The Shadow War – Jim Sciutto


Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to talk to you about “The Shadow War” from Jim Sciutto, the CNN anchor and Chief National Security Correspondent some of you may know. JS goes “inside Russia’s and China’s secret operations to defeat America ” as the sub-heading says somewhat strikingly, though in essence his book deals with the new range of aggression short of actual war which today are the most modern aspect of warfare essentially carried out by two powers which either would wish to come back to the pack of leading nations (Russia) or would wish to assert itself as the new world leader, displacing America from its century-old historical role (China).             

“The Shadow War” deals with hybrid warfare which encapsulates forms of attacking an adversary while remaining just below the threshold of conventional war also referred to as the “gray zone” by military experts, using a range of hard- and soft-power tactics from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, to deploying threats to space assets, to information (of disinformation) operations designed to spark domestic divisions, often in the context of democratic elections, to territorial acquisitions just short of a formal invasion. JS started to focus on those forms of soft-warfare when dealing with the poisoning of former FSB and Russian dissident Litvinenko in London in 2006 when working for ABC News, feeling that it marked a new era of aggressive risk-taking by a resurgent Russia that initiated a new form of war, which was continued even more strikingly with the Skrypal poisoning “raid” in Salisbury in 2018, both being officially denied by Russia. 

To JS, Russia and China, two different powers, use hybrid warfare which was new to the unprepared US and Western allies until the late 2000s as they sought another path to “victory”, realising they would be unlikely to win a shooting war to advance their strategic goals. The two “adversaries” also showed other countries the way, such as Iran and North Korea “starting down the same road”. Russia which admittedly was the most aggressive in all its shadow war ways, clearly stated in February 2013 (one year before Crimea and eastern Ukraine) in what became the Gerasimov doctrine (after the name of the chief of staff of the Russian Federation military) that “wars are no longer declared, and having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template” involving both military and non-military methods. To Gerasimov, “the role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has exceeded the power…of weapons in their effectiveness.” Like Russia with the annexation of Crimea, China was able to secure sovereign territory in disputed South China Sea areas, without firing a shot and incurring reprisals – even if both nations according to JS, based on U.S. officials’ accounts, including China, are also willing to rely upon traditional spying in the U.S. and the West and kill adversaries, like dissidents or opponents “at the drop of a hat”. In one of the most friendly version of hybrid warfare, both countries have been proficient at conducting efficient news operations via RT (formerly Russia Today, which was perhaps too obvious a name) or the newly rebranded-state run China Global Television Network that use Western reporters and anchors, following a very CNN style of delivery.                  

In Opening Salvo, JS takes us to Estonia and the first major cyber attack against a sovereign country, this time by Russia even if the culprit always remained unofficial and no claim was never made. Following the decision to move a Soviet war memorial in April 2007, protests erupted in the street combined with waves of cyberattacks ultimately paralysing all of Estonia as the government decided to take the country off the international web. Estonia had become the first victim of a state-sponsored cyber-attach on another nation in the form of a coordinated, focused and global “distributed denial of service” or DDoS attack. This attack was also an attack on NATO and the EU given Estonia’s membership of both, with Estonians fearing that was the prelude to a full-scale invasion. Estonia compared “2007”, which went on for weeks, to 9-11 given the asymmetric means employed though came short of requesting NATO assistance under Article 5 of the Treaty while pointing the finger at Russia which was easily identified as behind the attack. “2007” promoted Estonia to rethink its cyber vulnerabilities to the point that it is one of the most cyber attack-ready countries today, making Russian attacks unsuccessful even if the offense always has an edge over the defence in cyber warfare. Estonia suffered little from the 2017 “WannaCry” (attributed to North Korea) and the global attack on infrastructure in 2018 (attributed to Russia), mainly as Estonia developed a top level of cyber “hygiene” at the level of each of its citizens that is the first step to counter cyber attacks. Estonia also established data embassies, like in Luxembourg and other undisclosed places, where giant digital copies of data and communication related to government, voters or health and financial records were safely stored. JS saw two key lessons in that opening salvo: 1. A relatively blunt and low cost cyber weapon, like a DDoS, can paralyse an entire nation. 2. Russia demonstrated as of 2007 it was willing to launch cyber weapons against Western nations on a scale and degree not done before. JS felt that the U.S. and the West have largely missed the lessons of “2007” and thus what was to come (with hindsight) in the ensuing  decade, still thinking that Russia wanted what the West wanted, that is a mostly friendly relationship governed by a Western international rules-based order. 

In Stealing Secrets, JS takes us into ways by which China stole secrets to advance and support its economic growth. JS focuses on Stephen Su or Su Bin who while being involved in business activities in the US as a manufacturer of aircraft cable harness, had developed a ring of spying and stealing intellectual property from defence contractors, notably Boeing. Interestingly these spying activities which were encouraged if not led by Beijing, were also entrepreneurial with rings of thieves stealing secrets to then sell them to China. The U.S. Office of Intellectual Property estimates that up to USD 600 bn is lost up by the U.S. mainly to China. JS sees two lessons: 1. China, which wants to surpass economically the U.S.,  has been aggressively stealing government and private sector secrets and intellectual property for years in what it sees a fair game and not a crime, making it the most expensive theft in modern history. 2. The U.S. never managed to change Chinese behaviour in spite of repeated efforts and warnings by all administrations to stop its theft drive. Personal presidential warnings, indictments of members of the Chinese military or trade tariffs never stopped China’s drive while the West kept assuming that China wanted what the West wanted and that participating in international treaties and associations like the WTO would make China more Western, not unlike the approach to Russia.  

In Little Green Men, JS refers to the invasion of Crimea without firing a shot and the arming and supporting, very directly, via “little green men” the insurgents in Eastern Ukraine in the so-called Republic of the Donbass. JS sees two lessons: 1. Russia had the intent and the ability to redraw the borders of Europe by force (going further than invading Georgia in the Caucasus in 2008) and it could do so on NATO’s doorstep on the border of four EU and NATO members states. 2. The West missed or ignored warnings to exert military influence over Ukraine by Putin and other senior Russian officials in the years and months before and kept thinking that Russia could behave in Western manners as the tanks kept rolling westwards and Malaysian MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made missile in April 2015.         

In Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers, JS refers to the gravity-defying artificial islands built and then quasi-weaponised by China to cement ownership claims of part of the South China Sea which was contested by half a dozen nations. JS feels that China’s means of claiming sovereignty, which is a major land grab also backed by force though without firing a shot, challenges the rules-based international order set up and led by the U.S. since 1945. This land grab was also  a way to challenge America’s role as the leading military power and arbiter in the region. This development set a bad example for things to potentially come in relation to the Senkaku islands claimed by Japan and the Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines, knowing that the U.S. is bound by treaty to assist military both nations in the event of an aggression by a third party, which everybody knows can only be China. Today China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea are “facts on the sea” and here to stay, a fact admitted by the most hawkish American foreign policy-makers.  

In War in Space, JS deals with the other, expanding field of battle which is space where many of the world challenges are being settled in this 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Both Russia, since Sputnik, and China are major space actors while India is starting to join the club. China ad Russia can paralyse the U.S. and western powers from space, disabling militaries, bringing civilian populations to standstill by shutting down infrastructure commanded from satellites while rendering the public and private sector in-operational. America which took a superior advantage in space technology became vulnerable to attack as both China and Russia took advance of this advance and reliability. In recent years Russia and China have translated their well-honed cyber-offensive tactics capabilities into the space arena with the U.S. only reacting now this new development. Counter measures have been developed by the public and private sectors by spreading GPS and critical communications among more satellites to reduce the damage linked to the loss of one or a few of them. The question facing the U.S. today is whether to focus on deterrence or joins a new arms race.           

In Hacking an Election, JS obviously takes us to the U.S. 2016 presidential elections and makes us wonder what the impact of the hacks really was knowing Trump’s wafer thin 22,000 vote lead in key states that delivered him all their delegates and thus the presidency all the while lacking three million votes nationally (this putting aside the viability of the American electoral college process that is a sacrosanct, non-debatable issue even for the Democrats in the U.S.). It is not unlikely that Russian meddling, with or without the help of the Trump campaign that remains a debatable issue, had an impact on the election outcome – this being reinforced with the equivocal response to the matter from the Trump Administration and their Republican backers which not only showed a fractured American response to a critical issue but also potentially emboldened Russia to keep at this new tactics. The Russian meddling into the run-up of the 2018 mid-term elections showed that sheer U.S. sanctions did not deter Russia even if President Trump recently allowed the Pentagon and Cyber Command to use offensive cyber operations to respond to foreign cyberattacks. It is not clear for U.S. cyber experts that America today has achieved enough offensive and defensive capabilities at a time when Russia would have been joined by China, Iran and North Korea in attempts or experimentations undermining the confidence of the American public in the the electoral process. The U.S. is not alone dealing with election meddling as the 2017 French presidential elections showed when Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was attacked by Russian trolls, this being reinforced by Russian support of the extreme right parties across the EU leading to the uncovering of dubious funding of leaders or parties such as in the cases of scandals involving Austria’s FPO or Italy’s Northern League.          

In Submarine Warfare, JS deals with the last soft-war issue which is the control of the oceans which is is often done down from “below” and subjects submariners to very dangerous challenges below the usual public radar or in this case, surface. Both Russia and China have meaningfully upgraded their submarine capabilities and increased their incursions into U.S. and Western territorial waters, at times close to the shore. The Pacific and Atlantic oceans, together with the Mediterranean not to mention Artic and Antarctic seas are the theatre of a new “Great Game” between the three powers with the U.S. playing defence and catching up fast to maintaining its earlier, disappearing advantage.     

Finally JS gives us his views on how America (and one would think the West, though Europe is not mentioned) could win the “shadow war”: 

1. Know the Enemy (understand who they are and how they operate “now”) – He could have said “thy” but we will forgive JS.

2. Set Red Lines (so the adversary knows it is crossing them at a real cost, meaning enforcement)

3. Raise the Costs (do not make it easy to wage soft-power aggression)

4. Bolster Defence (what was good in the past is no longer doing the job, this repeatedly) by i) protecting the home front, ii) easing rather than inflaming internal divisions and iii) enhancing resilience. 

5.Develop an offensive capability (si vis pacem para bellum or for themillennials: “if you want peace, prepare for war”, an admittedly old adage from the Roman times I like to use) through i) the development of information ops similar to what Russia and China perform, ii) be ready to undertake attacks on critical infrastructure and iii) be ready to organise deployments as “hard deterrence” which I would call “reality checks” (e.g. by making it clear to China that the U.S. Navy would have the necessary experience and means to destroy the man-made islands in the South China Sea or deploying U.S. Marines in the Baltics to calm down Moscow and make them “think twice” about the costs of their “soft” strategies) or iv) start deploying weapons in space so not only Russia and China weaponise and gradually control it.  

6. Warn of the consequences: Communicate clearly about the consequences of action, however soft-power they may be – and take advantage of the adversary’s inherent weaknesses like Russia’s vast attack surface and uncontrollably huge borders that it could never defend properly. Explaining the costs of Shadow War in no unclear terms. 

7. New treaties for Cyber and Space: Russia and China can fight a conflict in both cyber and space, all the more as there are no rules in the absence of any treaties in two key new conflict theatres. 

8. Maintain and Strengthen Alliances: America cannot win alone if only as it cannot act everywhere at the same time so it needs to strengthen and not weaken its key alliances both in Europe and in Asia (precisely unlike what the Trump administration in a MAGA drive has done).  

9. Leadership: All plans and their execution are only as good as the leadership at the top. Leadership is also about explaining consistently to its own people what is going on and why, not undercutting the assessment of its intelligence agencies and other departments – as in the case with Russia and the Trump Administration. It also goes with knowing “what liberal democracy is all about” (and rising above daily politics) as Desperate Measures would wholeheartedly agree with. 

One could wonder if Russia and China are different adversaries for the U.S. and the West. Isn’t there a difference between the poisoning of dissidents, soft invasions of countries, cyber disruption and disinformation in relation to elections as performed by Russia from the stealing of corporate and government secrets as performed by China (perhaps not including the unsinkable islands in the South China seas). One form, the Russian one, is more war-like in its means and objectives while the other, the Chinese one, is “usually and generally” more commercially-focused in nature with the main goal of growing its GDP, which is not to say it should be allowed but is less in the realm of strategic military-like warfare, however soft-power like. In some ways, the commercially-focused Chinese theft drive is perhaps more manageable through improving the cyber defences of targets than the Russian forms of aggressions that are wide-ranging but can also take more the form of quasi- (if not actual) military strikes albeit in official peace time. We also need China more than we may need Russia, the latter which we just want to contain and keep peaceful in its new form to take the old George Kennan adage, while we wish to build a new world and trade with an integrated China, always thriving, even if perhaps naively, to make us closer (them to us) and dealing as peacefully as possible with downturn situations like Hong-Kong today.   

“The Shadow War” is very enjoyable for all and educational for some  as it covers a recent period of history since the mid-2000s where America has gradually lost of its sole world leadership, perhaps as it got lost in reshaping the Middle East, triggering other geopolitical crises, but also as both Russia and China reasserted themselves either as they were growing economically and naturally wanted to assert themselves (China) or as they wanted to restore the dignity they felt they had lost during the 1990s transition (when we were perhaps not sensitive enough) while wanting to be back at the leaders’ table (through military might as its economy is too thin) and strengthening power at home (Russia). The only drawback of the book, however would be JS’s quasi-newsroom delivery style which is more akin to that of the excellent anchor he undoubtedly is that to the writer he had to be for “The Shadow War”. However for sure a great summer read to embark upon and a useful, clarified “architecture” of all the geopolitical soft-power events involving the three powers and their “allies” we have lived through since the mid-2000s.    

Warmest regards,