The course of the Russo-Ukrainian war has presented many surprises for those who favour a traditional approach to conflicts. Contrary to what we might have thought for a while, the most traditional levers seem once again to be out of kilter: military power is being challenged, the old "giant" is failing, alignments are becoming complex and even unpredictable, yesterday’s enemies are behaving like friends, some allies are becoming adversaries, whilst the "decisive battle" of yesteryear is giving way to an extremely convoluted systemic game in which energy, food and even climate considerations are becoming decisive parameters for the future. The system now prevails over the strategist, or at least significantly reduces the margin. In short, instead of rushing, as some have done, towards the idea of a simple ’return’ to the old days, it would be better to shed light on this new situation by outlining the characteristics that make it unprecedented.
1. War of conquest or social war?
On February 24 2022, Vladimir Putin unquestionably embarked on a war of conquest, whose classic appearance has not escaped anyone’s notice. The motivations behind this ambition to conquer are well known to historians: revenge, the reaffirmation of a power that seemed less and less credible, irredentism with regard to a territory perceived as unjustly separated, the age-old imperial temptation. The starting point is undoubtedly a quasi-routine of History. For this reason, the war unleashed by the master of the Kremlin certainly deserves to be labelled a "reactionary war" in the most classic sense of the term. But it is remarkable that it failed so quickly: the Russian troops were unable to do what the Warsaw Pact troops had achieved in a very short space of time when they entered Prague in August 1968. Everyone feared the rapid fall of Kiev, including the American government, which had organised the exfiltration of the Ukrainian President, as had the thousands of city dwellers who had left the Ukrainian capital in the first days of the offensive... The first break with the past is there, clearly displayed behind this first failure: social resilience is becoming a major parameter of the new conflict, something that a dictator has difficulty incorporating into his calculations. Societies have gradually joined the war game, until they have now reached a decisive importance that they did not have in the classic days of horseback riding and conquest. What was once a conquest of territory, the banal issue of the Westphalian wars, has gradually had to be transformed into a "conquest of society", the results of which are proving infinitely less favourable, to the point of paralysing the effects of power. This was already perceptible during the Second World War, and the phenomenon exploded with the wars of decolonisation, all of which challenged military power with undeniable success. From being an essential issue yesterday, the territory has become first and foremost the support of a population that makes its own decisions.
This is why the Russian-Ukrainian war was a war of conquest only in its strategic intentions, but very quickly became a social war
This explains the importance of urban combat and, above all, the extreme difficulty modern armies have in carrying out the main part of the expected result, i.e. successfully managing the occupation of conquered territories... This is why the Russian-Ukrainian war was a war of conquest only in its strategic intentions, but very quickly became a social war, the main aim of which was to distil fear in order to neutralise this new incarnation of the enemy. As soon as the Boutcha tragedy occurred (March 2022), a new framework emerged that superseded the old war of movement: the conquest of minds took precedence over the conquest of land. The phenomenon even extended beyond the Ukrainian population: everyone had to be frightened in order to win, or at least not to lose; thus European societies considered to be cobelligerent were intimidated by brandishing the nuclear threat, whether military or civil ( by using the Zaporidja power station, which was located on the front line). "Territorial obsession" was therefore transformed into a social nightmare which, since the time of decolonisation, has not been reducible to any strategy manual, despite the efforts made to update them, in particular by creating the famous theories of "counter-insurgency" which, to date, have failed to win any war of this type...
2. Global warfare
But this is not the end of the transformation. While there has been so much talk of a "third world war", giving in too quickly to the fashion for eternal returns, we need to pay attention to the unprecedented relationship that this conflict has with the rest of the world. Never in history, including during the two "world wars", has a martial event affected the entire planet like this: no state in the world has been kept out of the reach of this conflict, if only by the play of energy, food and, more generally, economic and financial interdependencies. In this sense, this conflict is new, because it is fully part of globalisation, embracing its new and often ill-controlled contours, and giving rise to original forms that were unknown until recently, including during the Cold War. This new configuration of war is essentially due to the highly inclusive virtues of globalisation.
This has had two consequences, both of which take us further away from the traditional Westphalian model. On the one hand, the leaders of the Western powers logically considered that the best response was to draw on the resources of globalisation by opposing Russian aggression with exclusionary measures. Without abandoning massive and decisive arms deliveries, they opted for "non-belligerent co-belligerence", betting on the substitutive effect of excluding Russia from globalisation: this goes well beyond the simple "sanction", a term that has long been overused, to embark on an unprecedented process, consisting of putting another power "out of the world" to force it to give up. The pressure is not just economic, but social, cultural, media and sporting, to name but a few. The evolution of the conflict will enable us to measure the effectiveness of this new weapon which, if it proves persuasive, can resemble an original form of deterrence that would have been unimaginable or very marginal during the Cold War or the two world wars. The phenomenon is all the more remarkable in that it quickly becomes systemic, affecting the whole world, even beyond the areas of belligerence, and that it leads to boomerang effects which have largely inspired Putin’s strategy: thus he has in turn seized on the new weapon to create an energy crisis in Europe, hoping that it will quickly spill over into the most varied areas of the Old Continent’s economic, social and even political life, to the point of weakening it.
The countries of the South quickly acquired an active status in this conflict, at least in its diplomatic management, which was manifested in particular by massive abstentions or refusals to vote at the two extraordinary sessions of the United Nations General Assembly
On the other hand, globalised war extends and concretises the game of inclusion by creating crises without "geopolitical" limits, very quickly placing the "third party" in the field of destabilisation and making them hostages to the confrontation. The President of Senegal and, in this case, of the African Union, Macky Sall, had to rush to Russia to explain to Vladimir Putin all that his own continent had to fear from a war that was jeopardising the food survival of its population, deprived for the time being of basic products and fertilisers. Through this mechanism of globalised interdependence, the countries of the South quickly acquired an active status in this conflict, at least in its diplomatic management, which was manifested in particular by massive abstentions or refusals to vote at the two extraordinary sessions of the United Nations General Assembly held in March. This diplomatic stance has been wrongly interpreted as the reaffirmation of the old non-alignment dating back to Bandung (April 1955): this is to forget that, with the "globalised war", we have insensibly moved from a passive abstention, made up of withdrawal and disengagement, to an "active" abstention building a new diplomacy and leading in particular the countries of the South to redeploy their policy in a more fluid and pragmatic way, according to the real situations and their short-term interests. The outcome among these countries is a diplomatic activism dominated by a greater autonomy of choice and a distancing from their tutelary powers, in stark contrast to the clientelistic or cautious withdrawal options practised in the past. We are wrongly surprised to see, in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, India talking about its "multi-alignment", the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khân, going to Moscow, or the United Arab Emirates playing a game of balance that breaks with its former Western-centrism. Criticising their attitude serves no purpose other than to reinforce their suspicions of Western hegemony. In this way, globalised war extends the scope of conflict to the active reshaping of the economic, political and diplomatic configuration of the world as a whole. The process seems limitless when we take into account the changes of government, even of regime, that are expected on both sides, particularly the way in which the Kremlin is banking on the progress of national-populism, as observed recently in Sweden or Italy, or as hoped for by some in France.
3. Beyond post-bipolarity
Faced with such a transformation of the game, the old powers tend to lose their bearings, and settle into a conservatism of past fashions, as nostalgic as it is militant. China’s current strength stems precisely from the fact that previous configurations had marginalised it, if not more so, and that its leaders quickly realised that they had everything to gain by embracing the codes of the new globalisation and even attempting to define its new standards. This is a winning reflex for this country, especially as it contrasts with the lack of innovative daring of the West which, by clinging to what made it powerful in the past, finds itself trapped by its old Atlanticist corset and a NATO that it seeks to perpetuate at all costs. Worse still, China’s successes are prompting the major Western powers to freeze into a neo-sovereignism that is making the fortunes of the most reactionary populist movements, as shown by the Trumpist adventure in the United States.
In this way, Chinese foreign policy remains faithful to a line that has been established since the policy of openness inaugurated by Deng Xiao Ping at the end of the 1970s. It is adapting as closely as possible to the complex nature of globalisation, in order to draw maximum benefit from it. It could be said that it follows the contours and rules of the old Westphalian grammar only in its regional space, where it is obliged to assert itself as a power directly derived from its imperial past. At the global level, it only gains - or minimises its losses - by keeping pace with the world economy. As soon as the Olympic Games were held in Beijing in February 2022, the idea that Russia and China were "allies" was thrown out of the window in order to revive the old "geopolitical" grammar and highlight the image of a war between dictatorships on the one hand and democracies on the other. The thesis was wrong, because it was oversimplified, and dangerous because it was too quick to create the image of united enemies. While the Chinese leaders were not sorry to see a conflict simultaneously weaken their two main competitors, they had no desire to see the world economy, on which they are increasingly dependent, deteriorate too violently. In the West, we find it hard to believe that you can be an active partner without being an ally, a rare and even absent role in China’s long history.
"Free union" is now more popular in contemporary international relations than permanent marriage
A considerable amount of work still needs to be done to understand these subtle forms of active partnership, whose main characteristic is that they make it possible to carry out occasional "diplomatic coups", without ever prejudging the future or constituting a lasting commitment: "free union" is now more popular in contemporary international relations than permanent marriage, enshrined in the presumed adherence to "shared values" that would be owned by the allies and superior to those of "others"... For the states of the "new world", generally the product of decolonisation or similar processes, these new active partnerships appear to be an unprecedented and even "post-modern" formula; they are seen as a guarantee of emancipation from neo-colonial and tutelary practices. Taken to its extreme, they even seem to mark the start of a proactive diplomacy with which the old powers will have to deal, as advocated by the Indian Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, when he no longer speaks of non-alignment, but of "multi-alignment". Vladimir Putin, for his part, has found in this model of fluid diplomacy a resource that Western powers can be jealous of: he uses and abuses it to charm - or manoeuvre - Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making him a useful intermediary, while he occasionally manages to reach agreement with the King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the leaders of the Emirates, India and Pakistan, and even to maintain contact with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Israel and many others who, in the logic of the past, would have condemned outright the violation of the sovereignty of a member state of the United Nations...
In the face of this, the Western powers have remained entrenched in an Atlantic alliance in which they have more confidence than ever. However, the international order that is being rebuilt is making this strategy increasingly problematic. NATO has in no way prevented the Russian dictator from attacking Ukraine: it remains to be determined whether the wall would be flawless in the event of aggression against a member of the alliance, at a time when Washington is increasingly making clear its desire to exercise "leadership from behind"... But above all, we are discovering, day by day, the perverse effects of this old-style bloc, which is increasingly ill-suited to the fluidity described. On the one hand, it is increasingly perceived, particularly in the South, as a block with hegemonic pretensions, exclusive and closed in on itself, giving rise to Putin’s accusation that it is an instrument for preserving a unipolarity built in favour of the Western world. On the other hand, it prolongs a US leadership that contradicts the desire of many European leaders to create a Europe that is, if not "sovereign", at least endowed with a credible defence, and that corresponds to the dynamic of regional solidarity that is tending to be found almost everywhere, particularly in Asia, as an echo of globalisation. The option favouring the "community of values" rather than the strength of the neighbourhood shows its weaknesses in the present context. Apart from the fact that sociologists are always dubious when a consensus of values is postulated in a plural and somewhat individualistic society, the disappearance of ideological blocs, such as those that existed at the time of the Cold War, leads us to wonder what philosophically unites Viktor Orban, the leaders of the Polish PIS, Erdogan, Biden, Scholz and Georgia Melloni... These values were at least strategically coherent during the Cold War: they are hardly so today; they are even less convincing after the Iraq interlude and the past accommodations with Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi case, with Israel given its policy of intransigence and repression towards the Palestinians, or with Morocco in the management of the Sahrawi crisis... Such is the new meaning of a post-campbellum order, whose grammar has been renewed faster than most foreign policies!