What happens when an entire society goes to war—but the government doesn’t? That might be what’s going on right now in response to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” against Ukraine. Governments from Tallinn to Tokyo have imposed sanctions, closed airspace to Russian aviation, and denounced Putin’s war of naked aggression at the U.N. But the response from the free world didn’t end there.
Where governments stopped, other entities from around the world picked up. Companies with financial risk were among the first: BP and Exxon pulled out of joint ventures in Russia and Boeing announced that it would discontinue all activity in the country—no new planes, no spare parts, no access to maintenance manuals. Warner Bros. announced that its new movie, The Batman, won’t be released in Russia. The list goes on: Renault, FedEx, UPS, Maersk, Bain, Boston Consulting, McKinsey, Apple, etc. Have so many major companies abandoned a market of 140 million people so quickly when their own country was not a belligerent?
Outside Russia, YouTube has blocked channels belonging to RT and Sputnik, and Google has dropped the Russian propaganda networks from its news services. This morning brings word that Airbnb is suspending all bookings in Russia and Belarus. (Putin, meanwhile, has been blocking various U.S.-based platforms from Russia—apparently as a matter of censorship, not retaliation.)
Yes, profit-maximizing companies have completely apolitical reasons to avoid risk and to give up on any project in which their return was to be denominated in rubles (the ruble has lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar in the last month; as various Twitter wags have put it, the ruble is turning to rubble).
But there’s more. The international hacking group Anonymous declared war on Putin’s Russia. Not long after, the official website of the Russian presidential administration, kremlin.ru, went down and Russian TV channels, all of which either directly or indirectly answer to the government, suddenly started broadcasting Ukrainian songs. Anonymous also took credit for lifting the personal information of 120,000 members of the Russian armed forces from a Defense Ministry database.
A group called the Belarusian Cyber Partisans hacked into the Belarusian railway system to stymie the movement of Russian troops toward the Ukrainian border.
And a Florida student whose previous hobby was tracking Elon Musk’s private plane around the world now devotes his attention to tracking the jets of Russian oligarchs. Another good Samaritan, funded through Patreon, has started tracking their yachts.
Some of the actions of these private individuals and institutions were predictable consequences of the U.S. and international sanctions imposed on Russia. But many others have arisen spontaneously, the uncoordinated reactions of people and organizations moved by their innate humanity to oppose Putin.
This massive show of what is sometimes called “non-state soft power” may be the first experiment in a new kind of conflict, or at any rate a broad-based version of something that has only happened before at much smaller scales. While no state of war exists between the government of the United States and the government of Russia, a sort of opt-in, cultural-economic quasi-war exists between American civil society and the Russian government. The same goes for many if not all of the other countries arrayed against Russia. This raises lots of interesting and difficult questions:
How many of these institutions have thought about the long term? Will they keep up these restrictions indefinitely if the war on Ukraine becomes an indefinite occupation?
Can the Russian government retaliate against American civil society?
Does the American government have a duty to protect these groups from retaliation, even if, like the hackers, they violate American law?
What happens if the foreign policy of the United States and the actions of these entities moving against Russia conflict?
How vulnerable is the United States to the kind of treatment Putin is getting?
Democracies probably have an advantage in this new arena of political warfare. Openness, transparency, and pluralism probably make it harder to rally such fervent, united opposition from people and organizations around the world. If they have a disadvantage, it’s that an authoritarian country would have an easier time organizing non-state soft power campaigns in the first place—but after all, isn’t that what Putin has been doing for years, anyway?