What we get wrong about the term
Russia’s Hybrid War: Through a Glass Darkly
The phrase “Russian hybrid war” has long since become a staple of official NATO and Western discourse to describe Moscow’s military strategy, operations, and tactics since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Unfortunately there is no such animal and we see Russian operations through a very dark, clouded, and ethnocentric glass. While there is also no Russian doctrine of hybrid war, the phenomena that comprise the concept do express a Russian national security or state strategy. Therefore “hybrid war” is not Russian military strategy. Rather it is the national security strategy of the Russian state as a whole. In other words the idea that Russia neither practices what we call hybrid war nor has a hybrid war doctrine fundamentally misreads reality. The armed forces have no doctrine; indeed, they largely train for theater-level conventional war. But the Russian state does have a national security strategy that resembles hybrid war and executes it even if it will not acknowledge the term. What we have come to call Russian hybrid war is not a military strategy. Rather, to use a Western term, it is a whole of government strategy that includes the armed forces as one major component of the Russian state’s overall national security strategy. Just as in the interwar period, however, the primary conductor of this strategy is the President or General Secretary, and the intelligence services, including, among others, military intelligence (the GRU).
There is abundant evidence of an overall Russian national security strategy that involves the constant use of and combination of military and non-military instruments of power to influence and even overthrow unpalatable governments. But examination of Russian military writings right up to the present indicates that not only does Russia’s armed forces have no doctrine of hybrid war, they regard the term as what the United States and NATO are doing to it and its neighbors. Thus, in recent Russian military literature, Russian writers call “Gibridnaya Voina” the U.S. strategy. To be sure the long-standing phenomenon by which Russia accuses its enemies of what it is doing continues so there is no denying that we see a systematic and constant offensive from Moscow utilizing all means of national power to achieve those outcomes of influencing or overthrowing foreign governments. This offensive abroad combines the use of business, mainly, but not exclusively, in energy, intelligence subversion and penetration, political bribery, and subsidization of friendly or corruptible politicians, parties, and media, massive information warfare, disinformation, etc., active measures, the use of organized crime and the systematic efforts to use military pressure or even direct force to intimidate or subjugate adversaries.
In other words, over the years, Putin has, to a significant degree, updated but not fundamentally modified, the Soviet approach that began in the interwar period when Moscow subsidized foreign Communist parties, used them and its own means to build enormous media and intelligence networks, paramilitary or irregular military forces, and even later on opened up banks and businesses to handle its affairs abroad. These phenomena are closer to George Kennan’s political warfare or the current Chinese concept of unrestricted war. And since regular staff talks are regular phenomenon in Russo-Chinese military discussions, it is quite plausible that Chinese thinking is influencing Russia’s overall national security strategy. The Western concept of hybrid war, however, developed here in response to the phenomenon of non-governmental entities like the Chechens or Hezbollah acquiring heavier weapons and using information technology to fight states like Israel and Russia to a standstill. But it cannot apply to the Russian military or to Crimea where only one side acted and thus there was only a coup de main, not military operation or even a political struggle by Ukraine to retain Crimea. In this respect, the real precedent for the Crimean coup is the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938 which coupled a rapid display of force after years of subversion to effectuate a swift and non-violent takeover of Austria.
Examination of Russian military training shows a military training for theater conventional and nuclear war, not hybrid war as we define it to include “little green men” and the combination of conventional and unconventional forces. For the most part (though not completely) the “little green men” are not the main combat forces of the Russian army, and are as much connected to the intelligence services who conduct such operations as a matter of routine as they are to the regular military. Indeed, by that definition of combining conventional and unconventional forces, World War II would be a hybrid war, not to mention wars going back to biblical times. But whereas the Russian military believes itself threatened by the manifestation of hybrid war that it attributes to the West, the Russian government as a whole conducts that kind of war through its control of businesses, media, groups of trolls, intelligence forces, and paramilitary formations, multiple special and other paramilitary forces, etc. Few, if any, of these units are regular combat formations. Direct military force is always present, for example, in the exercises conducted to mask the Crimean coup, but those forces are only a part of a larger strategy. Thus we see a Russian version of a whole of government strategy, not unlike the Soviet model, albeit nowhere as all-encompassing and pervasive as that model was. Beginning with the national security strategy of 2009, right up to the 2015 national security doctrine, Putin has systematically aimed to mobilize the entire state administration for purposes of conflict. That, and not a military strategy of hybrid war, is what we see today.
Nevertheless, Western governments and militaries, trapped in a lack of reliable expertise on Russia, and addicted to a debilitating ethnocentrism that cannot understand foreign military operations and writings except in American terms, have utterly misread the challenge. They cannot conceive of being in a perpetual state of conflict as does Russia. What is needed is not only a robust conventional deterrent that is credible and trained to fight the kinds of war for which the Russian Army is preparing, but what is needed is a whole of government strategy which understands what information warfare (IW), as practiced by Russia is, and understands that we cannot say we are not going to do propaganda. Neither can we simply dismiss the threat as too many Western elites do or think of Russian activities exclusively in terms of our own understanding. So, beyond a genuine investment in real expertise on Russia, we also need a comprehensive investment in forcing our military-political elites to think in terms of real, as opposed to rhetorical strategy, something that is a lost art today.
Our armed forces must relearn conventional warfare as opposed to counter-insurgency as practiced badly in Iraq and Afghanistan or the conduct of military operations that lack any coherent strategic purpose, as in Syria. NATO must not only stand up enough forces who can fight a real conventional war, but must also give usable weapons and viable operational concepts in support of a genuine and credible strategy of deterrence. Today, deterrence in Europe is fading away because the responses to date to Russian overflights, submarine incursions, etc. continue to be insufficient. This failure encourages Moscow to believe it can make conventional and nuclear threats and behave with impunity.
It also is clear that the West has no strategy for Syria, no usable concept of replying to Russian information warfare abroad, or at striking at Putin’s control of the media in Russia. In addition, Western governments are pressuring Ukraine to observe the suicidal Minsk II agreement, even though Russia still has not carried out any of its provisions, and continues to mass forces in Ukraine and violate the agreement by daily attacks on Ukrainian positions. Thus the failure to grasp what Russia is actually doing, and to take seriously the overall Russian national security project not only vitiates Western thinking and perception, it weakens our understanding and resolve to do what must be done to prevent the ongoing escalation of Russian threats while an infinitely stronger West vainly looks for some way to appease Moscow, not realizing that Russia’s appetite grows with the eating.
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