Many discussions on hybrid warfare are at the tactical level, some at the operational and strategic level, but few, if any, are on how a hybrid state and its society creates a hybrid military strategy and a military capable of conducting hybrid warfare. At its core, hybrid warfare as such is not a tactic or a strategy in itself but an outcome of the socio-cultural organization of that society. In order to fully comprehend hybrid warfare, one needs to understand historical, social, cultural, political, economic and military aspects. Hence, understanding hybrid warfare presupposes having knowledge of the society that spawned the hybrid military and its strategy. Without such knowledge it is difficult to understand the “grand scheme” and its details, therefore making it more challenging to develop effective countermeasures. To counter hybrid warfare effectively, the hybrid society itself must be countered.
Until recently the concept of hybrid warfare was mainly applied to developing or devolving states, and stateless groups. Classic examples are Chechnya from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, and Hezbollah. More recently, the so-called Islamic State shows another form of hybrid warfare, that of quasi-state creation. Russia, however, has taken the lead in the development and use of state-centric hybrid warfare and the tactics that support it. Following this thought, state-centric hybrid warfare can be defined as a flexible military strategy that simultaneously uses varied tactics including, but not limited to, conventional tactics employing modern weapons, irregular tactics, covert operations, subterfuge and deception. The hybrid state employing the strategy harnesses its unique characteristics, aspects and ideas with its ability to co-opt modern mobilisation techniques, and disregard for the laws of war, to create an asymmetric advantage over an enemy at the strategic and operational level of war. In essence, understanding state-centric hybrid warfare is no different from an understanding of hybrid warfare in general. In the case of the Russian model, a clear understanding of Russia is needed to grasp the country’s strategy and tactics of the last several years. Furthermore, a successful response to Russia’s state-centric hybrid warfare must take into account the actions required to counter both the tactical aspects of the strategy and the socio-political environment that created it.
Russia can be considered an epitome of a hybrid state. The common denominator of various theories on what constitutes a hybrid state is that it is a political regime that has autocratic as well as democratic characteristics. Furthermore, it is not a regime in transition but, rather, a type of regime of its own. Joakim Ekman, for instance, using Russia, Tanzania and Venezuela as examples, suggests in his 2009 article “Political Participation and Regime Stability: A Framework for Analyzing Hybrid Regimes” that in a hybrid state the façade of elections is used as a source of legitimacy, but an authoritarian rule with a weak legislature and rule of law is nonetheless maintained. High levels of corruption, state control of the media and marginalisation of civil society are typical characteristics of a hybrid state. The hybrid state also uses other elements typical of an autocratic regime, such as the use of security services to reinforce the status quo. In recent decades Russia has refined its state-centric hybrid warfare capability and strategy through various operations: the second Chechen War, cyber-attacks in Estonia in 2007, the 2008 Russo–Georgian war and targeted influence within Western governments, businesses and banks, as well as wielding other soft-power tools.
The Russian strategy blends its current social, cultural, political, economic and government structure with selected pieces of Soviet-era society and government and, most interestingly, selected tactics and strategies in use since the Russian Empire. Contemporary Russian foreign and security policy, at its most basic, is predicated on keeping the security/oligarch class in power by using the policies of an imperialistic regime. Russian foreign and security policy is based on the exploitation seen within empires and is based on economic exploitation, the creation of spheres of influence and the use and manipulation of ethnic minorities outside Russia. Russia’s state-centric hybrid warfare strategy makes extensive use of proxies, the creation of frozen conflicts, centralised control of the economy, industry and media, and closed or secret agreements, as well as threatening the use of force against any perceived adversary. The result is that the Russian hybrid warfare model has a distinctly late 19th/early 20th-century look and feel to it, but it is more powerful and disruptive due to incorporating modern technology and mobilisation processes such as cyber-attacks, and centralised mass-media control including the creation of global media networks.
Contemporary Russia’s stated goal is to decrease Western power and free the former Soviet space of Western influence in general and NATO in particular, but the deeper goal is to ensure the survival of the regime created by Putin—the current Russian kleptocracy and security state. The state Putin has created is a direct descendant of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. The years between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Putin’s election will be seen as an interlude, with the true Russia re-emerging slowly during Putin’s second presidential term and moving into full swing after his time as prime minister, when he stitched together his support while out of the spotlight. What we see now has been in construction for at least a decade, and is starting to show its true colours and bear fruit. Russia has succeeded in lulling the West into a sense that a Russian threat does not exist or has been “managed” by Western attempts to integrate the kleptocratic economy into the state system. The past 20 years, but most importantly the last decade, have seen the Russian state using key oligarchs and political leaders to make deep inroads into many European governments and economies, to the detriment of the individual country.
Below are some strategic and operational characteristics of Russia’s state-centric hybrid warfare strategy. Russia has been very flexible in using these characteristics in various circumstances and scenarios. These elements are being used to pursue Russia’s national objectives in NATO countries, NATO partner countries, European Union member states and other US allies. In some instances they are used more ruthlessly and impudently, in others with less conviction yet with persistence. Until now, Russia has had a more careful approach to NATO countries, including the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, compared to Russia’s actions vis-à-vis Georgia or Ukraine. However, actions such as purchasing Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, including (and using) former European high officials on the boards of various Russian energy companies, investing in creating and increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, providing financial support to populist parties across Europe and so on are all calculated moves to influence individual European countries. Russia feels more comfortable with a divided Europe that is incapable of producing a coherent foreign policy and domestic response towards it. Most importantly, these actions are aimed at weakening European countries’ defence posture in general and NATO in particular. Putin is conscious that he is not able to defeat NATO as a unified alliance, but he is also aware that he might be able to influence individual countries enough to fracture the Alliance so that NATO defeats itself.
Characteristics of Russia’s State-Centric Hybrid Warfare
1. Not letting oneself be constrained by modern political norms and regimes:
o Engaging in broad interpretation of international laws as a political strategy
o Making use of the rhetoric of peace vis-à-vis Russia, and the rhetoric of evil vis-à-vis the perceived adversary
o Providing financial support to political and civil society entities that undermine the undesired system and advocate a desired outcome
o Using international events as a cover or a distraction for action against another state (for example, the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics)
o Providing and creating high-visibility activities as diversions for international observers and nations, such as humanitarian aid convoys or displaced person camps that may or may not exist.
2. Strong emphasis on heavy involvement of intelligence operatives and covert action in the early stages of any operation:
o Deniability of its actions
o Ability of Western governments to delay and defer decisions because the enemy is not clearly defined.
3. Negotiating but not making operational changes:
o Close hold on real plans and goals
o Government’s negotiators are not included in the real plans
o Use of confusing or incorrect linkages to explain activities
o No stated end state or victory criteria.
4. Pursuing the creation of an alternative political/economic/social system more beneficial for itself:
o Proposing and advocating alternatives such as the New European Security Architecture or the Eurasian Union
o Fostering conceptual thinking and reasoning in advantageous ways, both in political and military terms.
5. Having a long-term view with an ability to shift goals or appearances as needed for the overall execution of the master plan:
o Use of Russian military forces, Russian-backed separatists, unmarked military personnel, and various “militias” from both within and outside Russia
o Ability to shift Russian forces into combat as required to shore up “separatists” or militias as required.
1. Using unconventional warfare, including the so-called “green men”:
o Enabling Western leaders to prevaricate on the tough decisions to react, which allows for a Russian fait accompli
o Exploiting “volunteers”, paid or otherwise
o Using proxy forces, such as Chechens
o Using “regulars” only in dire circumstances, and even then denying their involvement
o No open discussion of war within Russia, either in society or the military
o Transfer of military equipment, including modern and high-tech types, to separatists
o Transfer of modern and high-tech military equipment along with Russian operators.
2. Reinvigorating the military:
o Increasing the military’s status and prominence via flashy and high-visibility training and operations
o Use of “snap exercises” to distract attention from where the military will actually act
o Using the military to influence and instigate fear internationally
o Use of Cold War military tactics (long-range aviation, submarines, deployments of ground forces) to influence political decisions.
Pursuing compatriot policy as well as religious beliefs as soft-power foreign-policy tools:
o Engaging in passport diplomacy (issuing Russian passports to any ethnic Russian)
o Using the 19th-century concept of protecting “ethnic brethren” outside Russia, regardless of whether or not they actually seek protection
o Portraying oneself as protector of true values and morals.
1. Having control over the economic system:
o Presence of an oligarchic class that is compliant with the objectives of the leadership.
2. Establishment of financial influence and/or control in “adversary” nations
3. Active engagement in energy diplomacy.
E. STRATEGIC COMMUNICTION/PROPAGANDA
1. Media control:
o Securing means of communication for domestic and international audience
o Creating a suitable narrative of others being “evil”, and running with it.
2. Creating a “national” media, pushing out all independent media.
3. Overarching plan of deception for both domestic and international exploitation:
o Knowingly engaging in spreading disinformation.
The above-mentioned characteristics are not new in themselves—the novelty lies in the use and combination of them with the socio-cultural/political construct of the kleptocracy and security state that Putin has created within Russia. Putin has harnessed existing military tactics and Russian cultural elements with the hybrid nature of the current Russian state and society, creating a hybrid strategy that uses existing tactics in a hybrid fashion. Furthermore, Putin has harnessed the advantages of modern technology and means of communication that not only strengthen the hybrid tactics being used, but operationalise them throughout Russia, reinforcing the hybrid nature of the Russian state and society, as well as projecting the tactics outwards onto its perceived adversaries, creating hybrid warfare against the Western countries in general and NATO in particular.
In order to be successful in countering both the tactics and the evolution of the Russian hybrid warfare model, Western countries need to develop—in addition to measures countering the tactical aspects—an inclusive response that addresses the hybrid nature of the Russian state. Focusing solely on countering Russia’s tactics will not have the desired end effect, as this will keep the Western countries in a continuous cycle of having to counter the most recent “creation” of the hybrid state without tackling the fundamental cause and effectively countering Russia’s resurgence and new antipathy towards the West.
The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not represent the position of the United States Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or the US government.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.