Russia and China are among several countries attempting to “stress-test” the resolve of traditional powers, according to a report from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
It claims so-called “challenger” nations are persistently testing the tolerance of established powers for different forms of aggression, from proxy wars to cyberattacks.
The researchers cite the seizure this week of three Ukrainian naval vessels by Russian forces in the Azov Sea off Crimea, the territory that was forcibly annexed in 2014. Moscow claims these are Russian waters, in contravention of a 2003 deal between Moscow and Ukraine, which agreed the Azov Sea would be shared.
Ukraine warns its Black Sea ports are being cut off. A bridge built by Russia linking it with Crimea now limits the size of ships able to navigate the Kerch Strait.
Probing for weaknesses
The aim is to change the facts on the ground, said Nicholas Redman, co-author of the institute’s “Strategic Survey” report.
“They’re testing tolerances, probing for weaknesses, getting a measure of the resolve of other states by acts that are generally aggressive but are below the threshold of something that would obviously require a military response,” Redman told VOA.
Iran is also accused of conducting “tolerance warfare” by using its Revolutionary Guard and proxies across the Middle East to destabilize other countries, such as Syria.
Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea are also seen as part of the strategy to test Western resolve in that arena.
“China has used not its navy, but its coast guard or some other at-water capabilities in order to slowly push the envelope in the South China Sea. And obviously, the island-building campaign and the growth of infrastructure around there is about — without directly confronting anyone — nevertheless changing facts on the ground,” Redman said.
How to respond
So how should those on the receiving end of “tolerance warfare” respond? The report’s authors praise Britain’s reaction to the attempted chemical poisoning of a former double agent on British soil earlier this year, which London blamed on the GRU, the intelligence branch of Russia’s armed forces.
“What we saw was a powerful, asymmetric response. Sanctions, a tremendous degree of allied solidarity over diplomatic expulsions, and then an information operation over several months to systematically expose GRU activity,” Redman said.
The report warns a new era of geopolitical competition urgently requires new rules governing international behavior but negotiating such a global framework is fraught with difficulty.