Сергей Караганов

An Age of Wars? Article One

I have long been watching the world inexorably moving towards a wave of military conflicts threatening to develop into a third world thermonuclear war that can in all likelihood destroy human civilization. This prognosis was one of the main reasons why I published a series of articles about why it is necessary to restore the credibility of nuclear deterrence, which kept the world safe for more than fifty years.

“And black, earth’s blood

Promises us, inflating the veins,

Destroying all borders,

Unprecedented changes,

Unprecedented riots…”

Alexander Blok “Retribution”, 1911

I begin this article with the words of my best-loved Russian poet Alexander Blok, who is comparable in his gift of clairvoyance to the greatest Russian genius Fyodor Dostoevsky. I have long been watching the world inexorably moving towards a wave of military conflicts threatening to develop into a third world thermonuclear war that can in all likelihood destroy human civilization. This prognosis was one of the main reasons why I published a series of articles about why it is necessary to restore the credibility of nuclear deterrence, which kept the world safe for more than fifty years.

         Many structural factors indicate an extremely high probability of qualitative escalation in military conflicts, which brings the world to the brink of final catastrophe, but apart from that it can bring innumerable misfortunes to humanity in general and to Russia in particular. I do not want to scare those who are already nervous and not yet ready to accept the new reality, especially given the hysteria my previous series of relatively “vegetarian” articles caused. But you cannot hide an eel in a sack, and the most sagacious colleagues of mine have begun to write more and more determinedly about the likelihood of sliding into a big war, offering recipes for preventing it and preparing for it if it is unleashed. First of all, of course, it is the article “Warfare in a New Epoch: The Return of Big Armies” by Vasily Kashin and Andrei Sushentsov, based on a Valdai Club report and published in Russia in Global Affairs.[1] Another our leading international relations expert, Fyodor Lukyanov, has been advocating the same idea but in a bedside manner so characteristic of him.[2]

On the other side, the American “deep state” has also started warning about the high probability of a third world war and speculating about how the United States can avoid defeat if it has to fight on two or three fronts at the same time (Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East).[3]

I have decided to join the discussion. Of course, I would prefer the negative answer to the question posed in the title of this article. But for this we need to understand the causes of conflict escalation and advance a much more active policy of safeguarding peace. I am confident that we need to considerably adjust all policies―domestic, military, and foreign―and offer a new paradigm of development to ourselves and the world.

In this first article will try to present my vision of challenges. The second one will describe active and proactive ways to respond to them. I do not think that by listing the challenges I will discover something new. But collectively, they draw a more than alarming reality that necessitates decisive action.

The first and main challenge is the depletion of the modern type of capitalism based primarily on profit-making, for which end it encourages the rampant consumption of goods and services that are less and less necessary for normal human life. The torrent of meaningless information in the last two to three decades falls into the same category. Gadgets devour a colossal amount of energy and time that people could otherwise use for productive activities. Humanity has come into conflict with nature and begun to undermine it―the very basis of its own existence. Even in Russia, the growth of well-being still implies primarily increased consumption.

The second challenge is the most obvious one. Global problems―pollution, climate change, dwindling reserves of fresh water, solely suitable for farming, and many other natural resources―are not solved; instead, so-called green solutions are proposed, most often aimed at consolidating the dominance of the privileged and rich both in their societies and globally. Take, for example, constant attempts to shift the burden of fighting environmental pollution and CO2 emissions to manufacturers, most of whom are outside the old West, rather than to consumers in the West, where excessive consumption is taking on grotesque forms. An estimated 20-30% of the world’s population, concentrated mainly in North America, Europe, and Japan, consumes 70-80% of the resources drawn each year from the biosphere,[4] and this gap keeps growing.

But the disease of consumerism is spreading into the rest of the world. We ourselves still suffer from ostentatious consumption, so fashionable in the 1990s and now receding (if it is really receding) albeit extremely slowly. Hence the intensifying struggle for resources and mounting internal tension, including due to unequal consumption and growing inequality in many countries and regions.

The awareness that the current development model leads nowhere but also the unwillingness and inability to abandon it are the main reason for the increasingly growing hostility towards Russia and, to a slightly lesser extent, towards China (the price of severing relations with it is much higher). To distract people from unaddressed challenges, you need an enemy. As early as in the mid-2010s, sanctions were already openly explained by the need to contain the sprawling body of the European Union. Now they are one of the main bonds that hold the West together.

Politicians in Europe talk more and more often about the need for, if not the desirability of, preparing for a world war, obviously forgetting in a bout of historical amnesia and intellectual degradation that if it begins, NATO’s European countries will have no more than several days or even hours to live. But God forbid, of course.

A parallel process is the increasing social inequality, which is growing explosively since the collapse of the communist USSR that buried the need for a social welfare state. In developed Western countries, the middle class―the foundation of political democratic systems―has been shrinking for about 15-20 years and becoming increasingly less efficient.

Democracy is one of the tools with which oligarchic elites, holding power and wealth, govern complex societies. This is why authoritarian and even totalitarian tendencies are on the rise in the West, despite all the screaming about the protection of democracy, but not just there.

The third challenge is the degradation of man and society, primarily in the relatively developed and rich West. The West (but not only it) is falling victim to urban civilization living in relative comfort but also detached from the traditional habitat in which humans formed historically and genetically. The continuous spread of digital technologies, which were supposed to promote mass education, is increasingly responsible for general dumbing-down and increases the possibility of manipulating the masses not only for oligarchs, but also for the masses themselves, leading to a new level of ochlocracy. In addition, oligarchies that do not want to share their privileges and wealth deliberately endarken people and encourage the disintegration of societies, trying to make them unable to resist the order of things that is increasingly unfair and dangerous for most of them. They are not only promoting but imposing anti-human or post-human ideologies, values,​ and patterns of behavior that reject the natural foundations of human morality and almost all basic human values.

The information wave combines with relatively prosperous living conditions―the absence of the main challenges that always drove the development of humankind: hunger and the fear of violent death. Fears are being virtualized. Clip thinking is fraught with universal intellectual degradation. We can already see that European elites have lost almost completely the ability to think strategically, and there are practically none left in the traditional meritocratic sense. We are witnessing an intellectual decline of the ruling elite in the United States, a country with enormous military, including nuclear, capabilities. Examples multiply. I have already cited one of the latest that really shocked me. Both U.S. President Biden and his Secretary of State Blinken argued that nuclear war was no worse than global warming.[5] But this disease threatens all humanity and requires decisive counteraction. Our thinking is less and less adequate to deal with increasingly complex challenges. In order to distract people from unresolved problems and distract themselves, politicians are whipping up interest in artificial intelligence. For all its possible useful applications, it will not be able to fill the vacuum of intelligence, but it undoubtedly carries additional huge dangers. I will talk about them later.

The fourth most important source of increasing global tensions over the last fifteen years is the unprecedentedly rapid redistribution of power from the old West to the rising World Majority. Tectonic plates have started moving under the previous international system, causing a long worldwide geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geo-ideological earthquake. There are several reasons for that.

Firstly, the USSR from the 1950-1960s and then Russia, which had recovered from a fifteen-year-long decline, cut the ground from under Europe and the West’s 500-year domination―military superiority. Let me repeat what has been said many times: it was the foundation upon which their domination in world politics, culture, and economy rested, allowing them to impose their interests and political order, culture and, most importantly, to siphon off the world GNP. The loss of the 500-year hegemony is the root cause of the West’s rabid hatred towards Russia and attempts to crush it.

Secondly, the errors of the West itself, which had come to believe in its final victory, relaxed, forgotten history, and fallen into euphoria and lethargy of thought. It made a series of spectacular geopolitical mistakes. At first it haughtily rejected (fortunately for us, perhaps) the aspiration of the most part of the Russian elite at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s to integrate into the West. They wanted to be equal, but got snubbed. As a result, Russia has turned from a potential partner and even ally possessing huge natural, military, and intellectual potential, and smaller but still quite considerable production capabilities into an opponent and the strategic kernel of the non-West, which is most often referred to as the Global South, but a more appropriate name is the World Majority.

Thirdly, having come to believe that there was no alternative to the model of liberal-democratic globalist capitalism, the West not only missed but also supported the rise of China, hoping that the great state-civilization would follow the path of democracy, that is, would be governed less effectively and would strategically go along with the West. I remember my amazement when the fantastically lucrative offer made by the Russian elite in the 1990s was rejected. I thought the West had decided to finish off Russia. But it turned out that it had simply been guided by a mixture of arrogance and greed. After that, the policy towards China no longer looked so startling. The intellectual level of Western elites became obvious.

Then the United States got involved in a series of unnecessary conflicts―Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria―and predictably lost them, ruining the aura of​its military dominance and wasting trillions of dollars invested in general-purpose forces. By thoughtlessly withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, perhaps in the hope of restoring superiority in strategic weapons, Washington revived a sense of self-preservation in Russia, finally destroying all hopes for amicable agreement. Despite its miserable state, Moscow launched a program to modernize its strategic forces, which by the end of the 2010s had allowed it for the first time in history not only to catch up, but also to go ahead, albeit temporarily.

The fifth source of tension in the world system – the abovementioned, almost instantaneous by historical standards, avalanche-like change in the global balance of power; a rapid decline of the West’s ability to syphon off GWP caused its furious reaction. The West, but primarily Washington, is destroying its once privileged position in the economic and financial sphere by weaponizing economic ties and using force in a bid to slow down the weakening of its own positions and to harm competitors. A barrage of sanctions and restrictions on the transfer of technology and high-tech goods breaks production chains. The unabashed printing of dollars, and now the euro, accelerates inflation and increases public debt. Trying to retain its status, the United States is undermining the globalist system which it created itself, but which has given almost equal opportunities to rising and more organized and hardworking competitors in the World Majority. Economic deglobalization and regionalization are underway; old global economic management institutions are faltering. Interdependence, which used to be seen as a tool for developing and strengthening cooperation and peace, is increasingly becoming a factor of vulnerability and undermining its own stabilizing role.

The sixth challenge. Having launched a desperate counterattack, primarily against Russia, but also against China, the West started an almost unprecedented wartime-like propaganda campaign, demonizing competitors, especially Russia, and systematically cutting off human, cultural, and economic ties. The West is dropping an iron curtain even heavier than the previous one and building up the image of a universal enemy. On Russian and Chinese sides, the war of ideas is not so total and vicious, but the counterwave is growing. All this creates a political and psychological situation where the West is dehumanizing the Russians and to some but lesser extent the Chinese (breaking ties with them is costlier), and we are looking at the West with increasingly fastidious contempt. Dehumanization paves the way for war. It seems to be part of war preparations in the West. Our response creates the prerequisites for a ruthless struggle against the unworthy of respect or clemency.

The seventh challenge. The tectonic shifts, the rise of new countries and continents, and the rekindling of old conflicts that were suppressed by the Cold War-era structured confrontation will inevitably (if new leaders do not counter this trend with an active policy of peace) lead to a series of conflicts. “Inter-imperialist” contradictions are likely not only between the old and the new, but also between the new actors. The first flashes of such conflicts can already be seen in the South China Sea, and between India and China. If conflicts multiply, which is more than likely, they will cause a chain reaction that increases the risk of world war. So far, the main danger comes from the abovementioned fierce counterattack launched by the West. But conflicts can and will be breaking out almost everywhere, including Russia’s periphery.

In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exploded predictably, threatening to engulf the entire region. A series of wars is raging in Africa. Minor conflicts never stop in devastated Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The West, which still enjoys information and propaganda dominance, simply prefers not to notice them. Latin America and Asia are historically not as belligerent as Europe, where most wars started, including two world ones within the span of one generation, but wars happened there too, and many borders there were drawn arbitrarily and imposed by the former colonial powers. The most vivid example is India and Pakistan, but there are dozens more.

Given the trajectory of Europe’s development, so far inexorably going down in terms of economic deceleration, growing inequality, mounting migration problems, increasing dysfunction of still relatively democratic political systems, and moral degradation, one can expect, with a very high degree of probability in the medium term, the stratification and then even the collapse of the European Union, the rise of nationalism, and the fascistization of political systems. So far, elements of liberal neo-fascism have been gaining momentum, but right-wing nationalist fascism is already emerging. The subcontinent will fall back to its usual state of instability and even the source of conflicts. The inevitable withdrawal of the United States, which is losing interest in stability in the subcontinent, will exacerbate this trend. There are no more than ten years left. I would like to be mistaken, but it does not look like it.

The eighth challenge. The situation is compounded by the actual collapse of global governance not only in the economy, but also in politics and security; the renewed fierce rivalry between the great powers; the dilapidated UN structure that makes the organization less and less functional; the security system in Europe ruined by NATO’s expansion. Attempts by the United States and its allies to knock together anti-Chinese blocs in the Indo-Pacific region and the struggle for control of sea routes increase the conflict potential as well. The North Atlantic Alliance, which in the past used to be a security system that played a largely stabilizing and balancing role, has turned into a bloc that has committed several acts of aggression and is now waging a war in Ukraine.

New organizations, institutions, and routes designed, among other things, to ensure international security, such as the SCO, BRICS, the continental Belt and Road, and the Northern Sea Route, have so far been only partly able to compensate for the growing deficit of security support mechanisms. This deficit is exacerbated by the collapse, primarily at Washington’s initiative, of the former arms control system, which played a limited but useful role in preventing an arms race, but still it provided greater transparency and predictability, thereby somehow reducing suspicion and distrust.

The ninth challenge. The retreat of the West, especially of the United States, from its dominant position in world culture, economy, and politics, although encouraging in that it opens up new opportunities for other countries and civilizations, carries unpleasant risks. Retreating, the United States is losing interest in maintaining stability in many regions and, conversely, beginning to provoke instability and conflicts. The most obvious example is the Middle East after Americans secured their relative energy independence. It is hard to imagine that the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza is just the result of the blatant incompetence of the Israeli and especially U.S. security services. But even if that is the case, it also indicates a loss of interest in peaceful and stable development. However, what really matters is that while slowly retreating into neo-isolationism, the Americans will for many years live in the mental paradigm of imperial dominance and, if allowed, will incite conflicts in Eurasia.

The American political class will remain, for at least another generation, within the intellectual framework of Mackinder theories spurred by 15-year-long but transitory geopolitical dominance. More specifically, the United States will try to hinder the rise of new powers, primarily China, but also Russia, India, Iran, very soon Turkey, and the Gulf countries. Hence, its policy, successful so far, to provoke and incite an armed conflict in Ukraine, attempts to drag China into a war over Taiwan (so far unsuccessful) and exacerbate Sino-Indian disagreements, constant efforts to stir up conflict in the South China Sea, basically creating it out of thin air, and rile things up in the East China Sea, systematically torpedo intra-Korean rapprochement, and foment (so far unsuccessfully) conflict in the Transcaucasia and between the Arab states of the Gulf and Iran. We can expect the same in the common neighborhood of Russia and China.

The most obvious vulnerable point is Kazakhstan. There has already been one such attempt. It was stopped by CSTO-Russian peacekeepers brought in at the request of Kazakhstan’s leadership. But this will continue until the current generation of U.S. political elites go, and, if and when, less globalist and more nationally oriented people come to power there. This will take at least 15 to 20 years. But of course, this process needs to be encouraged in the name of international peace and even in the interests of the American people even though it will take them a long time to become aware of their interests. This will happen if and when the degradation of the American elite is stopped, and the United States suffers another defeat, this time in Europe over Ukraine.

Struggling desperately to preserve the world order of the last 500 and especially 30 to 40 years, the United States and its allies, including new ones that seemed to have joined the winner, have provoked and are now fomenting a war in Ukraine. At first they hoped to crush Russia. Now that this attempt has failed, they will prolong the conflict, hoping to wear out and bring down our country―the military-political core of the World Majority―or at least tie its hands, prevent it from developing, and reduce the attractiveness of its alternatives (not clearly formulated yet, but quite obvious) to the Western political and ideological paradigm.

In a year or two, the special military operation in Ukraine will have to be wound up with a decisive victory so that the present American and related comprador elites in Europe come to terms with the loss of their dominance and agree to a much more modest position in the future international system. A long-term but urgent task is to promote the peaceful retreat of the West from its former hegemonic positions.

The tenth challenge. For many decades, relative peace on the planet has been maintained thanks to the fear of nuclear weapons. In recent years, however, the habit of living in peace, the abovementioned intellectual degradation, and clip thinking in societies and elites have spurred the rise of “strategic parasitism.” People no longer fear war, even a nuclear one. I have already written about this in my previous articles. But I am not alone in sounding the alarm. This issue is regularly raised by prominent Russian foreign policy thinker Dmitry Trenin.[6]

And finally, the eleventh and most obvious challenge, or rather a set of challenges. A new qualitative but also quantitative arms race is underway. Strategic stability―an indicator of the likelihood of nuclear war―is being undermined on all sides. New types of weapons of mass destruction appear or have already appeared, which are not covered by the system of limitations and prohibitions. These include many types of bioweapons targeting both people and individual ethnic groups, and animals and plants. A possible purpose of these weapons is to provoke hunger and spread human, animal, and plant diseases.[7] The United States has created a network of biological laboratories around the world, and other countries have probably done the same. Some bioweapons are relatively accessible.

In addition to the spread of and dramatic increase in the number and range of missiles, and other weapons of various classes, the drone revolution is in progress. UAVs are relatively and/or downright cheap, but they can carry weapons of mass destruction. Most importantly, their mass proliferation, which has already begun, can make normal life unbearably dangerous. As the border between war and peace is becoming blurred, these weapons come as the perfect tool for terrorist attacks and sheer banditry. Almost any person in a relatively unprotected space becomes a potential victim of malefactors. Missiles, drones, and other weapons can cause colossal damage to civilian infrastructure with all the ensuing consequences for people and countries. We can already see this happening during the conflict in Ukraine.

High-precision long-range non-nuclear weapons undermine strategic stability “from below.” Meanwhile, work is underway (started in the United States again) to miniaturize nuclear weapons, which erodes strategic stability “from above.” There are more and more signs that the arms race is being taken to outer space.

Hypersonic weapons, in which we and our Chinese friends are still leading, thanks to God and our designers, sooner or later will spread. The flying time to the targets will be reduced to a minimum. The risk of a decapitation strike on decision-making centers will grow dramatically. Strategic stability will be dealt another devastating blow. Veterans remember how we and NATO panicked about SS-20 and Pershing missiles. But the current situation is much worse. In case of crisis, increasingly long-range precision and invincible missiles will threaten the most important maritime communications such as the Suez and Panama Canals, the Bab al-Mandeb, Hormuz, Singapore, and Malacca straits.

The unfolding uncontrolled arms race in almost all spheres can bring the world to the point where missile and air defense systems will have to be stationed everywhere. Naturally, long-range and high-precision missiles, like some other weapons, can also strengthen security and, for example, finally neutralize the potential of the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet and reduce Washington’s possibility to pursue aggressive policies and support its allies. But then they, too, will rush to obtain nuclear weapons, which is more than likely in the case of the Republic of Korea and Japan anyway.

Finally, the most fashionable but also really dangerous factor. Artificial intelligence in the military sphere not only significantly increases the danger of weapons, but it also creates new risks of escalation in local conflicts, when people, societies, and states lose control of weapons. We can already see autonomous weapons on the battlefield. This issue requires a separate in-depth analysis. At this point, artificial intelligence in the military-strategic sphere carries more dangers. But maybe it also creates new opportunities to prevent them. However relying on AI as well as on traditional ways and methods of responding to mounting challenges would be foolish and even reckless.

I can keep listing the factors that create a near-war or even warlike military-strategic situation in the world. The world is on the verge or already past a series of disasters, if not a global catastrophe. The situation is extremely, possibly unprecedentedly, alarming, even more so than it ever was in the days of Alexander Blok, who forebode the 20th century that proved so terrible for our country and the world. But I urge the reader not to fall into panic and despondency. There are recipes, and some solutions are already in the making. I will speak about them in my next article.

Everything is in our hands, but we must realize how deep, severe, and unprecedented the current challenges are, and live up to them not only by responding, but also by staying one step ahead. I repeat: Russia needs a new foreign policy, new priorities for its internal development, and new priorities for society, for every responsible citizen of this country and the world. I will talk about this in the next article.

[1] Kashin, Vasily B. and Sushentsov, Andrei A., 2023. “Warfare in a New Epoch: The Return of Big Armies.” Rossiya v globalnoi politike, 21(6), pp. 10-118. Available at: https://www.globalaffairs.ru/articles/bolshaya-vojna/. The English-language version will be available in the upcoming (22(1), 2024) issue of Russia in Global Affairs.

[2] See: Lukyanov, F.A., 2023a. Polupolyarny mir [A Halfpolar World]. Rossiya v gobalnoi politike, 3 October. Available at: https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/polupolyarnyj-mir/; Lukyanov, F.A., 2023b. Nyneshnyaya “Tretya mirovaya voina” budet rastyanutoi vo vremeni i rasplredelyonnoi v prostranstve [“The Third World War” Will Be Protracted in Time and Distributed in Space]. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 8 November. Available at: https://rg.ru/2023/11/08/chto-budet-posle-status-kvo.html

[3] See: Mitchell, A. Wess, 2023. America Is a Heartbeat away from a War It Could Lose. Foreign Policy, 16 November. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/11/16/us-russia-china-gaza-ukraine-world-war-defense-security-strategy/?tpcc=recirc062921

[4] Kempf, H., 2008. How the Rich Are Destroying the World. Le Monde diplomatique, June. Available at:  https://mondediplo.com/2008/06/18ecology

[5] “The only existential threat humanity faces even more frightening than a… than a nuclear war is global warming going above 1.5 degrees in the next 20-10 years…There’s no way back from that.” (Biden, J., 2023.“Remarks by President Joe Biden in a Press Conference.” The White House, 10 September. Available at:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/09/10/remarks-by-president-biden-in-a-press-conference-2/)

[6] See, for example, Trenin, D.V., 2023. Conflict in Ukraine and Nuclear Weapons. Russia in Global Affairs, 20 June. Available at: https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/ukraine-and-nuclear-weapons/

[7] Zavriev, S.K., 2022. Sovremennye problemy biobezopasnosti i perspektivy mezhdunarodnogo sotrudnichestva [Modern Problems of Biosecurity and Prospects of International Cooperation]. Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 66(4), pp. 94-100.