Migrants, finance, gas...all are now weapons in our hyperlinked world

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Conventional warfare is out. ‘Connectivity conflict’ is in. So says the author of a landmark book on a geopolitical revolution

Sometimes, a gas bill is not just a demand for payment – it is a secret weapon. And as millions of British voters see their bills spiral this spring they will find themselves in its crosshairs.

Recently, three more energy supplies went bust – Bulb, Orbit Energy, Entice Energy – bringing the total number of suppliers that have failed to 24 in under 12 weeks. In October, European gas prices were six times higher than a year previously, which means suppliers must pay more for wholesale energy than they can sell it for under the government’s energy price cap. And in the spring, when the government raises the price cap, the few surviving companies will hike their prices to claw back the losses they made over the winter. It is a scary prospect, but readers trying to understand our cost-of-living crisis must look beyond the business pages to geopolitics.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, did not cause the global energy crisis, but he has used it to turn his country’s gas reserves into a loaded gun aimed at the west. He took one look at the conditions – a long winter, growing demand from India and China, the destruction of gas storage in countries such as the UK, maintenance backlogs in gas fields elsewhere– and seized his moment. And, in this instance, he had a specific aim in mind beyond his permanent desire to humiliate the west: to force European and German regulators to certify the now-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will transport far greater quantities of gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe and provide valuable currency for a struggling Russian economy. Don’t expect more supply is his unsubtle message, unless you play ball on Nord Stream.

Russia has form on using gas as a weapon. It twice shut off gas supplies to Ukraine and its western-friendly government in the 2000s. When Moldova elected a new pro-EU government this year, Gazprom dramatically hiked its charges and cut deliveries by a third, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency. This time, Putin didn’t even need to turn off the taps to put pressure on its rivals. Russia honoured its existing contracts, but simply refused to pump any more gas as European demand soared following the end of lockdowns. Far more dramatically than any number of Russian warships or bombers flying near British airspace, this underlined Putin’s message that Europe should be wary in its dealings with him. After all, he has his hand on Europe’s jugular. Putin’s tactics may not have worked in the short-term – Nordstream’s approval is currently suspended by German regulators and he ended up ordering the pumping of more gas. But he’s playing a long-game, and has struck fear in the heart of Europe’s politicians.

British consumers have unwittingly found themselves playing a walk-on part in a revolution in geopolitics, one in which Putin has been a pioneer. Carl von Clausewitz called war the continuation of politics by other means. But in a nuclear age the price of war is unfathomable. That is why connectivity conflicts are becoming the “other means” of global politics. Countries are waging conflicts by manipulating the very things that link them together.

It is connectivity itself that gives people the opportunity to fight, the reasons to compete, and the arsenal to deploy

Great power politics has become like a loveless marriage where the couple are unable to get divorced. And, as with an unhappy couple, it is the things they shared during the good times that become the means to harm. In a collapsing marriage, vindictive partners use the children, the dog and the holiday home to hurt each other. In geopolitics, it is gas, supply chains, finance, the movement of people, the internet and even problems such as Covid and climate being weaponised.

Just look at the world’s response to Covid. Rather than working together to increase global supplies of vaccines, masks and gowns, countries such as China have used their stocks to bully others – 98 countries imposed export restrictions on PPE and medicines.

When it comes to trade and finance, one of the reasons Putin wanted to fight against the west is the fact that his country has been under strict sanctions since he annexed Crimea in 2013. Sanctions have become a weapon of first resort with China targeting Japan, Russia sanctioning Turkey, and the USA listing over 800 entities in 2020 alone.

Russia is one of many countries that have used the internet to interfere with other nations’ affairs. Between autumn 2016 and spring 2019, there were election interference attempts in 20 democracies representing 1.2 billion people – and that’s before we look at questions such as Cambridge Analytica.

Even migrants are being turned into bullets. Witness Belarus’s dictator and his secret services who enticed refugees from the Middle East via Belarus into Poland and Lithuania, to put pressure on their governments. The academic Kelly Greenhill has documented over 75 occasions in the last few decades when countries from Cuba and Morocco to Libya and Turkey have used forced migration to achieve political, military or economic goals.

We may be on the cusp of a new, silent pandemic. Like Covid-19, it is spreading across the planet exponentially, exploiting the cracks in our networked world and constantly mutating to evade our defences. But unlike the virus, which pits all of humanity against a disease, this new pandemic is being deliberately transmitted. It is not biological, but a set of toxic behaviours that are multiplying like a virus. The connections between people and countries are becoming weapons.

It is connectivity itself that gives people the opportunity to fight, the reasons to compete, and the arsenal to deploy. Conventional wars have been receding for decades – more people now take their own lives than die in armed conflict every year. But that doesn’t mean we live in an age of peace.

Academics who work on cyber issues were looking to describe the grey zone in which their world was immersed, where every day they saw millions of attacks that fell short of conventional war. They rehabilitated an Anglo-Saxon word: unpeace. And as violence spreads from the internet to trade, finance, migration and beyond, their word provides a perfect encapsulation of our condition. British gas customers are becoming familiar with an unstable, crisis-prone world of perpetual competition and endless attacks between competing powers. Welcome to the age of unpeace.

Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and the author of The Age of Unpeace.

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