Oceans of ink and terabytes of electronic musings have been expended on the subject of hybrid warfare. The classic formulation is a non-state actor with appurtenances of state power and, in many cases, support from traditional nation states. Of particular concern to defense planners and intelligence experts was the ability of these non-state actors to acquire and employ advanced military systems such as anti-tank guided missiles, artillery rockets and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. Insurgents and terrorists would employ advanced systems to increase their lethal capabilities without changing either their strategies or organizations. The concept of hybrid warfare was soon expanded to the realm of strategy. As explained by Frank Hoffman, perhaps the best scholar on the subject:
The most distinctive change in the character of modern war is the blurred or blended nature of combat. We do not face a widening number of distinct challenges but their convergence into hybrid wars.
These hybrid wars blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare. In such conflicts, future adversaries (states, state-sponsored groups, or self-funded actors) will exploit access to modern military capabilities . . .
Prior to 2014, hybrid warfare was generally believed to be a strategy of the weak, groups or nations lacking the military means, financial resources, territorial base or organizational skills to fully exploit modern military means. The Russian invasion of Crimea and the initiation of a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine stunned Western strategists, generally, and the community of hybrid warfare theorists, in particular. Here was a major power relying largely on a mix of special forces, proxy forces, limited numbers of traditional military units (often in disguise) and a very sophisticated campaign of political subversion, economic attack, cyber warfare and information operations to conduct a campaign of territorial conquest while reducing the risk of escalation to conventional inter-state conflict.
This led some observers to propose the idea of multi-vector hybrid warfare and of political and information operations intended to undermine target states either to support more kinetic operations or even to obviate the need for physical coercion as somehow a new concept in inter-state conflict. Others drew a close correlation between actions by the current Russian government and the history of Soviet political and propaganda operations during the Cold War.
More recently, a number of authors have brought a measure of historical perspective and dispassionate analysis to the issue. While the means available to Russia are somewhat different, notably access to the world’s banking system, the presence of Moscow-supported news outlets in Western capitals, the ability to conduct cyber attacks on critical networks, as these authors and others point out, the use of all national sources of power to influence the behavior of adversaries and prepare the battlespace for possible kinetic conflict is as old as the organized state.
While it is true that many states have practiced some forms of hybrid warfare, not all have done so successfully and few have been able to implement it as an integrated strategy. We have seen examples of this recently when repeated attempts by this White House to forge an alliance with so-called moderate Syrian rebels against either Assad or ISIS foundered over concerns for the rebel groups’ political bona fides. Government efforts to develop information operations against Islamic violent extremists have foundered over concerns about not being allowed to engage in propaganda, e.g., to lie.
In reality, only a few nations and non-state actors have demonstrated a real proficiency at conducting hybrid warfare. What distinguishes the masters of the art of hybrid warfare from the average practitioners is that they learned these skills in their struggles for domestic power. The tools for hybrid warfare – deception, infiltration, corruption, the use of cover organizations, paramilitary forces, the creation of new domestic security entities and conventional military capabilities – were all used first to seize and consolidate domestic power.
Today, Russia is the ultimate hybrid threat. I describe it as such not merely because it has developed a panoply of official and un-official tools with which to pursue its strategic objectives but because it is the quintessential hybrid actor. Hybrid actors are generally defined as non-state entities able to employ both traditional and non-traditional elements of power and, in many cases, support from traditional nation states. Russia is unique insofar as it is controlled by a cabal that has many of the characteristics of non-state groups that have acquired hybrid capabilities and developed strategies based on their use. Moreover, many of the tools and techniques employed by the Kremlin in the pursuit of its external strategy are the same as it has employed to maintain and even increase its domestic controls. It is hardly surprising that the Russian ruling circle, the Vertikal, with its core of former and current secret police officers and close engagement with criminal elements in the pursuit of pecuniary interests, has been able to employ with such effect bribery, blackmail, hacking, intimidation and outright murder in its domestic and foreign operations.
More broadly, Putin’s Kremlin employs non-traditional means to further asymmetric ends. Domestically, these tools have been used to crush Russia’s nascent democracy, restrict the development of a civic culture and exact extraordinary rents from the economy. Internationally, these same means are being employed to destabilize the current international order and, most significantly, the set of Alliances and bilateral relationships that are essentially to peace in Europe. According to Stephen R. Covington of Harvard, a long-time NATO official:
The Russian military has adopted an approach to conflict in peace, crisis, and war that couples large-scale conventional and nuclear forces to the application of non-attributable, ambiguous means of destabilization.
This Russian model of hybrid warfare differs fundamentally from other models in this latter respect. No other nation in Europe is implementing such an array of actions that break with post-Cold War European norms and practices.
What makes Russia the most dangerous hybrid threat is the use of these non-traditional means integrated with and supported by traditional conventional military capabilities and both are covered by a nuclear umbrella. Moreover, as demonstrated by the operations to seize Crimea and destabilize Eastern Ukraine as well as numerous recent exercises, the Russian military is increasingly capable of and, one might argue, specifically designed to support the employment of non-traditional/hybrid means and methods and to secure the political and territorial gains achieved thereby.
Dr. Dan Goure is a Vice President of the Lexington Institute. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.