The democratisation of asymmetry

The 'democratisation of asymmetry' is a consequential development for the global balance of power. Not long ago, says Alexandr Burilkov, powerful militaries had a monopoly on the defining capabilities of modern warfare, such as precision-guided missiles. These capabilities, however, have now diffused to a wide array of actors, notably to the 'axis of resistance' of Iran-backed militias such as the Houthis

Despite the deployment of multiple Western warships to the Red Sea, Qatar has suspended deliveries of natural gas to Europe in response to Houthi attacks. This disruption of fragile Western supply chains comes at a time when resource-poor Europe must meet the steep costs of rearming to match the Russian military.

Revisionist great powers seeking to challenge the established Western military powers have taken note. Notably, Russia, which has dramatically boosted defence production, exploits the fact that the West still lags in certain key technologies. Indeed, Russia is primed to act as the 'arsenal of revisionism' for the foreseeable future. Russian exports, and re-exports by malign clients, are certain to further destabilise the rules-based international order at this key inflection point.

The logic of Russian defence exports

Russia fought effectively in 2023, including a significant quantitative and qualitative increase in defence production. Its arsenal includes artillery, missiles, vast quantities of munitions, novel drones, and electronic warfare systems of different types. Remote mine-laying systems, too, are critical to Russian defensive successes. The impact of all this on the operational and strategic situation in Ukraine has been dramatic.

The Russian war economy has brought real income growth to ordinary Russians, especially in key industrial cities in the Volga Basin and the Urals. This helps subdue potential popular discontent, and preserves regime legitimacy.

The Russian war economy has brought real income growth to ordinary Russians in key areas, helping quell potential popular discontent

The war economy will thus persist regardless of the war's outcome. Russia retains parity or even a qualitative edge in selected systems, notably supersonic and hypersonic missiles. The West is a comparative laggard.

Russia in the arms market

Despite the war, Russia retains a dominant position in the affordable arms market. Recent major customers include Kazakhstan, India and, above all, Iran. American defence exports, by contrast, continue to suffer from cost and time overruns, even in critical contracts for vulnerable allies such as Taiwan.

Russian exports include training and combat expertise as well as weapons. The Wagner PMC survived Prigozhin’s mutiny and its chaotic aftermath to retain a significant role in the Sahel, both in training and combat missions. With its close links to the GRU, Wagner will remain both a tool of influence in Russian foreign policy, and a release valve for hardened, nihilistic veterans of the war in Ukraine, just as it did in Syria and Libya.

Iran is a key buyer for Russia. North Korea actively courts Russian aid for its missile and submarine programmes, seeking a qualitative leap in its nuclear capabilities. And finally, there is China and the Indo-Pacific balance of power. Putin has implied that nothing is off the table in the Sino-Russian relationship. This obliquely implies niche Russian capabilities, such as hypersonic missiles, that represent a serious threat to American power projection.

Putin has implied that nothing is off the table in the Sino-Russian relationship, including hypersonic missiles that represent a serious threat to American power projection

Russian clients themselves proliferate in turn. Russia is permissive of arrangements where it licenses production or even initiates joint research, development, and production. This substantially increases proliferation. Iran is once again a preeminent example in arming its proxies. Military juntas in the Sahel, where Russian-backed, coup-enabled regimes have taken hold, are another arena ripe for proliferation.

The future of American power projection

The rules-based international order is at an inflection point. The most immediate challenge is Russia’s likely emergence from the war in Ukraine as an illiberal, hyper-militarised enduring power. Meanwhile, the US, while still the premier military power, faces enduring budgetary and personnel challenges to force generation while attempting to pivot fully to the Indo-Pacific and the 'pacing challenge' of China.

The most immediate challenge to the rules-based international order is Russia’s likely emergence from the war in Ukraine as an illiberal, hyper-militarised enduring power

Multiple simultaneous crises seriously test America’s ability to act as the 'indispensable power'. The war in Ukraine and conflagration in the Middle East show that rapid, decisive conflicts remain the exception, not the norm. Attrition remains a central element of warfare.

Resilience, depth, and industrial production rates are the determinants of victory. The Western reliance on complex, just-in-time, globalised supply chains is unsuitable for this type of warfare. The Houthis continue to demonstrate that even seemingly minor actors can have a global strategic impact. Revanchist powers can see this, and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait is hardly the sole maritime chokepoint.

Risks of the 'democratisation of asymmetry'

In the post-Cold War period, the nature of American power projection altered significantly. With the cuts in forces and budgets due to the 'peace dividend', the expeditionary warfare model that relied on self-sustaining navies and had served the US military since the Spanish-American War was gradually abandoned in favour of a forward basing model reliant on a network of naval bases and airbases. This allowed the US to maintain a relatively affordable global presence, especially in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.

American bases in the Middle East are having to invest in costly interceptor missiles to defend themselves from harassment by small drone and missile raids, and to ward off larger saturation attacks ‚Äď not always successfully. This attrition is asymmetrical, because the sophistication required for missiles and drones to be a danger is low and therefore easy to source and produce. The cost is disproportionate, given a sufficiently motivated and creative attacker, and it can exploit the presence of hostile populations in host countries.

Suppressing such attacks is challenging. Airpower, the Western favourite, rarely achieves strategic objectives without ground intervention. A one-dimensional reliance on airpower, moreover, can be countered by concealment, mobility, and air defences.

The war in Ukraine shows that in ground warfare, a combination of concealed and fortified positions, minefields, anti-tank missiles, and drones is defensively potent. Such a combination can, by the casualty-averse standards of Western publics, rapidly inflict sufficient casualties on the attacker to become controversial. This further demonstrates the potential of the 'democratisation of asymmetry' in gradually eroding American power projection, and therefore altering the global balance of power.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Alexandr Burilkov
Alexandr Burilkov
Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for the Study of Democracy (ZDEMO), Leuphana University of L√ľneburg

Alex obtained his PhD on the maritime strategy of emerging powers from the University of Hamburg.

He was previously a junior researcher at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies (Institute of Asian Studies), and the Metropolitan University of Prague.

Alex's research interests are military strategy and security policy in Russia, the post-Soviet space, and East Asia.

He also studies the diffusion of international organisations and their institutional features using quantitative methods.


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