Written by Bettina Renz.
The Warsaw Summit Communiqué issued by the heads of state participating in the NATO summit in Warsaw from 8-9 July 2016 heavily focuses on the alliance’s capabilities required for dealing with ‘hybrid warfare’. This concept became prominent in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has since established itself firmly in the official parlance not only of NATO, but also of various Western governments and military establishments. ‘Hybrid warfare’ describes an approach to war relying not only on conventional military means, but also on non-military means, such as information, disinformation, psychological operations and the use of proxy fighters. The idea gained traction in the aftermath of Crimea, because Russia achieved its objectives there with minimal use of force. This stood in stark contrast to the fairly traditional military campaigns Russia had conducted in Chechnya and in Georgia in 2008, which relied on heavy firepower. Russia’s approach in Crimea evoked fears in the West that Russia had found a new way of war that would be hard for NATO and the West to counter.
It is disappointing to see that NATO does not seem to have heeded the advice offered by numerous experts on the Russian military, both in the West and in Russia, who have long been arguing that the idea of ‘hybrid warfare’ is a red herring and unsuitable for understanding developments in Russian military thinking or the ambitions of Russia’s ongoing military modernisation. The idea of ‘hybrid warfare’ first of all overstates the ‘newness’ of combining military and non-military tools towards the achievement of objectives. The use of information and disinformation, psychological operations or proxy fighters is certainly neither new nor a Russian invention. The idea that ‘hybrid warfare’ best explains Russia’s operational success in Crimea also disregards the fact that the circumstances there were almost entirely favourable for Russia. With Russian military forces already stationed on the peninsula, a complete lack of resistance from the Ukrainian military, a weakened Ukrainian political leadership and a civilian population that largely welcomed Russian interference, the use of military force was simply not required. From this point of view, Russia will hardly be able to replicate such a ‘hybrid’ approach elsewhere.
It is also important to bear in mind that the idea of ‘hybrid warfare’ does not originate in Russian doctrine or military thinking, but was imposed, with hindsight, by Western analysts in the aftermath of Crimea. Certainly, there is no indication that military planners in Russia believe ‘hybrid warfare’ is either a credible deterrent against potential external threats, or sufficient for equipping the country’s armed forces with the capabilities required for using force in a variety of scenarios. The latest Russian military doctrine clearly expresses the ambition to develop full-spectrum capabilities, including a competitive conventional deterrent. Large-scale Russian military exercises conducted over the past few years simulated conventional combined arms operations and not ‘hybrid warfare’ campaigns. Russia’s most recent military intervention in Syria, moreover, was conducted as a conventional air campaign, giving further evidence that ‘hybrid warfare’ is not at the heart of Russian military thinking and modernisation.
Finally, the way in which the meaning of ‘hybrid warfare’ has evolved in the aftermath of Crimea is highly problematic. What is essentially a military concept has been turned into a quasi-theory of Russian foreign policy which, in the eyes of some people, explains almost every (perceived) Russian move: Russian internet trolls, political statements, refugees crossing the Russian border, even football hooligans, have all been described as part of an elaborate plan of Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ against the West. Such a use of the concept stretches it to the extent that it has become meaningless. ‘Hybrid warfare’ describes a mix of military and non-military means and there is nothing ‘hybrid’ about the use of information or political statements per se. Using militarised language in an already tense situation simply does not seem to be a good idea. The idea that Russia is conducting a ‘hybrid war’ against the West also oversimplifies Russian foreign policy and intentions and will make it harder to identify realistic responses vis-à-vis Russia in the long term. It is worth bearing in mind that exaggerating the Russian leadership’s strategic prowess and foresight can have quite serious unintended consequences: peddling the notion of superior Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ capabilities that the West is unable to stand up against could play into Vladimir Putin’s hands in making Russia look more powerful than it actually is.
For a more detailed discussion of the subject see my article ‘Russia and “hybrid warfare” published in June 2016 in the journal Contemporary Politics.
Bettina Renz is associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics & IR. During the academic year 2016/17 she worked as a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute on a project entitled ‘Russian hybrid warfare’ funded by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, government’s analysis, assessments and research activities fund. Image credit: NATO.