Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East‑West understanding

Posted: January 3, 2019 in Sunday Times, Uncategorized
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And second up, a piece in the Sunday Times just as the year closed which looks at the growing divisions in the world. Draws on a lot of the travel and workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend over the past year, and themes touched on elsewhere in my writing. Given my current workload at the office, suspect there might be some more in this broader vein. Separately, spoke to France 24 in the wake of the Egypt attack late last year, and this piece was picked up by the Daily Express.

Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East-West understanding

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The rhetoric and imagery of the Cold War is back. The year has drawn to a close with President Vladimir Putin flexing Russia’s military might. The test of a new hypersonic missile, which Putin boasts is “invulnerable” to western defences, heralds a world that we had thought was consigned to history. Yet while our threat perception in the past year has shifted from a fear of non-state groups to great-power confrontation, we are still nowhere near the fearsome heights of the Cold War.

The key difference is not the size of our weaponry, but rather the lack of a clear ideological confrontation and greater economic interdependence. Traditional thinking about deterrence no longer provides a frame with which to understand our enemies, leaving us open to the risk of dangerous miscalculation.

The clearest indication of the different level of global confrontation is military spending. Notwithstanding Russia’s new weapons and a blockbuster Pentagon budget this year, both sides remain far from the lavish spending of the Cold War. The US is nowhere near the roughly 10% of GDP it was devoting to defence at the height of that confrontation, and Moscow is far from the expenditure that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. It is also a long way from catching up with American defence spending.

While these new Russian weapons appear a terrifying development in the global arsenal, there is little clear evidence that they materially change the balance of power. Putin has over the past year announced a number of hypersonic and other menacing-sounding weapons, but these announcements are intended more for domestic consumption and for weapons sales abroad than for making Russia seem an invincible military power.

Moscow feels compelled to demonstrate a sense of global confrontation to enhance national power and to explain at home the imposition of economic sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media.

This need is vastly different from the ideological boundaries that used to divide the world during the Cold War. In contrast to that earlier world, we now inhabit countries that are deeply economically interdependent.

Moscow’s rich — despite sanctions — own property in London, while China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds. This transforms national perceptions of enemies and means that even when countries such as Russia and China try to change the international order, they are hesitant to sever the links. This may change in time, but it has not yet. We live in a world that can at best be described as divided by forms of governance, rather than by ideology.

Ideologies do continue to dominate, however, at the non-state level, where constellations of individuals come together around a utopian vision to threaten the old order. Countries and governments, on the other hand, still inhabit traditional structures. Moscow still thinks in these terms and therefore has to create a sense of narrative with traditional tools.

None of this should leave us complacent. There is a growing sense of confrontation in the world. Non-state groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis have not gone away. China is confused about the limits of the pushback it is facing. Its new national economic champions, such as the telecoms and electronics company Huawei, are targets of international ire. Beijing is struggling to interpret a world that wants its economic investment but at the same time fears its growing weight.

Moscow sees the current confused order as a prime environment in which to assert its meddlesome influence abroad and build a narrative at home of international power and importance. And Iran’s mullahs fail to understand why they are cast as an enemy or what the parameters of the current confrontation are.

There is a distinct, if fractured, axis coming together between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And while it takes little to find fissures between them — Beijing dislikes Moscow’s tendency to disrupt defined national borders and recognise stateless peoples; Moscow is no fan of Tehran’s use of proxy groups or Beijing’s encroachment into its back yard in central Asia — they all regard a democracy-promoting West as an adversary they need to worry about.

The threat they see is to their leadership structures rather than national ideologies. But this is not a popular narrative to sell at home: hence the need for confrontation abroad.

But these fissures also undermine the West’s ability to respond to them in a coherent way. With no unifying ideology and coherent enemy, it is hard to rally western capitals together in a clear and consistent fashion.

We are able to respond in only a piecemeal fashion and struggle to maintain a unified line for long. Previously, the clarity of a structured order between the Soviet and western blocs defined who the enemy was and what we would need to do in response to the weapons they were developing. Today we have a messy order, where we are as economically tied to our adversaries as we are locked into preparing ourselves for the possibility of confronting them.

Even worse, while our world is ever more interconnected, the gulf in understanding between our governments has deepened. On both sides there is a surprising lack of insight into what the other is thinking. Narrow lenses suited to domestic concerns and power plays are ill suited to understanding how people in faraway capitals think.

Travel to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran and you hear views we would dismiss as conspiracy theories being shared among some of the most sophisticated thinkers as mainstream perspectives. Doubtless they observe the same phenomenon when they visit us.

Notwithstanding the current rhetoric and bombast, we are far from a new Cold War. The past year may feel as though we are returning to the 1970s, but the biggest danger we face is not large-scale military conflict fuelled by hypersonic weapons. It is a miscalculation of one another’s aims and intentions that precipitates confrontation and spirals out of control into conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

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