Hybrid Warfare: Where’s the Beef?


“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

“The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”

— Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege


Lately, a lot has been said and written down on hybrid war and hybrid warfare. The hybrid war thesis has been advocated to depict the new reality of contemporary warfare. Although the concept is not a new one, it has been proposed that today we are witnessing some new features in warfare. Russia’s capture of the Crimean peninsula and its support to the separatists in Eastern Ukraine have been presented as the contemporary pinnacle of hybrid warfare. For many analysts of contemporary security and defense issues, the hubris around this buzzword seems to neglect the very basic principles of war that have been discussed and theorized for centuries. Namely, war is not — and has actually never been — a “pure” military matter that is executed only by military forces. When looking closely at the various attributes of Russian and separatist warfare in Ukraine that together are said to constitute hybrid warfare, it becomes clear that none of this is new or unique to a special kind of warfare known as hybrid.

War is War

It is true that the essence of war is related to the use of large-scale violence — military force. But to analyze war without its political context and the many spheres of human interactions that lie outside the military sphere, represents strategic myopia — a tendency to see war from a simplistic and mechanistic perspective. This way of conceptualizing war has been long dominant within the Western security community.

The technocratic Western understanding of war — looking at high-quantity violence through the prism of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), military transformation and network-centric warfare — has been challenged time and again in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and a number of other theaters where Western military superiority has not translated into politically defined goals.

The introduction of the Effects-Based (Approach to) Operations is indicative of what has been wrong in the post-Cold War Western understanding of war: Political goals (effects) should always dictate the execution of the operation. Military success on the battlefield does not automatically lead to desired (political) outcome. The old expression, “Winning the battles but losing the war,” highlights the need to devise a strategy, which takes into account what needs to be accomplished and then infers courses of action, which will lead to the desired outcome.

Many Western statesmen and strategic analysts have during the last 25 years become accustomed to the situation where no one challenges — or is capable of challenging — the principles of Western security and defense policy. During this time the West has redefined war on its own terms moving from large-scale mechanized war (and threats) to defend state and alliance territory towards expeditionary operations, with high-tech focus in operations that are only indirectly connected to the national security interests of the Western states. Because of the Western way to conceptualize war has been limited in its scope — relying too much on the “silver bullet” of high-technology — many statesmen and strategic analysts have become surprised by the crisis over Ukraine and the fact that not all states or other agents capable of generating military force will abide to the rules of war defined by the West (read: the United States).

In order to grasp what we are seeing in the behavior of Russia and the crisis over Ukraine today, we need a better understanding of the traditional concept of war rather than the concept of hybrid warfare.

The capture of Crimea

If one accepts the hybrid war thesis — that Russia has outsmarted the West in Ukraine with new means for which there have been no available countermeasures — one should be able to show what hybrid warfare elements have been used and how effective they have been. To date, this has not materialized to any serious degree.

First, the use of Russian Spetsnaz or “commandos” without clear insignia is not the reason why Russia was able to grab the Crimean peninsula. Russia already had some 20,000 soldiers in the military bases in Crimea. When the unidentified troops made their move against Ukrainian state authorities and military bases in Crimea in early 2014, there were no existing Ukrainian military forces that could have ousted these “green men” from the territory of Ukraine. Had there been even a rudimentary military capability in the hands of the Ukrainian authorities, some resistance to the masked Russian invasion forces would have made sense. So, it was not a question of the Russian forces being without insignia. It was a question of Ukraine having no tools to resist military force. The fact was — and still is — that in the twenty plus years of the post-Cold War era, Ukraine has not been able to build or maintain credible military forces against external military threats. Ukraine’s culture of corruption produced a failed state. In retrospect, it is easy to understand why Ukraine failed to hold on to Crimea and it had little to do with anything specific to hybrid warfare.

Information Campaigns and Cyber-attacks

Second, it has been argued that information campaigns and cyber tools at the disposal of Russia have had a significant influence on the crisis in Ukraine. So far no one has convincingly shown the real tangible effects of Russian information warfare, its army of internet trolls and the use of other cyber-attacks.

In fact, the reputation of Russia has plummeted during the Ukrainian crisis. No amount of information operations, political propaganda, cyber trolls, or anything like them is able to change the fact, which is obvious to all statesmen and political leaders around the world: Russia is supporting the separatists in Eastern Ukraine with men, material and military know-how. Publicly presented lies, half-truths and twisted facts do not destabilize the situational awareness among key strategic actors in world affairs. They may affect the way individual citizens view the world, the Ukrainian crisis or Russia. But this has no effect on the policies of Western states — or other actors, for that matter.

Trying to change the prevailing strategic narrative is not easy — and even when one is successful, it does not automatically change state or alliance policy. It is a question of how widely the alternative narrative is accepted, how many strategic decision-makers accept the new narrative and how willing they are to change state or alliance policy in accordance with the alternative narrative. Thus, being successful in information warfare requires much more than being capable of creating an accepted alternative narrative of events.

Much of Russia’s information campaign is directed towards Russians. There is no free press or true independent media in Russia. Putin’s regime controls much of what average Russians see or hear about different events and world affairs. This is authoritarianism, not hybrid warfare. There is nothing revolutionary about this.

In tandem, the concepts of cyber-attacks and hybrid warfare have become two of the most used buzzwords of the “military strategic industry.” Even before the latest rise of the hybrid war concept, cyber-attacks and cyber threats had made their way into the everyday parlance of statesmen and strategic analysts. Even though there is a lot of potential for change in the cyber domain, the “revolutionary” cyber-attacks that we have so far witnessed do not amount to much. In the case of Ukraine, there is even less to report.

The Economic Weapon and Using Proxies


It has been asserted that Russia has used economic weapons in order to achieve its strategic goals as a part of its hybrid warfare strategy. But this too does not indicate anything unique to hybrid warfare. Economic sanctions, embargos, economic extortion and bribes have been routine means used by a multitude of states in conflicts all around the world. Examples from history and present day international politics are easy to come by. If the combining of military operations and economic sanctions equals hybrid warfare, the West has been waging hybrid war for the majority of the post-Cold War era, if not since Prince Henry the Navigator first sent expeditions to the East to gain an advantage over other powers.

Fourth, the Russian use of proxies (read: the separatists) in Eastern Ukraine is an old technique. Proxy wars might be as old as war itself. Russian support to the East Ukrainian separatists does not make the war in Ukraine hybrid. This fact becomes apparent when looking at images from Eastern Ukraine’s battlefields — for example Donetsk. Large-scale, high-quantity violence has produced vast destruction and has caused thousands of casualties. It is clear that what we are witnessing in Ukraine is very traditional.

The Futile Hybrid War Concept

The hybrid war thesis has been advocated to depict the new reality of contemporary warfare — exemplified by the actions of Russia in Ukraine. Although the concept is not a new one, it has been proposed that today we are witnessing some new features in warfare. What the proponents of the hybrid war thesis are saying actually resonates with what in strategic studies has traditionally been conceptualized through the concept of war: using all means available — including large-scale violence by military forces — in order to achieve desired outcomes.

The post-Cold War era Western understanding of war and the use of military force has been based on the notion that there are no states capable of challenging the American “unipolar moment” and the associated military operations that the West has been conducting actively under U.S. lead. Although there has been a lot of discussion about the rise of China during the last decade, the war in Ukraine is the first large-scale war where Western definitions of co-operative security and the use of military force have become contested — by Russia. The five-day war in Georgia (2008) was a smaller-scale prelude to the Ukrainian crisis.

The Western multinational expeditionary operations tradition — called also “military crisis management” in the European context — has developed towards a comprehensive approach during the post-Cold War era. Now, in Ukraine, the Russian application of comprehensive approach to traditional warfare — combining economic, informational and military means — is supposedly something totally new, worth the name hybrid war. For years it has been crystal clear within the West that military operations must be planned and executed within a broader framework, including political, economic and cultural factors. The introduction of the term “comprehensive approach” is a case in point.

From a military perspective, a comprehensive approach is founded on not only a shared situational understanding, but also recognition that sometimes non-military actors may support the military and conversely on other occasions the military’s role will be supporting those actors … The importance of including from the outset those elements — diplomatic, civil, and economic — that are to be enabled by military success must not be underestimated. Failure to do so will at best lose the strategic initiative; at worst, it will result in strategic failure. This is the basic premise of a comprehensive approach, which NATO applies to its operations.

— AJP-01(D) ALLIED JOINT DOCTRINE, December 2010

Reverting to the concept of hybrid war in the West is understandable as a reaction to the surprise that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused. Seeing the world through the lenses of the traditional great power politics, Russia has contested the Western post-Cold War era tenets of security and defense policy. International politics is not only positive-sum outcomes in the globalized world. Nor is security policy only the management of common threats. Russia behaves like great powers have for centuries — using all means necessary in pursuance of the its national interest — however it is defined. This perspective is rather familiar to the number one great power of the world — the United States.

More than a new concept — hybrid war — we need better understanding of the traditional, centuries-old concept of war. Military analysts have understood war from a broad perspective for at least 2,500 years. Many Western statesmen and strategic analysts have during the last 25 years become accustomed to the situation where no-one challenges — or is capable of challenging — the principles of Western security and defense policy. At the same time, the traditional concept of war has been fading into the background. We have seen numerous “crisis management operations,” “campaigns” and other instances of the “use of military force,” but “war proper” has been on the decline. Now that Russia has stepped up and challenged the West by its actions in Ukraine, it is time to reinvigorate the discussion and debate on state-based threats and state-based war. Focus on hybrid war is a logical reaction by the Western analysts and statesmen. But it is also a telling example of the overwhelming surprise that Russia has managed to cause within the Western security community. States still wage war for desired outcomes.


Lt. Col. (GS), Dr.Pol.Sc. Jyri Raitasalo is Docent of Strategy and Security Policy at the Finnish National Defence University. Previously he has served as research officer, lecturer and head lecturer at the Department of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Finnish National Defence University.