The seven levels of the war
The ongoing war in Ukraine is much more than just the fighting on the frontline. It is ultimately a war for ideals, a conflict that stretches to the theoretical limits of global politics.
To grasp the essence of the current war, one needs to examine closely its multilevel nature. The presence of many hidden levels makes it hard to get an in-depth understanding of the ongoing motives and strategies. This also complicates the interpretation of current events and scenarios for the future. In this article, initially written in 2014, we try to understand the levels of the present conflict. Without this step, it is impossible to effectively lead and win it.
1. Ukraine vs the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”
Even now, in the ninth year of the war, the vast majority of Russian citizens are convinced that the armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has been waged between Ukraine and the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”. The Ukrainian armed forces, they believe, have been fighting the local “people’s militia”, possibly diluted by the “patriots of the Russian world”.
Despite Russian propaganda, outside Russia this simple but erroneous picture did not last long. It was refuted at first by the influx of Russian special forces and mercenaries and later by the direct Russian invasion of this region in August 2014. After eight years of war, that no longer fools anyone (except the Russian TV viewers). It is evident that the “People’s Republics” were (and still are) terrorist organisations directly controlled from Moscow. Their “leaders” turned out to be Russian citizens and the “separatism” card was played only as an instrument of the next level of the war.
Does this imply that the first level of the war is 100 per cent fake and therefore can be ignored? It is definitely fake but it cannot be ignored. Reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories is impossible without the reintegration of people who live there and believe this level of war to be real and important. We will have to consider their picture of reality to understand them and to establish communication.
2. Ukraine vs Russia
The anti-imperialist independence war
Analysts started talking about a Russo-Ukrainian War at the beginning of the annexation of Crimea in February 2014. It was an open secret where the troops without identification marks or the fake “leaders of local pro-Russian opposition” came from. A war without a declaration of war is still a war. Further developments confirmed that this level of war is the primary one.
The essence of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the parties’ goals are intuitively clear but require a thorough discussion. Back in early December 2013, during the first days of the Revolution of Dignity, we wrote that Russia’s strategic goal was to establish long-term controlled chaos on Ukrainian soil.
Controlled chaos has three primary purposes. Firstly, you can use the resources you need without having to take responsibility. You can export natural resources or valuable equipment without paying for them (theft of Ukrainian grain from elevators and equipment from factories are examples), or you can relocate local people to the depressed regions of your own country or kidnap children from their parents. Secondly, a zone of controlled chaos on the EU’s border puts constant pressure on the European Union itself. This plan was developed for Ukraine by the same strategists who had already implemented similar ones in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The third goal is to put a lid on any democratic processes in Russia itself, to eradicate any positive precedent. To achieve this objective, Moscow would need to undermine Ukrainian democracy and turn it into a fundamentally dependent small copy of authoritarian Russia, just like Belarus.
In other words, Russia’s goal is not Ukrainian territory per se, but the elimination of the Ukrainian state. Despite this, the Kremlin is constantly trying to create the impression of territorial demands, diverting the attention of Ukrainians and the international community. From this point of view, it becomes evident why Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine in 2014-21 were blowing up bridges and railways, shelling cities and looting factories. That is not how occupiers planning to exploit the resources of the occupied territories behave.
Please note that what seemed to be one of the warring parties at the first level of the war (the “People’s Republics”) is only a platform for war on the second level. We will return to this point later.
The purpose of the war for Russia is to prevent the existence of the Ukrainian state as such, and in February 2014 this goal was openly declared. The goal of Ukraine is to ensure the existence of its state. Thus, in essence, Ukraine is waging an independence war.
To find the next level, one should remember that most Russians are convinced that they are fighting in Ukraine not with the Ukrainians themselves but with the United States or NATO. Russian propaganda states that there is no Ukrainian nation, that people living in Ukraine are a part of the Russian nation. In this Russian worldview, Ukraine is not an actor, it is only a platform where the confrontation between the two superpowers unfolds (although, as we know, one of these superpowers is now a former one, they just do not realise it yet). Indeed, this level of US-Russia war exists. But it is the fourth level, and we must not miss the third one, as it is obscure but crucial.
3. Modern Ukraine vs the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
The war of systems
It has been known since 2014 that Ukraine cannot achieve quick victories despite a high level of patriotism because it is waging war on two fronts simultaneously. Someone carelessly described the second front as fighting local supporters of Russia. This is clearly a misnomer as the forces fighting Ukraine on the second front do not want Russia to win at all. They want a victory of their own.
We are talking about a war between two models of Ukraine, a new one that appeared after the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity and an old one which this revolution was fought against. We often hear that the conflict is about corruption. However, corruption is not the cause, but a consequence of the conflict. It is not the fundamental basis, but one of the conflict’s external manifestations.
To understand the essence of the counter-revolution, one must first understand and name the revolution itself. Mychailo Wynnyckyj did precisely that in his seminal book Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War. Applying the most widely accepted definitions of revolution in the social sciences, he proved that the revolution did not end in February 2014 but instead continues to this day. He determined the threefold nature of this revolution: it is a bourgeois revolution, a national liberation revolution and a values revolution.
This definition helps us to understand who opposes whom in this war between the old Ukraine and the new one. On one hand, there are social groups interested in preserving the oligarchic-feudal system (a limited access order in Douglas North’s terminology or an extractive system using the terms of Daron Acemoğlu & James A. Robinson). This is made up of a multilevel pyramid of people who benefit from rent seekers’ privileges. On the other hand, there are social groups aiming to break the oligarchic-feudal system and introduce an open-access order (with equal rights, stable rules of the game, transparency, accountability, etc.). These are new entrepreneurs, proactive patriots and the creative class.
The political and economic system that developed in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact, did not go far from this old system. It was not yet Ukraine, it was the “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” with a blue and yellow flag and a trident for a coat of arms, which bore all the flaws of Soviet heritage. A system based on corruption and the theft of national wealth, a system with closed social elevators and Soviet thinking, it could not last for four reasons.
Firstly, an active part of the society rebelled against this system. Secondly, the resources inherited from the Soviet Union have already been depleted. Thirdly, the global technological shift is reinforcing new economic models and weakening old ones: the fortunes of all of Ukraine’s top oligarchs combined look miserable compared to the success of new technology companies. The fourth reason is that a country based on this economic system is unable to defend its independence from Russia. A small copy of Russia will not be able to repulse Russia, only reaching the next level of development will help the country to do that.
Two countries coexist in one territory, the old one and the new one. The old one uses existing schemes and social ties, oligarchic mass media and a corrupt law enforcement system. Whereas the new one finds its vitality in the energy of mass movements, in the new economy, in the younger generation, in hope and romance. The border does not run along the Donbas boundary or the Dnipro river, it cuts through houses in many cities throughout Ukraine.
Why is this a war? Because these two systems cannot coexist peacefully for long, one must destroy the other. Either Ukraine returns to the old system, and then the avatars of the new one are arrested or deported. Or it transitions to the new system, with avatars of the old system having to accept the new rules of the game or pack their suitcases and leave the country. Meanwhile, the past and the future are pulling in different directions the rope on which our lives are suspended.
It is important to note that the first two levels of the war (“separatism” and Ukraine vs Russia) are geopolitical, and the third level (the war of systems), in contrast, is geoeconomic in nature. A geopolitical war is waged for the privatisation of space, for resources and territory. A geoeconomic war is fought for the privatisation of time, control over flows of money and resources, and control over the system of norms and rules.
Now we can move on to the fourth level of the war, which we have already mentioned above.
4. USA vs Russia (USSR)
The Second Cold War
In the first version of this article published in 2014 we called this level a “fragment of the Cold War”. Over these eight years, it has become clear that this is a full-fledged Second Cold War, and its battlefield is not limited to Ukraine. It now encompasses the whole world. It manifests as interference in elections and referendums, cyberattacks and terrorist operations, conflicts in the Middle East and more.
Authoritarian Russia is trying to destroy the democratic liberal West. According to Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, if Russia cannot become the West, then it seeks to make the West like Russia.
It is frankly a bizarre war. Russia is waging a geopolitical war against the United States, a war to control territories, resources and areas of interest. At the same time, the United States is waging a geoeconomic war against Russia, a war to control flows, rules and norms. Thus, there is a sort of phantom present in this conflict. Russia is firing at a point where the United States no longer exists. It is impossible to win a geopolitical war against someone who is not waging it against you. This is how the Cold War ended: the United States defeated the Soviet Union not by routing its armies on the battlefield but by exhausting its economy.
So, we are witnessing an attempt at revenge. Having strengthened itself with oil money, wearing a mask of modern Russia, the USSR is trying to even up the score in the game.
Unmistakably, Russia’s geopolitical shot in the dark will end in geopolitical defeat on other fronts. China is well prepared and is just biding its time. When a tiger and a leopard fight on the ground, a clever monkey sits on a tree, says Chinese wisdom.
And this allows us to outline the contours of the sixth level of war, a completely geoeconomic war, a war for world domination. Much like the third, the fifth level of this war is covert and implicit (the war of systems in Ukraine). Despite this, it is also very important.
5. The war of scenarios
The covert level
This level of war was clearly visible in 2014 but is now virtually unnoticeable. All the same, it needs specific attention as the basis for the next level.
The previous level of the war (the USA vs Russia) was effectively a phantom. One side is waging a geopolitical war, while the other one is fighting a geoeconomic war. Such a strange situation creates another level of conflict between geopolitics and geoeconomics: which of them will prevail in the world? What kind of war will dominate the world?
At first glance, this question contradicts the statement that geoeconomic warfare is a higher form of war that is more perfect than the geopolitical one and therefore prevails. The fact is that two forms of war are waged at different timescales. Geopolitical battles last for years, whereas geoeconomic ones last for decades. In the long run, geoeconomics wins, but geopolitics can become the central discourse for shorter periods of time. For example, the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the geoeconomic Cold War, but the Cuban Missile Crisis could have ended in a real geopolitical nuclear world war. Therefore, the task of geoeconomic players is to prevent the game from slipping into geopolitics, where they can lose in a timeframe shorter than their returns from long-term investment in geoeconomic victory.
For all these years, Russia has been trying to divert this war into the geopolitical battle that it can win. But Ukraine’s resilience and the unity of the western world stood in its way. Russia now has no trump card in the global geopolitical game other than nuclear blackmail. Therefore, it is trying to play geoeconomics by seducing Europe with gas supplies and other offers while simply buying specific European politicians or opinion leaders.
A critical factor in the “tug of war” between these two forms of conflict is that their costs fall on different countries. Geopolitical war is unfavourable for New Europe (the countries from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, including Central Europe, Turkey and the countries of the Caucasus) because it is becoming the “frontline”. Geoeconomic war is unfavourable for Old Europe led by Germany and France because it will have to give up its interests.
Having considered this bizarre war between geopolitics and geoeconomics, we are now stepping up to the level of pure geoeconomic warfare.
6. USA vs China
A slow war for world domination
For more than 150 years, US foreign policy doctrine has prevented the emergence of a challenging force. Only China can rise to challenge the United States in this battle for world economic domination. In fact, this challenge has already been accepted. It is a real clash of giants, a prolonged one, like all geoeconomic conflicts — a slow war for world domination. Therefore, we should not expect a rapid unfolding of events here. Please note that Russia, which is an actor and a counterpart on the previous levels, on this level is just a platform, a resource that players want to use in order to find the best way to win.
The war between the United States and China is chimeric in nature. Due to their accumulated ties, the two fighters are so intertwined that they have taken root in each other. The historian Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica” (China + America) to describe this concept.
This “World Geoeconomic War” explains the Chinese dilemma. China would like to increase its geopolitical weight but at the same time would like to strengthen its economic relations with the West. China is always trying to play the long game, but the long game is a geoeconomic one, not a geopolitical one. At the same time, it is unacceptable for China to lose the geopolitical game. Thus, this is a dilemma between mid-term and long-term strategies, and it could be solved only from the next level, from the perspective of a longer-term grand strategy.
We have already said that geoeconomic wars are superior to geopolitical ones. On the even higher level is geocultural or ontological warfare, a war for truth, for the dominant paradigm of thinking. This ontological war goes on all the time. And this is more than a war between democracy and autocracy as far as it started much before democracy appeared.
7. “The World of Borders” vs “The World of Roads”.
The ontological war
The ontological war between the “World of Borders” and the “World of Roads” has been going on for thousands of years, since Egypt versus Babylon, the Byzantine Empire versus the medieval Islamic world, then through to the Nazi Reich/communist USSR/Mao’s China versus the free western world (we are skipping dozens of other examples). The World of Roads is open, shapeless, flexible, spreading in all directions like an ink stain, connecting everything with everything and building a myriad of horizontal connections. The World of Borders is closed, strictly formalised, rigid, centralised, hierarchical. The two worlds have been waging an uncompromising struggle for the minds of people for thousands of years. The hero of the World of Borders is a strong government, a great warrior for whom the whole world consists of checkpoints. The hero of the World of Roads is a transnational corporation, a great traveller for whom the whole world consists of hotels.
Nowadays, the open World of Roads is represented by the Euro-Atlantic civilization (the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and its allies and bright avatars like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and more.
The closed World of Borders is represented by Russia, China, much of the Islamic world (even though the Gulf countries have already begun the transition to the World of Roads), and certain forces within the United States, Europe and other countries.
The World of Roads and the World of Borders are waging an uncompromising “War for Truth” which manifests itself in geopolitical confrontations, religious reformations, battles over economic paradigms and philosophical systems. The two worlds fight as two sportsmen in different sports. After all, the strength and technique of a boxer are irrelevant against the speed and agility of a runner until the moment of close quarters combat.
The current battles are an echo of this millennia-old confrontation. And here is why.
Ukraine was born in the World of Roads, beginning as Rus’ with Kyiv as the centre and crossroads of major trade routes (since the ninth century). Then it was captured to be divided and privatised by great empires of the World of Borders. However, it remained spiritually in the World of Roads and is now trying to return home, to break free from its chains.
In contrast to Ukraine, Muscovy was born in the World of Borders and has always remained there. Initially, two alternative models of statehood appeared in the northern Slavic lands: the Golden Horde’s autocratic Muscovy and the Hanseatic republican Novgorod. Muscovy’s first goal, as soon as it regained its strength, was to destroy Novgorod. It slaughtered the inhabitants and burned the city. But Muscovy had to do more — to publicly “execute” or remove the great bell of the veche (public assembly), the symbol of the republic, pulling out its tongue. The symbolic execution emphasises that it was an ontological war, a fundamental battle over models of statehood.
Ukraine also was almost destroyed. The blows were not only dealt to language, culture and identity but also at the level of genocide (Holodomor). Today is, in fact, the last battle of this war. If the World of Roads wins, it would mean the return of Ukraine to its roots, while the victory of the World of Borders implies a return to the “Last Empire” with tragic consequences.
This is a local Ukrainian story, but what about the global scale? The key to this highest level is the choice of China. Responsible global leadership on the part of China could change the paradigm of world development from opposition between the World of Borders and the World of Roads to a new global common destiny, which combines the best features of both worlds and provides answers for all the present problems of humankind. At the same time, the active contribution of the USA, Europe, India, other powers and, we believe, Ukraine, is necessary as well. If China, on the contrary, chooses a strategy of confrontation, this threatens the entire planet.
We have already outlined the first rule of wars: the players of the earlier levels become only objects in the subsequent levels, a playground or, at best, pieces. We have also already considered the second rule of wars: geopolitical wars are always at a lower level than geoeconomic ones, and ontological (geocultural) wars are even higher. It remains to mention the third rule: higher-level war is always slower and lasts longer than lower-level wars.
Therefore, for a higher-level war, a lower-level war is simply an episode, a separate “battle”. Its outcome affects the outcome of the whole war, but only partially, since other battles are going on as well. The theatre of higher-level warfare is always wider.
At the same time, the outcome of a higher-level war provides the ultimate answer to who won the lower-level war.
Understanding the multilayered nature of the current conflict, the different nature and timelines of its levels, and the fundamental difference in the participants’ goals allows us to understand the causes of certain events and conduct strategic modelling for the future.
Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.
Andrii Dligach is the Head of Advanter Group, Doctor of Economics, strategist, futurologist and visionary; founder of the Board business community, co-founder of the Center for Economic Recovery, SingularityU Kyiv, FreeGen, Investudio. Investor and ideologist of ecosystems and technology startups.
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