Andrey Sushentsov: War will be a constant in the 21st century, but only a few countries can mount a truly major conflict
The military crisis raging in Eastern Europe has dispelled the illusion that the era of large armies is a thing of the past. Military thinking among leading powers is beginning to move away from the 2000s maxim that the goal of war is to dazzle and stun the enemy to lower its technological level and prevent it from waging 21st century warfare, knocking out its high-precision, mobile, deep-coverage capabilities.
Looking at these trends, can we say that warfare in the 21st century will be highly mobile, highly technological, and fought with small numbers? Or, alternatively, are we seeing a return to the historical norm of large armies?
The risk of great power wars is increasing, and small and mobile forces have no significant advantages over large ones based on population mobilization. Indeed, it seems that the characteristics of a major military conflict between comparable powers will be exactly the same as they have been throughout history.
In recent decades, much attention has been paid to the virtual dimension of conflicts and to winning in the information environment. This remains an important dimension of military confrontation, but it is not decisive. Psychological confrontation existed in ancient Greece and ancient China. Disrupting the enemy’s plans, disorganizing society, sowing mistrust – all this remains one of the main objectives of war.
In summary, we have a picture in which a decisive strategic victory through armed conflict implies the use of the same amount of material resources that have always been required for such a success throughout history. The leading German generals realized from the beginning of the Barbarossa campaign in World War II that it was a strategic defeat because the main objectives of the war were not immediately achieved. Modern society, influenced by consumerism, struggles to mobilize and this is a problem for most governments.
Mobilization in today’s political and international environment is a major challenge for any state, and it is an open question how it would be responded to in the countries most actively supporting Ukraine – the US, the UK, Lithuania, and Poland. We can see the difficulties of gathering conscripts in Ukraine, whose society is now being subjected to a major propaganda campaign. Probably the most resilient state is the one that can afford to mobilize while maintaining internal stability and conditions for economic growth.
However, globalization has not disappeared and the world is still connected through gateways – even adversaries are connected.
The impossibility of achieving strategic victory over the enemy by military means, the interconnectedness of the world, and the permanence of armed conflict as one of the instruments of grand strategy are leading us into an era of perpetual indirect warfare. In other words, not an eschatological, Manichean confrontation between black and white, as in the Second World War, but a system of constant rebalancing of the players.
In this case, victory can only be achieved by undermining the internal vitality of some of the opponents when they themselves realize that the goals have not been achieved by military means. The conditions for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran were created when Saudi Arabia accepted that it could not defeat the Houthis in Yemen militarily with the resources at its disposal.
It is worth remembering that the balance in American relations with China and Russia is also based on the impossibility of a decisive victory in a situation of military conflict.
Can we say that war will be the norm in the 21st century? Perhaps the prototype for a major confrontation between Russia and the West will eventually become the Indo-Pakistani relationship of mutual deterrence and perpetual hostility. This does not mean, however, that a rapid descent into a catastrophic nuclear showdown is likely. The world has entered a period of constant rebalancing of power, without major spurts. War is once again a constant, but a very narrow circle of countries will be capable of mounting a truly major conflict.
Andrey Sushentsov, program director of the Valdai Club.