Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid War: The Perfect Enemy


Why does hybrid war cast such a long shadow over Western conceptions of future threats? The ubiquity of the idea of hybrid war is interesting given the many serious problems with the concept.

Hybrid war has, for example, little intellectual coherence, since different commentators define hybrid war in different ways. For Frank Hoffman, hybridity expresses the difficulty that: ‘Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular, or terrorist) we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously.For J. J. McCuen, hybrid wars are ‘full spectrum wars with both physical and conceptual dimensions: the former, a struggle against an armed enemy and the latter, a wider struggle for, control and support of the combat zone’s indigenous population, the support of the home fronts of the intervening nations, and the support of the international community.’ NATO has defined hybrid war as ‘a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures […] employed in a highly integrated design.’ Often, then, we are using the same hybrid war label to describe different things.

The above problem exposes another flaw: that we may be guilty of engaging in a process of generalising from the specific. Hoffman generalised about hybrid war from the specifics of the armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; McCuen generalised from the specific state-building conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan; and more recently, hybrid war has been generalised as a phenomenon from the specifics of Russian activities in Crimea and the Donbas. Hybrid war seems to be redefined in relation to the characteristics of each new conflict that worries the West. To compound this problem, if we try and generalise across the different definitions of hybrid war, we are left with a concept that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. As Damien van Puyvelde notes, ‘In practice, any threat can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single form and dimension of warfare. When any threat or use of force is defined as hybrid, the term loses its value and causes confusion instead of clarifying the “reality” of modern warfare.’

We have also been guilty of over-inflating the value of hybrid war as a new concept. We do not need to invent a new classification of warfare to explain hybrid warfare successes. For example, that Hezbollah did better than was expected during in 2006 can easily be attributed to Israeli weaknesses, including poor strategy and a focus on low intensity operations in Gaza. Russian successes in Crimea depended upon such situationally specific factors as the presence of a large Russian population; the presence of Russian military bases; and a primed Russian domestic audience. In assuming that hybrid warfare is a uniquely effective tool we are, first, guilty of what Hew Strachan has termed astrategic thinking – of assuming that tactical and operational techniques can be successful whatever the strategic context. Second, we are guilty of ignoring hybrid warfare’s often ambiguous results. Russian actions in the Donbas, for example, have been much less decisive than those in Crimea and have involved significant costs and an increasing Russian commitment. In many respects hybrid warfare has simply become any non-conventional military strategy that worries us.

Finally, hybrid warfare is a malign reflection of what the strategist Colin Gray has termed ‘presentism:’ the tendency for each generation to see the problems that it faces as unique and to fail to see the powerful historical continuities that often are present. Mark Galeotti and Geraint Hughes have already illustrated the historical precedents for Russia’s current hybrid warfare. Proponents of hybrid wars struggle to provide a meaningful unifying definition of the concept because hybrid war actually does not have a distinct nature and it is not a separate form of war. What we define as hybrid wars are simply expressions of the inherent relational and asymmetric nature of all wars. ‘Hybrid wars’ are examples of belligerents trying to side-step the strengths of their adversaries and to focus the terms of conflict on their weaknesses. But that’s not new. If Lebanon in 2006 and Crimea and Donbas in 2014 are hybrid wars, then so is German submarine warfare in the First and second World wars; British strategic bombing in World War Two; British counter-insurgency in Malaya; or the actions of General Aideed in Somalia. These are all hybrid in the sense that they reflect the use of different tools to get at an opponent’s weaknesses whilst trying to mitigate their strengths.

All of this raises an important question: why, despite its intellectual shortcomings, is hybrid war such a pervasive concept? The answer, I think, is because it is a manifestation of our own insecurities about the world in which we live. These insecurities have two dimensions. The first concerns our own perceptions of the weakness and decline of the West. These perceptions have their roots in such things as the crisis in confidence in the western economic model created by the 2008 crash and continued weakness ever since. It reflects fear over our vulnerability and cohesion – fears over our loss of control over globalisation; fears for what we see as the basic pillars of international order: Western predominance; US-European relations; European cohesion; NATO. It reflects perceptions, as a consequence of such conflicts as Afghanistan and Syria, of our inability to deal effectively with critical security challenges. These fears also stem from perceptions regarding the internal weaknesses of western states: growing fears about the political cohesion of our societies; the rolling back of democracy; political polarisation.

The second strand concerns perceptions of the strength and guile of our adversaries. This crisis in self-confidence has been accompanied by a tendency to downplay the weaknesses of our competitors; to see only strength wielded in the service of superior long-term strategies. These problems aren’t necessarily new. Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith argue that the West’s fear of Russian hybrid war is ‘reminiscent of the West’s enemy image of the Soviet Union, which viewed the Soviet leadership as a chess master that was vastly superior in terms of centralisation, organisation and co-ordination.’

We are afraid; and because of this we have invented for ourselves the perfect enemy. We feel increasingly insecure, increasingly fearful; we have as a consequence created the image of a potent new threat from powerful adversaries who suffer none of our problems and by-pass our strengths. But intellectually, the concept of hybrid war says more about our fears than it does about any genuinely new model of war. This is not to say that that the current security environment isn’t difficult and dangerous. However, if we stopped connecting together all of our difficulties, multiplying them by the assumption of superior adversaries and then labelling them hybrid war, we might find these challenges easier to address.

Image: Russian-Belurssian military exercises in the Baltic, 2009, via Kremlin.ru.

The Russian military’s view on the utility of force: the adoption of a strategy of non-violent asymmetric warfare

By Dr. Rod Thornton

Russian military thinking seems to have reached the point now where the idea of using force intentionally in conflicts with peer-state adversaries has been almost completely ruled out. This seems a radical move. But there has been a clear recognition within this military that better strategic outcomes for Russia will result from the use of non-violent ‘asymmetric warfare’ activities rather than those which will or can involve the use of force – such as conventional war or hybrid warfare.

Asymmetric warfare, of course, and in a nutshell, is a method of warfare employed by the weak against the strong where the former seeks to level the battlefield with the latter. The weaker party, using its own relative advantages, attempts to turn the strengths of its opponent into vulnerabilities, which can then be exploited. The means used are ones which, in essence, cannot be used in return – reciprocated – by the target (‘asymmetrical’ means that which cannot be mirror-imaged). Fundamentally, asymmetric warfare is all about activity that, rather than bludgeoning a target into strategic, operational and tactical defeats, actually manipulates it into them. And it is all done, ideally, with no use of force. As Sun Tzu, the ‘father’ of asymmetric thinking, told us, the acme of skill in the conduct of warfare is to defeat the adversary without the use of any force. See, for instance my book titled Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century.

It was President Vladimir Putin who back in 2008 first pointed his military in the direction of asymmetric warfare. In suggesting ways to counter what was accepted as western military superiority, Putin advised that the armed forces ‘should not chase after quantitative indicators … our responses will have to be based on intellectual superiority. They will be asymmetrical, less costly’. Putin understood that efforts to try and match NATO’s military power, especially in terms of technology, would be unavailing and prove ruinous for the Russian economy. The ‘cost’ also of engaging in open warfare was unsupportable. In essence, the Russian military would have to become more subtle – it would have to employ ‘intellect’ in attempts to create strategic effect and do so, ideally, without the use of force. For what Russia needs to avoid, of course, is the use of any military violence in situations that might cause NATO to invoke Article 5 and thereby set in train the costly conventional war.

Surprisingly, in many ways, the Russian military has readily adopted asymmetric thinking. Russian military journals have come to be suffused over the last few years with articles lauding the qualities of ‘asymmetric warfare’ (asymmetricheskie voina). Among the senior officers pushing for the tenets of asymmetric warfare to be adopted throughout the armed forces is Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, the current Deputy Chief of the General Staff (and aged only 53). It is significant that such a high-flyer (he previously held the prestigious post of commander of the Western Military District) is among those urging the capture of asymmetric warfare techniques in doctrine and for its methods to be taught in military academies ‘down’, he says, ‘to a very low level’. Such methods, he goes on, will ‘enable the levelling of the technological superiority of the enemy’. In his ‘principles of asymmetric operations’, Kartapolov talks of the ‘concentration of efforts against the enemy’s most vulnerable locations (targets) [and the] search for and exposure of the enemy’s weak points’. The specific emphasis, he points out, will be on ‘non-violent’ (nenasil’stvennoe) methods of asymmetric warfare.

Other articles present similar arguments for the use of asymmetric warfare by the Russian military. The overall message for this military, and as the influential military newspaper Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda) summed up last year, is that when it comes to the conduct of warfare in the current era, ‘The main emphasis must be placed on asymmetrical means and methods’.

The principal aim of Russian asymmetric warfare is to create degrees of destabilisation (destabilizatsiya) within targeted states and within collectives of targeted states (e.g. NATO, EU). A target that is destabilised (in whatever sense) is one that, in Russian military thinking, is more susceptible to Russian leverage, i.e. it can be manipulated more easily. The range of methods used to engineer such outcomes are mostly based on the use of information (for more on this, see my paper in the RUSI Journal  titled ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’). Information warfare targets the strengths of NATO states – the fact, for instance, that they are democracies and have free media – and turns them into vulnerabilities: elections can be manipulated; opinions can be altered to Moscow’s advantage; agent provocateurs can operate with impunity; journalists and academics can be paid to present a certain line, etc. The West’s use, moreover, of high-tech information systems in all forms of social, financial, economic and industrial life, again, while providing great strengths, will also be presenting vulnerabilities to Russia cyber operations – in both the cyber-psychological (most important in Russian thinking) and the cyber-technical realms. Perhaps, however, the greatest degree of Russian leverage/manipulation will be generated by the targeting of individuals – decision-makers, political and military leaders, etc. These can often be co-opted or blackmailed if the right incrimination information – kompromat – is available.

And all this plays to the Russian military’s own strengths – its ‘own relative advantages’. While it might lack ‘quantitative indicators’ – the tanks, aircraft and ships – it does have a massive capacity to gather information, to disseminate (mis)information and to employ considerable cyber abilities. There is also, and importantly, a history and a culture in both the Russian and Soviet militaries of emphasising and employing to good effect non-violent military means. Perhaps the key term here is maskirovka, one which covers considerably more than just the use of ‘camouflage’.

Conventional military assets are still needed, of course. But these days they may be seen to be acting in a supporting role for the asymmetric warfare campaign against NATO interests. Their outwardly sabre-rattling movements, deployments and activities are seen as means of creating ‘indirect leverage’ that can, in turn, manipulate western actors into making counter moves that actually suit Moscow’s purposes.

The Russian military is now also employing asymmetric warfare methods that these western actors find very difficult to retaliate against on a like-for-like basis – reciprocity is largely denied. Russian democracy has become very much a ‘managed’ one and this closes down many avenues of retaliation. Russia is also not open to cyber attack in the same way that western states are and defences in the country are more pronounced.

The Russian military can and is using non-violent asymmetric means to considerable strategic advantage against NATO. They are, wherever one looks, destabilising and manipulating to good effect. Given this continuing situation and the strategic results that are patently being produced in NATO countries, why would the Russian military need to consider the conventional use of force? What utility does it have?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



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.



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.