by Diane Francis
editor of the Canadian National Post, senior researcher, and employee of the Atlantic Council
The Israel-Gaza and Ukraine-Russia conflicts are the result of a world war started in 1999 by Vladimir Putin to recreate the Soviet Union’s empire. Russia’s war machine operates in the shadows and is behind most of the world’s strife.
It is not a goose-stepping monolith, but a hidden Hydra with thousands of tentacles that reach worldwide and have grown for decades. Putin prefers to wage hybrid warfare and deploys mercenaries, rogue nations, and non-state players such as terrorists or political extremists to foment unrest and revolts. He weaponizes food and fuel and sabotages economies, elections, reputations, and industries. Russian operatives corrupt nations; torture, poison, or bribe individuals; kidnap children; take hostages, and launch cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns on an industrial scale.
Such tactics have culminated in the two major wars underway in Europe and the Middle East, and, despite ample evidence of Russia’s involvement, there is no global consensus that this is World War III and must be stopped.
Instead, leaders haggle over next moves and whether to fund Ukraine as opposed to Israel, as though the same Evil wasn’t behind all conflicts. Only a global alliance will stop Russia’s war.
If you examine the current geopolitical problems through the prism of a world war orchestrated by another ruthless leader, there is no room for appeasement, neutrality, avoidance, nor for dreams that negotiations, ceasefires, or peace talks will stop the mayhem. Only eradication of Russia’s network, in all its guises, will win the peace. Russia’s nation-state allies are Iran and North Korea, but Moscow has also financed and trained thousands of non-state actors that are embedded everywhere to cause trouble. Hamas and Hezbollah are well-known terrorist guerrilla armies on the payroll of Russia and Iran, but so is a roster of anti-West countries, political parties, terrorist sleeper cells, movements, and leaders. Finally, there is Russia’s huge conventional army as well as the Wagner Group mercenaries that have played an over-sized role in destabilizing Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Venezuela. All must be defeated.
Instead, the world currently focuses on the killing fields of Israel and Ukraine, but should view them as tragedies that have happened because of the world’s strategic blindness to the existence of this insidious global war.
The current Israeli situation, for instance, illustrates at least two mistakes: The failure by Israel and others to recognize and stop Putin’s behind-the-scenes maneuvres; and the reliance on conventional armed forces to provide security against elusive, hybrid warfare. The result was that on October 7 (Putin’s birthday) Hamas slaughtered 1,400 people despite Israel’s large military and Putin’s “friendship” with Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, in retaliation, Israel counter-attacked by conducting massive bombing raids and a ground invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas as if it were a static nation-state and not a cunning mobile insurgency that had already “left town”.
By the time the tanks arrived, Hamas was gone or hiding behind Palestinian civilians as shields. Israel’s ferocious retaliation demolished half of Gaza, killed thousands of civilians, but eliminated only a few dozen terrorists. This outcome handed Russia and its global tentacles an opportunity to weaponize the air waves by amplifying the plight of Palestinian civilians at the hands of Israel. This has roiled world opinion and resulted in criticism of Israel even among its allies. Theoretically, if the world had realized what Putin was up to, an allied hybrid war capability might have detected and prevented the attack or, having failed to do so, could have conducted a surgical counterattack with fewer civilian casualties. But now the West and Israel have been undermined, American politicians divided, Arab and Muslim allies alienated, and the possibility of a two-state solution postponed indefinitely.
Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin granted a rare interview days later with Qatar-owned Al Jazeera where he expressed concern about the “catastrophic increase” in the number of civilians killed in Israel and the Gaza Strip. “The Russian leader also took aim at Washington’s policy in the Middle East which he said had failed by not taking the needs of Palestinians into account,” read the website.
The failure to take a global approach to Russia’s predations allows one ally to be pitted against another or to make a grave strategic error that damages all.
Clearly, a unified alliance must create a hybrid war counter-offensive that can identify, track, anticipate, infiltrate, and destroy Russia, Iran and their malevolent non-state actors before they attack. The failure to muster a global force against Russia allows Putin to gain ground, geographically or politically, by dividing and conquering foes, isolating targets, and generating instability across the world.
Ukraine is another example of what happens when the civilized world fails to unite against Russia. In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia, then Ukraine in 2014 without much fuss by America, Europe, or others. The Obama regime opted to do a reset with Russia, a nonsensical strategy given the sociopathy of the Putin regime. That miscalculation, along with appeasements, led to the invasion of Ukraine on February 2022. But if the West had understood that Putin was salami-slicing the West on a quest to dominate Eastern Europe once more, other strategies would have been undertaken. For starters, Europe would have realized it could never become fully dependent on Russian oil and natural gas; NATO would have expanded into Scandinavia, Georgia, and Ukraine years ago, and the West would have invested billions in protecting the collective security, not forced to play catch up for the past 20 months.
Fresh from these two major triumphs, Russia will continue its “hybrid warfare” globally. It will fund any anti-American, anti-European Union, anti-Israel, or anti-NATO group, media, political party, and leader.
Such efforts have already borne fruit. Putin’s tentacles have backed anti-European Union populists such as Marine LePen in France, Victor Orban in Hungary, Slovakian or Serbian politicians, Britain’s “Brexit” movement, white supremacists in America, and anti-Europe celebrities like Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Tucker Carlson in America — whether they know it or not.
Russia has also weaponized migration into Europe and America to destabilize both politically and socially. As many as 20 million refugees have landed in Europe following Russian military interventions in Syria and Ukraine. Neither jurisdiction has secured its borders or properly screened entrants. (Read my “Global Refugee Mess” published on October 2.) If one agrees with my assertion that World War III is already underway, it’s hardly a stretch to speculate that included, among the tens of thousands of Venezuelan and Central American men who enter the United States, are spies, criminals, drug mules, or terrorists. In addition, thousands more arrive from further afield, including Russia. And Europe is in worse shape because it lacks a continental navy and is inundated with refugee claimants, most recently arriving by boat from the Middle East, or countries in Africa where Russian influence is powerful.
China has stayed on the sidelines in this global war despite boasts by Putin about being “no limits friends”. Russia would love nothing better than to convince China to open a third theater in its world war by invading Taiwan.
But this is a Kremlin distraction combined with wishful thinking. Since Ukraine’s invasion, China has distanced itself from Russia, and refused to provide military aid. Military conquest is not China’s style. Its foreign policy has been mercantilist, via its Belt and Road Initiative. Besides that, Beijing moves toward détente with the United States and Europe out of self-interest to shore up its exports and economy in future. And it too fears Russia, as it should.
Russia, not China, initiated and backed the only post-war invasions in Asia — Korea and Vietnam. Both conflicts embroiled the United States for years as its alliance of conventional troops fought to stalemates against guerrilla armies.
Today Russia remains a global scourge and is winning its world war. This is why an alliance must stop and dismantle its deadly war machine.