Russian Hybrid Warfare and Other Dark Arts


Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, hybrid warfare has become conversational short form in the West for describing Moscow’s sneaky ways of fighting war. If there’s one thing you’ve learned over the past two years about Russia, it’s that it uses hybrid warfare, a dangerous Kremlin innovation the West must learn to grapple with. In two short years, the word has mutated from describing how Moscow was fighting its war in Ukraine to incorporating all the various elements of Russian influence and national power. The term continues to evolve, spawning iterations like “multi-vector hybrid warfare” in Europe. Hybrid warfare has become the Frankenstein of the field of Russia military analysis; it has taken on a life of its own and there is no obvious way to contain it.

In trying to separate hybrid warfare from the classical bins of conventional or irregular war, I prefer to use Frank Hoffman’s definition, “a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain [a group’s] political objectives.” There are other definitions out there, but you will find they are not being applied correctly to analysis of Russian tactics. Unfortunately, what Russian hybrid warfare is, and how it works, varies dramatically depending on what article, report, or PowerPoint brief you are reading. The more we have talked about it, the less we understand it as a useful concept or framework for looking at Russian actions.

What’s wrong with a little hybrid warfare?

If you torture hybrid warfare long enough it will tell you anything, and torture it we have. The term now covers every type of discernible Russian activity, from propaganda to conventional warfare, and most that exists in between. What exactly does Russian hybrid warfare do, and how does it work? The short answer in the Russia-watcher community is everything. The church of Russian hybrid warfare has a broad and influential following these days, but finds few worshippers among experts who study the Russian military. There’s a reason for that: Many don’t believe it exists as described. I’m not the first to point out the problems with applying this lens to Russian tactics , and I have criticized it elsewhere, but in this piece I hope to offer a fresh perspective on why the national security establishment continues to do itself a disservice by thinking about Russia through a hybrid warfare lens.

My purpose here is not to engage in an esoteric disagreement over military terms and definitions. It matters less what we call it if there is a common and useful understanding of the subject. The trouble is that thanks to narratives surrounding hybrid warfare, we lack a shared knowledge of how Russia fights and what happened on the battlefields of Ukraine. Without a common understanding of the facts here, the United States cannot hope to successfully counter or deter Moscow elsewhere. It would be one thing for such notions to dominate the world of punditry, but the references to Russia’s dark hybrid arts permeate the conversation among U.S. policymakers and leading generals alike. I have nothing against hybrid warfare as a concept, but in the case of Russia, it has become more of a handicap than an enabler for our decision-makers and military leaders.

It’s Valery Gerasimov’s fault

The first person to blame for this mess is Russia’s chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and his oft-cited article in VPK, published in late February 2013 with the title “The Value of Science in Prediction,” outlining what he calls “non-linear warfare.” To be more precise, the problem was not his article, but the interpretation of it in Western circles. That publication did more damage to Western analysis of Russian military thought than any deception operation could. It was presumed to be a blueprint of Russian military thinking and doctrine, a “Gerasimov Doctrine” if you will (which is what some literally call it). Not only has it been overly convenient to believe that after barely a few months on the job Gerasimov wrote the Rosetta Stone for Russian military thinking, but even more puzzling is the idea that within a year the Russian General Staff had moved this collection of observations off PowerPoint and into a brilliant hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine.

In his article “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Charles K. Bartles issued one of the better correctives on this misconception. He writes:

No matter what reason the article was published, it is important to keep in mind that Gerasimov is simply explaining his view of the operational environment and the nature of future war, and not proposing a new Russian way of warfare or military doctrine. …

Indeed, Gerasimov spent most of this treatise on non-linear warfare scrutinizing how the West conducts war, based less on traditional invasions like Iraq in 2003, and more on the 2011 intervention in Libya, the events of the Arab Spring, and “color revolutions” in Russia’s near abroad. In his view, the West pioneered indirect approaches to warfare, leveraging political subversion, propaganda, and social media, along with economic measures such as sanctions. From his perspective, humanitarian interventions, the use of Western special forces, funding for democracy movements, and the deployment of mercenaries and proxies were all features of a U.S. doctrine of indirect warfare. If only we were that good. Russian leadership is remarkably conspiratorial in their views of U.S. involvement abroad, but at least Washington has returned the favor by ascribing to them an equally unrealistic doctrine.

Gerasimov made the point that there is a four to one ratio of non-military to military measures in modern conflict, but he was talking about how the West shapes the battlefield prior to intervention, not suggesting that Russia must do the same. This was not a worked-out doctrine, but identification of elements to pursue and capabilities to develop. Gerasimov concluded his thoughts by explaining that “each war is a unique case, demanding the establishment of a particular logic and not the application of some template.” Unfortunately, his thinking has been treated as a buffet, with qualifying or inconvenient statements ignored in order to construct a narrative on Russian hybrid warfare in which his article plays a foundational role. Thanks to the countless number of presentations on hybrid war, many have seen the famous Gerasimov chart, outlining the phases of non-linear warfare, but far fewer seem to have read or understood his article.

Gerasimovs linjal

Past as future

Lost in the multitude of interpretations of Gerasimov’s writing on non-linear warfare was a more salient observation he made on the absence of a defined space between war and peace:

In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.

Here history seems to come full circle, because in the early days of the Cold War, George F. Kennan advanced a similar argument in his 1948 memo on organizing political warfare:

We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war, by a tendency to view war as a sort of sporting contest outside of all political context. …

Gerasimov’s description of the various non-military means employed by the West as part of non-linear warfare bears a striking resemblance to Kennan’s definition of overt and covert political warfare at the time. He wrote:

[P]olitical warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. … They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

In the late 1940s, Kennan was trying to outline how the United States should work to counter aggressive Soviet political warfare by organizing and institutionalizing its own. His definition of political warfare is not without problems, as Frank Hoffman has written, though it has support from notables like Max Boot. My goal is not to rehash that particular discussion, but to point out that Gerasimov’s piece is less full of original insights, and more of ironies, bemoaning the success of alleged Western non-linear warfare. Gerasimov’s operating environment looks a lot like America’s from the late 1940s faced with Soviet chicanery.

Non-linear warfare is not Russian for hybrid warfare. It is a blend of intellectual currents among Russian military leaders and responses to how they view NATO operations. If Russian thinking here had a relative, it would be the Chinese concept of unrestricted warfare, which recommends the use of lawfare, economic warfare and network warfare, along with terrorism against an adversary.  Russian conception of non-military confrontation, and the degree to which conflict exists during a time of peace, is much closer to Kennan’s writing referenced above. Ultimately, Gerasimov was not trying to drill a doctrine of non-linear warfare or hybrid warfare into Russia’s national security establishment, but rather hoping they would understand the challenges posed by the current operating environment as he saw it, and start coming up with answers. Of course, had Gerasimov simply copied Kennan’s language verbatim, some among us might still declare the contents to be a newfangled Russian doctrine.

The not-so-hybrid war in Ukraine

With the aforementioned definition of hybrid warfare in mind, exactly where can we find Russia’s attempts to use a hybrid approach in Ukraine? Certainly not in the annexation of Crimea, which was a classic covert operation to enable a conventional invasion — the lead element was Russia’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade, already based in Crimea as part of the Black Sea Fleet. There were some irregular aspects, like an information warfare element and a circus of inconsequential auxiliaries, but what measurable significance did they have in relation to Russia’s deployment of special forces, elite infantry, and conventional capability?

When members of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade in Crimea took off their unit patches and moved out to seize key roads on the peninsula in February 2014, they did not become “hybrid warriors.” They were merely naval infantry without unit patches on. Is there anything hybrid about using special forces, with the support of elite infantry, to prepare the battlespace for a conventional invasion? This is standard practice for military forces around the world, to include those of the United States. If a Russian missile cruiser lowers its ensign, does it become a hybrid cruiser about to engage in a new form of naval hybrid warfare? Of course not. There is simply not much hybrid war to be found in the case of Crimea.

Meanwhile, the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in February 2014 with political warfare in the mold of Kennan’s writing, not hybrid warfare, and absent the application of force. Many can recount the fighting later in that year, but few remember its beginnings, because at the time attention was fixed on events in Crimea. In late February and early March of 2014, Russia, together with vested Ukrainian oligarchs in the eastern regions, leveraged their influence to mobilize protests and advance those on the fringe of Ukraine’s politics. Throughout the conflict, Moscow sought to scare Ukraine’s government into agreeing to a federalization scheme, that would neuter its ability to move the country in a more Western direction, and result in de facto political partition of Ukraine along regional divisions. The entire affair was cheap political warfare and done in a hurry.

When Ukraine arrested the self-declared governors and mayors of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (and Kharkiv People’s Republic, which never took off), Russia switched to direct action in mid-April of 2014, supporting irregular warfare with paramilitaries (some led by Igor Girkin from Crimea), local recruits, and a unit of mercenaries, along with a good deal of defectors from Ukraine’s own security services. This was the product of Russian intelligence, and collusion with vested local interests, not large detachments of special forces or hybrid warriors.

It was only at the end of May, when irregular warfare had run into too much resistance from Ukraine’s volunteer battalions and armed forces, that we began to see Russia backing into a hybridized approach. Here I’m referencing the introduction of high-end conventional capabilities, and the intermixing of Russian units along with individual Russian soldiers among the separatist force. We should keep in mind that this was Russia’s third attempt to get the Ukrainian leadership to concede to its political demands. The shift is evident starting with the first battle for Donetsk Airport, where we can identify what might pass for hybrid warfare in Ukraine, a period of the conflict that lasts roughly three months. In that day’s fight, most of the casualties taken by Russian volunteers who had recently arrived to join the separatist were not from Ukraine’s army, but due to friendly fire from allied mercenaries in the Vostok Battalion: not the best debut for Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine.

By August 24, the hybrid approach had demonstrably failed in the vein of previous efforts. Moscow traded it in for a conventional invasion by regular Russian units, which it had sought to avoid. The invasion in August of 2014 marked the transition to conventional war as the deciding approach, but with limited political and territorial objectives. Russian forces defeated Ukraine’s army in the field, but more importantly they demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a hybrid approach in achieving political objectives. In subsequent months, hybrid approaches did not disappear from the battlefield, but they were of little consequence compared to Russian conventional forces.

If Russia doesn’t do hybrid, then what?

Ukraine was decided by large-caliber artillery, MLRS systems, and tanks; not innovative hybrid approaches. Upon review, we should file Ukraine as a case study in the failure of hybrid warfare to achieve desired political ends. If it could not be accomplished there, given the country’s political and military weakness at the time, why do we think Moscow can succeed elsewhere? Is there an example of Russia using anything other than conventional war to successfully achieve its political objectives, be they in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria?

The mythology of Russian hybrid warfare stands in stark contrast to the historical track record of how Russia uses military power to achieve desired political ends at home and abroad. Simply put, what Russia does best is conventional war, and if a conflict does not start that way, it is how it always ends. In analyzing the presence of hybrid approaches in this conflict, the West has broadly confused Russian activity for achievement. Let’s talk less about what Russia tries and more about how Russia wins.

Instead of succeeding with hybrid warfare, Russia became frustrated and reached back into the toolbox for the conventional hammer. Since then, Russian instructors began converting separatist auxiliaries into a regular army, organized as a typical conventional force, while regular Russian units shifted to become the quick reaction force as needed. What we call hybrid war in Ukraine is a far less exciting, but more effective, train-and-equip mission to produce an expendable conventional force mirrored on the Russian Army. The separatist force structure today is telling of the Russian verdict on how well its hybrid warfare campaign worked. Russia’s leaders got over the hype of what hybrid warfare can do, and so should we.

Hybrid warfare by committee

NATO has the most profoundly confusing approach to Russian hybrid warfare, in official documents, speeches, and exercises. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made many statements on the subject, but one speech in 2015 demonstrates the problem. He said:

Russia has used proxy soldiers, unmarked Special Forces, intimidation and propaganda, all to lay a thick fog of confusion; to obscure its true purpose in Ukraine; and to attempt deniability.  So NATO must be ready to deal with every aspect of this new reality from wherever it comes. And that means we must look closely at how we prepare for; deter; and if necessary defend against hybrid warfare.

Have Russian tactics truly confused anyone? Are special forces typically marked when engaging in operations? Did Ukraine suffer from two years of confusion or a conventional military defeat?

Stoltenberg continued:

In one way, it’s both. We need classical conventional forces.  Hybrid is about reduced warning time.  It’s about deception. It’s about a mixture of military and non-military means.  So therefore we have to be able to react quickly and swiftly. And so when we are increasing the readiness and the preparedness of our forces, well that is also an answer to the hybrid threat.

He added that cyber is a key capability to counter hybrid warfare.   But is deception hybrid, or is that not an important element of conventional warfare since time immemorial? NATO’s notion of hybrid warfare is about as clear as mud, labeling almost the entire spectrum of activity in the military and non-military domain, a definition and strategy that reads like the product of a committee.

The alliance has ramped up exercises and training, but if mission one is countering Russian hybrid warfare in Europe, which apparently is everything, then we have a real problem, because Russia spends its time largely training to fight conventional war, often simulating escalation to nuclear conflict. Sweden’s FOI, one of the better defense think tanks on Russia, recently conducted an assessment of Russian military exercises during the period of 2011–2014. The report is enlightening. Johan Norberg concluded that Russia’s military forces have been “exercising extensively, training to fight major ground forces-centric operations often escalating into nuclear exchanges.” Russia doesn’t busy itself practicing “hybrid war” in exercises, instead it is sharpening the same conventional and nuclear spears the Soviet Union relied upon.

That Russia focuses on conventional and nuclear war also does not mean its military is a two-trick pony. Moscow leverages denial and deception, or maskirovka, as part of its conventional operations. These too have been frequently referenced as one of Moscow’s dark hybrid arts. Don’t believe the mysticism. Maskirovka is at least as old as Sun Tzu. Russia may rely on conventional firepower to get the job done, but that doesn’t mean there is no cunning or trickery involved. I don’t wish to sideline Russia’s covert and intelligence capabilities, like the KSO special forces unit, or GRU’s coterie of agents abroad. Moscow will continue to refine its ability to conduct political warfare, which failed to get the job done in Eastern Ukraine, and derive valuable lessons from Crimea on the use of special forces: but these have yet to congeal into a successful doctrine.

The good news is that Russian military thought is also beginning to suffer from the hybrid warfare bug. Recently, Valery Gerasimov spoke to a gathering of experts from Russia’s Academy of Military Sciences (AVN), describing Western sponsored “color revolutions” as hybrid warfare, and suggesting the creation of a working group to build Russian “soft power” that counters said revolutions with hybrid techniques. As in, Western hybrid war can only be fought with Russian hybrid war.

Yes, we have a full hybrid warfare paradox here. Russia’s General Staff feels they are behind on hybrid war as waged by the West, which in turn feels that it is behind on Russia’s hybrid war tactics. To quote Roger McDermott, “Gerasimov’s address to the AVN confirms the non-existence of a Russian hybrid doctrine, or approach to warfare per se.” On the bright side, Russia might eventually come up with that hybrid warfare doctrine that we’ve spent two years worried about — perhaps all our shouting has convinced them this is worth pursuing.

Is 2016 the year we come to our senses?

Today’s conversation on Russia’s use of hybrid warfare has become a discourse on something more arcane, resembling black magic. Generalizations about “Russian hybrid warfare” are not only unhelpful, but are becoming a cliché. Arthur C. Clarke once told us that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” yet Russian hybrid warfare hardly seems befitting such a description. Many, to include Frank Hoffman himself, have pointed out that hybrid approaches are not new, but perhaps as old as warfare itself. If that is so, then what makes Russia’s hybrid warfare so noteworthy? If it’s not inventive or innovative, then why the hype?

High-end warfare, not hybrid warfare, is where America’s and NATO’s problem truly lies in dealing with Russia. The United States has not had an adversary with near-peer capabilities and cunning in a long time. There’s certainly not much of an escalation dynamic to manage with the Islamic State or the Taliban. The serious conversations on Russia revolve around conventional challenges like electronic warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-access/area denial. The West has been terrorizing itself with specters of hybrid war to an extent that it should qualify as one of history’s better disinformation operations, even if it was wholly unintentional. The problem is most pronounced for European allies who are undergoing a modern version of America’s red scare from the 1940s and 50s. Someday, we may look back on this time in Europe and call it the hybrid war scare. Russian influence and subversion are real throughout much of Europe, but whipping up fears of this mystical hybrid warfare has led European officials to see the Kremlin’s agents behind every corner.

Individually, Western countries are knowledgeable about the extent of Russian political influence in their respective nations; but collectively the West has chosen to speak in narratives, and paint a caricature of how Moscow uses its instruments of national power. That’s understandable as part of an effort to motivate NATO, raise alliance awareness, and reassure vulnerable members. I will not deny that hybrid war helps herd the cats. Getting Europeans to take European security more seriously is something we can all get behind, but hybrid warfare sounds increasingly like an excuse for them not to spend money on high-end conventional capabilities. It’s a lot cheaper to talk about fighting Russian propaganda than buying artillery. At some point though, we’re going to have to stop the heavy breathing on hybrid war, and start parsing reality from narrative. Maybe this is that year.

Frederick the Great said centuries ago that “he who defends everything defends nothing.” We spend too much time chasing hybrid ghosts, confusing ourselves, and diffusing lines of effort. In Washington, Russian hybrid warfare has come to embody Frederick’s warning on defending everything; while in Europe they seek to defend against Moscow everywhere. If the West is to come up with a political and military strategy that deals with Russia, it must start by killing bad narratives and malformed analysis: Russian hybrid warfare should be the first on that list.


Michael Kofman is an analyst at the CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.


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