The concept of hybrid warfare is currently used to describe a wide set of practices such as the use of information warfare, political, intelligence operations, cyber warfare, diplomatic action in combination with limited conventional military operations. Many of these activities have been considered as rather routine intelligence and diplomatic activities since time immemorial.
The term is lacking a universally accepted definition. That basically allows anyone to define the borders between the hybrid warfare and competitive country to country relations from one side and the hybrid warfare and conventional aggression from the other. That creates possibilities to use the concept to escalate political differences into security crises. Most of them typically imply that the hybrid foe is using a combination of conventional and irregular methods. The latter in turn include not just irregular warfare (guerilla tactics, terrorism etc.) but also propaganda, diplomacy, politics, disinformation. The practitioners of the hybrid warfare are expected to quickly adapt to the changing situation on the ground using various tools from the set mentioned above.
In spite of what could be commonly thought, these methods are not new to strategic thinkers. For example, since the times of Sun Tzu, strategists have insisted that exactly these methods should always be used whenever opportunity arises while conventional battles should be avoided when possible. The ideal war was supposed to be won by demoralizing the enemy and sowing discord within his ranks rather than by fighting a pitched battle with horrible losses. Since the Bronze Age countless strategies have been based on exactly this approach.
As result we have a rather hollow ‘hybrid war’ concept, that allows the term to be politicized. Basically, attributing a hybrid warfare strategy to a political adversary can be seen as way to bring an additional political pressure upon them – a clear path for escalation from an ordinary political quarrel into full scale diplomatic crisis and, later, into war if needed. Thus, the countries involved in the serious political conflicts or territorial disputes like to attribute it to their enemies in order to justify escalation, an increase in military and security related spending, and crackdowns on internal dissent etc. Russia is no exception in this.
Indeed Russia has a rich tradition of using various methods and practices which are usually considered hybrid warfare. One of the best examples of that is known in history as “The Great Game”, the struggle for Central Asia between the Russian and the British empires, lasting for much of the XIX century.
The Great Game was a combination of intelligence operations, diplomatic intrigues, propaganda efforts, proxy wars and direct military interventions which were used by the two powers to expand their spheres of influence and territories under their control. The Great Game was a bloody story and both sides sometimes suffered considerable military losses in their enterprises while trying to contain each other.
Yet with the absence of direct military confrontation of the two empires in Central Asia few people at the time thought about calling that rivalry a war. That was probably because the politicians and the generals of the XIX century understood well that the words have meaning, and that the word ‘war’ should especially not be used lightly.
Naturally, most great powers throughout history would readily use combination of political, intelligence and propaganda tools together with irregular warfare every time when such an approach allows them to reduce the scale or completely avoid conventional warfare.
Reliance on conventional military interventions as a primary policy tool is a sign of declining quality of the statecraft. One of the best examples of that is the standoff between the United States and the USSR during the late period of the latter’s existence.
Beside this bipolar standoff, the USSR and then Russia has a long history in performing hybrid warfare. The Soviet Union had skillfully practiced the covert and limited interventions into the foreign conflicts for most of its history. Such examples included the Soviet military and political assistance to Guomindang in China in 1924-1927, Soviet intervention in the Afghan civil war of 1929, covert military operation in the Chinese Xinjiang in 1933-1934, Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil war.
After WWII the examples included the Soviet involvement in the Korean war, and the Soviet assistance to the various national liberation movements and the pro-Soviet governments in the developing world.
In all cases the operations would be conducted by very limited military forces tailored to support the local allies by boosting their capabilities in specific areas. The operations would be limited in time and focused on achieving specific goals. When the strategic or political goal was reached or proven to be beyond the reach operation would cease immediately.
The Soviet invasion in Afghanistan was an obvious deviation from this approach and ended in disaster. The post-Soviet Russian operations, especially the Russian campaign in Syria are the return to normalcy and follow old and well established principles.
Russia would of course use a traditional mix of diplomatic, intelligence and military tools to counter and contain its adversaries while avoiding direct military confrontation. There will be military cooperation and arms sales to the enemies of Russia’s enemies; intelligence operations, including uncovering malfeasance on hostile foreign politicians and placing that malign behaviour in the media; propaganda and disinformation efforts. Just as it used to be 100, 200 or 2000 years ago. It is not hybrid war but rather ‘bad, hostile country to country relations’, which is a negative scenario, but quite normal in the context of international relations. Sad, but sometimes unavoidable.