If the Bolsheviks used hybrid warfare as a means of expansion, then now it has transformed into a means of political survival for the current regime.
The Bolshevik Legacy of Hybrid Warfare
The term ‘hybrid’ or ‘proxy’ warfare became more widely-used in international political terminology after Russia annexed Crimea and then subsequently turned chronic socio-economic issues to the point of a full-scale war in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine.
The Essence of Hybrid Warfare
Hybrid warfare is essentially when one country acts aggressively against the government and army of another by mobilizing rebels or combatants within the country under attack. Unofficially, the rebels or combatants supply weapons, volunteers and military experts. On their side, whole combatant units can secretly fight the aggressor state. On behalf of the rebels, alternative public authorities are created, which are in fact completely controlled by the aggressor as its proxy force. In reality it is an international conflict between two states but inaccurately portrayed as an internal political and civil conflict.
It is fairly easy for military and other experts to identify a hybrid war. It is much more difficult for other actors, including the state political institutions, those interested in resolving the conflict and international organizations to do so. These actors simply do not know how to operate in a situation such as hybrid war, and moreover, certain principles often preclude them from getting involved. In addition, since decisions taken by political institutions are based on documented facts, the collection of which requires time, these institutions simply do not have the necessary time to react to what is happening. Russia skillfully took advantage of this major weakness in February 2014, though this is far from the first time something like this has occurred.
According to Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist, hybrid warfare is another method of perpetuating a policy. Modern Russia inherited this method from the Bolsheviks. The very genesis of the Bolshevik regime in Russia is founded on what we today call hybrid warfare. We cannot say, however, that it has become exclusively Russian know-how. It is important to understand that the party behind this system started in the underground and learned from its own experience. It was a political machine aimed at seizing power in Russia and abroad.
The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare
It began in the fall of 1917, when the Bolsheviks staged a coup in Russia, using the lower social strata recruited from Petrograd’s military garrison. With this assistance, they were able to seize power in what was then the Russian capital. What followed evolved into a bloody civil war. The communists used a hybrid method of conflict to assume power in Azerbaijan and Ukraine. During the Red Army offensive in Poland in the summer of 1920, the Bolsheviks attempted to launch a hybrid war by establishing the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee. Also, in 1920 the Bolsheviks created a proxy-state—the Far Eastern Republic—which allowed them to control the provinces east of Lake Baikal.
To expand power and influence beyond Russia and to carry out covert aggression, the Bolsheviks created the Communist International (Comintern). It was under this guise that the Red Army fought in Spain and the Soviet military supported the Chinese Communists. Specific elements of hybrid warfare were used by Moscow in the following cases: to support the radical Indian nationalists; in the occupation and annexation of eastern Poland in fall 1939; in the war with Finland from 1939-1940; and during the seizure of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1940.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union continued using this method in China and Korea. There was even an attempt to launch a communist insurgency in Indonesia. However, the expansion of the Bolsheviks gradually contracted. Instead of seizing power outside its zone of influence, they turned to buying allies and financing communist movements. The Soviet army was used mainly to protect and preserve existing political regimes, such as in North Vietnam or Afghanistan. Hybrid warfare was no longer necessary, but its fundamental principles were studied by senior officers in the army and the KGB.
The renaissance of hybrid warfare appeared in the beginning of the 1990s, when Russia began to fight for preserving its influence in the former Soviet Union. Instances of this type of warfare and its key elements were observed in the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria; an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Dzhokhar Dudayev in Chechnya in the fall of 1994; and the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. Interestingly, this renaissance received specific ideological-political content.
Hybrid Warfare and the Russian Government
In post-Soviet Russia, the army and intelligence agencies showed increased interest in the works of Evgeny Messner, a tsarist officer who fought in the Russian Civil War with the Bolsheviks and spent time fighting in Hitler's army. He later emigrated and ultimately ended his life in Argentina. In a series of papers, he tried to explain the phenomenon of hybrid warfare, describing it as a war by an insurgency.
Such interest among the highest-level officers coincided with their leaning towards radical nationalism, chauvinism and worship of imperial military history, which emerged in response to the demoralized state of the army after the collapse of the Soviet Union. If one can speak about the Weimar syndrome in relation to Russia, then in the army and intelligence services, it was the most widespread.
The Russian government developed two paranoid viewpoints as a result of the country’s failing economic and political modernization processes in 1990s through 2000; the inclusion of a large number of people from the KGB/FSB into positions of power; and the tragedies of war in Chechnya.
The first viewpoint is that the feud between Russia and the West continues and that it is the cause of all failures. Hybrid warfare in the face of this foreign hostility has become the optimal way for the authorities to maintain influence in the former Soviet Union and within the country. This current Russian approach to hybrid war differs from the Bolshevik one. Previously, a hybrid war was a means of expansion, today it is a means of political survival.
The second viewpoint is that the West is also using the same method of hybrid warfare against Russia. The Russian leadership blames the West for organizing ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan; overthrowing friendly to Russia Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; the civil war in Syria; and at times the events around the Arab Spring. On a rhetorical level, such an idea was formulated at various levels of government from the top all the way down to the Chief of the General Staff during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. According to these viewpoints, since 2011 the Russian opposition’s mass actions and opposition movement were considered acts of war—a hybrid method used by the United States and Europe against the Kremlin.
The official formalization of such viewpoints and the crisis in the Russian political system contributed to the hybrid method to wield influence becoming political doctrine during the third presidency of Vladimir Putin. Civil protests in the country and in neighboring countries are now perceived by the Kremlin as an external military threat, which is reflected in Russia's military doctrine updated in 2015.
This evolution also meant that the aggressive Russian external politics in post-Soviet territory not only became probable, but also desirable. Hybrid warfare became a priority method for promoting such politics.
Why did this happen? As a result of the crisis within its political system, Russia lost the ability to play within the well-established rules of international relations, it could not remain appealing to post-Soviet states, and certainly could not fulfill its declared global ambitions.
The Weakness of Hybrid Warfare
Of course the situations described above did not mean that Russian leadership is completely removed from reality. The war with Georgia in 2008 demonstrated that the army, regardless of its numbers and weaponry, was very badly organized and not well-prepared for modern warfare. In order to solve this problem, large-scale military reforms were undertaken in Russia, the results of which were displayed in 2014 in Crimea.
The fact remains that to terminate a hybrid war and achieve the political goals of one, sooner or later, the aggressor must formally introduce regular military units into the fight under the pretext of assisting or carrying out a peacekeeping mission. The reason is simple: they proxy forces are rarely able to win on their own. Moreover, their independence runs contrary to the aggressor country’s plans.
The length of hybrid warfare is also a problem. The longer it lasts, the lesser the chance of victory for the aggressor. Russian history shows that the average life span for a proxy power is a few months to a half-year. What follows is either political corruption or the aggressor is no longer depend upon. If the government that launched a hybrid war does not shift the conflict into an official level and begin to operate openly, the political goals of the war are unattainable.
After an official introduction of troops and shift into an open operation to secure a political outcome, the aggressor cannot continue for long perpetuating the conflict. The open phase should be short, otherwise it risks being held responsible for violating international rules and the victims can gather the strength to resist the aggressor. Prolongation of the conflict can lead to its escalation and unnecessary costs for the aggressor, as what happened during the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-1940.
This means that time is essentially the weak spot in waging hybrid warfare. Having started a hybrid war in 2014 against Ukraine, Russia is now trapped.