Two weeks ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense hosted a conference — the "Military and Political Aspects of European Security." While the event hasn't generated a huge amount of press coverage in the west, the speakers (mostly high-level Russian military and intelligence personnel) made some very solid points. Russia officials have started shopping these ideas around to other governments and prospective allies (most recently in the Middle East), and the conversation that comes out of this could be utterly fascinating.
The conference covered a lot of stuff, including some excellent points on Afghanistan, but the Kremlin's main goal was pointing out that the so-called "Color Revolutions" are a new form of warfare. The Color Revolutions that have the Kremlin so hot and bothered refer to the string of protests, uprisings, and government overthrows in the former Soviet Union, Middle East, North Africa and Asia that have been churning things up at a steady clip since about 2000. Notable examples include the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as just about everything in the Arab Spring.
The common features of Color Revolutions theoretically involve replacement of more restrictive governments with more liberal, more legitimate governments (at least according to the west) through peaceful, popular protest. Incidentally, I doubt the term Color Revolutions will ever catch on in the US because it either sounds like a cosmetics commercial or it's too close to "Colored Revolutions," which sounds vaguely racist.
It's reasonable to note that there's a fair degree of overlap in the Color Revolutions and the Great Crimean Heist.
Well, actually, the Kremlin goes a bit further. According to a Defense News article, they claim Color Revolutions were developed by the US and its allies "to destabilize governments and replace existing regimes in order to establish control and exploit natural resources." But breaking that into two parts, and first looking at Color Revolutions as a form of conflict, and then turning to motivation suggests some interesting things.
The Color Revolution warfare discussed in the conference is (for many readers and observers) a dead ringer for what Russia has been up to in Crimea and Ukraine. Protests, information warfare, destabilization, government opposition, economic leverage, humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping force — the whole gamut of stuff. Without unpacking all of that, it's reasonable to note that there's a fair degree of overlap in the Color Revolutions and the Great Crimean Heist. Current thinking about counterinsurgency has a lot in common with the Color Revolutions, but isn't exactly the same and that's an important, but slightly different issue. Some observers are calling this mode of conflict 5th Generation War (5GW). Others call it 4th generation, or 6th generation, and very occasionally among the much less sane, 7th generation warfare. All of which shows counting can be a real puzzler to military theorists.
But whatever you call a war, when it's all unpacked and stripped down, is about one political entity using violence to impose its will another entity. There are a number of different ways to think about the various tools (including violence) available to a country in times of conflict. One of the better-known US frameworks is called DIME (later supplanted by MIDLIFE), which groups tools of suasion into four categories: Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic. Modern examples of 5GW certainly all make liberal use of the entire toolkit available to planners.
Regardless of how those tools are all described, these new conflicts all depart from traditional warfighting in a similar way — they vastly reduce reliance on pure military force and place greater and greater emphasis on other instruments of national power: diplomatic, information, and economic.
Everyone loves self-determination, as long as they have the final say in which 'self' gets to determine things.
This is driven in some ways by a growing concern about the limits of raw, naked violence as a tool of statecraft. In an interview last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the top uniformed military officer in the US — explained: "When you look at what the military instrument of power can accomplish, it is actually more effective in dealing with strength-on-strength situations than it is in dealing with strength-on-weakness scenarios." Whether the relative power of weakness against strength is making this new mode attractive, or whether deterrence based on the associated cost of major strength-on-strength conflicts is dissuading people, non-military tools of conflict are on the rise.
Mind Your Own Business
Fifth generation warfare (intentionally or not) spends a lot of effort exploiting an enormous loophole unwittingly exposed by that most academic of American presidents, Woodrow Wilson. ("Colored Revolutions" would have been his worst nightmare.) After World War I, Wilson undertook the great project of the age — putting an end to warfare. A key element of the international order that Wilson proposed was the "principle of the right to self-determination." As he explained in a 1918 speech, Wilson thought questions "whether of territory, of sovereignty, of economic arrangement, or of political relationship" should be settled "upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned."
This is a pretty reasonable and sensible idea, except for one tiny aspect that people didn't really start thinking about deeply for a number of years. Nobody really knows how large or inclusive a circle should be drawn to reasonably include "the people immediately concerned," while excluding the people who are mere onlookers. Everyone loves self-determination, as long as they have the final say in which "self" gets to determine things.
It's not really about who wins or loses. It's who wins, who loses, and who decides.
For example, the turmoil in Ukraine (or really in any secessionist or separatist conflict) is a fight over the size of the "people immediately concerned" group. Is it the international community? Or the Russian-speaking peoples? Is it Ukraine as a whole? Or maybe just the people in and around Donetsk and Luhansk? Or is it just that asshole "mayor" guy in Sloviansk?
Who's right and who's wrong really depends on how you choose to group people.
One Man's Color Revolution is Another Man's Great Crimean Heist
But the other half of the Kremlin's message is the US is a big nasty aggressor for running around and starting up all these Color Revolutions. Which is pretty close to an exact mirror of US accusations that Russia is bad for running around for stirring up trouble and absconding with chunks of neighboring countries, like the occasional Crimean Peninsula.
So is the US/Russia (whoever you prefer for a bête noire) the bad guy and the other guy a victim of unfair slander?
Or are they both bad actors, running around crushing human rights underfoot for money and power?
The similarity between innocent efforts with benign intent and cynical efforts reflecting hostile intent is something freely exploited by those practicing information warfare to achieve national objectives.
Figuring out who is the aggressive bad guy also depends on whether or not one side is actually trying to be aggressive and take something. Currently, promoting some sort of general, benign good, like improving literacy or feeding people isn't seen as an aggressive act. And it's not a big jump from feeding people to disaster relief and public works, which really isn't that far from civil society development. Which is reasonably close to helping promote democratic and civic institutions. These are all points on a continuum of relative benign foreign aid, right?
But once you get to promoting democratic and civil institutions, you've started shifting power. A group in society can start to become better organized and more vocal. Where there was a common identity of "people immediately concerned," now new voices and new aggregations of power start changing how people are grouped.
So where a nation may have once been peaceful and free of strife, well-meaning people working in the service of higher ideals about human dignity and representation can end up going in and sowing discord, strife, and undermining a country. Which is often completely indistinguishable from going into a country with deliberate, hostile, aggressive intent.
The similarity between innocent efforts with benign intent and cynical efforts reflecting hostile intent is something freely exploited by those practicing information warfare to achieve national objectives. This is also known as public relations and diplomacy among those of a less conspiratorial bent. So it can be very hard to clearly and unambiguously spot cases of 5GW aggression, and distinguish them from less sinister activities.
Protester or Provocateur?
The difficulty in telling these kinds of actions apart has significant long-term implications. An excellent opinion piece in the Moscow Times following the Ministry of Defense conference in Moscow identified a major problem associated with 5GW. The article (which I paraphrase here very roughly) points out that viewing Color Revolutions as a type of external aggression invites government to view organic internal opposition as identical to hostile foreign subversion.
How different really are the effects of benign, non-aggressive peaceful protest and actual, honest-to-God malicious actions inspired by a foreign power?
No international law denies a state the right of self-defense in the face of foreign aggression. This is a basic bedrock principle of international relations. But if it is no longer possible to tell the difference between foreign aggressions (of a 5GW flavor) and legitimate dissent, is international law supposed to say that a state can defend itself only part of the time, depending on how is self-defense is defined and who gets to define it? From a practical perspective, how different really are the effects of benign, non-aggressive peaceful protest and actual, honest-to-God malicious actions inspired by a foreign power?
Certainly some nations, particularly the more oppressive ones, will eagerly seize on this reasoning to justify cracking down on their opponents. And confusion about external aggression versus internal dissent also means the idea of the "responsibility to protect" opens up a whole can of worms.
But beyond that, it isn't very easy at all to tell where this all goes in the end.
Well, except for one thing. Apparently the principle of self-determination won't be a foundational premise for lasting international peace and harmony. If anything, self-determination is such a good point of leverage for destabilization that it's going to be a better and better great foundational premise for lasting war and conflict.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan