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Reevaluating the Importance of Different Types of Weapons and Actors in the Total Defence of Ukraine

Mar 14, 2023

A remarkable volume of articles and reports is already appearing, seeking to draw lessons from the Ukraine War so far. Preliminary findings are to some extent surprising and may have effects on future strategies.

On the effectiveness of different types of weapons

This article will devote less attention to the most debated topic: the upgraded attention to the need for conventional capabilities in kinetic warfare using bombs, guns, bullets etc. For a very long time it has been an established view in the West that nuclear weapons, both sub-strategic and strategic, can compensate for superior conventional capabilities on the Russian side. That this is a contentious statement is now more and more obvious in the debate. Nuclear deterrence has not prevented the Russian unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, the Finnish researcher Lavikainen argues: “Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy is failing because it uses nuclear deterrence for something it is not suited for: as a coercive tool in a protracted war of conquest.”


The issue of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence will no doubt be extensively debated after the war. Already now it is clear that deterrence against actual use to a large extent needs to be framed in terms of a response - using conventional and hybrid capabilities, not necessarily nuclear. This topic deserves a more extensive elaboration in a separate article later. Suffice it here to cite the article by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. in Foreign Affairs from 2019: “--deterring aggression has become increasingly difficult, and it stands to become more difficult still, as a result of developments both technological and geopolitical. –"


However, at this stage it may be important also to recognise the ongoing debate on the effectiveness of hybrid warfare on the part of Russia. It should be noted that many contributions to this discourse before the war evaluated Russian hybrid capabilities with alarmist overtones.

The effectiveness of non-kinetic warfare has been highlighted as a tool for Russia to compel other actors to comply with its objectives, a case in point being Turkey, SU-24 and Russian non-kinetic responses, the shooting down by Turkey in 2015 of a Russian Sukhoi-24 in the airspace over the Turkish – Syrian border. In a very short period of time, Russia forced Turkey to comply, using a large number of non-kinetic actions against Turkey.


Defence against non-kinetic attacks has also been discussed before the war in many different scholarly and other contributions. The difficulties to deter and deal with cyberattacks have notably been highlighted in an influential  article by  Joseph S. Nye, Jr. from 2017. He paints a very complex picture of the available tools to deter and dissuade cybercrimes and cyber warfare, involving punishment, denial/defence, entanglement (as a way of altering how states conceptualize offensive actions in cyberspace and works toward building mutual interdependencies to make actions that disrupt, degrade or deny within cyberspace undesirable) as well as promoting norms/taboos. He sees no simple solutions but advocates:


“The analogy to nuclear deterrence is misleading -- because the aim of the United States (achieved thus far) has been total prevention. In contrast, many aspects of cyber behavior are more like other behaviors, such as crime, that the United States tries (imperfectly) to deter.”


As Richard Clark and Robert Knake argue, “Of all the nuclear strategy concepts, deterrence theory is perhaps the least transferable to cyber war.”


These discourses tend to upgrade the complexities in countering hybrid threats, including in the cyber domain.


Lessons from the Ukraine war may, however, somewhat nuance these concerns.


More specifically, as regards cyber warfare, early evidence from the Ukraine war indicates that the cyber weapon is not an infinite source of capabilities. It takes time to gain non-authorised access to cyber networks and once such access has been detected, many forces in the West converge on denying Russia future effectiveness of a similar cyberattack. For this they do not need to deploy to the battlefield but can work in real time.


The Russian leadership is arguably drawing the conclusion that actual physical, kinetic, damage to electronic networks of importance to critical infrastructure protection in Ukraine is more effective.


One of the key observations the U.S. Army is reported to be taking from the war in Ukraine is that non-kinetic capabilities such as cyber and electronic warfare must be combined with other weapons in order to achieve their full potential on the battlefield.


More broadly, as regards hybrid warfare, it is argued in a contribution from RAND that Russia has been less effective than expected: “At the onset of the war, Russia leveraged a suite of “active measures,” including espionage, cyberattacks, and internet-based disinformation. These measures were aimed at softening Ukraine's civil defenses and grooming its population for a takeover. However, active measures appear to have failed in Ukraine. Russia was outplayed on the social media front, largely failed in its espionage efforts, and was relatively unsuccessful at using cyberattacks.”


Carmack concludes drawing upon lessons from Ukraine with special emphasis on the future threat from China: “if organized and conditioned properly, non-kinetic tactics (both current and future) can play a key role in any overall strategy. However, they cannot, by themselves, win a battle. As Gen. Patrick Sanders, Britain's chief of general staff, recently put it in the context of Ukraine: "You can't cyber your way across a river." Hard, kinetic tools still dominate an active battlespace, but hybrid activities can help shape battlefields. To persevere, those seeking strategic advantage in future warfare will need to integrate leading-edge technologies into their broader arsenals of conventional military tactics, systems, and strategy.”


Two types of actors in security and defence with upgraded importance - preliminary lessons from the Ukraine war from a European perspective

Discourses about different types of weapons systems seem to highlight the importance of other types of actors than typically are discussed when focusing on military deterrence and defence.


Already the potential importance of the EU through activation of the European Peace Facility in order to deliver military assistance to Ukraine has been highlighted in an earlier article on this site. But the European Union also possesses many other capabilities of importance to networking on non-kinetic aspects of warfare. Notably, from the American side the emerging cooperation with EUROPOL has been stressed. EUROPOL:s pride in globally coordinating the EMOTET malware is a case in point.


And this links to the issue of the private sector which was of course already engaged after 9/11 in fighting both terrorism and organised crime through 'public-private partnerships. But, concretely, how major multinational companies could be engaged as defence actors has not been obvious until in recent years. On the offensive side, the example of Huawei has of course been widely discussed. But on the defensive side, the reports from Microsoft (Defending Ukraine: Early lessons from the Cyber War) and Google (Fog of war: how the Ukraine conflict transformed the cyber threat landscape) document how these companies with subsidiaries fight the Ukraine War alongside Western governments, in the case of Google reporting success in mitigating some 2000 cyberattacks. Other companies clearly have an important enabling role in support of Ukraine but are hesitant to acknowledge their role in the actual warfare, a spectacular example being the Elon Musk Starlink communication system in Ukraine, providing independent access to the Internet.

Swedish and European companies of importance in term of technology and resilience are likely to be involved in this discourse in the near future in the context of a rebuilt total defence on different levels.


Lars-Erik Lundin