The Russian insistence on predictability is a signal, a banner of peace and friendship. At the same time, predictability is easy to handle by the bureaucratic apparatus since it doesn’t require tight coordination of various components and levels.
What is the aim of warfare? Ostensibly, it has always been the same – inflict defeat on an enemy. Defeat in turn means the lack of ability to assert one’s will either through death, injury, incarceration or expulsion. A tacit addition to this rule is to minimise one’s own losses through subterfuge, power differential and/or skilful application of the military art (tactics, strategy, psychology). Observing the developments in warfare, one can summarise its bloody and convoluted history as increase in firepower and distance between combatants. From the Clarkeian brawls with sharpened bones accompanied by the orchestral blasts of Richard Strauss’s Zarathustra, to the ultra-modern weapons of Armageddon capable of wiping out entire continental shelves—the evolution of warfare seems to have reached a point of inflection.
For all the posturing and constant improvements in the deadliness of arsenals, it appears that the will to use (thermo) nuclear weapons in any future war is receding. This of course is not due to a surfeit of humanity on the part of the belligerent and supremacist West but to an understanding that their opponents are capable of countering their every move through the application of advanced scientific and technological principles. This realisation has led to an impasse which is still more mental than political. Although aggressive moves continue (abrogation of treaties, positioning of missile batteries, troops and bio-warfare labs near the borders of Russia) there is a sense that the standard ratcheting up/loosening approach has had its day. There are only so many threats you can make, so many aggressive moves, before something goes wrong and the situation becomes irreversible in a second. The time has come to think of alternative ways of managing strategic tensions.
Another reason for questioning the current “Way of war” is the realisation that military thinking has not kept pace with the astounding technological feats required to produce many of the modern weapons (e.g. the “hypersonic revolution”). Theoretical models of modern warfare are still based on the variants of the game and information theories whose military potential was first explored at the RAND corporation in the 1950s. (1)
Behaviour in its broadest meaning still represents the primary source of intelligence and the ability to interpret it correctly, the only way of obtaining useful intelligence. This can be illustrated on the example of the German attack on the USSR. In 1941, Hitler’s intentions and strategic moves were pretty obvious (if not blatantly so) and were detected by a large network of Soviet or other countries’ agents. What caused the fatal delay in military preparations was not the sensitivity of the Soviet intelligence networks but Stalin’s reluctance to believe the numerous reports and testimonies (caused by his mistrust of Churchill’s motives). In the rest of this essay, we shall focus on the first part of the behaviour/interpretation dyad.
I have been observing and studying the behaviour of different geopolitical players over the years and have been struck by the predictability of Russian foreign policy. I am not saying this lightly. In the 99% of the cases, Russia’s behaviour has followed a single pattern which looks something like this: Russia attempts to act friendly to a Western country; this country immediately accuses Russia of trying to destroy the West—it expels Russian diplomats, blocks pipelines and other projects, imposes sanctions and invites a team of U.S. Marines to set up a base near Russian border. Maria Zakharova fulminates on Twitter, threatens to “take note” and Sergey Lavrov declares the move “unfriendly”. The tone can vary slightly from case to case but the substance is the same—retaliatory responses are applied extremely rarely (e.g. symbolic countersanctions against EU) or never. Every precaution is taken not to aggravate the “partners” unduly and the door is always left wide open should the adversary have a change of heart and decide that Russia is really a nice, friendly country. The same pattern can be observed following the killings and expulsions of the Russian diplomats, downing of their military aircraft, strangulation by NATO etc.
Whatever the deeper reasons for such behaviour (a topic for another essay), it is obvious that Russia not only favours but insists on being predictable and transparent. Irrespective of the nastiness inflicted on it, Russia will a) never retaliate except symbolically and b) continue behaving as if nothing has happened. Any hints that it might stop being friendly and agreement-capable are accompanied by procrastination and a feverish search for ways of burying and forgetting the whole thing. The most common justification for such attitude is: Russia is a great power and as such it has a special responsibility for maintaining peace etc. Perhaps the time has come to impress on the Russian foreign policy experts that the peace is best safeguarded when the aggressor is confounded, confused and rendered incapable of continuing with their nefarious plans.
While the exaggerated need to be accommodating has to do with Russia’s psychological dependence on the West, the predictability with which it reacts to every adversarial move is a separate if related issue. Predictability is not a problem per se as long as it serves as a background for unexpected moves. But this never comes—one can summarise the Russian foreign policy as follows: minimise the harm to our Western partners and prevent the formation of a historical record—treat every transgression as a first one. At the same time, the Western aggression against Russia continues largely unabated. The West has no intention of confronting Russia on the battlefield. Rather, by employing a full gamut of soft and covert power, it is trying to erode Russia’s viability and weaken it to the point at which internal centrifugal processes can achieve the rest. This is why I believe that exaggerated focus on weapons and gadgets detracts from deeper—mainly psychological—issues facing Russia and the world.
Realistically, Russia’s options are quite restricted. Any aggressive moves on its part would exacerbate an already difficult situation and make future action that much more difficult. In a sense, it’s a lose-lose situation because if Russia fails to act, it is weakened by the opponent’s active measures and if it does decide to act, its isolation from the EU and the rest of the West can only increase, rendering it more vulnerable to any active moves. This is why a lot of Russia’s energy is directed towards issues that do not require such high-stake calculations (e.g. Eurasia). However, the problem remains and is getting worse. So what can be done short of overt aggression?
In an essay published in December last year, I proposed introducing uncertainty/unpredictability in the foreign-policy level decision making. (2) Of course, this might sound interesting but is not easy to achieve mainly thanks to the fact that both the emitter (Russia) and receiver (the West) have the same psychological response to pattern and its absence. Further, complexity by its very nature is difficult to control. Yet, a certain amount of “predicted unpredictability” can be injected into communications, official responses, decisions on sanctions, diplomatic postings, treatment of foreign agents etc.
The Russian insistence on predictability is a signal, a banner of peace and friendship. At the same time, predictability is easy to handle by the bureaucratic apparatus since it doesn’t require tight coordination of various components and levels. Predictability is the best policy but only when the defending side can articulate clear and effective red lines. With Russia, this is not the case simply because the West is attacking on many fronts simultaneously. Currently, the Ukraine is openly talking about joining NATO. Instead of informing the Ukrainian government of the consequences, the signals from the Russian Foreign ministry are subdued and mixed (we don’t like it but you are our brothers).
But this is not the kind of uncertainty I am interested in. What I am proposing is controlled or planned unpredictability which is active and as potentially efficient as any other weapon. For example, this might involve responding to two similar inimical gestures in different ways so that the adversary cannot work out what to expect. I call this the “spatial or parallel uncertainty”. For example, if two countries introduce sanctions against Russia, one is hit with hard counter-sanctions while the other is spared any consequences (this is crude but it does illustrate the principle). Needless to say, analysts are stumped since they cannot explain the decision via the available information. Needless to say, one can profit from the ensuing confusion and use it to set up follow-up scenarios.
“Serial or temporal uncertainty” refers to the inability to predict a point in time when a move is to be made, for instance, imposition of counter-sanctions. This is already in place to an extent as evidence by the example of Sarah Raynsford who was expelled from Russia some years after the offending moves had been made. Finally, any foreign policy issue can be viewed at different scales—from individual actions to its geopolitical relevance and so on. “Scale or fractal uncertainty” refers to the alignment of elements of a response at different scales. The three forms of uncertainty can be combined and varied so that rather complex schedules can be devised and implemented in a controlled environment. I would like to explore this in more depth in the forthcoming essays.
As already mentioned, I mooted the introduction of uncertainty schedules (and even a dedicated expert body) in December last year in the belief that any difficulties in gauging Russia’s responses might slow down the non-stop push by the West. Apparently, I was not the only one thinking in those terms. A few weeks ago, the (once) prestigious RAND corporation published a long report entitled “Operational unpredictability and deterrence”. (3) Suffering from an overdeveloped ego, I immediately thought—they have copied my ideas! Of course, this is not likely and does not matter in the end. My thinking is centred on the political arena whereas theirs focusses on the military. Whereas my appeal did not cause any reactions, the RAND document triggered an immediate reply from Russtrat—a presumably private Russian institute for strategic studies. I was quite surprised by the totally negative tone of the assessment. It sounded more like a professional’s rebuke to an amateur meddler than a well-founded critique of the idea. But first, let me quickly summarise the report.
The paper is a “high-level” document aimed at top decision makers and as such it doesn’t dwell on the nuts and bolts of uncertainty manipulation and it certainly doesn’t propose any new approaches. What is suggested is a combination of deception and bluffing. Clearly, and to the authors’ credit they acknowledge this, such legerdemains are not likely to succeed against sophisticated opponents with large intelligence networks. The area of military decision making is prone to intelligence leakage and it is possible over time to gain a very good picture of the opponent’s intent. Second, any deception/revelation schemes at the level of military deployment are costly and not guaranteed to produce results. This however is not the case with political decision making especially if the scheduling decisions emanate from one or two highly isolated and safeguarded expert teams.
I should end this brief sketch by answering the most important question: What prevents the opponent from deploying the same strategy? This is where I believe that the uncertainty approach has potential. The strategic and tactical advantage lie fully with the defender. The total war on Russia has been so ferocious that no change in strategy can increase the harm. By contrast, by abandoning its transparency = respect approach, Russia (or any other defending country) stands a good chance of slowing down what looks like an unstoppable march of the Hegemon by making its steps on the international scene just a little less predictable.