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Commentary | 17 October 2014

Can Hybrid War Become the Main Security Challenge for Eastern Europe?

Image of Margarita Šešelgytė

Margarita Šešelgytė |Studies Director at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

Eastern Europe Hybrid warfare NATO Russia-West Relations Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

During the crisis in Crimea, the mass media have learned a new buzzword – hybrid war – to label operations of insignia-less “green men” on Ukrainian soil. But in fact, neither the concept nor the essence of the operations was completely original. Irregular troops were used in military operations by many countries throughout history. At the beginning of the 19th century, guerrilla troops were fighting hand in hand with conventional forces in the Peninsular War. A similar strategy was employed during the Vietnam War. The main aim of this strategy was to exhaust the troops of an adversary. In the academic literature this type of warfare was referred to as a compound war, and later as hybrid warfare.

The activities of the “green men” and the separatists in Ukraine could be described as hybrid warfare according to a number of criteria: use of regular and irregular forces, strong links with criminal groups, unclear distinction between civilians and soldiers, and finally, military activities in the situation when war is actually not declared. However, the main innovation in this conflict is not the use of irregular forces but rather the hybrid instruments of attack used by the Russian side. Along with the military dimension, a broad array of political, economic, information, and cyber instruments are employed to reach political goals. These instruments are used interchangeably to expose vulnerabilities in Ukraine and to undermine the credibility of the Ukrainian government. Though the majority of researchers of the hybrid war tend to describe the concept within a strictly military domain, the conflict in Ukraine demonstrates that the boundaries of any future conflicts will not be so easily distinguishable.

What we are observing in Ukraine at the moment is simultaneously occurring guerrilla and conventional fighting, economic, cyber and information war. Some elements of this type of warfare were already visible in the Georgian conflict. The main goal is not control of territory, but rather intimidation and exploitation of existing vulnerabilities in Ukraine, weakening of the government and the main state institutions, and undermining the legitimacy of the state. Another important feature that revealed itself in Ukraine is the significance of modern technologies and the informational dimension of warfare. By spreading lies and distorting facts Russia is constructing alternative narratives and realities in cyber space which serve as a force multiplier in the conflict. Propaganda has a particularly strong effect on the Russian population which is deprived of alternative sources of information. It feeds on the myths of the uniqueness of Russia and its special place in the world and ensures high levels of mobilization of society in the conflict. It is worth admitting though that this type of warfare could only used by authoritarian regimes where all resources of the state can be mobilized for political purposes, e.g. economic embargo might be used to punish the adversary despite harsh consequences on the local population.

The relative success of Putin’s hybrid warfare in Ukraine has stimulated much concern in neighbouring countries. Will Putin stop in Ukraine or are other Eastern European countries susceptible to this kind of hybrid war? One of the main goals of hybrid warfare is to destabilize the governments of opponents and their main institutions thereby creating chaos and a power vacuum. These countries are particularly susceptible to this type of activity. The majority of them, apart from sharing a common Soviet history with Russia, are also highly dependent on Russia in the fields of energy and the wider economy. This dependence makes neighbouring countries vulnerable if Russia decides to employ economic or energy instruments in pursuit of its goals. Moreover, close economic ties provide Russia with additional channels of influence in these countries, via corrupted politicians, business partners, and companies owned by Russian citizens. Among the distinguishable features of many post-soviet societies is the diminishing trust in the state and the lack of confidence in its institutions. This makes post-soviet societies particularly prone to political instabilities inspired from outside. Many of the Eastern European countries have large Russian speaking minorities too, which Russia has been exploiting since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and which might serve as a pretext for military activities under the concept of the policy of protecting compatriots. Finally, throughout the years Russia has been very actively investing in Eastern European media and is using these sources to form opinions on numerous issues today.

The limits of Putin’s military interventions depend to a great extent on his goals. If the goal is the enlargement of the Russian World – potential victims could be Belarus and Kazakhstan. It would be a relatively easy task to stir up chaos in these countries due to the already existing close ties with Russia but also because of the undemocratic nature of these regimes and Russian speaking communities within, then it is not so surprising therefore that both Kazakhstan and Belarusian leaders were not feeling at ease recently. Last week Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko expressed doubts over whether the Russian claim for Crimea is just, reminding everyone that a big part of Russian lands once belonged to Kazakhstan and Mongolia, thus according Putin’s own logic they should be returned.

If Putin’s goal is not letting the Eastern neighbourhood countries escape from the Russian sphere of influence – the level of danger rises for Georgia and Moldova. These countries, apart from other features of post-soviet states, are hosts to so-called frozen conflicts which might easily justify the use of Russian armed forces. Frozen conflicts challenge the security situation in two other Eastern Neighbourhood countries as well, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although Moldova and Georgia have signed Association Treaties with the EU at the end of June, last Friday President Putin also urged Moldova at a CIS meeting to arrange association issues with Russia on the basis of the same model as did Ukraine, which means postponing implementation of the EU agreement. Moldova is facing general elections next month and surveys demonstrate that the Eurosceptic communist party has a good chance to win.

Finally, if Putin’s goal is to humiliate the West, to undermine the credibility of NATO or to recreate the Soviet Union, then the Baltic States might come under attack as well. During a telephone conversation with Petro Poroshenko a month ago, Vladimir Putin declared that if he wanted he could send Russian troops not only to Kiev, but also to Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest. In fact, being an authoritarian leader, he can do this without any trouble. Unlike political leaders in Western democracies, his decisions are not restricted by internal constraints or, as it became evident in Crimea, international law. However, it remains unclear if Putin is ready to face the North Atlantic Alliance. During his visit to Estonia, U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear – NATO will protect the Baltic States. General Philip M. Breedlove has emphasized that hybrid attack similar to one in Crimea will also invoke Article 5. Therefore, it is only under very extreme circumstances that military attack from Russia, be it conventional or hybrid, will be directed towards NATO members. These extreme circumstances might however arise as the economic situation in Russia deteriorates and regime goes weaker. Therefore, it is very important that NATO should strengthen deterrence measures in the member states facing direct threat from Russia to make the option of the attack less attractive for Putin. It is also equally important to enhance the ability of those countries to withstand hybrid attacks.

It is not much, except for advice, that NATO could do for the non-member states. More vital in this case becomes the unity of the Western democratic community, its support for those countries and a constant reminder of what Putin has done in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, especially when the discussions about the possible revoking of economic sanctions start. There is also little that NATO could do in addressing non-military threats of hybrid warfare, even in member states. One proposal can be to broaden NATO’s strategic concept and expand the instruments of defence to the non-military sphere. Another option is to create a synergy between NATO and the EU, ensuring a wide spectrum of response instruments. However, this option would not be so easy to realize due to the known political challenges involved. Finally, it is very important that states in the region devote more attention to hybrid challenges and try to reduce exiting vulnerabilities as much as they can.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.