November 21, 2014

Countering Russia’s Hybrid Threats

A militiaman of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) at his combat post near the town of Novoazovsk.
A militiaman of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) at his combat post near the town of Novoazovsk.

Due to recent reforms and enlarged budgets, the Russian military is now a stronger force with improved capabilities, equipment, and tactics. Yet, the Ukraine conflict shows that the most notable manifestation of Russia’s increased military strength has been less the augmentation of Russia’s conventional or nuclear capabilities and more Russia’s improved operational procedures–its strategy and tactics. In particular, Russians have demonstrated increasing proficiency in employing what are variously termed “asymmetric,” “unconventional,” “hybrid,” “non-linear,” “ambiguous,” “unrestricted,” and “next-generation warfare” tactics.

Defense analyst Frank Hoffman describes hybrid threats as: “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.” In its 2011 Field Manual 3-0 Operations, the U.S. Army defined the term as: “The diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces, and/or criminal elements all unified to achieve mutually benefitting effects.” Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed that “[t]he categories of warfare are blurring and no longer fit into neat, tidy boxes. One can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction – from the sophisticated to the simple – being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare.”
In recent years, Russian policy makers have skillfully mixed military and non-military tactics to achieve geopolitical gains at the expense of the United States and its partners and allies. Recent Russian aggression against the country’s neighbors has involved cyber attacks, information operations, psychological pressure, media manipulation, economic threats, proxy actions, sophisticated propaganda, exploitation of ethnic strife, and courting deliberate and accidental agents of influence in foreign countries through influence-buying and framing issues in attractive ways to sympathetic audiences. While these tactics do not cause significant harm individually, when combined they can weaken a country and prime it for invasion or insurrection.
The aggregate effect of employing these tools has also presented a potent hybrid mix that NATO and the United States have found difficult to counter. For example, Russian actions in Ukraine and elsewhere have deliberately fallen below the threshold normally deemed necessary for invoking NATO’s Article 5 collective defense guarantee. Russian tactics have also exploited ambiguities to make it more difficult for Western leaders to reach a consensus that all these activities are orchestrated by Moscow or any other single aggressor.
Although some of the terms, tools, and techniques that Russia has employed are new, the concept of hybrid warfare is not. At the start of World War II, German soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms and shot at regular German forces to provide justification for Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The Soviets would regularly establish friendly “governments” of exiled communists and fellow-travelers to legitimize their foreign military invasions and occupations. The Chinese have advanced a “three warfares” strategy that includes legal, media, information, and psychological elements. Other malign actors are probably closely studying recent Russian tactics with an eye to augmenting their own hybrid toolbox.
There is no explicit Russian government doctrine for hybrid warfare, but even before Moscow’s recent military interventions, Russian strategists embraced information warfare, studied intensely how social forces can affect security developments, and developed a “reflexive control” concept that applied measures to lead an adversary to “reflexively” pursue actions sought by Moscow. In 2008, for instance, Russia may have induced Georgian forces to launch an offensive against Russian proxies in South Ossetia, providing the Russian government with its desired justification to invade Georgia. Russian leaders have in practice though not explicitly joined the Obama administration in emphasizing a “whole-of-government” approach to generating “smart power” tools for foreign policy. Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, explicitly stated in 2013 that Moscow would apply “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures … supplemented by military means of a covert nature character,” to achieve Russian interests. In May 2014, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu told Arab military officials that Russia believed that the United States had engineered the Arab Spring and Euromaiden protests in Ukraine to gain control of natural resources and subvert foreign governments. Shoygu stated that Russia would also engage in “information operations” to counter U.S. and Western “expansionism.”
The Russian government’s Ukraine campaign highlighted how Moscow orchestrates strategic communication, psychological operations, psychological pressure, economic threats, and sub-military force as well as conventional military power. In summary, Russia’s hybrid tactics on display in Ukraine and elsewhere have included:

  • Information operations entailing a mix of propaganda, disinformation, diplomatic duplicity, media manipulation, and outright falsehoods designed to confuse and divide opinion in the targeted state and elsewhere (i.e., failing to keep pledges to deescalate a crisis). The subsequent ambiguous operating environment makes it increasingly difficult for Russia’s opponents to craft an effective counterstrategy or mobilize support against Moscow. Russian information operations also exploit political, economic, regional, ethnic, sectarian, social, and other divisions in the targeted state. For instance, information campaigns vilify the non-Russian populations by claiming that they are disenfranchising the target state’s ethnic Russians, highlighting real or fabricated injustices, and offering Russian support for protection of their minority rights. A common tactic is to denounce local opposition groups as “fascists” and NAZI sympathizers, while accusing these groups’ Western backers as seeking natural resources or “social revolutions” designed to replace pro-Moscow governments with Western puppet regimes. In foreign countries, Russian information operations try to win support among international peace groups, Russia-friendly media, supportive businesses, and right- and left-wing extremists opposed to NATO and Western values. The Russian government also provides funding for pro-Russian NGOs, political parties, and transnational criminal organizations in foreign countries to support proxy operations. The Russian government has recently sought to gain sympathizers among Western social conservatives through attacks on homosexual activists and other controversial social behavior in defense of conservative Christian values. Within Russia, the government promotes nationalism in order to mobilize patriotic fervor on behalf of the state’s actions. The media also exaggerates foreign threats to Russia to rally support behind the government.
  • Psychological operations employing Russian-controlled media and agents of influence in order to create a narrative favorable to the Kremlin, incite subversive activity by the targeted state’s population through “controlled chaos,” intimidate civilian support networks (such as military contractors), spur flows of refugees, and create other distractions that weaken the targeted government’s ability to resist Russian actions. For example, the resurrection of the concept of “Novorossiya” gave pro-Russian Ukrainians a new sense of legitimacy and identity that fortified their separatist ambitions. Moscow’s actions target a part of a country in a way that threatens escalation to the entire country if the government resists Russian gains.
  • Covert deliveries of weapons to pro-Russian fighters under the guise of rendering help to distressed populations. This tactic involves rendering relief aid to territories in which Russia has created the conditions for a humanitarian crisis in the first place, thereby allowing Moscow to provide both “bullets and bandages.” Moreover, when the targeted government objects to the Russian deliveries on its territory without its permission, Moscow shows that it can ignore the foreign government’s wishes. Russia also relies on direct arms sales and purchases to influence foreign actors.
  • Economic destabilization involving formal sanctions, Russian-induced labor stoppages, transnational criminal organizations, threats to cut energy sales and other vital commercial ties, and additional implicit or explicit economic coercion designed to weaken the targeted population and deter external intervention on its behalf. Russian officials have also consistently warned about the high mutual costs of economic sanctions and publicly denigrated the effectiveness of foreign sanctions. Furthermore, Russia can supplement these coercive measures by offering others positive incentives to cooperate with Russia, such as purchasing the Mistral amphibious ships from France, offering lucrative investment opportunities to foreign businesses, or subsidizing energy sales to foreign countries.
  • The employment of “paramilitary proxies” such as “little green men” (undeclared Russian military personnel operating without insignia or official affiliation), retired Russian military personnel, active duty Russian soldiers “on vacation” and other Russian “volunteers” who join local irregular units, self-declared “Cossack” fighters, and other regional militants including criminal gangs. They engage in rapid localized actions that present others with fait accompli and, through staged incidents of supposed attacks against Russian interests or humanitarian crises, justify more direct Russian military intervention in addition to diplomatic, logistical, and other non-military support. Russia’s elite commandos (Spetsnaz) can organize and lead these irregular groups as well as hinder the movement of enemy forces, seize control of key infrastructure, and conduct provocateur operations such as dressing as local ethnic Russians and provoking non-ethnic Russians. Russians can also infiltrate the civil society institutions and local security forces of a targeted state.
  • Seeking “partial deniability” by employing Russian soldiers irregularly, patriotic Russian hackers not belonging to government agencies, and other groups not formally part of the Russian government or armed forces. The intent is to allow Russian officials to deny direct responsibility for the disorders in the targeted country while making evident to select audiences that there is some official Russian involvement in the disorders that could escalate if provoked, thereby deterring countermeasures by the targeted government or by third parties.
  • Employing force feints that use exercises, troop deployments, and other military activities to intimidate countries, disrupt the targeted state’s military response (i.e., forcing the Ukrainians to disperse their forces and bring air defenses that have no use in fighting the pro-Russian separatists), and deter intervention by third parties through threats of escalation. If another state bordering Russia confronts a Moscow-backed separatist movement, then that state cannot apply its full military potential against the rebels but would have to hold some troops back either to avoid provoking Moscow or to prevent Russian troops from attacking them where and when they are most vulnerable (near Russia and engaged with Russian proxies, as with Russia’s last-minute counteroffensive in Ukraine in late August which shattered Ukrainian forces and saved the separatists from imminent defeat). The mobilization of Russian military power near a target country also positions Russia to intervene more effectively if necessary, as the exercises enable Russian forces to launch conventional operations with less warning time. The shadow of escalation also makes Russia’s non-military subversion efforts more effective. Without the risk of potential Russian military intervention, a targeted government could more easily suppress pro-Russian proxies and Russia’s “little green men” by applying its full police powers and conventional force against them. But in Ukraine, the government’s response was limited to avoid giving Russia a pretext for escalation to direct intervention, which nevertheless did occur when the pro-Russian insurgency performed poorly. Russian leaders mistakenly expected more Russian Ukrainians to join the uprising or the insurgents to fight better. Instead, the Russian government had to expand its direct intervention over time by providing more equipment and training to the insurgents and increasing the number of Russian “volunteers” who eventually reinforced them. Russia also used its air defense systems to establish a de facto no-fly-zone over eastern Ukraine and engaged in military (including nuclear) exercises during the Ukraine conflict. Nonetheless, Moscow would generally like to avoid, or at least conceal and minimize under the cover of conducting military exercises or humanitarian interventions, any conventional military campaigns in foreign countries.
  • Tactically shifting between offensive and defensive postures designed to keep the targeted state and its foreign supporters off guard and force them to remain reactive rather than engage in proactive moves. To maintain the initiative in Ukraine, Russian officials have accused their opponents of taking destabilizing and aggressive actions in what former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen termed “a smokescreen designed to cover up Russia’s own broken promises, interference and escalation.” Russian media outlets also promote conspiracy theories to discredit Western motives and actions, claiming for instance that the West (not Russia) violates international law, threatens Russia by expanding NATO, promoted social revolutions to subvert pro-Moscow regimes, and builds missile defenses to counter Russia under the pretext of protecting against Iran. Russian information organs also promote the notion that Russians are paranoid about their security needs so it would be best for foreign governments to avoid taking strong actions that could result in irrational Russian escalation. Moreover, Russia has sometimes paused its aggression by, as in Ukraine, offering a compromise after the successful initial campaign reached its culminating point, thus allowing Russia to keep the Crimea under its control while temporarily “freezing” the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia gains additional leverage by positioning itself to unfreeze the conflict at any time. For example, Russian officials might reignite the separatist conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine should any of these countries try to join NATO.
  • Cyber attacks against critical public and private infrastructure networks that delay and disrupt the target’s response to Russian actions, along with cyber disruptions or other anti-access attacks against NATO communications, information, and other critical networks. The uncertain consequences of launching major cyber attacks has thus far limited Moscow’s use of cyber weapons, but, as with Russia’s unused nuclear arsenal, Russia hopes to exploit its possession of these weapons (with their potential to inflict catastrophic damage on a target) to deter Western actions against Russia and its proxies. Another constraint of Moscow’s inclination to disrupt foreign information networks is that Russia employs cyber tools to supplement other data collection methods, ranging from reading public sources to espionage activities by Russian agents.
  • The Russian strategy of “reflexive control,” which was seen most clearly in Georgia in 2008, when the South Ossetian government was staffed by many Russians, one of whom was the minister of defense. Presumably with Russian approval and perhaps following Moscow’s instructions, the South Ossetians escalated their local conflict with Georgian authorities in the summer of 2008 to the point that Georgia was compelled to mobilize its forces in response to a threatened South Ossetian offensive and to launch a major campaign to reconquer the region. At this stage, the Russians exploited the Georgians’ reflexive defensive act–which they indirectly provoked via their proxies in the first place–to justify their own mobilization and movement southward. Consequently, the Georgians were forced to launch a desperate all-out assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in the hope of seizing it before the Russians could arrive. While Georgian forces succeeded in taking the city, their apparent victory quickly turned to defeat as Russia used it as an excuse for the outright invasion of the country.

Russia seems to be applying reflexive control in a similar manner in Ukraine. The rebels were at first bolstered by Russian “volunteers,” all of whom were allowed to travel to the warzone unmolested by the Russian government, many of whom may have been armed by the Russian government, and some of whom may even be Russian soldiers or intelligence personnel. These proxy forces overran much of the Donbass, forcing Ukraine to launch a so-called “counter-terrorist operation” in response, which was certain to inflict civilian casualties and further alienate many of its own citizens. While Russia denied repeated pleas from the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk for the deployment of peacekeepers, the passage of independence referendums in the two breakaway regions on May 11, followed by their next-day request for annexation by Russia, offered Moscow the excuse that it needed to intervene. Although less visible and more indirectly than in South Ossetia–and with an apparent pause in the hopes that the rebels could defeat the Ukrainian government without an overly large Russian military footprint–the Russian government created a war via proxy and provoked its opponent into attacking that proxy, thus giving it the excuse to ride in to the rescue in late August, smashing the Ukrainian forces as they were about to liquidate the remaining rebel strongholds and opening up a new front in southern Ukraine in territory that would connect the recently occupied Crimea Peninsula with the Russian Federation.
These new tactics have presented NATO planners with a major challenge. On the one hand, they must still prepare to fight a limited conventional war against Russia in Europe. This is an improbable but not impossible occurrence. Despite the risks, if Russia were able to threaten a NATO member militarily without triggering an adequate collective NATO response, it could shatter members’ faith in the alliance and its Article 5 security guarantees. On the other hand, U.S. and NATO planners must respond to ambiguous Russian threats whose nature makes it hard to achieve a political consensus among all 28 members for launching a vigorous response. Through the EU and other coordinating mechanisms, Western governments have proven willing to apply sanctions against Russia, but Western leaders generally resist enduring major economic costs on their own businesses and voters to inflict pain on other countries. The transience and ineffectiveness of many previous Western sanctions campaigns against Russia, such as those imposed after the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, likely discourages Russian leaders from making major concessions to end the sanctions. Russians can also hope to work with Western groups, such as businesses with interests in Russia, to dilute or circumvent those sanctions that the West does adopt.
Looking ahead, the United States and its allies and partners need to consider how to better respond to Russia’s hybrid threats. For example, NATO could partner with other organizations more effective for dealing with specific non-military hybrid techniques, such as collaborating with the EU to promote energy independence, minority rights, and political reform. NATO members might more readily use Article 5 if they understood that the alliance’s response can involve measures other than a direct military response, which could be reserved only for responding to extremely damaging attacks. The United States and other NATO members might develop unified national security budgets to accompany the separate defense, state, etc., budgets generated by their individual departments and ministries to ensure that they adequately fund the non-military capabilities needed to counter Russian hybrid tactics—such as the U.S. public diplomacy conducted by the Voice of America and the RFE/RL. The United States might also revisit the 1999 decision (made primarily as a political compromise between the Clinton administration and congressional conservatives when the propaganda tools of Russia, China, and other countries were much weaker) to eliminate the U.S. Information Agency. In principle, NATO can employ cyber countermeasures against an aggressor, provide paramilitary forces such as gendarmerie for battling proxy forces, and conduct counterinformation campaigns. Furthermore, by focusing more on the “ends” of aggressive action, rather than the means, the allies could more readily employ Articles 4 and 5 to deter further aggression.
In terms of military power, if more NATO forces are able to rapidly deploy to subversion-susceptible front-line states, they can give a targeted country’s armed forces a shield behind which they can concentrate on suppressing a Russian-backed insurgency without worrying as much about triggering direct Russian intervention. At its recent Wales summit, NATO announced that it will take some steps to achieve these capabilities, but their implementation has only just begun. For example, NATO’s recently launched “spearhead” force can be more rapidly deployed in Eastern Europe, but the new force needs to be adequately resourced.
Furthermore, Russia’s activities, especially its willingness to employ conventional military force and violate arms control treaties, have implications for U.S. and NATO nuclear policies. In addition to raising the readiness of Russian air defenses near eastern Ukraine and making other conventional military preparations to intervene in Ukraine, Russian officials, including President Putin, made implicit threats to counter NATO military responses and to reinforce Russian control over the Crimea by bringing it under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. Therefore, Western policy makers need to address NATO’s nuclear policies less as an arms control and alliance management issue and consider more the operational and deterrence implications of their nuclear policies.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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