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Analysis | Putin is already attacking NATO, just not all at once

Russian President Vladimir Putin can wage war anywhere and in any way, and he wants everyone in the West to know that. That’s why he doesn’t just blow up parts of Kiev again. He also threatens Ukraine, the European Union and NATO with nuclear escalation, while simultaneously ramping up the hybrid warfare he has mastered for decades as a KGB-trained warlord.

Technically, the Western countries he attacks cannot always immediately prove that Putin is personally responsible for a specific act of aggression. That’s the nature of hybrid warfare, which deliberately blurs the lines between military, technological, psychological, and other types of combat and evades easy attribution. But experts are picking up on that signature whiff.

Train traffic in northern Germany was screeching halt for hours last weekend. Two separate radio cables had been cut at the same time, one backing up the other hundreds of miles away. Investigations are underway. But the consensus is that this was professional and highly sophisticated sabotage.

That outage followed last week from suspiciously choreographed explosions deep under the Baltic Sea. Those blasts damaged two pipelines intended to pump natural gas from Russia to Germany — which Putin wants to blackmail through energy hunger. The giant methane bubble in the Baltic Sea reminded the entire Western alliance that it has hundreds of other vulnerable links on the ocean floor, carrying everything from gas to electricity and internet data.

With every such act of sabotage and provocation – this week there have also been cyber attacks at several US airports – an interesting dynamic is unfolding in some western countries. The experts immediately point to Putin as the most likely culprit. But others, upon hearing the name, react as if someone just yelled “Voldemort.” Just at the right time, they’re pulling up conspiracy theories from the lower echelons of the Kremlin’s propaganda swamp. Maybe it was the Yanks, maybe it was us, maybe it didn’t happen at all.

And that’s what Putin wants. He needs Americans, Germans, Italians, Hungarians and others to fight – and even hate – with their own compatriots. He wants us to believe, as the author Peter Pomerantsev puts it, that “nothing is true and everything is possible”. He wants to throttle us into questioning reality – good and evil, victim and aggressor, self-defense and escalation.

In this way, Putin knows, many of us will be even more afraid of him. Of course we are afraid that he will drop nuclear weapons. But now we also worry that he could cut off our power and water supplies, our telecommunications and hospitals, or otherwise mess with our lives wherever we are. As a top man in the German army told a newspaper, we are in a state of no longer completely at peace and not yet really at war.

When we consider all these battlegrounds in their entirety, we have to give Putin some kind of credit. He’s probably long laughed at the arbitrary distinctions Western military analysts have made, which have become silos in our minds, and thus in our preparations to defend ourselves—against him.

That starts with the term ‘hybrid warfare’. The underlying idea – in fact, of strategic ambiguity in combat – is as old as war, and thus humanity. But the term wasn’t coined until 2007 — by Frank Hoffman, a US military think tank — to describe what Putin was already well on his way to practicing.

The same goes for the so-called “domains” of war. Originally this was land and sea, later joined by air, then space, then cyberspace. This distinction may have made sense to logistical planners at defense ministries, who could assign a service to each domain—army, navy, air force.

But they are irrelevant to an enemy like Putin, who intuitively mixes up all the means offered by the physical and psychological universe to manipulate, blackmail and violate his opponents. He has already used migrants, hydrocarbons, wheat, novichok, Manchurian candidates, conspiracy theories and much more. He would just as much like to use viruses, radiation and whatever else is involved.

We should expect more cables to be cut and more pipes to explode. We must prepare for factories that go dark without warning, satellites that start behaving strangely, navigation systems that crash and ATMs to refuse our PINs. And each time we will see more of Putin’s “useful idiots” – his sock puppets in Western politics and media – telling us not to believe no matter what.

Since 2016, NATO has stated that “hybrid actions against one or more Allies may lead to a decision to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.” That’s the clause that says an attack on one is an attack on all.

That German general is right: we are at a border point somewhere between peace and war, and that is a new and uncomfortable experience. But we’d better get used to it quickly — and show Putin that we know his vulnerabilities, too.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

A decision tree for Biden if Putin goes nuclear: Andreas Kluth

Putin unhinged is a warning to China and Xi: Clara Ferreira Marques

Putin’s warhawks are no longer in line: Leonid Bershidsky

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on European politics. A former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and writer for The Economist, he is the author of ‘Hannibal and Me’.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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