of its sacrifices is considered by the chattering classes as outmoded and even offensive. So today, when those who have made their careers in serving their military institutions in one way or another speak about the impending crisis, we in the West are all facing, the politicians need to wake up. If we want to maintain our democracies where we keep the right to discuss freely social progress in all its manifestations, the most vocal university protestors should have a brief taste of the military life without which their opinions matter little. If you are not prepared to fight for what you believe in, if you are not prepared to sacrifice a part of yourself for the common good, then we are only left with the notion that the likes of Vladimir Putin know this, that Xi Jinping knows this, that Kim Jong-Un knows this and Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani knows this. Against our soft, indulgent lifestyles, these harder men, coming from hard and brutal societies seem to know our measures and our weaknesses. The greatest concern in Poland that I observed was that the very people who we have paid to take care of our safety and security are not being taken seriously by our political elites.

And to my country, Australia, take heed.

We are no better. Faced with our flip-flopping over China and the fact that our military is more praetorian guard than an integrated part of our national community, Xi and Kim will not fear us. For to them, we are exactly the kind of national security threat they are after, a country too busy warring with itself on pointless distractions and not mature enough to act on the dangerous traps being set for us.

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