While the world remains transfixed with the ongoing Russo-Ukraine war, it is important to note that the current conflagration is somewhat of an anomaly in the context of what had transpired over the past decade.
Ever since the intervention in eastern Ukraine in March 2014 by Russian troops in unmarked uniforms — the so-called “little green men” — most analysts have argued that low-key “hybrid conflict” has been the norm in the war.
This broadly refers to the methods and tools used by individual state or non-state actors to pursue their objectives, spanning the conflict continuum from disinformation, to cyber war, energy supply disruption and traditional warfare.
It could be suggested that Moscow — which had been engaging in hybrid conflict with Ukraine since the 2014 intervention — perhaps miscalculated in launching its “special military operation” in February 2022.
Assuming that a ceasefire between Kyiv and Moscow ensues, the latter is likely to revert to its relatively more cost-effective hybrid warfare playbook as the main means to secure its geopolitical objectives.
If it does happen, it would be an affirmation of the importance of indirect strategy in global geostrategic competition.
INDIRECT STRATEGY EXPLAINED
In his classic Introduction to Strategy (1963), French military strategist Andre Beaufre argued that in the direct mode of warfare, military strategy plays the decisive role; in the indirect mode, military force plays a secondary role.
Indirect strategy is not new. Chinese strategist Sun Tzu emphasised the importance of avoiding the enemy’s strengths and attacking his weaknesses instead. In short, the best strategy was to “win without fighting”.
In other words, the ability of a state to impose its will on the adversary without relying excessively on military power represented the “acme of skill”.
This basic concept of avoiding adversary strength and attacking his weakness represents the essence of indirect strategy.
The United States military acronym Dime — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of state power — helps illustrate the point.
If a state decides upon a direct application of Dime, then the military instrument would be preponderant, with the other instruments in support.
Conversely, in an indirect application of Dime, the diplomatic, economic, and informational elements would be preponderant in the total strategic response, with the military instrument playing a calibrated supporting role.
INDIRECT STRATEGY IN THE POST-COLD WAR ERA
Beaufre observed that in the Cold War (1945-1990) environment of mutual nuclear deterrence between the superpowers, indirect strategy was very important and “not the direct strategy’s adoption of material force”.
In the post-Cold War era, the continuing imperative to avoid outright confrontation between nuclear-capable great powers, and the understandable reluctance of major peer competitors of the US, since the early 1990s, to directly engage the latter militarily on the conventional front, has resulted in strategic innovation that prioritises indirect strategy.
Hence, in his book Battlegrounds (2020), H. R. McMaster argues that Russia has — since the breakup of the Soviet Union — engaged in so-called hybrid “new-generation warfare” that seeks to avoid direct military confrontation with the West, seeking instead to “disrupt, divide and weaken societies” regarded as competitors.
Chinese military strategists have similarly argued that modern warfare has evolved and now involves “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 interests”.
What is common in both Russian and Chinese thinking is the core idea of avoiding Western military strengths and attacking its weaknesses — the essence of indirect strategy.
INDIRECT STRATEGY TODAY
Indirect strategy has already been applied in the cyber, telecommunications and social media domains.
John Carlin in Dawn of the Code War (2018) observes that the expansion of internet connectivity has rendered national critical infrastructure — “water, electricity, communications, banking,” — and “our most private information more vulnerable”.
As a result, hostile state actors could mount cyberattacks on a state’s vulnerable, digitally interconnected homeland and cripple it, while bypassing the massed strength of its conventional armed forces.
Meanwhile, as Jacob Helberg asserts in The Wires of War (2021), there are states that seek to sidestep the military might of western states, seeking instead to “access, delete, and manipulate data” crucial to the latter.
They seek to do so through greater manufacturing and technical dominance of the backend architecture of the global Internet.
In addition, Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking warn in LikeWar (2018) that some states have deliberately fostered “political and social polarisation” in other states — again without a shot being fired.
Indirect strategy has therefore blurred the line between war and peace today.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SINGAPORE
Two implications emerge from the foregoing analysis.
First, one should analyse global news headlines “using” indirect strategy lenses.
To illustrate, much has been made of US-Chinese strategic competition for control of the manufacturing supply chains for “semiconductors” and “high-performing microchips” that are vital for “everything from artificial intelligence to cell phones”.
Meanwhile, Washington has also been trying to circumvent Beijing’s dominance of the global rare earth metals’ market.
These metals are used to “make the magnets in America’s most advanced commercial and military technologies, from electric vehicles to Virginia-class attack submarines”.
The point is, a state that dominates such strategically critical industries and supply chains while denying them to other states can gradually impose its geopolitical will and undermine its adversaries without the need for direct military confrontation — a classic example of longer-term indirect strategy in action.
Second, Singaporeans should also apply indirect strategy lenses in analysing how potential adversaries could seek to undermine us.
It is no secret that militarily the well-trained and well-equipped Singapore Armed Forces is a potent deterrent against military aggression.
Hence, potential adversaries would likely explore more cost-effective, indirect, hybrid approaches to impose their will subtly and gradually upon us even in peacetime.
What then could be our potential vulnerabilities in the face of such an indirect strategy?
Interestingly, Russian state-backed social media manipulation of socio-political fault-lines within neighbouring states have included the exploitation of “ethnic tensions” in Estonia, “culture and religion” in Georgia, “political polarisation” in Poland, and “anti-migrant sentiment” in the Czech Republic.
Could such socio-political fault lines be exploited in the case of Singapore? A cursory scan of the content frequently circulated on our social media platforms suggests little room for complacency.
It also suggests that the concept of Total Defence remains relevant.
In this era of indirect strategy and hybrid conflict, therefore, there is “no such thing as war or peace – both co-exist, always.”
As the Soviet communist Leon Trotsky quipped long ago: “You may not be interested in war, but “war” is certainly “interested in you”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kumar Ramakrishna is Professor of National Security Studies, Provost’s Chair in National Security Studies and Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). This is an adapted version of a piece that first appeared in RSIS Commentary.