Rostislav Ishchenko: To Understand the Enemy

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


Russia already for several years has been drawn into an open global standoff. Before this, for about one and a half decades it was in a hidden form of this same standoff. The condition of military danger is detected by the population, especially as the Armed Forces of Russia took part in military operations in Georgia in 2008 and since 2015 to this day in Syria.

At the same time, the global conflict with the participation of Russia isn’t a war in the habitual understanding of the first half of the 20th century, nor a classical cold war in that form that we became acquainted with in the second half of the 20th century. It’s not incidental that this conflict is almost officially called hybrid war, and politicians and military experts more and more often speak about war of a new generation, in which direct military operations have only a minor, ensuring character in relation to information, political, and diplomatic efforts.

In fact now the army is needed not to win wars, but so that the opponent losing the political game of chess won’t decide to tilt the situation with the help of an ordinary hammer. In order so that such a desire doesn’t arise in the opponent (and if it arises, then so that it won’t be realised), it is necessary to have one’s own reserve hammer. Besides this, as a considerable part of the planet lives in rather backward (up to tribal) societies, the army is necessary to hold barbarians back on the civilization’s borders.

Due to the change of its functions, modern armies become more and more professional. The equipment becomes more expensive and more complex. There is an obligation to train more and more longer for its service (that’s why recruits are being replaced with contract employees). Modern hi-tech combat ships, tanks, and jets are already impossible to mould like piroshkis (as the T-34 and Il-2 were moulded during the Great Patriotic War). The loss of each piece of equipment is a serious blow. Similarly, qualified specialists became rare personnel capable of operating this equipment. It’s impossible to train them in two weeks – like a militiaman who was given a Mosin Nagant, or in two months – like a tank driver, or even half a year – like a pilot from the first period of the Great Patriotic War.

In general, the army becomes a very expensive toy; it’s not at all intended to hammer a nail with this “microscope”. Thus, the aspiration to achieve technological superiority over the opponent, which contributed to the modernisation and narrow professionalisation of the Armed Forces, generated a dialectic contradiction. The owner of such Armed Forces can’t use them against an enemy equal or comparable in forces, otherwise the losses suffered by the army will cause damage that isn’t compensated by the victory won on the battlefield.

Hence also the format of international relations changed. Indeed, already at the end of 19th-beginning of the 20th century Russia (USSR), having faced similar (or even less considerable in scale) aggression from Turkey – like the well-known attack on the Russian bomber over the skies of Syria, would simply send its army to the Danube and the Caucasus, and the fleet – to the Straits. However, the Crimean war showed that already back then a spontaneous unreasoned reaction was not always the best exit. But in today’s realities the undoubted smashing of Turkey would cause such serious damage to the Russian army that there wouldn’t be any talk about the continuation of the Syrian campaign. Strictly speaking, it is precisely this that those who tried to provoke Moscow into a military reaction counted on.

The US in the Far East also found itself in a similar situation. Trump threatened the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with a military operation, Kim Jong Un promised in response a nuclear attack on the American bases and ship groups in the ocean. The situation is exactly the same as the one that we had with Turkey.

We knew that the US and NATO won’t fight for Ankara, but Turkey had rather a strong army in order to cause unacceptably extensive damage to the Russian troops, and, as a result, to disrupt (even at the price of the death of the Turkish State) major strategic operations that are conducted within the framework of the global standoff with America.

Trump is also practically sure that neither Russia nor China (and the US still expects to deal with China) will fight against him over Korea. They will help Kim in something, but won’t start a nuclear apocalypse because of him. But it isn’t difficult for American military analysts to calculate that as a result of a full-scale war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the nuclear response of Kim, the US will turn North Korea into powder, but will suffer unacceptably heavy losses in the Pacific Ocean. Even if they will manage to move the main groups of the fleet to safety away from the blows, as a minimum only memories of South Korea will remain, and it also obviously won’t do anything good for Japan. I.e., besides the stationary American bases (which won’t flee anywhere) that are within reach of North Korean missiles, Washington will for sure lose two of the largest and most efficient allied armies of the region. Also, the US won’t be able anymore to use the territories of these States as bases for the deployment of troops.

To say that thus the military (and political) possibilities of the US in the Pacific Rim will be reduced manyfold is to say nothing at all. All potential allies of the US will consider that America at any time can turn their territory into the target for a reciprocal nuclear attack, and will try to evade from such an honor. Thus, Russia and China won’t suffer any losses. On the contrary, they will receive a pretext to concentrate forces in the menacing direction, and will appear to be the only defence against the American unpredictability for the vast majority of the countries of the region.

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If in the 19th-beginning of the 20th century the disembarkation of American troops in Korea in a similar situation would’ve strengthened the American presence in the region and the US’ authority, then now similar actions lead to the critical weakening of America. Moreover, not only in Asia. Allies in NATO also don’t dream of becoming a target for nuclear missiles.

The difference in the Russian-Turkish and American-Korean conflict is that Korea didn’t trade tomatoes with the US, it didn’t accept millions of American tourists, it didn’t receive contracts for the construction of US stadiums and highways. Even deliveries of food that the US promised to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in exchange for abandoning the nuclear program were cancelled a decade ago under an invented pretext. Washington has simply nothing to smite Kim with. Therefore Trump found himself in a situation where it is impossible to attack, but it is also necessary to attack. This happens when you incorrectly define the enemy, and when instead of the real enemy, you attack their outward appearance.

For the US the real enemies are Russia and China, and Washington knows this in the same way that Moscow and Beijing know that for them the real enemy is the US. The EU – with all Japans, Canadas, and the other collective West – without the US is exactly the same as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or Iran without Russia and China. If there are no main beneficiaries, then however much it will cost to coerce their remaining allies to obedience already doesn’t play a role. Therefore when the USSR fell into oblivion, its remaining-intact allies mainly didn’t resist the West, but tried to quickly pass into the other camp. Whoever wasn’t in time to do this (or who for some reason wasn’t accepted) was bombed. Resistance was useless, because of the absolute superiority in forces.

How it’s necessary to act when the use of military force is inevitable was shown by Russia in Syria. In the beginning, already in 2011, Syria was protected by the ships of the Russian fleet from the blows of the US Air Force and the EU from the Eastern Mediterranean. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to deflect the blow of NATO aircraft if the US and their allies decided to attack. But the West would’ve been obliged to strike a blow on Russian warships, i.e. to begin war with Russia. And Washington receded, having agreed on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.

Some time after that, Assad’s army – supported by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, and since 2013, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – tried to change the war’s course in its own favor. However, as it’s not only the West that stood against Syria, but also the Gulf monarchies, the material resources of Damascus started being exhausted much quicker than its enemies’.

It became clear that the course of military operations can be changed only via aircraft. Exactly in the same way it was clear that if the fairly frayed Air Force of Syria, and even the Air Force of Iran, will start to conduct massive strikes on militants, then the aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons of both the Gulf monarchies and the countries of the West will immediately be used against them. That’s why the emergence of the Russian aviation group in Syria had not only a military, but mainly a moral-political value. The West was being showed that the air space of Syria is closed. After this the Air Force of Damascus became considerably more active.

It’s not a coincidence that after this the Turkish provocation was organised, and when Erdogan didn’t show due eagerness to fight and started looking for ways to reach an agreement with Russia, the military coup was organised against him. It was necessary to move Russia away from the Middle East at any cost, even at the price of a big war against the NATO member Turkey (even at the price of the full destruction of Turkey), and to give the US a free hand there. For this same reason, as soon as Turkey came over to the side of Russia, events in Syria started developing with kaleidoscopical speed. But the US began to lose allies and influence in the Middle East even quicker.

As we see, in this situation the use of the army carried not so much a military, but a political-diplomatic character. The Navy and Air Force of Russia played a role of a hammer that was shown (only shown) to the excessively-aggressive partner in order to convince it to return to the chessboard.

I will note that Russia and the US don’t force their way into peripheral – in relation to the main (Syrian) – crises (like the Yemen one), which demands a full-scale military operation to resolve it, giving an opportunity to their allies to independently sort out their relations (of course at the same time giving them limited political, military, and technical support). Thus, they don’t force themselves in because of the fact that from the point of view of modern hybrid war, these peripheral crises have a dependent (distracting) character. A quick and unambiguous victory demands large resource expenditure that isn’t justified by the possible dividends.

It is also from this point of view that the Ukrainian crisis must be considered. It’s not a coincidence that it developed in parallel to the Syrian one. The main task that the US had to fulfil in this direction was the binding of the hands of Russia, drawing it into a rigid political, and, if possible, also a military confrontation with the EU in order to organize for Moscow some kind of Korea (or Afghanistan — this example is more familiar to us).

Originally this task had to be solved by the agreement on EU association. It’s signing by Ukraine automatically had to cause a rigid trade and economic confrontation between Russia and the EU, most likely with this same sanctions war and with an increase in military-political tensions. It had to force Russia to keep its troops based in the threatening direction near its borders, and resources simply wouldn’t be enough for the active game in Syria.

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Russia was able literally at the last moment to diplomatically outplay the EU. Yanukovych postponed (I emphasize, only postponed) the signing of the agreement and showed a willingness to begin negotiations on disputed issues with Moscow and Brussels. And he was immediately overthrown. It would seem that for the EU or even the US it was worth giving Yanukovych that miserable $15 billion (or even euros) that he asked for. And the agreement would have been immediately signed. But the problem was that Kiev already began negotiations with Moscow, and if Brussels started to reach an agreement with Yanukovych, these negotiations would have forcedly transformed into a tripartite format. But the US needed a confrontation that was on the threshold (or even beyond it) of war, but not negotiations. That’s why Yanukovych’s overthrow took place under demonstratively Russophobic slogans, and it is nazis who immediately started eradicating everything Russian that came to power in Kiev.

According to the logic of the 19th-20th centuries, Russia had to immediately send troops to Ukraine. At some point such an opportunity existed, exactly until it became clear that despite the rather powerful self-organized people’s movement in some cities of the Southeast, all political elite came over to the side of the mutineers, having subordinated to them also the army, special services, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which after three months of Maidan were disorganized, disoriented, and full of traitors. In the circumstances the actions of Russia would have been qualified not as help to the legitimate authority (as it was in Syria), but as aggression against an independent State, the “people” of which overthrew the “bloody dictator”.

Russia was given the opportunity to “reunite” Ukraine, having received a trade and economic war and military-political tensions with the EU. Thus, the US, preserving and multiplying its forces, would’ve quietly watched how Moscow and Brussels mutually exhaust each other. It is what we see now in the Korean crisis, just in an inverted form.

As a result of the mutual manoeuvres of the spring-autumn of 2014, a situation formed whereby Russia and West, like in Syria, supported different camps in the Ukrainian civil war. I.e. the main geopolitical players avoided direct participation in the conflict. The prize of Moscow in this situation was that the West traditionally counted on blitzkrieg. But this blitzkrieg was prepared much better than the notorious “Barbarossa” plan, and it provided several options for the development of events, and practically didn’t leave for Moscow any chance to jump out of the placed trap.

If the agreement on EU association is disrupted (and after Yanukovych’s demarche it lost any meaning for the West), then the possibility of the direct drawing-in of Russia into the Ukrainian civil conflict remains. If this option is also disrupted, then there is the opportunity to strangle Moscow with sanctions (however, any of the options provided sanctions). The West lost because, being guided by an ideological assessment of the Russian possibilities (including also by information that was delivered by the Russian fifth column), underestimated the real scale and durability of the Russian economy. In 1941 Hitler said that he “would never have started this war” if he had known that the USSR had so many tanks. So it’s unlikely that the West also would get into a sanctions confrontation if it could imagine for at least a minute that Russia would survive the sanctions without serious public shocks, moreover it also will try to twist some of them to its own advantage not without success.

Since that moment when it became clear that the sanctions policy didn’t justify itself, the task of Russia was to not give the West the chance to detach itself from the Ukrainian hook. Since this moment Ukraine became an item of expenditure and apple of discord also for the West – more and more with each passing year.

In 2014 I wrote that Ukraine isn’t able to exist as an intact State with the authorities that were established after the coup. By waiting for a victory in the sanctions war, the West prolonged the agony of Ukraine, having poured in it in a quantity (about $25-30 billion) of money and having given political support directed first of all to the internal stabilisation of the regime, which was ready to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions in the first year of its existence.

However, by the end of 2015 the West understood that its hopes are groundless and quickly curtailed financial support. But by this moment the Minsk Agreements had been in effect for more than a year. By creating the Normandy and Minsk formats, the West hoped that in the framework of these formats it will be gifted the capitulation of Russia in the Ukrainian crisis. At the beginning of 2016 it became clear that both formats are a political and diplomatic trap that doesn’t allow the West itself to simply forget about Ukraine – to pretend that nothing happened.

Moreover, when in the middle of 2017 the EU practically nullified its participation in both formats under the pretext that the Ukrainian authorities are absolutely incapacitated, the US was obliged to take up the place of their allies at the negotiating table.

Now we have a similar situation that was developing around Syria in 2012. Back then Russia proposed to the West a wide compromise concerning the Syrian question within the framework of the Geneva format. The US refused, expecting to win, and now the Syrian settlement takes place in Astana without the US and against the US.

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Today the US, clearly understanding that the Ukrainian authorities won’t receive support from the EU anymore, and not opting to themselves invest in support for Ukraine, try to bargain concessions from Russia in the Ukrainian settlement, making it known that when Ukraine will fall apart, Moscow will face an unpredictable situation.

But Russia rigidly stands for the terms of the Minsk Agreements and doesn’t plan to change them. Why? Because Minsk speaks about the necessity of the federalisation of Ukraine, which requires the adoption of a new constitution, and, in essence, the re-establishment of the Ukrainian State.

But Hungarians also speak about the need of autonomy for ethnic minorities of Ukraine (this same federalisation). And the Poles demand the abandonment by the Ukrainian ruling clique of the nazi ideology and its self-cleaning from nazis, which in principle is impossible. And also remember the “Polish Lvov”. The Romanians don’t act loudly, but they curtailed political contacts and reached an agreement with the Hungarians about interaction.

All of them are EU countries. And now in the EU there too many contradictions for Germany and France to argue with them also about a certain Ukraine, which nobody wants to maintain, but some members of the EU are not against dividing it up.

The only international legal document within the framework of which it is now possible to conduct a discussion about the fate of the remains of Ukraine is the Minsk Agreements. In its framework France, Germany, and Russia assumed the liabilities of guarantors in the Ukrainian settlement; not obligations to keep Poroshenko or the Kiev Rada in power, but to assist in the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. Besides this, these agreements were signed by the heads of the DPR (Zakharchenko) and LPR (Plotnitsky). If the central authorities in Kiev will disappear or lose legitimacy, then Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky will remain the only lawful representatives of Ukraine, with who the guarantor States conducted negotiations. They can push forward claims to any Ukrainian territories (and to some others they may not) in no less a measure than Hungary, Poland, or Romania.

So at the time of the approaching disintegration of Ukraine Russia still has a negotiation mechanism, which the republics (by the way, who didn’t separate themselves from Ukraine) and the EU participate in. Moreover, the remains of Ukraine become a problem not only for Russia, but also the EU. So by trying to squeeze out from the Ukrainian crisis at least some profit, the US risks finding themselves in the same situation that they already found themselves in vis-a-vis Syria (the Astana format exist, but Washington isn’t in it).

As you can see, the correct definition of the enemy (and of its aims, of course), gives a good chance for victory in modern hybrid war no matter how strong the enemy is. The matter is that however offensive it may sound for many countries and people – Syria, Ukraine, Turkey, and even the whole EU in this war are expendable material. They can take the correct position, like how Turkey did after the coup attempt, but then not only their sovereignty will be preserved, but also their claims for an essential role in their region can be satisfied. They can occupy the wrong position (like in Ukraine), and then they will disappear as it disappears. Saudi Arabia now tries to hastily leave the wrong position and to run across to the correct side. Its internal political shocks (arrests of princes, ministers, almost a palace revolution) show how difficult and dangerous this process is (especially when you were on the wrong side for too long).

The problem of the majority of current States is that not only mentally, but also technologically they are still in the 20th century. By the way, the contradictions of the EU aren’t simply contradictions between the rich North and the poor South – these are contradictions between the political-economic systems of the 21st century, which, as France and Germany are quite ready to participate in hybrid war, although they don’t have sufficient resources to play a leading role in it, and East Europeans – who are either at the end of the 20th century (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary), or even in the 19th (Baltic, Romania, Bulgaria) – and, thinking in the corresponding categories, suffer in fear of the possible occupation of their needed-by-nobody territories, with the fleeing population.

In the modern world, in which a warhead can be delivered directly to the windows of the White House, and information and military control is exercised without physical presence, there is no need to occupy and keep territories, to gratify their population, to create infrastructure (necessary at least for providing troops), etc.

It is enough to control key trade routes, sources of raw materials, technology, and production and you can even not be interested in how some third-world country treats you (Latin Americans always didn’t love “gringos”, but until the trade-economic alternative in the form of BRICS appeared, they unconditionally submitted to the US). Control over sales and labour markets allows to freely manipulate and absolutely gratuitously manipulate the policies of countries with limited sovereignty. And control over information provides the correct picture in the opinion of the unhappy population of the unhappy country. Although all Ukrainian presidents pursued a pro-Western policy and implemented the recommendations of the West, the people consider that it is they who are guilty for their bad lives, and that the West dreams of doing a lot of good for Ukrainians, but it is the Kiev politicians who don’t allow it. But after all, it is already a long time ago when it was possible to ponder that if in 25 years of marching to Europe they instead arrived in Africa, it would be worth checking the compass.

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