Russia’s Hybrid War as a Byproduct of a Hybrid State

December 6, 2016

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Whether or not “hybrid war” is the right term — a battle probably lost for the moment —Russia is indeed waging an essentially political struggle against the West through political subversion, economic penetration, espionage, and disinformation. To a degree, this reflects the parsimonious opportunism of a weak but ruthless Russia trying to play a great power game without a great power’s resources. It also owes much to Moscow’s inheritance from Bolshevik and even tsarist practices. But a third key factor behind it is the very nature of the modern Russian state, as I discuss in my new report, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina: Getting Russia’s Non-Linear Military Challenge Right.

One distinctive aspect of recent Russian campaigns, from political operations against the West to military operations in Ukraine, has been a blurring of the borders between state, paramilitary, mercenary, and dupe. The Putin regime evidently believes that it is at war with the West — a geopolitical, even civilizational struggle — and is thus mobilizing every weaponizable asset at its disposal. This extends to mining society as a whole for semi-autonomous assets, from eager internet trolls and “patriotic hackers” to transnational banks and businesses to Cossack volunteers and mercenary gangsters.

When William Nemeth posited the notion of hybrid warfare in the context of the Chechen war against the Russians, it was rooted in his belief that Chechen society was itself a hybrid, still somewhere between the modern and the pre-modern. Traditional forms of social organization, notable the family and the teip (clan), could be used to mobilize for war in ways that need not distinguish between “regular” and “irregular” forms of war, spanning conventional war, insurgency, and terrorism. Hence, a hybrid society fought a hybrid war.

The “hybridity” of Russian operations likewise reflects a conceptually analogous if operationally very different hybridity of the Russian state. Through the 1990s and into Putinism, Russia either failed to institutionalize or actively deinstitutionalized — however you choose to define it.

Today, Russia is a patrimonial, hyper-presidential regime, one characterized by the permeability of boundaries between public and private, domestic and external. As oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky put it:

[W]hat distinguishes the current Russian government from the erstwhile Soviet leaders familiar to the West is its rejection of ideological constraints and the complete elimination of institutions.

Lacking meaningful rule of law or checks and balances, without drawing too heavy-handed a comparison with fascism, Putin’s Russia seems to embody, in its own chaotic and informal way, Mussolini’s dictum “tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato” — “everything inside the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” Parenthetically, Mussolini sent what could be called “little blackshirt men” to Spain in the 1930s to fight on Franco’s side during the civil war. All notionally opted to do so of their own volition (as the Voluntary Troops Corps) and initially without insignia.

In Russia, state institutions are often regarded as personal fiefdoms and piggy banks, officials and even officers freely engage in commercial activity, and the Russian Orthodox Church is practically an arm of the Kremlin. Given all that, the infusion of non-military instruments into military affairs was almost inevitable. Beyond that, though, Putin’s Russia has been characterized — in the past, at least — by multiple, overlapping agencies, a “bureaucratic pluralism” intended as much to permit the Kremlin to divide and rule as for any practical advantages. This is clearly visible within the intelligence and security realm, from the intrusion of the Federal Security Service (FSB) — originally intended as a purely domestic agency — into foreign operations, as well as in the competition over responsibility for information operations.

When “information troops” were formed following the Georgian war, for instance, the FSB at first publicly denounced plans by the military to develop its own capability. Under a 2013 presidential decree, the FSB was tasked with securing national information resources. Since then, this apparent monopoly seems to have eroded, as there is much anecdotal evidence suggesting Russian military intelligence units active in information warfare in Ukraine.

Moscow must also be considered the master of “hybrid business,” of developing illegal and legal commercial enterprises that ideally make money, but at the same time can be used for the state’s purposes, whether technically private concerns or not. Russian commercial institutions not only provide covers for intelligence agents and spread disinformation, but acting notionally on their own initiative, they are also used to provide financial support to political and social movements Moscow deems convenient. For instance, Marine Le Pen’s anti-European Union Front Nationale in France received a €9 million loan from a bank run by a close Putin ally. Similarly, the election of the Czech Republic’s Russophile President Miloš Zeman was partially bankrolled by the local head of the Russian oil company Lukoil — allegedly as a personal donation. Fighting in Syria is spearheaded by “mercenaries” who are simply deniable Russian troops, while even organized crime groups are pressed into service from time to time when the needs of the “hybrid war” demand.

So, it is not simply that Moscow chooses to ignore those boundaries we are used to in the West between state and private, military and civilian, legal and illegal. It is that those boundaries are much less meaningful in Russian terms, and they are additionally straddled by a range of duplicative and even competitive agencies. This can get in the way of coherent policy and create problems of redundancy and even contradictory goals, as evidenced by the 2016 hack of U.S. Democratic National Committee servers, in which FSB and GRU military intelligence operations appear to have been working at cross purposes. However, it also creates a challenge that is complex, multi-faceted, and inevitably difficult for Western agencies to comprehend, let alone counter.

Of course, there is blurring even within these blurred categories and a degree to which these hybrid actors also represent a threat to Russia. “Patriotic hackers” mobilized or hired by the state today may steal from Russian banks tomorrow, treating their role in Putin’s undercover war as their “get out of jail free” card. Businesses may be helping the Kremlin launder, move, and disburse money in Europe, while at the same time enthusiastically embezzling from the federal budget. In many ways, this is the quintessence of the Putin “total war” approach to governance: the absence of legal, ethical and practical limitations on the state’s capacity openly or covertly to co-opt other institutions to its own ends.

Moscow should be careful of the lessons it is teaching the West (or China and other potential future rivals). An over-geared, under-invested, over-securitized, and under-legitimate Russia may well be extremely vulnerable to at least some of the very tactics it uses so profligately abroad. Should they choose to, the United States and its allies possess formidable opportunities to fight their own “political war” inside Russia, including through cyberattacks, deeper and broader sanctions, propaganda campaigns, and encouragement of elite conspiracies. Alarmist rhetoric aside, in the long term, this so-called “new way of war” may well prove to be more of a threat to Russia than to the West.


Dr. Mark Galeotti is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague, and Principal Director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence. He has been Professor of Global Affairs at New York University, a special advisor to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and head of History at Keele University in the United Kingdom, as well as a visiting professor at Rutgers—Newark, Charles University (Prague), and MGIMO (Moscow). Read his new report, Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina: getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right.

Image: Russian MoD

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11 thoughts on “Russia’s Hybrid War as a Byproduct of a Hybrid State

  1. “The Putin regime evidently believes that it is at war with the West”

    It is. Our neocons started it, out of dreams of exploiting the collapse of the Soviet Union, expanded into regime change when Russia recovered from Yeltsin.

    This is key, because it would be possible to make peace. It is the US that does not want to do that.

    The quote from Mussolini describes his political concept, a variant on socialism he called corporatism, not meaning government by corporations, but rather seeing the whole state as one big corporation run like one big business.

    That is not Putin’s concept, or at least he has never set out any of the concepts on which Mussolini relied. Putin is running an oligarchy, and if he does not admit that, it is to pretend to democracy, not to envision a the nation as a gigantic corporation.

    Along those lines, Mussolini had specific dreams of empire. Putin is survivor of over-extension and the costs and pain of contracting that position to something manageable. Putin has said the contraction was painful and disheartening, but necessary — head vs heart.

    It is a serious mistake to think of Putin in old ways, instead of what he really is.

    1. “The neocons started it”

      Haha ok bro, whatever you say.
      Nato expanded into Eastern Europe because the newly formed democracies of the region made a sovereign choice to become members. If Russia did not want that, they should have thought about that before they illegally occupied the eastern half of Europe for 50 years post 1945.
      No one would want to co-operate with the Germans if they acted today as if the Nazis were the good guys and that Hitler had acted with the best interests of a Europe that freely worked with him.

      1. Nato expanded into Eastern Europe because the newly formed democracies of the region made a sovereign choice to become members.

        LOL!! Either Ray-gun or Bush the Elder promised not to expand NATO into former Eastern Europe. Given we didn’t follow our end of the bargain, Russia doesn’t trust us now. Shocker, I know.

        1. There were no promises made about the permanent state of NATO or its membership. Bush 41 did communicate to the Soviet leadership that it was not his intent to take advantage of their obvious weakness to launch any wars or foment any revolutions.

          As Napoleon is supposed to have said, “Never interfere when your enemy is busy destroying himself”. Bush 41 played it exactly right under the circumstances he faced. Do not suppose there was ever any such thing as a promise to never expand NATO, which of course anybody knows that no US government can constrain any subsequent US government when it comes to policy. Just as Obama did not honor Bush 43’s policies, Trump will not honor Obama’s policies. Every other nation in the world realizes that, of course.

    2. Whomever the “neocons” are (many use that term as an anti-semitic slur, others use it to refer to war-hawks), the so-called “neocons” have had zero power and influence in American government since the Iraq War turned into a fiasco in 2004-2006, and certainly have had zero influence with the Obama Administration these last 8 years … while “surprise, surprise, surprise!” as Gomer Pyle used to say on TV, the Russians became far more belligerant and expansionistic at precisely the same time that war hawks became thoroughly discredited in American politics. Indeed, being embroiled in Iraq, Bush 43 went to special efforts to reach out to Putin and made his infamous claim to be able to “see into Vladimir’s soul” – which was rewarded, of course, with Russia’s invasion of Georgia, followed not long thereafter by their invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine .. and which has now extended into Russian’s massive war crimes being committed daily in Syria against unarmed children, women, doctors, and aid workers.

  2. “Should they choose to, the United States and its allies possess formidable opportunities to fight their own “political war” inside Russia, including through cyberattacks, deeper and broader sanctions, propaganda campaigns, and encouragement of elite conspiracies. ”

    We’ve been trying this for years. It hasn’t worked. We even have patsies like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky really go hard after Putin day in and day out, to no avail. Many Russians I’ve spoken to, from regular working class 20-somethings to PhD candidates at HSE have plenty of gripes with Putin, including believing some of the stores we push so hard over here (Nemtsov) and others that we don’t (Putin’s connections to St Petersburg crime rings,) they still, however, do not trust US sources. US propaganda falls on deaf ears, because it’s accompanied by our statespeople regularly denigrating Russia – not as a state, but as a nation. I think the great problem is that you and others are suggesting that we should be trying to sow discord in Russian society. If the Russian people feel they have enough legitimate grievances with their government, they will make their voices heard as in 1917 and in 1991.

  3. To describe Putin, as McCain did, as a thug and murderer tends to limit the range of possible resolution to the ‘Russia problem’. Failure to understand that Ukraine is half and Crimea is entirely Russian prevents a fair view of Putin and Russia’s stake in the area. To assume that hybrid ‘war’ is prelude to overt assault assumes Russia is more powerful that it actually is. Russia has one operational (more or less) antique aircraft carrier. Its Army has no experience nor is it equipped to conduct mass operations beyond its borders. Russia’s population is roughly one-third that of the USA and one sixth that of the EU. Russia’s economy is weakly oil dependent, its society has no legal system or ideology to cohere around, the Russian people are great and capable but deeply bitter about the fall of the Soviet system, and Putin is about the only unifying influence holding this ‘hybrid’ together. The obvious decay of the EU under the disastrous Islamist immigration has and will weaken Europe irreparably. So Europe is no longer a threat to an equally weak Russia and Trump now can sweep in and offer acceptable alternative economic and political solutions both sides can accept. The clincher is that China, as Putin well knows, is the long term existential threat to Russia. China claims all of Siberia east of the Yenesei River as historic territory seized by 18th Century Russia in a period of Imperial weakness. Siberia is depopulated and faces 1.4 billion land poor Chinese. Putin is ready for a deal if the right approach (respect for Russia) is taken. Don’t believe the ‘cold war’ neo-cons propaganda. Street Russians are elated that Trump is coming and they especially want to work a cooperative arrangement with the USA, their sub-rosa favorite country. Talk to cab drivers in Moscow or Novosibirsk if you doubt this. (I have. One was a Green Bay Packers fan.) I speak Russian, have worked with Russians and admire the people, especially for their heroic triumph in the Great Fatherland War. More honor and respect for this great nation would go a long way to bridging the gap. Not a sign of weakness but a sign of due respect. Go Trump!

    1. Yes, the poor disrespected Russians are only trying to preserve what is theirs … precisely the same garbage that was passed off as European appeasement of Hitler in the mid to late 1930s. Sorry, not buying it, not a single solitary letter of your comment.

      This isn’t about neocons and cold war … this is about gangsterism and the will of other nations to resist it. Putin is the world’s most vicious and most efficient gangster, leading the world’s largest and most powerful crime syndicate. Ideology has nothing to do with it, nor politics. Just theft.

  4. Russia is not really hybridizing the roles of state and private enterprise (or “oligarchy”). Rather, Russia is the new Fascist state. Where there is total blurring of lines between the state and private business and private life – the Fascist state asserts control and hegemony over everything. And, while this particular fascist enterprise is rather short on political ideology beyond pure nationalism and deference to the state in all matters, like the Nazis, these guys are also ravenous kleptocrats. Whether it was Goering and his toadies helping himself to seized artworks, or it is Putin turning himself into the world’s richest person (net worth of around $85B and climbing, according to recent estimates) on a government salary, it’s all the same.

    In reality, Fascism in its classic post-World War 1 sense or Putin’s Russian version today is nothing more that organized crime looting an entire society via the use of government power.