Rethinking Europe

Putin: Master of Hybrid Wars?

All wars are hybrid, but war — and the notion of hybrid — have changed.

Takeaways


  • Vladimir Putin, with his ever so fruitful “splittist” mindset, realizes that manipulating irregular immigration flows is bound to further radicalize the far right in Europe.
  • The reality is that Russia has not attained many of the goals of its disinformation campaigns. It has not been able to translate these measures into strategic achievements.
  • Putin, more than winning, has often sought to exert permanent influence. But contrary to the wishes and goals of Putin’s Russia, public trust in NATO (by contrast to the EU and the US) in many Western countries has improved since 2010.
  • It stands to reason that Putin actions have had the opposite effect of what he desired. Western countries have maintained a reasonably united front against Russia.
  • Instead of embracing the concept of “hybrid” war, Chinese experts have been referring for years to “non-military warfare”.
  • We live in a world in which everything can be a weapon”, says Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The expression “hybrid war” was first made fashionable by Frank Hoffman in 2007. It took on wider significance following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, currently it is suffering from overuse.

Not everything is war

For starters, not everything is war, or a hybrid war, for that matter — despite the fact that we live in hybrid times.

Consider what is happening on the border between Belarus and Poland. Immigrants and refugees were brought into the border region from Iraq and elsewhere by Lukashenko.

This act may be described as a “weapon of mass immigration”, as Mark Leonard has done in his book “The Age of Unpeace”. Resorting to this tool as a means of foreign policy is a “grey area” of power politics. But it is not a war, not even a hybrid one.

This is true, even though Russia hovers in the background. This is a nation that is highly adept in the terrain between war and peace.

Putin, the clever splittist

In this case, it reminds us of the fallout of a war conducted by the West that was by no means hybrid, the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Of course, Vladimir Putin, with his ever so fruitful “splittist” mindset, realizes that manipulating irregular immigration flows is bound to further radicalize the far right in Europe on this issue (witness what is going on in France).

A tactical application of the chaos strategy

To be sure, Russia does have a concept of “hybrid war.” According to Mathieu Boulègue and Alina Polyakova, it is a “tactical application of the chaos strategy.

It is full spectrum warfare that deploys a blend of conventional and nonconventional means aimed at affecting on the ground changes in target while seeking to avoid direct military confrontation with Western states”.

However, let us not jump to conclusions prematurely as to this being an exclusive prerogative of Russia.

The U.S.’s failed Vietnam War, with its counterinsurgency (also deployed in other conflicts later), also fulfilled many of the criteria for being hybrid from a U.S. perspective.

Irregular threats

A recent report from Rand prefers to talk about “irregular threats” emanating from Russia.

This is not entirely new, apart from cyber-attacks (which are new, and are also instigated by private actors in search of profits, for example with ransomware, involving the hijacking of data and systems).

These “threats” include disinformation in various areas, the promotion of political subversion and the use of violence or the indirect threat of violence to undermine the political order and influence vulnerable governments, as well as irregular soldiers, although the latter have always existed.

No mercy, for-profit mercenaries

Russian mercenaries are found throughout the world. Russian soldiers (without official uniforms) in Crimea and the Donbas were not new either. The true innovation was how well prepared they were.

These are instruments that have almost always been used. Examples include the newspaper manipulation perpetrated by the publisher William Randolph Hearst in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the so-called “fifth columns” that accompany various conflicts.

Propaganda is peddled not only by governments but also by private actors, often with private ends.

Clausewitz digitized

Today, there are instruments with greater reach. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz said, these means have been transformed.

The digital order imposes other forms of logic, or grammars, to use the term preferred by the Prussian military thinker. There is simultaneously a great deal that is new, but also a great deal that is old and perennial.

Russia has not attained many of its goals

While there are many studies of disinformation and the numerous campaigns waged by various parties (led by Russia), few measure their real impact.

The reality is that Russia has not attained many of the goals of its disinformation campaigns. It has not been able to translate these measures into strategic achievements (with the great exception of Crimea, for which it has paid a price in sanctions).

Putin as a (desperate) influencer

Putin, more than winning, has often sought to exert permanent influence. But contrary to the wishes and goals of Putin’s Russia, as the Rand report and various surveys suggest, public trust in NATO (by contrast to the EU and the US) in many Western countries has improved since 2010.

In addition, it stands to reason that Putin actions have had the opposite effect of what he desired. Western countries have maintained a reasonably united front against Russia, as the sanctions and military deployments by NATO countries (including Spain) have shown.

The West consolidates its position

There is also more unity than on the question of Beijing, which is not perceived as a military threat in Europe but as a rival in economic, technological and connectivity (in its various dimensions) terms, rather than in traditional geopolitics.

China is necessary to us in various respects. Europe does not seek a radical decoupling from this country-civilization (and nor does the U.S. economy, for that matter).

Enter China

Interesting to note as well that, instead of embracing the concept of “hybrid” war, Chinese experts have been referring for years to “non-military warfare.”

As the use and manipulation of migrants and refugees for political ends underscores, there is a certain blending – a hybridization, if you will – of political, economic, social and, in some cases, military methods.

The concept not of war but of security has acquired new dimensions and complexity, when the boundaries between the civil and the military have been blurred, sometimes overlapping.

Conclusion

“We live in a world in which everything can be a weapon”, says Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It could be a knife for perpetrating acts of terrorism in urban environments.

The challenge for Western democracies is that Irregular threats often necessitate prevention and defense measures that are themselves irregular, albeit subject to national, EU and international law.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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