21st Century Authoritarian Powers and the Reshaping of Warfare in the Contest for Global Leadership

By Robbin Laird

In their assessment of the challenges facing UK defense policy and the rebuilding of UK forces, Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshoot underscored the nature of the Russian challenge to the UK and to European defense posed by the 21stcentury political and military capabilities being used by Russia to reshape the European and global environment to their advantage.

“In this very modern approach to warfare, everything is a potential weapon, from the media to energy supplies.

“Culture and language; money as investment; bribes; organized crime; deception and so-called psyops (psychological operations); subversion; dirty tricks; espionage: all are marshaled to the cause of undermining liberal democracy.” 1

They are referring to the use by Putin’s Russia of a highly organized political and hybrid warfare approach, which is backed up the modernization of relevant conventional forces.

As the authors put it clearly:

“Of course, hard power is not the obvious or only answer to hybrid war.

“It is no use pointing a gun at computer viruses, Facebook or Twitter.

“But without hard power, hybrid can swiftly become conventional – as the Ukrainians have found – and a country unable to mount a credible military response to a co-ordinated and comprehensive hybrid attack is a country unable to defend itself.”2

In our work on the strategic shift from the past twenty years of military operations in the Middle East to being able to operate and win in full spectrum crisis management settings, mastering political warfare and shaping ways to prevail in hybrid warfare are key tool sets for the liberal democracies.

What is problematical is whether the strategic elites in the liberal democracies and notably their political masters are ready for the shift in the global game in which peer competitors master political and hybrid warfare backed by relevant conventional military forces. 

The non-liberal powers are clearly leveraging new military capabilities to support their global diplomacy to try to get outcomes and advantages that enhance their position and interests.

The systems they are building and deploying are clearly recognized by the Western militaries as requiring a response; less recognized is how the spectrum of conflict is shifting in terms of using higher end capabilities for normal diplomatic gains.

It is about hard power underwriting other warfighting tool sets, notably those associated with political warfare, which underwrites hybrid warfare, which in turn is empowered by escalation capabilities residing in a robust conventional military force structure, which in turn is underwritten by modern nuclear weapons as well.

This is quite different from the classic distinction made between hard and soft power, and is really about thinking through how political warfare tools and hybrid warfare concepts of operations are key parts of full spectrum crisis management.

In a recent speech by the Chief of the Defence Force (Australia), General Angus Campbell highlighted how he saw warfare in 2025.

He noted that the main challenges are already here, so we do not need to wait until 2025 to focus on the nature of the challenge and to think through the question of relevant capabilities.

In that speech, General Campbell highlighted Russian thinking and actions as highlighting the new nature of warfare and deterrence facing the liberal democracies.

Russia’s actions are a case in point.

In 2013, General Valery Gerasimov — the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces — outlined a new doctrine with six phases of conflict.

Essentially, he sees conflict as opening with a covert phase — intensive information and political operations — which then continues to and combines with other phases, including economic and escalating non-kinetic measures.

In most situations, Western countries take few, if any, actions during the first two phases.

And it’s typically only at the end of phase three — just before crisis point — that diplomatic and economic steps are taken.

By then, to the Russians, the war is half fought — and, perhaps, already won.38

Political warfare is triumphant.

Now, some have argued that this doctrine is simply a well-articulated version of what the Russians have always done and, certainly, the actions of the former Soviet Union back that up.

But how it is practised —the nature and intensity of the actions — are orders of magnitude greater in scale, reach and sophistication.

The Ukraine Crisis in 2014 was an example of this. We saw masked Russian Special forces — the “little green men” — and Russian-backed para- military groups seize buildings and infrastructure in Crimea.

This “masked warfare” was a nod to Soviet-style disruption. But it was also accompanied by computer attacks, manipulation of social and mass media, collapse of the national financial system, and other deceptive operations.

Together, they paralysed the Ukrainian government, and the international community. No effective action could be taken.

On this, it’s worth pointing out a recent analysis by Hasan Suzen, from Beyond the Horizon International Strategic Studies Group. Among Russia’s overt direct and indirect actions, Suzen lists energy blackmail, economic manipulation and white propaganda, and military build-up in various eastern locations.

Russia’s covert direct and indirect actions are no less broad.

There’s black propaganda and diplomatic support to oppositions, cyber and troll attacks, mobilising locals and arming civilians, exporting corruption, and employing Trojan horses.

Meanwhile, the only covert action in the NATO column was cyber defence — and back then it was accompanied by a question mark.

Instead, NATO and EU counteractions have, according to Suzen, been “based primarily on public diplomacy, strategic communication, and limited economic sanctions and assurance measures.”

It’s this environment that has some suggesting that we need to “reconceptualise [our] understanding of conflict.”

The character of war — they claim — is clearly changing.

In this world view:

  • War is likely to be less about open conflict and the use of kinetic force,
  • It will be about undermining adversaries, with no domain off limits, and
  • War is now … it will always be political warfare … and it will occasionally become violent.

 This is challenging for many of us.

 As I’ve said, we believe — rightly — that peace should always be the natural state.

 We distinguish sharply between peace and war….

 It’s important that here — at a conference like this — these ideas are discussed and reflected upon.

 Because they raise important questions that many of you need to consider and, eventually, we all need to answer.

 Questions such as:

 Are we, indeed, too rigid in our conception of war?

 What parts of our state deter, or defend us from, modern forms of political warfare?

 Can modern, open democracies conduct political warfare?

 Will the brinkmanship of political warfare inevitably drive us to violent conflict?

 Or, perversely, is it actually an element of state-on-state competition that helps keep us out of violent conflict?

 Are we, as some scholars suggest, ignorant and naive? Ignorant of our history, naive of our competitors?

 I encourage you to think deeply on these questions. Because to return to Trotsky, while, right now and in the war of 2025, you may not be interested in political warfare … political warfare is most certainly interested in you.3

But what exactly is the relationship among political warfare, hybrid warfare and conventional capabilities in the Russian approach to reasserting its position within Europe and beyond?

Or in the case of China, the use of political and hybrid warfare to ensure that its global power grows as the “gray zone” operations are expanded with the liberal democracies only able to respond by using high end kinetic tools or most likely doing nothing at all.

A recent report authored by Ross Babbage with a number of case studies provided by his contributors of how the Chinese and Russians have shaped a 21stcentury authoritarian approach to escalation dominance provides solid analysis and conclusions about the nature of the challenge and ways this challenge can be met.

These reports were published by CSBA and a briefing was held on July 23, 2019 to release the two reports and their two appendices (containing the case studies).

Or put in blunt terms, simply building up a hard power military capability to deal with the strategic shift from the Middle East land wars to dealing with peer competitors is a necessary but not sufficient condition for 21stcentury escalation dominance or deterrence.

Babbage’s argument highlights how political warfare prepares the ground for hybrid warfare, where kinetic means are blended in with the initiatives prepared by political warfare.

And both are underwritten by background relevant conventional warfare capabilities.

In effect, Babbage is suggesting that 21stcentury authoritarian states are taking on liberal democracies at the level of their core values and are challenging them to protect their interests.

What Babbage argues is that unless the liberal democracies sort through ways to engage at the level of political warfare and to both shape denial and proactive strategies to do so, liberal democracies will respond to the 21stcentury authoritarians with higher end conventional force when it might be too late or the tools not the ones most effective to head off or deal with the challenge.

Without political warfare tools linked in fundamental ways to engage in hybrid war, the liberal democracies will not only be disadvantaged but will see their global influence reside as well.

In other words, the liberal democracies are in a global contest, not of their own making.

And to engage in this global contest, the war of values is central – Remember Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall – but expressed in whole of government and a comprehensive coalition effort for the liberal democracies.

Some Westerners might be tempted to define political warfare to encompass only diplomatic persuasion, influence operations, intimidation, and some types of subversion.

This narrow definition would see political warfare standing alongside economic warfare, cyber warfare, and many other forms of coercion short of conventional military combat.

This report takes another path by drawing on Clausewitzian logic to argue that political warfare encompasses the use of a very wide range of national and international instruments in efforts to persuade, intimidate, coerce, undermine, and weaken opponents, and hence achieve desired political goals.

This approach mirrors that of the Russian and Chinese regimes, both of which marshal and maneuver numerous instruments in coordinated political warfare operations in order to win political advances. The only major activity excluded from this conception of political warfare is the use of kinetic force.

In consequence, political warfare is defined in this report as “diverse operations to influence, persuade, and coerce nation states, organizations, and individuals to operate in accord with one’s strategic interests without employing kinetic force.” 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.

Political warfare is used extensively by the regimes in Beijing and Moscow to shape the strategic space, but it can also be used to prepare targeted environments for more substantial unconventional and conventional kinetic military operations.

Political warfare is clearly distinguished from so-called hybrid warfare and other forms of conflict that inhabit the gray area between Western conceptions of “peace” and “conventionalwar.” Whereas political warfare employs a range of instruments, it does not involve combat by military or para-military forces.

Hybrid warfare operations, by contrast, involve the use of or commitment to use military or paramilitary forces in kinetic combat operations or a strategic commitment to engage in combat if deploying forces are seriously challenged.

In short, political warfare involves coercive operations without kinetic force, whereas hybrid warfare involves coercive operations with the actual or authorized use of kinetic force. In some situations, political warfare may be employed for some time prior to and following a temporary escalatory phase of kinetic hybrid warfare, as was the case with the Crimea crisis in 2013–2015.

Babbage sees political warfare as a very dynamic capability in which the whole of society rather than simply the whole of government addresses ways to achieve the national interest through comprehensive political engagement, not simply diplomatic engagement, to provide a shaping function for the achievement of national goals by whatever means might prove necessary down the road.

In effect, what his reports underscore is a dynamic process along the following lines:

Babbage highlights a number of capabilities, which the liberal democracies need to acquire and shape to be able to conduct political warfare and hybrid warfare.

At the heart of his recommendations are the need to craft political warfare capabilities as core competencies in which organizational redesign within liberal democratic states creates conditions in which personnel are trained to both understand and to prepare for political conflict and in which key coalition partners work together towards reshaping a global political agenda within which what the 21stcentury authoritarian states are about is the focus of attention.

Rather than assuming the unending rise of democracy in the world, liberal democracies need to represent that the future is not necessarily on their side.

A key element among his recommendations is to shape the human capital needed to engage in such activity.

But this will be especially difficult given the conflicts within the “United” States, the “United” Kingdom or the European “Union.”

I raised this question of the challenge of building human capital at the briefing and our exchange can be seen below:

In effect, what is missing are civil capabilities to lead out in the full spectrum of crisis management within which capabilities exist to engage prior to gray zone encounters or prior to being subjected to the salami slicing authoritarian approach to hybrid warfare.

In other words, although Babbage’s study is about political warfare, it really is about the nature of the challenge which the 21stcentury authoritarians pose to the liberal democracies.

We are witnessing a global engagement in which conflict is framed and driven by the authoritarian powers until the point is reached where liberal democracies admit that their global sphere of influence is shrinking and that the world becomes safe for authoritarianism.

As he notes in his report:

“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 demoralization 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 U.S. and allied forces would have little choice to arrive late to a battlefield that has been politically prepared by the West’s opponents.”

Winning Without Fighting Final (2).16-7-19


Stealing a March Final (MAIN REPORT) 20-7-19


  1. Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshoot, White Flag?: An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability . Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshoot, White Flag?: An Examination of the UK’s Defence Capability . Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  3. General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force, Presentation to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute International Conference, “War in 2025,” June 13, 2019.