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World politics

States are now waging war without warfare

German soldiers approaching Stalingrad in 1942. De Agostini Picture Library

The rules of war have changed, says Max Hastings in Bloomberg. For “the best part of a thousand years”, nations formally declared war before taking up arms, and there was a clear delineation between wartime and peacetime. No longer. Today rival nations are constantly competing at a level “just below the threshold of full-blown armed conflict”. British academic Mark Galeotti calls it “war without warfare”.

The weapons in this new world are myriad. Rich countries increasingly deploy economic sanctions against rogue states. Russian gangsters and Middle Eastern potentates use western law courts to massage reputations and the City of London to launder ill-gotten riches. Any actual state violence is “contracted out”. Russia’s security services use organised crime proxies to carry out assassinations abroad. Mercenaries from the Moscow-backed Wagner Group are fighting in countries including Libya and Syria. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 was spearheaded by non-uniformed special forces nicknamed “little green men”. Then, of course, there is cyberwarfare, which bad actors can use to “paralyse banks, expose data, steal commercial and scientific secrets, shut down hospitals, stop trains”. The point of these new weapons is that governments can claim (barely) plausible deniability – they can be at war without officially being at war. This is still preferable to the “mass slaughters” of the 20th century. But the “mortal peril” of undeclared war is that “it can very suddenly get very hot”.

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