“Hybrid War as a War on Governance” – interview in Small Wars Journal

Usually, an interview means fifteen minutes spent on the phone with a journalist, the first ten of which are telling him or her the basics they should already know, and the outcome typically being a single slightly mangled and out-of-context quite in paragraph six. In this context, it was especially refreshing to have a long conversation with Octavian Manea on “hybrid wars” (not that the current conflict in Ukraine ought really to be called that) and generally the “new way of war” (or is it an old way, fought in a new world?), answering interesting and well-informed questions and then seeing the whole transcript posted on Small Wars Journal. How far more words translated into any more insight is for each reader to decide, but there it is for those of you interested in my thoughts.

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  1. An excellent read! This is perhaps the clearest, most concise explication of “hybrid war” (all right, non-linear war) I’ve found. The one point I’d question is this:

    “For me, the tragedy is that had there been even a single firefight in Crimea, had there been any sense that the Ukrainian government or military was willing to resist, I imagine that currently there would not be war in the Donbass. Because Crimea was so easy, in some way Russia became far too overconfident and thought that likewise it could easily pressurize Kiev.”

    There are two potential interpretations of this. One is, “had the Ukrainians had the capability to resist in Crimea…” which is pretty hard to argue; Putin launched the Crimean adventure because Ukraine did not have the capability to resist. The other interpretation is “given the situation in March 2014, had Ukrainian forces fought…”, which I find more questionable. So far as I can tell, the Ukrainian chain of command was paralyzed/heavily compromised by divided loyalties following Maidan, and the Russian deployment was swift and massive. Kiev was presented with a fait accompli by the time it managed to get through its decision-making loop, and by that time the Russians had so gained so much of a superiority that resistance would’ve been futile and entirely suicidal. Whether it would have deterred the Russian moves in Donbas is hard to say, but my impressions are that the only time the Ukrainians could’ve fought back were when they were already encircled, and hence–in addition to being unable to win–would’ve only fed into Russian state media narratives looking for national martyrs and post hoc justifications for the invasion.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  August 23, 2015

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I take your point about the issues within the Ukrainian chain of command and indeed the regime in Kyiv. However, we cannot entirely exonerate the Ukrainians for not taking quicker or more decisive action. There was a crucial period of about 48 hours in which there was absolutely no leadership or guidance — let’s be fair, as we now know in part because Washington was misguidedly urging caution — during which Kyiv could and should have acted. Even if they could not transmit orders through the military chain of command (and I suspect the resistance they faced there was more passive, a matter of foot-dragging and not passing info on rather than outright open challenges — they could have broadcast a message on national TV and radio to the effect that this was an invasion and Ukrainian soldiers should defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, anything to give some guidance to units that were confused and isolated.

      Of course had they fought they would have lost, but the brutal truth is that sometimes that is what needs to be done, and I still feel that would have given a crucial message to the Kremlin. I was in Moscow through the crisis and it was clear from talking to people in and close to the security apparatus that they were surprised just how easily Crimea fell and at the lack of any resistance. Regardless of the public narratives, the Russians knew they were making an opportunistic land grab, but when it was so easy, I very much sense it created momentum to move on. Certainly in February there didn’t seem any intentions to move into the Donbas, only stir up political trouble: the impetus for more direct involvement seemed to emerge solely after Crimea.

      I use the word “tragedy” rather than blunder or anything more judgemental for the very reason that I can understand why Kyiv didn’t/couldn’t act more decisively. Nonetheless, in hindsight it’s a shame to say the least that it didn’t, or that any of the local commanders chose to act unilaterally (maybe this is blind partisanship here, but I’m not convinced that British or US forces in the same circumstances would have sat there quite to meekly), and I do believe it heavily contributed to the Donbas.


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