Russian hybrid warfare can still bring surprises in the future

Mark Voyger, former special advisor to retired Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, says in an interview to Georgi Beltadze, that calling hybrid warfare a completely new type of war is a misnomer. We are dealing with the same devil, which we have seen already in the past, only this time it is using new high-tech tools and methods.

Mark, could you please tell me, is hybrid warfare really a new type of military strategy or has humankind already experienced it, but may have largely forgotten about it?

You are absolutely right, it is not a totally new phenomenon. I usually joke that hybrid warfare Russian-style is as old, if not older than the United States of America, as your Eastern neighbour has been using methods that can be described as ‘hybrid’ since at least the 18th century.

What is interesting, it can be traced back exactly into the first annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire under Empress Catherine II. While addressing the other Great Powers of Europe in her Manifest of 19 April 1783 she used the same justification, and described the same range of tools used to annex the peninsula – political, diplomatic, legal, cultural, economic and intelligence – that was used by President [Vladimir] Putin in March of 2014. In a way, that date can be considered the birthday of Russian hybrid warfare.

And the excuse was then, just like recently: ‘To protect the people there.’

Indeed. And not just then. This type of excuse was used from 1774 and throughout the entire 19th century every time that Czarist Russia meddled in the Balkans that were then under Ottoman rule. At that time, the Russians claimed they were there to protect Orthodox Christians in the region. Later, in the 20th century, the Soviets used similar pretext when invading neighbouring countries – they claimed that there was the need to keep safe the oppressed international workers.

So, why does everyone talk about that as if it is some kind of new invention?

The reasons are multiple – hybrid warfare has multiple highly integrated elements that use extensively cyber and information warfare – so to some it may appear as a brand new weapon of war.

The term ‘hybrid’, which is a Latin word for ‘a mixed child’, was adopted by NATO in the summer of 2014 to emphasize the combination of military and non-military tools used in this type of warfare. So many people assumed that since this term was fairly new, then the type of warfare must also be new.

Even the Russians initially referred to it as ‘new generation warfare’, but this is a misnomer, as Putin and his regime have effectively a long and thick textbook to learn from. They do not have to reinvent the wheel, or start from from scratch, but obviously their toolbox nowadays includes many new elements.

Which elements are we then talking about?

Russian hybrid warfare can be compared to a hydra, an ancient mythological creature – it has a political ‘head’ and multiple tentacles. As early as the 1920s Soviet military strategists, such as [Alexander] Svechin and others elaborated on the concept of political warfare, as the centerpiece of modern warfare.

These concepts were re-discovered and heavily used in the modern version of Russia’s hybrid warfare, in this so-called ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, which is not, of course, personal invention of [The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Army General Valery] Gerasimov, as it builds on deeply institutionalized knowledge within the Russian military thinking.

To achieve its goals, the Russian hybrid warfare hydra uses also legal, diplomatic, intelligence, socio-cultural, economic, finance, and infrastructure tools to target adversary nations or the Russian population, domestically or abroad.

Definitely cyber actions are one of the most extremely dangerous and destructive methods, as they can disrupt the energy infrastructure, financial systems, etc. And …

…  information?

Yes. But propaganda on its own cannot justify the movement of Russian troops. And for this purpose the Kremlin needs quasi legal justification. Thus, we have come to one of the most important elements of hybrid warfare which is usually not discussed much, but it is really important. It is what U.S. legal experts have called ‘lawfare’ or legal warfare.

Could you please explain it.

The way Russians use international law as a weapon, the way they frame it, they way they exploit and manipulate the international system is presented as a sort of justified action. It does not mean that it is purely legal. But it has helped Russia to create the quasi-legal framework to justify the movements of troops to Crimea, Georgia, Moldova, and to occupy territories there.

Russian lawfare is so dangerous because it can create alternative legal realities, which is also the foundation of fake news. The whole world knows that they lie, but when they frame it as a legal issue, unfortunately it becomes very difficult to counter this legally. The West should focus on this issue on the legislative level and internationally.

Why hybrid, not conventional warfare?

First of all, whenever Russia feels constrained by the existing international system, and by the security arrangements in Europe, it resorts to those clandestine means of hybrid of warfare. Simply launching an open conventional aggression for the sake of occupation without also creating some sort of legal justification is not always possible.

Secondly, Russians use hybrid warfare to destabilize its strategic competitors like Europe and the U.S. . They know they cannot win a conventional war against the West, as the capabilities of NATO are definitely much higher. One has to just look at the sheer numbers of military budgets, the number of soldiers, etc. There is huge advantage on our side.

I do not know if the Russians realize what sort of Pandora’s box they have opened with this type of warfare.
And thirdly, after the Cold War the West had somewhat lowered its guard, so to speak, and directed its focus elsewhere. Thus, by using hybrid methods, Russia is trying to slow down or even prevent coherent Western response. Or to even convince the West that there is no Russian threat at all. So they can achieve their goals against their targets without a invoking a conventional response.

Hybrid warfare is, looking from the outside, quite complicated. It shows clearly the capacities  of the military administration, ability thinking forward, interoperability of different types of institutions. How far this complicity could go? Could we see some new elements in near future?

That is actually on of the greatest danger of hybrid warfare. I do not know if the Russians realize what sort of Pandora’s box they have opened with this type of warfare. There are many  phases before this whole process turns into a conflict. So you can never be sure if the information campaign which has started is actually only some disruptive action or if the little green men will eventually follow the propaganda efforts. But one cannot use the same template all the time. Gerasimov emphasized that all wars are different. But there surely maybe other elements which we have not seen or which they emphasize in one theatre and underemphasize another. So there still can be surprises in the future, unfortunately.

What would be the lacks of western powers to counter hybrid warfare?

The main problem from military point of view is, because hybrid warfare actually operates in this grey area, the danger of so called sub article 5 move is very high. If you look at Gerasimov’s doctrine, phases 1 to 4 are nonmilitary means (5 to 6 are direct military measures). But what does then constitute an attack against NATO? This is a serious question. And the alliance is definitley working hard to find solutions.

We also have to think on that in order to counter hybrid warfare we have to build resiliance within societies. Whether in the states which are under Russia’s direct agression or in the west where the public needs to understand what is happening, regarding fake news and information campaigns.

What else?

Well. Corruption should be eradicated, because it is one of the most powerful and widely used hybrid tools of Russia.

The Kremlin does not hesitate to take advantage of instability of the political system as well. Russia does not need to attack a country militarily if it could manipulate its political system to replace the government with a Russia-friendly one.

Also, any existing issues related to the local Russian-speaking population must be addressed. Any border issues with Russia must be resolved. We all know what is happening in Georgia with South Ossetia, where Russia constantly pushes the the administrative line deeper inside Georgian sovereign territory. But also in Estonia, has recently Russia refused to finalize the border dispute. That is also part of the lawfare technique.

We are not facing an omnipotent adversary, although they can definitely try to surprise here and there. We have become much more aware of its actions.
If Russia’s hybrid actions trigger NATO’s Article 5, will the alliance then respond same way, or will go fully conventional?

That is a million-dollar question, isn’t it? There is not doubt that any actions, which pass the Article 5 threshold will be countered decisively by NATO. The bloc has currently drawn ‘red lines’ for Russia by boosting the presence of allied troops in the Baltic states. NATO is also increasing its readiness and capabilities to respond. Are we where we want to be? Are all systems perfect? Not yet, but neither is Russia. So, we are not facing an omnipotent adversary, although they can definitely try to surprise here and there. We have become much more aware of its actions, though, and most importantly – nowadays the west is much more cohesive and filled with resolve than four years ago.

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