The post-Cold War world is at an inflection point: a common orthodoxy in Western thought – the notion of a globalising world in which greater prosperity was ultimately analogous to stability – has been again thrown into contention, the FT’s Sam Jones writes in a must-read analysis of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ doctrine:
In public, Nato chiefs talk of Vladimir Putin’s 20th century mentality. ….But, in private, they are more candid – and worried – about the 21st century tactics Mr Putin is using. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have exploded the notion that expansive communications technologies and economic interdependence were fostering a kind of grand bargain.
Instead nationalism, genocide, irredentism and military aggression, which were thought to be in decline, are alive and well, finding new and powerful means of being deployed in Ukraine and beyond.
“We are entering a brave new world here,” says Admiral James Stavridis, supreme allied commander of Nato until last year and now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“And I use that expression really thinking about the novel [by Aldous Huxley] . . . it’s anything but a brave new world. It’s a frightened, unstable world and we need to wake up and realise that.”
Predictably, the most lucid exposition of hybrid war is Russian, Jones notes:
In February 2013, Valery Gerasimov, the newly appointed chief of Russia’s general staff, penned an article in the Russian defence journal VPK. War and peace, Mr Gerasimov wrote, in remarks that now seem prophetic, are becoming more blurred.
“Methods of conflict,” he wrote, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces.
Mr Gerasimov quoted the Soviet military theoretician Georgii Isserson: mobilisation does not occur after a war is declared, but “unnoticed, proceeds long before that”.
“I think it’s not usually appreciated what an enormous violation of international law this has amounted to,” says Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, the prominent London-based military think-tank. “We have spent nearly 200 years defining rules about conflict. Sending in soldiers without markings, introduced in such a cavalier way, denying their existence with absolutely no blush and saying anyone can buy a uniform in a shop – and a month later rewarding them with medals – we have to go back a long way to see something like that.”
But what has got Western spymasters particularly concerned has been the scale of the Russian disinformation campaign, both domestically and abroad. The Kremlin’s grip on Russian media was always tight, one British security official observed this year, but since the Ukrainian crisis, the degree of control has become “staggering”. The rhetoric out of Russian media channels is expansive and alarming.
“This crisis is not about Ukraine,” Mr Eyal notes. “This crisis is about the status quo at the end of the cold war.”
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary-general, warned in June that Russia was secretly funding European environmental groups in order to hinder the spread of fracking in Europe and thus preserve dependence on Russian energy. The notion seemed wildly fanciful. Greenpeace dismissed it as preposterous. “You have to wonder what they are smoking over at Nato HQ,” a spokesperson for the group said.
“What we have seen in Ukraine is part of a much broader process that most people in the west still do not have any idea about,” says Chris Donnelly, founder of the Institute for Statecraft, a think-tank.
A former army intelligence officer, Mr Donnelly spent 10 years running the Soviet Studies Centre at the UK’s Sandhurst military academy and for 13 years was a special adviser to the Nato secretary-general.
“The covert forms of power that Russia is using are not just military,” he says. “Firstly there is money. They buy members of parliament as consultants. They buy companies. They buy the City of London. They buy individuals: bankers who get jobs in Moscow and then find themselves compromised, blackmailed when they return to the west. Secondly there is corruption. A lot of governments in countries around the world do not like that aid comes with strings attached. Russia is happy to bribe and use organised crime as a tool.”
He also argues that Moscow is better at espionage – not just traditional undercover work but also “the standard open source analysis of the kind that the west has forgotten how to do”. Hybrid war, Mr Donnelly suggests, is perhaps the wrong term. “It is hyper competition,” he says.
Search for other forms of deterrence
“Any state that is able to bring to bear its full strength rapidly and comprehensively through centrally controlled means – be they economic, military, cultural, informational, social – will be able to create facts on the ground that we [democratic powers] will be weak or unable to respond to just like Russia has,” saysRobin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank.
Russia may be the principal exponent of hybrid warfare but other states have the resources and will at their disposal, too. The combination of resource competition, geostrategic tensions and a huge ethnic Chinese diaspora make the whole of the South China Sea region, for example, a tinderbox when it comes to the hybrid war model.
“If I was Singapore, if I was Australia, if I was Vietnam, I would be studying all of this very carefully,” says one European military intelligence analyst.
In the Middle East, too, with its long-running ethnic and sectarian tensions, the hybrid warfare model may grow in prominence.
Iran has invested huge sums in developing its cyber warfare capabilities. It supports dozens of proxies in the region. It has huge energy resources and a government-controlled media regime. If international negotiations succeed by the end of the year in bringing the country back into the international economic system, the unintended effect may be a significant expansion of Tehran’s use of hybrid warfare as a new, powerful regional policy lever.
“We need to start thinking about security in a much more sophisticated way and in a much more comprehensive way,” Mr Niblett says, pointing to issues such as policing, citizenship, multinational corporations, crime and energy markets as new strategic frontiers.
In a world of hyper competition, hybrid warfare or non-linear conflict, says Mr Niblett, “we need to find new forms of deterrence”.
Russia, China and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are adopting similar “hybrid” strategies to undermine the democratic West, says Niblett:
China is using a hybrid strategy to pursue territorial claims with fishing vessels, drilling platforms and market access playing a bigger role than military assets. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) uses digital propaganda alongside a resource-focused military strategy, seeking to control oil production as much as territory.