What Will World War III Look Like? It's Already Under Way
Tomorrow morning, while you’re in the kitchen turning on the coffee, have a look out the window. You’re looking at World War III. We’ve been in an economic and information war with Russia and China, our two biggest adversaries, for decades.
Remember “economic cooperation” with China? Never was such a thing. How about those heady days after the fall of the Soviet Union when the West – read: U.S.A. – thought they could help Russia on its way to a stable democracy and healthy capitalism? Didn’t happen either. It was always a dog-eat-dog battle to see who would win whatever was on the table – oil prices, who’s going to manufacture the most chips the cheapest, trade policy (there’s a good one), who can grow the fastest, who’s got the most powerful military, who’s got the top seat at the Big Table, whatever and wherever that table might be. And now the information war is kicking into high gear.
Take a look at the story in the New York Times on Tuesday about China spreading lies about the wildfires on Maui last month. I mean, really? Yes, China appears to believe there’s something to be gained by lying about tragic fires. China’s “increasingly resourceful information warriors” jumped on the Maui fires as a opportunity in the information war they have long fought against the U.S., posting internet memes that the fires were the result of “a secret weather weapon being tested by the United States,” according to the Times. The Chinese disinformation campaign even included AI-generated photos meant to “prove” the existence of the secret “weather weapon.” China and Russia both spread false stories at the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that the U.S. had biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Information – propaganda – is the weapon in this war.
Russia, of course, jumped into the 2016 presidential election with both feet on the side of Donald Trump, going so far as to dispatch agents onto U.S. soil to set up fake identities and open Facebook accounts with domestic addresses to spread disinformation about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. The Mueller investigation wasn’t able to indict Trump due to a DOJ policy that forbids bringing criminal charges against a sitting president, but Mueller’s team did indict 26 Russian citizens on charges relating to the Russian influence campaign against Clinton.
Thirteen of the indicted Russians were associated with the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, including its late owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, for conducting false social media campaigns against Clinton. Twelve more Russians who were members of the GRU, the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, were indicted for hacking into Democratic Party emails and distributing them illegally. Another Russian national, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is known to work for Russian intelligence, was indicted for witness tampering. His former business partner was Paul Manafort, who became Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. Maria Butina, a Russian national who successfully penetrated the National Rifle Association on behalf of Russian intelligence and was close to at least one major figure in the Republican Party, was indicted, convicted, and served a year in prison for failing to register as a foreign agent.
Multiple Americans, several of them members of the U.S. military, have been charged and convicted of sharing secrets with Chinese intelligence agents. Some, like Guan Lei, were Chinese nationals charged with transferring sensitive software to China. One, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, an American citizen and a CIA officer, was charged with selling secrets to China. Seven Chinese citizens were charged with hacking into U.S. government agencies, universities, think tanks, and corporations and stealing secret information. Zhengdong Cheng, a NASA researcher and professor at Texas A&M, was indicted for wire fraud in relation to China’s Talents Program, run by the Chinese government. Two members of the U.S. Navy were indicted for selling secrets about Navy ships, radar installations on Taiwan, and U.S. Navy operations in the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has cracked down on foreign companies doing business in China, making it more difficult for American companies to sign contracts and invest in factories to manufacture goods bound for the U.S. market. This has been damaging to China’s economy, raising unemployment and hurting developments in cities around the country. Whole complexes of apartment buildings were built and sit empty because foreign investment in Chinese businesses has dropped off precipitously.
Instead of moving to correct the problem by loosening up its economy and making it easier for Chinese citizens to open small businesses and for foreign countries to invest and do business in China, Xi Jinping has tightened everything economically in the country, imposing more centralized control from Bejing and more interference of the government in independent businesses. When demonstrations break out, as they have in several regions and cities of China against centralized control, Xi Jinping falls back on disinformation campaigns blaming the West, and the U.S. specifically, for China’s economic woes.
Clint Watts, a former FBI official who worked in its national security division to combat espionage, told the Times that China appears to be using influence techniques it learned from Russia’s campaign to help the Republican Party in the 2016 election. “This would be Russia in 2015,” Watts said of China. According to the Times, he was “referring to the bots and inauthentic accounts Russia created before its extensive online influence operation during the 2016 election.” Watts went on, “If we look at how other actors have done this, they are building capacity. Now they’re building accounts that are covert.”
Other authoritarian nations like Hungary and Belarus use similar disinformation campaigns to gain advantage over western nations. Hungarian President Victor Orban hosted a CPAC conference promoting right-wing ideas and invited Tucker Carlson, when he was still a Fox News star, to broadcast his show from Hungary. As recently as 2021, Belarus President Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko lied about a bomb on board a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania and ordered two Belarussian MIG-29 fighters to divert the flight to Minsk so he could arrest two citizens of Belarus, an anti-Belarus government activist and a journalist. Lukashenko lied about the bomb by causing false emails about a fake bomb threat to be sent to airports in Athens, Sofia, Kyiv, Lithuania, Bucharest, and Minsk, all of whose airspace the Ryanair airliner flew over. All of this so he could arrest a couple of his own citizens who were threatening his rule by telling the truth about what was going on inside Belarus.
We needn’t take the time or space to go through all the murders and arrests of Russian citizens Vladimir Putin has ordered as part of his tight-fisted grip on his rule in Russia. China is holding thousands of its populations of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic minorities in what amount to concentration camps and spreads lies about the purpose of the detentions and what they are doing to the detainees.
The wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine have taught us that real, shooting wars are just too difficult for major nations to wage. You need too many warm bodies, bullets, bombs, missiles and lies, and even when you throw everything you have at your declared “enemy,” it doesn’t work. By the very nature of modern warfare, such wars are not an effective way of achieving national goals.
This is especially true for nations with nuclear weapons. Nukes don’t help on a conventional battlefield because they are not usable. Nuclear weapons are defensive in nature. If you have nukes, nobody is going to attack you, which tells you all you need to know about why Iran has been working so hard to gain nuclear weapons capability. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gave up all the nuclear weapons they had on their soil. According to NPR, “Ukraine was briefly the third-largest nuclear power in the world.” In 1994, after the signing of what became known as the Budapest Agreement, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.
We now know how that worked out for Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into another Afghanistan for the Russians. Ukraine says it won’t stop fighting until they have pushed Russia’s army completely out of their territory, but we don’t know how this shooting war will end. In the meantime, World War III continues to be fought in what experts like to call the economic and information spaces. One of those spaces is our next presidential race. Nations hostile to the United States have one of our two political parties as their ally in this information war, so buckle up. World War III is coming home again.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.