Last year’s events in Ukraine and Russia’s actions in Crimea and then developments in eastern Ukraine gave rise in the West to the widespread belief that Moscow has been conducting an innovative form of military intervention known as “hybrid war” throughout the Ukraine crisis.
Many Western media outlets and politicians have seized on this idea of hybrid war, turning it into an entrenched meme. But an objective view of the situation shows that the term “hybrid war” is more propagandistic than descriptive, as any attempt to define “hybrid war” undercuts the notion that it is something new and innovative.
Hybrid war, according to one of the most popular Western definitions, is a “combination of overt and covert military operations, provocation and sabotage in conjunction with official denial of any involvement, making it difficult to adequately respond.”
According to the more comprehensive definition contained in the editorial preface to The Military Balance 2015, hybrid war is “the use of military and non-military tools in an integrated campaign designed to achieve surprise, seize the initiative and gain psychological as well as physical advantages utilizing diplomatic means; sophisticated and rapid information, electronic and cyber operations; covert and occasionally overt military and intelligence action; and economic pressure.”The report states that during the Crimean operation in February-March 2014, Russian forces “demonstrated integrated use of rapid deployment, electronic warfare, information operations (IO), locally based naval infantry, airborne assault and special-forces capabilities, as well as wider use of cyberspace and strategic communications. The latter was used to shape a multifaceted and overall effective information campaign targeted as much at domestic and foreign audiences.” In eastern Ukraine, Moscow has allegedly demonstrated its ability to quickly create “pressure groups” consisting of “local elements,” albeit guided and supported from the outside – a tactic that can be used to protect ethnic minorities.
As such, hybrid war is portrayed as a serious challenge to NATO, since it falls into a “gray zone” with respect to the alliance’s obligations and could lead to political divisions between its members.
It is easy to see that these definitions of hybrid war, and especially the description of Russia’s actions in 2014, are a far cry from reality. For example, it is hard to understand what special “information” and “cyber” operations involving “wider use of cyberspace” were conducted by Moscow in Crimea. Indeed, there have been no reports of “cyber operations” in Crimea. What would have been their purpose against the outmoded Ukrainian armed forces?
And Russia’s propaganda effort in Crimea was sluggish both for international and domestic audiences. Moscow’s actions in Crimea were not promoted, but rather downplayed, just like its end goals. In fact, Crimea’s unification with Russia came as a surprise to many. Justifications for Russia’s actions in Crimea that came after the event were also quite half-hearted. Indeed, the accession of Crimea was received with mass support and even enthusiasm in Russia, but it was achieved without much propaganda, since the belief that Crimea is Russian land was widespread already, while Ukraine is regarded as a “separatist inferior state” in the popular consciousness in Russia.
However, the Russian military did work on Ukrainian servicemen in Crimea, suggesting that they switch en masse to the Russian side. This was a highly successful campaign that led to the complete demoralization of the Ukrainian forces in Crimea. Only about 20 percent of Ukrainian servicemen decided to continue serving in the Ukrainian armed forces and leave Crimea, while the rest either went on to serve in the Russian army or deserted.
Nonetheless, the successful demoralization of the enemy forces was entirely determined by the unique nature of these forces (most of the Ukrainian servicemen in Crimea were locals), rather than by any specific propaganda successes.
In general, the actions classified as hybrid war have been fairly standard in low-intensity armed conflicts around the globe in recent decades, if not centuries. It is hard to imagine the use of military force without information support or economic sanctions, covert warfare, or attempts to demoralize the enemy and exploit divisions (ethnic, social, economic, political, etc.) in the enemy camp. These have been the ABCs of war since antiquity.
The widespread definition of hybrid war as combination of overt and covert military operations and the focus in the West on the unmarked “polite people” (“little green men”) in Crimea ignore the unique nature of the Crimean operation, where Russia’s actions enjoyed virtually undivided support from the local population, which isolated and paralyzed the Ukrainian army in Crimea. This made it possible to use unmarked servicemen for a fairly long time. But again, this has to do with the specific situation in Crimea. It is difficult to imagine such “polite people” operating in a different environment, such as Poland or the United States. In that case, no formal denial of involvement would have any credibility.
In general, the use of unidentified regular military units, without any indication of nationality, for limited military or special operations has a long history and cannot be viewed as something new. Passing regular forces off as “volunteers” also has numerous precedents in history. In essence, any foreign military intervention in a civil war (which is what we observe in Ukraine) inevitably involved similar circumstances throughout history.
The combination of regular and rebel forces can hardly be considered an innovation, either. This is a classic military tactic that is employed when the circumstances are right. As you may be aware, one of the main tasks of the US Special Operations Forces Command, particularly the Green Berets, is to organize and support allied rebel and guerrilla movements.
Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are a classical example of a foreign force supporting one side in a domestic political and civil conflict. But this kind of support is only possible when one side actually has irredentist aims and wants to draw the country it wants to unite with into the conflict.
It’s worth noting that the current Ukrainian conflict most closely resembles not the Munich Agreement and Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 (which, incidentally, involved German irredentist militias), but rather the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848 (resulting in annexation of Texas and several other Mexican states by the United States), or the unification of Italy in the middle of the 19th century, known as the Risorgimento. In both cases, irredentism was the cause of war. The parental country (the United States and the Kingdom of Sardinia Piedmont) could not, for political reasons, immediately start an open military intervention to support the irredentists. Therefore, they provided what help they could, including supporting and replenishing their formations, sending large numbers of real and fake volunteers and covert units of their armed forces, organizing limited interventions, etc. Russia has used these same tactics in the current Ukrainian conflict. There are very close parallels between Moscow’s relationship with Igor Strelkov, who led the first phase of the armed opposition in Donbass, and Giuseppe Garibaldi’s troubled relationship with King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy and his Prime Minister Cavour, who initially used and supported Garibaldi but then began to consider him a loose cannon and a potential political threat.
Thus, a closer examination of history debunks the idea of hybrid war as an innovation. Its “hybrid” nature is not determined by any ground-breaking strategy or tactic; rather it is derived from techniques employed basically since the beginning of military and political history in conflicts with a significant domestic component. Provided there is a strong presence of one’s “own” faction in the enemy country, a foreign actor can implement elements of what has now become known as hybrid war. Describing events in Ukraine as hybrid war is an attempt to use politically biased language to exaggerate the importance of external factors in the conflict, and to downplay the significance of internal factors, which the external forces are simply exploiting in a fairly traditional manner. This desire to downplay the importance of internal factors in the Ukraine conflict can be clearly seen in the way the West treats the entire Ukraine conflict as a new kind of hybrid war that Russia is waging against Ukraine.
Ruslan Pukhov is director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a private Moscow-based think tank.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club’s, unless explicitly stated otherwise.