The Kremlin’s hybrid warfare techniques in a fading world order
During the speech delivered at the annexation ceremony of the Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, Vladimir Putin blamed the West for waging a hybrid war against Russia. While the West’s perspective is different – especially because Russia is a frontrunner in hybrid warfare – one thing is certain: hybrid warfare is a key notion in the current geopolitical context. More importantly, it is shaping the ongoing war in Ukraine and it affects the security of Europe, as well as the world order forged after World War II.
Understanding hybrid warfare
The notion of hybrid warfare is not as new as it may seem. In fact, even if in its modern definition, the concept was first postulated in the early 1990s, the idea is probably as ancient as war itself. Asymmetric tactics have gained growing importance in recent years as nations have increasingly utilized hybrid warfare techniques to exhaust and defeat their rivals. Indeed, hybrid warfare has a multidimensional character, including a combination of different actors (mercenaries, terrorists, hackers, businessmen, etc.), tactics (conventional, illegitimate, terrorism, propaganda, disinformation, etc.), means (conventional, experimental, asymmetric etc.) and multipliers (psychological warfare, cyberterrorism, etc.).
The potential of hybrid warfare has been better comprehended and developed by Russia than by the West, due in large part to national history and culture. It gained a central and renewed importance in the Russian strategy after the publication of the “Gerasimov Doctrine” in 2013.
A new paradigm of contemporary warfare, more akin to hacking an enemy’s culture than striking it directly, was outlined by the then Russian Chief of the General Staff, who combined Soviet tactics with a total war military strategy. Including a variety of diplomatic components, economic pressure, and other non-military variables, the political factor was, in Gerasimov’s opinion, the most influential part of contemporary conflict: a non-contact war carried out with the use of propaganda, employed to influence the civil society and undermine its trust in the national system or spark widespread public upheaval. In recent times, we have witnessed a further development of the eastern hybrid warfare arsenal with the introduction of ad hoc forged migration waves as the Belarusian government amassed migrants on the Polish border in an effort to destabilize and exert pressure on Europe.
Hybrid warfare techniques during the Russian-Ukrainian war
The Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda have complemented Russia’s military activities in Ukraine, including the current invasion. Moscow constantly seeks to undermine Ukraine’s legitimacy as a country and a nation in the eyes of the Ukrainian and Russian publics, as well as in the international arena, denying its distinct cultural identity.
In the newly occupied territories, huge billboards depicting the Russian heritage of the cities appeared, alongside mobile monitors advertising the glory of the Russian army. These narratives also targeted the aid actors, such as the International Red Cross, which has been depicted as a dangerous organization that kidnapped Ukrainians and took them to Russia. The rumors were allegedly part of the Russian attempt to discredit the humanitarian groups. The aid workers can provide an unfiltered view of the reality on the ground in conflict zones, or witness war crimes, making them inherently dangerous to the narratives of authoritarian governments.
Despite bombings, looting and death, the occupying authorities promoted a narrative of stability, as witnessed in the recently liberated Izyum area, where the Kremlin resorted to newspapers as a means of propaganda dissemination. Among articles about the imminent opening of music schools and summer camps, the newly appointed bogus administration declared as its most important target the swift return to a “peaceful life” and the reconstruction of the infrastructure, blaming the Ukrainians of “wanting to completely destroy our territories, devastate the infrastructure and erase the population”.
This type of information also permeated the Kremlin narrative targeting the Russian public, portraying the so-called “special military operation” as a holy war, indirectly endorsed by the Russian Patriarch Kirill, who argued in March that the Russian people have entered a struggle with an intrinsic “metaphysical meaning”. In his interpretation, the Russian army is protecting the Donbass population and combating against the system of excessive consumerism. In the national media, the Kremlin tries to disguise its illicit and murderous actions in Ukraine by depicting the Russian people as both saviors and victims, the martyrs fighting for justice against a decadent world.
Indeed, a peculiarity of Moscow’s use of propaganda, a technique traditionally used to weaken and demotivate one’s enemies on the field, is its application at the domestic level. History manipulation, fake information about the situation on the front, children dressed in Z signed tops during school festivities have created the exact effect of confusion, division, and (for now covert) unrest that the Gerasimov Doctrine envisaged nine years ago – only this time against the Russian population itself.
The Russian information meddling as a part of the ongoing hybrid war did not consist only of spreading fake news. It also included disruptions in terms of access to reliable news and updates. Targeted cybersecurity attacks, such as the “AcidRain” Wiper Malware Attack on Viasat and other telecommunication providers, have caused network outages up to more than two weeks in Ukraine and other parts of Europe in a moment when communications were crucial for civilian and military operations. While some scholars claim that the cyber factor has played a limited role in the current war, arguably thanks to the Ukrainian cyber defenses, resilience and to the timely reaction of big tech companies like Microsoft, the use of cyber operations has become an integral aspect of the overall battle. Ukrainian banks, infrastructure facilities, as well as the defense, foreign and culture ministries, and the armed forces have all been hit by a wave of cyberattacks. Recently, the Ukrainian government spoke of Russian plans for widespread malicious attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, intended to amplify the kinetic military actions on electrical supply facilities.
While cyberattacks can have extensive consequences, even beyond their initial target, as in the case of NotPetya, a malware that was aimed at Ukraine but had repercussions also far away, some active measures are directed specifically towards other foreign nations. In fact, the Russian hybrid tactics intend to provoke a general destabilization, in Ukraine and elsewhere, especially in the NATO countries. In addition to the weaponization of the food industry, the energy sector has been strategically targeted as a means of alternative hybrid warfare in a Europe characterized by a voracious appetite for oil and gas. With Gazprom reducing its supplies to Europe in September because of an alleged leak in the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that would take an indefinite period to repair, Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine expanded into new arenas.
In this context, the Nord Stream sabotage following shortly after may be the foggiest episode so far, as accidental damage is highly unlikely given the overall turbulent European geopolitical situation. It further demonstrated the critical infrastructure’s vulnerability and raised concerns about the security of other undersea systems such as underwater internet cables. While it still remains unclear who the perpetrator of the attack was, in the case that Russia’s role is verified, it would symbolize a new stage of hybrid warfare.
Resilience and shared situational awareness as an antidote
Because of the endemic corruption and Putin’s paranoia of being overthrown, resulting in a critically under-trained and under-financed army, Russia’s conventional armed forces were unsuccessful in achieving the Kremlin’s original goals. The partial mobilization ordered at the end of September will probably have limited results in terms of combat power, as the more professionalized components of the armed forces are already engaged on the field. In order to compensate for its lack of kinetic military power, the Kremlin will increasingly use asymmetric tactics as it seeks to restore its authority, throughout the national borders and abroad.
The hybrid warfare techniques, especially propaganda and disinformation, can provoke long-term, deep, and dangerous fractures in Western societies. That is why, the NATO countries (and not only) should enhance cooperation and share intelligence about domestic and hybrid threats. The European countries should also enhance collective resilience, in terms of infrastructure, population and cyber defense and create comprehensive ad hoc awareness raising campaigns. In this watershed geopolitical moment, it is of utmost importance for the Western world to remain united and sustain its eastern partners while Putin’s pieces on the Russian and international chessboard are slowly crumbling.