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Beware the 'Sure Thing'

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

One of the least appreciated advantages enjoyed by Ukraine in its current war with Russia is information superiority, defined as “the operational advantage derived from the ability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting or denying an adversary’s ability to do the same.” That geeky phrase conveys outsize effects. Access to the American “Big Network” enabled Ukrainians to target and kill approximately 12 Russian generals on the front lines, “a number that has astonished military analysts.” In the first, crucial days of the invasion, Ukrainian forces used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and shoot hundreds of paratroopers out of the sky, ending any Putin hopes of a quick win.

Information could find and kill cruisers. Recently CNN reported that the “US provided intelligence that helped Ukraine target Russian warship [Moskva] … The episode, first reported by NBC News, reflects the Biden administration’s increasingly forward-leaning posture when it comes to sharing intelligence with Ukraine, part of a broader policy shift toward helping Ukraine defeat Russia decisively on the battlefield and significantly weaken its military.” Not long afterward, Russia’s modern Admiral Makarov frigate was reportedly hit by Ukrainian missiles and set afire. The combination of long-range missiles plus information superiority is so potent it may turn the Russian fleet into fish and the Black Sea into a barrel. “The Moskva sinking has led to Russia halting its shore bombardments around Odesa and instead falling back to launch 2,000km-range Kalibr cruise missiles from their Kilo-class submarines, mostly based in Sevastopol.” On land, the arrival of precision-guided artillery and networked drones heralds a similar nightmare for Russian army units on the eastern and southern fronts.

Information superiority means there is no place to hide from long-range weapons and sustained observation. Unlike numerical advantages in Big Iron, in which Russia is so heavily invested, information capability is less measurable in terms of enumerable, tangible assets. This does not mean the Big Network has no physical basis. On the contrary, it rests upon a hardware layer worth many tens of billions of dollars, built up piece by piece over the decades, consisting of a host of ground, air and space components, held together by software, expansible and modular in nature. But its effects are impalpable, measured only by the impact on the minds of commanders or on the automated systems through which they act.

And those impacts are variable. Its operational advantages in executing attacks have been compelling, as illustrated by the examples already cited. But it is less good at advising leaders whether to attack in the first place, as N.S. Lyons’ post-mortem of the Moscow-Beijing gambit shows. “What did Vladimir Putin tell Xi Jinping when they met in the cold, blustery first days of February in Beijing? … the two leaders signed a joint-statement … declaring the China-Russia relationship to have ‘no limits.’ … Putin promised Xi he would refrain from military action against Ukraine until the end of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.” And then the rising East would topple the faltering West, with Putin and Xi dominating the resulting new world.

That dream was described explicitly in their February joint statement … to put a stop to “Certain states’ attempts to impose their own ‘democratic standards’ on other countries” … In other words: to finally free themselves from the hegemonic post-Cold War global dominance of the United States and the “liberal international order” that it has led since 1945….The United States and its dominion appeared be on its last legs. …

And what better place to strike than Ukraine? It was, at least as far as Putin could tell, yet another of Washington’s corrupt client regimes, a fake nation with a fake American-trained military that would, like the fake Afghan National Army, immediately throw down its weapons and melt away as soon as Washington’s diplomats had fled the country – alongside their puppet comedian-president.

But as Lyons drily notes, “events did not go as planned. In fact, the whole plan collapsed within 48 hours.” And China was left with a deal gone wrong. “From Beijing’s perspective, this situation is not, at all, what the de facto alliance with Russia was supposed to produce for China. …  . For Beijing, this necessarily changes its whole strategic map…Russia’s shameful display on the battlefield will prove the original sin that transforms China’s view of it from one of respect into one of thinly veiled contempt. …it wanted the valuable partnership of a great power. Yet it took less than two weeks for Russia to begin begging China for arms and assistance. … Putin’s big screw-up has placed it in a truly no-win scenario.”

Either Russian and Chinese information systems did not forewarn them of the mess they were walking into or the light it threw upon their minds was misinterpreted by them.

For Joe Biden, Putin’s big screw-up has also changed the strategic picture. For the first time since he assumed office, Russia’s stumble gave him a chance to win big. At first, Biden’s advisors thought Kyiv would fall in days. Now, “the mood in Washington is a bit difficult to describe. Everything is covered in a veil of suitable solemnity and appropriate grief, paired with morally righteous anger over Russia’s atrocious behavior in Ukraine. But under this layer, even if those feelings are genuinely heartfelt, there is often another mood entirely. And that mood is one of giddy excitement paired with barely suppressed subconscious glee.”

A miracle has transpired! Not so long ago the world was growing increasingly confusing and grey and threateningly multipolar, and not at all like the good old days when America was young and strong and virile and every country on earth wanted (or at least needed) our freedom inside them. But now, by God Putin old boy, you’ve done it! Everything is suddenly back to the way it should be, all the roles played by the right players, all the lines back on script; the world restored. … as one senior Biden official told a private event … “The only end game now is the end of the Putin regime.”

What brought this reversal about, apart from the epic mistakes of the Kremlin, was the surprising success of the American Big Network, which proved better than its Russian counterpart by a margin that boggled even the administration. Buoyed up from the depths like a yo-yo, Biden senses a lopsided moment in the global balance, an opportunity that may not recur in a hundred years — and therein lies the danger. Doomsday is the theme of the 2022 Red Square parade held on May 9, for obvious reasons. A cornered “President Vladimir Putin will send a ‘doomsday’ warning to the West when he leads celebrations on Monday marking the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.” It could be a bluff but even Putin’s henchmen are nervous. “Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko … said he didn’t expect the 10-week-old conflict to ‘drag on this way.’ He also spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine but wouldn’t say if Russian President Vladimir Putin had plans to launch such a strike.” Lukashenko may be whistling in the dark like the rest of us, perhaps because he knows that even Putin, Xi, and Joe Biden can miscalculate.

It is perhaps the supreme irony of our technological age that information systems can track people from orbit yet fail to compute the consequences of political scheming. Should the West continue to aim for the defeat of Russia? It seems like a sure thing, as perfect as the scheme Putin pitched to Xi Jinping when they met in the cold, blustery first days of February in Beijing when Vladimir had a plan involving Ukraine that couldn’t fail.

Books: The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy by Russell Weigley. “It has no rival in either scope or quality. For libraries, history buffs, and armchair warriors, it is a must. For political science students, career diplomats, and officers in the armed services.”