Time to Think About “Hybrid Defense”

July 30, 2015

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If the new threat is so complex, political, and subtle, shouldn’t the response be the same?

Much is made these days of the new challenge to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from “hybrid warfare” — the kind of blended military-political-intelligence-economic operations Russia has launched in Ukraine. Whether or not this really is something new can be debated, as should whether it ought really be called something else. In any case, it certainly now shapes the Western defense agenda. But if the threat is so complex and political, maybe Western countries need to be thinking more sharply and imaginatively about counter-measures? A “hybrid defense”?

After all, given that NATO is a military alliance, it is hardly surprising that it is concentrating on military means. Thus, U.S. heavy armor is to be prepositioned in the Baltic states, and a rolling series of exercises are seeing NATO troops and special forces in particular wargaming various scenarios, including the kind of unacknowledged, unidentified Russian “little green men” who took Crimea.

This is all admirable and useful, but Moscow’s current approach is based on the guerrilla’s basic maxims: avoid doing the obvious, play to your strengths rather than your opponent’s, and never get caught in a straight fight with a stronger enemy. If Russia ever does decide to make any moves against NATO, it will be with the intention of avoiding any direct war with an alliance that can outfight, outgun, and outman it. And it will try to avoid making a move for which the West is ready.

Crimea and the Donbas should not be considered playbooks we can expect the Russians to follow directly. Estonia’s senior military commander, Lt. General Riho Terras, has an uncompromising but effective answer to the little green men: “You should shoot the first one to appear.” Fair enough, but the Russians are unlikely to make it quite so easy.

The first little green man, after all, might instead be a 15-year-old Russian-Estonian girl waving a “Russian-speakers have rights, too” placard in the border city of Narva. Shoot her? Of course not. The second might be her older brother, throwing rocks at the police coming to arrest her. Shoot him? Hopefully not, especially as you can guarantee that footage of the incident would promptly be blasted across Russian TV channels. Meanwhile the Kremlin-backed Night Wolves motorcycle gang tries to force the border into Narva, unarmed but in numbers. At the same time, a bomb explodes in Tallinn’s railway station at rush hour, creating panic and chaos, while anonymous calls warn of other bombs around the city. A tanker truck gets into an unexplained accident just past the Luhamaa border crossing to the southeast, bursting into flames. As a noxious chemical cloud drifts across the border, Russian fire and hazmat trucks, escorted by police, demand to be allowed to deal with the scene.

Estonia’s police and border guards number fewer than 6,000 uniformed officers in total. They are scattered around the country. Some will be on leave, some off sick. How quickly can they be overextended? Do you deploy the military? And if so, where, and to do what? After all, when hybrid war was regarded as the tactic of the insurgent, the response was to deploy airstrikes, artillery, and armor, hardly instruments appropriate in conditions like these.

Nor is there any clear role for NATO yet. Even if this is considered something falling within its remit, the alliance is no better prepared for such non-military operations. Besides, the optics of, Polish commandos or U.S. Marines facing off against Estonian rioters would be another propaganda coup for Moscow.

None of this is specifically to castigate Estonia, which has an exemplary track record of responding to the new challenge (and whose Russian-speakers are largely loyal citizens). Nor is it to diminish the value of NATO’s military role in providing a potent guarantee to the sovereignty of countries that cannot resist a larger and potentially hostile neighbor. It is rather to stress that the kind of conflict Europe faces is one in which, to quote Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

Soldiers are often the last, not the first into the breach, only appearing once the war has been all but won through political and economic subversion, division, and demoralization. Rather than focusing on fighting and winning that last stage, then, better that NATO and member states put more effort into stopping matters ever reaching it. In other words, a “hybrid defense” response, which, like hybrid war, combines military, political, intelligence and other instruments to win these new model conflicts without, ideally, a shot being fired.

That means adequate, well-trained, and well-regarded police forces able to deal with genuine or manufactured protests. Riot control is a specialized business, and police need not just today’s panoply of intimidating armor and equipment, but the training and seasoning to stand in front of a jeering, jostling mob and neither back down nor overreact.

It means counter-intelligence services with the powers, budgets, and skills to identify and turn, convict, or expel agents, provocateurs, political operators, and those who would fund and stir up divisive local movements.

It means social outreach and a strong emphasis on governance and legitimacy. After all, corruption, the exclusion of minorities and communities — not just Russian-speakers — and public disillusion all create opportunities for Moscow to exploit. Blocking or undermining Russian propaganda campaigns designed to spread division and uncertainty is a matter of national security in this context.

It means proper controls on the flows of money from Russia, even if laundered though thinly veiled front companies in third-party jurisdictions. This money otherwise can be used to buy influence, support local political movements intended to stir up trouble, and take over strategic business sectors. No country likes turning away business, but in the modern world, money is weaponized, and Moscow understands this well.

None of these are new and all are being tackled to greater or lesser extent by all NATO’s frontline states. However, they are rarely considered as part of a comprehensive national security strategy, “target hardening” against hybrid warfare. Nor do they fall within NATO’s traditional remit. That is understandable, as is the generals’ preference to stick to familiar measures such as the creation of the new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. It cannot be NATO’s job to audit campaign contributions in Latvia, say, or push social inclusion in Romania.

Instead, this creates an opportunity for the European Union, which has long been more interested in governance than war. The most powerful defenses against Russian mischief-making and manipulation are, after all, social cohesion, effective law enforcement, an independent and responsible media, and legitimate, transparent and effective governance. A more strategic and urgent approach to ensuring these are found throughout the European Union is thus a security necessity and not just a public good. Along with its External Action Service, responsible for common foreign policy, there is scope for structures not trying to parallel or challenge NATO on the “kinetic” side of defense, but rather to coordinate non-military defenses, incorporating bodies such as Europol and the new East StratCom counter-propaganda group.

Member states need to be imaginative and flexible when they consider the challenges they face and how best they can be resisted. A simple increase in the defense budget may not be the most appropriate response. For example, maybe it needs forensic accountants, media analysts, or language teachers more than trigger-pullers. The generals may be unhappy and may mean NATO should scrap its goal of having all members spend 2 percent of GDP on (conventional) defense, but so be it.

It is, however, through such “hybrid defense” that the challenge from the Kremlin will best be neutralized. And given that modern conflict is as much about politics and information management, it is worth noting that even the most hawkish Russian nationalist can hardly claim to see a threat to the Motherland from social workers and community police officers.


Dr Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe

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15 thoughts on “Time to Think About “Hybrid Defense”

  1. Dr. Galeotti: what do you think is the probability the various states bordering on western Russia are politically and strategically coherent enough to put in place the rather complex, multifaceted and subtle strategy you’re recommending?

    1. It’s a good question, but I hope that actually this can become more intuitive than subtle: it’s all about target hardening. Creating an integrated security strategy embracing everything from social cohesion to counter-intelligence is indeed something that would tax even the most connected government. However, the good news is that a great deal can be done piecemeal, once governments – and societies – come to terms with the shifting nature of ‘security.’ Rather, this ought to be one of the factors considered in a whole range of distinct policy areas, from policing to media licensing…

  2. Dr Mark Galeotti:

    The Chinese are masters of “Hybrid Warfare” — and rather successful at it. Now, if not for a long time past, so are the Russians. The U.S. and our erstwhile allies in Western Europe are competing against those Asian and Euro-Asian nations and competing against a mode of thought (in the arena of conflict) totally different than ours. Although it is more than a bit of overstatement, it is a contest between brn again (or new born) followers of Clausewitz versus that of Sun Tzu and the others such as Sun Bin who added on to Sun Tzu.

    To borrow from the above neither this country’s executive agencies or its defense establishment nor those in Western Europe are strategically and politically coherent enough to successfully compete against the Russian methods, as your example of the General’s response clearly indicates.

    Using a military / political strategy totally different than that practiced by the U.S. the North Vietnamese achieved their military and political goals in Vietnam, whole the U.S. failed, i.e. we were defeated. To this date countess U.S. military officers refuse to accept the reality of that defeat. When that war ended organizationally they turned to the strategic writings of a one-time Prussian Military Officer and put them on a Pedestal – to be forever worshipped as the Gospel or war making. We simply doubled down on our previous practices – that failed us in Vietnam.

    As you note, “when hybrid war was regarded as the tactic of the insurgent, the response was to deploy airstrikes, artillery, and armor, hardly instruments appropriate in conditions like these.”

    If one reads the “Three Warfares Study” prepared for the DOD, it provides a great description of Hybrid Warfare – albeit as being practiced by the Chinese in the South Chinese Sea.

    The West simply cannot bring themselves to be interested in carrying out conflict in that manner, because it requires we approach it without using the weapons systems military and police methods in which we believe.

    Yours are interesting thoughts with substantia merit, but as a former Navy Officer, I don’t think they will penetrate the culture of the DOD establishment or its equivalent of our “allies”, but keep trying. It is a rather important and worthwhile goal.

  3. Both the article and comments are excellent, but let me point out another fact. Both hybrid warfare and hybrid defense are not new to the U.S. After WW2 the U.S. practiced it on the Communists (especially in Central and South America) for a couple of decades, basically winning that “governance model” war. And the U.S. military and CIA have been practitioners of hybrid war for decades. In fact, part of the Ukrainian problem stems for an overthrow of a democratically elected government by “Western interests.” Ring any historical bells?

  4. Mark,

    Great article, and also many thanks for keeping such close track of our friend Gerasimov, and translating his comments.

    As was brought up, our experience from Afghanistan in regards trying to build up governance as a form of hardening suggests that it is substantially easier said than done. Especially given that you suggest that once shots are fired, you’ve already failed. At what point do you create a police state? Ukraine’s prior government spent considerable resources on internal security, and still failed, partially due to outside shenanigans,as King pointed out.

    What is to be done then? As with Afghanistan, is the issue that coin and hybrid defense is sometimes just extremely difficult in some cases? Or is the method itself suspect?

    1. Fair point, but the thing is that in Europe we are talking about countries which already have a high level of governance. They have working police forces, middling-to-excellent levels of social cohesion, media and financial regulators, etc. The issue is how to develop them, identify vulnerabilities and look at them in the wider security context. In Afghanistan, a state was being created – meant to be being created – pretty much from scratch, and Ukraine had just collapsed and even before that was not a failed but certainly marginal state.

  5. Excellent article about an age old problem really. Pointing to the political processes and government is clearly the most important part of the problem. Again and again when we look at conflict there are two factors.

    1: The timeline for political decisions to be made by politicians not prepared for the situation.

    2: The constraints put on the military through goal definitions and limitations.

    I could point to the OODA loop and other relevant thinking but that would be obvious on this forum. Far more interesting are the concepts of “will to defend” and nationalism in my opinion.

    “Will to defend” as I see it is how much support the population base of a country will give the government, police and armed forces in protecting the national state and borders. With a big bear in your backyard the will to defend tends to be strong which makes the job easier for the politicians in government to make strong decisions and survive the political backblast from “enemy” propaganda channels.
    However, many countries in Europe have declining participation in elections and political decisions processes far removed from the population in general. This gives politicans much negotiation room between domestic parties but estranges the population from the political leadership. The “will to defend” is negatively affected as a consequence. The politicans in these systems react slower as they demand more certainty in an uncertain situation, offering the “enemy” more time to develop the situation.
    Applying this to Europe, we have a lot of countries where the national governments have surrendered authority to a multiple national state construct – the EU – further impacting on the “will to defend” and increasing the processing time to reach a decision.

    As you point out, the military is usually employed far to late. I would suggest that the goals and limitations put on the military by the political leaders further reduces the value of large scale military power. Cherry picking a bit we could look at what happened in Rhodesia as that state collapsed and Zimbabwe emerged. Political pressure from abroad influenced the Rhodesian government to limit the operational value of their armed forces. Taking the fight outside Rhodesian borders to insurgent camps was done, but infrequently as the political cost was to high for the national state. Add a weapons embargo and the result was pretty much given.
    Ukraine is not the same scenario, but I think there are some paralells. Chiefly, Ukraine is not supported with weapon systems, only non lethal systems like communications, intelligence etc. Lack of superior arms is today an issue on the ground and in the air. Most important is still the need for the government to not lose political support abroad and domestically. This blocks unrestricted warfare and full use of weapon systems, if they had been available. Not so different from Rhodesia after all perhaps..

    I think Lt. Gen. Terras was spot on. But we also need to apply some lessons learnt over and over again: Armed forces integrated in the population.
    In Vietnam, any hamlet or town with a native armed force living in the hamlet/town recieved more intelligence and was most often a “friendly” hamlet/town rather than a VC hamlet. Having forces in place, living there and being ordinary working citizens until needed becomes important again. The swiss use this model, as have scandinavian countries with their version of the US National Guard. Local acceptance, access to local media, quick response times, local knowlegde of the terrain and infrastructure etc. are key factors. However, forces like this, to be efficient have to be mandated to start operations based on their own jugdment. This is something politicans tend to not accept and we return to the turnaround time of political decision processes and their demand for certainty where no certainty can be given.

    Sorry for the rambling.

    1. Rolf: I agree with the crucial importance of the “will to defend” and in many ways this helps explain why what is happening now in Ukraine is, frankly, not a “hybrid war” or any other modified version focusing on the political dimension – it is essentially just war…

  6. Fantastic exchange in the comments section everyone! It’s times like this that I am reminded how thoughtful so many of our readers are here at War on the Rocks.

  7. We are giving a lot of status to a country with 144 million people stretched over 9 time zones. And a hybrid seems to be a guerrilla war with the regulars coming in after to set up a higher status situation. They don’t want to get their noses bloodied. What is happening is Ukraine is getting a better army, the US and Europe are working on upgrading forces, and the end result it is all bad for Russia.

    1. Dean: True, but the lesson is that while such a country cannot challenge and defeat NATO, or even occupy the rest of Ukraine, it can cause mischief, spread anarchy and otherwise be a spoiler. If anything, the model is the thug, who reckons you’ll find it easier to pay him to go away that either stand up to him or turn to the authorities…

  8. The West’s deficiencies in hybrid warfare remind me of an oft-repeated mantra in DOD references to whole-of-government (WOG) approaches: “The interagency process is broken.” The US remedy can start with cutting the purely political operatives from its National Security Council, so that imaginative pol/mil/info/econ options are filtered through strategically competent people.

  9. By not arming Ukraine the West only encourages Russia to blackmail, and advance further. In a couple of days you may see the consequences of the West fearing to “upset” Russia.

    At least explain me, why US/EU didn’t give Ukrainians weapons?.

    1. Better question is, in all this time, why hasn’t the Ukraine rebuilt its own army and air force? Transitioning from a consumer economy to a “war” economy? Why? Because they are looking for a handout from the U.S., just like all the other NATO welfare recipients. Rolf’s recognition of the “will to fight” is spot on, and if Ukrainians aren’t arming up and getting ready to fight, why should anyone else really care, let alone actively support them?