Key point: Russia has pioneered a new form of fighting called "hybrid warfare." Moscow has perfected using quasi-official troops, disinformation, and surprise to win.
KYIV, Ukraine—The recent military tension between the U.S. and Iran underscores a new era of conflict, some military officials and analysts say, in which a country’s power on the world stage is no longer measured solely by economic clout, military force, or even diplomatic sway.
Rather, the audacious use of misinformation to shape public opinion at home and abroad allows countries like Iran and Russia to punch well above their hard and soft power weight classes in shaping world events.
To that end, experts say Iran has put into practice lessons in hybrid warfare that Moscow field-tested on the battlefields of Ukraine and later unleashed against Western democracies.
“Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf resemble, in their intent, Russia’s hybrid warfare operations that we have seen in Ukraine and elsewhere,” said Nataliya Bugayova, Russia research fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank.
“Russia and Iran use hybrid warfare operations to advance their broader aims while trying to obfuscate reality on the ground and prevent the West from taking action to defend its interests,” Bugayova said, adding that Iran “has a history of learning from Russia on the battlefield.”
In this new era of hybrid warfare, adversaries are able to threaten American security interests and undermine the U.S.-led democratic world without resorting to direct military action.
Instead, by shifting the burden of conflict escalation onto the U.S., practitioners of hybrid warfare test whether American leaders are willing to retaliate against nonlethal, “gray zone” activities with lethal military force.
“Future confrontations between major powers may most often occur below the level of armed conflict. In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent,” Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, deputy director for global operations at the Joint Staff, writes in the Pentagon’s recently released, unclassified assessment of Russia’s strategic intentions.
Since 2014, Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for both its modern conventional and hybrid warfare doctrines, providing a case study for the new kinds of security threats the U.S. and its Western allies can anticipate from their adversaries.
Iran, too, has turned to gray zone tactics to offset its own inferiority to the U.S. in terms of conventional military power.
Tehran’s recent docket of gray zone activities include unconventional attacks by proxies, as well as nonlethal acts of aggression like the sabotage of oil tankers and pipelines.
At every turn, Iran masks its operations behind the veil of barely plausible propaganda yarns—a key tenet of Russian hybrid warfare. So, too, is the concept of victim playing—the appropriation of false victimhood to justify one’s own bad behavior—which Russia has frequently invoked to justify its global hybrid warfare offensive as a legitimate counterbalance against alleged American imperialism.
“There are certainly parallels between Iran’s activities in the Persian Gulf and Russia’s activities in Ukraine, in the sense that they are both using clandestine operations as part of a broader conflict,” said Eugene Chausovsky, a geopolitical analyst who specializes in the former Soviet Union for the U.S.-based security think tank Stratfor.
Both U.S. and Iranian leaders say they don’t want war, but the prospect of an accidental conflict is increasing, experts warn.
That prognosis nearly came to fruition on June 20 when Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle with a surface-to-air missile. U.S. officials protested, saying the surveillance drone was operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz.
President Donald Trump authorized retaliatory airstrikes but reportedly called them off with only 10 minutes to spare. Ultimately, the U.S. opted for a retaliatory cyberattack, instead.
On Wednesday, tensions flared again as Iranian gunboats reportedly attacked a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.
“Such types of unconventional and clandestine operations are likely only to increase,” Chausovsky said.
In 2014, the United States and the European Union levied punitive economic sanctions on Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine. Since then, relations between Russia and the West have hit a post-Cold War nadir.
Using cyberwarfare and an empire of weaponized propaganda, Russia has embarked on a hybrid war blitz against Western democracies. Looking back, it’s clear that Ukraine was the opening salvo of Russia’s ongoing war against that American-led, democratic world order.
“Russian leadership sees itself as at war with the U.S. and the West as a whole,” notes Nicole Peterson, a security analyst, in the Pentagon white paper on Russia’s strategic intentions.
“From a Russian perspective, this war is not total, but rather, it is fundamental—a type of ‘war’ that is at odds with the general U.S. understanding of warfare,” she added.
Hybrid warfare is the Kremlin’s contemporary take on a Soviet military doctrine called “deep battle,” in which front-line combat operations are supported with other actions meant to spread chaos and confusion within the enemy’s territory.
An evolving threat that spans every combat domain, hybrid warfare combines conventional military force with other so-called gray zone activities, such as cyberattacks and propaganda, both on the battlefield and deep behind the front lines.
One of hybrid warfare’s most dangerous attributes is that it weaponizes many staples of everyday life, including smartphones, social media networks, commercially available computer software—and journalism.
“I think we’re generally moving toward a reality in which hybrid warfare will be the preferred modus operandi of states like Russia, China, Iran, over and above conventional warfare,” Aleksandra Gadzala, and independent security consultant and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily Signal.
“The way in which Moscow wages hybrid warfare has evolved and expanded rather significantly since the Euromaidan—ditto Chinese tactics since [Chinese President Xi Jinping] took office. Iran is no different,” Gadzala said, referring to Ukraine’s pro-Western 2014 revolution.
‘Poor Man’s War’
America’s military dwarfs Russia’s. U.S. defense spending in 2018 reached $649 billion, compared with Russia’s $61 billion that year, according to an April report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Economically, too, Russia is far from America’s peer. Russia’s nominal gross domestic product is about half that of California’s—roughly on par with South Korea.
With that in mind, Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is basically “a poor man’s war,” according to a June report from the Institute for the Study of War.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] is sufficiently in contact with reality to know that he will fail if he attempts to regain anything approaching conventional military parity with the West,” note the report’s authors. “Putin has every reason to believe that outright confrontation with the American military will end badly for him.”
Despite Russia’s conventional weaknesses, however, the country is a hybrid superpower with an unparalleled ability to control the world’s attention economy.
Russia has weaponized information by deploying its state-run media organizations to undermine Western societies and democratic institutions.
Taking advantage of Americans’ historically low levels of confidence in journalism, Russia’s information warfare is precision-targeted on the American people through the internet and social media. These activities manipulate and inflame divisions within American society—often turning Americans against each other.
“Shaping the information space is the primary effort to which Russian military operations, even conventional military operations, are frequently subordinated in this way of war,” according to the Institute for the Study of War report. “Russia obfuscates its activities and confuses the discussion so that many people throw up their hands and say simply, ‘Who knows if the Russians really did that? Who knows if it was legal?’—thus paralyzing the West’s responses.”
On June 19—the day prior to Iran’s attack on the U.S. drone—international investigators charged three Russians and a Ukrainian for murder for their role in using a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
The missile was fired from within territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, and its mobile launch vehicle belonged to Russia’s 53rd Air Defense Brigade and was sent back to Russia the next day, the report noted.
Putin dismissed the charges, telling journalists, “There is no evidence of Russia’s blame for the downing of MH17.”
“Russia has its own explanation of the crash of MH17, but no one is listening to us,” Putin reportedly said.
The U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018. Since then, renewed American sanctions have targeted Tehran’s financial and industrial sectors, dealing the country’s economy a devastating body blow.
With oil exports down by 90%, Tehran is quickly running out of cash while inflation skyrockets. The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by about 6% this year—an abrupt reversal from the Islamic Republic’s 4.6% growth rate in the previous fiscal year.
Under pressure from U.S. sanctions, analysts say Iran has purposefully ratcheted up its gray zone activities to scare European leaders into making concessions on sanctions.
July 6 was the end of a 60-day deadline imposed by Iran on European nations to somehow ease the pressure of U.S. sanctions. With no help forthcoming from Europe, Iran announced July 7 that it was moving forward on uranium enrichment, violating the 2015 nuclear deal’s terms. In turn, U.S. officials are now mulling additional sanctions on Iran.