Some relief last week. Russia supplied more gas to Europe and agreed to an agreement on grain exports from the Black Sea. With the bombing of Odessa and the drop in gas supplies this week, the question is whether the country will stick to the agreements. Furthermore, the crises in the energy and food markets are far from resolved.
A large part of the war in Ukraine is classic military. Energy and food show that the war is also taking place in other areas. As big as these developments are – energy shortages later this year and a global famine are realistic scenarios – they are part of something much bigger: geopolitical conflict has become limitless.
We have been familiar with terms like hybrid warfare and asymmetric or non-linear warfare for some time. New words like cyber war, infocalypse, face mask diplomacy and chiplomacy are constantly popping up in all sorts of fields. There is a larger phenomenon behind it. In recent years, American researchers have talked about ‘weaponization‘, weaponization of all kinds of domains, or in a single word ‘weaponization’. Earlier this year, the stimulating book was published The weaponization of everything by Mark Galeotti.
Of course, war has always been fought on multiple fronts. For centuries, blockades have been used to starve the enemy, and the history of warfare is full of deceptions that we now fake news would call.
But what is different now is the scale and the possibilities. The world has never been more connected than it is today: goods, data, ideas, people and capital are connected in networks. For a long time we hoped that this would make national borders and conflicts irrelevant. But now it seems that national conflicts are fought on international networks. All these visible and invisible connections around the world constantly offer new opportunities for disruption. Let’s consider some domains.
First of all, there is the armament of economy: from food and energy exports to the Swift banking system. This is also known as geoeconomics.
It rubs off on the domain high-tech: there is a battle for data centers and internet cables, but also for advanced chips that the West wants to deny China. Associated with it: the domain of science and research. Around new technologies such as quantum computing and biotechnology, a global power struggle is taking place. A recent study shows that China has complex talent programs, so it doesn’t buy the products, but the creators.
Information: We now know many examples of how data and algorithms on social media are used for disinformation to manipulate others and spread mistrust.
Crime: from North Korean hackers stealing money from foreign banks to mafia groups tolerated by Russia to gather information and foment unrest in neighboring countries.
Legislation: this domain talks about ‘the law‘: the manipulative use of rules and the legal system to achieve strategic goals. For example, Russia gives passports to people in other countries and then uses protection of citizens as legitimacy for actions.
Migration: Creating unrest in other countries or threatening to let migrants through has also become an increasingly important weapon. The influence of the Russian private army Wagner group in Africa is a cause for great concern.
We could easily expand the list. We have a better overview of the threats in some areas than in others. But we still have a very limited view of the phenomenon as a whole: How do we deal with conflict in the networks that connect us, networks that creative adversaries are always able to weaponize in new ways?
It raises all sorts of new questions. In contrast to classic military interventions or economic espionage, we are entering a gray area where much is still unclear. What are the responsibilities of food, energy and finance companies when states engage in a geopolitical struggle in their sector? How do we maintain openness in all kinds of networks without others exploiting it? Think of the openness of science or the freedom of expression on social media.
We must find answers to those questions, because in a world where networks become weapons, relief is always short-lived.
Haroon Sheikh is a senior researcher at WRR and professor after special appointment at VU. Luuk van Middelaar is absent this week.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 27 July 2022