Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 without firing a single shot, former Soviet States in the area – particularly the Baltic countries – have been increasingly worried by the idea they could be ‘the next’ target of an hybrid war operated from Moscow with some form of occupation as their objective. At the same time, the Kremlin and several Russian experts have been underlining the danger of an externally-directed non-linear war aimed at weakening Russia’s sovereignty and eventually staging a regime change: the spectre of a ‘coloured revolution’ orchestrated by the West has been for years a postulate of actions taken by the Russian authorities to discourage public mobilization and ultimately repressing protests. Both theories can be sustained or denied, in the framework of a largely hypothetical and undefined picture where many assumptions are taken for granted and few elements can be concretely verified.
Russia automatically rejects any accusation regarding destabilizing actions in its Western near abroad: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and increasingly Poland. On the other side, these countries regularly update their lists of most-probable Russian attacks, from fake news and propaganda in general, to cyber espionage or unconfirmed border violations. Many observers from Eastern Europe, and some politicians too, think that the real aim of these operations could be a more concrete act of aggression, to be staged in absence of a due reaction, and as such turn to the European Union and NATO for assistance. One of the reasons the three Baltic states, which are the only former Soviet states to be incorporated into the Atlantic Alliance, feel particularly exposed to these campaigns aimed at manipulating public opinion, is due do the large Russian minorities within their population, although their ‘nostalgia’ has been shrinking over the years.
Now, after a decade of growing confrontation, Russia is certainly interested in trying to undermine EU and trans-Atlantic unity and in dividing societies in former Soviet or satellite countries still considered strategic. In this view, Poland seems to beincreasingly a target. Only last April, unidentified hackers breached the website of Poland’s War Studies University and posted a letter in which the head of this institute described American military presence in Poland as “an occupation”. Of course, the letter was fake, but it was re-launched by a few Polish websites with a record of spreading disinformation. In May, a hacker operation targeted several Polish news websites, publishing articles based on a fake interview with the commanding general of US Army Europe, General Christopher G. Cavoli, purportedly ridiculing the Polish Armed Forces. In both cases, Polish officials pointed out that these types of attacks are “in line with Kremlin propaganda”, trying to undermine US-Polish relations.
Some analysts believe this type of disruptive activities, especially in the information/disinformation field, is not necessarily looking for effects in the short-term but wants to create an information resource to be used in the future, possibly with electoral aims. In any case, it would be naïve to think Moscow does not try to influence electoral processes, as naïve as thinking it can decide the results. As Mark Galeotti interestingly points out in his “Russian Political War: Moving Beyond the Hybrid”, we should be careful when labelling disinformation activities or trying to find allies among foreign parties or non-systemic movements as hybrid warfare. It would be more useful to consider them as tools of a political war waged by Russia in order to magnify its status, weight and influence on the international scene, while trying to weaken opponents from within. This implies deepening existing fault lines, rather than creating new ones, whether it is about illegal migrants, amplifying populistic moods or exposing underlying contradictions in the political arena. Putting things into this perspective, if the Kremlin uses Russian speaking media outlets to promote positive views on Russia or tries to exploit vulnerabilities in the local political systems, this does not mean war is around the corner: a Russian invasion of the Baltics or of Ukraine is highly improbable, if not impossible. Crimea was taken without a fight, not as a result of an hybrid warfare campaign, but because Russia was already de facto controlling the peninsula: most Crimean residents had a positive attitude towards Moscow, in Kiev there was a power vacuum and the situation was exceptional enough to convince the West not to even threaten Russia with a military response.
Many analysts see the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, a 2013 article by the Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, as the – at least partial – basis of Russia’s hybrid warfare programme. But in the article, Gerasimov simply exposed his view on the type of threats his country must be prepared to face, rather than proposed new ways of waging war. Russia should update its military doctrine in the near future. Meanwhile we should keep in mind that disruptive actions by Moscow aimed at forging public opinions abroad are not a new reality. The Soviet Union widely engaged in similar activities. The Baltics, like Ukraine, Poland and maybe Moldova, can certainly expect new episodes of these types of campaigns, at least while the rift between the West and Russia remains so deep and apparently unbridgeable. Concentrating on the real dimension of threats emanating from Russia’s geopolitical challenge to the West, and considering dialogue as part of an articulated response, could be of some help.