Ever since the annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014, and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, military analysts have debated the nature of ‘hybrid war’ – or ‘non-linear’/’ambiguous warfare’ – and whether it represents the military strategy of choice for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Polish, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian militaries in particular are using Ukrainian-style scenarios involving internal subversion and incursions by ‘little green men’ for defensive exercises, and pundits fear that ‘hybrid warfare’ may be exploited by Russia to weaken the alliance cohesion of NATO, threatening its outliers such as the Baltic States, and playing on the apparent unwillingness of European publics to honour Article Five in the event of Russian aggression against an Eastern member of the Alliance.

The concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ originally emerged nine years ago with Frank Hoffman’s paper on this topic, and was heavily influenced by Israel’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. But it is now treated as being mainly about Russia, its undeclared war in Ukraine, and its apparent intentions towards other former Soviet states. Its characteristics can be described as follows:

  • Information operations – or ‘propaganda’, to use the old-fashioned term. Russia and its state media concoct a narrative that disguises Moscow’s involvement in the subversion of a neighbouring state, blaming a crisis on internal factors so as to deflect any international condemnation. The takeover of Crimea by Russian naval infantry and spetsnaz (‘special designation’ troops) in unmarked uniforms was depicted by Russia as a spontaneous revolt by local citizen militias, while the revolution that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 in Kiev was portrayed as a ‘fascist’ putsch.
  • Political intrigue – Russian operations in Ukraine have been accompanied by a constant diplomatic and political effort to encourage discord between NATO and EU member states, to play on national differences over contentious policies (notably the economic sanctions imposed on Russia from the spring of 2014 onwards), and also to buy or suborn support by populist political parties on the far-left and far-right who will act as apologists for Russia’s actions, muddying the waters and confusing the public debate. Moscow will also try to exploit public concern in Western Europe about the risks of a potential confrontation with Russia.
  • The use of special forces – the spetsnaz of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the elite units of the Russian armed forces are used either in plain clothes to organise separatist militias (as per the ‘Donetsk’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republics) or in unmarked uniforms to seize government buildings, military bases and other key locations from indigenous security forces, and to prop up a ‘pro-Russian’ administration that will automatically appeal for help from Moscow. The use of ‘little green men’ rather than an overt invasion by regular troops will confuse the international community, leading to prolonged debates about whether an act of state-on-state aggression has actually occurred, paralysing any Western military response until the Russians and their proxies have consolidated their position on the ground.
  • Sabre-rattling – at the background of these operations Russia will mobilise its military forces, massing them on the borders for ‘exercises’ just as it did with Ukraine in the summer of 2014. Threats of escalation will be used to frighten the adversary and its allies, to undermine any will to stand up to Russian incursions, and also in an effort to intimidate weaker alliance partners. Flights by Russian aircraft into foreign air-space have also been used as a tactic to bully neighbours as well as NATO states.

All of the above has happened over Ukraine, and Western governments, militaries and defence analysts would do well to examine them and define the appropriate package of responses that NATO and the EU should follow. But none of us should be fooled into thinking that any of these tactics are new. They all have parallels in the Cold War.

Firstly, information operations. Russia Today and other organs of Putin’s state media are a lot slicker and more professionally produced than the turgid output of Radio Moscow and TASS back in the Cold War. The ‘troll farms’ of geeks who will post pro-Russian propaganda on Facebook, blogs and other social media are well–resourced, and the Russian state is seeking a wide array of political partners in Europe to push its narrative – whether with extreme-right parties such as the Front Nationale in France or Jobbik in Hungary, or far-left movements such as Syriza in Greece.

Yet throughout the Cold War the USSR was using sympathetic Communist parties as well as ‘fellow travellers’ to push its propaganda. The KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies like the East German HVA sought ‘agents of influence’ in politics, the media, academia and in peace movements to persuade Western publics that East-West tensions were all the fault of their governments, rather than the ‘peace-loving’ USSR. More controversially, it is clear that some terrorist groups such as the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades got their training from behind the Iron Curtain. Putin was not the first Russian leader to attempt to undermine Western morale by any means available, or to try to manipulate public opinion against their own governments.

Secondly, with political manoeuvring and skulduggery. Again, throughout the Cold War the USSR did its utmost to play on intra-Western differences. In its diplomatic contacts with Norway and Denmark, it tried to encourage both NATO members to follow Sweden and Finland and adopt neutrality, making pointed remarks about how geographically isolated both countries were on the Atlantic Alliance’s Northern flank. Moscow sought to exploit Greco-Turkish animosities, particularly over Cyprus, and the KGB engaged in ‘disinformation’ operations to undermine allied unity, whether by fabricating rumours that the CIA had a hand in assassination attempts against French President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s, by publishing a fake US Army manual that purportedly advocated setting up ‘false-flag’ terrorist groups to discredit the European left, or by devising smear stories that blamed the outbreak of HIV/AIDS on American biological warfare experiments.

Thirdly, special forces and shaping operations. When the British government expelled 105 Soviet ‘diplomats’ from the USSR’s London Embassy and Trade Mission in October 1971, the direct pretext was a defector’s revelations about the KGB’s war-time plans for sabotage attacks across the UK. These plans were embryonic, but they indicated an intent by the Soviets to cause maximum disruption behind enemy lines in the event of an East-West crisis leading to World War Three. The 1980s saw what could be called the ‘spetsnaz scare’, including sensational press reports about the extent of Soviet and Warsaw Pact SF penetration in the West – my own favourite story involves the phantom female spetsnaz infiltrating the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common.

Post-1945, spetsnaz did see action in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – as the vanguard of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces suppressing the Prague Spring – and in Afghanistan in December 1979, where the KGB’s Alfa Group assassinated President Hafizollah Amin. Both these operations can be compared to Ukraine in 2014 because firstly Soviet/Russian forces either had a presence on the ground before intervention took place, or were geographically proximate (Russia already had the Black Sea Fleet in place in Crimea, complete with a brigade of Naval Infantry troops that conducted the takeover of the Peninsula in late February-early March 2014). Secondly, like Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 Ukraine was ostensibly a Russian ally, and saw no threat from its neighbour; its armed forces were facing West, not East. Thirdly, in the same way that the USSR had sympathisers within the Czechoslovak military and security police (StB) in 1968, and the Afghan armed forces and KhAD in 1979, Russia’s securocrats had developed considerable influence over the Ukrainian security forces during Yanukovych’s Presidency – particularly with the SBU (intelligence service) and the Berkut (paramilitary police) both of which provided proxies both during the February 2014 revolution and its aftermath.

Finally, with the conventional threat. One interesting difference here is that currently NATO’s military capabilities are superior to those of Russia’s – at least as far as raw figures of troop numbers and materiel is concerned – than was the case during the Cold War; although the Russian armed forces are of course theoretically able to achieve conditions of local superiority by (say) massing units near the Baltic States and also in the Kaliningrad Enclave. The USSR was also prone to ham-fisted displays of naval and air power to intimidate neighbours – recent exercises near Swedish air-space and in territorial waters bring back memories of the ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ affair of October 1981, when a Soviet diesel submarine was beached near the naval base at Karlskrona.

Critics of NATO expansion claim that the Alliance’s expansion Eastwards has been untenable, and that it cannot defend the Baltic States – or perhaps even Poland or Romania – from Russian attack. Much the same concerns were expressed forty to fifty years ago about the security of Norway, or indeed the vulnerability of West Berlin to the Soviets and East German allies. The Berlin Crisis of 1958-1961 led NATO to prepare its contingency plans (BERCON) for the seizure of the French, British and American sectors Norway’s vulnerability was the reason why the Royal Marines got its Arctic warfare role in the late 1960s-early 1970s, with its commandos being earmarked for a deployment to the Northern flank in the event of a Soviet offensive.


Image: Border guards of the former German Democratic Republic on patrol, January 1979, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some analysts have suggested the possibility that Russia may test NATO’s will for collective defence not with an outright seizure of one of its newer members, but with a limited territorial land-grab that compromises territorial integrity without (at least initially) threatening state survival; the seizure of the Estonian city of Narva, with its ethnic Russian majority, is one potential scenario. Again, this is not a new conceptual challenge. From the 1960s NATO planners wracked their brains about how to deal with a contingency dubbed the ‘Hamburg Grab’, in which Warsaw Pact forces conducted a limited offensive to take over an enclave of West German territory, only to subsequently adopt a defensive posture and to dare the USA and its allies to respond. The fear at that time was that NATO members would not wish to escalate to nuclear war in a scenario short of an all-out Soviet bloc invasion, and that Article Five would become a dead letter. Change the names, and you can see similar concerns in Brussels and in allied capitals today.

This is not to say that the answers to all NATO’s current problems with Russia – and that the Alliance’s response to future Ukraines – can be found with a quick search through the archives in Brussels and SHAPE. But it is important to remember that the tactics described in ‘hybrid war’ are not novel, and that previous iterations of ones which the Atlantic Alliance had faced before. After all, why should we be surprised that a government headed by a former KGB officer might very well be using combinations of diplomacy, subversion and military pressure that the old USSR exploited in repeated East-West crises?

Image: An armoured column from the Polish People’s Army during the Martial Law era, winter 1981-1982, via Wikimedia Commons.


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