This particular conflict has seen some well-established military tropes, including tank columns (prominent since WWII), guerrilla conflict (active since the early 19C). It has also seen some emerging techno-tactics such as drone strikes and cyber warfare and, the notable application of economic “sanctions.”
These last two are distinctive in the “annals of warfare” because they don’t involve killing/wounding/capturing the enemy, but are directed at the civilian population and the communications and logistical infrastructure of the military. Still, while the technologies involved might be quite 21C, the principles of leveraging something other than swords and guns to coerce/defeat some other country are hardly new.
One of the first major foreign policy crises of the young American republic in the 1790s and 1800s required the US to navigate between its former foe and ally as Britain and France engaged in a series of conflicts known as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. President Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with Britain in 1807. Napoleon had already worked to construct the “Continental System” under which mainland Europe (at least the parts that he controlled) would also cut off trade with Britain. All this didn’t work out great for the US, and our unpleasant War of 1812 resulted.
Of course, the use of blockades to prevent supplies to embattled ports had already been a well-established mechanism of war since the ancient Greeks and were a regular part of warfare since the 18C. One of the reasons we know this is that the subject of blockades was regularly addressed in early modern treatises on international law (Hugo Grotius’s work of 1625 being the most famous). This was all part of an effort to think through the nature of war and peace and establish rules of “civilized” behavior for both situations.
In a world where all economic relations were physical, physical blockades with ships intercepting other countries’ shipping or military sieges were the sensible means of depriving the “enemy” of economic support. Now, in a world of services and data and digital money, we have “sanctions,” formal seizure of assets and denial of licenses to do business with the enemy country and its citizens, including access to shared systems of commerce and finance such as the SWIFT banking system. By one count, sanctions have been imposed over 1100 times by various countries since WWII.
All well and good, but the imposition of these sanctions and the concurrent (and usually secret) use of cyber attacks (again, non-physical disruptions of enemy property and systems) raises the question of whether they constitute “war.” As with most concepts, “war” can mean many things. Political scientists have compiled long lists of events of mass violence according to certain criteria, in order to demonstrate certain patterns of war in history. For most folks, looking back in history is more visceral, marked by big, deadly, or long-lasting military conflicts with familiar names; often landmarks in national, regional, or global history.
In this context, we can also note the long-term effort of “international lawyers” to demarcate war from peace is rather artificial. The effort to impose rationality and humanity on states’ exercise of power is a testament to either a noble perseverance to improve the human condition or futility.
The same is true in the vague treatment of war in the US constitutional system, where Congress is given the sole power to “declare” war, but no one doubts the effective power of the President to do all sorts of things (physical, economic, electronic) that attack/harm an “enemy” or protect the country. This well-fudged line has plenty of precedents, including (just from recent US history): the “police action” in Korea, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (1964), and the authorizations for US military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq early in the 21C.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly meets all the usual criteria. However, whether the actions of the US and its allies also constitute “war” remains to be seen. Putin warns the West that its current steps “threaten” war; raising the spectre of nuclear retaliation. NATO makes clear that its core principle of mutual self-defense (Article 5) has not been triggered since Ukraine is not a member; but since virtually all NATO/EU states have been shipping weapons to the Ukrainian Army, providing intelligence, and imposing a wide array of economic sanctions on Russia, it’s not clear exactly why we’re not already “at war.” So far, it hasn’t behooved Putin to invoke the term, but otherwise, “a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Looking back at the Afghanistan and Iraq “wars,” we can see not only the presence of US/NATO troops and the full range of overt military activities and structures. I guess we were at war, even without an official Congressional declaration. Both places also saw a wide array of “war” activities, even if non-official (via the CIA, various contractors (mercenaries), etc.). The “war on terror,” of which the Afghan conflict was at least nominally a part, highlights that in the modern world, non-state actors can trigger or become the recipients of state military action.
This line has many antecedents in terms of guerilla actions for centuries. Indeed, the office nature of “war” is closely tied to the rise of the “state” and its claim to monopolize the use of force in society (both domestic and international). War became an activity in which only states could engage; other military actions or, indeed, all non-military actions were defined (with help from the international lawyers) as outside the meaning of “war.”
We can only hope that, by whatever name, the killing stops and this situation gets no closer to whatever definition of “war” leads to more death and destruction.