New Book: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiUPDATE, 11 APRIL 2018: My book Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right has been withdrawn from publication. Instead, an expanded, updated and substantially new version will appear in early 2019, published by Routledge.

I will keep the original Executive Summary below.




Executive Summary

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, this study 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.

Leave a comment


  1. PaulR

     /  November 28, 2016

    I have to say, Mark, that I don’t like the use of the term ‘war’. Certainly, the West and Russia have differences. But that doesn’t mean that they are at ‘war’. Using that word encourages a way of thinking about policy responses which is likely to be counterproductive. I have penned a few thoughts on that here:

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  November 29, 2016

      I respect your perspective, but

      (a) ‘War’ is essentially a violent and aggressive way of making another polity do what it does not want to do. My view is that increasingly this does not require “large-scale organized violence” but can be expressed through a variety of other means, with violence always lurking in the wings. To suggest that the current confrontation is simply “what happens when journalists in two countries fire accusations at one another” is dramatically to underplay the intensity and, yes, aggressiveness of the Russian campaign, which also involved extremely intrusive intelligence operations, economic manipulation, and propaganda that is not simply about sniping journalists but state-coordinated initiatives. We could call it “war-like confrontation yet without most of the violence” but that is hardly elegant. Besides, you use the term “Cold War” for that period of Soviet/West confrontation in which violence was essentially confined to proxy conflicts (and one could claim the Donbas is one such, Syria in a way another), so why not now?

      (b) As you’ll see if you read the report, one of the reasons I am not comfortable but willing to call this a war is that so many of my Russian interlocutors, especially in the security sector, use that word. We do not have to accept their assumptions about Western attempts to marginalise their country, undermine their culture, topple the regime, etc, to acknowledge the passion of their belief. It only takes one side to make a war.

  2. doukhobor

     /  December 2, 2016

    Dear MG, Doesn’t your talk of war elevate Russia’s activities? George Bush did the same for terrorists when he declared war on them. In spite of the metaphors – cold war and so on – war refers to armed conflict. The Kremlin uses language vaguely for its own purposes. Isn’t it best to be precise?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  December 2, 2016

      Again, I’d come back to the points I made before. If ‘cold war’ is an acceptable term for an aggressive political struggle, then this can also be considered a war, and in any case I think it is important to consider it from the perspective of the Russian regime. If it considers this a war, then – sadly – I think the West has to, as well.

  1. War: what’s in a word? | IRRUSSIANALITY
  2. The Morning Vertical, November 30, 2016 – What Is Said…
  3. Hybrid Warfare: From CentComm to Slavdom – Russian and Eurasian Politics

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