Thoughts on Voltaire, assassination, drones, snipers, Russia and Ukraine

Technology changes the art of war. In Ukraine we have seen an application of the lessons learned in the Arab Spring. The Internet, and social media, are very effective in uniting people against an oppressive government. Governments which were previously able to divide, suppress and hold people in ignorance when no longer able to do so. We now are witnessing the laughable example of Turkey trying to suppress Twitter and Facebook. It simply does not work.

In Ukraine, people from all over the country were able to assemble at Maidan and protest peacefully against an autocrat in the form of Victor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is simply did not understand what he was up against. The Kyiv Post wrote within the last two years that he didn’t even have a computer in his office. He depended for his election on buying votes from older and poorer people in the southern and eastern parts of the country. He used the popular Russian trick of black PR, scaring the daylights out of people with the crudest of propaganda. He had in this he had a lot of help from Vladimir Putin. So he bullied and cajoled people into supporting him. Ignorance was on his side. But the Internet cuts right through that ignorance.

The people I know in Kiev, whom I might add are uniformly Russian speaking, and uniformly detest Vladimir Putin, are extremely active on the Internet. Their impressions from Kiev were disseminated throughout Ukraine and Russia. There was a great divide between what people elsewhere were hearing on the distorted media and what they were reading from their friends here in Kiev. Russia has a history, going back through the Soviet Union to czarist times, of massive propaganda and lies through their media. Her citizens are quite willing to believe that the Russian media are telling lies. It helps when people are able to confirm the truths from outside sources.

The Internet is thus a very powerful tool simply for information.  The Internet is a valuable tool of war in another means. The United States is able to manage drone warfare from locations in the heart of the United States, from which they launch unmanned aircraft against targeted individuals in Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries. It is long-distance assassination. Target the individual, figure out where that individual will be at a certain point in time, and send a drone to kill them.

So far the United States is the only state actor to have mastered this art of distance killing. However, one can assume that others will manage it as well. I would like to take the thought a little bit further. The amounts of money involved in running such a program our not so vast that it could not be undertaken by private individuals.

Drone aircraft are already fairly widely used in police work, agriculture, and other industries.  Their cost starts in the low thousands of dollars.  It does not take too much of a leap to assume that these cheap drones might be armed for use in all military or political applications.  It seems just a matter of time before drones are used for political assassination.  As ubiquitous as drones are, plausible deniability will be increasingly easy for even a state actor practicing assassination.

Assassination of politicians has been on the decline over the past the century. It was quite a popular undertaking in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The Archduke’s assassination started the First World War. Several United States presidents have been assassinated, the last of them a half century ago.

Since Kennedy’s time, security details and gotten better.  However there is always a balance between offense and defense. As defenses get better, offenses gain strength as well. What we have not seen is application of the new offensive powers that appear to be fairly clearly available, starting with drones.

There is another kind, low technology tool for assassination. Sniper rifles, conventional rifles equipped with proper scopes and properly built and properly equipped with scopes, are accurate now at distances up to a mile or mile and a half. That offers a tremendous opportunity for a sniper, a lone gunman with a weapon the costs perhaps $10,000, take out a high-value individual target. He simply has to anticipate when that individual will be visible and within range, and he has to figure out how to position himself and his weapon into position to take advantage of it. So far this has not been done, but my guess is that it is a matter of time before somebody is assassinated with the kind of sniper weapon that the US has used in Afghanistan.  After the first, given the copycat nature of the human animal, it will probably be done repeatedly.  Political assassination may again come into fashion, like aircraft hijackings, flash mobs, and the knockout game.  Its reappearance may instill some caution in world politicians.  Voltaire wrote that “The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”  Have we gotten out of balance?

It is interesting how passive people are. They can be bought off to put up with very imperfect governments. But they reach a breaking point. Analysts say that Russia is able to use natural resource revenues to placate its citizens through enough government handouts that it does not face open rebellions. Ukraine’s gross national product per capita is about a quarter that of Russia. Perhaps the problem in Ukraine was that the people really are quite hard up, and they were therefore less willing to put up with the dictatorship of Victor Yanukovych. This could probably be said as well of the northern African countries that we build in the Arab Spring.

A question that comes to mind then is how much Putin will be able to put upon the Russian people before they also rise up.  The Russian economy depends on the export of natural resources. The Soviet Union did a very bad job of building technologies, of inventing things and manufacturing anything besides heavy equipment. This problem persists in the Russian Federation, which retains the cumbersome, centralized, oligarch-owned model of heavy industry.  The engines of wealth in Europe have been small to midsized businesses whose skilled employees are able to respond quickly to marketplace demand.  The oligarchs, on the other hand, use more autocratic management styles.  They do not trust intelligent employees. Workers are not inclined to question the boss, and the boss is not inclined to accept suggestions for improvement.  There is little improvement in business processes.  Russia (and Ukraine) have quite primitive economies for their natural resources and the intelligence of their people.

This is a very interconnected world. Russia is demonstrating that it is not a reliable business partner. The West he has come to depend on Russian energy exports, gas and oil, as well as other minerals such as palladium. However, none of these materials are indispensable. There are substitutes and alternative sources for almost all of them. It seems very likely that the European Union will be looking hard at substitutes for Russian energy in particular. They can accelerate their programs for shale gas, for one thing. They can accelerate building port facilities to import liquefied natural gas – which the Emirates are more than willing to sell.  For another, they can rethink the nuclear moratorium, and keep their nuclear reactors online, and even build a new generation of nuclear reactors in order to become self-sufficient in the energy sphere.

If this happens, Russia will find that it’s that the engine of its economy, natural resources, no longer has as much value in the West. Putin will find that he has overplayed his hand, and in five years or so, with less income from natural resources, the amount of wealth that he can redistribute among the citizens for fall. That will lead to less satisfaction on their part, and with the Internet, one can envision that Putin will face the same kind of popular uprising that unseated Yanukovych in Ukraine.  Yanukovych got out alive.  What will the climate be like when Putin has to leave?

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Voltaire, assassination, drones, snipers, Russia and Ukraine

  1. The USA has technology that can identify a potential, individual target from a distance using that target’s “body print”. Think of a finger print only on a macro level. Combine this ability with the mobility of a drone and you have a pretty powerful weapon.

    The USA also has advanced munitions, specifically “smart bullets” which, once locked on a target, aim themselves. Used in long range sniper rifles,they are very effective.

    As for Russia, it needs to keep expanding precisely because, as it runs out of natural resources, it needs new sources of material wealth.

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