Opinion: Will Putinism lead to cyberwar?

We’ve all been following the war that is being waged in Ukraine, and it has become fashionable to refer to the devastation of the former Soviet satellite as “Putin’s war.” That is, perhaps, the most apt colloquialism, because it implies that the incursion into Ukraine is not the wish of the Russian people, but rather that of its president, who craves more power to complement his tremendous wealth.

As I watch the evening news on television and see images of wanton destruction and senseless killing of civilians, I ask myself a simple question which seems to elude a simple answer: Why?

If Russian troops could have simply marched in and claimed the territory for Russia, as they did in Crimea, in 2014, what would the ruling powers of Russia have gained? Even in that relatively bloodless coup, cost/reward calculations do not compute. As Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out in his brilliant “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” “Tourist resorts in the Crimea and decrepit Soviet-era factories in Luhansk and Donetsk hardly balance the price of financing the war, and they certainly do not offset the costs of capital flight and international sanctions.”

Limited wars

In the 21st Century, limited wars seem to be tolerated by the global economy. The recognition of a “global economy” began to take root in the 1970’s with the publication of Immanuel Wallerstein’s “world-system analysis,” which posits that there is really only one economic system, and that is capitalism. At the time, this was best exemplified by the wealthy nations, notably those of North America and Western Europe, as well as Australia and Japan.

During the past 50 years, countries like China, South Korea, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and a number of wealthy Middle-Eastern countries, like Dubai, have become members of the single, global economic system. The system is so pervasive that limited wars like Darfur (2003), the Libyan and Yemeni Civil Wars of 2011, or even the ISIL insurgency in Tunisia in 2015 don’t disrupt the global economy.

So, the Russian take-over of Crimea, which drew very little resistance from the people of the area, many — if not most of whom — still maintained their allegiance to Russia, attracted little attention from the great powers of the world-wide economic system. And the fact that these limited wars had little impact on the amassed wealth of the oligarchs throughout the world may have at least some significance.

It has been documented that the wealth of the richest people in the world increased during the past decade, despite an estimated 46 limited wars in 2014, 43 in 2015, and 38 in 2016. Writing in 2018, Harari stated that Putin knew “far better than anyone else that military power cannot go far in the twenty-first century, and that waging a successful war means waging a limited war.”

Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Russia, nor is it the Russia over which Peter the Great ruled. It was greatly weakened by decades of communist ideology, the expenses of the Cold War, and a decade of being bogged down in Afghanistan, from which the United States should have learned a lesson. Since the Afghanistan debacle, Russia’s politico-economic reality has shifted from communism to Putinism.

Despite perceived alliances with China and North Korea, modern Russia largely stands alone, and it is ruled by the iron fist of Vladimir Putin. So far, Putin has been backed by a host of Russian oligarchs who have become fabulously wealthy in a supposedly communist society and socialist economy. What communist/socialist system would permit some people to have palaces with water-front views from which they would be able to admire their hundred-million-dollar yachts while working-class people struggle to get from paycheck to paycheck?

Russia, as the core of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, reached its zenith in the mid-twentieth century when heavy industry, fueled by a centralized economic system, produced trucks, tanks, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But today, as Harari points out, “information technology and biotechnology are more important than heavy industry, but Russia excels in neither.” Its current economy relies overwhelmingly on natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas. The appeal of the USSR to poorer nations was based on the theoretical appeal of communism as much as the vast reach of the Red Army. In contrast, Putinism has little to offer to Cubans, Vietnamese, or even French intellectuals.

Mutual deterrence

On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States detonated the first atomic bomb above Hiroshima and, three days later, the second over Nagasaki. The use of these now-primitive nuclear weapons caused the death of between 129,000 and 226,000 people — mostly civilians. The devastating effects of nuclear warfare were understood worldwide, and at a visceral level.

Other powerful nations were working on developing the same destructive capabilities during WWII, and it wasn’t long before they were successful. As Harari points out, “It is no coincidence that ever since Hiroshima, superpowers have never fought one another directly, instead engaging in what (for them) were low-stakes conflicts.” When I was in college, the professor who taught a class in social disorganization referred to this phenomenon as “mutual deterrence.”

War between superpowers which had nuclear capability became counterproductive. If A were to launch nuclear weapons at B, it was a foregone conclusion that B would retaliate, ensuring the destruction of both. In the 1960’s, U.S.S.R. tried an end run, building missile bases in Cuba, a hitherto technologically low-level threat to U.S. security. It was only level-headed, yet forceful response on the part of the United States that averted a tragedy.

Since then, certainly wars have been fought, but the real focus of attention has been on financial and technological development. Consider this, those countries that lost WWII — Germany, Italy, and Japan — have experienced both economic and technological miracles. And none of these countries has developed nuclear weapons.

While concerns about the United States getting sucked into a “hot war” in Ukraine cannot be dismissed out of hand, it is hoped that the effect of nuclear mutual deterrence will hold. However, the fear in this third decade of the 21st century should be of cyberwarfare. Within milliseconds, such a conflict could be brought to California, or Illinois, or New York, shutting down airports, wreaking havoc on power grids, disrupting computer databases.

If such an attack were to be coordinated among an “axis” of potential enemies, like Russia, North Korea, and China, the effects would be so swift that cyber mutual deterrence might not be possible. And the war would be won not by destroying the enemy, but by disabling it.

While I sympathize with the people of Ukraine and I support our economic and materiel contributions, I hope that our leaders will avoid any breach of diplomacy that could draw us into either nuclear or cyber war, regardless of what combination of allies or enemies might develop. And I hope that Putin keeps it in mind that, while he has a militia with cyber competency, so do we. But the U.S. also has a huge civilian force of computer experts; that element is woefully lacking under Putinism.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.