As casualties mount in Donbas, it is worth pausing to reflect on Vladimir Putin’s persistent refusal to declare war on Ukraine, despite the recent predictions of western commentators. For ordinary Russians, describing the ongoing events as a “war” rather than a “special operation” can result in a 15-year jail sentence. In one sense, this penalty reflects the immediate needs of the Kremlin propaganda machine – to boost morale and avoid the impression of an intractable conflict. Yet it also conveys a broader insight into ideological representations of warfare in the early 2020s.
Although Putin has justified his offensive as a humanitarian intervention in the style of Iraq, he is aware that such incursions have fallen out of favour thanks to the wreckage left by the Bush administration in the Middle East. Rather than targeting entire nations, the contemporary trend is to pursue rogue elements within them (in this case, Kyiv’s fabled neo-Nazi drug addicts). Instead of “invading” sovereign states, it is better to launch “surgical strikes” inside their borders. The most popular wars today are those that dare not speak their name. Hence Putin’s reticence about the w word.
The Kremlin’s blunder, from a PR perspective, has been to allow a chasm to open up between the rhetorical framing of the conflict and its reality. Unsustainably high levels of dissimulation are required to obscure its status as a conventional ground invasion. While Russia altered its messaging to reflect anti-war sentiment, it did not adapt its military methods to 21st-century norms. Nothing about the shelling of Kharkiv, for instance, signalled a “special operation”.
This is one of several indications that Russia cannot match the aptitudes of a genuine imperial power like the US. The contrast between the two is instructive. While the former pours troops into the trenches, the latter continues to develop new forms of warfare to limit deployments and avoid public opprobrium. Since the initial excesses of the war on terror, Washington has relied increasingly on drone strikes and special forces to neutralise perceived threats in faraway places. Joe Biden, while calling for Putin to be ousted from office and dragged before the Hague, has simultaneously set about expanding this lethal architecture, designed to kill countless enemies in undeclared war zones. That this move has not aroused international condemnation highlights the gap between Russia’s blunt force tactics and the more sophisticated – but no less terrifying – techniques of the Pentagon.
The origins of America’s aerial warfare regime are well-known. Just three days into his presidency, Barack Obama authorised drone strikes which killed up to 21 civilians, including several children, in Waziristan. During his first term, Obama ordered one execution by drone every four days. Alleged terrorists in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan were placed on a “kill list” which the president reviewed at regular Tuesday meetings in the White House Situation Room. The collateral damage amounted to hundreds of non-combatants. All military-age males within a strike zone were considered fair game, even if there was no evidence linking them to the target. Details about strikes were kept classified to dodge accountability. In 2011, Obama reportedly remarked to senior aides: “I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine”.
Just as Putin has cloaked his criminality in bureaucratic euphemism, Obama eschewed the term war for “overseas contingency operations” – instructing staff to use this designation. As details of the death toll came to light, the administration moved to introduce some limited safeguards in its second term. It promised bombs would only be dropped when there was “near certainty” they would not hit civilians, and it pledged to report on the number of innocent people killed outside active war zones (although, because of the uncertainty involved in classifying civilians, neither of these pledges was particularly meaningful).
Under Donald Trump, though, even these tentative restrictions were rolled back. He replaced the “near certainty” threshold with “reasonable certainty”, and repealed the requirement to document civilian casualties. Perhaps most dangerously, his administration devolved authority over drone strikes, empowering the military and CIA to make executive decisions about whether to conduct them, whereas White House approval had previously been required. The outcome was a bloodbath. As legal scholar Hina Shamsi wrote: “The Trump rules served as open-ended authorisation for the United States to kill virtually anyone it designates as a terrorist threat, anywhere in the world”.
Now Biden has ascended to the Oval Office, echoing Trump’s broken promise to end “forever wars”, what is the future of the US drone programme? Soon after his inauguration, Biden reintroduced Obama’s centralised command structure for approving strikes and commissioned a review that would draft new rules for such counterterrorism operations. In August 2021, the New York Times reported Biden’s playbook would likely be a hybrid of the Obama and Trump models. A tougher vetting process for proposed strikes would be retained in places where they are rare, while military commanders would have greater latitude to make their own decisions in places where they are routine. The US would increase the use of artificial intelligence to facilitate strikes, as well as carrying out more “over-the-horizon” operations – that is, launching missiles in locations where there are no US troops on the ground.
It is already clear where any variant of this policy will lead. In countries like Somalia, where the US has just established a “persistent presence”, the military will still be able to rain bombs on its adversaries with little oversight or accountability. Meanwhile, in nations without US ground forces, we will see a move toward “pure” drone warfare – guided by US-based computer systems and controllers, whose judgement is often fallible. One of Biden’s first over-the-horizon strikes provided a foretaste of things to come. On 29 August 2021, an aid worker and his family in Kabul were mistaken for IS militants and obliterated with the push of a button. Ten civilians, seven of them children, were killed.
The details of Biden’s drone review are still being finalised, and there is speculation that – in light of the Kabul disaster – its rules of engagement will be tightened. Yet even if Biden reinstates the Obama-era limits, it is worth asking what ultimate purpose this will serve. As historian Samuel Moyn observes, Obama may have tinkered with the protocols that govern military action, but he was always determined that the US should have a carte blanche to initiate interventions, often without announcing them. “At the very start of his administration”, writes Moyn, “Obama adopted a war framework that placed no limits in space or time on the conduct of counterterrorism. This would matter much more than banning torture symbolically or fiddling with prisoner and trial rules.”
The result was a form of violence that, precisely because it touted its humanity, could expand infinitely and continue indefinitely. This is the pattern on which Biden plans to double down. His Global Posture Review, which sets the agenda for future overseas engagements, forecasts the growth of US military outposts in the Indo-Pacific, as well as perpetual counterterrorism activity in Africa and the Middle East. This endless shadow war – which enflames local conflicts and fuels extremism – is undoubtedly the greatest threat to global peace. Although the internationalist left has unanimously condemned Putin’s assault on Ukraine, it should ensure that the return to traditional warfare in Europe does not eclipse these evolving modes of conflict elsewhere.
Oliver Eagleton is an editor at New Left Review and a regular contributor to Novara Media. His first book, The Starmer Project, is out now with Verso Books.