I’m today releasing a report of mine, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right that, as the title suggests, explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…
The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies.
This is often described as ‘hybrid war,’ a blend of the military and the political, but in fact there are two separate issues, two separate kinds of non-linear war, which have become unhelpfully intertwined. The first is the way—as the Russians have been quick to spot—that modern technologies and modern societies mean that a shooting war will likely be preceded by and maybe even almost, but not quite, replaced by a phase of political destabilization. The second, though, is the political war that Moscow is waging against the West, in the hope not of preparing the ground for an invasion, but rather of dividing, demoralizing and distracting it enough that it cannot resist as the Kremlin asserts its claims to being a ‘great power’ and in the process a sphere of influence over most of the post-Soviet states of Eurasia.
The two overlap heavily, and maybe they could usefully be regarded as the two sides of a wider form of ‘non-linear war.’ The instruments which make up ‘political war’ are also crucial to the earlier phases of ‘hybrid war.’ Nonetheless, while a comprehensive analysis of the full arsenal and objectives of Moscow’s ‘political war’ against the West are beyond the scope of this report, a study of ‘hybrid war’ as the Kremlin sees it is essential to explore the nature of the potential threat not just to the West but other countries. In addition, it is central to understanding the way war is changing in the modern age, and what we can do in order to deter, defend and, if need be, defeat any ‘hybrid’ challenge.
To this end, his report initially considers the way Russian operations in Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine led to the rise of concerns about ‘hybrid war’ and the belief that it represents something substantively new before questioning many of these assumptions by considering Russian thinking on the matter. To Moscow, it is the West which led the way in pioneering political-military operations focusing on destabilizing hostile regimes, and it has taken its cues from its sometimes-acute, sometimes-deeply-mistaken perceptions about our thinking.
What has emerged, if not wholly new, is certainly a distinctive way of war, one that is rooted, as discussed in the second part of the report, in response to five particular challenges or conditions with which Moscow must contend, from the mismatch between assets and ambitions, to the deinstitutionalization of Putin’s state. Part three then looks at the particular assets the Russians can deploy in their pursuit of ‘hybrid’ operations short of all-out warfare, from the special forces and thuggish gangster auxiliaries who seized Crimea in 2014 to spies, propagandists and spinmasters.
The point of trying to understand this threat is to respond to it, and the final part presents a series of observations and re-commendations for Western policy. The aim must be deterrence if possible, but such is the nature of this diffuse and undeclared form of war that this will often be by denial—developing ‘hybrid defenses’—and the right mix of forces ready for a conflict that could as easily be fought in cyberspace or the courts as on the battlefield.
Nor is this simply a threat that will subside as and when Putin’s regime implodes or subsides, however inevitable this undoubtedly is. There are other revisionist powers in the world and likely to emerge. ‘Hybrid war’ is a convenient and catchy term, even if of questionable scholarly rigor, but if anything it simply reflects the way conflict is evolving, and the sooner the West adapts to the Russian challenge, the better it will also be positioned to face the one coming next after that.