Covid-19 and why state resilience in the United Kingdom needs to be strengthened: The link to the changing character of war and lessons from Russia

Rod Thornton

As the United Kingdom struggles to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 virus, it is becoming clearer just how weak the county’s state resilience system is. Shortages of the most basic of medical items indicates a system that is not prepared to deal with times of extreme duress. The option of last resort – the military – is also having to provide its services because the existing agencies cannot cope: there seems to be no surge capacity evident, no redundancy. This, though, is a system of state resilience that needs to change; it needs to be strengthened.

It needs to be strengthened because the character of peer-state warfare is itself changing and, indeed, has changed. It is now one where protagonists are thinking far more about how to actually generate crippling events in the homelands of their adversaries – but without using kinetic force. This is how future wars will, it seems, be won: a state is defeated because it is made to collapse from within after its critical national infrastructure (CNI) and societal cohesion have been put under extreme duress by the targeted activities of another state. Those countries that can cope with such duress will ‘win’; those that cannot will ‘lose’. This is the type of warfare that China and, more openly, Russia, are not just assiduously preparing for, but are also actually now conducting at a low level. Today, and fundamentally, the major target of peer-state warfare is no longer an adversary state’s fielded forces, it is state resilience.

The UK’s system of state resilience used to be, of course, quite highly developed during the Cold War. At that time, when there was a possibility of a devastating nuclear attack, mechanisms were in place: large stockpiles of essential materials were maintained; redundancies established in critical areas, and, crucially, preparations made to maintain the morale of the population and to deal, if necessary, with social unrest. It was all geared up to give society in the UK the capacity to continue functioning at least at some level and to make the state, and its population, resilient.

Since that time, however, resilience capacity in the UK has withered substantially. It seems that there is no longer a sense that it is necessary. In recent years, UK defence and security thinking, apart from some domestic terrorism issues, has all been concentrated on what happens abroad – Iraq, Bosnia, Iraq (again) and Afghanistan. Conflict – ‘war’ – was and still is largely perceived as something that happens a long way from the UK’s shores. It is such thinking that has led to a general ignoring of domestic resilience capacity. This is a major mistake.

It is different in Russia. Firstly, in Russia there has been a much quicker recognition of how the character of warfare has been changing. This is evident in both the country’s National Security Strategy and military doctrines. It is pointed out in these documents that peer-state warfare will no longer be dominated by kinetic exchanges between armed forces. It may, indeed, be almost completely non-kinetic in nature and conducted in a sub-threshold manner in what would normally be called ‘peacetime’.

It is advances in information warfare (IW) technologies (including cyber) that have allowed this thinking about the changing character of warfare to develop to the degree that it has. The application of IW means against an adversary over a long time-frame in peacetime can be used, the Russian (and Chinese) thinking runs, to weaken and destabilise targeted state adversaries in order to generate what has been called an ‘inner decay’. This can range from undermining the population’s belief in its own government to generating a degree of instability such that the government actually loses the ability to maintain control of its own state. The ultimate aim is to instil what in Russian military writings is referred to as ‘khaos’. The idea is that once a degree of destabilisation has been generated in state opponents then they are open to manipulation or even control by the state creating the chaos. In essence, and ideally, the targeted state would have been ‘defeated’ without a shot being fired.

This is not really radical thinking given the power of IW technologies today. This power will soon be exponentially enhanced when Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used as an enabler of IW operations. AI-enabled cyber warfare (not yet perfected) promises, in particular, to prove a devastating tool. One Russian analyst even calls it a fast-acting ‘doomsday weapon’. Such cyber warfare could lead to a mountain of believable disinformation (through the likes of ‘deep fakes’) and more physical effects, including power and water supplies being cut; food distribution systems being compromised, and financial systems being corrupted so that it becomes very difficult to make purchases. Civilian morale might break and a Hobbesian free-for-all ensue as society unravels. Given the potential power of such IW attacks, it does not matter how powerful a targeted state is militarily. As one Russian thinktank puts it, the potential power of IW in the not-too-distant future could be so devastating that ‘a strong army and nuclear weapons will be unable to prevent a country from disappearing from the political map’.

Moreover, even if traditional kinetic conflict does break out, it will, according to Russian military analysts, be unlikely to take place on a traditional battlefield. Rather, it will be the case that such a conflict will be dominated by an initial exchange of non-nuclear missiles targeted at the CNI of an adversary’s homeland. Again, the idea is that such kinetic strikes, like the non-kinetic IW, will make the adversary state ungovernable within just a few hours. Social disorder will again be the goal via the onset of economic dislocation; the interruption of utilities’ supply; the demand for scarce resources, and all leading to an overall collapse of civilian morale. Such results would mean, in theory, that any state so targeted would have no willingness to continue any conflict beyond day one – no matter that its armed forces were left untouched. It does need to be said, though, that the vast majority of Russian military and civilian analysts see the outbreak of any such ‘hot war’ (as they put it) as being very unlikely. This is mostly because non-kinetic IW means are today seen as a far more efficient way of ‘winning wars’.

These are the views of Russian analysts about how peer-state ‘warfare’ will generally be conducted. That is, by putting an adversary’s state resilience capacity under pressure either by non-kinetic or, less likely, by kinetically imposed means. As such, the fear being expressed now in Russia is that the country itself will be subject to such forms of attack from the NATO quarter. Already, Moscow accuses the US and other NATO states of continuously launching low-level IW attacks against it. These are coming, in the Kremlin’s view, in the form of ‘spread of democracy’ activities designed to discredit the government of President Vladimir Putin in the eyes of the Russian population. The aim is seen create public protests that would unseat Putin. A further major concern is that the US will soon be able to employ the AI-enhanced IW attacks that (theoretically) may have a devastating effect on public opinion in Russia and/or a devastating effect on huge swathes of the nation’s CNI. The view being expressed is that the use of AI in the IW realm by the US could make Russia ungovernable very quickly.

In terms of kinetic strikes against the country, the Kremlin and the Russian military show particular concern about the launch, on day one of any shooting war, of some 6,000 US non-nuclear cruise missiles that form the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) system. These again are seen to target the country’s CNI and, if successful, will make it, again, very hard to maintain order and any semblance of governmental control in Russia.

To deal with what are seen as such threats to generate chaos in the country, Russia has been taking three distinct steps. The first is aimed at mitigating the principal kinetic threat. Protective air defence barriers have been set up along Russia’s borders and are designed to intercept as many of the PGS cruise missiles as possible. This is evident in the development of a network of anti-access/air defence (A2/AD) systems along Russia’s borders. Moreover, as a counter and deterrent (in Russian eyes) to the PGS system there has also been considerable investment in the development of long-range missiles to generate the country’s own PGS capability.

The second step taken to deal with the advertised threat has been to engage in what Russian doctrinal statements refer to as ‘pre-emptive’ IW activities. These are targeted at certain Western states, including the UK. They are ongoing and evident in the number of Russian cyber-psychological attacks – the misinformation and disinformation activities – and the cyber-technical attacks that the UK is subject to. The latter attacks, at the moment, are mostly reconnaissance in nature and designed to establish the weak points in the UK’s cyber structures so as to make any possible future, and more serious, cyber attacks more damaging. The aim of such pre-emptive measures is, as Russian military doctrine openly admits, to ‘destabilise’ countries like the UK so that they will then, the line runs, pose less of a threat to Russia.

The third major step taken to counter the threats to Russia’s internal stability, and perhaps the most important from Moscow’s point of view, is to ensure its own homeland resilience capacity. If modern warfare is now centred on undermining an adversary state’s ability to function by attacking its CNI, the morale of its population and its social cohesion, then Moscow wants to ensure that whatever type of such attack it might be subject to – non-kinetic or kinetic – it has the ability to absorb it and, to use the language of state resilience, ‘bounce back’.

In the eyes of the Russian government, the creation of state resilience begins with a fundamental bottom-up issue: make Russians more patriotic so that society coheres more when put under duress. Putin is putting himself forward as the focus for such patriotism (as, it seems, a pseudo-Tsar). The Kremlin hope is that ordinary Russians will then more readily serve his government: patriotism thus equating to serving Putin. The importance this inculcation of patriotism has is evident from the fact the current Russian National Security Strategy document refers no less than 16 times to the importance of ‘spiritual’ values being maintained within Russia. School curricula have also been changed to generate in children a feeling that they too must serve the country.

The natural corollary of increasing a sense of patriotism is to also make sure that it is not undermined by information which calls it into question. Hence, in recent years there has also been increasing governmental control of the media within Russia. Very few independent media voices now remain. Internet use is also heavily monitored. The Kremlin is even going so far now as to try and cut the country off from the corrupting effects of the Internet. It wants to create ‘digital sovereignty’ by attempting to establish Russia’s own version of the Internet controlled from within the country. All such controlling measures are sold to the Russian people, not as a clampdown on them, but rather as a means of ensuring that Russia has a better chance of countering the effects of Western IW attacks – that is, to strengthen homeland resilience.

Viable state resilience under duress, of course, also requires dedicated bodies and agencies that serve to maintain the continuity of societal functions. Russia has an abundance of these. In a country with a population of 146m (just over twice that of the UK) there is an enormous number of civilian and paramilitary personnel serving in various agencies designed to mitigate the effects of any particular crisis in the country.

One such agency is Emercom, or the Emergency Situations Ministry. This has roughly 300,000 personnel (larger in size than the actual Russian army). It has a vast panoply of equipment and skilled personnel to call upon in, as its name suggest, emergencies. It is designed specifically to deal with natural disasters (floods, forest fires, etc) but its remit is very wide. As well as being able to set up field hospitals and having its own stores, logistics capacity and medical personnel, Emercom also has a standing crisis management centre, its own university and a scientific research establishment. It can deploy firefighting aircraft and large transport aircraft capable, for instance, of air-dropping mobile field hospitals. Emercom’s existence means that the military do not need to assume homeland resilience tasks except in extreme circumstances. The military is, though, available and, in late March 2020, several thousand Russian troops exercised military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) drills, including setting up field hospitals and various decontamination activities.

Given that creating societal destabilisation is seen as a critical goal of future warfare, Russia also maintains several organisations dedicated to the task of maintaining civil order. This is both in a policing sense and also in the sense of ensuring that society can still function. In terms of providing basic security, and apart from the 900,000-strong Russian police force, there is the (MI5 equivalent) Federal Security Service (FSB) with its 260,000-plus officers. Then there are the 340,000 in the paramilitary National Guard (Rosgvardia). This has the main internal security role. As the fear of Western-inspired societal destabilisation measures has grown in Russia, so has the size and remit of the Guard. Formed in 2016 (out of the old Interior Ministry troops), its functions range from riot control to monitoring online social networks. The Guard, though, is also geared up to support the population as well as to control it. In times of state duress, it is tasked with, for instance, ensuring the distribution of vital supplies – food, water, etc, and with maintaining basic facilities.

Russia has thus been establishing a significant deterrence-by-denial capacity. As such, the steps taken by the Kremlin to, in its eyes, defend itself against Western IW attacks could then support a more aggressive mindset That is, the safer that Russia may feel from such attacks the freer it may feel to conduct its own serious IW assault and in line, indeed, with its pre-emptive military philosophy.

Of course, the Russian capacity to ensure homeland resilience will have its flaws. While the ratios of doctors and nurses per capita in both Russia and the UK are roughly the same, the severely underfunded Russian healthcare system is weak and it will struggle to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and other mass-casualty situations. (It could, though, call on the considerable – and immediate – surge capacity provided by Emercom and the military.) Moreover, the fact that Russia has this raft of structures in place to deal with societal destabilisation does not mean that they will all function seamlessly. As ever in Russia, state structures are not noted for their efficiencies. They are, for instance, bedevilled by corruption. That being said, when called upon to serve a patriotic purpose there is little doubt that such bodies will perform at least adequately. The main issue, though, in homeland resilience terms, is that – and however imperfect – they actually exist and they can serve Russia well at a time when they appear to be most needed; that is, at a time when the character of warfare is changing to focus on and to challenge an adversary’s state resilience capacity.


UK defence and security logic has to change. The changing character of war means that homelands have become the principal target. Whether they are targeted in a non-kinetic way or, far less likely, kinetically, preparations have to be made; state resilience has to be increased. The advent of Covid-19 has highlighted certain frailties in the UK’s own resilience structures. And, of course, the countries that do have frailties and which are not prepared – as Russian (and China) understand – are the ones that risk ‘disappearing from the political map’. Dramatic language, yes, but within such hyperbole lies very large grains of truth. Homeland resilience is growing as an important factor in warfare. It is not suggested here that the UK becomes akin to Russia, with all its restrictions and enormous state agencies, but some accommodation has to be made to face up to the new realities. Indeed, if the UK does not do more about increasing its resilience capacity, it will display a weakness that may encourage Moscow, in turn, to increase its own destabilisation activities targeted at the UK.

Featured Image – Social Distancing at a London pharmacy, March 2020

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