Russian engagement in the Ukraine crisis. Is it really hybrid?
Over the past two years, many scholars in defence, security and other areas of study have attempted to examine and explain the Russian engagement in the Ukraine crisis through a broad range of conceptual approaches. Such concepts as asymmetric warfare, full spectrum conflict and hybrid warfare have been among the most frequently used conceptual approaches to decipher Russian activities in Ukraine. In this regard, hybrid warfare has been predominantly used to give meaning to Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea and current destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine. Many scholars have claimed that Russia is elaborating upon this hybrid warfare doctrine which was first successfully applied in Ukraine. Also, in their view, there is a high likelihood of such hybrid warfare techniques being replicated by Russia elsewhere in the region.
On the other hand, there are experts that point to the misleading perception of unprecedented nature of hybrid warfare concept, mainly due to the lack of newly displayed military and informational capabilities. Apart from that, they claim that there is no clear evidence of the emergence of Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine. In their opinion, it is crucial not to overemphasise the novelty and recent transformations in Russian capabilities, while also not overlooking the importance of Soviet-inherited techniques and permissive environment for such hostile Russian actions in Ukraine. In addition, they point to the potential dangers and misperceptions which could be caused by applying the hybrid warfare concept to describe Russian engagement in Ukraine.
Such an absence of shared understanding and agreement over the very nature and key motives of Russia’s engagement in Ukraine has made it problematic for the international community to properly assess and address the informational and military challenges posed by Russia. Describing the Kremlin’s behaviour through conceptual approaches, which have emerged under other circumstances and conditions, prevents an adequate analysis and understanding of Russian engagement in Ukraine. It also makes it difficult to examine the recent attempts by Russia to adapt itself to the realities of modern warfare.
Hybrid warfare, Soviet-inherited practices and permissive environment in Ukraine
The term “hybrid warfare” has been in use since the early 2000s. It first appeared in the debates of military experts as an attempt to explain the behaviour of non-state actors, such as Hezbollah, who have managed to exploit the limited weaknesses of more powerful states (with conventional armies and technological and military hardware) through a mix of the limited military and informational tools at their disposal.
Nevertheless, there are several issues which make it problematic to apply this concept to the behaviour of state actors such as Russia.In spite of sounding new, hybrid warfare’s analytical utility is quite limited due to its descriptive nature. The key reason for this is that it simply refers to a combination of conventional and unconventional types of warfare used to achieve political-military objectives. It does not describe a new form of combat and some of its frequently mentioned components such as information and cyber warfare, diplomacy, and the use of both conventional and guerrilla tactics have been the elements of such concepts as compound warfare, 4th generation warfare, full spectrum conflict, asymmetric warfare, and several others. These concepts have also emerged under special circumstances and have reflected the attempts of military and security experts to explain the evolution in the use of armed forces in conjunction with other elements of national power.
In spite of being popular among academia and policymakers in the West, the concept of hybrid warfare has not been in frequent use in the official documents produced by relevant state authorities in the West or in Russia. For example, this situation could be observed in the United States where it was concluded that the term hybrid warfare offers nothing new compared to other more frequently used concepts. Moreover, what is often mistaken for hybrid warfare doctrine applied by Russia in Ukraine could be better explained within the framework of the Soviet-inherited practices as well as recent transformation of military and informational capabilities of Russia.
In terms of the Soviet-inherited practices, specific attention should be paid to Russian information operations which rely on the combined use of active measures and reflexive control methods. The active measures represent deceptive operations which involve disinformation, political influence operations, and coordinated activities of various non-government and non-political organisations to promote relevant Russian goals. The roots of these measures can be traced back to the subversive warfare previously practiced by the KGB, the GRU, the Communist Party and Soviet Military Main Intelligence Directorate during the second half of the 20th century. Currently, one of the key goals of the Kremlin is to deceive public opinion by distorting information concerning the events in Ukraine and to influence the political, governmental, business and academic affairs of different countries. In light of the above, it should be stressed that the key purpose of these tactics is to counteract the political influence and information aggression of the West against the Russian state.
Reflexive control measures have also been successfully adapted and integrated within the recent Russian information operations. For a very long time, the Soviet and Russian Armed Forces have studied the use of reflexive control at operational and tactical levels, especially for disinformation and deception purposes, including ways to influence and control opponent’s decision-making processes. As of today, this method is regarded by many Russian military experts as more important in achieving military objectives than traditional conventional instruments. At the heart of reflexive control are attempts to make an enemy voluntarily choose the actions most advantageous to Russian objectives through shaping the enemy’s perceptions of the situation. In case of Ukraine, it was achieved through denial and deception operations to conceal the presence of Russian forces in the country and shaping the narrative about the Ukraine conflict through official channels and social media sources.
In terms of the transformation of military and information capabilities, Russian leadership has undertaken a broad range of steps aimed at modernising its armed forces and improving its overall information propaganda to catch up to the realities of modern warfare. As of today, it is evident that the Kremlin possesses a sufficient combination of both hard and soft power instruments to pressure and isolate countries such as Ukraine, while simultaneously deterring and preventing any possible support coming from Ukraine’s far more advanced friendly states.
With regard to hard power instruments, Russia has been able to update and significantly strengthen its military capabilities within the last decade. Since Putin came to power in 2000, Russia has undergone a substantial military transformation, which has enabled it to overcome a post-Cold War legacy of the steady decline of armed forces. This was mostly due to the fact that the military budget was significantly increased in comparison with the early 1990s. For instance, the military budget in 1998 was 20.8 billion USD, while it was increased to 90 billion USD in 2013.
The 2008 military reform, with its structural and organisational remodelling, enabled a far greater centralisation of political-military control over armed forces. Moreover, mobility and rapid reactions capabilities were improved. In addition, in 2013 Russia initiated a pool of rapid deployment forces consisting of intelligence and special operation units, including other brigades to be engaged in the possible intervention in its neighbourhood. The annexation of Crimea demonstrated an excellent coordination of special operations.
In spite of such a substantial progress, however, the Russian army still faces a broad range of problems, under-financing being one of them. There is a shared understanding that it is still unrealistic to consider Russia as a compatible conventional rival to NATO. Hence, its nuclear arsenal makes up for its shortcomings in conventional capabilities and serves as the backbone of Russia’s deterrence against the West. In order to compensate for such a conventional disadvantage, Russia relies on a set of state-funded TV and radio channels as well as various online sources. The goal has been to mobilise information warfare technologies to unify the domestic public in support of Russia’s foreign policy and to promote the Kremlin’s neo-Eurasianist agenda abroad.
Russia has also managed to integrate cyber tools within its information operations. They were successfully applied during the information campaign against Ukraine which led to the quick consolidation of Russian control over Crimea. Unlike the campaigns previously conducted against Chechnya and Georgia, when Russian information operations encompassed active measures, reflexive control and psychological operations, Russia has managed to successfully apply cyber tools in Ukraine to maximise the efficiency of traditional information operations as well as conventional military efforts.
Finally, there has been a permissive environment which has helped to secure the relative success of Russian engagement in Ukraine. First of all, it was the proper timing for Russia to proceed with the annexation of Crimea due to a weakened Ukrainian leadership. The Russian engagement took place right after the new political forces took over the power following the Revolution of Dignity. During this time the Ukrainian leadership was concentrated on dividing political and economic spheres of influence rather than security and defence issues. Secondly, the operation was unique due to the presence of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol and the status of its forces in Crimea. The circumstances enabled traditional military invasion and occupation of the peninsula by the combined use of available military brigades, special operations units and information techniques which ensured the smooth completion of the conventional seizure.
Thirdly, Russia has been backing pro-Russian separatism in Crimea since the early 1990s. The Kremlin has supported and controlled the activities of these groups and has maintained a contingent of civilians and intelligence officers in Crimea. It used a broad range of informational techniques to save the peninsula from “fascists” from Kyiv who were said to terrorise and repress ethnic Russians. At the same time, the Kagaranov’s Doctrine on the protection of Russians was used together with the rhetoric of returning Crimea back to the “Russian World.” As a result, it took around three weeks for Russia to carry out its well-prepared and well-conducted military takeover of Crimea. An illegal referendum on Crimea’s reunification with Russia, as well as Crimea’s declaration of independence and request to join Russia quickly followed.
“Hybrid” according to Russia
A lot of experts in the West tend to apply Western concepts to define Russia’s approach to modern warfare. Their use of the term “hybrid war”, which was developed to describe the current tactics of Russia, should be properly questioned due to several factors.
First of all, there is not much research aimed at exploring Russia’s perception of the concept of hybrid warfare. After taking a closer look at the ongoing scholarly debate, one notices a prevalent tendency to use the hybrid warfare concept to describe Russian actions in Ukraine through the prism of Western thinking. Such an approach misses the point because it disregards the current Russian thinking and the continuity of Soviet-inherited practices which significantly differ from Western approaches. Aside from this, there is little evidence to suggest that Russia defines its approach in Ukraine as hybrid. In fact, until recently the term hybrid warfare has been absent from the official Russian lexicon. Moreover, prior to the Ukraine crisis, it was frequently used to describe US warfare techniques. Following the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Russian experts have widely considered the unfolding situation in the country as an example of the use of hybrid warfare techniques by the US to destabilise the situation in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, as the narrative continues, after the success in Ukraine the US could plan a similar hybrid warfare operation in Russia to topple the current leadership and install a pro-Western regime.
Second, not much effort has been made to examine the hybrid warfare concept within the Russian ideological context and compare it with Russia’s understanding of its role in the world. A siege mentality has prevailed among Russian leadership which has been reflected in official documents and debates since the early 2000s. The Kremlin sees the world through a geopolitical lens and Russia as being encircled by hostile forces, viewed as a continuation of Western attempts to destabilise Russia after the USSR’s collapse. Many Russian experts believe that such attempts could be observed in hybrid warfare techniques which combine a set of military, informational, economic and other means jointly used to undermine Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space and within Russia itself. On a larger scale, the Kremlin considers hybrid warfare as an American tool of dragging regional actors under its umbrella and away from Russia. Hence, they believe that the US-led West intends to reach a global domination through the use of hybrid warfare techniques.
Finally, instead of mistakenly labelling Russian operations in Ukraine as hybrid warfare, more attention should also be drawn to the conceptual attempts of Russia to catch up with the realities of modern warfare. Within the last few years, Russian specialists have been working on conceptualising Russian understanding of modern warfare. This can be observed in the recent debates concerning the changing realities of modern warfare, which were triggered by the emergence of the Gerasimov Doctrine – often misquoted as the doctrine of Russian hybrid warfare. To be more precise, Russian scholarly research pays specific attention as to how the joint use of hard and soft power instruments could be more effectively applied across various domains together with more coherent application of economic and diplomatic tools. In this regard, the key focus of study has been on how to maximise the coordination and efficiency of non-military tools and minimise the use of military instruments.
It is of utter importance to pay attention to the continuity between Russian strategic military thinking and the many practices inherited from the USSR. What is often regarded as the Russian application of the doctrine of hybrid warfare in Ukraine is simply a combined use of active measures and reflexive control methods coupled with the conventional components that have undergone significant transformation and modernisation since the early 2000s. It is also crucial not to forget about the uniquely permissive environment in Ukraine which enabled Russia to undertake a swift and well-coordinated annexation of Crimea using both information and military tactics. It is highly unlikely that such conditions and environment could be replicated elsewhere in Europe.
Maksym Beznosiuk is an international relations specialist from Kyiv, Ukraine.