War Never Changes?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On August 27, 2019, the Valdai Discussion Club presented its report titled “The Future of War”. Its authors shared their vision on how to conceptualise a war today, how current wars differ from those of the past and what we should expect – or, rather, fear in the near future.

Revisiting and questioning the well-known aphorism that “war never changes,” the analysts discuss such changes and how they have transpired over the past thirty years. Some of them addressed what we have come to see as “new” wars – asymmetric, ideologically-driven, technological, and not distinguishing between military and civilian objects, while others discussed the “wreckage” of war or the disappearance of this social institution in principle. According to the moderator of the discussion, Andrei Sushentsov, programme director of the Valdai Club, today the task is to ask ourselves: has the essence of the war has changed, or are all these drones, cyber-attacks and groups of foreign mercenaries just a façade? And what does this mean for international politics?

The main theses and conceptual solutions of the report were presented by Sim Tack, and one of its two authors, an analyst at Stratfor (USA) and chief military analyst at the consulting company Force Analysis (Belgium). “In order to imagine the future of war, we looked into its past in order to understand how it has changed before,” the expert said. “We are trying to figure out what remains unchanged, and how the process of changes acts; these ultimately add up to a distinct cyclic picture.”

The two key categories of analysis were the configuration and nature of the war: the first describes its “external view”, changing conditions and a particular situation. To cite one example, the widespread use of machine guns during the First World War gave rise to protracted trench battles, and those, in turn, were overcome with the appearance of tank divisions. However, the very essence of the war, that is, the strategic reality of victory and defeat as well as the goals of the warring parties, remained unchanged. According to the expert, this two-part model allows us to understand what is happening on the battlefield today – and even what this “battlefield” really is – and how new technologies and procedural changes can affect it.

Maxim Suchkov, co-author of the report and senior researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of International Processes at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, in his speech, applied this conceptual framework to today’s world. The speaker described the current situation as a “double disappointment.” Its first aspect is the “post-nuclear disappointment”: for a long time the whole world was awed by nuclear weapons and the risks associated with them, and therefore the dominant strategy was defensive, aimed at depriving the enemy of the opportunity to win. Today, this basic attitude is shifting, towards building maximum competitive advantages in order to win a potential conflict.

The second “disappointment” concerns the balance of power. “In the past ten years, having reached a balance of forces and having run into nuclear deadlocks, states have begun to seek a way out into new spaces of competition,” the expert said. More and more countries are pursuing an assertive, aggressive policy. Now the art of war is developing along three axes: these are new technologies, the development of new dimensions (such as the cybersphere), and the total nature of the confrontation. Today we are witnessing a transition from wars between states to wars between societies: an army doesn’t win, a narrative does. “In this sense,” he said, “the war of the future can be defined as a combination of cybernetic and kinetic effects, coupled with undermining the morale of the enemy.”

One of the most important issues raised during the open discussion was the concept of “hybrid war”, which is a very popular subject among politicians and experts alike. The authors of the report are rather sceptical. “The concept itself is a lazy attempt to explain the changes in the warfare,” Sim Tack said. “For example, when people look at the events in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, they don’t understand what exactly is happening there and what the meaning of this war is. Some speak about its complexity, which combines intelligence, covert operations and propaganda in the cybersphere, but all this has happened before.” According to Suchkov, this attempt is not so much “lazy” as it is politicised, while this concept itself describes the achievement of military goals by non-military means. “Today, this primarily means pressure in the sphere of nonmaterial things – that is, capital, the movement of resources, and control over critical areas of industry. More rigid societies will be more vulnerable here than more flexible ones that adopt new practices of warfare and defence,” he concluded.

Another fundamental issue was the factors of uncertainty which arise in connection with the latest innovations. Maxim Suchkov selected three such factors: this is what war can be waged for, how the concept of victory is changing, and which way the threshold for starting a war will change – in other words, do new technologies increase the chance of a war starting or vice versa. “Until we understand these three components, we cannot answer the question of the global nature of the war. “None of the players who can unleash a war have an obvious desire to enter it or make it global,” he said. “Wars often arise due to random events, but given the number of such convenient events in recent years, we can say that a catastrophic war will most likely be quite obvious and deliberate.”

However, the “modern” war that precedes the “future” one is much more blurred and often invisible. Most of the participants in the discussion agreed that today the contours of the war are eroding; it is increasingly exploring new areas. Perhaps soon, in order to use nuclear weapons, physically possessing them will not be necessary, the moderator noted in conclusion. However, this is one of those factors that you may need to think about, but hope never to observe in practice.