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Russia and the new language of war

What we mean when we talk about “kinetic” and “non-kinetic” warfare.

By Lawrence Freedman

In discussions of contemporary war, including the current one between Russia and Ukraine, there are many references to “kinetic warfare”. A kinetic war is normally described as one involving the use of lethal force, though that might be thought of as a natural feature of all wars. But what constitutes a “non-kinetic war”? I want to consider how this kinetic/non-kinetic dichotomy, and other developments in the language used to describe contemporary conflicts, reflect an attempt to find a place for activities that can be hostile and hurtful but not necessarily lethal, alongside those which unambiguously are. As the most prominent of these is cyberattacks, why has their impact been so limited in the Russo-Ukraine war?

Military language and concepts

The language that military professionals use to talk about war reflects their need to manage its inherent complexity and chaos, often cloaking naturally brutish and vicious activities in technical terminology – a role “kinetic” performs. This isn’t that different from other professions, such as medicine, in which ways must be found to discuss unpleasant subjects dispassionately. The tranquilising effect of the military’s language is not helped by its propensity for acronyms, especially when referring to weapons systems, which can make conversations bewildering, especially for those who don’t know their ATACMS from their Himars (Army Tactical Missile System, which can be fired from the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System).

By and large it has been possible to talk about the Russo-Ukraine war without resorting to more arcane military terminology. While the details of specific encounters may be hard to grasp, the core challenges faced by both sides are not. The range and detail of the combat images available on social media have shown fighting resembling that of the world wars, including soldiers hiding in trenches as the shells come in, or tanks trying to avoid mines as they cross fields – and often failing. If generals from history could have seen this they would recognise what was going on and be able to engage with the relative strength of the defence over the offence, the possibilities for manoeuvre and encirclement against the hard slog of attrition, and the vulnerability of supply lines to interdiction. They might note how the influence of the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) can still be felt in the discussion of decisive battles (the scale of the defeat necessary to persuade the enemy to give up), friction (why military operations rarely proceed as planned), centres of gravity (the point at which if you hit the enemy hard it is most likely to collapse), and the culminating point (when an army on the offensive becomes exhausted and can advance no further).

Where lasting innovation has come in military language, it tends to surround new types of weapons or modes of warfare. The most obvious example of this came with the arrival of nuclear weapons in 1945. This was a transformational moment as the focus shifted from fighting wars to deterring them, leading to the generation of a whole set of new concepts – such as “first and second strikes” and “assured destruction”. The language of deterrence and escalation applies here as we try to work out where Vladimir Putin has his red lines, and how far he is prepared to go if he thinks they are being crossed.

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin dead?]

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The digital age

The same conceptual clarity has been lacking when discussing all military developments associated with the digital age. This has been transformational, but has yet to generate an accompanying and generally agreed framework for describing and evaluating its impact. This is in part because the changes have been incremental, not sudden and stark as with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The microchip was invented in the 1950s and the circuits printed upon them have become progressively more complex since. Computers have moved from performing basic calculations faster than humans to out-thinking humans in a whole range of areas – with, through artificial intelligence, the promise of more to come.

An additional factor is that digitisation, with its fast networks and ease of communication, is ubiquitous, promising greater efficiency in all human affairs, not just warfare. One consequence of this ubiquity is that it creates new dependencies and so new vulnerabilities – bad actors, from criminals to hostile states, see opportunities to disrupt and manipulate. This has opened the possibility of conducting conflict away from the battlefield, mounting “cyberattacks”, attacking societies directly rather than first having to defeat their armed forces.

A third issue is that digital-age systems do not replace all that has gone before. They must work with the systems of the “industrial age” – the platforms for carrying weapons and moving them to places where they can be fired to the greatest effect, such as artillery and tanks, aircraft and warships. The digital-age systems do not so much replace those of the industrial age as make them more effective: allowing them to offer greater precision over longer range, facilitated by the speed with which information about the operating environment, including enemy positions, can be gathered, assessed and disseminated.

These developments emerged during the 1991 Gulf War, leading to talk of a “revolution in military affairs”. But this soon appeared hyperbolic and premature, especially after 9/11 when the big fight was not against a “peer competitor” but against ruthless terrorists. The big US counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan drew attention to challenges quite different to those faced in conventional warfare against regular armies, requiring a sophisticated understanding of local politics and culture.

In 2014, the first Russian moves against Ukraine involved such a wide range of capabilities – from regular forces to sponsored militias to cyber-hackers to social media propagandists – that one single capability no longer seemed central to modern warfare; that it instead required lots of different types of capabilities. The most popular adjective to capture this feature was “hybrid”. When this term was first introduced in 2006, with Israel’s fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the combination of regular and irregular forces was highlighted. It seemed as if the Russian leadership had developed a whole new theory of conflict around mixing and matching different capabilities. Although this claim was later judged to have been exaggerated, Russia was still actively exploring the possibilities of attacks exploiting digital networks.

A variety of activities could be covered under this “cyber” heading. They largely corresponded to familiar “behind the front lines” activities – sabotage, propaganda, subversion and espionage. As commonly discussed in the West, cyberattacks were closest to sabotage – interfering with administrative networks or power supplies – and propaganda – using social media to spread fake news and false narratives. From the Russian perspective subversion and espionage could be used both defensively and offensively, reflecting its view of the fragility of all socio-political systems, including its own. Moscow was convinced that Western governments were stirring up disaffected Russians, and also that it could undermine those same governments by spreading alarm and despondency among their populations. These non-traditional forms of warfare seemed to appeal to Russia, because of the Kremlin’s interest in finding ways of hurting others while still proclaiming innocence. Prior to 2022 it was often argued that it suited Russia better to work in this murky “grey zone”, avoiding both the risks of war and the rules of peace.

Hybrid and multi domain

When concerns about this grey zone began to surface over the past decade, usually with reference to Iran and China as well as Russia, the point was not that the activities undertaken in it were non-violent, as in many cases they clearly were not. They were significant because they could be undertaken covertly, or at least with some level of deniability, and, most importantly, they could be sustained, possibly indefinitely, without spilling over into open conflict.

The UK’s 2021 “Integrated Review” stated that: “Technology will create new vulnerabilities to hostile activity and attack in domains such as cyberspace and space, notably including the spread of disinformation online. It will undermine social cohesion, community and national identity as individuals spend more time in a virtual world and as automation reshapes the labour market.”

In 2016 the European Union adopted its own definition of “hybrid threats” (not quite war), which detached these various unconventional activities from standard military operations: “While definitions of hybrid threats vary and need to remain flexible to respond to their evolving nature, the concept aims to capture the mixture of coercive and subversive activity, conventional and unconventional methods (ie diplomatic, military, economic, technological), which can be used in a coordinated manner by state or non-state actors to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare… Massive disinformation campaigns, using social media to control the political narrative or to radicalise, recruit and direct proxy actors can be vehicles for hybrid threats.”

So hybrid came to refer to all mischief making in this grey zone, so long as it stayed below the threshold of full-scale war.

[See also: John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”]

But it could also be seen in other phrases that have been used in recent decades to convey a more holistic approach in which the desired result requires bringing together a range of capabilities – “network-centric”, “effects-based”, “full spectrum” and “multi domain”. In discussing “multi-domain operations” the US army warned how:

“China and Russia exploit the conditions of the operational environment to achieve their objectives without resorting to armed conflict by fracturing the US’s alliances, partnerships and resolve. They attempt to create stand-off through the integration of diplomatic and economic actions, unconventional and information warfare (social media, false narratives, cyberattacks), and the actual or threatened employment of conventional forces… Through these competitive actions, China and Russia believe they can achieve objectives below the threshold of armed conflict.”

This led to the argument that the United States should also be able to compete “in all domains short of conflict”, spanning the “competition continuum”, although the army’s own contribution on close examination looks a lot like a combination of traditional deterrence and war-fighting operations.

Some analysts argue that it might even be possible for the West’s enemies to gain some decisive advantage without ever having to resort to open warfare. Victory might be gained as computer networks crashed and collective minds were turned. The academics Richard Harknett and Max Smeets concluded in an article published last year that “cyber operations and operations can be pivotal in world affairs by independently… supporting the maintenance or alteration of the balance of power… without having to resort to military violence”.

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s speech shows he still thinks the West will blink first]

The idea that states or groups can consider themselves to be at war without actually engaging in acts of war is not new. It was once the case that war had a clear legal status. A war would start with a formal declaration, which would have implications for neutrals as well as the belligerents, and normally end with an equally formal cessation of hostilities and possibly a treaty, which would confirm who had won and lost. After states nobly agreed to renounce war as an act of policy in 1928, those determinedly pursuing aggression simply used, ironically, other words to describe the situation – “incident”, “emergency”, “police action”, “intervention” and so on. Putin is continuing in this tradition with his talk of a “special military operation”.

We have also become used to the possibility that the line between the states of peace and war can be blurred – that there can be periods of growing antagonism in which states seek to hurt each other without descending into full-scale violence. Such a condition might even involve low-level violence, for example border skirmishes and incursions, without further escalation. After all, for 45 years international affairs was defined by a cold war between the US and Soviet-led blocs.

When wars were declared, this would lead to the start of “hostilities”. In war as in peace there might be sabotage, propaganda, subversion and espionage, as well as economic measures and diplomacy, but these would now be ancillary to war’s most distinguishing feature – the use of violence. What has happened over recent decades is that these ancillary activities have come to be seen as important – in some circumstances even more important – as the violence. They need to be attended to while a conflict is stuck in the grey zone, and also after the transition into open war. To ensure this happens these activities have acquired their own institutional presence and command structures. Much effort now goes into working out how all these activities can be properly coordinated so that they reinforce each other rather than work at cross purposes.

Kinetic and non-kinetic war

This backdrop helps explain “kinetic war”.

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion (from the Greek word kinesis, which means motion). An object’s motion is a function of its mass and the force working on it, which gives it speed. More mass and velocity equate to more kinetic energy, which is released when one object collides with another object. This is obviously a feature of bullets, shells, rockets, bombs and so on. This is why a kinetic war refers to one dominated by the use of firepower to kill or wound people and destroy things.

In principle “kinetic” is an unnecessary qualifier to “war”. It has come into use because of the spread of the idea that there might be wars that do not involve fighting. Other than that, it is not an obvious way to describe the normal, bloody business of warfare. It has the hallmarks of a euphemism, a way of describing war without mentioning its pain and horror. When the term first began to be noticed in 2002, Timothy Noah observed how it was objectionable to both doves and hawks.

“To those who deplore or resist going to war,” Noah wrote, “‘kinetic’ is unconscionably euphemistic, with antiseptic connotations derived from high-school physics and aesthetic ones traceable to the word’s frequent use by connoisseurs of modern dance. To those who celebrate war (or at least find it grimly necessary), ‘kinetic’ fails to evoke the manly virtues of strength, fierceness, and bravery.”

The term is therefore interesting less because of what it describes but because it implies a different sort of war – non-kinetic – that achieves the objectives normally associated with war, but without employing the normal methods.

[See also: How Putin lost the energy war]

What then is non-kinetic war? In physics, potential energy is stored within an object by virtue of its position relative to other objects. Only when they are acted upon to produce motion do they acquire kinetic energy. So strictly speaking, the proper contrast with kinetic warfare is potential or latent warfare: that is, one for which preparations have been made and can be threatened. On this basis a very good example of non-kinetic warfare would be nuclear deterrence. The weapons do not have to be used to have an effect; the thought of the potential energy that might be released suffices.

One possible meaning of non-kinetic refers to a struggle for advantage that might take place before the outbreak of full-scale war, yet it must refer to a high level of conflict that is essentially non-violent. It has been used to refer to the application of the softer forms of power, such as those aspects of counterinsurgency warfare intended to win over the “hearts and minds” of the local population, for example by building roads, schools and hospitals. But in counterinsurgency theory these soft measures still had to work with the harder forms of power. It was not an alternative to fighting the insurgents. To win hearts and minds it was also essential to keep people safe from being attacked and demonstrate that the enemy could be defeated.

The normal contrast is with cyberattacks and information campaigns. As we have seen these are now regularly highlighted as effective ways of damaging opponents and rivals in the grey zone while still having a vital complementary role to play once open war breaks out. These methods could only lead to a form of truly non-kinetic war if in some way they meant that the enemy could be defeated without death and destruction. This has always seemed unlikely. If the effects were drastic, with transportation and energy systems crashing, or communities turned against each other, the effects would be extremely violent, in the same way that blockades or economic sanctions that truly bite cannot be considered truly non-violent because of their harmful effects on the target population.

In some recent discussions cyber-weapons are presented as having serious benefits compared with the kinetic. One artillery shell can, at best, destroy only one target. The effects are permanent and cannot be reversed. To get greater effects, a greater volume of shells are needed. Then there is the risk of stockpiles running out before the war aims can be achieved. In contrast, cyber-weapons can be used in the grey zone, and against many targets all at once, and they can be used over and over again. While they can do permanent damage, their effects are often reversible. On the downside these effects are not always predictable and may be limited, and because they are often used covertly, their meaning can be ambiguous for victims.

Cyberattacks in the current war

The current war in Ukraine provides us with an opportunity to evaluate the comparative merits of the kinetic and the cyber. Compared with pre-war expectations cyber has had a limited impact. But this is emphatically not because of a lack of Russian effort. The head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, Lindy Cameron, has described the Russian cyber campaign as “probably the most sustained and intensive… on record”. In the weeks before the war began, a major effort was made to wipe out Ukrainian government networks, deleting data so that systems were unable to function. On 24 February, according to Nato, Russia “successfully deployed more destructive malware… than the rest of the world’s cyberpowers combined typically use in a given year”. As of late June, Microsoft claimed to have detected “eight distinct malware programs – some wipers and some other forms of destructive malware – against 48 different Ukrainian agencies and enterprises”.

The most important attack came one hour before Russian troops crossed the border, when the Viasat satellite communications network was disrupted by Russian military intelligence. Jon Bateman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (whose detailed research on all aspects of this issue is invaluable) describes this as “the marquee cyber event of the war so far”. According to Viasat itself, Russian hackers launched a “targeted denial of service attack [that] made it difficult for many modems to remain online”. It also executed “a ground-based network intrusion… to gain remote access to the trusted management segment” of the network. There, the network issued “destructive commands” to “a large number of residential modems simultaneously”. Some equipment was quickly restored but Viasat had to ship tens of thousands of modems to replace those that stayed offline. Rescue came in the form of Starlink terminals, with levels of connectivity that have proved to be resilient.

The attack on Viasat was only one of a number of efforts to jam Ukrainian communications, interfering with links between the central command and front-line soldiers. Once the initial offensives faltered, this Russian effort lost its focus. Moreover, they were also struggling with the same problems that had afflicted their conventional military operations: underestimation of Ukrainian defences. There was soon an evident disconnect between the tempo of the Russian offensive and the Ukrainian counters, and the management of the sabotage, propaganda and intelligence-collecting operations, conducted by the Russian spy agencies, the FSB and GRU. Despite the talk of hybrid operations, these were not well synchronised.

During 2022 there were 2,100 cyberattacks against Ukrainian organisations, of which some 600 were before the start of the war. From September when Russia began a systematic campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, using missiles and kamikaze drones, this also became the focus of Russia’s cyberstrikes. These included an unsuccessful effort aimed at an electrical substation that would have disrupted power for millions of Ukrainians. 

[See also: Dmytro Kuleba: “Russian victory will ruin everything the West stands for”]

Despite the expectation that cyberattacks would play a major role, the practice was therefore far less impressive. Why was this?

First, it takes time to prepare these attacks. It is necessary to get to know the target systems and infiltrate them (increasing the risk of detection as this is done). The Viasat attack might have taken a year of preparation. Nor is it that easy to switch the same cyber-weapons from one target to another.

Second, when cyber-weapons are effective it is not always easy to control their effects. There may have been some concern in Moscow about the political impact of malware spreading, although Moscow seems to be more relaxed in this regard now. In 2017 the NotPetya virus disabled some 500,000 computers in Ukraine alone, but also spread quickly, affecting Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft as well as badly hitting Maersk, the Danish shipping company.

Third, it is skilled work. The reported loss of up to 10 per cent of IT specialists leaving Russia during 2022 and the demands of mobilisation will not have helped.

Lastly, and most importantly, having suffered from these attacks from 2014, Ukraine had invested in security and resilience. With the help of governments and international companies it was able to cope. “Many crucial services were transferred to data centers outside of the country, beyond the reach of Russian fires,” Cyfirma, a company advising on cybersecurity, explained. “Ukraine’s military, contrary to many Russian units, had prepared alternative means of communication. Amazon helped in developing cloud-based backups of essential government data, putting essentially the whole government ‘into a box’. Or more precisely suitcase-sized solid-state hard drives, called Snowball Edge units. Critical infrastructure and economic information, more than 10 million gigabytes of data, including information from 27 Ukrainian ministries, have been flown out the country and put into cloud.”

Nato provided access to its repository of known malware, Britain provided firewalls and forensic capabilities, the US pledged large but publicly undisclosed assistance, the EU digital governance powerhouse Estonia offered help based on its long-term success in the digitalisation of the economy. Western assistance did not stop with governments and militaries though: besides the aforementioned help from Amazon, Microsoft alone pledged $400m in free help, being quickly followed by other companies from the industry, providing tools and know-how. Cyber-officials have, however, noted that the cooperation has been far from one-sided. Marcus Willett, a former head of cyber issues for GCHQ has been quoted as saying that “the Ukrainians taught the US and the UK more about Russian cyber-tactics than they learned from them”.

It is always unwise to generalise from one experience, although this was an area in which Russia supposedly excelled. It may well be that a cyberoffensive mounted by the US and its allies would be more effective. As far as we know Russia has not suffered serious attacks, other than from the hacktivist group Anonymous, which has run a crowdsourced campaign against Russia. It has hacked printers to beat censorship by printing anti-government messages; hosted servers to attack Russian websites and services; hacked smart TVs, internet streams, news sites and TV channels to broadcast banned images and information about the war; and hacked companies that still do business in Russia. The impact of these acts is unclear although the Kremlin can’t have been pleased, not least because it reveals Russia’s potential vulnerability to more sophisticated attacks from their enemies in the future.

The basic conclusion still must be that cyberattacks have yet to demonstrate the potential claimed for them. Where they have had an impact, this has been in a supporting role. As noted, from last September they played a part in the attacks on Ukrainian civil infrastructure, along with missiles and drones. But it was the “kinetic” missiles and drones that made it difficult for Ukraine to keep the lights on and people warm. Put crudely, rather than trying to work out how to penetrate an energy transmission network, which might turn out to have effective defences or back-up, it was simpler to blast the electricity station.

This war has been dominated by firepower, by systems that kill people and destroy things. That remains the main business of war, which other capabilities support but do not displace. I suspect that is why the term kinetic is in vogue, because in its quasi-scientific simplicity it captures war’s core and inescapable character. But that is why it is also redundant. Kinetic war is not a distinctive type. It is all war.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. A version of this piece ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed

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