Eight years ago, Russo-Western relations took a pivotal turn for the worse when Russia resumed its gaze on Ukraine and set out on a quest to subordinate its independence to Russia’s. That quest, capitalising on the promotion of regional separatism and internal insurgency through information weapons, cyberattacks and proxy militias, found initial success with the bloodless annexation of Crimea. Implications for the place and nature of hybrid war in Russian strategy were misdrawn by Russia and the West alike.
Blinded by a false belief in Ukraine’s weakness, Russia bet that its continued subversion of the Ukrainian state and society would be enough to eventually weaken the state, allowing Russia to significantly economise on the use of kinetic force. Russia’s original agenda in Ukraine – a rapid invasion with minimal military force – formed part of the Kremlin’s “total war against the West”, made possible by the potency of hybrid weapons.
Meanwhile, the West, disoriented by the overwhelming presence of those hybrid elements in Russian conduct and indoctrinated into denying the Russian military threat, failed to correctly assess the situation. From the Western side, a false belief emerged that allowing a degree of indirect, non-kinetic subversion in zones of lesser strategic significance would help keep Russia at bay at the lowest possible cost. In short, Russia overestimated the power of non-kinetic means in preparing Ukraine for a conventional conflict, while the West underestimated the relevance of Russian kinetic force in a hybrid war effort. With the breakout of a hot and irresolute conflict this February, both were proven wrong.
Russia: Poor Preparation
Russians have always embraced an asymmetrical and unconventional strategy to compensate for their military and technological weakness relative to the West. The core of Russian military thought today still derives from Lenin and Sun Tzu. From the Soviet era, remnants of the “dual policy” of manipulating the “correlation of forces” both between states and within the target state have prevailed.
While non-military elements are not a new component in Russian military thought, in the decades following the Gulf Wars, the non-kinetic arena has become prioritised as “an independent battlefield and an enabler of successful kinetic action”. Since 2011, Russia’s official discourse has treated information warfare as a peacetime weapon for destabilising a target society, largely through altering the enemy’s perceptions of reality, similarly to KGB active measures. In doing so, the explicit threat of military force is used to divide, distract and deter the West from intervening in Russia’s quarrels with its neighbours. Contrary to common Western conception, ideas on the importance of information started appearing in Russian thinking as early as the 1990s, in the writings of now-retired general-lieutenant Vladimir Slipchenko and former president of the Russian Military Academy Makhmut Gareev. With the demise of standard Cold War templates about how a third world war would be fought, Soviet-era preoccupations have re-emerged. Gareev, for instance, called for indirect political, economic and psychological pressure to weaken the opponent from within and prevent actual military conflict. A direct offensive was to take place only after controlled chaos brought on by the former methods prevailed in the target state. The focus on information superiority and psychological subversion as the groundwork for victory was likewise pursued by military writers Sergey G. Chekinov and Sergey A. Bogdanov in the 2010s. Under Putin, Russia’s political elite and military brass have become more intertwined than ever, bringing issues such as information policy into military science. In practical terms, modern Russian military theory thus holds that compromising the target’s information sovereignty is what would eventually prompt the fall of its territorial sovereignty. However, military force itself was never excluded from these hybrid efforts.
This conviction has played out most visibly in Ukraine as Russia’s current strategic priority. Russia has sought to intensify non-kinetic assault since 2014, with continued subversion of Ukraine’s societal cohesion, public trust in the government and general will to resist Russia. Orchestrating attacks on local ethnic minorities and publicly hinting at the corruption and Russian ties of former president Petro Poroshenko are just some ways in which the Kremlin has attempted to undermine Ukrainian state institutions and divide the society on important questions. These efforts included cultivating the local pro-Kremlin oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and media magnate Taras Kozak as potential key figures in the planned puppet government. However, the necessity of undisguised kinetic war in 2022 suggests that these other means have not been as effective as expected.
Another key to the Kremlin’s subversion attempts was a deep-seated Russian belief in the artificiality and unviability of the Ukrainian state. The Kremlin’s deliberate projection of these ideas into the information space was consequently believed to deepen the institutional dysfunction. Efforts to cultivate this narrative of a “failed” Ukrainian state and to present the Russian direction as a viable alternative became most visible in the Ukrainian version of the Russian social media site VKontakte, when a surfeit of separatist sentiments and hate speech directed against the 2019 presidential candidates appeared around the time of the elections.
Yet, as we learned in 2022, these efforts were inefficient at best. In reality, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while winning Russia territory, also amounted to a considerable loss for the Kremlin, as it united Ukrainians on the question of NATO and EU accession. Without Russia’s rapid occupation of Crimea and continuous hybrid offensives against Ukrainian state institutions, the Ukrainian government would likely not have agreed to start taking such rapid steps toward the West. The positive impact of these developments on Ukrainian civil society is likewise impossible to deny.
Curiously, the mental reality of the Russian officials authorising the 2022 attack had drifted to an entirely different universe. In marked contrast to the West, they believed that Ukraine had been so politically and socially weakened that it could not withstand an armed confrontation, leaving the Russian military to deliver the final blow to an inherently disorganised target. The Russians thus expected a confrontation asymmetrical and low-scale enough to make sense even from a military point of view. However, just days after the war commenced, those expectations were crushed in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. What Russian military theorists had envisioned as their comparative advantage turned out instead to be a losing hand.
The West: A Misreading of the Adversary
In mainstream Western perception, hybrid war represents a prototypical means of confronting a structurally stronger opponent by achieving “synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict” – a strategy originally attributed to non-state actors confronting a national military. In the Russian case, however, the physical domain of conflict received marginal attention, largely due to a misreading of General Gerasimov’s 2013 article. What came to be known as the “Gerasimov doctrine” is thus a distorted and incomplete portrayal of Russia’s aims and goals.
Maintaining that Russian aggression since Crimea was “ultra-sophisticated” and more difficult to offset with traditional methods allowed the West to spare some economic ties from sanctions, stick to its habitual peacekeeping narrative and avoid pledging troops to zones of lower strategic interest, including Ukraine. As long as aggression stayed under the threshold of international law, no costly intervention would be required. This logic led the West to hesitate to react to Russian “hybrid” attacks in 2014; the following year saw gruesome human rights violations and efforts to support the brutal Syrian regime. In the leadup to the war in Ukraine, the West remained thrown off target, while the theoretical and practical conditions for a Russian invasion ripened.
On a theoretical level, the prevailing Western discourse of a covert Russian grand strategy feeds directly into the Kremlin’s besieged fortress narrative, which is used to justify aggression of any sort. In the Russian domestic hybrid war discourse, the term is inseparable from the elite’s fear of colour revolutions and is used exclusively to explain threats toward Russia itself. Likewise, scholars agree that Gerasimov’s article was written in response to a perceived threat from the Western front. The Russian elite’s interpretation of America’s foreign interventions and NATO activities suggests a genuine belief in a Western plot to isolate and eventually overthrow the Russian regime. In 2014, when Russia’s relations with Ukraine started turning sour, “NATO/EU enlargement, democracy promotion, colour revolutions, regime change, and Western military intervention” were all intertwined central components of Russia’s threat assessment of the area.
This perception of a civilisational conflict has become increasingly visible in the way the wording regarding cooperation has changed in Russian national security concepts since 2015. The latest release in 2021, for the first time, does not mention possibilities of cooperation with the West – indicating growing tension due to a perceived Western threat. As Mark Galeotti has observed, the Zapad exercise of 2017, involving significantly fewer troops and a concrete hybrid phase, contrasted sharply with the scenarios expected from the East in the Vostok exercise the following year. The 2021 Zapad event notably followed a similar fight against a coalition of NATO states attempting to bring about regime change. Russia therefore genuinely fears Western hybrid interventions in its internal affairs, and according to Russia’s well-known reverse logic, constant Western talk of a Russian hybrid agenda confirms that the West is projecting its own plans upon Russia as the adversary.
In the face of their perceived Western involvement in Ukrainian politics, Russian authorities feel an increasingly urgent need to forcefully restore control. The fact that the West kept up the discourse of Russian hybrid war therefore did not help prevent the kinetic war in 2022. Not only was it consistent with the Russian elite’s perception of an imminent Western threat, but in addition, translating this consistency into the besieged fortress cliché helped summon support for the war domestically as a foil to Western “fascism” in Ukraine. At the start of the war, Putin officially justified the invasion as “protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people” – suggesting that the West has, with concealed non-kinetic methods, obtained control over Ukraine and is mobilising it in its covert war against the Russian regime. The war was launched on this belief as much as on domestic factors.
On a practical level, the Western belief that a hybrid war would be too difficult to restrain normalised a doctrine of non-intervention in response to Russian offensives and allowed the Kremlin to convince itself of the righteousness of its aggressive foreign policy. Russia’s involvement in Georgia, Syria and Donbas dropped subtle hints that its imperialistic tendencies have prevailed and that there are fewer and fewer restraints to its use of military force. Yet the West chose to place these activities in the grey zone between war and peace, which allowed Russia to test the grounds and shift the limits of what would count as an act of war eliciting a strong international response. Recognising that it had been granted a degree of leeway in foreign adventures, the Kremlin, instead of making the best of grey zone opportunities, assumed for itself a higher degree of impunity and extended its zone of unchecked aggression. As the zone of “acceptable” Russian aggression expands, options for the West to curb it without escalation shrink. Increased conflict with Russia in the hybrid domain is far from equivalent to deterrence.
No Winners in the Game
Taken together, the points above illustrate that both Russia and the West have played losing hands in the conflict over Ukraine. The result is a prolonged and painful war with no end in sight. Although both sides have suffered considerably, neither can be expected to take decisive action. Russia, after triggering counterproductive results to its hybrid offensives, is now failing to suppress a resilient and unified Ukraine with military force. The West, after years of forcing the Russian threat into a convenient “hybrid” discourse, has lost a degree of foresight and options to make peace without escalation. Although hybrid warfare did not help the Russians capture Ukraine, it did grant them a little extra bargaining power vis-à-vis the West.
For the West, this presents a learning opportunity. Overessentialising the Russian approach and excluding worst-case scenarios from analysis does not help keep the peace as intended. Instead of applying convenient yet faulty concepts to unexpected strategies and tense situations, calling things by their correct names is indispensable to strategic foresight and deterrence.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).