Time to Think About “Hybrid Defense”


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