What is new in modern competition of global superpowers?
There are not many superpowers. The United States is the only superpower. But there are a lot of other powers, great powers including Russia. But in terms of war the problems are twofold. First, it is hard to occupy another country. It always has been so. If you don’t have mass armies, that is not so easy. We’ve seen this experience in the Middle East or even in Europe. Trying to occupy, you face resistance of various sort. So, the conquest is not straight forward. That is one key feature. And you also have to ask what you actually try to achieve in the war if you can conquer another country.
Second, if you really try hard, then there is a risk of escalation to nuclear war. The arsenals exist. The dangers are there. So, the pressure is to keep conflict into a range of below the level of active arm force. So, economic sanctions, cyber-attacks, information campaigns are used. Another way is to use sort of limited paramilitary activities when you try to avoid major clashes of regular forces. We may, of course, fail. You cannot say that these things won’t happen. But I think this is why a lot of conflicts these days take non-military forms. It is hard to win a war.
How will the modern war look like?
Wars are very similar. What happens in a new war? Lots of artillery exchanges, mortars, small arms fire, mines. This is pretty familiar in many conflicts around the world.
If to talk about so called high tech wars that you have seen in the magazines or in the Frontline American forces or NATO forces. They are used not very much, because they are expensive. Even Russia has not used it’s the most advanced kit. In Ukraine it has more advanced things then in Syria, but not the most advanced ones.
If we talk about the war not in a such distant future?
Well, it is possible. But once more you cannot separate any discussion of war from political purpose. You have to ask what you are trying to achieve. When Russians took Crimea and supported separatists in 2014, they initially hoped that what happened there, could have been replicated in the Eastern Ukraine. It didn’t happen. Then they were pushed back. You had the most dangerous situation. Russian regular forces operated in Ukraine. That was to stop there. The people they supported, were defeated.
Once their position was relatively secure, the Russians sort of backed off a bit. You always have to think, what they are trying to achieve. But in terms of military practice, most modern wars are fought and raised and had been recognized 20-30-40 years ago. Often with the same sort of weapons.
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Some people compare current state of Donbas war with the trench wars during First World War.
Yes, trench war furthers. Limited airpower, lot of artillery, not much maneuver. Because it settled down. Which has their own dangers. People die. It is not frozen at all. It is fluid. But there is no maneuver.
How does the domestic politics of international powers affect international policies and security situation globally?
Liberal democracies can change very quickly with the new election. Though I think the Trump election continued some trends you could see before, obviously it was quite an abrupt change and it unsettled many American allies. The US underpins a lot of international security. If you cannot be sure in underpinning, you of course can have doubts that things can unravel. I think that is a risk.
With China it is slightly different. It is a rising power. But it behaves quite cleverly. Not by being particularly threatening, but being quite cooperative, making partnerships.
But over the last few years it obviously become much more assertive. President Xi has become president for life. His predecessors were rotating. But It changes into more threatening power. It wants to show its muscle. It tries to extend its influence. And we do not really understand enough about its economic strength. We think it is strong. But it possibly it is not as stronger. We don’t know. The statistics is not reliable. When you have a government like that, the evidence can be threatening. Nothing is more dangerous than getting into situation when you threaten by good evident. Because the facts catch you out eventually.
Russia is a great power in its military strength, but not in its economic strength. Taking into consideration the latter, it is no greater then Spain or Mexico. But it wants to be treated like a great power. They want big consultation, respect. They have the position in the UN Security Council. They put their effort into Syria. But all this on the very narrow economic base. They are stretched. I think that puts real limitation on Putin.
It suits him to have this oral great power. If people started mocking Russia, that it is not as great. He would hate it. He likes to exaggerate Russian strength. The problem with the Russia, they keep on the requiring problems. Russian position in the Middle East is far stronger than it has ever been, even during Soviet times.
The problem of Russia, it does not have resources to put into it. It cannot offer great economic assistance like the Chinese can. That means all its foreign policies are about conflict. It is not about building trade partnerships or anything like that.
I think in the end it is fundamental weakness that Russia faces. It doesn’t stop them from causing other problems, but it limits how far they can get.
You expressed your assessment of Putin's strategy and actions. Which next steps can we expect by Kremlin?
I honestly don’t know. First, Putin is very preoccupied with the Middle East. It is their priority. They went behind Assad in Syria. He now has the problem of managing the country that is broken. It needs economic assistance. But Putin cannot provide it. Because he does not have it. While they have Iranians, Israelis, Turks, Kurds and so on. He has lots of things going on. I think that his major preoccupation is trying to keep looking after that. I doubt that he really wants anymore big initiatives round here. I think he is lost to know what to do next. Because the Eurasian Union is clearly not an amazing success.
He is getting some easing of relations with Ukraine, but it cannot go any far. I think his approach for some timing with regard to Ukraine is not to let the conflict get out of the boil. He does not want Ukrainians to feel very confident. He wants to deter Ukraine from doing things. I may be terribly wrong, but I doubt he may take major initiatives himself as he has Syria. That is not going to be easy. He has lots of work to do there.
What about the Arctic?
The Artic is a developing story in terms of things that became possible there. You can move your navy around. You can explore the resources. And these closed by. It is not clear how easy it is. The Artic is a strategic opportunity. Others are also interested in it. Russians have lots of the Artic at hand. There is obviously potential of the clashing with other part, but it doesn’t involve populations. Partly it is the question of how you are able to explore recourses in the region.
You wrote a book about Ukraine and strategy. Which strategy could be effective against Russian aggression?
I do not think on behalf of Ukraine there should be a military offensive. Because we know what happened last time. I do not think Putin will allow its separatists to be overtaken. Like he didn’t in 2014. I can imagine Putin or his successor at some point being prepared to sacrifice and betray them. That would be Russian decision. But I do not think there is a military option for Ukraine to do your offensive. Of course, there is an option, but it is dangerous. Because it will be very hard for Putin not to intervene on their behalf.
On the other hand if you let you down too much, you can have expansion by stealth. Russians will start probing the ground. And if you haven’t got frontline forces in position, then you cannot do much about it. I am afraid you are fully stuck more or less with the strategy you have got.
Is it a kind of a stalemate?
Yes. It is a stalemate. It is not frozen. I found it very hard to see the diplomatic brake.There are the limited concessions Ukraine can make. It can stick to the Minsk formula, but that requires Russians to agree to elections in terms that will see their people move, pulling their forces out and so on. It is hard to see how it will all happen.You still have Crimea which is still harder to resolve. Ukraine’s current situation is not ideal, but I think you will cope with it. There was a believe about the exciting new strategy around the corner. But I do not see it.
I do not have any problem in an attempt to ease relations with Russia it terms of making it harder for Putin to squeeze Ukraine by. But you cannot be naïve about it.
Lawrence Freedman. He was educated at Whitley Bay Grammar School, the Victoria University of Manchester (BA), University of York (BPhil), and University of Oxford. Freedman held positions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). In 1982, he was Professor of War Studies at King's College London. He was head of the War Studies until 1997. In 2000, he was the first head of the College’s School of Social Science and Public Policy. From 2003 to December 2013, he was a Vice Principal at King’s College London. He was appointed a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford in the Blavatnik School of Government in 2015. Author of numerous books.