Since 2014, the term “hybrid warfare” (HW) has been all over the news, as well as think tanks and academic studies. It has also spurred the creation of new research centres and operational structures within international organisations. In 2016, the European Commission and the European External Action Service developed a joint framework on countering hybrid threats and established a Hybrid Fusion Cell as part of the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre. Similarly to the EU, NATO has also built an in-house capability to monitor and analyse hybrid threats and established counter hybrid support teams that can be sent in support of the authorities of a stricken nation. Together, the EU and NATO sponsored the creation of a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) in Helsinki.
A heated and often politicised debate has been surrounding the definition of HW, which to date remains ill-defined. Most basically, the term refers to the use of a mix of conventional and unconventional methods as part of a multi-domain warfare approach, which aims to weaken the opponent – often without engaging in open hostilities. Despite gaining prominence since 2014, HW has been used to describe the evolution of warfare since the early 2000s. The term was created in 2002 by William Nemeth, a Colonel in the US Marine Corps, who started writing on Chechen hybrid warfare against Russia in his MA thesis. Then, HW was used to describe Hezbollah’s strategy in the 2006 Lebanon War. But for most Western observers today, talking about HW inevitably directs the focus towards Russia. This is because Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine through the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and actions in Donbass remains to date the most in-depth case study – and almost a textbook example – of HW.
In 2013, an article featuring a speech by Russian General Valery Gerasimov appeared in the Russian Military-Industrial Courier sparking international attention. Gerasimov described how nowadays, the mixed-use of propaganda and subversion means crippling a functioning state in a matter of months and even days, becoming a victim of foreign intervention, chaos and civil war. More than the article itself, what really grabbed Western attention was the article’s interpretations by prominent analysts of Russian affairs, especially Mark Galeotti. The latter came up with the infamous “Gerasimov Doctrine” to describe Russia’s non-linear war operations first in Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine that relied heavily on “new forms of politically-focused operations in the future”. The label received praise and criticism alike: while it was picked up in many news and policy articles, an increasing number of scholars contend that the Russian hybrid warfare strategy is either “old wine in new bottles” or plainly false. Vasily Kashin argues in this dossier that HW’s contemporary origins actually occurred in many wars years, or even centuries ago. To other scholars, the Gerasimov doctrine is rather a “Western myth than a formal comprehensive Russian strategic concept”. It is quite telling that the term HW in Russian (gibridnaya voyna) is simply a translation from the English one and is mainly used to describe Western destabilisation operations against Russia – through, for instance, externally directed colour revolutions in Russia’s neighbourhood. In the end, Galeotti himself refuted his own creation, admitting that he was just looking for a catchy title and no actual “Gerasimov Doctrine” ever existed.
Beyond this quarrel, scholars believe that since 2013 Russia’s approach to one of the domains of hybrid warfare, cyberspace, changed. This move apparently came after a long observation of Western information operations in the post-Soviet states, which eventually nurtured in the Russian government a renewed interest in information operation. As a matter of fact, the Kremlin was very concerned by the wave of protests that shacked several countries in the first decade of 2000.
As explained by Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik in a seminal book on post-Communist countries, Western “help” was determinant to provide an electoral democratic breakthrough in at least in six out of eleven countries, including elections in Slovakia (1998), Croatia (2000), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). The two authors argue that in order to defeat the incumbents, opposition groups had to be trained and connected with other peers in other countries. In this sense, transnational activist networks, and US government agencies-mediate the diffusion process, even facilitating it in some cases. Cyberspace was a key medium for such coordination. The Arab Spring of 2011, which has often been named the “Facebook Revolution”, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thus, by the time Gerasimov published his essay, the Kremlin was ready to mobilize much more resources to fight informational battles, through trolls, hacking teams and other proxies in order to “secure” the fifth domain, in other word cyberspace. Soon after, according to Western intelligence Russia started to exploit cyberspace also for offensive purposes, including meddling with the US presidential election in 2016. Nowadays, Russia is listed among the top countries, which represent a threat in cyberspace. Nevertheless, Russia is not the only country undertaking offensive operations through this domain.
This was just an example of how speaking of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare per se could be misleading, as there is no such thing as a Russian HW doctrine; furthermore, many other actors in the world perform it. This dossier is an effort to shed light on Russia’s approach to this fuzzy type of warfare, but one that is becoming more and more common and deserves a proper and less biased analysis.