RUSSIAN HYBRID WARFARE

DR ROD THORNTON

This is a reduced version of an article by the same author in the Aug-Sept edition of the Royal United Services Institute Journal, entitled, ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’.

The way in which Russia seized Crimea and created chaos in eastern Ukraine in 2014 brought to world attention the phenomenon known as ‘hybrid warfare’. This concept of hybrid warfare grew out of work on asymmetric warfare and 5th generation warfare, conducted mostly in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As its name suggests, hybrid warfare consists of a variety of forms of attack enacted by, usually, one state actor against another. Such forms can include the likes of economic leverage, information warfare (including cyber-warfare), the generation of internal unrest, terrorism and, of course, the use of military force – both covert and overt. The logic inherent in hybrid warfare is that while each means of attack will not, on its own, achieve any major strategic effect, if enough means are applied concurrently then, with synergy applied, such an effect can be achieved.

The ultimate aim of hybrid warfare is to collapse a targeted state from within. It does this by inducing in a state’s population, government and military a psychological pressure that generates a sense of defeatism – what has been called an ‘inner decay’. This allows for an easy defeat or occupation of the enemy state’s territory. The centre of gravity being targeted, therefore, in hybrid warfare is, in essence, people’s minds. The military element of hybrid warfare will remain – or should ideally remain – quite peripheral if, indeed, actively used at all. ‘Victory’ in hybrid warfare is designed to be achieved, as per the thinking of Sun Tzu, without a shot being fired

But military power still has a crucial role to play in psychological terms. The mere background threat of its use can act as a force multiplier for all the other non-military means of attack. Hence hybrid warfare can only really be conducted by a state that possesses quite substantial military assets. Sabre-rattling, such as troop build-ups on borders and probing activity by military aircraft and warships, can create alarm. Also deemed necessary is a well-refined special forces capability. Such forces – operating clandestinely – can tip the balance in generating the ‘inner decay’ by encouraging/facilitating outbreaks of internal unrest. They can also go so far as to conduct ‘terrorist’ attacks.

In the perfect hybrid warfare scenario, troops should never actually be seen to cross borders. Indeed, the goal in such warfare is to try and maintain the moral high ground by not engaging in activity that clearly breaches international law. The use of military force should always remain ‘plausibly deniable’ – thus making sure that international support from certain quarters is not lost.

The chief problem in enacting a successful hybrid warfare campaign is creating the necessary coordination of all the various elements involved. The concept calls for a good deal of integration. This is one reason why any Western liberal democracy or alliance of democracies would find it very difficult themselves to conduct an effective hybrid warfare campaign. It is almost impossible for them to create the necessary degree of integration. The likes of bankers, industrialists, media moguls and senior generals would all have to act in a coordinated fashion.

In Russia, though, it is possible. Moscow has many advantages in terms of conducting hybrid warfare. To start with, the system of government in Russia is ideal. It has been noted that political control in Russia is generated through a ‘vertical of power’ arrangement. President Vladimir Putin is seen to be at the head of this vertical and runs the country via personal relationships with a small group of oligarchs, close government confidantes, security service personnel and senior military officers. Putin can dictate downwards to these individuals without interference from the likes of the Russian parliament or, indeed, from other any check or balance in the Russian governmental system. The nature of this arrangement allows for all the necessary levers of power that form part of a hybrid warfare campaign to be controlled closely by Putin himself and thus for them to be closely integrated and hence effectively deployed.

Putin, for instance, has personally ordered the development of what is seen as the most effective arm of Russia’s hybrid warfare capacity: its information warfare output. Under government guidance, Russian media outlets – such as Russia Today – have grown in size and scope and produce a propaganda line that is very much in keeping with Kremlin policy. Even Russian military doctrine has changed to reflect this emphasis on information. Whereas western militaries tend to look upon information operations merely as an adjunct to their campaigns, the Russian armed forces now see them as their lead element.

It is already clear, after Ukraine, that it is the Baltic States which are the next targets for Russian hybrid warfare. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are, indeed, especially susceptible to any such campaign given Russia’s proximity to them; the degree of economic and energy-supply leverage it has over them, and given the fact that they are all home to significant minorities of ethnic Russians. It is these minorities – these ‘compatriot Russians’ as Moscow calls them – who are the special target of Russia’s information warfare. Their behaviour can be readily manipulated by Moscow’s media messages and the ‘inner decay’ of these Baltic States can begin through them – what might be seen as ‘Trojan Horses’. The voting patterns of the Balts themselves can also be shaped by both Russian propaganda and by the psychological pressure being applied through other hybrid warfare means. Indeed, the Kremlin may be able to manufacture a scenario – simply through the use of hybrid warfare techniques – where these states actually democratically vote eventually to leave NATO, become neutral and thereby provide a hybrid warfare ‘victory’ for Russia.

Putin’s aim would not appear to be to conduct an actual Russian military takeover of the Baltic States. This is too risky. They are, after all, NATO members and Russia will do nothing to invoke the use of Article 5. He merely wants, as many see it, to destabilise these states and to draw them away from NATO.

 Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, is greeted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2013. Courtesy of: State Department photo / Public Domain.

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