Does Russia’s ‘Hybrid War’ Really Exist?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 103

Russian soldier looks on in Crimea (Source: Getty Images)

In the early stages of the Russian military operation to annex Crimea, in February–March 2014, the level of surprise triggered in Kyiv and in Western capitals caused many journalists and analysts to seek ways to conceptualize Russia’s military and security power. The success and speed of the operation, and especially the lack of any defensive military action from the Ukrainian Armed Forces soon prompted media and analysts alike to label Russia’s actions as “hybrid war.” This was further reinforced by the force mix and use of hard and soft power in southeastern Ukraine. However, few analysts have asked whether Russia really developed a new complex capability that offers a fundamentally new approach to the conduct of warfare. Russian specialists are increasingly examining this issue. In short, they conclude that the term “hybrid war” (gibridnoy voyne) lacks definition and simply is not present in the range of Russian military capabilities (The Moscow Times, May 27).

Indeed, Russian military publications analyzing the development of such capabilities and approaches to warfare always assume this to be a non-Russian style of conflict. In this context, the Russian defense ministry organized an expert roundtable in Moscow in early February to consider the question of hybrid warfare. The roundtable brought together philosophers, political scientists, historians and independent experts to examine modern warfare. They scrutinized the issue of defining “hybrid war”; in particular, roundtable participants attempted to describe some of its characteristics as well as analyzed how foreign militaries are trying to adopt such capabilities. Subsequently, they raised the question as to whether Russia has developed its own version of hybrid war. It appeared that the experts had little confidence in defining the term, often used in a loose way to refer to unique applications of force. In addition, they certainly doubted that Russia had acquired this tool (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 2, 10).

Undeterred by this general level of domestic skepticism on the existence of Russian hybrid warfare, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), carefully examined the application of the term to Russia’s use of force in Ukraine. His main analysis appeared in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, with a shorter English-language version appearing in The Moscow Times (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 29).

To place the use of the term in its context, Pukhov began by reminding his readers of the origin of the phrase “polite people”: when Russian forces surrounded Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea, the locals did not see these “friendly” people as a threat. This experience, followed by events in southeastern Ukraine, facilitated the rise of the “Russian hybrid war” myth to describe an apparently new capability. Pukhov then turned to consider the vexed question of defining exactly what is meant by “hybrid war.” Specifically, he drew upon the way the phrase is used in the recent edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) “The Military Balance.” According to this version, hybrid war is “the use of military and non-military tools in an integrated campaign aimed at achieving surprise, [seizing] the initiative and receiving psychological benefits using diplomatic options, large-scale and rapid information, electronic and cyber operations, cover and concealment of military and intelligence operations, in conjunction with economic pressures.” It alleges that this was used by Russia in Crimea, and later in operations to destabilize southeastern Ukraine. The Military Balance also highlights the potential threat posed by Russian hybrid war to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 29).

Pukhov then applies a three-stage analytical framework to test the assertion that Russia possesses such “hybrid war” tools and that it used this approach to warfare during the Ukraine crisis. These are harnessed to question the commonly held explanation for how events played out in Crimea in early 2014. In addition, Pukhov’s analysis highlights the vagueness of the term and refers to military history to argue that, when used in this vague manner, “hybrid” becomes as old as warfare itself. Finally, he makes some observations concerning the Ukraine experience. On the first point, the author ridicules the idea that “cyber operations” were needed in Crimea. Pukhov notes, in passing, the archaic condition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and wonders why such advanced capabilities would need to be used against a significantly weaker force. He then notes that the propaganda side of the operation in Crimea was “sluggish” for its application to both internal and external audiences. Moscow failed to harness information warfare at an early stage to explain its actions, he asserts. The mass support for President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea within Russia was, therefore, achieved without a particularly strong or intensive information campaign. Pukhov also notes the fact that most of the Ukrainian military personnel stationed in Crimea decided to join the Russian military; only around 20 percent chose to continue service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This was not a result of the skillful use of propaganda, the CAST director argues in his article (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 29).

Pukhov then notes the rather loose usage of the term “hybrid war” when applied to the actual conduct of the operation in Crimea. He suggests its success hinged on the support of the local population, which effectively paralyzed the Ukrainian military personnel. On the media coverage of Crimea and the idea of “polite people,” Pukhov draws attention to the unique nature of the local operational environment, while pointing to how difficult it would be to replicate elsewhere—such as in the American Midwest or in Poland. And on the issue of mixing specialist military forces with separatists, the author reminds his readers that this motif is frequently used by the US military (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 29).

This latter point led Pukhov to briefly examine military history, which he does to demonstrate the weakness of the “Russian hybrid war” theory. Some cheap journalism, he notes, makes comparison between events in Ukraine and the accession of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938; which had, in fact, also involved a German irredentist militia. Two more interesting comparisons are made to expose questions around how the “hybrid” model can be open to interpretation: the US-Mexican War of 1846–1848, and the Italian Risorgimento, which led to the unification of Italy in 1861. In each case, irredentist militias were used, not least as a way to replenish the main force. Pukhov concludes that the hybrid model breaks down in reference to military history, and he concludes that the idea that Russia possesses “hybrid war” capabilities is a myth (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 29).