Can we be sure we aren’t at war?

From cyber-warfare to organised crime, foreign powers can engage in a range of hostile acts without traditional weapons.

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Look around you. The signs are everywhere. The Russian attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury is the most obvious: carried out by named members Russian military intelligence, the GRU, it resulted in the death of Dawn Sturgess. Many more could have been killed by the Novichok poison they carried.   

Most forms of aggression are more covert, but nonetheless deadly. The cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz in the summer of 2010 using a worm is well known. One thousand machines were destroyed: 20 per cent of Natanz’s centrifuges, which had to be replaced.  Probably carried out by the Israelis, with support from the United States, it was a major setback for the Iranians.

Other incidents have been less public. In 2015 a German blast furnace was targeted in another cyber attack. Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security described what happened: “Failures accumulated in individual control components or entire systems,” the report notes. As a result, the plant was “unable to shut down a blast furnace in a regulated manner” which resulted in “massive damage to the system.” Germany is still reluctant to discuss exactly what took place.

A year later there was a report that Russian hackers had managed to disable some Ukrainian artillery. The Fancy Bear hackers used a trojan to take control of the targeting systems the Ukrainian troops used to aim their Soviet-era D-30 Howitzers. Such operations are presently no more than probes or tests to see how the enemy reacts.  

If full-scale war was to erupt, it is assumed that the internet and global tracking systems would be among the first systems to be disrupted. The Chinese military is said to have instructed its troops not to rely on high-tech systems, instead teaching them to return to old-fashioned methods, including the use of the compass.

These are examples of recent attacks that have become public knowledge. They are examples of what Dr John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies described as “tolerance warfare”. He defines this as “the persistent effort to test the tolerances for different forms of aggression against settled states. It is the effort to push back lines of resistance, probe weaknesses, assert rights unilaterally, break rules, establish new facts on the ground, and gain systematic tactical advantage over hesitant opponents.”

“New facts” are not just being established on the ground, but in the oceans. The Chinese have set about building islands and military installations all around the South China sea, to the intense anger and frustration of their neighbours. While the United States has sent in aircraft and navy to challenge these, they have so far refrained from a direct confrontation. The cost of any escalation could have regional, if not global, implications.

A more subtle, but also worrying phenomenon, is taking place in Britain: the rise of organised crime. Today it is worth around £37bn (1.8 per cent of GDP), according to Lynne Owens, head of the National Crime Agency. The gangs control everything from drugs and prostitution to targeted burglary. The numbers involved in these illegal activities are staggering: Owens believes there are in excess of 4,600 employing 33,598 professional gangsters.

This is serious enough, but questions are now being asked about how to regard these gangs. Are they just sophisticated criminals? Or are they something more?

A recent book by Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia, paints a more complex picture: it shows links between Russian organised crime and the state going back at least as far as the time of Stalin. Under Vladimir Putin these ties have been strengthened, via Russia’s oligarchs. As one reviewer put it: “Today, Putin controls the oligarchs, and together they control and exploit the criminal world to their mutual advantage.”

The question is what role organised crime – some of it with links to Russia, Georgia and Chechnya – has in Britain. Is it simply a money-making operation, or have they another potential role? Asked whether they posed a risk to national security, one former army officer, who asked not to be named, replied with a single word: “Yes.”

The threats are certainly real; the question is just what to make of them. John Raine, senior adviser for geopolitical due diligence, at IISS, argues that we should be careful how we describe them. “It seems we are in a state between war and peace,” he says. “We are still trying to name this state. What we call it matters.”

The old maxim, “If you seek peace prepare for war” reflects a clarity that may no longer hold true, he says. “In 2019, it might now be a case of ‘if you desire peace, don’t call it war.”

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.