Conflict and Competition in the Digital Age
Lessons from Ukraine
Hello, I’m Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP). Welcome to the 2-2-2.
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The call aims to answer the question of: “How can the United States and allies and partners better deter authoritarian aggression in the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe?” Specifically:
What low-cost techniques that could be implemented in 2-3 years might strengthen deterrence?
What strategies might the United States pursue that preserve our vital strategic interests more effectively than deterrence?
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Starting on May 2nd, visit our website to learn more and upload your submission.
Conflict and Competition in the Digital Age: Lessons from Ukraine
In this month’s edition of 2-2-2, Ylli Bajraktari and the SCSP team talk about the future of conflict, the future of the digital landscape and what lessons China may take away.
The war in Ukraine has now passed the fifty day mark. A tragedy forewarned by intelligence, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has nevertheless been full of surprises. Moscow’s dismal military performance, Kyiv’s resolve, and Allied unity have all surprised on the upside. And now that the initial shock of invasion has worn off and the brutality of the Russian way of war has been confirmed, a war of attrition appears likely to endure as the war shifts to the eastern part of Ukraine. As the war enters a new phase, SCSP’s Board met to discuss what can be learned about 1) the future of conflict; 2) implications for the future digital landscape, and 3) what lessons China might take away. We end with the big strategic questions that loom.
A Laboratory of Future Conflict.
Ukraine’s success is not a mere function of Russian incompetence. Ukraine has been forging its defenses against conventional war, cyberattacks, and disinformation since 2014. We should not assume another plucky democracy will invariably resist a large autocracy in a military slug fest. Countries living in the shadows of Russia and China must learn from this experience and drive change into doctrine, training, new asymmetric capabilities, hardening critical infrastructure, creating civilian reserve capabilities, and preparing societies.
Cyberattack is Integral to Modern Conflict and Private Sector Platforms are Dominant Cyber Actors. We still do not know why Russian cyberoperations underwhelmed outside of Ukraine, and we should not discount the importance of cyber because there was no knockout blow in Ukraine. Cyberspace has been violent, sucking in state and non-state actors alike. Nearly every major Russian state actor attacked using a range of tools and across all platforms from run of the mill DDOS attacks to novel data-wiper malware. The digital conflict is still raging. Private companies walked quietly and carried big sticks. American firms big and small, including Microsoft, gave early warning of cyber attacks, providing patches, coordinating in real time with governments and other companies on actionable threats. Others have taken private sector organizations under their digital umbrella to shield them from cyber attacks with their superior cyber defense resources. If the Ukraine conflict is any indication, winning future conflicts will require public-private partnerships.
OSINT is a Pillar of Modern Statecraft. Open source intelligence (OSINT) is playing a central role in this conflict and it highlights the importance of the information domain in modern conflicts. Publicly available information analyzed using commercially available software and distributed on open technology platforms has shaped all aspects of the conflict. OSINT has been used to gather evidence for war crimes, provide early warning, propagandize battlefield successes, “pre-bunk” Russian lies, and identify combatants with facial recognition software. Live Universal Awareness Map and Bellingcat are long-standing and powerful examples of OSINT’s reach. As AI-enabled surveillance tools spread, OSINT will play an even more important role in statecraft. However, we must also consider the limits of the OSINT-effect if a future adversary controlled the digital infrastructure or access to the global internet was denied in the conflict zone.
The Digital Landscape is Up for Grabs.
Digital spheres of influence are emerging as authoritarian states create their own antiseptic and repressive laws and infrastructure. If the war on Ukraine marked the end of an open internet in Russia, it also breathed new life into understanding the importance – and fragility – of an open internet everywhere. The civil society groups, tech companies, and democratic governments which have wearily circled one another, are mutually dependent in advancing a democratic digital ecosystem in an era of authoritarian ascent.
Technology Platforms are Powerful Assets in Strategic Competition. Unlike China and Russia, some seem surprised to learn that in a long-term strategic competition the orientation of technology platforms matters. If platform companies’ decisions were not informed by democratic values, they would not have served to amplify the voices of Ukrainians fighting for their freedom, been used to expose the barbarism of the Russian attack, or facilitated humanitarian aid. They would not have served as some of the last vestiges of open sources of information in Russia or directed their cybersecurity capabilities to help protect the Ukrainians. Americans have always been of two minds about powerful corporate entities. But we should recognize the ways in which the actions of many major tech firms have advanced or coincided with the interests of the United States and its allies – even if this power is not closely coordinated with the government. We need a methodical analysis of technology companies' role in the expanding definition of national security and an equally serious analysis of how (if at all) proposed domestic anti-trust action could impact firms' contributions to U.S. national security.
Even if Platforms Choose Sides, the Calculus Behind the “Right” Policies is Complicated. Global companies have massive power, but against the concentrated power of a state within the sovereign boundaries of that state, companies have limited leverage–they need the backing of governments and a baseline of clear international norms to resist encroachments on online freedom. In Russia, withdrawing with moral certitude along with other western firms and avoiding a web of sanctions cut against the grain of preserving internet freedom. In an attempt to keep the Russian people connected, tech companies and civil society organizations worked with the U.S. Department of the Treasury to secure a “general license” to exempt companies involved in facilitating internet communications in Russia from sanctions. Outside of Russia, the situation remains complicated for tech companies. They are deplatforming Russia’s state propaganda in the EU consistent with EU directives, but taking a different approach elsewhere by demonetizing and labeling the propaganda but not strictly banning it, and allowing a massive loophole for China to launder the same messages through its own propaganda machinery. The situation is yet more fraught where the information environment is closing, intimidation tactics are being used against them and their personnel by host governments. At a minimum, the U.S. government and other democratic governments will need to stand up against “hostage” laws that threaten tech companies’ local employees with criminal liability as they spread beyond Russia.
What Lessons Could China Take from Ukraine?
If China sought to learn lessons as Russia’s “silent partner,” Ukraine offers plenty of grist from People’s Liberation Army planners to President Xi. While publicly rejecting the parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan, China’s leaders are no doubt considering what the Ukraine conflict means for them.
The Authoritarian Way of War Needs Continued Reform. We should imagine that Xi will re-scrutinize his efforts to modernize the PLA given how Russia faltered against a smaller military. Putin was presented with an unreality of his own authoritarian making. The social infrastructure of the Russian army remained trapped in the past–top down, inflexible, unwilling to surface bad news up the chain, and rosy assumptions about adversaries’ deficiencies–in other words, all of the long-understood weaknesses of authoritarian militaries. Xi is already several steps ahead of this centralization problem but is he ready? Expeditionary operations are difficult for any nation and the Russians wildly overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated Ukrainian ones. Any astute authoritarian leader should think twice before conceiving a war plan with only a small circle of like-minded thinkers, believing their subordinates' assessments of progress, and avoid confusing new capabilities with new competence. Despite years of modernization and reform, the PLA has not engaged in active combat abroad since 1979. Xi is likely cognizant of these issues and has already tried to address some of them through a series of military reforms since at least 2015, but whether the PLA has truly overcome its authoritarian pathologies remains an open question and one that will be difficult to assess short of a conflict.
Global Condemnation May Not be What it Seems. Xi may not see Ukraine as a cautionary tale against employing coercion for fear of international isolation. The world is not “united” against Russian aggression. UN resolutions and NATO unity should not be confused with global unanimity. The Global South is sitting this one out. India has hedged as have other democracies. European states have been unwilling to quickly wean themselves fully from Russian fossil fuels. For Xi, who enjoys far greater leverage over neighbors, the global economy, and the developing world, this is good news. China’s economic position is orders of magnitude stronger than Russia’s. It will almost certainly perceive greater leverage over economic partners if and when it chooses a path of aggression. Nevertheless, Beijing is likely studying the Western “playbook” to the Russian invasion. Xi must be surprised with the powerful, uncoordinated private sector response against Russia that took on a life of its own.
Source: Russia Can Count on Support From Many Developing Countries, Economist Intelligence Unit (2022).
3. Perhaps the China-Russia “No Limit” Relationship has (some) Limits? Even though Beijing continues to throw its full-throated political support behind Moscow, some early indicators suggest that China is not willing to risk being subject to secondary sanctions. China’s state refiners are honoring existing Russian oil contracts, but avoiding new ones despite steep discounts. Embattled PRC telecom firm Huawei is reportedly suspending business operations in Russia, which if sustained, could be a significant setback to Russia’s telecom infrastructure ambitions. PRC scientists have allegedly cut R&D ties with the Russian Academy of Sciences. These will be verifiable indicators over the long run and could expose the true depth of Beijing-Moscow’s bilateral ties beyond just the leadership affinity for each other.
Strategic Questions that Should Preoccupy Us
We still have first order questions as the war enters its next phase. These are the questions on our agenda.
Will the West’s Peace Terms also be Ukraine’s? The war must end with a strategic defeat for Russia that fatally discredits the proposition that wars of aggression can redraw territorial boundaries or resolve political disputes. Yet in search of Russia’s strategic defeat, the West cannot ask Ukraine to fight to the last Ukrainian. A peace settlement that meets the political and strategic requirements of the Ukrainian government may not assuage the concerns of the states on NATO’s eastern flank, and may not end with Putin discredited at home. The United States and its allies should decide what conditions are most important and reconcile those with the Ukrainians’ own bottom lines.
Dollar Dominance Mattered–Will it Always? The United States’ use of the financial system to punish Russia with sanctions and deny access to payments in dollars affirmed the importance of the US dollar as a platform of national advantage. For Beijing, the threat to China's economic and financial sovereignty and future geopolitical aims is now blinking red and will intensify China's search for alternatives. Will China succeed? Its ability to reduce its dollar vulnerability faces significant challenges, primarily China’s capital controls that prevent the RMB from being a suitable replacement for the dollar as a liquid, global store of value. A key question is whether emerging technology platforms–namely its own digital currency–will provide a workaround. Erosion of dollar dominance is a high consequence, low probability scenario–at least in the near term. But, if the dollar’s position eroded, it would lead to reduced purchasing power, more expensive borrowing, and lower standards of living for all Americans.
What will it Take to Escape the “Nord Stream” Mentality on China? Despite years of warning, no one was willing to wean Europe from Russian oil and natural gas prior to the war. Long-term geopolitics and the possibility of coercion are abstractions. Cheap fuel is a necessity and company profits are a powerful motive. Given China’s central role in the global trading system, one could imagine any number of “Nord Streams” with Chinese characteristics. Force of argument will have to be matched with penalties, incentives, and alternatives if the United States wants its allies and private companies to reduce dependencies on China in advance of a crisis.
Does Ukraine make the Indo-Pacific More or Less Stable? The invasion is the kind of visceral wakeup call that will remind all of China’s neighbors that cross border military aggression is not an artifact of history. One can imagine a more serious effort to buttress regional defenses and the NATO-ization of East Asia. If the war ends with the Russian economy in shambles, its influence in international organizations stunted, its leadership isolated, and its power projection blunted, it will hurt their shared authoritarian project and China’s longer-term effort to create an international political and economic order shielded from US power will stall. However, a prolonged war of attrition and even the appearance of a partial Russian success could benefit China. China breathed a sigh of relief when the Pentagon was forced to expand its focus from the Indo-Pacific to Europe. America’s (and NATO’s) focus, paid for by Russia, may prove a great window of opportunity for China’s Indo-Pacific ambition. Washington’s only way back to a China first strategy is helping the Ukrainians bring the Russians to the negotiating table in a badly weakened military state as quickly as possible. Short of that, the window of risk in the Indo-Pacific only grows.
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