The Future Strategic Environment

The Future Strategic Environment

cyber warfare, war, Ukraine, Russia, NATO,

Opinion by Stina Boyen Cederberg

In early 2020, I wrote an essay on how I believed the future strategic environment would look by using Russia as a case study. Two years later, the geopolitical situation was altered radically, when Russia initiated war in Ukraine. In this article, I have revised my ideas from 2020 according to the current development. By studying Russia’s ends, means and ways and by examining the technological dimension, I argue that the strategic environment of the future is complex and multidimensional, and that warfare can be conducted within many dimensions simultaneously. In the article, I have kept a special focus on the cyber domain as activities within it have been plenty and sophisticated and indeed a tool for Russia in its quest for obtaining its strategic objectives.

Strategic Environment is a comprehensive concept, which can be interpreted and characterised in many ways. Harry R. Yarger states that ‘the strategic environment is a composite of complex systems, linked vertically and horizontally’ and that it consists of both relationships, trends, issues, threats, opportunities, internal and external context, and interactions – all effecting the success of the state. Traditionally, the strategic environment includes warfare and the dimensions in which wars are fought in order for a state to survive. Battlespaces are, when using the NATO definition, both physical environments, such as maritime, land and air & space, and non-physical environments such as information, electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace. What Christopher Coker also importantly addresses are the possible future introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to the battlespace within the technological dimension. This could potentially exclude the human element and could alter the original statement by e.g. Colin Gray who noted that the nature of war is permanent but its character is not. The dimensions within the strategic environment are numerous and cannot all be discussed in this brief article.

Russia has a history of wars and global and regional struggles, and its contemporary strategic and doctrinal objectives have framed its desires for becoming a great power yet again. This is evident in allimportant Russian strategies throughout the years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in his quest for the status as a “great power with global influence” (“mirovaya derzhava”). In the pursuit of this, Russia has for more than a decade integrated cyber and information warfare in its strategies and doctrines to project and expand power. This has made Russia, as a state, and its sponsored proxy entities, capable of conducting offensive cyber activities against member states of NATO, the US and former Soviet republics such as Ukraine. The activities have been below the threshold of war until 24 February 2022 as part of a broader scope of geopolitical competition, influencing how other states perceive and respond to the Russian power projection.

Within its strategies and doctrines, Russia argues that the world is moving towards a multipolar world order, placing Russia in the centre of global politics alongside its primary adversary, the US.

However, on one hand most Western policy-makers and academic observers do not yet consider Russia a great power on the same level as the US and China within the domains of diplomacy, information, economy and military. On the other hand, Russia is a highly capable cyber power and is able to conduct offensive cyber operations that to some extent can alter the overall balance of (world?) power. Yet, the cyber realm is not the only domain of importance in the continuum of competition even though Russian offensive cyber operations have an effect on its adversaries; causing mistrust in governments, creating havoc by attacking critical infrastructure, and exploiting grey zone conflicts in support of greater political objectives. Ukraine is the most current and illustrative example hereof.

As Dr. Lamoreaux points out, one of the motivations for Russian grand strategy is to be recognised as a great power. In this article, “strategy” is the coordinated integration of ends, means, and ways. Thus, for a grand strategy, as of the Russians, it is the focus on national interest on the highest level where all the tools of the nation as a whole is put into action.

Ends

For Russia, the ‘ends’ can firstly be defined the goal of ensuring military, political, and economic security by influencing its former territories such as e.g. the Baltic States, Georgia and Ukraine (its “near abroad”). Second is the pursuit of keeping other great powers out of its region and to hinder them from having interests or conduct influencing campaigns within the Russian sphere. Third, driven by its distrust of both the US and NATO, Russian leadership has a clear objective to limit the dominance of the US on the international political scene. From a Russian perspective, the quest for the recognition as a great power, rests upon its geographic and geopolitical position. One must understand Russia’s history in order to understand its behaviour today, and culture and identity are some of the elements that have shaped Russia. Thus, by expanding its territory, attacks on the homeland could hereby be pre-empted. This is very evident when focusing on Russia’s “near-abroad” foreign policy par example and what we are witnessing at present with Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Means

The ‘means’ of the Russian grand strategy are many. Russia is exporting natural gas and oil, and has the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. Between 2000 and 2013, the Russian economy was fuelled following increasing oil prices and this led to a major military build-up. This is evident in the Western part of Russia and the Kaliningrad Oblast. To Lithuania, one of the “near abroad”-countries, this poses a serious security threat. This has particularly become evident with the recent diplomatic tensions between the two countries because of Lithuania’s blockade of goods to the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Other means than military and hard power, are also part of the Russian toolbox; Paramilitary forces, the use of proxies, information and influence operations such as media and propaganda manipulation; and also economy and energy exploitation, are all part of a hybrid warfare. Russia has numerous times proven capable of conducting hybrid warfare where the intention and action leaves NATO and the EU uncertain of how to respond. An example of this is an incident in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis with Ukraine and the EU on one side, and separatists and Russia on the other.

In 2013, Ukraine failed to integrate with the European Union (the EU) because of the Kremlin’s pressure on the Ukrainian president, leading to demonstrations in the Maidan Square in November 2013. By February 2014, the government had collapsed, and Russia promptly conducted a regime change operation in Crimea. However, the actions by subversive proxies that finally ended in the annexation of the peninsula did not contain cyber operations in spite of the emphasis on information warfare.

To paraphrase from Freedman, NATO’s Secretary General reported that ‘Russia has used proxy soldiers [during the downing of a Malaysian Airlines aircraft in Ukraine in July 2014], unmarked Special Forces, intimidation and propaganda, all to lay a thick fog of confusion; to obscure its true purpose in Ukraine; and to attempt deniability.’ The employing of cyber capabilities both prior to and during the present war in Ukraine, illustrates how Russia approaches national security issues in a broader context. However, as several scholars have noticed, the Russian emphasis on this kind of warfare can be characterised as a relative weakness, as Russia identifies its lack of power in symmetric competition within the economy or the military domain. Russian information warfare including its cyber strategies, is designed and employed to compensate for declining power.

Russia’s focus on the technological development can be understood on the background of its 2016 Information Security Doctrine (ISD), which emphasises the role of the military and the technological level of its forces. It states that Russia will be “upgrading the information security system of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other troops, military formations and bodies, including forces and means of information confrontation”.

Thus, there is a focus on the technological development to create military advantages.

The constant development of technology is useful to Russia in order to have cyber capabilities that can be employed against its adversaries. This can, for instance, be seen in a constant search for zero-day vulnerabilities.

The examples discussed above demonstrates that Ukraine has been a victim or test bed for developing offensive cyber capabilities for nearly a decade. Russia’s persistent presence in Ukraine’s systems is an example of how technology creates opportunities in an offensive context e.g. by getting access to systems and networks. In the case of Ukraine, this is enabling a continuous support for military objectives.

Ways

This leads to the final part of the Russian Grand Strategy, the ‘ways’. This is defined by what Robert Person notes as ‘asymmetric balancing’. By this, Russia is able to counterbalance against its adversaries by conducting actions that are below an actual military or violent action. This makes it difficult to counter because of the ambiguity that rests within such actions. The cyberattack in Estonia in 2007 backs Person’s approach. Russia denied being responsible for the action but the attack leaves almost no doubt, that Russia was responsible, although bulletproof evidence was not available. The cyberattack can be seen as an example of what Christopher Coker refers to as a ‘cool war’ where Russia tried to sabotage the economy of Estonia by a selective attack, and by doing so prevent a full-blown war which Russia would not be able to afford. Arguably, Russia conducted in this case a cool war as Coker defines it; no lives were lost, no violence was used, and only the Estonian government’s economic ability was targeted.

By cutting the energy supply to Ukraine during the crisis in 2014, Russia could by non-violent means coerce Ukraine and at the same time refrain from triggering a military response from NATO by not employing military forces directly in the Ukraine at that time. Hence, the employment of non-violent (energy supply cut, cyberattacks) and violent (military support to the separatists and armed forces at the border) actions enabled Russia to achieve at least one objective: by establishing and fuelling a crisis in Ukraine, Ukraine was denied membership of NATO.

Russia had prevented NATO from coming one step closer to its borders for the time being. However, in the light of the current war in Ukraine, it is obvious that Russia has not succeeded with its overall goal, as Ukraine has been able to apply for EU membership. Furthermore, and on a broader perspective, Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine has led to the Swedish and Finnish application for NATO membership. Russia likely did not anticipate that course of action from the two Nordic countries and consequently threatened with unspecified retaliatory actions.

What is essential here is, as Daniel Flynn notes it, that Russia is (1) adopting coercive strategies employing both military and non-military means, and (2) that Russia continues to evolve its strategies to fit into the ever-changing strategic environment. An example is how Russia is using its nuclear arsenal as a strategic deterrent to prevent other powers or NATO to directly interfere in any conflict in which Russia is involved. This increases the risk of misinterpretation of intentions, which can lead to miscalculation, and unintended escalation of a crisis. It also enhances the complexity of the future strategic environment. The battlespace that is evolving becomes increasingly uncertain and unlimited when Russia uses its various means unrestrictedly, and closely coordinated by a grand strategy in time, space and scope. In addition, in the case of Ukraine, Putin is determined to prosecute his war, which indeed is complex.

Technology

Cyber capabilities are powerful tools because of deniability, the possible power projection and the non-violent character. Russia is very capable of integrating this dimension in its toolbox of power.

With its NotPetya cyberattack on the Ukrainian administration in June 2017 (attributed to Russia), the Ukrainian financial system was crippled profoundly. In doing this, Russia expresses an understanding of the complex battlefield and strategic environment of how different dimensions interplay. It shrewdly combines all the different battlefields, kinetic as well as non-kinetic. The globalisation that was a result of the technological development (the internet in particular), allowed Russia to adapt its old (dis)information strategy used by the Soviet Union to new and almost unlimited operations of propaganda and increased the effectiveness. The Russian media concept by which they conduct information and influence operations is very contemporary and thoroughly aligned with the technological development.

Even if cyberspace activities might be predominant in the future, Thomas Rid argues that ‘cyber war will not take place.’ He bases the argument on Carl von Clausewitz’ notion that ‘war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.’ General Liang and General Xiangsui also underpin Rid’s argument by stating that war can be won by ‘using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interest.’ By this statement, the integration of all possible dimensions available, a state (or non-state actor for that matter) will be more equipped to exit an eventual war as the victor.

It resembles what Frank Hoffman defines as hybrid warfare, and Coker as non-linear warfare and the argument is that warfare cannot be fought in one dimension only. However, Rid’s assertion must be challenged, as the character of cyberspace activities have evolved since 2012. Coker points to what he names ‘code war’ (warfare entirely in the digital space by malicious hacking etc.) as a new type of warfare that can alter the very concept of war. Coker actually refers to Sun Tzu’s concept of winning a war without even having fought, an ancient yet relevant proposition if technological advancements can actually lead to a wider discussion of warfare and victory.

Another element to back this is how the Western world in particular has experienced a major shift in societal cognition. Loss of thousands of human lives in a bloody war is no longer accepted by (Western) societies without a very clear objective outlined and this must drive the technological development as well.  If a cyberattack was to cripple an adversary utterly and completely, as in a full-scale code war, leaving the state without the ability to strike back, I argue that actions only within cyberspace could qualify as an action of warfare. What may be necessary is a redefinition of warfare and victory. This would influence the outlining of a strategy designed to counter a code war.

In my opinion, cyberwar resembles conventional war in the manner that there is an attacker and a defender that are engaging in activities to make the other party loose incentive and advancement. In cyberspace, this is obtained by either disrupting, destroying or denying the use of government and military networks. If critical national infrastructure is targeted, this may even indirectly cause human casualties. The cyber domain is inherently different from the physical, which is the reason why the concept of cyberwar has other characteristics than original definition of war which is violent and deadly. NATO, par example, has not integrated cyberwar as a doctrinal term. This gives NATO the opportunity to interpret each cyberattack against member states in the appropriate context while not being forced to activate article V as a conventional attack would do.   

In the case of Ukraine, several academics argue that we are in fact witnessing a cyberwar conducted alongside the kinetic and war in the physical domain. In cyberspace, Ukraine, in cooperation with allies, has been defending critical infrastructure against Russian attacks which have had the objective to either disrupt, destroy or deny Ukrainian systems to work and to affect the coherency of the government apparatus. Analysis by e.g. Microsoft has foremost presented that the defences have been robust, resistant and to a large degree successful. Another notion following this is that the cyber domain and cyberspace activities are not at the very front of the physical battlefield but that they instead are a part of a new front in modern warfare. If the attacker is successful, the domain could play a very important role in the overall quest for the actual war or conflict. Up until now, the Ukrainian cyber defence has proven highly valuable in order to maintain functioning governmental and military capabilities to counter the Russian acts of war.

The offensive cyber operations conducted by Russia have in some instances been successful at creating disruption, damage etc. However, the level of sophistication has not been consistent. This is not to say that the (Russian) actor is less sophisticated. This instead contributes to the notion that high-level cyberattacks are possibly spared for cyberattacks with a greater strategic scope. The operational scope has proven to be rather low in the cyberattacks mentioned above, as Ukrainian cyber defence enabled the system owners to recover quickly. Both in the 2015 and 2016 power grid attacks, the power stations were restored within hours. The NotPetya attack is illustrative of collateral and unintended consequences because the effects of the attack were visible on a global level.

Likewise, Ukraine cyber defences have been adjusted and refined during the years, and cyber security personnel have subsequently been able to quickly restore or redirect data to other systems, hereby expressing resilience. A strong cyber defence proved to be of utter importance to withstand the attack rate in cyberspace. These are lessons that both Sweden and Finland, and nations that are contributing to Ukraine’s defence forces, inarguably have identified and action has been taken by contributing nations in preparations for possible Russian retaliatory cyberattacks following the NATO applications this spring.

Other examples of technological capabilities such as the satellite connection provided by Elon Musk and the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones have proven to have some effect in the current war in Ukraine.

As observed, internet connection has turned out to be of extreme importance for both Russia and Ukraine.

For Russia’s military leadership and commanders, their dependency on the internet in regards to Command & Control (C2) of their forces was substantial. Conversely, Ukraine could exploit the functioning internet connection, largely facilitated by Starlink, and their strategic communications plan and information campaigns was executed rather successfully. Linked to this, the possibility of triangulating the exact positions of Russian military commanders when they were using their cell phones on the battlefield gave Ukrainian forces the necessary data to conduct e.g. attacks with the Bayraktar TB2 drones against several Russian generals and thereby taking out some of the most central parts of the Russian command structure.

The Turkish drones have also provided Ukrainian defence forces with impressive victories on the battlefield – and without the loss of Ukrainian lives in the process. Most recent intelligence also underpins the role that drones play, as the US intelligence has revealed that Iran will provide weapons-capable drones to Russia.  

Russia’s war on Ukraine is illustrating how technological capabilities and possibilities are developing rapidly, as both new weapon systems continuously appears on the battlefield and cyber defence remains activated. Russia’s development of advanced precision strike weapons, AI and the Russian understanding of information confrontation is also part of the list of technological trends that support Russia’s overall strategic objectives. However, those trends will not be dealt with here due to limitation reasons.

Concluding remarks

Russia views the battlefield as fragmented, and it focuses on an active defence that relies on military technology, information and other operations such as nuclear deterrence. Russia acknowledges the fact that it is the military inferior party against a technological superior adversary such as NATO. Russia seeks therefore to integrate non-military actors, conventional and nuclear means to address this set-back. This is also evident in the current situation in Ukraine. NATO has just recently declared Russia as its primary adversary and understanding how their strategic environment is shaped in order to be able to counter any threat properly and timely, non-kinetic as kinetic, has become an urgent need.

It is in my opinion vital to understand that the future battlefield is unlimited and actually rather unrestricted. The strategic future environment consists of multiple dimensions ranging from kinetic means such as military to non-kinetic means such as information and influence operations, cyberattacks etc. Furthermore, information technology is in particular a dimension that can shape and alter the environment, and dimensions can overlap and interact according to a specific strategy. This demands a great deal of both the political leaders and the military commanders and their staff at both the strategic and the joint operational level in how they understand the environment, and how they direct, plan and execute any missions well.

We are facing warfare within every dimension of land, sea, air, and nuclear, and especially the cyber domain. This is in my opinion a multi-layered battlefield within a bigger framework of the future strategic environment, as the most likely characteristics of the future strategic environment are both complex and multidimensional.

This demands a great deal of NATO but I’m convinced that when Finland and Sweden enter NATO, we will become even better at defending the values and sovereignty of each member state within this challenging environment.

Stina Boyen Cederberg

Captain at the Royal Danish Defence College Institute for Military Technology

Instructor in cyberspace operations (2021-)
Royal Danish Defence College (RDDC), Institute for Military Technology, Copenhagen
Intelligence Analyst (2015-2021)
Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS), Copenhagen
Move planner (2014-2015)
Joint Movement and Transportation Organization (JMTO), Air Base Karup, Karup
Intelligence and Staff Officer (2013-2014)
Camp Bastion (ISAF Operation Valdemar Team 17), Kabul International Airport North
(Resolute Support Mission, RSM)
Training Officer (2007-2012)

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