Oh! What a lovely hybrid war

By bne IntelliNews March 18, 2015

Mike Collier in Riga -


It used to be so easy to tell when you were at war. The prime minister would go on the wireless and say “We are at war!” in a voice resonant with history and fate. The newspapers would print “WAR!” on their covers in headlines as big as the pages would allow. Grandfathers would light pipes and mutter “Oh, not again,” between puffs.

Today, when having to stick to the ‘rules’ of war might be regarded as an infringement of one's freedom of expression, things are a lot more freeform. In fact, according to the proponents of ‘hybrid war’ – this season's most fashionable form of conflict – things have changed so much that you can be at war without even noticing it. Similarly, your opponent can declare hybrid war and launch his hybrid army at you all the while holding his hands out and saying: “Who, me?”

Are the Baltic states at war with Russia or not? Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told the BBC on March 7: “The first stage of confrontation is taking place. I mean information war, propaganda and cyber attacks. So we are already under attack. Will it be extended to conventional confrontation? Nobody knows.”

For all his faults, at least Kaiser Bill sent a telegram to confirm that hostilities had commenced.

Below the radar

What exactly is 'hybrid war' anyway? Perhaps unsurprisingly for a phenomenon that is designed to confuse and confound, it depends who you ask.

One the chief experts in the field is James Sherr of the UK think-tank Chatham House, who told bne IntelliNews that hybrid war could be defined as: “A form of warfare that is designed to cripple a state before that state even realises the conflict has begun. It's a model of warfare designed to slip under Nato's threshold of perception and reaction.”

For the Baltic states, that boils down to “intimidation with a political aim behind it,” says Sherr. “The political aim is to destroy confidence between the Baltic states and the Nato alliance that they are part of, and the European Union that they are part of, and in doing so to change the internal political balance here so that parties that have a cordial relationship with Moscow are seen by the public as the parties that can offer real safety.”

“The mayor of Riga [Nils Usakovs] recently said that as long as he was mayor there would be no Russian threat here. This is what Russian policy is designed to encourage, to persuade not just the Baltics but others too that Putin is on the verge of going crazy and if you stand up to him, you will provoke him into a very dangerous escalation which can include swift occupation of the Baltic states.”

Building client states in Europe by investing huge amounts in Eurosceptic and “illiberal” political movements is another key part of the hybrid strategy, Sherr says, predicting that it takes place on a far greater scale than is currently known. “I think Russia is investing more heavily than we're even able to estimate at the present time. What we have seen so far is probably the tip of an iceberg. This has gone on far longer and is far more extensive than we suspect. I think we will be truly shocked at how much they have been investing at undermining us from within,” Sherr says, “There was an old Soviet axiom: look for your vulnerabilities and there you will find the KGB.”

But if hybrid war is a mixture of military threat, propaganda, bribery and self-doubt, how sophisticated is it? Is Putin's hybrid war a mushy kasha in which as many noxious ingredients as possible are chucked into the pot and endlessly stirred? Or is it more sophisticated: Casserole a la Poutine using only the finest ingredients and a precise recipe? “It looks more sophisticated than it is because the people exposed to it do not understand the rules of the game that Russia is playing. Once you understand Russia's methodology, a lot of what they are doing looks very clumsy,” says Sherr.

That's not precisely the line taken by Janis Berzins of the Latvian Security and Strategic Research Centre, who insists Russia has the methods of hybrid warfare down to a fine art. “The Russians have a mechanism they call 'reflexive control', which means making your opponent do what you want without the opponent realising it. The Russians have made almost a special discipline of this reflexive control and they have been discussing it since the 1960s and 1970s. This is part of their concept of hybrid warfare,” Berzins explains.

“The thing which is most important is how Western society is not prepared for this. That's not entirely bad, but it means they are ready to do things we are not ready to do any more. For example, you cannot think of Nato having a special operations force specialising in blackmail, assassination and kidnapping. We don't do things this way, but they do. Sending an army out without insignia is against international law – but they are not ashamed to do that.”

“To put it simply, it's like the Mafia. What does the Mafia do? It exploits your weaknesses,” says Berzins. “So what Latvia needs to do is shield itself, meaning it should address its own weaknesses.”

Masters of the airwaves

Those weaknesses include the media, Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Vejonis tells bne IntelliNews. With a quarter of the country ethnically Russian and around 40% of Latvian residents able to speak Russian as a first or second language, Moscow's huge selection of TV, radio and internet channels dwarfs the handful of local stations, not only in number but in the amount of money they spend. “The purpose of hybrid war is to undermine the nation,” Vejonis says. “One of the most concerning issues is the negative external impact on our audio visual space by countries that are outside the EU and outside Nato. We must stress the importance of audio visual regulations in Europe and avoid such threats.”

That's harder than it sounds with several major Russian TV networks legally registered in places such as the UK and Sweden, making restricting their output difficult.

Compounding the problem are restrictive laws governing the use of “unofficial” languages (which is how Russian is classed in Latvia) in broadcasts, which exacerbate rather than mollify the divisions within Latvian society. Generally, Latvians and Russians inhabit completely different media spheres. “There have to be public media networks in which Latvian citizens can talk in languages that are not the state language,” says Olga Dragileva, one of the leading journalists in the country, who works in Latvian, Russian and English on Latvian state-financed media channels.

“Russian stations broadcast 24 hours a day – we only broadcast for a few hours. Unless we are serious about addressing this, we cannot compete. People have to see themselves represented in the national media – if they do not see themselves and their neighbours depicted there, they will turn elsewhere,” she says.

Coincidentally, one of the key institutions charged with unpicking the confusion of hybrid war is Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (STRATCOMCOE) based in Riga, which has been operational for less than a year.

Its director Janis Karklins has some down-to-earth advice on the best way to counter the hybrid threat, which includes “the weaponisation of social media”. “Counter-propaganda is not an efficient way to counter propaganda,” Karklins says, “We need to develop our own story.”

Russia's real cleverness has been in taking advantage of a situation in which the economic model of the media itself has changed, so that readers and viewers expect everything to be free of charge. As a result quality journalism is declining, and readers and viewers turn to whoever is providing free content and plenty of it.

Russian media is great at tagging its stories, so that they appear at the top of internet searches, and at providing content quickly online. Western media is still stuck in old-fashioned modes of information distribution, he says. “When thinking about how to get our message across, we need to factor these things in because the old recipes are not effective any longer,” Karlins says. “We need to change our way of thinking and adapt to this new situation... we need to develop messages that resonate with different audiences, in their mother tongue. We need to think how to address Russian populations in Nato member states.”

“One way to do this is to develop skills of media information literacy and critical thinking in our education system to make it harder for adversaries to disorient the population. When people are disoriented they are easily manipulated,” he argues.

It is as if the well-known phenomenon of the “fog of war” that disorients troops in combat and frequently leads to them fighting their own side has seeped off the battlefield and into the corridors of power via covert financial backing, into homes via overtly propagandistic media and into the world of business via travel bans, sanctions and product boycotts – all of which brings to mind Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov, credited by British documentary maker Adam Curtis as elevating the art of social disorientation to a black art.

But there are a couple more interesting things about hybrid war. Andis Kudors of Latvia's Centre for East European Policy Studies points out a couple of basic and brutal truths: “Hybrid war is relatively cheaper than traditional warfare, though still you need to put resources into your media. Hybrid war does not require as many lives of your soldiers. If you use volunteers, separatists and criminals, they can die instead of your soldiers. That means fewer critics of your government when caskets with dead bodies start to come from the battlefield.”

Boots on the ground

What hasn't changed is the likelihood that for all its twists and turns, hybrid war must in the final instance still be countered by conventional means. That means troops, tanks and guns, all of which were in evidence on March 9 in the port of Riga, where the US Army was unloading a sizeable collection of M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and APCs to complement the Stryker transporters already in the country. The following day, the US announced 3,000 troops were heading to the Baltic for exercises.

In such circumstances, figures like Major General Jack O'Connor, standing dockside, are probably worth more than all the foreign policy wonks in the world put together. Emanating good old-fashioned blood-and-guts attitude (and quoting Ronald Reagan in the process – who else quotes Reagan these days?), O'Connor is the kind of guy you would want in your trench.

“Russia has attacked and crossed into sovereign territory of Ukraine. So as a response, working through Nato, we have brought formations from the United States to Europe to demonstrate our resolve against Russia's attack,” O'Connor said. “The purpose is to establish peace boundaries. And those boundaries go from Estonia down to the Black Sea. We intend to demonstrate to Russia that we are here training with our allies in order to help Putin make decisions not to further incur into Ukraine.”

But bearing in mind what James Sherr said about hybrid war working to position Moscow-friendly parties as the “reasonable” choice, it was interesting to note the presence of Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs alongside O'Connor on the dockside. His Harmony party is the only one in the EU to have a formal cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia, which Usakovs defends, arguing that it keeps lines of communication open.

Asked by bne IntelliNews whether it wasn't strange to have a US general lambasting a valued partner in such a way, Usakovs unleashes one of his trademark withering stares. “Different people have different degrees of emotion when they talk about events between the West and Russia,” he says.

With Ukraine being used to hone Russia's hybrid warfare skills, the last word should go to Oleksiy Melnik of the Razumkov Centre in Kyiv, who points out that President Putin isn't just the man controlling hybrid war: he is the embodiment of it. “Mr Putin is the key player and he is quite successful at playing a hybrid of aggressor and peacemaker at the same time. Being party to the war, Russia presents itself as a mediator that's fighting not against Ukraine, but against the USA and Brussels.”

“The biggest problem is that he's allowed to do this,” Melnik concludes. “In calling this war a hybrid war we are trying to describe how it is being fought, but we are still hesitating to give it a proper name. In my opinion this is the beginning of a World War conducted by Russia not just against Ukraine, but against the rest of the world.”

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