Building hybrid resistance
Review of “The Hybrid Aggression of Russia: Lessons for Europe” (Гібридна агресія Росії: уроки для Європи). By: Yevhen Mahda. Publisher: Kalamar Publishing House, Kyiv, 2017.
War in its classical sense, with regular troops on the battlefield, has disappeared a long time ago. Today, the military component of warfare is understood more as the final phase of an aggressor’s strategy, preceded by non-military means oriented at destabilising the opponent internally and diminishing the enemy’s external credibility. Undoubtedly, one of the latest examples of such hybrid aggression is the Russian Federation’s action towards Ukraine in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity (EuroMaidan protests of winter 2013/2014). The Kremlin’s hybrid activities visibly exceed Ukraine’s state boundaries as is well described in the recent book by Ukrainian expert Yevhen Mahda titled: The Hybrid Aggression of Russia: Lessons for Europe.
Mahda is a renowned Ukrainian political scientist and commentator known for his previous work on hybrid warfare. His first book, Hybrid warfare: To survive and win, (Гібридна війна: вижити і перемогти) written in 2015 just a year after the onset of Russian military aggression in Ukraine, the illegal annexation of Crimea (without a single shot fired) and the occupation of Donbas with the use of pro-Russian separatists, was one of the first in the region of Eastern Europe devoted not only to understanding the theoretical approach of the notion of hybrid warfare but also to shed more light on the Ukrainian case. The 2017 book presents the specifics of the situation in Ukrainian and lessons for the West. It is aimed especially at Europeans and those coming from ‘Old Europe’, where a fascination with Russia (and in the Soviet context) has always been rather high. Even though the book has only been published in Ukrainian and Russian, there are hopes for translations in the near future.
Mahda argues that Russia’s hybrid activities towards Ukraine began much earlier than 2013 – and in fact very soon after Ukrainian independence of 1991. In the first years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin had lost its strong position in international affairs. It did not, however, abandon the idea of restoring its political domination in the post-Soviet space. In his writings, Mahda recalls the Russian-Ukrainian gas disputes of 2006 and 2009 with the aim to discredit Kyiv in the eyes of its western partners (and a final success of Kremlin’s policy in such manner). Similarly, other Russian-inspired humiliations of Ukrainian leaders – such as Leonid Kuchma’s “Cassette Scandal” which disclosed the involvement of Ukrainian politicians in the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, a journalist of Georgian origin in 2000 – significantly undermined Kyiv’s position on the path of potential European integration. The combination of pressure in the energy and security sectors, economic dependence and Moscow’s effective propaganda and disinformation made it look as though the door for Ukraine’s pro-western inclinations had ultimately closed.
Even the outcomes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, during those days construed as a failure for Russian leaders mainly due to the internal turbulence of the Ukrainian elite, did not alter the perception of Ukraine in the West. It was constantly seen as a country that belonged in some form to the ‘Russkiy Mir’ (Russian world). In his book, Mahda demonstrates that a combination of Russian hybrid actions and reluctance of Ukrainian high-ranked politicians to break the deadlock and image of Ukraine as a weak, or even failed, state established a situation of social apathy among the Ukrainian population which definitely stood in a line with Kremlin’s interests. Most probably, this was the main reason for the decisive military response of Moscow to the results of EuroMaidan protests in 2013/2014 that went much further than those measures implemented after the Orange Revolution. Ukrainians simply started to respect their own state and attempted to change their image in the eyes of the world. Mahda argues that this is what created the first layer of resistance towards the hybrid aggression.
Nevertheless, the whole Russian false propaganda industry is still very active in Eastern and Western Europe. In addition to widely known information of Moscow financing radical populists political parties in many different EU member states (such as the far-right National Front in France and its former leader Marine Le Pen), Mahda brings to the table an interesting example of the Dutch referendum in April 2016, when a majority of voters in the Netherlands voted down the potential association between Ukraine and the European Union. The Kremlin’s influence through the work of powerful Moscow-backed media (compared to almost non-existent Ukrainian message for the Dutch people) shaped the political narrative in Holland largely based on the MH17 tragedy in July 2014 (the Malaysian airliner was most probably shot down by Russian-led separatists in Donbas) which successfully portrayed Ukraine as an unstable country where an unpredictable civil war is taking place.
Based on the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections in France, where Emmanuel Macron undisputedly won over Marine le Pen, as well as recent victories of centrist and liberal candidates in Austria and Netherlands, it would seem that Europe has succeeded in stopping most populists, pro-Russian factions. For now, Russia has failed to divide and weaken the EU and NATO member states. However, it does not mean that Ukraine can sit calmly. Here, Mahda writes about another feature of successful resistance against hybrid attacks, namely the need to take responsibility for public policy. The hard work of the Ukrainian diplomacy, including that of President Petro Poroshenko (very often criticised in its own country) has resulted in Ukraine achieving a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens travelling to the EU and the approved Association Agreement in force since September 1st 2017 (eventually the Dutch authorities acted in opposition to the referendum). During the special celebration of the visa-free system in Kyiv in June 2017, Poroshenko symbolically cut ties with the Russian Federation – although, it cannot be easily presumed that Moscow desires the same.
Nevertheless, “Hybrid warfare is nothing new”. In fact, this is the key message Mahda purveys in his recent book. He emphasises that the use of regular armed forces, irregular militants and other means of influence were already taking place in ancient times – even Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, managed to conquer the city of Troy via the famous Trojan Horse. Similarly, today’s idea to reintegrate Donbas into Ukraine without the return of full jurisdiction of Kyiv over the territory could also be called a Russian Trojan Horse, with the goal of maintaining influence over Ukrainian internal and external politics.
Yevhen Mahda has no doubts that in the course of the Kremlin’s current hybrid aggression, Ukraine is “just” the first victim, but definitely not the last. At first glance, a recipe for victory against hybrid attacks seems to be quite simple: provide effective economic and structural reforms of the state, build up successful defence systems (also bearing in mind cyber and disinformation threats), form a positive external image of the country and shape the national identity. Ukraine has never been so close to Europe and almost everything still depends on Kyiv to follow this path. Yet, it requires Europe’s awareness and engagement as well.
Tomasz Lachowski is a lawyer and journalist. He has a PhD in international law from the University of Łódź and is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Obserwator Międzynarodowy.