Western nations have been flummoxed by “hybrid warfare,” that mix of conventional and unconventional operations that Russia has used to deadly effect in Ukraine.
And ironically, Russia’s government of former Soviet officials may have learned that strategy from an ex-Tsarist officer who hated Communism and fought for Hitler.
Evgeny Messner was a Russian Army officer who fought in World War I. When the Russian Revolution erupted, he joined the Whites, serving as chief of staff of the Kornilov Division during the Russian Civil War. When the Reds won, he decamped to Yugoslavia.
He eventually ended up working for the Nazis as part of the Russian Liberation Movement, an army of anticommunist Russians that Germany formed as auxiliaries to fight the Soviets. Again displaying a knack for picking the losing side, Messner fled to Argentina.
He became a writer and military theorist, focusing on the clash between the Communist and noncommunist worlds. “Messner was convinced that the Communists had perfected a new type of unorthodox warfare which allowed them to challenge, and possibly defeat, the West without fear of provoking direct military confrontation,” explains researcher Adam Klus in an article on Messner for Small Wars Journal.
While living in Argentina, Messner formulated the concept of “myatezh-voina,” awkwardly translated as “mutiny war,” but what we could call hybrid warfare. The concept was elaborated in his 1970 book Mutiny, Or the Name of the Third World War.
Myatezh-voina, as Messner defined it, is a form of psychological warfare. “Every action, tactical, operational or strategic, is considered primarily through its potential impact on enemy’s morale,” Klus writes. As Messner puts it metaphorically; “MV [myatezh-voina] aims at ’fission of an enemy’s psyche’ and ’occupation of the enemy’s soul.’ In practical terms the main objective is to psychologically incapacitate the adversary.”
Myatezh-voina is implemented by four types of groups: “revolted masses” (mass civilian protests), covert operators performing sabotage and terrorism, guerrilla group waging irregular warfare, and regular military units.
The process is gradual, long-term and ruthless, unrestrained by ethics or law. But also key to myatezh-voina is that the pattern of attacks is so subtle and gradual that the victims don’t know they are being attacked. “To notice and understand MV, one has to see the grand strategic design behind seemingly random and unconnected acts of violence,” Klus says. “If MV is properly executed, the victim of the attack may not even realise, or at least reach sufficient political consensus, that it’s a target of a massive well-coordinated campaign waged by the enemy. One has to first see the strategic logic connecting, for instance, violent manifestations, labor strikes, series of hostage takings and guerrilla attacks.”
Like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water that doesn’t realize it is being heated to death, the victim of myatezh-voina doesn’t realize he is under attack until it is too late.
Were KGB veteran Vladimir Putin and his government influenced by Messner? The Interpreter magazine quoted last year a former KGB psychoanalyst who claimed that Messner’s work had a strong influence on Soviet military thinking in the 1980s.
Indeed, this is exactly the sort of warfare that Russia appears to be waging today. Ukraine has been undermined by a Russian-supported secessionist movement that split from the eastern portion of the country. Pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea, backed by “little green men”—anonymous soldiers without insignia who were actually Russian special forces—paved the way for Moscow’s bloodless annexation of the region.
Russia also appears to be waging myatezh-voina against the United States. A steady stream of leaked emails, obtained by what many believe are hackers working for Russia, have already disrupted the U.S. presidential elections and sown mistrust of the presidential candidates. However, there doesn’t appear to be any definitive proof so far of Russian involvement, which gives the Kremlin deniability. Unable to match the United States in conventional military power, this sort of psychological warfare enables Russia to weaken its enemy without risking overt war, and without leaving Russian fingerprints behind.
On the other hand, perhaps Russia could have invented hybrid warfare without Messner’s inspiration. After all, it’s a strategy that has been around for centuries. George Washington used hybrid warfare when he fought the British with Continental regulars in the North and guerrilla bands in the South. Ho Chi Minh used it when North Vietnamese Army regulars worked in conjunction with Viet Cong guerrillas, and Hezbollah used it against Israel in 2006. Intelligence agencies have become quite adept at covert operations and psychological warfare. Maskirovka, or strategic deception, has been an integral part of Russian military operations since World War II.
In any case, Messner’s solution to defeat myatezh-voina was to fight fire with fire. The West should wage its own counter–myatezh-voina using secret police to hunt down terrorists, and propagandists to neutralize enemy disinformation. Messner “proposes to apply war-time standards, for instance; potential hostages should not be rescued at any cost but rather seen as POWs and not rescued at any cost,” Klus writes. “Overall the ethics should be ‘limited to minimum.’ The defender should actively reduce potential asymmetry in ethical standards to counter the nihilistic threat of MV.”
But this raises an even more terrifying specter: to defeat its enemies, the West must become like its enemies. Messner’s approach means defeating terror with counterterror, a philosophy that has left a bloody legacy in Algeria and Northern Ireland.
The real problem with Messner’s worldview is that it is total. If the enemy is subtle and persistent, and his actions cannot be attributed to him, then anything that happens anywhere can be blamed on his evil machinations. It is a throwback to the darkest days of the Cold War, when belief in a monolithic and relentless international Communism led to the Domino Theory, Vietnam and other debacles.
If Putin’s Russia has been influenced by Messner’s myatezh-voina theory, then the West must steel itself for a long and painful conflict waged by an enemy who is almost invisible. If Messner is correct, then the only way to stop that enemy is to become like him. America must be prepared to restrict the civil liberties of its citizens, employ secret police to maintain internal security, and conduct black operations to disrupt and demoralize Russia.
In other words, we could become Russia ourselves. And there could be no more flattering compliment to Putin than to be like him.
The cure would be worse than the disease.
Image: T-90A tank in Moscow’s Victory Day parade. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin