The West slumbers as its enemies run amok

Profound weaknesses leave us open to political warfare from Russia and China—weaknesses which they are ruthlessly exploiting

Ross Babbage

The Western world—the countries of Nato and the European Union and their allies in Asia and elsewhere—is waking up to an old threat in new clothes. Political warfare is back. Many would say it never went away, writes Edward Lucas. The countries of eastern Europe, for example, felt the cold breath from their eastern neighbour even in the supposedly sunny 1990s. But now Russia, along with China, has refined and developed its approach. The aim, encapsulated in a new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank in Washington DC, is “Winning without fighting”.


Russia and China, through national and international pressure, seek to coerce, constrain, intimidate, persuade, and undermine countries, institutions, businesses, individuals and groups that threaten or obstruct their regimes. The techniques range widely from more political measures such as assertive diplomacy, intense media campaigns, economic sanctions, subversion, corruption, and the theft of intellectual property to more strategic measures such as exerting coercive pressure through the deployment of powerful paramilitary and military forces.

The West is doubly disadvantaged in response. It gave up both offensive and defensive political warfare in the 1980s, complacently believing that nothing could challenge the supremacy of liberal democracy and welfare capitalism. We have regained some capability since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in dealing with Islamist extremism. But that is a narrow front compared with the much broader threat we face from the authoritarian crony-capitalist regimes in Russia and China.

What we have failed to notice is that these political warfare operations have been central to the Chinese and Russian regimes’ international operations and strategic advances for the last two decades. Both regimes are well-equipped, very experienced, and highly skilled in the conduct of these political warfare campaigns.

Deterring, confronting, and defeating authoritarian state political warfare campaigns is critically important for the West. Failing to properly address this challenge risks a further shift in the global balance of power, the loss of additional strategic space, a serious weakening of allies and international partners, a demoralisation of the democratic world, and an emboldening of authoritarian regimes to launch new and more threatening campaigns. Ignoring the political warfare domain could mean that in a future crisis US and allied forces would have little choice but to arrive late to a battlefield that has been politically prepared by the West’s opponents.

The United States and its allies are facing an unprecedented challenge: two authoritarian states possessing substantial human, economic, technological, and other resources; armed with conventional and nuclear forces that, in many respects, rival those held by the Western allies; and working actively to undermine the core interests of the West. Their operations are designed to subvert the cohesion of the Western allies and their partners; erode their economic, political, and social resilience; and undermine the West’s strategic positions in key regions. The Putin regime has made clear that it aims to force Western acquiescence in Russia’s re-emergence as a great power. As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow has stated: “Russia’s military doctrine makes clear that even if the West is not officially an adversary, it is a powerful competitor, a bitter rival and the source of most military risks and threats.”

The leadership in Beijing, for its part, aims to equal, if not surpass, the United States in global power and influence. As Aaron Friedberg, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration told Congress, one of Beijing’s core goals is “to become a truly global player with power, presence, and influence on par with, and eventually superior to, that of the United States.” The Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, reinforced this judgement by stating, “China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the US as the world’s leading superpower—and they’re breaking the law to get there.”

The Russian and Chinese regimes have made substantial progress towards these goals during the last two decades without conducting conventional military operations. Rather, Moscow and Beijing have employed sophisticated political warfare strategies and a wide range of mostly non-military instruments. Until recently, these operations were often viewed by Western leaders to be unconnected, mildly irritating, and of limited consequence, falling below the threshold of warranting direct confrontations with the authoritarian regimes or escalation to major conventional conflict.

The primary instruments used by Moscow and Beijing have been intense information campaigns, diverse espionage and
cyber operations, the theft of vast troves of intellectual property, the use of economic inducements and economic pressures, programmes of geostrategic manoeuvre, the seizure and militarisation of contested territory, coercion by military and paramilitary forces, and the assertive use of legal and paralegal instruments, all backed by well-coordinated propaganda programmes to help justify their international interference and their re-writing of history and international laws. These operations are being conducted by Russian and Chinese organisations that are directly controlled by regime leaders and carried out by well-trained personnel who possess extensive experience in these “grey zone” operations.

But perhaps the greatest attraction for Moscow and Beijing in launching a 21st century version of political warfare was that it exploited serious weaknesses in the West.

Strategic culture in the United States and its Western allies is characterised by a sharp distinction between “peace” and “war,” with very little scope for active conflict in between. In this Western conception there is scope for debates, disputes, demands, tensions, and major geostrategic contests without compromising the fundamentals of peace. War only occurs when formal or informal armed forces engage each other using kinetic force. This is markedly different to the conception held by the regimes in Moscow and Beijing, which views their struggles with the West and its partners as being existential, continuous, and, at present, being fought primarily by political means. They see the role of military and paramilitary forces as mostly confined to shaping the international environment and, periodically, contributing coercive power. One of the clearest explanations of this way of thinking appears in the 1999 volume Unrestricted Warfare, written by two serving colonels in the People’s Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui:

As the arena of war has expanded, encompassing the political, economic, diplomatic, cultural and psychological spheres, in addition to the land, sea, air, space, and electronics spheres, the interactions among all factors have made it difficult for the military sphere to serve as the automatic dominant sphere in every war. War will be conducted in non-war spheres . . . so that people’s dream of winning military victories in non-military spheres and winning wars with non-war means can now become reality. Warfare is now escaping from the boundaries of bloody massacre, and exhibiting a trend towards low casualties, or even none at all, and yet high intensity. This is information warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, and other entirely new forms of war, new areas opened up in the domain of warfare. In this sense, there is now no domain which warfare cannot use, and there is almost no domain which does not have warfare’s offensive pattern . . . We believe that some morning people will awake to discover with surprise that quite a few gentle and kind things have begun to have offensive and lethal characteristics.

Western and partner societies are remarkably open to infiltration by these types of “non-war” campaigns. There are, for example, few constraints on using embassy and consulate staff in targeted countries to recruit and train local agents, establish front organisations, fund political candidates and parties, and even to mount espionage operations and steal troves of intellectual property. Hence, the Russian and Chinese regimes have found the conditions for employing new-generation political warfare tactics in the West to be permissive and enticing. There are several reasons why the United States and the other close allies have been slow to focus their attention on countering political warfare operations. One reason is that, in the early years of the 21st century, the United States and its allies were heavily distracted by operations in the Middle East, the demands of counterterrorism, and a deep sense of war weariness.

This meant that the appetite in Washington and all Western capitals for directly confronting Moscow and Beijing was weak. It has also been argued that Western thought leaders severely miscalculated the strategic trajectories of the major authoritarian states over this period by assuming that over time they would transition from being revisionist to status quo powers. In combination, these factors meant that there was little Western interest in a prolonged “peacetime” struggle with the  rising authoritarian regimes; to the contrary, there was a deep sense of risk aversion. In this situation, so long as the regimes in Moscow and Beijing did not trigger Western governments to switch from “peace” to “war” and confront them directly with conventional force, they could dominate the political warfare battlefield with little, if any, serious resistance.

Authoritarian political warfare reflects a way of viewing the world that is very different from that of the West. Understanding that difference is key to appreciating the nature of the threat and devising appropriate responses. The Western mindset tends to view the world as binary, with peace and war as separate and distinct states. Peace is seen as the natural state of affairs, with war a periodic and unfortunate interruption.

The Russian and Chinese regimes, by contrast, view the strategic landscape as characterised by a continuous and never-ending struggle that encompasses everything from what the West calls “peace” to nuclear war. When they consider conflict along this spectrum, the primary change from one end to the other is the relative weighting that is given to non-military and military instruments. The regimes in Moscow and Beijing believe that they are already engaged in an intense form of warfare, but it is political conflict and not kinetic warfare. Their primary operational focus at present is on employing a range of mainly non-military instruments in non-traditional ways below the threshold of large-scale conventional military operations in order to win strategic gains. The Russian and Chinese regimes are conducting political warfare across a very wide bandwidth, employing a wider variety of instruments than are used, or even possessed, by the West. The United States and its allies and partners rely almost exclusively on traditional diplomacy and conventional military instruments with an occasional selective application of mild economic measures. Despite its past successes during the Cold War, the West has little recent experience of conducting political warfare, no coherent strategy or structures for waging such campaigns, and, until recently, even lacked an appreciation of the nature, scope, and scale of the Russian and Chinese political warfare challenge. There is clearly a strategic and operational mismatch between the major authoritarian states and the West.

The authoritarian states possess deep traditions and cultures of offensive political warfare, have clear political warfare strategies, are actively conducting such operations in multiple theatres, possess powerful bureaucratic structures at the core of their regimes to manage and resource such operations, have scores of tailored instruments that they are using in innovative combinations, and, in recent years, have won political warfare victories in diverse theatres. The West, by contrast, has a shallow understanding of political warfare, possesses few elements of a credible political warfare arsenal, is not well organised to conduct such operations, and is thus vulnerable. Given this mismatch, Russian and Chinese political warfare campaigns are taking place in a permissive environment. They are attacking the West and its partners where they are weakest—where they lack a coherent strategy, have little capability, and are presently incapable of conducting effective coordinated operations, even in defensive modes. One surprising feature of Moscow and Beijing’s strategic approach to political warfare is that it aligns closely with the principles espoused by some of the West’s most eminent strategic thinkers.

For instance, when Sir Basil Liddell Hart summarised the essence of successful strategy, he listed six positive principles: adjust your ends to your means; keep your object always in mind; choose the line (or course) of least expectation; exploit the line of least resistance; take a line of operation that offers alternative objectives, for you will thus put your opponent on the horns of a dilemma; and ensure that both plans and dispositions are flexible—adaptable to circumstances.

A strong case can be made that the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing are operating in close accord with these foundational principles of strategy, whereas the West is operating within a far more rigid, more reactive and less strategic paradigm. The contrasting approaches of the two sides can be visualised in the 2013 operating framework spelt out by General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Even though Gerasimov’s primary aim was to describe what he perceived to be the Western manipulation of the so-called colour revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, his ideas resonated deeply in the Russian strategic community and have arguably played an influential role in more recent Russian operations. Of particular note is that he saw conflict opening with a covert phase characterised by intensive information and political operations that continue through all subsequent phases until military operations have ceased and the post-conflict order has been established. The foundational roles of information and political operations at the very start of the first phase, which are reinforced in the second and subsequent phases by economic and other non-kinetic measures, actually contrast markedly with normal Western practice.

In most situations, Western countries would take few, if any, serious actions during Gerasimov’s first two phases and only initiate strong diplomatic, economic, and other measures towards the end of phase three—just prior to or at the crisis point. By the time that the West was entering the fray, the Russians and the Chinese regimes would consider the war half-fought and possibly already won. The logic of conducting intense information and political warfare operations over an extended period to undermine the opposition’s willpower and prepare the battlefield for conventional military operations is nothing new; it plays a core role in Russian and Chinese strategic culture. Sun Tzu captured the gist of the asymmetry now facing the West when he wrote c.500 BC: “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

The bottom line is that the Russian and Chinese regimes have a different perception of the battlespace than the dominant paradigm in the West. For these authoritarian regimes, the battle has been underway for a considerable time, operations have reached into and beyond the West’s homelands, significant tactical victories have already been won, and the global environment is being prepared for the next phases of the conflict. By contrast, most decision-makers in the West still consider themselves to be in a state of “peace” and are not inclined to initiate actions that they fear Moscow or Beijing may consider provocative. Their political warfare arsenals are weak at best, poorly organised, and grossly under-resourced. In the event of a future crisis, the primary instruments at the disposal of the Western leaderships will be standard diplomacy and kinetic military forces.

This is a recipe for being late to the battlefield that has been chosen by the adversary with an inappropriate mix of weaponry and being outflanked and out-manoeuvred upon arrival. Although Western knowledge of Russian and Chinese political warfare operations has improved, deep understanding of these regimes’ strategies, doctrines, and operational concepts continues to be narrowly held. The meagre stock of Western intellectual capital and operational expertise in this field is a critical vulnerability. Not many Western politicians, defence personnel, diplomats, and other officials have a developed comprehension of Russian and Chinese political warfare, and even fewer are trained and equipped to counter such operations.

This has many consequences. One of the most obvious is a risk that the West will misperceive and miscategorise the essence of China’s and Russia’s political warfare strategy and campaigning. A notable case in point is the habit of many Western leaders and commentators to refer to the political warfare challenge as a “competition”. To many Western minds, a competition implies a sporting analogy with two sides prepared to engage with set rules, similar team uniforms, standard equipment sets, agreed boundaries, fixed timeframes, and a referee that both sides obey without serious hesitation. The reality is that none of these characteristics are features of Chinese and Russian political warfare.

Moreover, the Chinese and Russians themselves rarely describe their political warfare operations as a competition. The language they use refers to intense struggle, active measures, and warfare. Victory in this combat goes to the side that launches operations very early, employs many unconventional instruments in novel and unexpected ways, takes the enemy by surprise, attacks opposing forces away from normal battlefields in dispersed modes that outflank conventional defences, imposes its own rules on the struggle, and is prepared to sustain such operations indefinitely. Language is important in security policy. There is certainly rivalry between the major authoritarian states and the West and this rivalry is intensifying. There are also some aspects of both sides’ behaviour that can be described as being competitive in nature.

In a significant advance, the final report of the United States National Defence Strategy Commission describes the security challenges the US and its allies currently face as “competition and conflict.” However, using this term to describe the full range of Russian and Chinese operations and Western counters is misleading. The campaigns that the regimes in Moscow and Beijing have been conducting against the Western allies and their partners are political warfare. They are being conducted to undermine the independence of targeted states, destroy the network of Western and partner alliances, and win strategic advances. A strong case can be made that these very extensive operations are no more a competition than the Cold War was a competition. There is a need for the leaders of allied and partner countries to describe these operations with care and precision.

A well-crafted strategy for the Western allies and their partners to deter, confront, and defeat Chinese and Russian political warfare does not need to match authoritarian state capabilities with similar organisations operating in a comparable manner. This type of symmetric approach would be incompatible with Western ethics and morals, wasteful of scarce resources, likely difficult to sustain, and unlikely to achieve the West’s primary goals. A basic tenet of successful strategy is to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, manoeuvre around his strengths, and simultaneously thwart his attacks on one’s own weaknesses.

It is notable that most of the West’s strengths are based on firm foundations and most of the West’s weaknesses concern failures of political and bureaucratic focus and structuring. These weaknesses should be amenable to remedial action should national leaders and their societies deem this to be a priority.

This article is condensed from the report “Winning Without Fighting—Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and how the West can Prevail” , available from


What does China want?

The Chinese Communist Party appears to have four primary goals in its conduct of political warfare operations. Xi Jinping’s first and most important goal is the maintenance of uncontested Communist Party rule. To this end the regime employs sophisticated political warfare operations to suppress domestic dissent and reinforce Party loyalty as well as to undermine China’s international rivals.

Second, the regime aims to restore China to what it sees as its rightful place as the preponderant power. To make this “China dream” come true, the Chinese Communist Party employs a modernised version of the political warfare used by Mao Zedong in his revolutionary war campaigns. It uses proven methods to penetrate deeply into the opponent’s camps, gather intelligence, plant disinformation, recruit sympathisers and spies, sow disruption, undermine morale, and seize effective control of strategically important infrastructure.

The third primary goal is to build China’s influence and prestige so as to be respected as equal, if not superior, to the United States. As Michael Collins, the CIA’s deputy assistant director for the East Asia Mission Center stated: “At the end of the day, the Chinese fundamentally seek to replace the United States as the leading power in the world.” In pursuit of this goal, Beijing conducts numerous political warfare and other operations so as to push the United States and its democratic allies from their predominant role in the Western Pacific and Eastern Indian Ocean and also to build strategic strength in hitherto non-aligned parts of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. A particular priority for Beijing is to dominate the geographic approaches to China, which it has redefined over the last two decades to include most of the Western Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, much of the Indian Ocean, and most of Central Asia. The regime’s operations within these regions routinely defy historical precedents, as well as international maritime and airspace law.

The CCP’s fourth strategic goal is to export its model of tight authoritarian political control coupled with a managed but relatively open economy. In his address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping argued that the Chinese regime’s approach to governance and development was a far more attractive option to that offered by the liberal democracies of the West. He stated that China had “blazed a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization . . . It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Part of Xi’s vision is the fostering of a growing group of like-minded revisionist countries that, over time, may constitute an international partnership, alliance, or even a China-centred empire.


Who is most at risk?

Countries with the following characteristics would appear to be particularly vulnerable to authoritarian political warfare operations—those with:

• A location on the periphery of authoritarian states that are considered by them to have high political, geostrategic, or military importance.

• Large diasporas and deep cultural and other ties with the authoritarian state.

• No strong cohesive culture drawn from religion, national identity, or shared history.

• A dispersed, parochial, and poorly informed population served by weak or compromised media organisations.

• Weak political, economic, and social leaderships that are vulnerable to foreign blandishments, bribery and corruption.

• Small, relatively poor economies possessing limited prospects that are either heavily dependent on investment and trade from an authoritarian state or prepared to accept such a situation.

• Weak systems of border control permitting significant numbers of foreigners of indeterminate backgrounds to reside in the country legally or illegally.

• Few legal protections and a criminal justice system with compromised  independence.

• Weak or seriously neglected political, economic, and security ties to strong democratic states.

Drawing on these observations, it is possible to make broad-brush assessments of the current and potential vulnerability of countries and regions to authoritarian state political warfare operations. Identifying the key variables also highlights many of the issues that national leaders need to address should they wish to strengthen their capabilities to resist the political warfare campaigns of authoritarian states and strengthen their national resilience.


The highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities. Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures other people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting . . . For this reason, attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence. Sun Tzu, c.500 B.C

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