February 12, 2016

The Russian Hybrid Threat Revisited

A marksman of the battalion Donbass Battalion, a volunteer militia group devoted to ensuring a united Ukraine, looks down the scope of his rifle searching for pro-Russian separatists, at a position held by Ukrainian forces in the village of Shyrokyne, Donetsk region on July 3, 2015. Pro-Russian fighters have withdrawn from a strategic frontline village, Ukraine's military reported on Friday, although some troops doubted whether the surprise retreat and lull in fighting would last.
A marksman of the battalion Donbass Battalion, a volunteer militia group devoted to ensuring a united Ukraine, looks down the scope of his rifle searching for pro-Russian separatists, at a position held by Ukrainian forces in the village of Shyrokyne, Donetsk region on July 3, 2015. Pro-Russian fighters have withdrawn from a strategic frontline village, Ukraine's military reported on Friday, although some troops doubted whether the surprise retreat and lull in fighting would last.

The new year provides a new opportunity to review the Russian “hybrid warfare” issue. Drawing on long-established Russian and Soviet approaches, the Russian government has recently employed an upgraded politico-military warfare strategy, commonly referred to as “hybrid war,” against the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign opponents. This strategy draws on an enhanced toolkit of state-controlled non-kinetic capabilities such as sophisticated information warfare, illicit financial instruments, political and military proxies, deniable cyber operations, nominally private commercial enterprises under Russian state control, and energy assets (especially gas deliveries), as well as regular and paramilitary military forces.

Perhaps due to the general growth in non-state violence and irregular conflicts since the Cold War, Russia’s hybrid warfare was largely ignored by foreign analysts before 2014. But Russia’s blitzkrieg annexation of Crimea that year and its employment of a comprehensive portfolio of politico-military tools against the rest of Ukraine led to all sorts of alarmist forecasts regarding what the Kremlin would do in 2015 with its new hybrid reach. Following a year of less-than-stellar results in Ukraine or elsewhere, however, we can now gratefully see that the Russian war machine is not ten feet tall and that the Western democracies have the wherewithal, with suitable policies, to defend themselves. As Bismarck said, “Russia is never as strong as she looks nor as weak as she looks”.

Ends and Means

The main goal of Russian foreign policy is to control the post-Soviet region, including the Baltic republics, or at least limit the influence of external powers in the former Soviet bloc, by maintaining friendly or at least compliant governments in neighbouring states, keeping unfriendly governments weak and off-balance by exploiting divisions in targeted states, and preventing encroachment by foreign states in Russia’s desired geographic sphere of influence (such as by giving Moscow the power of veto over regional security arrangements).
At the 2014 Valdai Conference in Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his controversial view that the Soviet Union’s collapse represented one of the world’s great tragedies because the disintegration forced millions of Russians to live in a foreign country without their consent (“the Russian people became the world’s biggest divided nation”) and by degrading their geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions. Putin also indicated that another regrettable consequence was how the USSR’s collapse opened the former Soviet states to Western interference in their internal affairs. He blamed the West, and especially the United States, for the resulting crises in the region, most recently in Ukraine, which the Russian president claimed to see as a US-led “coup d’état”, Western bankrolling of the regime’s opponents, and the disregard for the country’s constitution and legitimate government spurring a popular revolt in eastern Ukraine against the new government. Putin warned that further Western interference would be “completely unacceptable in the post-Soviet region, where, to be frank, many former Soviet republics do not yet have traditions of statehood and have not yet developed stable political systems”.
Although seeking to overturn the US-dominated global order, Russians view themselves as weaker in the conventional metrics of power (e.g. population size, share of global GDP, alliance ties) than the combined strength of the West. This structural inferiority leads Russian leaders to try to apply asymmetric instruments of power to divide the Western powers and negate their other strengths. Russia’s hybrid warfare tries to coordinate employment of many state-controlled policy instruments concurrently to achieve synergistic effects on behalf of the Kremlin’s goals.
In the former Soviet bloc, the Russian government’s subversive activity in neighbouring countries targeted for destabilisation can involve financing anti-government groups, disseminating false information and propaganda, infiltrating agents of influence, and creating or manipulating frozen conflicts through escalatory actions. In other regions, Russia relies more on its economic assets (especially energy) and information operations to promote Russian influence. The tools Russia uses are hardly new, even for Moscow. The Soviets made many efforts, sometimes successful, to subvert foreign governments, wage undeclared wars using various proxies, and craft persuasive propaganda.
What is novel is how the Russian government has upgraded these non-military tools with modern technology, improved their coordination and increased their sheer volume. Today’s Russian government has also shown more flexibility than its Soviet predecessors in curtailing tactics that prove unsuccessful and experimenting with novel techniques. To take one recent example, after the Donbass campaign failed to gain much traction, the Kremlin abandoned the “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) concept that Kremlin-backed pundits had been propagating to justify Russia’s potential annexation of more Ukrainian territory.

The Hybrid Toolkit

The Kremlin uses information and influence operations orchestrated by government agencies (including the intelligence services) to promote its foreign-policy goals. At the 2014 Valdai Conference, President Putin referred to “the global information space” as a battlefield in which views are “aggressively imposed on people [and] certain facts are either concealed or manipulated,” though Putin accused the West of these practices rather than confirmed Russian use of them.
Whether acknowledged or not, current Russian practices have Soviet antecedents, such as in maskirovka (military deception) and Soviet disinformation propaganda, but the approach has been updated through the use of modern media technology, adaptation to the globalised media environment and learning from domestic political and media control techniques. Russia’s performance in this area has improved. For example, a successful example of Russia’s “preparing the information battlefield” for a local operation was Crimea, where popular sentiments in favour of joining the Russian Federation were high despite decades of separation and, when the Kremlin finally decided to act on that sentiment, the confused and overwhelmed local Ukrainian government forces surrendered all their main facilities to Russian paramilitary and local forces with little resistance.
The Russian media dominate many of the other former Soviet republics, where the local media typically cannot compete with the better-funded and more technically sophisticated Russian TV broadcasts and movies. Much of the older population has never ceased following the Russian media, while younger people are attracted to the slick Russian videos, and other Russian media messages are spread through personal and family connections. Outside the former Soviet republics, the Russian media is less effective in promoting Russian government views than in obscuring the truth by creating multiple narratives that are embraced by at least some people influential in the mainstream media. Russian messaging tries to appeal to emotion by citing traditional conservative values or using attractive media packaging in the hope that consumers will accept beliefs without much thought. For example, Russian information managers have sought to exploit gaps between modern Western values common in Europe and the United States and those of other foreign audiences by publicly distancing Russian policy from the more comprehensive gay rights seen in the West and by highlighting race-based incidents involving the US police. Another line of effort is to propagate favourable political myths, such as the “Putin legend,” which portrays the Russian president as a wise, powerful, decisive leader defending Russians in a hostile world. At home, Putin also is messaged as an ultra-masculine “tough guy” with a penchant for sarcastic one-line threatening and degrading messages directed at Russia’s perceived enemies.
Russian information managers will change the substance of their messages as well as their techniques in response to perceived failures of current practices and new opportunities offered by technological and other developments. For example, during the Medvedev presidency, the Kremlin made a determined effort to promote Russian soft power abroad by creating new institutions such as the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (to promote ties with compatriots and cooperative projects with foreign groups), the Russkiy Mir network, the Russian International Affairs Council (to promote Russian think-tank and academic studies), the Gorchakov Fund, the Institute for Democracy and Development, and other pro-Kremlin think tanks that highlight problems in Western countries and defend Russian policies. But after a few years of modest success, the Russian government reduced support for some of these institutions and created new think tanks. More recently, the Kremlin reorganised the Russian state-controlled foreign media and centralised key networks under the Sputnik agency.
In its foreign-influence operations, the Russian government pursues alliances with anti-Western political groups regardless of their ideology (appealing to right-wing nationalists by stressing a shared commitment to traditional conservative values or to left-wing parties and anarchists by attacking Western capitalism). Moscow also provides funding and other support for Russian émigrés and pro-Russian organisations abroad. Russia uses paramilitary and other auxiliary forces in foreign operations to help cover Moscow’s tracks by allowing Russian officials to deny direct Russian government interference in the targeted countries’ internal affairs.
In this area, as shown by Mark Galeotti, the Russian authorities value their intelligence agencies and special forces highly for conducting deniable political operations behind enemy lines. They receive resources, autonomy and opportunities to act because Putin, a former KGB agent trained in their system, regards them as effective instruments. In the Ukraine campaign, they helped disrupt Ukrainian government command and control by launching attacks against information systems and communicating false orders that put the government’s forces in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Syria, Russian special forces have provided military intelligence and worked as forward air controllers. Another mission has been to covertly train, mobilise and liaise with foreign non-state actors such as paramilitary forces and terrorist groups. During the Donbass campaign, Russian special forces worked with local warlords, criminal groups and corrupt officials to create the new separatist armies. Russian security personnel, formally operating independently, organised the contributions of Russian soldiers “volunteering” for military operations, the private military corporations that hired mercenaries and the organized crime groups that provided financial resources, intelligence and operational capabilities, such as arms-smuggling.
Under Putin, the special forces have also been used as political instruments. They have conducted assassinations and sabotage operations against adversaries and provided a pretext for more overt and intrusive Russian intervention and conduct. For example, they helped organise the South Ossetia militias, whose attacks helped provoke the Georgian government into launching its disastrous offensive in August 2008. During the Ukraine campaign, they tried to shape world opinion favourably in support of Russian information and influence operations. They are very useful for deniability since they can operate without insignia. The authorities in Baltic states are now worried that Russian special forces will work with local collaborators to create similar provocations and pretexts for Russian intervention in their countries.
Russia’s hybrid warfare techniques aim to control and manipulate targets at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. These techniques can be more or less concealed in line with the goal of official deniability, but at the deepest level they try to control targets without their even being aware they are being manipulated. Like hybrid warfare, this concept of “reflexive control” has been defined in several ways, but it essentially involves conveying specially prepared information to induce the target to take decisions and actions desired by the original supplier of the information. In one recent NATO Defense College Paper, it is defined as “the systematic methods of shaping the adversary’s perceptions, thereby decisions, and latently forcing him to act voluntarily in a way that would be favorable to Russia’s strategic interests”.
Russian intelligence and military operations still apply Soviet-era reflexive control techniques. They seek to interfere in foreign decision-making processes by shaping perceptions to incline targets to voluntarily take steps that further Moscow’s agenda. Russia applies these reflexive control techniques against partners as well as adversaries. The Russian information and influence operations described earlier are a natural building block of this “reflexive control” strategy, but they differ in being considerably less visible and significantly more nuanced and indirect.
Russian reflexive control techniques were evidenced during the August 2008 Russo–Georgian War, when Moscow manoeuvred the Georgian president into ordering an attack against Russian proxies that provided Moscow the justification for intervening massively against Tbilisi. More recently, in Syria the Russian military initially deployed a few air defence missiles and advanced fighters to force the United States to engage on air safety rules and sign an MOU with Russia, which is an effective acknowledgement that the US would accept Russian air operations as legitimate. Moscow’s ability to affect US actions through reflexive control can be underestimated as well as exaggerated. Due to its clandestine and indirect application of information warfare, Russia may have implemented many successful reflexive control operations that have escaped detection.
More overt is how the Russian leadership uses control of energy supplies and other economic tools to boost national economic wealth, enrich the state and the elite, and support its foreign-policy goals. Both upstream (exploration and extraction) and downstream (supply and distribution/sales) networks are important. The control of pipelines allows Moscow to exert some influence over energy pricing and flow, and thereby to gain significant leverage over supplying and receiving countries.
Although Russia’s economy lags behind the US, China, Japan and a few other countries in its aggregate size and technological development, it is important for many of its neighbours, especially in terms of energy resources. This gives Moscow means of leverage in the form of formal sanctions, Russian-induced labour stoppages, transnational criminal organisations, 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 the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, offering lucrative investment opportunities to foreign businesses or subsidising energy sales to foreign countries. Post-Soviet Russia has seen the advent of “hybrid business,” commercial enterprises that, even if formally private, can employ their resources for the state’s purposes.
In Europe and Eurasia, Russia uses subsidised energy deliveries, privileged transit and distribution networks, blackmail and threats of punishment, and corrupt practices such as bribery and illicit business alliances to gain leverage over foreign countries. Moscow seeks political leverage by playing countries against each other and keeping them dependent on Russian energy flows. For example, Russia is building alternative pipeline routes of questionable commercial profitability to circumvent troublesome transit states as well as to build market share and political influence. In response to Western sanctions, the Russian government has tried to divert more energy flows to East Asia, but has encountered serious impediments.
However, the Russian government’s energy weapon may have an expiration date; technological innovations are turning even gas into a normal commodity market less susceptible to political manipulation. In the future, Russia could face many more constraints in using its energy assets for political gain—low world energy prices; globalisation of gas markets due to improving production technologies and improved distribution methods; greater Chinese competition for energy assets in Central Asia and elsewhere; the Western sanctions that are limiting Russia’s Arctic exploration plans; the potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency gains; and efforts within the EU to reduce dependence on Russian energy by developing alternative geographic sources and types of energy.

Forced to Use Force

Russian military power plays an important role in the hybrid warfare framework, though Russia prefers to rely on non-military tools when these are available and effective. The Russian goal is to use non-kinetic means to avoid the risks of actual military operations to amplify the effects of these non-military means through the military having a visible and typically menacing posture (overflights, nuclear threats and frequent manoeuvres). As Stephen Blank quipped, if you think of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit as a symphony orchestra, then the military can be seen as the brass and percussion instruments. They are not always playing, but everyone knows the conductor can always use them to make the loudest noise.
In Crimea, Russia’s armed forces demonstrated improved personnel discipline and training, employing a minimum level of violence that would have made it easy for Moscow to freeze the conflict without further bloodshed, though it would appear the Kremlin misread its easy conquest of Crimea as an invitation to raise the stakes and set insurrectionary flames in the Donbass and beyond. However, it is important to highlight that, in Crimea, Russia primarily relied on its elite special operations forces, which have long been given priority for training, to provide covert penetration and support for local pro-Russian paramilitary groups.
The Russian-backed insurgency in the Donbass fits better into the hybrid warfare model, with the Russian military working with other tools of Russian state power to support pro-Russian proxies seeking to establish a buffer zone under their control and looking for opportunities to weaken and potentially overthrow the new government in Kiev. However, the rebels proved poor fighters and the Ukrainian people outside eastern Ukraine largely stood by the new regime in Kyiv. Russia employed them for three months in mid-2014, but ultimately had to resort to limited conventional warfare, such as offensive fire from Russian territory, which undermined its sought-after deniability, in order to rescue the insurgents. The fighting has turned into an old-fashioned artillery duel and another protracted conflict. Although perhaps advantageous for Moscow in some ways, such as allowing Russia to intensify or moderate the level of conflict to induce Ukraine, through punishment and reward, to keep its distance from NATO, this situation falls considerably short of the Kremlin’s post-Crimea ambitions when it started the Donbass adventure.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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