Over 18 months into Russia’s not-so-very-proxy, proxy war in Ukraine, there remains a thriving and fascinating debate over the tools of conflict that Russia uses, how one describes those tools and where Russia’s next ‘target’ may be.
I was asked to respond to Rod Thornton’s recent blog on Russia. In his excellent piece, Rod argued that Russia’s wars have focused attention on the concept of ‘hybrid’ war’, defining it as forms of attack generally used by one state actor against another. He argued that hybrid war achieves its effect by the totality of the tools used, rather than any specific one. He also said that hybrid war’s objective is to collapse a state from within, and that the Russian state’s autocratic structures enable control over a myriad of levers. He finished by arguing that the Baltic will be Russia’s next target.
Whilst there is much in Rod’s post that I agree with, there are parts on which I’d take a different view and, hoping that debate spurs interest and discussion, let me offer some additional thoughts in this regard.
First, a word of caution about the term ‘hybrid war’, defined concisely as a mix of violent and non-violent tools used in conflict. I’d suggest that hybrid war has generally been used to describe non-conventional warfare practiced, not by state actors, but by non-state actors such as ISIS and Hezbollah against conventional forces, often Western. Russia is the exception to this. It is a state actor using ‘hybrid’ warfare proactively, not reactively, as a deliberate, primary tool of warfare. It has done this with great skill and confidence – morality, success and permissions issues aside.
Rod highlights the need for successful integration of effects across the range of tools that the Russian regime either controls or influences. In this he is absolutely correct, and one of the most remarkable features of Russia’s new warfare is the level of coordination. Indeed, the term ‘hybrid war’ doesn’t really do it justice. The levers of influence and violence aligned by the Russian state are far broader than Western concepts of ‘hybrid war’. Russian tools range from proxy groups, to Russian language pressure groups and cultural organisations, the alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, the probable use of blackmail (kompromat), the anti-Western agenda of Russian Today, food sanctions and gas supplies, the cultivation and control of politicians, the use of conventional military force in unconventional formats, through to espionage and criminality and assassination. Successful or not, Russia has shown a high level of competence to align so many tools, as Sweden’s Defence Research institution, FOI, argues here.
Rod says its purpose is to collapse a state from within. There is certainly some truth to that. That form of subversive information warfare practiced by Moscow was known as Active Measures, broadly defined as disinformation and subversion techniques aimed at undermining Western institutions. Active Measures, perfected during the Cold War, is undoubtedly a forerunner and inspiration for Russia’s new warfare. But here again Russia’s new war is broader. Moscow’s key aims appear to be two-fold; to gain or regain significant leverage in former Soviet republics using a wide variety of violent and non-violent levers that fall short of state-on-state offensive warfare. Secondly, to use information and other forms of subversive warfare against Western targets to divide opinion and stymie action. Western militaries (and their political masters) have found it very difficult to respond to these measures, as we have seen.
Finally, and this is worth discussing at some length, Rod argues that the Baltic is the ‘next target.’
I think that many people in the Baltic would say that it has already been a target for 20 years. I believe that the answer to Rod’s point is both simpler and more complex. There is not one next target, but multiple potential targets, which may be engaged concurrently or consecutively. In Syria, Russia is bolstering the Assad regime and targeting Western proxies. In Moldova, Russia will at some point annex the strategically important slither of land called Transdniestria. Georgia is the ongoing target of political and cultural warfare. In the Balkans, Moscow has been attempting to handout Russian passports, presumably in an effort to create leverage and potentially a new area of conflict. The Kremlin has also been accused of engaging in cyber attacks against Western economic and media targets.
The composition of Russia’s hybrid war tools change with the political terrain. Perhaps the best example of that is in the Baltic Sea area, the most complex, interesting and possibly dangerous area of confrontation, with the possible exception now of Syria. Here the different variants of Russian hybrid war overlap as Russia applies different tools, and different rules, to its relations with different states.
First, there are the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which lie within Russia’s perceived sphere of interest, yet are civilisationally and culturally outside it. These republics are on the frontline between, as Samuel Huntingdon would have argued, the central European and the Orthodox worlds. Here, Russia is using cultural and linguistic tools and supporting and establishing campaigns for Russian language rights, painting Russian minorities in the Baltic republics as ‘the oppressed’. The purpose here is to prevent the successful integration of Russians, to present the Baltic republics as failing states, and to ensure a pretext for intervention, should one be needed. The Russian language media pushes a pro-Kremlin message. Moscow backs pro-Russian politicians. In Latvia it uses railway transit fees as economic tools of leverage. There is the threat of more aggressive de-stabilising action, but this is not expected in the near future.
Then there are old NATO members such as Norway and Denmark, and a non-NATO state, Sweden. To NATO, Russia asserts its hostility with an aggressive air posture, abutting NATO both over the three republics, and Norway. Within the past two years, there have been a series of near misses in Norway and the Baltic Republics. Bear bombers venture out to the North Sea to fly around Great Britain. In Sweden, submarine scares are used to show up the collapse in Swedish defence spending. Here, a conventional posture is used to send a clear, hostile message.
In diplomacy we have seen a reversion to a more blunt and aggressive stance by Russia, a good example of which were the threats to Denmark made in early 2015 by Russian Ambassador Mikhail Vanin if the country’s government supported the US missile defence programme (more details here). Elsewhere in the Baltic and North Seas, Sweden and Britain, amongst others, are targets of Russia’s relentless media campaign.
So there are a myriad of tools used by Russia in these examples. Perhaps the aim is sometimes to overwhelm with the variety of measures, but perhaps sometimes it is to experiment to find the one tool, or menu of tools, that will deliver the effect that Russia wants. Whilst the tools are varied, the characteristics of flexibility, seamlessness and inventiveness are constant. It is a dangerous mix, and Westerners have yet to find an answer to it.
Image: Secretary Kerry Meets With Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Courtesy of: US Department of State.