Scared of the little green men in green uniforms without any signs on them, are we? Don’t know where they’re coming from and what they want from us, eh? East Europe trembles with the shaking ground under their boots, and prepares to eat the dust from under their heels. The angry bear is stirring, and is preparing for a predator leap: RRRAWR! But this time it’s masked, it has no insignia, and it uses RT to convince the world that it’s actually not a bear, but a mere lamb. You gotta believe it, or else!
“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, Carl von Clausewitz’s famous “bottom-line” says. For those unaware, that was one of the preeminent military theoreticians of the 19th century. Now almost 2 centuries later, when we’re seeing direct stand-offs between standing armies belonging to nation-states more seldom than ever, the Prussian general’s argument is, paradoxically, more valid than back then. Even if it’s somewhat tilted upside down. Today, the boundary between war and peace is painfully smeared. The Anschluss of Crimea and the stirring of a separatist uprising in East Ukraine for the last few months is the best example of that.
Naturally, the various smartheads in the security & defense genre already have a name for that sort of conflict: hybrid warfare. The term gained traction in my country only recently, with the infamous “2020 strategy for European defense” memorandum, where Russia was initially painted as the epitome of evil, only to then be watered down to milder definitions, lest we anger Big Bear too much.
“The new hybrid warfare, combining conventional methods and means of guerrilla, cyber and information warfare with actions contradicting international law, is putting an immense political, military and economic challenge to the region“, the initial draft version of the concept said. Eventually, the part about “information warfare” was tossed out of the document, and substituted with the somewhat more PC term, “propaganda”. And the nature of hybrid warfare was narrowed down to a single sentence. How sad. It would’ve made for a great action-movie script.
But what is this hybrid menace, after all? Many people have hastened to put an equation mark between this new beast and the already familiar asymmetric warfare. In practice, though, the hybrid approach is the next stage in the evolution of armed conflict. It came into the public focus somewhere in the mid 2000s with the Second Lebanese War between Israel and Hezbollah. That sort of conflict, on the one side, combines conventional with guerrilla methods, and on the other, it uses both military and non-military means for achieving its objectives.
The partial application of hybrid tactics is not that new, though. Granted, it did start to gain popularity after the end of the Cold War, when in most cases the protracted and aggressive conventional warfare in most cases would lead to catastrophic results for the aggressor. America has been learning that lesson time and time again since then. That’s why in many cases, non-government formations like guerrilla groups, terrorist organizations, revolutionaries, separatists, would be used around the zone of operation. Using anonymous troops without national uniforms, the so-called “little green men”, plus an aggressive information blitzkrieg of unprecedented proportions in the history of information warfare, has become part of the Russian operations in Ukraine. So, if anyone is to counter such action, they should probably be adapting to dealing with that sort of paramilitary formations, while preparing themselves to adequately counter possible cyber attacks as well.
Neither asymmetric nor hybrid warfare has a clearly defined frontline. It’s being conducted with all military and non-military means available, and the battlefields are actually several: in the conflict zone itself, among the ranks of the population (which is often being used as a human shield), and among the population back home (the constant struggle for gaining public support for the military campaign through propaganda, and inciting hatred for the enemy, dehumanizing the other side, eliminating internal opposition, silencing dissent, etc). The other battlefield is the international community, where the struggle is for gaining legitimacy.
A hybrid war involves one country or non-state “actor” who’s prone to using the whole palette of means and methods simultaneously, including regular armies, guerrilla actions, and tools for psychological influence on people’s perceptions on both sides. As of now, we’re at an intermediary point between the era of conventional warfare and asymmetric warfare, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously seeking political representation without even being a state, and conducting conventional operations. These are using all sorts of means to gain political legitimacy, while trying to maintain something resembling state organization in their controlled territories (as ISIL is doing), they have formations very much resembling regular army, but they also use their typical guerrilla tactics as well. On the other hand, they’re still giving priority to covert tactics and tools, which is a feature of asymmetric warfare. What we’ve seen in the recent months, shows that even some countries like Russia are prone to using a larger specter of instruments to achieve their goals.
But perhaps the most important characteristic of hybrid warfare is the combination of military and non-military methods. Thus the country that’s the recipient of the aggression finds it hard till the very last moment to clearly tell whether it’s being subject to a coordinated assault or not. And even if that’s somewhat clear, the covert character of the hybrid tactics wouldn’t allow it to have a sufficiently legitimate justification for retaliating with open force without becoming the evil one, or seek military help from its allies without being accused of open aggression. In the case with Ukraine, NATO has been very hesitant to activate its collective defense, because that would be interpreted as a direct act of aggression. We should also note that using non-military means of pressure like (propaganda, appeal to emotion or outright lies), and imposing one’s political will upon another country doesn’t necessarily mean that these actions are explicitly aiming to provoke some sort of armed conflict, as opposed to merely being yet another tool for conducting aggressive diplomacy and gaining a more favorable position for possible future negotiations. Again, the borderline here is uncomfortably smeared.
This unclear line between war and peace is actually the most dangerous consequence of hybrid warfare. The tricky part here is to refrain from using the term “war” too arbitrarily. If we take the case with Russia, it does have its interests regarding both the EU and NATO. Generally speaking, the idea is to provoke dissent within both organizations. But if we’re to conclude outright that pursuing those interests constitutes war, that would mean falling into the realm of constant paranoia, and no longer being able to make a rational distinction between diplomacy and warfare. There should be a clear line between potential threat and real conflict. One tends to evolve into the other, but when we’re talking of hybrid warfare, we’re seeing the use of regular armies.
Espionage, for example, does not necessarily mean war. On the other hand, when we’re talking of cyber security, the problem is that when we see such attacks, we should clearly establish to what extent they pursue military objectives, thus constituting a form of military action. For the time being, the premise is that the final assessment depends on the end result of the attack: when there’s a destruction of physical infrastructure and/or human life, that’s an act of war. So, when we’re talking of economic, financial or political influence, or funding of political parties and political engineering, or nation-building by a foreign state, that’s hardly an act of war. It doesn’t make it any less hostile an act, though. It’s just that the state and the national security services should be doing their job accordingly.
The usual escalation of hybrid threats and their evolution into real armed conflicts logically brings the conclusion that the key element for countering them is the adequate work of the secret services, particularly counter-espionage. It’s their job to get information about the intentions of other countries, and intercept any foreign attempts to meddle into domestic matters by infiltrating their agents at key positions of political and economic life, and thus manipulate the decision-making at a state level. When shit hits the fan, though, especially when external factors prove overwhelming, then there’s nothing else to do but to either submit to the pressure, or succumb to endless conflict, and go down to the level of the aggressor, starting to use their own tools against them. Something that’ll eventually come haunting ya afterwards.