Russia’s use of hybrid warfare
This article seeks to explore both the why and the how of Russia’s use of ‘hybrid warfare’ – particularly utilising the information, political, and non-combatant spheres – in the modern age in order to suggest that not only is Russia’s use of tactics against the West far from new, what Russia wants is hardly unpredictable.
There is currently a sense among the UK and its Allies, especially in the light of the Skripal case and clear Russian intervention in various western electoral and political systems, that the West is under attack by Russia, with the implication that Russia seeks our destruction.
Furthermore, following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, we have become fixated upon the idea that the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia are frighteningly new and unpredictable.
Russia overtly uses the information space to demonstrate its own view of its place in the world, and its relationship with the West. Through this, we can better understand, and thereby seek to counter, Russia’s efforts.
The relationship between Russia and the West
It is first necessary to explore why Russia has turned its attention to the West in recent years. The relationship between Russia and the Western Allies is one clearly conditioned by a classic security dilemma: both sides view the other as the aggressor in a deteriorated relationship, and both perceive in the other the capability and intent to destroy them.
From Russia this is grounded in historical experience of attack from the West from the Teutonic Knights (in the 12th century) through to Hitler and indeed the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and most events since.
It is most likely the case that Russia views itself as the new status quo power in defence of the Westphalian state- and rules-based world order (which elevates the centrality of sovereignty) against the US, EU and Western political and economic institutions (which are globalist and rights-based).
The Russian perception is that Western intervention has brought nothing but chaos (view Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Maidan in Ukraine) whilst their interventions have been aimed at restoring stability and preserving classical features of the Westphalian world order (Georgia, Syria, Ukraine).
To secure itself, Russia must therefore be a stable, powerful nation recognised as a peer of other major powers. Russia seeks to be a “normal great power” and believes the US and Allies seek unfairly to prevent this. Russia very likely seeks an end-state where it is seen as a great power, equal to other great powers in a (Westphalian) rules-based world order. All subsequent ways and means descend from this clearly-articulated statement of “ends”. In this effort, they view themselves as acting defensively.
In contrast, the Russians believe US and NATO policy to be aggressive towards Russia. Putin has stated: “As you know, NATO and the United States have recently outlined their defence strategy. It is an offensive strategy…Let’s be clear: this is offensive infrastructure that is being created in Europe. This is about violations of provisions of the 1987 INF Treaty by the United States.”
Further Russian messaging underlines that, for instance, their role in Syria is to restore stability and fight the international terrorism caused by illegitimate intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, to restore a preferable status quo disturbed by the West. Putin has on numerous occasions reiterated Russia as the rule-following power, while the West ignores or abuses the rules as they see fit.
The view is likely that Russia’s classical interests-based foreign policy is threatened by the West’s destabilising values-based policies, which push dangerous, sovereignty-violating and interventionist ideas such as individualistic human rights and economy-crushing robber-capitalism.
Countering the Western Narrative
Russia’s counter-position to this is manifold: they will employ both positive soft-power messaging and disruptive activities in the UK and the West, most likely with the intent of creating an internal challenge to current western policies towards, and perceptions of, Russia.
Constructively, they employ soft-power elements to build a more favourable view of Russia as a legitimate and responsible actor. Paired to this is what we perceive to be the pernicious Russian interference, which is aimed at stimulating public dissent (for instance against the safety of vaccines and GMO crops) and distrust of government, and supporting political actors who are favourable to Russia. Russia’s intermediate goal is very likely to set more favourable conditions for Russia’s recognition as a legitimate status quo actor by making the West’s values-based policies seem untenable or unjustified domestically.
To spoil the aims of the Western states, Russia will use all its available information operational assets to counter the Western narrative, and present their own narrative to Western audiences. The aim is not, most likely, to undermine or destroy Western institutions (such as elections, political or social institutions) as an end in itself, but as a means to allow the Russian socio-political narrative to gain traction.
The secondary effect is the raising of internal barriers to Western domestic political consensus, slowing Western response times and ability to act against Russian interest. It is arguable, for instance, that what the Russians want to achieve in the Baltics is the the denial of the “B3” to NATO as a springboard for operations against Russia, not their destruction or occupation by Russia.
As has been argued, Russians “don’t want to destroy the table; they want a seat at it.” Russian disruption and influence operations will not be consistent in all locations or times; they will most likely exploit targets of opportunity or perceived “weak links”: currently, it is likely that Germany is perceived as the most important and most easy to influence of the Western powers because of their strife over immigration. Individual disruptive actions will be consistent with the overall aim and should be considered in that wider context of a defensive-minded Russia; their actions are to win space and time for their own manoeuvre, not necessarily the destruction of western institutions.
So it is clear that Russia sees itself in opposition to an aggressive and expansionist West, and uses the information space to buy time to enable itself to better fight this war in the future. This underlying motive is reflected in how Russia chooses to engage in conflict with the West. Despite the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, and more recently the Skripal incident, characterising Russia’s actions as unique to Putin’s government, Russia’s use of the hybrid space is far from new.
Russia’s use of Hybrid Warfare: Information Operations
Having grounded this article in Russia’s modern worldview, it is worth focusing in on one aspect of hybrid warfare to demonstrate the consistency of Russia’s tactics: information operations. Dmitri Alperovitch, head of cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, has argued that “a lot of what they’ve done was very opportunistic… They cast a wide net without knowing in advance what the benefit might be.”
It is likely as well that Russian operations have often been done in perceived retribution or retaliation. Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov has suggested that the hack of the US DNC was in retaliation for the Panama Papers leak, which the Russians believed was designed to embarrass Putin.
The operational plan of Russian hacking and interference thus looks like widespread, low-level probing to identify easy targets or profitable operations. When required, or where advantage is detected in what is viewed as an ongoing conflict with the West, it can be exploited. Actions which undermine the liberal democratic message or the ability of Western governments to maintain public consensus, or to sustain foreign policy actions which harm Russia, will most likely be the focus of Russian exploits.
Smaller actions do not have to have “strategic” effect on their own. Targets for Russian information and disruption operations are most likely opportunistic. Where weaknesses in existing institutions exist, or where challenges to political or social consensus exist, the Russian security services will attempt to exacerbate or exploit. Local conditions will be exploited to achieve strategic effect in aggregate.
Linking Russia’s use of hybrid warfare to doctrine
In February 2013, the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, published an article which gave the perspective of a senior military leader on the future of war. While this piece was not remarked upon in the West upon its publication, it has been heavily scrutinised in the wake of the 2014 Russian intervention operation in Ukraine. Gerasimov states that “In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the states of war and peace”, thereby linking hybrid warfare doctrine to Russian activities.
This mentality is undeniably held by Russian intelligence practitioners, who have consistently made use of the information and political spheres, as well as non-combatants. However, far from being the new phenomenon suggested by some, this has formed an underlying factor in the consistency of Russian intelligence strategy since the Tsarist period, albeit intensifying post-1917 as the fledgling Communist state sought to protect itself from its capitalist neighbours. Russia has consistently lacked a delineation between war and peace and has instead, as discussed, seen itself as under constant threat from its neighbouring states, most recently NATO and the EU.
Modern Russian Intelligence Services
Equally of note in contextualising Russia’s use of hybrid warfare activity is the extent to which the modern intelligence services base their culture and doctrine upon that of their predecessors. The KGB was officially dissolved on 31 December 1991.
However, due to the volatile political environment of the post-Soviet state, Yeltsin relied upon the security services to stay in power, leading to a dependence on former KGB personnel. Thus, the five new agencies (including the modern FSB and SVR) which were formed from the KGB directorates were headed by ex-KGB staff. The GRU, of Salisbury fame, was not even reformed and has retained a consistent culture and methodology since its inception almost 100 years ago. This has important ramifications for the consistency of a Russian intelligence strategy, since with continuation of personnel in the Russian security services came a continuity in methodology. It is therefore unsurprising that there are notable consistencies in Soviet and post-Soviet hybrid operations.
These modern information operations designed to undermine the perceived adversary, such as the DNC hack and leak, can be traced back to previous Russian actions. Following his assassination in 1979 by the Soviets during the invasion of Afghanistan, President Hafizullah Amin was denounced as a CIA agent following the ‘discovery’ in 1980, after a fire at the Islamabad embassy, of a forged US State Department telegram which connected Amin to the CIA.
The denigration of a rival can therefore be seen long prior to the DNC hack, and can be traced back even further, to the toppling of the Prague Spring in 1964, when compromising material on rival politicians (collected prior to the invasion) was used after the invasion proper during purges of Czechoslovak “anti-socialist forces” which were conducted in collaboration with KGB liaison officers, and during which one and a half million Party members were questioned about their behaviour during the Prague Spring, and a third expelled. Clearly, far from being a new and frightening strategy, by focusing on one aspect of hybrid warfare (in this case, information operations) allows scope to appreciate the extensive use that these tactics have had prior to Putin’s accession. However, they are not identical incarnations. As discussed, Russia understands the local conditions of its target and will exploit them opportunistically; a Crimea scenario would be highly unlikely to occur in the Baltic States.
Appreciating the why and how of Russia’s use of hybrid warfare and modern activities
Russia has clearly signalled the why and how with regards to its hybrid activities within the West in recent years. It sees itself in perpetual war with a West determined to meddle in its affairs, and will thus do all it can to challenge Western narratives in the international and domestic spheres. To do so it is prepared to leverage its long history of experience of subversion from the KGB era and beyond to accomplish this. Perhaps appreciating the why and how of Russia’s modern activities will help to overcome this most recent incarnation of Russophobia, and instead allow us to better understand, and hope to counter, Russia’s hybrid threat. A threat which is here to stay.
Dr. Kristian Gustafson and Katie Wilson, Brunel University.