Deividas Šlekys, military expert and lecturer at Vilnius University, discusses the nature of warfare and how it has transformed under liberal democracy.
Deividas Šlekys
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

He also touches upon the recent military reform in Russia and what it means for the European security. An interview conducted by Vytautas Raškauskas for the magazine Apžvalga.

A war of civilizations

Over the last 6 to 7 years, Russia has carried out military reforms. What’s their result?

The result is not entirely clear yet, because the last phase of the reforms is still in progress – weapons are being modernized. The events in Ukraine, however, have shown that the Russian army is completely different to what it was in Georgia. The little green men in Crimea attest to excellent military training, let alone weaponry.

There are several important things that have to be acknowledged here. This is the first systematic reform of any sector in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union – and it’s nearing its end. Secondly, it’s the first reform of several attempted reforms that have moved away from the point of death and haven’t stopped after the first year. What that means is that there is political will and this is bad news for us, Russia’s neighbours.

To what extent has the reform been successful? The first stages have been successful, it seems. The political staff has been restructured and the organisation of the military structures has been changed. There's an extensive and quality conceptual debate.

Should we start fearing Russia? I would say no. That’s because in that same Ukrainian context, on the Russo-Ukrainian border the Russians have managed to scrape together 80 thousand troops. That seems a lot from a Lithuanian perspective but the Americans see a different picture. They see "only" 80 thousand. Russia, which has about 700 to 800 thousand troops, can barely mobilize 80 thousand for an operation. That’s a sign that the Russians have simply been unable to deploy their forces quickly and operationally.

A war of civilizations: diverging approaches to warfare and Russia's military reform
© Reuters/Scanpix

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is still called a hybrid war. What are the main features of such a war and to what extent can we still call it a war in the traditional sense of the word?

I must admit that I myself have supported the use of this word, though I am not so sure anymore how suitable this approach is to describe the situation. Wars have in actual fact always been hybrid. There never was a conventional war because each conventional war has its partisan stage.

There is one striking difference in Ukraine’s situation in that it is difficult to prove that the fighters aren’t common thugs but actual soldiers. A hybrid war starts when warfare merges with crime and the boundary between them is erased. In short, it must be difficult for the soldiers to understand how to behave in the one or the other situation. It’s especially complicated to figure out legal consequences which can be sad even for a soldier who was purely on the defensive.

In Ukraine, there have been calls to shoot at the little green men first and sort out niceties with lawyers later. On the one hand, it is important to act in emergencies. However, one of the important principles of Western countries is the rule of law. If you catch a thug, you have to treat him like a thug and that means detaining and not killing. It’s another thing when troops of a hostile state are on your territory, then you can shoot.

When it comes to warfare, is there a clear East-West civilization split?

There is a difference between instrumental and existential warfare. An instrumental war is best described in the words of Carl von Clausewitz – “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics therefore trumps war and politicians can say: today we are fighting over the situation that we have, but the day after tomorrow, if we don’t need war, we’ll simply stop it. War doesn’t only have any autonomy, it doesn’t have any creative powers. In this school of thinking, war is evil.

Unlike the instrumental view, there is the continental tradition, also called existential. In the view of the champions of this school of thought, war is a cruel and tragic enterprise, but it gives birth to nations. In this most extreme of situations, war, dividing lines between one's own people and the others become very clear, a person starts identifying him- or herself with the community. Neither a nation nor a state is possible without war, therefore a history of war is what tells you what a Lithuanian is. Take away the battles of Grunwald, Pilėnai and finally the anti-Soviet resistance – would we still be able to say what a Lithuanian is?

We clearly subscribe to the latter tradition, which puts us in one group with the Poles and the Ukrainians as well as the Russians. This is why we sometimes seem to have miscommunicate with our Western partners who have an instrumental attitude to war. The topic of war is being consistently and deliberately phased out of Western history textbooks.

A war of civilizations: diverging approaches to warfare and Russia's military reform
© DELFI (L. Mustafinaitės nuotr.)

Does the European Union need an army to conduct successful security and defence policy?

A European Union army is difficult to fathom, because army is a feature of a state. If the EU built an army, we’d have to talk about it as something resembling a state. I don’t, however, think that the EU needs an army. It’s unclear what function it would fulfil, because the EU traditionally has a quite different take on using the army than NATO whose forces are focused on participation in military action. When it comes to conflict situations, the EU’s mission is about managing crises and maintaining peace and stability.

The Lithuanian Army – then and now

Historians note that inter-war Lithuania would invest 18 to 25 percent of the entire budget into armaments, depending on the year. This year, the budget of the Ministry of Defence amounted to 1.11 percent of the GDP. What’s the reason for such a drastic difference, bearing in mind that the threat to our country hasn’t disappeared?

War as a phenomenon hasn't gone away, but what's gone is what I would call war-centric thinking, which used to make states spend heavily on the military, on supporting an army and rearming. There’s been a shift in people’s thinking and war is no longer seen as the central feature in politics.

Call it, if you will, a shift brought about by the liberal tradition. The West's liberal thinking is characterized by an inclination to push out the military segment to the margins, primarily because war interferes with economy. The military sector does not generate enough profit and does not give the economy the necessary push. By contrast, civil innovation can do it much better. So spending on defence is seen as a waste of resources. But it’s not just that. People generally do not want to wage war.

Are the today’s liberal democracies able to mobilise their citizens to defend the state, i.e., to be ready to actual sacrifices, even life in most extreme cases?

They are, but not immediately. Let’s take the experience of the Second World War. As bombs were falling on London and on other British cities, the political elites were still discussing whether it wouldn’t be possible to come to an agreement with Hitler without a war. The public opinion was also divided on that particular matter, not only the political elite. So it takes time for democracies to gain momentum in cases of war, but when they do, there's always both the will and the consensus. More people then become ready to go to the end.

The war in Ukraine has shown both the weak and the strong sides of the West. The West had hardly even managed to convene for the first meeting before Crimea had been lost. However, once the decision to apply sanctions was made, nobody is thinking of lifting them.

In February 2015, a poll conducted by “Vilmorus” found that around 53 percent of the respondents had confidence in the Lithuanian army and just over 15 percent didn’t. What does that say about the Lithuanian society?

If we don’t hear anything bad about the army in the media, if there aren’t any scandals, it’s as if all is well in the army. However, what needs to be asked is if these figures show that the society is interested in what’s happening in the army. Do people know what our troops think about war, what they think about politicians who will order them to fight? It’s obvious that those figures do not reflect any of that. And because of the events in Ukraine, the last few years have been a turning point for us because everybody started discussing military issues and the army itself was forced to get involved in the discussion.

You work in the military academy and you’re teaching the future military leaders. In your opinion, does the academy pay enough attention to motivation and patriotism of the future commanders? Generally speaking, is the Lithuanian army sufficiently motivated?

The Lithuanian army is afflicted by the same malaise that today affects any other country’s armed forces. There are some people who serve in the army because of patriotic, idealistic zeal and sense of loyalty to their country. But there are also those who treat army service as any other job - they might perform everything properly, but they come to work at eight, leave at five and don't give any more of their time to it. The army is seen as just another bureaucratic institution.

In many countries of the world we see this latter attitude taking hold; mainly because we look at armies in times of peace when sensitivity to threat noticeably lessens. It would be naive of us to expect to see burning passion for Lithuania in the eyes of every soldier going through banal everyday chores in the army. Just like not all citizens burn with enthusiasm, but that doesn't make them worse citizens.

The military academy invests years of consistent work into future commanders, so there's much attention dedicated to their psychological and moral training, at least more than in its is possible in the case of basic military training. On the other hand, the nine-month military service for conscripts will give more flexibility to arrange training activities and topics to cover.

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