Global Governance

Stop overestimating the threat posed by Russia’s ‘new’ form of warfare

A Russian soldier directs a T-72B Russian tank onto a flat-bed truck shortly after Russian tanks arrived at a train station in the Crimean settlement of Gvardeiskoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol March 31, 2014. Russia is withdrawing a motorized infantry battalion from a region near Ukraine's eastern border, the Russian Defence Ministry was quoted as saying by state news agencies on Monday. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTR3JDNP

Russia's hybrid war is neither new nor particularly effective Image: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Sir Lawrence Freedman
Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King's College London
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The term hybrid warfare – where a “wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures are employed in a highly integrated design” – seems to be popping up all over the place, all the more so in the wake of the US elections and Russia’s alleged involvement in influencing the result.

This new form of warfare has at times been described as an existential threat, and at others as nothing more than an elusive, catch-all term for something that has existed for a long time. What exactly does it mean, and is any of the alarm justified?

New terms for old concepts

When strategic concepts such as hybrid warfare suddenly come into vogue, there’s a risk that they’re given more coherence and a greater range of potential applications than warranted.

Two decades ago the term “asymmetric warfare” began to be used to describe the means by which weak states, along with insurgents and terrorists, might counter the superior conventional military capabilities of the West.

Essentially this meant using irregular forces more than regular, relying on guerrilla tactics and ambushes more than frontal assaults, and blurring the boundaries between the civil and military spheres. The concept was seen to be validated by the attacks of 9/11. Yet, as was soon pointed out, all warfare is to a degree asymmetric, because states rarely have identical capabilities or strategies. Efforts to give the concept a precise definition struggled because it was possible to describe any capability as asymmetric.

The same is now likely to happen with hybrid warfare. The term can have both a general definition, which could if pushed encompass most forms of warfare, or else a specific definition, which points towards some of the current practices being adopted by Russia. Because one part of the mix – information operations – has been assumed to be successful in recent years, this has been the aspect that has acquired the most attention.


It is time to take a critical look at this concept of hybrid warfare and question whether it has worked as well for Russia as is commonly supposed.

The origins of the term

The term gained currency after Israel was caught out during the 2006 Lebanon War by the combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics adopted by Hezbollah. It came to refer to an approach drawing on a wide range of instruments, including terrorism, insurgency, criminality and conventional operations, along with the extensive use of information operations.

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes on Hizbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut July 14, 2006. Israel battered roads, mobile phone antennas and fuel tanks in Lebanon on Friday, inflicting further devastation on its neighbour's economy in reprisal for the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah guerrillas.
Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes on Hizbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut. Image: REUTERS/SHARIF KARIM

It gained credibility as a definition of a new age of warfare as described by General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff. Much of Gerasimov’s vision was similar to that found at senior levels in the US focusing on how conventional warfare can now be conducted with weapons that can be operated over long ranges at great accuracy against many types of targets simultaneously.

But he also showed interest in how irregular forms of warfare might begin without an evident state of war, the potential use of armed civilians, plus the importance of indirect methods and information. Operations in Ukraine appeared to show hybrid warfare in action, especially with the formation of the separatist militias in the Donbas, the role of Special Forces and the attention paid to the information aspects of the campaign. Here, unlike Syria, Russia sought to keep its role covert.

Not so new

The concept of hybrid warfare starts with distinct types of military or military-related activity and then looks to how these can be combined in ways that will complicate enemy responses. Put this way, there is little new in the concept. After all, in past wars a range of capabilities have been employed, including economic blockades and propaganda. Surprise attacks have normally depended on a degree of deception, and with drawn-out attritional wars, anything that might eat away at the enemy is considered worth trying.

Commanders have combined classical forms of conventional warfare with partisan campaigns on the one hand and forms of civilian destruction (such as air raids) on the other for a century. Past experience explains why these campaigns are not simple. Without a competent and extensive command structure, it can be difficult to pull together the different strands of activity so that they reinforce rather than contradict each other.

More seriously, it is vital to distinguish between capabilities that are necessary to achieve the objectives of war – which normally means reasonably disciplined and substantial forces able to take and hold contested territory – and supporting capabilities that can disorient and demoralize an opponent and erode the ability to sustain a conflict over time (such as economic measures) but do not by themselves provide for political control.

This is particularly important when considering information warfare, which for many commentators appears to be the key ingredient in contemporary hybrid warfare.

Western interest in this area, at least during the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, was more about a positive image, helping to win over “hearts and minds”, and for that reason there has been much discussion about how to construct a narrative that will convince doubters about good intentions and readiness to stay the course.

Russian efforts, which involve considerable resources, often seem to mean “disinformation warfare”. It involves using social media to spread false messages and create misleading impressions to weaken opponents, especially among their own public.

The EU now talks about “hybrid threats” because it sees this as a form of activity that can help undermine security even at times of comparative peace. The confirmed Russian efforts during the US Presidential election and evidence of comparable attempts to influence the upcoming German elections reflect this concern.

Not as effective as you might think

But a degree of caution is necessary here. First, the means by which humans receive and process information, as individuals or in groups, are complex and not so easy to manipulate. The idea that an enemy can lob precision-guided thoughts into the collective mind of a population is far too simple. While this can be done using proxies and subtle forms of propaganda, in the end the sources and their messages have to be credible. The information being supplied to Wikileaks in 2016 came from hacking, so was not simply made up and, to the extent that it had an effect, fitted in with other portrayals of Hillary Clinton.

When information campaigns rely more on deception and lying they tend to be less successful.

In Ukraine, Russian efforts at deception were by and large ineffectual, as they became progressively transparent. The controversy surrounding the shooting down of MH-17 in the summer of 2014 was allowed to drag on far longer than would otherwise have been the case because of the persistent refusal of Moscow to accept any responsibility, despite the evidence against them. One possible success was in projecting a more menacing image than Russia’s actual strength warranted, which served to deter the West from escalating the conflict. In the end the safest assessment may be that information operations (still better described as propaganda) can reinforce a positive position but are unlikely to be of much help in reversing a negative one.

A part of the wreckage is seen at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), in the Donetsk region July 21, 2014. Russia's Defence Ministry on Monday challenged accusations pro-Russian rebels were to blame for shooting down a Malaysian airliner and asked the United States to produce satellite images to support its assertions. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
The wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17. Image: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Neither surprising nor unusual

All this argues against considering hybrid warfare as anything highly unusual, surprising or difficult to deal with. If anything it is a lesser form of warfare when compared to the more focused traditional forms, in which major powers sought to achieve victory simply through a succession of battles until the enemy could fight no more.

The possibilities of popular resistance and, possibly more important, the risk of escalation to nuclear war have made it increasingly hard to rely solely on conventional armed forces. This has encouraged alternative means to weaken an opponent, for example by addressing their enemies’ sources of social and political support.

It is, however, doubtful that these efforts can do much unless the target’s social and political support is already weak or if the military situation on the ground is already parlous and forces are stretched. Those engaged in conflict will use whatever comes to hand. A title such as “hybrid war” suggests that what is often no more than a set of ad hoc and improvised arrangements is more planned, coordinated and effective than is actually the case.

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