Times have changed.
We in the West—especially in Europe—should know by now that we’ve left behind us an era when wars took place in some remote foreign location, waged by professionals with American accents utilizing high-tech weapons systems in an apparently surgical manner with a limited number of casualties.
This kind of war allowed Western civilians to be seduced by an idea of perpetual peace, briefly disturbed by occasional acts of terrorism. We could stay detached from the complexities of power struggles taking place in the international arena. Similarly, this state allowed many Western militaries to resemble more of an international policing force than a solid fighting machine prepared for national and alliance defense.
Europe has now entered an era of hybrid warfare that will force us all, civilians and military alike, to participate. The events in Ukraine—first in Crimea and then in the eastern part of the country—are still currently unfolding. It’s important for the West to understand hybrid warfare is not limited to Ukraine. Russia is already waging hybrid warfare throughout the West.
We have been challenged on several fronts, which means that the time of perpetual peace is over. It’s time to wake up to the way the world is.
These instruments, such as cyber attacks, economic blackmail, information warfare, and exploitation of ethnic divisions, target various parts of society. Targets reside wherever there are major societal vulnerabilities and greatest asymmetry between target’s weaknesses and own strengths are found.
The use of violence is by no means necessary—or even desired. The political end state should be preferably reached without reaching the threshold of war, which would allow an opponent to legally use force. This would make the conflict much more expensive, as well as draw unwanted international attention.
This is why hybrid warfare presents a great challenge to Western countries.
This is why hybrid warfare presents a great challenge to Western countries. The whole-of-society targeting makes the hybrid threat even more difficult to fight, as our siloed defense mechanisms do not work particularly well when the adversary strikes at soft targets throughout society.
Our old adversary is already mastering this new type of warfare. The Russian toolkit contains a wide variety of instruments that can be applied against a target. The recent uses of those instruments indicate the extent of the challenge the West now faces.
Russians already see themselves being in conflict with us, which is why they have deployed various instruments from their toolkit against the West. All these serve Moscow’s political goals.
All these serve Moscow’s political goals.
As we have witnessed, Russia conducts information warfare activities in an industrial manner. Ethnic Russians residing outside ‘Mother Russia’ are taken advantage of in justifying diplomatic bullying, and military forces are used to intimidate and threaten both neighboring countries and NATO members farther away. Furthermore, Russia exploits energy issues—both as a tool for blackmail and to build new dependencies for later use.
Despite Russia’s WTO membership, trade is applied as a weapon for example by limiting imports from the Westand by threatening to deny exports critical to trade partner’s industries. Other economic links are taken advantage of, such as using sovereign debt as pressurizing means. Financial means are used not only to lobby, but given out as loans to buy political influence, financing NGOs and popular movements that can help reaching Kremlin’s goals. Moreover, Russian individuals and companies are buying stakes in Western critical infrastructure and key resources, investing in land plots located next to critical military installations.
Russia has also engaged in lawfare, utilizing legal agreements and frameworks, to serve its goals. Kremlin is also a major cyberpower, as the Pentagon recently noted. Members of German parliament, and hundreds of private sector companies have been subjected to sophisticated cyber attacks. Most worrisome, nuclear threats have been brought back to the table to test NATO’s unity and determination.
This all leads to an unsettling conclusion that Russia has already mobilized and deployed its hybrid instruments against the West.
While we might not be fully aware of Moscow’s intentions behind the use of its hybrid capabilities, we are not powerless to face this challenge. The West can build defensive mechanisms to shield our societies and alliances while establishing deterrence to ensure any aggressor will pay a high price.
Furthermore, updating and strengthening our policies can help us deny Russia’s access to its hybrid warfare instruments by both limiting the number of the instruments available and supportive allies. Lastly, certain steps can be taken to erode Russia’s current ability to field its existing hybrid capabilities.
There have already been a number of individual and collective actions that have some success in countering Russia’s efforts. Regarding information warfare, in addition to wide recognition of Russian information warfare activities throughout the Western media, NATO established in 2014 a Center of Excellence in Strategic Communications to Riga, Latvia. There are also other geographically well-targeted initiatives, such as offering grants for training journalists in countering the Russian narrative in Baltics.
In addition to defensive actions, there has been several military exercises conducted with allies and partners, and forward deployment of equipment shows support deterrence and resolve. The most proactive instruments the West has taken into use are the economic sanctions that deny certain actors Western capital and technology, thus eroding the long-term outlook both for the Russian economy and the unity of the ruling clique.
While the existing actions serve as a good start, there are further steps to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare activities:
While we focused upon Russia’s hybrid operations and policy options countering them, it would be a mistake to state only Russia is capable of engaging in hybrid warfare. It is not far-fetched to see several analogies between those instruments that Russia has been utilizing and those that China has in its own toolbox.
While strong, developed, autocratic nations may have an edge on the offensive side of hybrid operations, all countries have an opportunity to organize their defenses against hybrid threats. It is important to build a more resilient society. This should not be viewed only as an extra burden to already economically-struggling Western societies, but is should be seen as an opportunity to get one’s house in order.
Why? Because the structures that allow a society to respond in an agile manner to hybrid threats can better cope with the complex underlying frictions that make our modern societies fragile. A more resilient society does not equate to a militarized or fear-driven society, but rather a more functional one, as decisionmaking processes becomes more transparent and inclusive.
A more resilient society does not equate to a militarized or fear-driven society, but rather a more functional one, as decisionmaking processes becomes more transparent and inclusive.
Putting one’s own house in order and improving defenses is only one side of the story. The other side is taking a more active role in the game. This requires assets in place to deter the adversary, actions taken to deny adversary’s access to their own and allies’ instruments, and finally using strengths to erode adversary’s ability to deploy hybrid operations.
Yet we must be wary of going too far. The West must counteract Russia’s hybrid warfare efforts without unnecessarily crossing the threshold of war-justifying destruction of lives and physical infrastructure. That would allow Moscow to legally resort to massively violent means to achieve its goals. While uncontrolled escalation of events is in no nation’s interests, Western countries need to establish a credible deterrent that will deny also Kremlin from resorting to that tool again in hopes of making more gains.