When in the early morning of March 9, 1230, the Tzar of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Asen II decided to declare war on the short-lived Despotate of Epirus, he did that in an almost ritualistic way. He ordered the parchment of the peace treaty that had been violated by the Byzantines to be impaled on a spear. In the ensuing Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian ruler turned the enemy into retreat and routed the Byzantine army, he captured their emperor Theodore Komnenos, and restored previous territories to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.
That’s the picture that comes to mind to any pupil as they read the history studybooks, and all the novels and movies. It’s a conventional notion of war where one state directly attacks another, two armies meet at the battlefield, and the winner of this clash subdues their rival, either conquering their entire territory or parts of it. History abounds of such examples. But a fact that is little discussed is, such a development is more like an exception than the norm.
War has long ceased to be a separate act. The line between war time and peace time, between military and civilians is rather blurred. About two centuries ago, using Napoleon’s experience, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz formulated the argument that war is a mere continuation of politics, but with different means. The military is but a tool in a much wider array of means, one that’s only limited by the available resources, the imagination of the commanders, and the willingness of the leaders to respect (or not) the established international norms. The Thirty-Year War for example was bloody, messy and full of atrocities (mostly because it was religiously motivated); the following War of the Spanish Succession was widely viewed as a refreshing reversal to “decency” and “honor” in war actions.
Military history is rich of examples where economic sanctions, blockades, and messing with the financial system of the rival state has been employed in addition to military means: for example, printing and fake money and flooding their economy with it, economic sabotage, propaganda, and psychological spec ops. These have targeted not only the military but also the population of the opposing side. The palette of not-so-military means also includes initiating and aiding rebellions against the ruling regime, “revolutionary” or “freedom-fighting” movements (like the one that ultimately triggered the end of 500-year Ottoman rule over my country), direct embedding of agents amongst the ruling elite, creating internal divisions and pitching one ally against another, etc, etc.
The combination of military and non-military tools is what makes a war a hybrid war. The term is relatively recent. Various analysts of the military actions between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 introduced the term “hybrid threat” for the first time. The same year it appeared for the first time in an official document, the US defense overview report. Still, the analysts are able to trace the manifestations of hybrid warfare way back in time – back to the 1st century AD actualy, when the Jewish Rebellion happened, and the Jews used criminal gangs to undermine the Roman legions of Vespasian – these were used in combination with regular armies and voluntary guerrilla units, and the tactic included a series of ambushes, and even the use of stolen siege equipment. I suppose some future researchers will some day find even earlier examples of hybrid conflict.
Of course, the term “hybrid warfare” became particularly popular after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Within hours of Yanukovich’s deposition, military units from the Russian military base at Sevastopol and from Russia-proper took control of the Crimean key infrastructure, including the main civil airport of Simpheropol, and also various communications infrastructure, radio and TV stations, etc. Pressured by the Russian special services and lacking clear instructions from Kiev, the Ukrainian army and security services in Crimea were unable to put up any resistance. The result of the ensuing pseudo-democratic procedures, which were later recognized by the parliaments of several EU member states (or at least some nationalist parties, which turned out to be funded by the Kremlin), gave more credence to the Crimean annexation, which was a de facto conquest of territory. This allowed Putin to consolidate his success, which had begun with the swift and resolute use of force, and then got legitimized. He then used the same model to launch a similar campaign in East Ukraine, which chopped large portions of that country away and practically put them under Russian control.
All of this has prompted some NATO countries to make their own analyses of the situation, the conclusion invariably being that Russia is a major threat for their national security, in part because of its skillful use of hybrid warfare as a viable method, in combination with conventional military actions, propaganda, economic (mostly energy) blackmail, etc. Russia has reciprocated since then, of course.
NATO’s response to the changing situation came in September 2014, when a decision was made to double the NATO Response Force, and create units with a high state of alert, like VJTF and NRF, which would be able to respond to urgent situations within a couple of days. A command and management infrastructure is to be created, which would direct the redislocation of military personnel and equipment to the sensitive regions in times of need, and the military exercises in the NATO border states with Russia were to become more frequent. These elements are part of the Readiness Action Plan, and most of them have already been completed. This complex of measures is considered sufficient for the time being to halt a potential advance of geopolitical rivals like Russia which do not shy away from using military force – if Russia is stupid (or desperate) enough to do such a step against NATO at all. This is all part of the realization that hybrid warfare is now a fact, and is being perfected and used on a regular basis by countries that can afford the resources for it.
The conflict in Ukraine has shown that the methods are old, only their names tend to change. The mutual economic interdependence, the new information and communication technologies and the utter and complete dependence on them, plus the free movement of people and capitals, are among the factors that create new opportunities for expanding the variety of methods of hybrid influence. Apart from all that, the essence of war has not changed much. It remains an extension of politics, and aims at subduing an opponent and forcing them to accept terms and conditions that suit the aggressor.
Except, in order to achieve these goals, it’s not necessary to completely eradicate the entire military of the opponent, or conquer their cities, and murder all their soldiers. The hybrid instrumentarium provides opportunities for direct access to the “will of the opponent”, and manipulate it through financing political parties and proxy agents, blackmailing corrupt politicians, manipulating public opinion through the media, and embedding agents into crucial positions within that country’s elite.
For instance, in 2003 the Central military committee of China adopted a concept for information operations which includes three strategies: coordinated strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulations, and defense policies targeting specific segments abroad. Although this sort of operations are mostly supposed to be directed at Taiwan, the 2014 annual report of the Czech intelligence notes that the Chinese administration and special services have directed their efforts toward ensuring the expansion of the Chinese influence over the Czech political and state structures, and collecting politically sensitive intel with the active participation of select members of the Czech elite, including politicians and state officials.
Another way of influencing is through taking control of key economic sectors (like the energy, finance, communications sector), and establishing monopolies. China gradually does that in Africa for example. This method makes it relatively easy to induce crisis situations and respectively to collapse the public trust in the rulers of the targeted country. This effect could be achieved through cyber attacks, and looking to influence critical infrastructure: financial, energy, transportation, communication. As well as limiting access to critical resources like water, essential foods, fuels, medicines.
An alternative approach is through propaganda and psychological influence on the populace. It can be done relatively easily, especially if the aggressor already has a strong influence on the traditional, electronic and online media, and when specific segments of the populace are associated with the aggressor along ethnic, religious, linguistic or other lines. This is practically the employment of non-military tools by specific groups – both prior to, for the duration of, and in the aftermath of the use of actual military force.
It may just so happen that NATO does have the necessary potential to counter all major challenges of hybrid warfare – if it can use it wisely. NATO has already made steps in that direction by strengthening its conventional forces on the eastern flank, and raising their response capabilities if need be. In principle, the main question is how to determine the threshold beyond which they are to be deployed – for example when the potential aggressor uses non-military tools and keeps their military capabilities on high alert without using them. In other words, the question is how to achieve a level of understanding of the situation where adequate decisions could be made by all NATO member states, even if there’s no clear declaration of war and the moment of the start of that war is blurry.
NATO is gradually finding solutions on questions as complicated as these. One example is the alliance’s policy on cyber defense. It is also assumed that the creation of the VJTF is already having a deterring effect. But this still doesn’t remove the deterring effect of the nuclear arsenals of the leading NATO members.
EU’s ambitions in this respect are more limited, and its capacity for military response too, respectively, In light of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, JC Juncker has urged the member states to agree on the creation of European armed forces. But this remains just a long-term plan for the time being.
In the meantime, the EU is developing and using a wide array of policies, which by the way could serve as an antidote to the non-military tools of hybrid warfare. This includes policies aimed at transparency in political funding, the supremacy of law and countering corruption, policies for bolstering competition and busting oligarchic monopolies, energy security and diversification of energy sources, border control, free and pluralistic media, transparency in business and property relations, etc. We could say with a good amount of certainty that all these policies and measures will continue to be perfected as the risks and threats for EU’s functioning evolve, including the hybrid threat both for specific member states and the union as a whole.
As for my country, what it can do is to restore efficiency in the intelligence system, and make it capable of identifying illicit external influence, and come up with ways to counter it. We also need a working judicial system that could sanction such influences and deter future hybrid actions from potential aggressors.