Niall Ferguson, the renowned historian, says we are edging towards WWIII, but we are not yet in it. In October 2021, I wrote WWII Has Already Started. He is a brilliant historian and observer of diplomacy. I ask myself, how can he not see that we are already well into a truly global conflict? Is it possible we are both seeing two very different wars?
The war he sees is a traditional war where states control troops and movements of war material and diplomacy, where the parties are driven by national interests and abide by certain known rules of engagement. This war is mainly in Ukraine and is heavily covered by the press. The war I see is already global, ranging from the Arctic to Africa, across central Asia, and through the Pacific islands. In all these places, both state and private mercenary armies are executing orders, often on behalf of a private person who also serves as the Head of a superpower state. In this war, troops and movements of war material are driven by the leaders’ personal interests, which have superseded national interests and where rules of engagement have been replaced by “anything goes”. Russia and China call this “unrestricted warfare” The US calls it “Hybrid Warfare”. Think of it as a “grey zone” where events that are out of sight can be deadlier and more damaging than events you can see. It means that events like the bombing of Ukraine get lots of airtime but the cutting of internet cables in the Mediterranean, attacks on satellite infrastructure in the Arctic, and power outages on remote but strategically important Danish Islands go almost without remark. The clashes invisibly fomented and fuelled by the superpowers in places like the Sahara desert, the Pacific, and the Arctic go by without comment.
People can understand the shelling of Ukraine and the loss of life there. It’s far less easy to understand why it matters that the superpowers are threatening each other’s satellite networks. Who cares if somebody cut the internet cables linking the tiny Shetland and Faro Islands to the UK? It only makes sense if you understand that Russia is usually unable to move its nuclear weapon-laden subs into The Atlantic without being observed unless they damage the ability to be observed. It makes sense when you realize that America’s nuclear weapon-laden fast attack subs have gathered on the West coast of Scotland around Faslane since last Spring. What about the recent cable cuts in the Mediterranean between Marseilles, Lyon, Barcelona? People feel the loss of latency on the net. It isn’t very pleasant. But you don’t imagine you might be left without the internet at all. You care even less that attacks on satellites could leave the West without weapons guidance systems or the ability to detect inbound threats. You only care when the loss of GPS affects you directly
Events are occurring in places like North Africa, where Russia is backing one side, and NATO members are backing the other. Russia’s goal is to establish control over the territories through local governments from the Atlantic to the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Russia is already deeply embedded in Libya, Algeria, and now Mali, Sudan, and Niger. But this war is somehow different from Ukraine. News of all these places and a coup in Burkina Faso don’t feel like they are related to WWII because no one has explained that these are proxy wars involving the superpowers. Similarly, in the Pacific, China is establishing military bases on islands around the Pacific through diplomatic and commercial deals while the US is massively expanding by building new military bases beyond Guam in places like Tinian Island. The NYT’s reports that the US wants to make Taiwan into a “giant weapons depot” and reshape the alliances in the Pacific in case of a conflict with China
The press does not cover this hybrid, gray zone warfare because it’s happening in places they can’t see, like space, the high seas, and in the realm of technology. The press covers the traditional war from a human interest angle because they adhere to the old rule: “it leads if it bleeds”. The press doesn’t cover the hybrid gray zone war because there are no journalists in space, or on or below the high seas or in the realm of technology. What happens in these domains is often classified. So far, there are no dead bodies in the war I see, only cut internet cables, damaged satellites, and power blackouts in strategically important places.
Niall is talking about the possibility that the traditional style “boots on the ground” and “tanks over the border” war in Ukraine will spill over into a direct confrontation between the superpowers. Many understand, and even long for, a traditional resolution where someone like Henry Kissinger, a consummate insider with long and deep personal relationships with the other parties, can save us all from WWIII by engaging in tactful and tactically savvy diplomacy. This is reassuring. When a Russian fighter jet recently fired on a British RC-135 Rivet Joint spy plane in international waters over the Black Sea, all were relieved when the Head of the US Army, Lloyd Austin, was able to get on the phone for the first time in months with Defence Minister Shoigu and General Milley was able to speak directly to Russia’s most respected military leader, Gerasimov. All seem to have agreed to the official story. The Russian side experienced a “technical malfunction”. This reassures us that we are but a few phone calls away from resolution. The threat of “false flag” operations makes this traditional war infinitely more complex and tricky to manage. But, we want to believe that we can figure it out and hash it out through back-door diplomacy.
In this war, we will know we are in WWII when Henry Kissinger or Niall says, “We are now in WWIII”. In the war I see, there won’t be any such announcement. I will be dismissed as a Cassandra, and you will know because there won’t be any GPS, or internet, or power. Or, in the war I see, we may simply never know. I believe that things will get resolved so silently and quietly that the public won’t know how close we got to a catastrophe for at least twenty-five years. Remember how the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved? The US agreed to remove its Jupiter nuclear ICBM missiles from Turkey. In response, Russia pulled back from Cuba. My father helped negotiate that deal. But no one in America was told about the Turkish withdrawal by America. It’s technically classified, even though it’s in the public domain! Although, in the war I see, such secrecy is nearly impossible because of technology. Satellites and cell phones alike will pick up the movements of behind-the-scenes negotiators. No doubt, some teenager somewhere will track the movements of those assigned to deliver secret messages. Notice that virtually every intelligent billionaire is selling their private planes in favor of renting them to avoid this scrutiny showing up on Twitter! So much for sending the wealthy envoy to conduct secret negotiations as we did in the old days.
All of what I am suggesting could be a subject of debate for some time, except that time is now being compressed by the weighty threat of nuclear weapons. Here is a question. When the British Defence Minister rushes to Washington, as he did recently, in an unscheduled personal visit, was it about the missile “malfunction”. Or are we closer to a nuclear event than we can be told?
Both wars are now bringing the real possibility of an accident or escalation. US officials now warn of “troubling developments” because Russia is currently holding nuclear exercises at the very moment that NATO is holding its nuclear exercises in the same physical spaces. Russia’s President has said he will use “all means available” to practice a "huge nuclear strike in response to an enemy nuclear strike". Note that for all our knowledge of nuclear weapons and warfare, nobody has actually seen escalation unfold. So, we can say we’ll know what to do, but it’s unclear what will actually happen. President Macron is in hot water for saying that NATO is unlikely to respond to a nuclear strike with a nuclear response. But, he may not be wrong. Still, a conventional response would be a serious escalation.
In Niall Ferguson’s war, the superpowers will negotiate a deal, as they always do. In my war, the superpowers can try to negotiate a deal, but Ukraine and Poland, and Taiwan will have their own plans. They are unlikely to abide by the terms imposed on them by the superpowers. Welcome to the future. We are now in a multipolar world. At this point, the old guard in Washington DC is more afraid of Poland and Ukraine than it is of Russia. In Poland, they fear that the Ukrainians have committed to self-genocide by continuing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their principles. Winter is coming, and they’ve lost a lot of people already. Soon no one will be left in Ukraine to oppose the Russians. Then the Poles suspect they will have to face Russia alone. The Poles can perfectly well see that Washington and NATO can’t help them if and when they need help for the same reasons NATO can’t help Ukraine now – the nuclear threat. Having the 101st Airborn Division deployed in Europe for the first time in 80 years, in Romania, three miles from the Ukrainian border, is nice, but it’s not going to deter the Russians, especially as they refocus their efforts on the North. Poland carefully watches Belarus and Kaliningrad now being prepared to launch attacks on Ukraine, and possibly Poland, from the North. Poland fears that it will have to pick up the mantle and continue the fight on its own because they believe that Russia won’t stop if it succeeds in Ukraine. This is why Poland is now on a mission to go nuclear. They’ll start with nuclear power and segway into hosting American nuclear weapons and then into having nuclear weapons of their own.
So, let’s map the world now. Diplomats live in the realm of old-fashioned diplomacy. Militaries live in the realm of traditional warfare (see Lawrence Freedman’s deep analysis of the situation here) but with a profound awareness of all the grey zone goings on, though, in NATO, they have very little doctrine to guide them on that. Politicians are driven by the media stories, so they’ll focus principally on Ukraine. The media is driven by blood, so Ukraine will remain its main focus. Meanwhile, we civilians are unknowingly in the midst of the fog of the grey zone war that we cannot see but which we all feel. The grey zone isn’t one shade. It isn’t fifty shades. It’s more. It’s Russia’s efforts to drive up oil and food prices that hurt the most. It’s the superpower’s efforts to control satellites and space that can potentially interrupt our daily lives. It isn’t one geography but pretty much all geographies. Few appreciate that Russia is also conducting wars across Africa from its positions in Mali and Libya and in the Middle East from its positions in Syria and Iran all while working with China to secure control of the wealth of assets in the Arctic and across Central Asia.
There are more countries involved now in this modern conflict than there were at the start of either WWI or WWII. Countries from Australia to Micronesia to those in Africa and Latin America are clearly choosing sides. Even the neutral countries are starting to recognize that some nations will eventually emerge as the new Iceland or Finland, which were the nations that facilitated talks between superpowers in the past. Lisbon feels like the new Casablanca.
The main thing is to take note of the many small, seemingly unimportant incidents that, taken together, indicate that the war is truly becoming global and not just a local conflict in Ukraine. Otherwise, we’ll be completely surprised that we landed in a global conflict, just as we were in 1939 and 1914. It’s time to re-read While England Slept and Why England Slept. We can dream of a past that no longer exists while sleepwalking into a future that can still be prevented. Niall and I are both right, but in two very different wars. We have little time and insufficient imagination to understand today’s true situation, let alone the possibilities for tomorrow. It’s time to wake up!
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Dr Pippa, we are definitely on the same page. I know that I personally want to protect my own ass.. ets...We do know that Putin definitely doesn't want to be prosecuted as a war criminal and that Xi has a zero COVID policy..
When we do the math... nuclear and/or biological "special military operations" are highly probable.
Thanks for your incredible insights to get us through this most troubling time✌️
Not good enough for a political novel screenplay.
For real politics, it is a pile of nonsensical nonsense combined with wishful thinking.
The whole concept behind it can be described with the following motto:
"I don't know anything, but I have to pretend otherwise, so I'll guess and make up what I can, without any limits, without worrying about the impossibility of it all."
Or maybe I was wrong, because it is a new-think in the best style of the "Hitchhiker Galaxy Guide".