The War between China and the U.S. – The Normative Dimension

(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

The whole world is caught in a battle of giants with the U.S. on the one hand and China on the other. This confrontation takes place at different levels and through all forms and dimensions of power. The escalation towards war is at work. War is not inevitable, it is however likely. To best survive the escalation and possibly the war, we must understand its multiple aspects. State actors, for their part, should act according to their own national interest considering the forces at work.

Even though this may appear as unthinkable to many, the aim of the major actors may not be to avoid war. As we saw in the American National Interest, peace and avoidance of war are nowhere part of the objectives of America. Indeed, the U.S. very precisely write that the American defense has as priorities “Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe” (U.S. National Defense Strategy 2022 – Factsheet). This means that war is an option. Thus we must all be ready for the possibility of war between China and the U.S.. It is also with this strategic framework in mind that we must understand the war in Ukraine, the relationships with Russia and NATO’s expansion.

In this article we focus on the systemic and normative dimension of the conflict between China and the U.S..

First, we briefly explain the dimensions of the confrontation, systemic and interstate. We look then at two interrelated approaches for the systemic dimension: the evolution of the relative power of states and the struggle for norms and international order and consequences on war. Finally, we examine examples of Chinese global strategic communication (aka “propaganda“) at normative level, looking at seven short videos published on official Chinese Youtube channels dealing with various issues, from the ecology to NATO’s expansion through the U.S. essential wrongdoing.

Dimensions of a confrontation

At systemic level, the third level of analysis(1), we witness the rise of China as new dominating power and the struggle of the U.S. to remain the sole superpower ruling the world. In the meantime there is a war at work between the two corresponding orders: an emerging order linked to China and a still preponderant but declining order led by the US.

Even though there is not yet a real war, stricto sensu, between China and the U.S., the war between the two orders has started in Ukraine, while escalation towards a war involving China is taking place. For example, the June 2022 NATO summit not only included Asian allies of the U.S. but the new key document that resulted, 2022 NATO Strategic Concept highlights “the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security” (pp. 5 & 10). For example:

It [China] strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains. The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.

2022 NATO Strategic Concept, 29 June 2022, p.5

At the second level of analysis, interstate relations, the various actors on the world stage enact the systemic battle through a combat between the U.S. on the one hand, China on the other. This level or more precisely the result of the actions of the states will, in turn influence the systemic battle.

A good representation for this ongoing “battle of giants” is a kind of 3D board, where each level of the board also interacts with other levels. Using a 2D board as representation cannot yield a proper understanding of the confrontation.

As a result, the strategy, policy and, more generally, all actions of actors must be understood, planned, and evaluated according to their impact within each level across all domains, and on each level.

A global battle of norms

Triggered traps

Thus, at systemic level, the rise of China threatens the dominant American position.

The Americans perceive it as such, as expressed in their many national threats assessments (see Helene Lavoix, “The American National Interest“). American scholars condone also this understanding of world politics, as exemplified by the Harvard publication on Thucydides’s Trap (from the research and book by Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). According to Allison, the rise of a new world power threatens the existing power and, as a result, over the last 500 years, war ensued in 12 out of 16 cases. Fear is a critical element in the triggering of the trap (Ibid.)

Joseph Nye criticism of Thucydides’s trap, the Kindleberger Trap questions Allison’s number of cases and argues that bad policy choices rather than systemic inevitability were at work to trigger wars. However, Nye does not discard the existence of Thucydides’s trap. He adds a new explanatory component, following Kindleberger, the architect of the Marshall plan, according to which one cause of war when a new power rises is its inability to provide global public goods. Thus, the world in general, and the United States in particular, must also worry about the strength, capacity and willingness of China to deliver global public goods.

However, in the case of China and the U.S. we may wonder if the Kindleberger trap theory would not need to be refined. Indeed, as the interactions of forces push China in increasingly playing an important role at normative level, ideally, this should lower the risk to see the Kindleberger trap being triggered. However, of course, from the American perspective, Chinese normative actions and related communications are perceived as a threat to the American international supremacy and national interest. Hence, the U.S. and the actors benefiting from the Pax Americana order are bound to attack this evolution.

To summarise we are between the anvil and the hammer: a strengthening China, including at systemic level, is very likely to increase the perception of threat of the U.S. and thus to generate a war with America and its allies, while a China that would not be strong enough would in any case favour war because it cannot provide global public goods.

Furthermore, the question remains on the nature of the global public goods provided. Indeed, it is very likely that the vision and understanding of global public goods differ for China and the United States.

This leads us to the question of global norms.

A battle of norms and perceptions

As Thucydides’s trap is triggered, the U.S., through their actions at both interstate and systemic levels, further force China to also act at normative and international order level.

An order is ruled by norms, i.e. “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity” (Martha Finnemore, Kathryn Sikkink “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, International Organization at Fifty: Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, Autumn, 1998). As a result, international norms “make clear what behaviour is considered appropriate and when a line has been crossed” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Priority #2: International Norms, November 2020).

Thus, in our case, we have an order ruled according to American standards of appropriate behaviour, alongside what we tend to currently perceive as universal principles, as enshrined, for example, in the UN charter. This American order is declining (Thucydides’s trap). The challenging and rising order is ruled according to Chinese standards of appropriate behaviour, alongside also universal principles that may or may not be enshrined in the UN charter, and may only be partially perceived as universal. Possibly also, some of the principles enshrined in the UN charter are perceived differently according to order.

The perception and interpretation of international norms are also part of the normative battles taking place at the systemic level of analysis. For example, the norm of territoriality for sovereign states is a fundamental and universal principle for the modern state system. We understand it as universal. However, before that norm spread throughout states and space, from the 17th century until the end of the 19th century – start of the 20th century, we could find other types of norms and organisations. The “galactic polities”(2) in the Southeast Asian Buddhist system constitutes a case of a different type of order (see note (2) below and also Thongchai, Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1994). Hence the so-called universality of norms is actually contingent to space and time and thus not universal at all. The Caliphate promoted by the Islamic State is another case of order totally different from the current system (see, for example, Hélène Lavoix, The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds WarThe Red Team Analysis Society, 19 January 2015).

When the U.S. act to uphold the norms of their order according to their own standard of behaviour and protest against or combat China’s standard of behaviour, they truly perceive Chinese norms as threatening and often “wrong”, according to their own norms, which they genuinely believe to be universal. For example, as we spelled out, 2022 NATO Strategic Concept stresses what NATO perceives as attacks on its rules-based international order. During the June 22 NATO Summit, according to a South Korean official, “South Korea’s president warned… of the threat to universal values at a time of new conflict and competition, a reference to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s engagement with Russia” (Hyonhee Shin, Reuters, 30 June 2022).

Of course, China, does not perceive itself as “wrong” or “malevolent”. Thus, it will want to counter any strategic communication of the U.S. and its allies that would spread the perception of a China that is dangerous and negative for the world. China is therefore enticed into first increasingly having an international strategy that promotes global public goods as it defines it – and not as the U.S. sees it – and into a related global communication that will explain why the Chinese vision of the norms and the very norms China’s upholds are right, good and universal. In the same time, the Chinese will portray the wrong doing of the U.S..

In terms of strategic communication the two messages – promoting one’s norms and fighting against the other’s norms – may be grouped together or presented separately, as we shall see with the examples below.

Meanwhile, the differences between the two normative visions of the world is emphasised. At the end of the process, if China triumphs, a new global order built on Chinese norms, including Chinese perceptions of universal norms will have emerged.

In other words, the very battle for normative supremacy co-constructs the type of global order that emerges, its content and its capability to rule globally.

Chinese global normative communication

Chinese communication goes global and normative

As expected, China “is increasingly targeting a wider audience than just its diasporas, as demonstrated by the growing number of Chinese propaganda outlets published in a number of foreign languages (Global TimesChina Daily, CGTN, Xinhua, etc.)” (Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer and Paul Charon, “Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare”, War on The Rocks, 21 January 2020). In so doing, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is only catching up with what the U.S. and other world nations have been doing since World War II through the use of international broadcasting services as supporting capabilities for their information operations (see Helene Lavoix, Information Warfare and the War in Ukraine, The Red Team Analysis Society, 24 May 2022).

This is the Chinese strategic communication element of what we explained earlier: China being pushed into fighting at normative level through delivering global public goods and through battles over perception and understanding of norms.

Interestingly, the very way the American and allied doctrine labels “adversary strategic communication” as “propaganda”, as we saw (Information Warfare), is already a preemptive strike against all Chinese international broadcasting services’ production and thus against emerging Chinese norms. It is an effort to make sure these normes do not spread and settle. For example, Jeangène Vilmer and Charon belittle Chinese media as “propaganda outlets” in their analytical paper (see above), when these media are merely international broadcasting services, and thus supporting China’s strategic communication. Many Western analysts and officials, similarly would immediately cast any Chinese media production as “propaganda”.

Yet, what is produced by the PRC media will be priceless indications regarding the content of Chinese norms. It will indicate which future norms may become preponderant, the norms around which battles are and will be fought, etc. We shall now turn to such examples.

Cases of Chinese normative strategic communication through videos

We examine here some of the videos produced by Global Times and CGTN as indications of the Chinese global strategic communications at normative level. We only look at examples posted on Youtube, thus aimed at a non-Chinese audience.

At first glance, we can note a flourish of series that could reveal an effort at finding something that works in addressing a global audience. The second observation is that China seems to have difficulties to truly captivate Youtube’s audience and get traffic as expressed in number of views. However, considering the number of Chinese TV channels available in many countries, the relatively small number of views on Youtube should be taken with a pinch of salt. Further research would be needed to measure the real impact of China’s normative actions and of its related global communication in the world.

Whatever their impacts, as we explained, these videos will be useful to us as they will indicate Chinese efforts in terms of norms. We should expect to find videos highlighting the good brought about by Chinese actions with their normative underpinnings, videos stressing more simply Chinese norms and finally videos highlighting American wrongdoing, either singularly or by comparison with Chinese behaviour. Actually, we could identify other interesting videos according to China’s perception of itself and of the world (see Hélène Lavoix, “China’s Perception of U.S. International Politics“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 27 September 2021), but this will be for another article.

Video highlighting the good brought about by Chinese actions with their normative underpinnings

Ecology and ecological actions are increasingly featured in Chinese videos. This let us expect that a normative battle will take place at this level.

With this video, “China launches first megaton-capable offshore carbon storage project”, China highlights technological capabilities and the importance of ecological concern and restoration as norm.

“China launches first megaton-capable offshore carbon storage project” – 29 June 2022

The example below, where Chinese President “Xi Jinping encourages green development modeled on the Kekeya project” not only features efficient Chinese actions regarding the restoration of ecological systems, but also the benefit of Chinese political system as headed by President Xi Jinping (by opposition to Western vision of China as an autocratic system) and the benevolence and positivity of China’s actions in Xinjiang (by opposition to Western attacks regarding human rights in Xinjiang).

“Xi Jinping encourages green development modeled on the Kekeya project” – 5 June 2022

Videos stressing Chinese norms

We have here videos showing, for example, the promotion of Chinese culture and tradition. Cultural influence and outreach is fully part of the normative level. Examples of the U.S. influence in that matter go from Hollywood to MacDonald and Coca-Cola.

The video below from a CGTN series on martial arts is a classical instance of this genre.

Nanzhi Quan: Be fierce and forceful at every step|南枝拳 – 29 June 2022

Videos highlighting American wrongdoing

One of the longest series (651 videos by 27 June 2022) on Global Times is “Hu Says” where Mr Hu makes brief analyses and comments on international affairs. He not only gives China’s perspective and position on various topics but also often highlights American or Western negative or questionable behaviour.

For example, regarding the June 2022 G7, “Hu says” highlights that the G7 has become subservient to American aims. As a result, from a Chinese perspective, this shows that the G7 cannot be seen as a global institution interested in global public goods.

A more violent example of these types of videos was broadcast on 22 April 2022 and is named “Unmasking the superpower”. It aims at “unmasking the true evil nature of the U.S.”

“Unmasking the superpower”, Global Times, published on 22 April 2022

Videos highlighting American wrongdoing by comparison with Chinese behaviour.

In this category, we have as example two videos of the series “Mr Hu”.

The first is an answer to the 2022 European enlargement of NATO and compares a war torn Europe under American influence to a peaceful Asia thanks to benevolent and peace-loving China.

Europe will certainly not become more secure after this round of NATO expansion – 29 June 2022

The second example highlights Chinese incomprehension when seeing Americans accepting an extremely bad management of the COVID-19 pandemic by the U.S. political authorities. In so doing, Mr Hu highlights a weakness of America in terms of organisation when compared with China alongside the fact that the U.S. does not truly puts first the lives of its citizens. The audience is meant to contrast this American policy with the Chinese one, which is truly concerned with human lives. From there follows an interrogation regarding the true value of democracy and legitimacy in America, which is an answer to American’s denunciations of the Chinese autocratic system. We are truly in a normative battle for the best type of belief-based socio-political system.

The tolerance that US society isn’t in chaos despite of its COVID-19 deaths is incredible – 9 February 2022

Those examples are only some cases among myriads being regularly broadcast by China.

We are in the midst of a total belief-based war pitting an emerging world against a declining one. Which order will prevail is not yet clear. What is certain, however, is that no order is ready to yield, on the contrary. As a result, escalation may only continue, possibly until a fully fledged war.


(1) We use here the classical model of analysis of international relations according to three levels, as identified and established in Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis by Kenneth N. Waltz (New York, Columbia University: 1959) – Readers in a hurry may also read the review by David. J Singer, “International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis.” World Politics, vol. 12, no. 3, 1960, pp. 453–61. JSTOR,

There is also a first level of analysis, the individual actors, but we shall not consider it here.

(2) Extract from Helene Lavoix, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Genocide’: the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005. Access and download through the British Library Ethos.: “In the Southeast Asian Buddhist political system characterised as “Galactic polities,”… various centres’ relative importance and power fluidly increased (waxed) or decreased (waned) (for this paragraph Stanley Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp.121-127). A waxing centre attracted into its orbit centres of lesser strength. The loose control of main centres over the others decreased with distance and entailed shifting alliances and tributary relations. Impermanence was the rule.

However, the development of such factors as maritime trade, firearms, and interstate competition brought a slow evolution to the galactic polities.Victor Lieberman, “Local Integration and Eurasian Analogies: Structuring Southeast Asian History, c.1350-c.1830;” Modern Asian Studies 27, 3 (1993), pp.475-572. and Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, Vol.1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). The system progressively lost its fluidity and tended towards an increasing and irrevocable “political integration” of the lesser tributary centres by the major centres (Ibid. p.485).”

The American National Interest

(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli

Do the United States still consider France to be their ally?

We have to ponder this question because of the submarine contract signed between France and Australia, and broken in September 2021, to the benefit of the U.S.. If a country takes 35 billion euros from you, possibly revalued to 55 billion, then is it still your ally? This actually looks more like hostile behaviour on the part of the Americans.

Hence, whether the U.S. and France are still allies is a puzzle. And one that is important to solve. Indeed, this kind of American attitude could possibly happen again in other circumstances, with other countries. We must therefore understand what happened and why.

This understanding, the explanation of the puzzle, lies in the American national interest, which this article and the video address. The article also details all the sources and footages used in the video.

Continue reading “The American National Interest”

Understanding the War in Syria – 2013 to 2017

You will find here a series of research articles that were published from 2013 to 2017 to help actors navigate the war in Syria, with different focuses according to years.

The early years of the war: up until 2013-2014

State of play and actors of the war in Syria

In this section you will find the state of play and the various categories of actors fighting in and over Syria. Articles written before July 2013 are open access.

General and evolution of the war

(A full report in pdf – Potential Futures for Syria in the Fog of War, published on 15 July 2013 is also available).

Al-Assad Groups

The Kurds

Salafis and Jihadis

Scenarios (2013) for the future of the war in Syria

Back in 2013, we also built scenarios for the future. Keep in mind that ideally, scenarios should then be used for monitoring and early warning. Indeed, scenarios evolve, notably in terms of likelihood, out of changes on the battleground and interactions between all actors.

Evaluating Scenarios and Indicators for the Syrian War, by Helene Lavoix, 10 March 2014.

The war against the Islamic State

Then we focused mainly on the Islamic State. You can access our detailed work in the corresponding section as it is broader in scope than the war in Syria (see notably: At War against the Islamic State – From Syria to the Region by H Lavoix, 2 November 2015).

The years 2016 and 2017

A more recent phase of the war in Syria, end of 2016 to 2017 is handled mainly through signals’ analysis in the Horizon Scanning Board, with longer articles on the Kurds (see package above).

The Battle of Raqqa, the Kurds and Turkey – by H Lavoix, 2 May 2017.

The Kurds in Syria – State-Building, New Model and War – by H Lavoix, 22 May 2017.

The Middle East Powder Keg and the Great Battle for Raqqa  by H Lavoix, 12 June 2017.

Towards Renewed War in Syria? The Kurds and Turkey – by H Lavoix, 3 July 2017.


The Syrian War – Bibliography and Sources (first years of the war in Syria)


See also our section on scenarios and scenario-building.

Food Security: China-Russia and Ukraine – Anthropocene Wars (4)

The War in Ukraine and the Great Amplification

Since the start of the Russian offensive on 24 February 2022, the raging war has triggered an amplification of the tension on global food and energy prices. The price trends for oil, gas, coal and agricultural products were already on the rise because of the Western “post” Covid pandemic economic recovery.

Since March, the war in Ukraine is turbocharging inflation trends (Charlotte Hebebrand and David Laborde, “High fertilizers prices contribute to rising global food security concerns“, International Food Policy Institute, April 25, 2022 and « Oil Prices Will Remain Above $100/ Barrel as long as the Ukraine War Rages On », The Economic Times, 25 April 2022).

Then, as seen in “War in Ukraine, U.S Megadrought and the Coming Global Food Crisis” (Jean-Michel Valantin, The Red Team Analysis Society, 1 May 2022), the effects of the war in Ukraine, not only block the exports of the Ukrainian and Russian crops but also combine with the consequences of the multiple megadroughts that impact the U.S. and Indian crops.

Meanwhile, the U.S. executive and legislative branches mobilize a 40 billion dollars package, in order to support Ukraine financially and militarily. As it happens, U.S. President Joe Biden signed the legislation in South Korea, while being on a tour in Asia (“Biden signs $40 Billion aid package for Ukraine during trip to Asia”, CNBC, 21 May 2022).

Two days later, in Tokyo, he declared that the U.S. would militarily support Taiwan in case of a Chinese attack on the island (Tripti Lahiri, “Did Biden just end U.S strategic ambiguity on Taiwan?”, Quartz, 23 May, 2022). One can infer that, given the current state of tension, those legislations and declarations are very closely monitored by Beijing.

Those political and strategic American signals happen at a time when the Chinese decision-makers have to manage difficult domestic and international crises.

On the one hand, they have to handle the struggle against the Covid-19 new wave and, on the other, the Taiwan-U.S.-mainland China tensions. Simultaneously, they must guarantee China’s food security, while having to deal with a very bad winter wheat harvest (Hallie Gu and Shivani Sing, “China agriculture minister says winter wheat condition could be worst in history”, Reuters, March 7, 2022).

In this regard, it appears that, in fact, China has stockpiled grains since 2021. Chinese companies buy, among others, wheat and corn to Russia, France and Ukraine (“China corn imports soar to new records in 2021”, Reuters, 18 January, 2022). Beijing implements this food policy as major extreme weather events impact major crops in China and around the globe.

Since 2021, extreme weather events have impacted winter and spring crops worldwide and especially in China, the U.S., India, Brazil (Sara Schafer, “Brazil’s drought: the trigger that could take corn prices higher?”, AgWeb, 28 April, 2022).

In the context of this very tense international situation, the linkages between agriculture and energy confer a reinforced geopolitical meaning to the Sino-Russian relation.

The question is to evaluate if one of the major consequences of the current geopolitical and climate change induced tensions could be the reinforcement of the Russia-China relationships. In which case, the close cooperation between Russia and China is not only about economic development. It is also about supporting each other power, while maintaining each other vital access to food and energy resources.

Chinese food security: a turning point in 2021

Export Bans

Since 2021, a growing number of major agricultural countries restrict or ban exports of their own production. The process started in June 2021, when the Russian government imposed taxes on grain exports, trying to stabilize domestic food prices.

Then, in December 2021, Argentina took a similar step (Clément Vérité, “Argentina stops exports of soybean oil and soybean meals “until further notice“, Newsendip, 14 March, 2022. Since then, the Argentinian political authorities limit corn and wheat export volumes. They do so in order to control domestic food prices. In March, the Argentinian government tightened these measures.

Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, and Kuwait took similar steps (Weizhen Tan, “India is not the only one banning food exports. These countries are doing the same”, CNBC, 17 May, 2022).

Then, since February 2022 and the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the exports of grain from Ukraine and Russia are also largely down. This diminution comes from the blocking of the Black Sea ports.

In May 2022, India, the second largest wheat producer, decided to ban exports. The decision is based on the destructive effects of the massive heatwave that impacts India and Pakistan. The Indian crops yield lost 20% because of this month-long, climate-change driven extreme weather event (Manavi Kapur, “India’s extreme heatwave is already thwarting Modi’s plan to “feed the world”“, Quartz, 28 April 2022).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Midwest and South are experiencing a major megadrought, as well as episodes of short but heavy rains that delay the planting of the spring cultures.

In other terms, the globalized agriculture and food markets are going through a major “perfect storm” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “War in Ukraine, The U.S Mega drought and the Coming Global Food Crisis”, The Red Team Analysis Society, May 1, 2022).

China’s stockpiles

In the context of this global agricultural crisis, since 2021, China has developed massive stockpiles of grains. Indeed, China imported 28,2 million of tons of corn in 2021 (Shin Watanabe and Eiko Munakata, “China hoards over half the world’s grain, pushing up prices”, Asia Nikkei, 23 December 2021). This is the equivalent of 152% of the 2020 annual record imports of 11,8 million tons.

Since 2021, China’s stocks of wheat represent 51% of the global stocks, while its stocks of corn represent 61% of the global total, and its rice reserves 60% of the global ones. In other words, China as apparently stockpiled the equivalent of 1,5 year of food (Watanabe and Munakata ibid). Since the fall of 2021, this massive stockpiling seems to be one of the drivers of the global food inflation.

The Chinese agricultural situation is worsened by the current rural exodus taking place in China. This social trend deprives the countryside, thus the agricultural sector, of farmers and agricultural workers (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China: Towards the digital ecological revolution?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, October 22, 2017. To add insult to injury, China suffers from a national shortage of freshwater stemming from waste, pollution, changing weather patterns, urbanization, which is another massive limiting factor for agricultural development (Ting Ma, Sia Sun et al., “Pollution exacerbates China’s water scarcity and its regional inequality”, Nature communications, 31 January 2020).

The Mandate of Heaven at Risk 

Food security and the Mandate of Heaven

When studying China, one must always remember that it is a 1,4 billion people strong giant country. This giant of a country knows a mammoth economic and urban development since the implementation of the “Four Reforms” decided by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 (Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Harvard University Press, 2013).

So, the scale of the national needs in food and resources defines the scale of the Chinese food security as well as the global scale of its food resources.

The development of massive food reserves by China takes place in a domestic and international context that is potentially adverse to China’s food security, because competition for food and power could limit its ability reach the grain volumes Beijing wants to stockpile.

Thus, the Chinese political authorities may have to face the risk of a return to hunger in China. This would be a massive breach in the social contract defined by the collective enrichment of China since 1978 (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, Seven Stories Press, 2011).

As a result, it would entail a critical loss of legitimacy for the regime.

In the context of China’s history, it would be the equivalent of the loss of the “Mandate of Heaven”. Indeed, when a crisis of legitimacy happens, the Chinese society usually knows very profound and violent disruptions, while the regime topples (see John King Fairbank, Merle Goldman, China, a New History, Enlarged Edition, Harvard University Press, 1998; Andrea Janku, “‘Heaven-Sent Disasters’ in Late Imperial China: The Scope of the State and Beyond,” in Christ of Mauch and Christian Pfister, eds., Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies Toward a Global Environmental History, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 233–64; Chris Courtney, “The Dragon King and the 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China,” in Twentieth-Century China, April 2015 and Cohen, Paul A., Paul A. Townsend, History in Three Keys, Columbia University Press, 1997).

Protecting the social contract from COVID and hunger

So, securing food for China is also a way for the Chinese government to make sure its legitimacy is maintained, while the new wave of Covid-19 induces fierce lockdowns in Shanghai and other major industrial and trade cities, as well as restrictions in Beijing.

As these lockdowns are a new occurrence of the domestic protracted fight against the pandemic, they drive a significative slowdown of the Chinese economy (Brenda Goh and Kevin Yao, “Shanghai targets June COVID lockdown exit as economy slumps”, Reuters, May 16, 2022).

This jeopardizes the promise of a shared economic growth for all Chinese citizens implemented since 1978 reforms. So, the lockdowns may become dangerous for the legitimacy of the government.

In the meantime, this serious domestic situation is combined with the tensions regarding Taiwan. This happens because the U.S. government supports the autonomous status of Taiwan.

Russia and China’s food security

In this context, the privileged relationship with Russia takes a vital dimension. Beijing authorized wheat and barley imports from all parts of Russia on 24 February 2022. Before this date, Beijing was restricting Russian grain imports for phytosanitary reasons, especially because of a fungal threat (Laura He, “China lifts restrictions on Russian wheat imports”, CNN Business, 25 February 2022).

This authorisation followed the signature of numerous trade contracts between Russia and China, during President Vladimir Putin visit for the February 2022 Beijing winter Olympics (CNN’s Beijing Bureau and Anna Chernova CNN, “Putin and Xi call for a halt to NATO expansion during show of unity at winter Olympics”, CNN, February 4, 2022).

The Russia-China food and energy Great Convergence

Stockpiling, a national endeavour

In the current strategic and climate context, imports of Russian grain are of special importance for the Chinese food security, because Russia is both a major producer and neighbour. Furthermore, since the launch by Xi Jinping, of the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Russia plays a central role in this project, because the Chinese railways operate through Russia in order to reach Europe.

Hence, their development de facto augments the shipments capabilities between Russia and China (Frederic de Kemmeter, “OBOR-One Belt, One Road”,, January 2018 and Jean-Michel Valantin, “China, Russia and the New Silk Road in Central Asia – The great co-empowerment”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 17, 2016).

As it happens, a new railway bridge between Chinese Tongjiang with Russian Nizhnelenizskoye opened on 27 April 2022 and will become operational during the 2022 summer.

This new line is all the more important as the war in Ukraine imposes a slowdown to the Chinese railways shipments from China to Europe. However, in this context, there is marked growth of the trade between Russia and China. As it happens, in April, the Russia- China railway traffic rose by 27% at Manzhouli border crossing, and by 10% at the Suifene border crossing (Majorie Van Leijen, “This railway bridge brings China and Russia closer together”, Rail, 28 April 2022).

 China has reduced its U.S. imports since the launch of President Trump “trade war” in March 2018 (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The US Economy, Between the Climate Hammer and the Trade war Anvil – The US Soybean Crop case”, The Red Team Analysis Society, October 8, 2018) . However, in 2021, China made large purchases of Australia’s wheat and barley, despite tensions with Canberra.

The trade war with the U.S. is also the reason why, since 2018, China quadrupled its imports of cereals from Ukraine. Chinese companies also buy large purchases of wheat and corn from France (Gus Trompiz and Michael Hogan, “EXCLUSIVE China snaps up large volumes of French, Ukrainian grain”, Reuters, 10 December, 2021) .

So, China’s grain imports appear as a way to compensate the loss of U.S. and Ukrainian imports. Furthermore, the blocking of large volumes of Ukrainian imports confers de facto a greater importance to the Russian export capabilities.

2022: the rise of China and Russia trade

At the time of writing, detailed statistics of the grain volumes traded between China and Russia since March 2022 have not yet been disclosed. However, it appears that, between January and March 2022, the trade turnover between Russia and China rose 28,7% year on year. It reached $38,17 billion for the first 2022 quarter. (“Russia-China trade surges in 2022”, The Moscow Times, 13 April 2022)

In the same dynamic, Russian exports to China rose 32% to $21,73 billions during the first quarter of the year. In March alone, Russia exported 7.84 billion worth of goods to China (Ibid).

This takes place when major agricultural producers diminish or ban their exports in order to protect their domestic market, at a moment when China establishes massive stockpiles. Indeed, these bans and restrictions de facto mitigate China’s international access to international cereals volumes. That is why, because of the combination of their large availability, of their relative proximity and the existence of transport capabilities those Russian imports are of particular importance.

In other words, in the middle of the war in Ukraine, the Russian-China agricultural closer relationship supports the Chinese food security as well as the Russian economy, that is under massive strains because of the economic sanctions that the U.S. and the E.U. inflict upon Moscow (Jean-Michel Valantin, “War in Ukraine, The U.S Mega drought and the Coming Global Food Crisis”, The Red Team Analysis Society, May 1, 2022)).

From Food to Energy special relationship

The strengthening of the China-Russia relationship through food security takes also place in the energy field, through again another increase of the Chinese purchases of Russian oil and gas. As it happens, the oil market being an international market, the rising demand by countries and companies triggers rising prices.

Meanwhile the international output remains tightly controlled by the producers, especially by OPEC+. However, since 2021, the OPEC+ members, led by Saudi Arabia, are only slightly rising their output, despite pressing demands by the U.S..

In March, the global output slightly inferior to February, thus triggered a strong price growth (“OPEC+ crude production falls as sanctions take bite out of Russia: S&P standard survey”, S&P Global Commodity insight, 7 April 2022).

Mirroring those sanctions, the Kremlin started to demand that Russian oil be paid in Russian rubles, instead of dollars or euros (Archana Rani, “4 European companies make gas payments to Russia in rubles”, Offshore Technology, April 28, 2022).

This already complex situation keeps on becoming even more complex. Indeed, the whole Russia-EU energy situation worsens with the blocking by Ukraine of some the gas flows towards Europe, in order, according to Kiev, to deprive some Russian-backed separatists from the flow of gas  (“Ukraine halts Russian gas exports to Europe at eastern transit point”, Euronews, 11 May 2022).

A Geopolitical Giant Emerges

This highly complex dynamic reinforces the oil and gas global price inflation. Consequently, the higher oil and gas prices impact importer countries, China being among the most important ones.

So, in order to secure Chinese purchases of Russian oil and gas, Gazprom and Rosneft sell to China at discount prices. This helps Russia maintaining its economy hobbled by the western sanctions, while those purchases support China’s energy security (Chen Aizhu and Florence Tan, “EXCLUSIVE: China quietly increases purchases of low-priced Russian oil“, Reuters, May 20, 2022).

In other words, Russia and China become each other economic and political supports. This takes place in the context of an increasingly polarized international geopolitical environment

It now remains to be seen how this China-Russia “special relationship” evolves, while facing the rising involvement of the U.S. in Ukraine through the 40 billion USD humanitarian and military aid package as well as the unfolding of the global food crisis in a time of accelerating climate change.

Featured image: by Vladislav Nekrasov – Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Information Warfare and the War in Ukraine

(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli
on a photo by Francesco Ungaro)

The war(*) in Ukraine is hastening changes in international politics in many different ways.

The possibility to see the conflict morphing into World War III acts as a convincing spur for continuing efforts at understanding and adapting. Concerned and informed actors are thus trying to make sense of the ongoing conflict and of its prospects. They seek to comprehend the way relationships between actors could evolve, and more generally to understand changes at work.

How information is used during the war is one key element that deserves close attention, as it strongly shapes and influences the conflict and its future, as well as global international relations. Indeed, Ukraine has been hailed for its formidable mastery of information and communication (e.g. Michael Butler, “Ukraine’s information war is winning hearts and minds in the West“, The Conversation, 12 May 2022). Actors on the world stage are assessing the way information warfare is carried out during the war in Ukraine and will continue to do so. The resulting lessons learned will deeply impact future handling of information in the international arena.

In this article, we present first what is information warfare, using mainly American doctrine. Then, we turn to Ukraine and some of the features of its information warfare, and give examples of its “strategic communications”. We highlight what can be seen as success, but also point out more worrying potential consequences. As much as possible we tried to include videos to illustrate our points, including a documentary on the history of psyops and an interview by Pr Noam Chomsky on the war in Ukraine and propaganda.

The galaxy of Information warfare

If we wanted to summarise quickly what information warfare is, then we could simply say that it is the use by an actor – usually a state or state-like actor, but that could be any entity, in all settings, be it war or peace, of all possible means related to and involving information to gain influence over others and see objectives met. The “others” can be anyone. It can be for example, a domestic or overseas audience. Let us examine this brief summary more detail.

Information warfare, strategic communication and propaganda

The use of information in politics, international politics, and more specifically during war means:

“Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly”.

Dennis M. Murphy “Strategic Communications: Wielding the Information Element of Power”, in U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues – Volume I: Theory of War and Strategy, Edited by Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees Jr., Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, June 2012, p. 162

It is considered as being as old as human history.

For its part, the American Congressional Research Service, using conceptualisations given by practitioners defines information warfare as:

“A strategy for the use and management of information to pursue a competitive advantage, including both offensive and defensive operations.”

CRS, Defense Primer: Information Operations, December 2021

For the U.S., information warfare, especially since the 2018 National Defense Strategy, is understood “as competition short of open warfare” (Ibid. – see more below with the concepts of IE and OIE).

Thus, it is indeed the use of information, including when we are not at war, directed at anyone.

When information warfare is used by actors deemed unfriendly or perceived as the enemy, then it tends to be qualified as “propaganda“, which only became a pejorative term around World War I and especially following World War II (Murphy: 162-163). For example, the U.S. Department of Defence defines propaganda as

“Any form of adversary communication, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly” .

“Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.

When, on the contrary, information is used by the sponsor itself, as well as allies and friends, then this activity is labelled as “strategic communication.” The U.S. military defines it as:

“Focused U.S. Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of U.S. Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power”.

“Psychological Operations,” Joint Publication 3-13.2, Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 7, 2010.

NATO’s definitions are very similar, if not identical, to those used by the U.S (see AJP 3-10.1: Allied Joint Doctrine for Psychological Operations, UK).

The problem with these dichotomous definitions is that they tend already to incorporate a biased perspective: what comes from the enemy is disinformation, misinformation, in a nutshell “lies” and “false”; what comes from me – or those allies that serve my purpose is “true” or “the Truth”. Somehow, the psychological war has already started. Once an adversary is identified as such, thence all its communication becomes tainted, which definitely will obscure understanding. As a result, this approach is inherently escalating and favours war over peace and diplomacy. It may also generate a feeling of self-righteousness, which then will imply that one becomes so sure of oneself that one becomes prey to any bias. As a result, these dichotomous definitions may end up favouring defeat if comprehension increasingly lacks as one becomes more and more persuaded that everything stemming from the adversary is false, while what comes from one’s system is right.

The “American” understanding of “strategic communication” corresponds almost exactly to China’s approach labelled “comprehensive engagement” by Jeangène Vilmer and Charon (“Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare”, War on The Rocks, 21 January 2020). Indeed, China’s strategic communication is described by Wallis as:

“A holistic approach in which language and messaging are used in tandem with other elements of statecraft, including diplomatic, military and economic efforts.”

Jake Wallis, “China and Russia aren’t the same when it comes to information warfare“, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 25 September 2019

Whoever the sponsor or initiator of strategic communication, it is key to comprehend that strategic communication is grounded in “the inherent understanding that all Diplomatic, Information, Military & Economic (DIME) activities have the potential to influence the behaviors and attitudes of specific groups” (Steve Tatham, U.S. Governmental Information Operations and Strategic Communications: A Discredited Tool or User Failure? Implications for Future Conflict, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, December 2013: 8). 

As a result, all the DIME activities may and should become the target of strategic communication if an actor wants to see its communication succeed. Meanwhile, all these activities should be combined to create a successful “strategic communication”.

Where it becomes even more interesting is when strategic communication itself works at using others’ DIME activities to carry out one’s aim. At individual level this would just be called plain manipulation. The DIME activities that are thus targeted can be not only those of allies and friendly countries, but also those of the competitors and enemies. We are here in the realm of the Russian Reflexive Control (refleksivnoe upravlenie / рефлексивного управления), built upon the Soviet Cheka’s Maskirovka (the art of surprise through deception, concealment, or psyops). Reflexive control can be defined as:

“A means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”

Timothy L. Thomas, “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, p 237.

In this case, it is key to see that there is no need for the information used to be false, biased or directly misleading. Reflexive control can very well be done with something completely real and true. For example, leaking a real information can be very efficient. One can also set up actions in a way that will prompt people in thinking and acting in the way one wants.

Supporting capabilities and related operations

In the U.S., for example, four capabilities are traditionally supporting “strategic communication”: public affairs, military information operations, public diplomacy as well as international broadcasting services (Murphy: 163-164). Any capacity and activity that could usefully support strategic communication should ideally be involved (Ibid.).

Public affairs

Public affairs means information communicated to a domestic and international audience on the activities of the government in the interest of the latter (ibid).

Information Operations (I/Os), Operations in the Information Environment (OIEs) and Psyops

Militarily and operationally, strategic communication is supported by what is called Information Operations or I/Os:

“The integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”

U.S. JP 3-13 in CRS Information Primer, 2021.

Actually, I/Os could be designed to involve all available supportive capabilities, and not only military ones, and be carried out in combination by them.

Indeed, in 2016, the DoD added a new concept, the “Information environment” (IE), with its corollary, the “Operations in the Information Environment” (OIE) (Strategy For Operations In The Information Environment, June 2016, revised in 2018 with the Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment).

IE is comprised of and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and affect knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization. The IE also includes technical systems and their use of data. The IE directly affects and transcends all operating environments.

Glossary, Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment, July 2018, p.42.

Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) [are] actions taken to generate, preserve, and apply informational power against a relevant actor in order to increase or protect competitive advantage or combat power potential within all domains of the operating environment.

CRS, Defense Primer: Information Operations, December 2021.

Information warfare would then become either “a subset of OIE” (Ibid.) or coterminous with OIE.

Most importantly, these definitions and thus American actions apply to competitors too and not only to enemies in the framework of war. Competitors may, of course, also mean “friends and allies”. If we refer to the definition of “relevant actors”, we indeed read:

Relevant Actors. Those individuals, groups, populations, and automated processes and systems that, through their behavior, could substantially impact U.S. national strategy, policy, campaigns, operations, or tactical actions. These relevant actors may include governments at the national and subnational levels; state security forces, paramilitary groups, or militias; non-state armed groups; local political, religious, civil society, media, and business figures; diaspora communities; and global/regional intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Law or policy may further limit the definition of relevant actors at the time of the proposed operation.

Glossary, Joint Concept for Operations in the Information Environment, July 2018, p.42.

Hence, relevant actors maybe be close to anybody and anything according to U.S. wishes. The protection (for non-Americans) afforded by the last sentence is rather flimsy.

The IE and OIE’s perspective highlights an extremely offensive approach by America in terms of international politics. The U.S. wants to preserve its status as sole super power. The potential doubts that existed in 2017, for example, were de facto overcome (see Helene Lavoix, “Which U.S. Decline? The View from the U.S. National Intelligence Council,” The Red Team Analysis Society, 25 September 2017).

A detailed analysis of this “new” approach to information warfare, of the way it is implemented, and of the results obtained, for example in the case of the war in Ukraine, would most probably yield extremely interesting results.

A primary capability of I/Os is called Psychological Operations (Psyops) in Europe and within NATO, except in the U.S. where it has become Military Information Support Operations (MISO) (Ibid.). Note however, that in 2021, in the U.S., MISO would tend to become PSYOP again (CRS Defense Primer: Information Operations). Psyops are defined as:

“Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”

JP 1-02. SOURCE: JP 3-13.2

The video documentary below presents notably the use of psyops and its historical evolution, as well as real life examples.

The Lies and Brainwashing Of Psychological Warfare Tactics | Secrets Of War | Timeline, May 2021.

Public Diplomacy

Public Diplomacy is classically carried out by ministries of Foreign Affairs.

However, we may also think about other types of activities handling public diplomacy of a sort, and that could thus support strategic communications.

For example, we have Track II Diplomacy, carried out ideally by private individuals, actually usually by academics and ex-officials (e.g. Charles Homans, “Track II Diplomacy: A Short History“, 20 June 2011, Foreign Policy).

NGOs and humanitarian aid, considering notably their funding – through the use of foreign aid programs (see CRS Defense Primer: Information Operations) – and reporting process, may also be seen as being potentially part of the activities supporting strategic communication.

International broadcasting services

Finally, within the strategic communication supporting capabilities, we find “international broadcasting services” (Murphy: 164).

For the U.S., these media are managed and led by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (see also History – renaming in 2018 of the Broadcasting Board of Governors), which oversees Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc. The USAGM budget is USD 840 million for FY 2023.

These types of international services exist in most countries seeking global influence, for example BBC World News for the UK, France 24 and TV5Monde for France, Deutsche Welle (DW) for Germany, Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik for Russia (censored in the EU, e.g. HuffPost avec AFP, “Les médias russes Sputnik et Russia Today (RT) interdits dans l’UE,” Huffington Post, 27 February 2022), etc. In the case of China, we have notably China Global Television Network (CGTN), Global Times, and the oldest Beijing Review.

These services have of course adapted to the overall media environment and use the Internet, apps, social media platforms, or, more broadly all device and ways available. They will probably all continue to adapt to new technologies and this may also sooner rather than later mean Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.

Information warfare in Ukraine

Ukraine, a new master of information operations?

Ukraine seems to have fully integrated the whole extent of information warfare into its strategy and operational capacities.

It benefits from organised capabilities, which, in 2019 under the separate Special Forces Command counted “some 4000 operators under arms” with “four Informational Psychological Operations Centers: the 16th at Huiva, 72nd at Brovary, 74th at Lviv, and 83rd at Odesa” (Max Gaelotti, Armies of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Bloomsbury Publishing, Jun 27, 2019, pp.46-47).

As a result and logically, following 24 February 2022, Ukraine rapidly highlighted the importance of the use of I/Os and psyops by “strictly forbidding” to divulge anything related to them in its “Important information for the media, bloggers and all citizens who take photos or write about the war and the army,”according to the order of the Commander-in-Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valery Zaluzhny (published 2 March 2022; modified 14 April 2022).

A recent paper on I/Os in Ukraine estimates that the Ukrainian political authorities manage and use I/Os “highly efficiently” (Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1: the new ecology of war in Ukraine”, 8 April 2022). Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government contributes to reinforce the emergence of what Ford and Hoskins call the new war ecology (Radical War, 2022):

“In its totality, MSM [mainstream broadcast and print media], social media, military communications and the information infrastructures they depend on form a complex constellation of platforms that interact in a number of different ways, producing …the new war ecology”

Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1: the new ecology of war in Ukraine”, 8 April 2022, p.2.

Among what could be seen as an efficient way to use strategic communication, a new supporting capability seems to be fully used by Ukraine: their own civilian population. Indeed, it is likely that Ukrainian citizens received a training in I/Os before the war started (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1, p. 4).

This, in turn, for example, allows integrating civilians in the targeting cycle, i.e. the whole process through which an enemy target can be identified in such a way it can be attacked and the effect of the attack is what was expected (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 2: the targeting cycle in Ukraine, 10 April 2022). As Ford puts it,

“Ukraine’s armed forces have outsourced parts of the kill chain to civilians… On the battlefields outside Kyiv, civilians have become sensors, extending the targeting cycle into civil society.”

Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 2: the targeting cycle in Ukraine, 10 April 2022, p.1.

Other types of I/Os are carried out in Ukraine, for example “managing” the mainstream broadcast and print media news cycle (e.g. Nick Newman, “Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery“, Oxford University, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, September 2011). Ford reports that Ukraine’s authorities tightly surveil what journalists can report and film (“The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1, pp. 4-5). He then documents the timeline for the Battle for Voznesensk showing that between 9 and 19 days took place between the battle itself – 2 to 3 March 2022 – and first reports on main media – 15 to 22 March 2022 (Ibid. pp. 5-7). He concludes that Ukraine media handlers had thus enough time to put together material to promote a specific narrative (Ibid.).

Meanwhile, communication is broadcast from all levels, from Ukrainian President Zelensky and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine to armed elements, for example the now famous Azov Special Operations Detachment (Окремий загін спеціального призначення «Азов»), which belongs to Ukraine National Guard, or the less famous but as controversial Volunteer Ukrainian Corps “Right Sector”- Добровольчий Український Корпус “Правий сектор” ДУК ПС (DUK PS), through Ukrainians living abroad (on Azov and “Right Sector”, Hélène Lavoix, “Ukraine Spring 2022: Armed Groups”, commissioned report, 21 April 2022). This comprehensive approach, using multiple channels, allows reaching and influencing all the DIME activities of other states and relevant actors, including through the general public.

A couple of examples of Ukrainian Strategic Communication

20 March 2022 – Telegram message by Ukraine Directorate Intelligence warning about Wagner PMC presence in Ukraine

Wagner in Ukraine

This message was then “confirmed” by British Intelligence on Twitter and the piece of information was re-shared multiple times throughout social media.

Translation of the message

🇺🇦 “‼The occupiers send another terrorist group to Ukraine in order to eliminate the leadership of Ukraine 

▪️Regular groups of militants connected with Yevgeny Prigogine, a Russian propagandist close to Putin and owner of the League (Wagner), have started arriving in Ukraine today. The main task of criminals is to eliminate the top military and political leadership of Ukraine…”.

The Ukrainian Directorate of Intelligence shares what is meant to be an intercepted phone conversation – The 23 May 2022 message had been viewed 80.400 times 1 hour after it was shared on Telegram.

📞Rape, looting, mass crimes – the occupiers are discussing the latest news in the unit.

Two soldiers from the so-called “DPR” share their impressions of the course of events in their unit. They were recently told that the once-promised rotation could not even be expected: Until Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are “liberated”, you can forget about rotation. And then we do not move, because the whole group is in the DNR. When they finish there, they will send troops here and we will start moving. “

Then we talk about the rampant crime in the occupying army: “They told about the 125th Regiment. Until an eight-year-old girl was raped. Looting. “Squeezed” someone’s gas station. People were deprived of fuel and sold through this gas station. Regiment commander, battalion commanders. And assistant battalion commanders. “

DNRivets warns its interlocutor to be more careful and cannot understand why he is taking part in a Russian special operation.

🔥4th Separate Battalion Performs Combat Tasks for Victory over Moscow

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Support by the UK Defense Intelligence and US intelligence carrying out related I/Os throughout media platforms greatly contributes to the efficiency of Ukrainian strategic communication.

In the Western world, outside Ukraine, Western political authorities, elite, mainstream media and social networks then amplify the Ukrainian narratives.

The polarisation at work, where people according to their personal preference tend to flock to one or the other media/social network platform and the speed inherent to social networks serve the direct amplification of narratives, rather than a peaceful and objective analysis (e.g. Matthew Ford, “The Smartphone as Weapon – part 1).

So far, Ukrainian strategic communication, in convergence with American and British ones, were efficient enough in bringing to Ukraine quasi complete support by the European Union and its members states, regardless of the cost, military aid, financial support and, on the contrary, in degrading Russian power notably through sanctions (e.g. BBC News, “What sanctions are being imposed on Russia over Ukraine invasion?” 17 May 2022; CRS “U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine“, 29 April 2022).

Furthermore, Sweden and Finland, so far European neutral countries decided to abandon this status and join NATO, the fate of their membership being in the hands of Turkey, which by the same token enhances its international power (France 24, “Turkey’s Erdogan sets conditions for Finland, Sweden’s NATO bids“, 23 May 2022).

Support of populations in many Western countries are also indicators of the success of Ukrainian strategic communication.

A global Ipsos survey carried out on 27 countries (but not including China), worldwide, can help assessing the efficiency of Ukraine’s information warfare on populations at large (Ipsos, “The World’s Response To The War In Ukraine“, 19 April 2022).

Ukraine succeeded in attracting attention, which is a feat in a world where the span of attention lasts a couple of days at best and is generally more focused on sport or the latest influencer than in world affairs (mouse over the IPSOS image below to see the percentages).

Ukraine could also garner support for its cause, with a majority of people welcoming Ukrainian refugees, supporting financial help, military aid and economic sanctions "in general" against Russia (Ipsos, Ibid.).


A less optimistic picture?

Actually, according to the Ipsos survey, the effects of the war and of Ukraine's strategic communications are more nuanced than what an average on 27 countries could let us believe.

For example, Ipsos highlights that there is "no consensus on supporting Ukraine’s military response" (Ibid.). Ipsos found, for example, that "those who support sending their own troops to Ukraine are a minority in each one of the 27 countries, averaging 17%."

On average, only "one-third support their country providing weapons – such as guns and anti-tank weapons – to the Ukrainian military (36%), providing funding to the Ukrainian military (33%), and sending troops to NATO countries neighboring Ukraine (32%)". However, as in most Western countries we have more than 50% ("a majority") supporting these propositions, this means that outside the West, the percentage of support is even lower than the average.

Furthermore, only 54 % on average are ready to pay more for their oil and fuel as a result of sanctions on Russia, with "fewer than 40% in Mexico, Peru, Hungary, Brazil, and Argentina" being ready to do so. "While more than 50% in Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Australia, the U.S., and France support such a ban [ leading to further oil price increase], it is the case of fewer than 20% in Hungary and Turkey. In Germany, which is highly dependent on Russian natural gas, 45% support such a ban, 30% oppose it, and 25% are not sure".

As a result, what we see unsurprisingly happening is the emergence of a divided world, with the "West" on the one hand and the very large "rest" of the world on the other.

Indeed, in "Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Malaysia, and India, the opinion that “the problems of Ukraine are none of our business and we should not interfere” prevails". Meanwhile, as highlighted in the Al Jazeera's video below, double standards in the perception, concern for and handling of conflicts and refugees are also pointed out.

Ukraine: The information war | The Listening Post, 5 Mar 2022

We thus witness a potential polarisation of the world, with Ukraine and "the West" plus notably Japan and South Korea on one side, and the rest on the other side. The "rest' of the world, may feel all the more alienated that it has to face a tragic food crisis, consequence of the war.

Many scenarios resulting from this fracture, if it is not mended, are possible. Some are negative for the world, such as a new world war. Others are especially negative for the West, with an acceleration of a possible impoverishment, and a demise of the U.S.-led liberal order. Such a scenario could be worse for Europe, notably considering its geographical location and the now defunct importance of European trade and industrial links with Russia (e.g. "Eurozone inflation soars to record 7.5 percent in March", Politico, 1st April 2022; Balazs Koranyi and Dan Burns, "Economic outlook has 'darkened', business and government leaders warn in Davos, Reuters, 24 May 2022).

In that case, Ukraine's strategic communication would have contributed to strengthen its ties with a declining world order, while also accelerating this very decline. This would hardly be a success.

Some voices also start denouncing what feels as propaganda being constantly hammered upon Western audience, as expressed and highlighted by Noru Tsalic in "Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV" (The Times of Israel, 28 April 2022):

"I’ve said in the previous chapters and I’ll mention it again: in the current war Russia (and only Russia) is the guilty party.  But that’s no reason for Western politicians and mainstream media to treat us as if we’re all simple-minded, unable to grasp complexity or nuance and incapable of telling reality from wishful thinking.
In this series of articles, I fight the groupthink; I attempt to expose the dumbed-down narrative that’s being fed to us and smarten it up. I trust my fellow human beings: we are able to cope with the stark, unadulterated, unvarnished reality; treat us like intelligent adults."

Noru Tsalic, "Russia & Ukraine: The smartened-up story – Chapter IV", The Times of Israel, 28 April 2022.

In this perspective it is enlightening to listen to Pr Noam Chomsky on the war, propaganda and the media:

Noam Chomsky on the Russia-Ukraine war, The Media, Propaganda, Orwell, Newspeak and Language, 1st week of May 2022, EduKitchen

With time, the negative consequences of what would increasingly be denounced as propaganda and not seen anymore as efficient strategic communication could endanger the political authorities of the countries acting as supporting capabilities for Ukraine's information warfare.

Within these countries, trust could be damaged, and thus legitimacy could decrease. Within "the West", if some countries such as the US are perceived as taking advantage of the situation while not sharing in the cost - the advantage of a US-led monetary system being that the true burden of aid is lowered - the US-led order could be fragilised.

People could start wondering about the national interest of their country regarding the war in Ukraine, and if other alternatives, less costly to everyone and primarily to Ukraine, were not and would not still be possible. For example, if Ukraine had been prompted in being neutral, its security guaranteed through new security arrangement, if Minsk II had been truly respected and enforced, then war would likely never have started. Unfortunately, the US did not favour Minsk II, as highlighted by the signature of the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership on 10 November 2021 and by the vocabulary used, while the UK did not trust it either (Samuel Charap, "How Could the United States React to Russia's Latest Posturing on Ukraine?", The Rand Blog, 19 November 2021; Office of the spokesperson of the U.S., U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, 10 November 2021; e.g. for UK sentiment, Duncan Allan and Kataryna Wolczuk, "Why Minsk-2 cannot solve the Ukraine crisis", Chatham House, 16 February 2022; Duncan Allan, "The Minsk Conundrum: Western Policy and Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine", Chatham House Policy Paper, May 2020).

Minsk agreements best means to protect Ukraine, says Macron • FRANCE 24 English
8 Feb 2022

Internationally, if propaganda were to become increasingly perceived as being blindly accepted and promoted within and by Western countries, the very standing and values of "the West" would suffer, with considerable consequences in terms of influence and power.

Finally, normatively, the use of citizens in the targeting cycle (Ford, ibid. part 2) and as willing vectors of strategic communication adds a new layer of difficulties to the already blurred lines between the status of civilians versus combatants (Lavoix, "Ukraine - Spring 2022"; Ford, The Smartphone as Weapon - part 3: participative war, the laws of armed conflict and genocide by smartphone,). The ICRC and the Law of Armed Conflict could try to argue that "combatant status only applies to those with ‘lasting integration into an organized armed group’ (Ibid). But what does mean lasting? If all civilians are trained in I/Os and henceforth completely part and parcel of the national defense, then is it not a lasting integration? This very evolution could imply renewed international normative discussion and disagreement, and at worst seriously challenge whatever progress had been made in terms of "law of war".

Practically, during war and irrespectively of law, the simple possession of a smartphone could transform a civilian into a target for enemy armed forces and get the civilian to be killed. Later on, there may well be a trial, but the owner of the cell phone will remain dead. The responsibility of political authorities thence knowingly endangering the lives of their civilian population could also be engaged.

Ukrainian information warfare, thus, on the short term appears as efficient. Thanks to its strategic communication, Ukraine could fight more and resist. The price to pay in destructions and probably in death and wounded, however, is very high. On the longer term, if extreme caution is not exercised in dealing with Ukraine's strategic communication and if we do not come back to reason and rational thinking, then Ukraine's information warfare could backfire. At worst, it could lead us all towards not only a world war but also a total war.


(*) We use the term of war following von Clauzewitz definitions according to which “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will” and “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, vol. 1. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company, 1832).
Our choice of word is thus functional and descriptive and not a legal statement. 
Russia says it launched a "special military operation" on 24 February 2022 to “demilitarise” and "denazify" Ukraine. Furthermore, it stated it did so “in execution of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22, …to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime” (Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 24, 2022, 06:00, The Kremlin, Moscow).
On 22 March 2022, the UN General Assembly voted a draft resolution introduced by Ukraine, with 141 states in favour, five against and 35 abstentions that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter” (UN, “General Assembly Overwhelmingly Adopts Resolution Demanding Russian Federation Immediately End Illegal Use of Force in Ukraine, Withdraw All Troops”, 2 March 2022; Draft resolution.
Note that the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic are hardly recognised internationally; however, legally, the case is linked to the principle of “self determination”, which is a fundamental principle of the UN charter.

War in Ukraine, Megadrought and the Coming Global Food Crisis – Anthropocene Wars (3)

The War in Ukraine as a Perfect Storm

The war in Ukraine triggers a global whirlwind involving energy and food crisis. The latter is quite singular, because it combines the consequences of the war on the global agricultural system with massive extreme weather events, such as the U.S. midwestern megadrought.

War as global disruption

Indeed, since the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the war added to the economic sanctions imposed by the EU, the U.S. and the G7 on Russia. The sanctions and the war have had disrupting effects on the Ukrainian and Russian exports of cereals, essentially wheat, maize and barley. (FAO Information Note on The Importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation for Global Agricultural Markets and the Risks Associated with the Current Conflict – 25 March 2022 Update).

From sanctions to un-sanctions

From the beginning to the end of march, the sanctions regime targeted, among others, financial services and agricultural exports, making it harder for Russia to export its agricultural products on the international markets (Maxim Suchkov, “Repercussions of Russian sanctions, from agriculture to microchips”, Russia Matters, 10 March 2022). This had immediate effects on the prices, bcause of a worldwide demand that was already high and supply quite tight (Patti Domm, “A fertilizer shortage, worsened by war in Ukraine, is driving up global food prices and scarcity“, CNBC, April 6, 2022).

However, on the 24 March, Washington eased some of the sanctions on Russian agricultural products, notably on fertilizers (“USA eases sanctions on agricultural products, including fertilizers”, The Investologist, 31 March 2022).

On the Ukrainian side, the damages on the transport system, and the blocking of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov ports, among them Mariupol and its harbour, drastically diminish the Ukrainian export capability. The Ukrainian authorities try to compensate by redirecting the grains exports through railways.

However, the quantities that can be moved by rail are much lower. In the same time, the transport time and costs are higher. (Silvia Aloisi and Pavel Polityuk, “Ukraine could lose $6 billions in Grain exports with ports blocked”, Reuters, March 21, 2022 and  “Ukraine’s grain exports held up while railways struggle to cope, analyst said”, Reuters, April 2, 2022)

Furthermore, the fact that a large part of those exports do not reach the international markets is only the most superficial part of the coming global agricultural shock.

Indeed, the main agricultural centres and crops need fertilizers. As it happens, if the U.S. and Canada are major producers of potassium potash and nitrogen fertilizers, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are major exporters.

If the U.S administration eased the export ban on 24 March 2022, the Russian political authorities decided first to reduce their exports, before easing those measures at the start of April (Shelby Myers, Veronica Nigh, “Too Many to Count – Factors Driving Fertilizers Prices higher and Higher”, Market Intel, December 13, 2021 and Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Russia increases export quotas of fertilizers easing supply to India“, The Economic Times, 20 April 2022).

These export swings have reduced the amount of fertiliser available in the world in March, i.e. at the same time as the crops are planted, thus increasing demand and prices (Charlotte Hebebrand and David Laborde, “High fertilizers prices contribute to rising global food security concerns“, International Food Policy Institute, April 25, 2022).

Furthermore, it gets worse, because of the combination of these factors with the massive impact of climate change on major agricultural areas, such as the U.S. Midwest. Indeed, the “mega drought” that impacts that American region as well as its Southwest is in itself a major factor of agricultural crisis.

In other words, the war in Ukraine is literally “chaining” different factors of agricultural crisis, from cereal production through exports to climate change”. As it happens, the war in Ukraine turns this chain of factors and variables into a gigantic systemic global agricultural crisis.

We shall see how this systemic crisis is becoming its own driver, each factor driving the others. We shall also look at the way the agricultural crisis “meets” the global energy crisis. Finally, we shall see how this systemic crisis becomes the “continuation of the war in Ukraine by other means”.

The war in Ukraine and the agri-exports crisis

The war in Ukraine is triggering a worldwide and systemic agricultural crisis. Since the start of Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022, the war and the international sanctions block the usual exports of Ukrainian and Russian cereal crops (FAO, ibid).

The missing Ukrainian and Russian exports

As it happens, in 2019, these exports represented 23 % of the global wheat exports, 19% of barley, 18% of maize, and 64% of sunflower oil, an essential cooking ingredient globally (Hannah Ritchie, “How could the war in Ukraine impact global food supplies?”, Our World in Data, 24 March 2022). The agricultural prices were already on the rise before the start of the war. Now, the blocking of the Ukrainian and Russian exports is driving powerful inflation on these commodities.

The prices war

For example, on 13 April 2022, the price of the wheat bushel was at a historical high of $11.13. One must remember that, year on year, that price was $6.29 on 13 April 2021. On 1 February 2022, it was $7,5. On 22 February 2022 and, on the eve of the war, it was $8.4. Hence, in 48 days, the price of wheat skyrocketed to $11.13 (“40 Year Historical Chart”, Macrotrends, April 13 2022).

So the increase rate for wheat prices almost doubled from one month to the other since the start of the war and the disruption of the Russian and Ukrainian export.

Furthermore, as we shall see now, this agricultural crisis is not only quantitative. It also takes a systemic dimension

Meet the US megadrought

Megadrought in Continental U.S.

The current megadrought affecting the American Midwest and SouthWest is becoming another driver of this systemic agricultural crisis. NOAA’s U.S. Drought Outlook establishes that more than 60% of the continental U.S. experiences minor to exceptional drought conditions (NOAA, “Spring Outlook: Drought to Expand in Warmer conditions, flood risk for Upper Midwest, Midwest, South East”, 17 March 202).

It must also be noted that there is a high risk of above than normal temperature during the coming spring and summer, which will combine with the 2022 La Nina. This means that, in the main U.S. agricultural regions, soils are going to be too dry, while water is and will be particularly expensive for farmers.

It also means that vegetation growth is going to slow down, while the risks of diminishing crop will be important (Karl Plume, “Plains drought to curb U.S wheat harvest, adding to global supplies worries, Reuters, 14 March 2022).

The War and the fertilizers

This risk is heightened by the pressure exerted by the war in Ukraine on the production, exports and prices of fertilizers, because of the blocking of the Belarus and Russian fertilizers exports in March, that triggered global prices hikes in March and April. For example, Belarus produces 16,5% and Russia produces 16,1% of the potassium potash global supply (Shelby Myers, Veronica Nigh, “Too Many to Count – Factors Driving Fertilizers Prices higher and Higher”, Market Intel, and Charlotte Hebebrand and David Laborde, “High fertilizers prices contribute to rising global food security concerns“, International Food Policy Institute, April 25, 2022 ).

Even more importantly, Russia represents 16,1% of the global exports of nitrogen. Belarus represents 18,5% of the global potassium potash exports, while Russia’s share is 16,5%. Following the sanctions in February and March, as well as the Russian export restrictions during the same period, the shortage of their fertilizers production has impacted agricultural giants such as the U.S., India, Egypt, China, while triggering a violent price hike (“America’s largest Farm Cooperative Warns Sanctions May Spark Fertilizers Shortages”, ZeroHedge, 07 April, 2022).


This overall situation is worsened by the harsh 2021-2022 U.S. winter season. The polar vortex and harsh winds episode that hammered the “wheat belt” was so violent that the winds swept away some of the rich top soils that ensure the success of crops (Karl Plume, ibid). As it happens, those episodes also signal the dryness of soils.

Those different extreme weather events, such as the intensity of the megadrought and of the polar vortex, also signal the worsening of climate change and combine themselves with the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine (Jean-Michel Valantin, “What are Climate Wars ?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 2 November 2021).

The war-U.S. megadrought nexus also drives a global geopolitical risk, because of the lasting global food prices crisis it may trigger.

Towards the great destabilization?

Wheat prices and revolution

One must keep in mind that wheat prices have a social and political crucial importance. This is especially true in countries where bread is the basic staple of the population. It defines the ability of families and individuals to feed themselves, or not. It is the case, for example, of the Arab countries .

In this context, it is important to remember that the 2011 “Arab springs” were preceded by serious wheat and bread price hikes. Those were triggered by two to three years of extreme weather events combined with financial speculation (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).

Indeed, on 10 January 2011, when bread riots started in Tunisia, the price of wheat was $7.73. The riots spread to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria. They became the trigger for massive political opposition movements to the regimes in power. Nowadays, the current price hikes are higher and climb more quickly (“40 Year Historical Chart”, Macrotrends, April 13, 2022).

The War in Ukraine and oil prices

The problem is that this agricultural products prices inflation happens while energy prices also rise. The “post” Covid economic recovery drives a rapid growth in oil and gas demand, thus driving energy prices higher.

As it happens, the war in Ukraine triggers an overheating of oil prices. The prices err between $96 and $120 since the start of the war. (Scott Patterson and Sam Goldfarb, “Why are gasoline prices so high? Ukraine-Russia  War Sparks Increases Across the U.S“, Wall Street Journal, 1 April, 2022).

So, the energy-agricultural prices are taking societies into a “pincer movement” that puts under pressure entire societies. This “pincer” amplifies dynamics of political polarization in numerous and major countries.

Indeed, the basic function of a state and its rulers is to protect their nations and people. If they fail, their legitimacy, power and authority decrease and the level of domestic violence rise (Norbert Elias, The Civilizing process, vol.II, State Formation and Civilization, 1982).

Food Riots

That is precisely what happened at the start of the Arab Springs and that appears to be starting again. For example, since March 2022, riots and protests have taken place in Iran and Iraq. Riots also took place in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Peru, against the prices of bread and energy. (Bamo Nouri, “Iraq food protests against spiralling prices echo early stages of Arab Spring”, 16 March 2022, Kayhan-London, “Protests in Iran risk spreading as Ukraine war triggers global food crisis”, Worldcrunch, April 11 2022, Julia Horowitz, “From Pakistan to Peru, Soaring food and fuel prices are tipping countries over the edge”, CNN Business, April 9, 2022 )

In Egypt, food prices are soaring as the government seeks to replace wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. At the beginning of March, Egypt had only four months of stocks of wheat (Michael Tanchum, “The Russia-Ukraine War has turned Egypt’s food crisis into an existential threat to the economy”, Middle East Institute-MEI@75, March 3, 2022).

Furthermore, the current situation is also pitting nations against one another in order to access agricultural goods, fertilizers and food. Indeed, in order to weather the global agricultural-energy-food crisis, China is hoarding 51% of the world wheat reserves.

It is also hoarding all other sorts of cereals, while the Chinese winter wheat crop is dramatically bad. This China’s food security policy puts India, the other giant consumer of wheat, under pressure, as well as the rest of the world. (Andrew Whitelaw, “Big Wheat Trouble in Big China”, Thomas Elder Market, 14 March 2022)

The Time Issue

A major hurdle is the duration of this crisis. The longer it will last, the more the domestic and international tensions will grow. The problem is that the war in Ukraine may last beyond the next plantation and harvest cycle.

In the meantime, there is a very strong probability that extreme weather events are going to keep on hammering agricultural regions all around the world (“How will La Nina impact 2022 agricultural production?”, Feed and Grain, Feb 17, 2022).

For example, since the beginning of March 2022, India (1,3 billion people strong) and Pakistan (207,7 millions people strong) are going through the worst and longest heatwave in a century. On 30 April, temperatures reached 49 °C in Jacobabad in Pakistan, getting very close to the limits of human biological tolerance. This heatwave is already causing massive damages to the wheat harvest that could be 20% lower than in 2021 (Manavi Kapur, “India’s extreme heatwave is already thwarting Modi’s plan to “feed the world”“, Quartz, 28 April 2022).

Symmetrically, the raging war in Ukraine may have dramatic effects on the 2022 crops in this country. Those result, for example, from the mobilization of some farmers to fight against the Russian troops. They also result from the degradation of numerous fields by the battles, and from the destruction of farms and of numerous roads and bridges.

To add insult to injury, the Ukrainian farmers also suffer from the fuels and fertilizers prices rise triggered in March and April (Tyler Durden, “Shocking estimates shows Ukraine crop harvest could be halved”, ZeroHedge, April 10, 2022).

This chronic and drastic mitigation of the Ukraine and Russian agricultural exports is also going to combine with the coming effects of the 2022 La Nina. This cyclic weather phenomenon, amplified by climate change, may degrade the Brazilian and Argentinian crops through floods and drought (John Barany, DTN Meteorologist, “South American corns, soybeans: La Nina continues to affect crops”, AgFax, February 11, 2022).

Hunger Wars on the Horizon?

Hence, numerous governments may face a physical impossibility to feed their populations. Those situations are most likely to unleash severe unrest as well as important migrations. Those, in turn, will be politically polarizing in attractor countries. We may even wonder if this is not already the case in Europe or in the United States.

It becomes perfectly possible that we may have to face large scale international food competition, if not hunger wars, in the near future. Those will oppose societies with access to food to those with less capabilities.

Featured image: Photo military journalist Taras Gren, 12 September 2015, Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (War Ukraine)- Ministry of Defense of Ukraine – CC BY-SA 2.0

Advanced Training in Early Warning Systems & Indicators – ESFSI in Tunisia

(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

At the end of March 2022, the Ecole Supérieure des Forces de Sécurité Intérieure (ESFSI) of the Home Ministry of Tunisia organised its fourth intensive training on early warning systems & indicators. It is part of its programme on the “management of social conflict.”

This time, we set up with the management of the ESFSI an advanced course. It followed on the training delivered in October. Dr Hélène Lavoix trained the officers in an intensive 40-hour programme focusing on tutorials and the use of early warning software, with lots of practice on domestic security issues.

Congratulations to all the trainees for their ability to quickly master a software that many others found difficult and for their commitment. Thanks to the many in-depth and extremely interesting discussions with the trainees and the executive management of the ESFSI, to say nothing of their amazing hospitality, this week was a high level, high quality workshop.

For the first time, considering the improvement of the sanitary context, the program was live and not through Zoom. If virtual training is indeed convenient, it was nonetheless easier and more pleasant to have a direct contact with trainees. The mix between real life sessions and virtual ones could truly become a real asset to keep in the years to come.

The programme was supported by the European project “Counter-terrorism in Tunisia” via CIVIPOL. The first session took place in August 2020, the second in March 2021 and the third in October 2021.

Nuclear Battlefields in Ukraine – Anthropocene Wars (2)

A nuclear theatre of operations

(Art Direction: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli
Image: Recognize Productions via Pexels).

On 24 February 2022, at the very start of Russian offensive against Ukraine, after a two days battle, the Russian forces took over the Chernobyl power plant, where the historic nuclear accident occurred in 1986 (Mary Kekatos, “Seizure of Chernobyl plant by Russian troops sparks health concerns for people near the nuclear plant”, ABC News, 26 February, 2022 and Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl, 2019).

Then, on 4 March 2022, the Russian forces shot shells at an administrative building of the huge Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Zaporizhzhia is the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe and the ninth in the world. It produces 20% of the Ukraine’s electricity (“Ukraine: nuclear plant fire extinguished, Russia seizes site”, DW, 4-03-22).

These two conventional battles signal a singular state of things, because they intersect military situations with nuclear power plants landscapes. As it happens, these situations reveal the way nuclear power creates a caesura in the biophysical history of our planet.

So, these battles raise the question of their operational and strategic meaning. Why did the Russian troops seized a nuclear power plant? How and why controlling the production and the flows of electricity in Ukraine is an important war aim? And what does it reveal about the Russian strategy in Ukraine? Finally, and more generally, what do these battle reveal about the state of our changing planet, in a time when “novel entities” such as nuclear products are transgressing planetary boundaries ?

Nuclear power plants battles: what is it good for ?


On 24 February, the first day of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Russian forces seized the Chernobyl exclusion zone. They also took the neighbouring ghost city of Pripyat. It appears that this operation was part of the opening of corridors by the Russian forces. Those corridors led the Russian forces towards Kiev.

This news came as a shock. Indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone corresponds to the area primarily affected by the 1986 historic nuclear accident. This area is still going through a fifty years long decommissioning progress. There, numerous sites still know important radio nucleides levels.

One hypothesis we can make is that settling temporarily in this region allowed the Russian forces, for a time, to dissuade any strike against them, because such strikes could mean the release of clouds of radiative dust. It could also trigger forest fires in the “Red Forest” around the decommissioned plant. That would generate radiative smoke (Michael Kodas, “Chernobyl is not the only nuclear threat Russia’s invasion has sparked in Ukraine”, Inside Climate News, February 26, 2022). However, since 1 April 2022, the Russian troops left Chernobyl and no forest fire was detected (“Unprotected Russian soldiers disturbed radioactive dust in Chernobyl’s Red Forest, workers say“, Reuters, March 29, 2022).

One week later, on 3 March 2022, Russian troops took control of the Zapporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The plant’s location is on the Dniepr, in the south-east of Ukraine. The Zapporizhzhia plant produces 20% of Ukraine electricity and is part of the Kherson oblast (“district”). Its location is part of one of the main axis for the Russian forces in the south east (“Russia troops take control of the Zapporizhzhyia nuclear plant in Ukraine”, Power Technology, 4 March 2022).

The administrative buildings were the main target of the shelling and assault. No structural damage occurred as far as the reactor part of the plant is concerned. The fire that started in the administrative building  was quickly extinguished. No nuclear material was released release (Charles S. Davis and Sinoad baker, “Ukraine says Russia seized its largest nuclear power plant, but radiation levels are stable”, Business Insider, March 4, 2022) .

In the meantime, on 3 March , the Russian Army seized Kherson, the district capital (“Russian troops seize key Ukrainian port city of Kherson”, The Quint, 3 March 2022).

Strange warfare in a strange place

While Zapporizhzhia is active, the Chernobyl area is still the dangerous site of a major civil nuclear accident.

For example, the forests, fields and soils around the Chernobyl plant are ecosystems that have integrated the 1986 massive release of radio nucleides in a very complex way. Hence the “exclusion zone” status (Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl guide to the future, 2020).

According to the Ukraine Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency, the consequence of the assault was a spike in gamma ray emissions. However, there has been no clear description of this release since the assault (Agencies, “ Chernobyl radiation rise detected, as Russian military kicks up dust, says nuke agency”, Times of Israel, 25 February 2022).

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic observed a spike of 9,46 micro sieverts per hour on 25 February: this very low level of radiation remained well in the “safe operating level” (1000 micro sivierts equal 1 millisierts. One millisieverts is a safe level for population, Safety Standards, IAEA).

In addition to this confusing situation, the Russian troops stopped the transfer of the daily datas necessary for measuring radioactivity. Thus, this situation worried the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA says it loses contact with Chernobyl Nuclear data system“, France 24, 9 March 2022).

The International body will send a mission to investigate the situation on the site after the departure of the Russian troops (“IAEA says it a preparing a mission to Chernobyl after the Russian pull-out”, Reuters, Mach 31, and (Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: a Chernobyl guide to the future, 2020, Mari Saito and Ju Min Park, “Seizure of Chernobyl nuclear plant sparks worries about radiation monitoring”, Reuters, March 4, 2022).

For its part, the seizure of the Zapporizhzhya has a strategic meaning, if we look at it within the context of the Russian strategic framework, as we shall now see.

Renewing the Russian operative strategy

The Russian angle

Starting in the 1920s, then during World War II and the Cold War the Russian defence ministry has developed strategic notions that integrate military means with other ones, such as economic ones, in what is called “operative strategy” frameworks (“Transformation in Russian and Soviet military History, Proceedings of the Twelfth military Symposium“, USAF Academy, 1986 and David Glantz, Soviet Military operational Art: in pursuit of deep battle – Military theory and practice, 2012 ). 

War is a competition not only between armies, but between the economic, industrial and political national systems behind these armies. The goal is to dramatically degrade the cohesion of the opposite system, in order to make it incapable to wage war.

In this perspective, the use of military forces is to fragment the enemy forces and territory (Stephen Covington, The culture of strategic thought behind Russia’s approaches to warfare, Belfer Center – Harvard University, 2016). Meanwhile, the Russian strategy uses other kinds of forces to disorganize the economic depth of the adversary. The goal is to degrade the enemy’s fighting means as well as its fighting will.

Indeed, the recent report “Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts” reminds of the fluidity between defense and offense in an operative strategy perspective (Michael Kofman et al., Russian military strategy: core tenets and operational concepts, CNA, 2021).

It also highlights that:

“The theory of victory [of the Russian strategy] is premised on degrading the military-economic potential of opponents, focusing on critically important objects, to affect the ability and will of an adversary to sustain a fight, as opposed to ground offensives to seize territory or key terrain.

The calculus is that the center of gravity lies in degrading a state’s military and economic potential, not seizing territory”

War by other means

If we use that framework, the assaults on both nuclear power plants take on a strategic meaning. Putting the Zapporizhzhya plant under Russian control confers to the Russian military the power to “switch off” electricity distribution.

So, the Russian authorities have the “power” to deprive of electricity millions of homes, industries, and sanitary infrastructures. Thus, controlling the plant is tantamount to degrade the economic potential as well as the life conditions of millions of people, and thus the Ukrainian capability to wage war. In other terms, it fragments the Ukrainian economic and social life.

It also triggers a territorial fragmentation, between zones with or without electricity distribution.

However, if this whole situation emerges from strategic conditions, it also has a deeper meaning related to the new condition of our planet.

Battles of the “novel entity”

The Anthropocene and nuclear warfare

As we saw, the singular aspect of these battles is rooted in the association between warfare and the nuclear dimension of the contemporary world. This singular dimension is inherent to the development of the nuclear military and civil power since the implementation of the Manhattan project and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagazaki.

Indeed, as the geologist Jan Zalasiewic and his team established, there is micron thin and ubiquitous sliver of artificial nuclear material that covers emerged land. This layer results from the multiple nuclear essays that took place since the first test explosion in 1944 in New Mexico. (Sarah Griffiths, “Dawn of the Anthropocene era: new geological epoch began with testing of the atomic bomb, experts claim”, Mail On Line, 16 January 2015). It is a definitive signal of the emergence of a new geological era, the “Anthropocene era” (Waters, Zalasiewicz et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”, Science, 08 January 2016).

Since 1945 the convergence of warfare and nuclear power plants has occurred several times. For example, in 1980, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Osirak, the nuclear power plant that the Saddam Hussein government was building (Or Rabinowitz and Giordana Pulcini, “The Israeli raid against the Iraq reactor – 40 years later: new insights from the archives”, Woodrow Wilson Centre, June 3, 2021). 

Indeed, “Anthropocene warfare” is a twofold warfare condition. On one hand, it is warfare waged since the emergence of the Anthropocene. On the other hand, and in the same dynamic, some ways of warfare induce a transgression of the “planetary boundaries” (Kate Brown, Chapter 8 – Very recent history and the nuclear Anthropocene, Cambridge University Press, 24 March 2022).

Nuclear power and the transgression of planetary boundaries

Those are defined by the report: “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”. This report, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center was a conceptual breakthrough ( Ecology and Society, 2009) and The Nine Planetary Boundaries, Stockholm Resiliency Centre.

The research team defined nine “planetary boundaries”, which must not be overstepped. Indeed, overstepping them would fundamentally alter the collective life conditions of humanity. If crossed, these thresholds would be nothing but “tipping points” towards deeply changed life conditions on Earth (“Avoid Tipping over, Human activity could give rise to planetary-scale ecological regime shifts”, Stockholm Resiliency Centre).

The nine boundaries are “climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Ibid).

The report warned that three of these thresholds, i.e. climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the interferences with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, are already crossed (Hélène Lavoix, “Climate Change, Planetary Boundaries and Geopolitical Change”, The Red Team Analysis Society) .

Since then, research centers, especially the Stockholm Resiliency centre, have built upon these initial concepts. Among these boundaries, there is the injection in the injection of “novel entities”, i.e pollution by transformed or artificial products.

As it happens, industrial radio nucleides are typical of the “novel entity” family and their injection in the environment crosses planetary boundaries (The Nine Planetary Boundaries and Claire Asher, “Novel chemical entities: Are we sleepwalking through a planetary boundary ?“, Mongabay, 23 September 2021).

Hence, the Ukraine war integration of nuclear plants to a conventional battlefield is a new signal of the convergence of war with the “novel entity” constituted by nuclear power and materials on our rapidly changing planet. In other words, these battles are a new signal for the “anthropocene warfare” era that started with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in by the US Army in 1945.

As such, they are also a reminder of the risks induced by the ongoing process of overstepping one of the “planetary boundaries”.

The East Seas Security Sigils

The aim of the East Seas Security Sigils is to be a daily scan focusing on security in the East Seas, as explained below.

We are currently investigating new AI ways to deliver an even better East Seas Security Sigils. The original complimentary version ran from May 2012 to April 2023.

A brief presentation

The East Seas Security Sigils aims to allow monitoring easily with open source what is happening in the East Seas, beyond an exclusive focus on Taiwan. As a scan, it helps following impacts of actions, and their potential for escalation and stabilisation (read Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice).

Considering the risk of spill-over from one problem onto the other, the East Seas Security Sigils focuses on potential and actual tensions in the East China Sea, the East Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, thus taking Northeast Asia as unit of analysis. Northeast Asia, then, should also be considered in its larger regional and global dimension.

In these three “East Seas”, we find territorial disputes involving Japan*, and stemming from history, which are, namely:

  • The dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (China and Taiwan/Japan) – Read also Helene Lavoix, “From the Diaoyu Islands, with Warning
  • The dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Japan/South Korea)
  • The dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands (Japan/Russia)
map of the disputed areas around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Liancourt Rocks, Kuril Islands

The Sigils are a series of scans exploring the horizon for weak signals related to various issues relevant to the security of societies, polities, nations and citizens.

*China/Taiwan and South Korea/North Korea issues are not here the prime focus of interest. Understanding the other stakes in the region is nonetheless key for a better comprehension of tensions around Taiwan, and more generally in the region.

Featured image: A map of the capitals of the past dynasties – Modern Signature Honil Gangri Yeokdae National Road Map Call Code 假108 Author (Chinese) 權近 外 … [等著] Compilation (Hangul) Kwon Geun et al. ] Year of publication 1402 (Taejong 2) Publisher [Unknown publisher] Number of books 1 book Size 158 x 168 cmThe original material is the director of Ryukoku University in Japan, and the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies is a colored copy of Professor Lee Chan. Original: Quan Jinwai Prof. Chan Lee’s color reproduction., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From the Diaoyu Islands, with Warning

The problem

The disputed area Diaoyu Islands / Senkaku Islands

The sea area around the Diaoyu Islands, including islets around the island located at 25° 44′ 41.49″ N, 123° 28′ 29.79″ E, constitutes a disputed territory as China, with Taiwan, and Japan claim sovereignty over it. The Japanese call those Islands Senkaku, while in Chinese their name is Diao (ou Tiao) Yu Tai (meaning “fishing platform”), and the very name one chooses for those islands is already a quasi-acknowledgement of one or the other claim.

Regularly, Chinese and Japanese authorities, as well as Taiwanese ones, denounce incursion in the area of vessels and airplanes of a contending country, while themselves asserting their claims by penetrating the zone. An instance of a case of escalating tension took place on 10 September 2012. Then, Japan announced its purchase of part of the Diaoyu Islands to a family that had claimed ownership on them in the 1970s. The Japanese nationalisation led to strong protests at various levels from China, which considers the Islands to be part of its territory, indeed part of Taiwan. The situation became rapidly tense and grew worse, as each time a move is made in one of the disputed sea areas in the region.

With each action in these areas, we are faced with escalation, which depends upon each player’s perceptions, actions, interpretations of others’ actions and reactions.

The players

The players, in terms of countries, are China, including Taiwan, Japan, the US, the two Koreas, Russia. For each of them, we must not only consider strategic and bilateral actions and interactions at classical official level (Prime Minister, Foreign Ministry, Defence, Military, Parties, etc.), but also dynamics of domestic (and local) politics, including citizens and socio-political mobilization. Meanwhile, the overall systemic global and regional strategic context, must not be forgotten.

We shall here solely focus on China and on a single but absolutely determining aspect of its perceptions.

A key to China’s perceptions

Norms and beliefs constitute the lenses through which a society or group comprehend the world (Scott, 1985; Elias, 1989; Anderson, 1991; Pye, 1996;  Camroux, 1997). Understanding them is crucial to evaluate future interpretations, positions and thus actions (as well as to explain the past and the present), as shown by Jervis (1970, 1976) with his studies of images, perception and misperception in international politics. Those norms and beliefs are historically constructed (Elias, 1989); each can interact with all the others, creating complex systems – indeed we can call them complexes (Lavoix, 2005).

Regarding the problem of the Diaoyu Islands, two sets of norms or complexes are crucial in the Chinese perception and are highly likely to strongly contribute to determine what will happen next.

A norm of sovereignty constructed during the “century of shame and humiliation”

First and foremost, there is the Chinese perception of sovereignty, that comes with the will, indeed the perceived imperative necessity for survival, to overcome the “century of shame and humiliation.”

This dark period of Chinese history, when the Chinese World Order of the time collapsed and, worse, when the very foundation of what it means to be Chinese was questioned and had to be reinvented (Lin Yü-Sheng, 1979; Elvin, 1990; Yu Keping, 1994), started with the 1839 Opium War and the 1842 treaty of Nanking (Nanjing). In November 1839 the British defeated the Chinese at the battle of Chuenpi. They threatened to bombard Nanking and thus led the Chinese to sign the first treaty settlements. From then on evolved the imposition by “the West”* upon China of the (unequal) Treaty Port system. Under this system the number of cities and towns that opened to foreign trade under one legal status or another rose from five in 1842 to ninety-two in 1917; among them, foreign settlements where the sovereignty was attributed to the foreign power were established in 16 treaty ports (Feuerwerker 1983: 128-129).

As a result, considering the pre-existing Chinese values, world-view and system, China had to face a long agony implying a deep re-evaluation of its society. It experienced inner turmoil from the Taiping rebellion (1851-1864) to nationalism and the establishment of the 1912 Republic of China under the backdrop of increasing political upheavals. Paralleling external changes occurred that were, in the Chinese view, expressions of the crumbling of an order. Notably, the “loss of Japan” took place with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 and marked the necessity to re-conceptualize the Chinese world-view (Howland, 1996:240-241). The Chinese defeat resulted in the 1895 treaty of Maguan with Japan and implied also the “loss of Korea,” while Japan started benefiting from the treaty port system. Japan rose as new power, changing the regional – and soon global – strategic configuration (Iryie, 1965, 1974).

While China was still struggling to see the treaties revised and extra-territoriality abrogated, it had to face an increasingly hostile and encroaching Japan, actualized with the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Despite all its efforts, despite even the 1937 Nanjing massacre at the hands of the Imperial Japanese army, China could not obtain support from the international society, then represented by the League of Nations, because its status was not recognised; China’s acceptation in the “Family of Civilized Nations” would only be granted, finally, in 1942 (Gong, 1984a).

As the construction, for China, of the norms of sovereignty, territoriality and independence (the normative attributes of statehood in the current of international society of states) was done through the historical experience of the “century of shame and humiliation,” which included experiences of threat to survival, any related issue will bring to the fore perceptions of extreme danger. In the case of the Diaoyu islands, the fact that the perceived aggression – in 2012 or in any other similar case – is done by Japan may only increase this feeling, notably considering the often tense relations between Japan and China and repeated denials of history by some Japanese actors.

Geography as narrative: historical iconography and mapping

The second crucial element of perception that is operating in the problem of the Diaoyu Islands is the fact that Chinese geography was, traditionally, not only and not so much constituted of iconography, as for modern geography, but of narratives (Howland, 1996). Those narratives, be they “poetic” or “expository” (Howland, 1996), tell history and, as geography was transformed into mapping and maps, it may only continue to be imbued with its original content (Thongchai, 1994), thus, in the case of China, with history. Thus the geographical aspect of the Diaoyu Islands problem will only enhance its historical dimension, and immediately be linked to beliefs related to sovereignty and territoriality.

Indeed, taking the 2012 case as example, if we follow the Chinese actions for establishing their rights to the eyes of the world on the Diaoyu islands, we can see that it is partly done through a mix of modern mapping, history and historical iconography, using the medium of the virtual world of the world wide web. The special coverage done online at the time by China Central Television ( is an example in kind of this approach as shown in the picture below:

Chinese Proofs that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China - CCTV

Meanwhile, more classical official “thematic maps” were being issued (Xinhua, 18 Sept 2012) and any official statement, including the 25 September 2012 White Paper – Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China, abundantly used history as evidence.

As a conclusion: Warning

With confidence, we can thus estimate that China (and Chinese people) will remain strong on their positions and never abandon their sovereignty on what they perceive as part of their territory.

Any action, including in terms of statements, that would try to force them to do otherwise, or would seem to go in this direction, or that would appear to favour Japan and Japanese actors’ assertions could only be perceived as aggressive moves and thus generate escalating actions.

On the contrary, China could and can accommodate existing status quo as they do not question its sovereignty, thus do not threaten its survival. As a result, actions that would prompt a return to status quo, when escalation starts would be stabilizing. This is the opposite of the failure of appeasement when faced with a territorially aggressive and expansionist actor.


* “The West” is a shorthand, as the nations who benefited from the Treaty Port System were not only the initial powers (France, the U.K. and the U.S.) and most of European countries (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Prussia then Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Russia, etc.) but also, most importantly, Japan from 1895.


Featured image: The China Marine Surveillance cutter “Haijian 66” and the Japan Coast Guard cutter “Kiso” confronted each other near the Diaoyu Islands. 24 September 2012, By 中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance (中国海监总队/China Marine Surveillance) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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