The war in Ukraine: a crowd-sourced total global war?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Colonel Michael Ryan
Colonel Michael Ryan

Lecturer on world affairs and Russian history, former deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO policy at the United States Department of Defense and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Is the world’s response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the emergence of a new approach to countering authoritarian aggression? A new approach to war itself? It seems so. The famous Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz specifically said: “War is a mere continuation of policy ‘with the addition of other means’ (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln).” The world is responding to Putin with the addition of other means like never before.

The response is global. The United Nations General Assembly in complete disregard for Russia’s veto of a resolution in the Security Council voted 145-5 (with 35 abstentions) to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. President Zelensky’s leadership and the staunch resistance of the proud and fierce Ukrainian patriots has galvanised public support for Ukraine worldwide, which in turn has crowd-sourced an unprecedented and seemingly very personal global response.

The response is total, encompassing the ‘whole of governments’ leveraging all their elements of national power to combat Putin (or in the case of India and China, to stay out of the way). The private sector is, for the most part, all in as major multinationals absorb significant hits to their books and their bottom lines to eliminate Russia from their portfolios. The French conglomerate TotalEnergies is a notable exception, bien sûr. Civil society as expressed on social media, as evidenced by Europeans opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees, as seen in the streets of free cities around the world and through the work of international, national and non-governmental relief organisations is making an extraordinary effort to bring pressure on Russia, to support Ukraine and to alleviate suffering in a war zone.

Clearly the world has finally woken up to the reality that our collective interest in peace and stability – our security – is greater than the interests of any country, corporation or crowd. Therefore, all of our tools, levers of power and avenues of influence are now directed at stopping the Putin onslaught against the peaceful people of Ukraine. From President Zelensky to McDonalds, it’s a remarkable response that no one could have planned, or even imagined, and that no single person or group could have organised. It’s a principled response to an outrageous act. Russia is now crippled, and Putin is, according to The Economist, “isolated and morally dead”. Authoritarianism, which was on the rise for the last 15 years according to Freedom House, has taken a significant body blow. The 40 nations that did not vote to condemn the invasion in the UN General Assembly resolution should take note, especially China.

China’s military aspirations for a quick conquest of Taiwan must certainly be tempered as Taipei increasingly becomes a Forbidden City. The longer Putin persists, the harder it will be for China to resist. When the inescapable music of the crowd-sourced total global war sinks in among the crafty conductors of the Chinese Communist Party orchestra, how will China react? Most likely, it will continue to pursue its interests by once again trying to shape the global context in its favour, using many of the same tactics that got it to where it is today, but in a gentler more subtle way.

A more coherent, visible and determined humanitarian response delivered more rapidly could have changed the facts on the ground profoundly

Therefore, our response, based on our failure to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, must be to work assiduously as a global community of free nations, in the same way and with the same energy we are now with respect to Ukraine, to help weaker nations and societies eliminate their vulnerabilities to malign external influence, coercion and subversion. The reasons for our collective moral outrage against Russian oligarchs, predatory corrupt officials and aggrandising self-appointed authoritarians must be applied equally to all others who wilfully plunder their own people’s wealth. This is the best way to fight rising autocracy, demonstrate the merits of democracy and prevent conflict in the future. We must sustain the energy of the moment lest we relapse rapidly into complacency and ignorance, and we must use this energy to truly learn the lessons of today. This is ‘warfare’ in the 21st century.

What should the free nations, the 145, do to learn and then apply the lessons of the crowd-sourced total global war? First, we should realise that defence is a subset of security. Even though many nations continue to supply Ukraine with as much effective weaponry as they can absorb, the role of the world’s militaries in this conflict is to reinforce deterrence, to ensure the war does not spread and to prevent escalation into World War III, not to fight it. This subset of our response is correct, but it highlights the importance and efficacy of other national and international tools in ensuring security, which is our second lesson. We should grasp what “with the addition of other means” really suggests. It means we should use all of our tools collectively and with purpose as early as possible in a conflict prevention role, including diplomacy, which must always be backed by strength, economy, which we are now thankfully using to great effect, and information, which we are now pushing into the deep recesses of the global conscience. All of these contribute to a coherent and comprehensive effort to prevent, and if necessary respond, to a conflict, and along with our military resources constitute the effective use of our power.

Third, we should put teeth into our agreements. The World Summit in 2005 unanimously agreed to the principle and doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P as it’s known) following the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, specifically in Srebrenica, but we collectively failed to apply this agreement to Ukraine. So, now we see once more all too clearly that the use of violence creates a humanitarian disaster, and again despite R2P, we were ill prepared to respond. A more coherent, visible and determined humanitarian response delivered more rapidly could have changed the facts on the ground profoundly.

In a crowd-sourced total global war, the humanitarian aspect resonates with everyone, and it is very likely that the humanitarian aspect is the reason for the total response of the crowd. Concerted global effort under R2P to insist adamantly on the rapid and extensive insertion of recognised humanitarian actors into the conflict zone is a moral obligation, but it’s also an effective use of our global power, one which would significantly mitigate the consequences and perhaps compel combatants towards a ceasefire, the real establishment of humanitarian corridors and a reduction in indiscriminate violence. From the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Office of Migration, the World Food Programme, Save the Children (all UN bodies) to the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Doctors Without Borders, and local Ukrainian non-government organisations, the humanitarian assistance community is in action, as they always are in such circumstances. They don’t take sides. Nevertheless, in this case, as in every case, powerful governments who support peace should support these actors by insisting, declaring and establishing humanitarian safe spaces so that they can do their job. Mothers, children, the elderly, infirmed and wounded need them, and they need us.

Militaries win battles. Societies win wars

The collective and effective use of our instruments of power to counter Putin’s exercise of his national power, including his threats of nuclear war, fights fire with fire. Resolute humanitarian action fights fire with water. It is non-violent and non-nuclear. Global and total commitment to well-funded, well-supported humanitarian action is how we make right the master of might. It is how we live up to our values and insert those values on the battlefield without putting soldiers’ boots on the ground.

In our current context, how would it work? To stand with Ukraine, it’s necessary to stand on Ukraine. To establish safe spaces in western Ukraine, we must, as always, use all the tools at our disposal in necessary measure. First, we tell Putin that we are doing it, then we tell him if he interferes Europe will stop paying him for oil and gas. Next, we declare our intent to defend the humanitarian actors by clearing the skies above the safe spaces in western Ukraine, which we can do with technical means from NATO territory. We insist that no aircraft, Russian or Ukrainian, fly in this space and no attacks are conducted in or from this space. Like the humanitarian community, we treat everyone the same. From this humanitarian assistance space, the necessary supplies and medical assistance needed in the east can be moved forward via established corridors, while evacuees move west. Clearly, the resupply routes used to support Ukraine’s defence must be separate and distinct from the humanitarian ones.

This is war in the 21st century. It is unacceptable, which is why it’s total, it’s global and the crowd is involved. The lessons are clear. Conflict prevention is preferable, cheaper and saves lives and property, but it takes the same consistent, collective, appropriate and effective application of freedom’s power as does conflict itself. We have the international law, unanimous agreements and moral authority necessary to prevent conflict, but we don’t because we fail to imagine that it could actually happen. Once conflict occurs, therefore, those same elements of power applied differently and appropriately should bring a more rapid conclusion to hostilities, but only if we aggressively and visibly defend the weakest among us by forcefully insisting on the equal application of our humanitarian values to all involved.

We learned through our collective experience of the past 20 years that a whole-of-society approach to post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction is required if war-torn societies are to regain some semblance of normalcy. We also learned that it’s hard, very expensive and takes a long time – longer than we are willing to admit. At the same time, we learned to work together better, to apply more elements of our collective power, and to embrace civil society and humanitarian actors in the process. What we failed to learn is that working together, applying all elements of our power, and embracing civil society in a conflict prevention role makes it easier and cheaper to win the peace. Militaries win battles. Societies win wars by establishing the conditions for peace and then actively winning the peace by building to those conditions. This total global crowd-sourced war that we are in is rapidly insisting on peace and, in so doing, is establishing the conditions for the behaviour of nations going forward. We must now start to build to those conditions by adapting the rules-based world order so that together we live up to and enforce the standards now being set.

Michael Ryan served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy from October 2019 to October 2020. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US government.

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