The past week has seen the war in Ukraine, which has been simmering for the last seven years, once more come to the boil. According to Kiev, Russia has massed as many as 85,000 troops near its border, while Moscow has actively talked-up the possibility of full-scale war and warned
that it ‘would mean the beginning of Ukraine’s end’.
Is such a war likely? You can forgive Kiev for worrying so — Vladimir Putin is already getting his excuses ready. The Kremlin claims to have an obligation to protect the residents of the Donbass if tensions continue to rise (just like it claimed to have an obligation to the residents of Crimea, in 2014, prior to annexing the peninsula). Meanwhile Kremlin-backed media organisations are questioning the role that western actors have played in the renewed tensions.
Over Ukraine, Russia is once again engaged in political warfare — an increasingly important form of conflict identified in the recent integrated review into defence and foreign policy, published by the government last month. Russia and other revisionist powers like China are trying to achieve their objectives in the murky zone between war and peace. It is for this reason that Russia is ‘framing’ its actions towards Ukraine as being defensive, even though it is the Kremlin that is the aggressor.
Yet political warfare is nothing new, authoritarian powers have been on the offensive for the past decade: whether it’s cyber attacks, so-called ‘wetwork’ in cities like Salisbury or Berlin, or the use of irregular forces — Russia’s ‘little green men’ in Crimea and China’s ‘little white boats’ in the South China Sea. These sorts of grey zone operations are a new front threatening democracies the world over, Britain included.
Successive British governments have forgotten that the international order is not an objective reality but instead a political arrangement, one that London has played a central role in crafting and upholding.