Russia changes the rules of warfare, perfecting 'hybrid war'

  1. Hybrid warfare isn't new but recent intensity is
  2. Former NATO leader: "We have all experienced some form of hybrid warfare and now is the time to fight back."
  3. Russian general: "Wars no longer ... follow the pattern that we are accustomed to"

Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a leading exponent of military and non-military tactics to launch what would otherwise be war — a concept known as “hybrid war” – from the annexation of Crimea to social media misinformation and, apparently, the use of chemical weapons in Britain.

Russia’s hybrid strategy combines military force and more subtle tactics designed to thwart the ambitions of rivals, according to Russian military officials and Western analysts who watch Moscow. Tactics deployed include the use of conventional and special military operations; propaganda; economic and diplomatic pressure; and assassinations.

At its heart is often a certain deniability – such as the “little green men” who appeared in Crimea and Ukraine without military identification but were clearly deployed by Russia. That’s a military manifestation of the hybrid strategy along with the use of pro-Russian militias to destabilize eastern Ukraine, not to mention the universal conclusion of American security agencies that Russia used social media and other non-lethal tactics to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“The beauty of the Putin strategy is that it is tailored to individual countries, in particular individual ways. There isn’t one strategy for everyone,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a security think tank.

“The purpose is the same: to keep the security situation in Europe fluid enough in order to allow Russia room for maneuver … It is in order to keep everyone on their toes,” Eyal told WikiTribune.

Experts and UK politicians say the attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil on March 4 fits a pattern of Russian hybrid interference in the region, but also marks a stepping up in the risks Moscow may be prepared to expose itself to in terms of retaliation.

On March 14, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK will expel 23 undeclared Kremlin intelligence officers, among other measures. RUSI Deputy Director-General Malcolm Chalmers said the expulsion of 23 out of 58 UK-based Russian diplomats was “very significant”.

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Unidentified soldiers, known colloquially as "little green men", on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Source: Elizabeth Arrott, Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified soldiers, known colloquially as “little green men,” on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Source: Elizabeth Arrott, Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

Hybrid war undeclared but very real

American author and military analyst Frank Hoffman defined the term “hybrid warfare” (ICDS) in 2007, although the concept had already been in use since 2005.

“‘Hybrid Wars’ blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare,” Hoffman wrote in a 2007 paper for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, an independent research institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Russian general and current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov, later expanded on the idea, writing in 2013: “In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template” (Original in Russian).

Although Gerasimov was talking about the changing nature of war in the 21st century, with an eye on confronting the concept of the Arab Spring and the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Balkans where Russia saw the hand of the United States and European Union in stirring pro-democracy elements. Western analysts began to treat his essay as the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare playbook following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, according to The Financial Times (may be behind a paywall).

Other countries or non-state actors, like China (The Economist), the so-called Islamic State, and Hezbollah may deploy elements of hybrid strategies. But under Putin, Russia has expanded their scope and increased the use (The Economist), making them “a key dimension in the overall increase in Russian military capabilities,” according to a 2017 paper published by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think-tank partly financed by the U.S. government.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Hoffman expanded his definition: “Sophisticated campaigns that combine low-level conventional and special operations; offensive cyber and space actions; and psychological operations that use social and traditional media to influence popular perception and international opinion.”

Old tune, new lyrics

Recently, hybrid warfare has included cyber attacks to cripple key infrastructure, theft of information, and the spread of misinformation; and fostering internal opposition to “create a permanent front in the entire territory of the opposing state,” according to Gerasimov.

Speaking to WikiTribune under the condition of anonymity, a retired senior military official described Russian hybrid warfare as “war below the line.” The Kremlin engages in complex campaigns that take place without crossing a military line compelling the nation or entity under attack to respond.

Russia’s objective, according to the same official, is to get away with everything it can until the target responds more vigorously, usually with a show of military force.

Russia employs hybrid methods of intervention that fall “below the threshold that would necessitate a conventional [military] response from our part,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), an American public policy think tank that promotes cooperation between North America and Europe. “In the NATO context, hybrid warfare is below Article 5,” she said, referring to the organization’s principle of collective defense which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

Prime Minister May came close to invoking that NATO clause when she told parliament earlier this week that should Russia fail to respond to an ultimatum to explain how a USSR-created nerve agent was used in the attempted assassination of Skripal, which also severely injured his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, “we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

The Kremlin did not respond to May’s March 13 deadline and strongly denies any involvement.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on March 15, former NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said activating Article 5 would be “disproportionate” but argued for further strengthening “selected direct sanctions” against individuals surrounding Putin and extending the duration of existing sanctions against the country.

“Whether cyber attacks in Denmark, assassinations in Salisbury, stirring up fears of immigrants in Central Europe, or election interference in Italy — these are all part of a wider strategy,” said Rasmussen. “We have all experienced some form of hybrid warfare and now is the time to fight back.”

How Russia uses hybrid warfare

Liudas Zdanavicius, a lecturer at the Military Academy of Lithuania, says the differences between Russia’s current and previous hybrid campaigns include the increased intensity with which the country is pursuing its goals and new technologies at its disposal that allow it to do so more effectively.

“The best case [study], of course, in the last years is Ukraine,” he told WikiTribune. “[What] we see in 2015 and 2014 is just a result of much longer years of preparation, with the propaganda, the infiltration, and other measures,” including the use of state-sponsored cyber attacks on target nations’ critical infrastructure (JSIS).

Apart from the Ukraine, Russia has been accused of deploying cyber attacks against the Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – where it has disputes over Russian minorities, their closeness to NATO and their determination to deepen links with the European Union.

“The hybrid tactic (is) to try to destabilize a country or society from within” – Defense analyst

Russian hybrid warfare, or “interference,” can vary enormously in methods and objectives, depending on the country being targeted, said the GMF’s de Hoop Scheffer. Electoral interference, cyber attacks, the weaponization of energy policy, and the spreading of misinformation via social media and propaganda outlets are all part of Russia’s hybrid warfare playbook, she said.

“Maybe warfare is a word that has been used too much … I would call that hybrid interference, rather than warfare, interfere in all aspects of our society,” de Hoop Scheffer said. “It can be politics, it can be the economy, the energy sector, and it can in our daily lives.”

De Hoop Scheffer believes the attempted assassination of the Skripals fits Russia’s pattern of hybrid conflict: “It’s destabilization but from within … And that’s part of the hybrid tactic, to try to destabilize a country or society from within by using local communities or by using our internal vulnerabilities.”

“After all, if the sole purpose was to kill this individual, then they could have taken out a contract with organized crime and [have him killed] with a bullet to the head, or indeed a car crash, or a so-called heart attack,” RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers told WikiTribune. “Instead they’ve used a banned chemical weapon in a public place which is bound to create fear in the wider community and the Russian community here, and in all likelihood would be attributed to the Russian state.”

These relatively new tools make it difficult for Western governments to formulate an effective, comprehensive strategy to counter hybrid campaigns. But Zdanavicius suggests two approaches: tackling “real fake news” head on; and promoting societal transparency and efficiency while combatting corruption.

“Which country is more resilient?” he asks rhetorically. “Corrupt, weak, with high social inequality and ethnic tensions? Or the country which has a successful development project?”


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