The Problem with Hybrid Warfare


Europe is now a petri dish for hybrid war. Events of the past decade, not to mention the last few years, have reaffirmed the value of a concept that sought to explain a range of diverse, coercive instruments across the operational spectrum of war. Hybrid warfare is a term that sought to capture the blurring and blending of previously separate categories of conflict. It uses a blend of military, economic, diplomatic, criminal, and informational means to achieve desired political goals. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has referred to these hybrid threats as an “inflection point” in modern war. Indeed, in the disordered post-Cold War world, hybrid warfare remains an excellent framework for understanding the changing character of war.

So why, at a recent off-the-record Washington gathering of Baltic and Central Europeans concerned about Russia (it was not hard to fill the room) did a high-ranking Estonian with substantial experience working on Russian issues express his frustration with the concept? Indeed, why do many Estonians, as well as their Baltic neighbors and even some Poles, Swedes and Finns, dislike the phrase? These concerns are worth considering, particularly since Estonia and its neighbors are the prime targets of this form of warfare. There are two apparent reasons for their concern. First, many in the Baltic region view the concept as merely another mechanism by which the West can avoid decisive action against Russia, particularly because NATO has not developed, really, an operational concept to address hybrid threats. The concept, according to this Estonian official, allows NATO to avoid action because a range of activities – from the aggressive use of disinformation by Moscow, to economic pressure, to bribery and threats, to use of “locals” to stir up protests – become conveniently categorized as being under the threshold of war. Indeed as one expert, James Sherr, has observed, in the hands of Russia hybrid warfare could “cripple a state before that state even realizes the conflict had begun,” and yet it manages to “slip under NATO’s threshold of perception and reaction.” Sherr is right.

Today, NATO members are the objects of this form of force – not perpetrators of it. NATO, established as a defensive alliance against a clear cut territorial threat, is not structured to operate in a “perpetual competition” mindset that today’s confrontation in Europe requires. In the past, NATO’s readiness centered on the readiness of its conventional forces: It made clear that military forays into allied territory would be met with military opposition. But in the post-Cold War period, the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels. In effect, NATO’s focus on Article V – the provision that dates from the birth of the alliance in 1949 and states that an attack against one is an attack against all – may today be its fatal flaw. The provision requires that members “agree [emphasis mine] that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

Hybrid threats provide the “perfect” conundrum: the injection of so much uncertainty that NATO collapses under its own principle of allied consensus. At what point does the alliance decide if the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, is correct when she remarked that Lithuania was “already under attack,” with the first stage of confrontation taking place – informational war, propaganda and cyberattack? Watching tanks roll through the Fulda Gap in the Cold War, or now across the Bug River, or into Narva would provide much clearer evidence of war, but Russia is unlikely to make it easy for NATO to reach consensus. Moscow appears to be deliberately staying under the Article V threshold, while still pursuing its aggressive aims and seeking to destabilize NATO members. For decades, NATO leaders argued about coordinating against “out of area threats” and whether attacks in places such as the Middle East and Africa merited a NATO response. It is ironic that conflict in the very heart of Europe could lead to the same divisions.

The hybrid warfare concept gives many in the West the luxury of picking and choosing from a range of actions – a media campaign here, a cyber-intrusion there (and even the occasional political assassination) – and interpreting them as one-off isolated events. There is no need to connect the dots. Indeed, it is often easier to look at the unfinished page, suggestive of possibilities that become clear only with a deliberate completion of the picture. Inadvertently, the flexibility of the instruments inherent in hybrid warfare tempts policy makers to detach the specific tactics from the overarching political goals that drive a war. A war fought with hybrid means becomes thus an incomprehensible sequence of improvisations, disparate actions along various geographic fronts – “humanitarian convoys” followed by conventional war with artillery and tanks in Eastern Ukraine, “peacekeeping operations” in Transnistria, cyber-attacks in Estonia, vast disinformation campaigns on mass media, seemingly random forays of heavy bombers in the North Sea, submarine games in the Baltic Sea, and so on – that appear vaguely connected. But they are a part of a whole.

Hybrid tactics are not a random sequence of improvisations but reflect an order behind the spectrum of tools used. That makes it incumbent upon political leaders and strategic thinkers (not always one and the same) to fit such activities squarely within the political objectives discussed by Carl von Clausewitz, who explained that war was an extension of politics by other means. In thinking through the ongoing competition with Russia, we must keep in mind that “hybrid” refers to the means, not to the principles, goals, or nature of war. There is nothing inherent about the concept that prevents this. Indeed, the Russians have it down. We do not.


Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation who occasionally writes on defense and foreign policy related issues.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe