5th Generation Warfare, or Slaughter by Sanctions
A Banker's War for the 21st Century
In October 1989 the Marine Corps Gazette published an article entitled “The Changing Face of Warfare: Into the Fourth Generation.” The lead author of that article, William S. Lind, has since written at much greater length about the decentralized insurgencies and culture wars that make up what we've come to call Fourth Generation Warfare or 4GW.
4GW notoriously blurs the lines between civilians and combatants. Whereas earlier wars focused on holding and gaining territory, 4GW concentrates on breaking the enemy’s will through ever-increasing pressure on the civilian populace. Open conflict is largely replaced by support for insurgents, guerillas, and troublemakers who weaken your opponent’s position. In an age of intercontinental nukes, 4GW offers a quieter, if equally messy, death by a thousand cuts.
In February 2014, unpopular President Viktor Yanukovych (with a greater or lesser degree of help from outside forces) was removed from office in a popular uprising that the West called a revolution and Russia a coup. Soon afterward, Russia seized control of Crimea and Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk region declared independence.
For eight years both sides adhered to the classic 4GW script. Ukrainian nationalists launched a harassment campaign of bullets and artillery against the separatist republics. Ethnic Russian nationalists fired back or fired first, depending on whom you ask. These independent militias were accountable to nobody and disavowed by local and international politicians alike.
These pressure campaigns polarized citizens on both sides but did nothing to dissuade Zelenskyy from moving Ukraine toward NATO. And so, on February 24, 2022, Russia resorted to a much older and more direct school of warfare.
Russian-backed rebel in Donetsk, 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. CC License.
World War II teeters at the edge of living memory. Soon the last WWII veteran will be gone and World War II will take its place in history alongside the Crusades and the Fall of Rome. In the West, there are neither politicians nor soldiers with experience of a continent-wide war. Nobody born after the Soviet Union’s 1991 fall remembers the Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation.
Putin’s act of naked aggression caught the West off-guard. We had no idea of what to do when a political leader casts off the subterfuge and comes rolling into territory with troops. We tried to explain his behavior away as ‘roid rage, as pandemic isolation psychosis, as insanity. But empires have always been held by boots on the ground, and that territory belongs to anyone strong enough to claim it. Putin’s behavior is a regression to the norm, not an aberration.
Throughout this conflict, there have been increasingly loud calls for NATO and the West to Do Something. But the West has stubbornly remained stuck in a Fourth Generational Mindset. They are happy to throw money and materiel at the problem. They are happy to compare Putin to a certain failed Austrian landscape artist. They are happy to Stand with Ukraine on TikTok and Instagram. But European and North American leaders have consistently and repeatedly signaled at every opportunity that they do not want to get in a shooting war with Russia.
The Myth of Progress being what it is, the West has augmented its Fourth Generation approach with a new, Fifth Generation school of warfare. Instead of looking back to the irrelevant past, our modern political and business classes aim to meet bloodshed with economic siege warfare.
Madeline Albright at Albright Forum, 2016. Photo by Brynacor. CC License.
In May 1996, nearly six years after the world had introduced tough sanctions against Iraq, 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl asked Madeline Albright:
We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, hesitated for a moment before replying, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” In January of 1997, Albright was confirmed as US Secretary of State under Bill Clinton. Later Albright would go on to roles with The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the World Justice Project.
Sanctions have been a commonly used weapon against “rogue nations” that get out of line. Libya, Iran, North Korea, and a few other bad guys have found themselves on the Free World’s naughty list. Being shut off from the cool kids’ trading circle is more than just humiliating. In 2016, after international sanctions were lifted, Iran’s economy grew 12.3%. In 2018 those sanctions were reimposed. By 2019 Iran’s unemployment rate was 16.8% and its economy had contracted over 14%.
Since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, the West has thrown up numerous punitive sanctions. Russian aircraft are banned from EU and North American space. Several Russian oligarchs have seen their megayachts confiscated, and many oil companies have pulled out of Russia in response to US pressure. The onetime superpower has now been subjected to the kind of economic isolation hitherto reserved for poorer, darker, and non-nuclear nations.
On March 4, Edward Wong and Michael Corley wrote in the New York Times that:
[T]he Biden administration and European governments have set new goals: devastate the Russian economy as punishment for the world to witness, and create domestic pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin to halt his war in Ukraine.
Fifth Generation Warfare takes many of its cues from “Cancel Culture.” The idea is to isolate the target and cut off its financial support through social shaming and peer pressure. Like armchair anarchists calling a racist’s employer, America has led the charge to isolate and boycott Vladimir Putin. And as lardy young blue-haired protestors never tire of reminding us, silence = complicity.
But though sanctions on this scale may be unprecedented, they were not unforeseen. Putin expected financial blowback for the Ukraine invasion. He weighed the risks and was prepared to deal with the consequences. Those who announced these sanctions and who seek even more ways to break the Russian economy and spirit have not shown such foresight. And as Putin has announced that these sanctions are a “declaration of war,” we may wish to contemplate our financial warfare’s blowback.
WIN (Whip Inflation Now) button, 1974. Photo by Gerald R. Ford Library. CC License.
An old fart like me can talk about growing up in the 1970s Rust Belt during stagflation and the Arab oil embargo. No American outside of a nursing home has ever seen a full-scale Great Depression. Things haven’t been good for America’s working classes for over 50 years, but we have managed so far to avoid Hoovervilles and breadlines.
After the Soviet Union fell, Russians found themselves without pensions, price controls, or a social safety net. Hyperinflation ate up their meager savings as the state-sponsored factories where they had spent their working lives closed down for good. The ensuing financial crash was considerably more severe than the American downturn of the 1930s.
Every Russian over the age of 40 remembers that post-Soviet decade of deprivation. Those too young to remember have heard the stories from their parents and their teachers. They have a living memory of collapse. They also have a living memory of western NGOs and investors looting a broken Russia of her resources. And when they see crushing sanctions designed to cow them into submission, they are reminded of how ordinary Russians outlasted the Nazis during the brutal siege of Stalingrad.
The European Union relies on Russia for around 40% of its gas. German economic and energy minister Robert Habeck has warned that an immediate boycott of Russian gas and oil supplies could trigger mass unemployment and poverty. And after years of quantitative easing and currency manipulation, the United States has few tools left in its box for handling a hard economic downturn.
Even as the West places increasingly more onerous sanctions against Russia, countries seek to carve out exceptions for gas, minerals, and other items they can get only from Russia. They assume that they are calling the shots in this economic war, and have never stopped to consider what might happen should Russia respond to their sanctions by turning off the gas spigot, or withhold the 30% of global grain exports that come from Russia and Ukraine.
The Russians look upon 1991 as the year of a great tragedy. For the West, 1991 marked the end of history. For three decades America ruled as the world’s sole superpower, or at least America believed that to be the case. As all eyes turned to China, Russia was dismissed as a resource-rich gas station and money-laundering center for more sophisticated economies. Nobody in the West expected Putin to be the harbinger of history’s return.
Cover of June 1918 Judge magazine. (Public domain)
Economic shunning only works if everybody participates. Otherwise, your sanctions will be about as effective as sending a letter to Netflix or HBO explaining why you are canceling your subscription. Europe, unnerved by Putin’s vulgar display of power, jumped on board with America’s call: even long-neutral Switzerland agreed to freeze Russian assets.
Countries that have failed to jump on the Putin Pile-On have been subjected to increasingly stern warnings from American ambassadors and foreign service officers. America’s diplomatic and political classes seem unaware that they no longer work for the Sole Superpower. Russia and China have both noted (correctly) that any money stored in American control can be taken by the US government at any time. And they have begun working together toward replacing the Petrodollar with a Petroyuan.
Because oil is primarily purchased and sold in US dollars, the American dollar is popular around the world. That high dollar demand, along with free trade agreements, has helped keep import prices down and provided Americans with a steady supply of cheap imported merchandise. Should the world no longer need petrodollars, the dollar’s price would drop precipitously, making imports prohibitively expensive. And at a time when America needs all the friends we can get, we are instead trying to browbeat and threaten countries that wish to remain neutral. Including the world’s first and second most populous countries.
A 2001 Goldman Sachs report described five major developing economies using the acronym BRICS. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa have developed good trade and working relations with each other. (Russia and India have been close since the days when India was in the Soviet sphere of influence).
Brazil has declared itself neutral. India has ignored calls for sanctions and continues to purchase Russian weaponry and oil. South African President Cyril Ramophosa blames NATO for starting the conflict. And the biggest member of BRICS, an economy that has long since grown past the “developing” stage, has repeatedly condemned the sanctions and continues to do business with China despite increasingly harsh rhetoric from the United States.
We have launched an economic war. But as Machiavelli reminds us, wars begin when you will but do not end when you please. The world order has changed since February 24, and new iron curtains are being hung as we speak. If America hopes to maintain any place in the wake of the Return of History, we will have to learn the diplomatic and negotiating skills required to function in a multipolar world. Our failure to do that only hastens the day when the vultures who picked the Soviet Union’s bones come to claim a dying America’s resources.