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