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Sitting on the Fence: The "Hybrid" Moment

Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr
Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr

The “Hybrid” discourse has gained traction in recent years.

It commonly designates a wide array of offensive, ambiguous and covert measures. Deniable military operations, repeated cyber attacks, disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda directed towards European countries and the US nurture a perception of vulnerability. The idea that every aspect of public and private life can be weaponized to inflict damage on open societies’ most vulnerable lines of friction has entered common parlance. This created an urgency to rearm accordingly.

Last week, a new Centre of Excellence on Countering Hybrid Threats was inaugurated by High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This small-scale center adds up to multiple initiatives by NATO and the EU as well as individual European countries.1 The extent of domains covered by hybrid threats logically entails confusion. Hybridity is a politically useful term but it remains of limited analytical substance.

The genesis of “hybrid warfare”

The use of hybrid parlance in western countries is a result of a conceptual displacement. “Hybrid warfare” was first described in 2005 as the reason for the US to reinvest a series of capacities that had been neglected throughout counter-insurrectional engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Hybrid warfare” was a concept used to explain the fundamental imbrication of the modes of warfare, combining high-end warfighting capacities with rudimentary actions, compelling opposite tactics of dispersion and concentration of forces. The further novelty was the recognition that every action was an act of communication, even at the lowest tactical levels. The emphasis, therefore, was on the need for a coordinated approach, an inter-agency process to increase synergies between civilian and military actors in conflict management and resolution.

Hybrid warfare for western military doctrine applied to expeditionary military engagements. Oddly, the concept is currently used to describe and denounce Russian actions in Ukraine and influence operations in the informational sphere as well as cybernetic and covert actions. Russian military thinkers have used the concept of hybrid warfare and turned it upside down to construct US foreign policy as an existential threat to Russia.2 This, in turn, justified Russia’s “deterrence” posture along a full-spectrum in order to respond to perceived western threats. This full-spectrum “deterrence” implied that non-military means are integral to achieving strategic goals. Remnant Soviet-style tactics of manipulation, deception, and disinformation are crucial in achieving military success without engaging military forces, as it would favor the internal decay of target societies and sow defeatism and induce compliance.

Whatever the preferred terminology, Russia builds and thinks its coercion instruments along a full-spectrum posture. Technological and informational capacities are enablers of all other dimensions of conflict. They are not conceived as separate fields of confrontation but rather as a common denominator to coercive means. The crucial difference between the hybrid warfare doctrine that originated in the west and the Russian approach is that the latter envisions conflict encompassing all dimensions of public and private life. Western hybrid warfare, by contrast, places primacy on the articulation between military and civilian actions in precisely-defined, remote engagements on a stability-projection mode.

The essence of hybrid

The Russian full-spectrum approach to conflict denotes a conceptual asymmetry compared to western strategic thinking. Russian hybridity implies the integration – not just a mere coordination – between civilian and military dimensions of conflict. The overall array of tools at the disposal of the state and its non-state subordinates or affiliates is bent to the pursuance of a single and unitary process of coercion, subversion, and persuasion. By contrast, western military political tradition conceives of conflict and warfare as of necessarily limited occurrences, war being waged only to tend towards a state of peace and western conceptions of the battlespace presuppose a proportional use of force, directed towards its termination.

Nonwestern conceptions of the battlespace, such as Russia’s and China’s, conceive a continuum between war and peace as two connected sides of an ongoing confrontation to reach strategic objectives. This is the sense of China’s unrestricted warfare doctrine or of Russia’s assertiveness of its illusionary great power. This practice of total ­statecraft is causing a strategic challenge to the west. There is a risk that western, liberal and open societies would fail to imagine and conceptualize such dynamics of state mobilization. As Robert Seely recently put it, Russia is “reinventing strategic art for the 21st century.”3

This is perhaps the name and reality behind the concept of hybridity. Post-modern western societies had hoped to collect the dividends of the peace and mistakenly conceived that security could be managed through remote, low-intensity military engagements. The absence of any existential threat and the depletion of militaries in the past two decades has made strategic power projections less audible and understandable. There hopefully is traction to remedy it.

The hybrid moment and the urgency to imagine

Western states and societies must not fail to imagine and prepare for the return of geopolitics. Max Weber famously put that it is not because reality is ambiguous that our concepts should be confused. The political use of hybridity as a concept, if carefully understood, could avoid such confusion. “Hybrid” should designate major strategic disruptions weighing on the international system of states and non-state actors. Advances in information-technological capacities are likely to place a renewed salience on power struggles between states. They offer unprecedented opportunities to conceal actions and operate deceptive moves, especially in cyber and electronic warfare. This plausible deniability puts a greater importance on unilateral state actions or bilateral disputes and it undermines the relevance of the rules-based international order. Similarly, those advances in information technologies are enablers of intelligence operations which history has proved to be particularly disruptive on a strategic scale.4

The hybrid moment is sitting on a fence. It could link the effects of globalization that decreases the prominence of states in the international system as well as the dynamics of the reassertion of realist state strategies. Globalization has induced a revolution of individual capacities through the democratization of information and destruction means. However, nationalisms and multiplying territorial disputes cause increasing disruptions. The decline of western self-confidence and strategic proactivity risks to embolden opportunistic resurgent states and networks.

It is urgent to understand and characterize this tension. Active and meaningful measures are still lacking. Centers and cells dedicated to countering hybrid threats, fuse hybrid analysis, invest strategic communications or cyber capacities are still fragmented and under-funded at EU and NATO levels. If carefully operationalized, the hybrid terminology could, however, respond to the demand for readability and intelligibility and inform better anticipatory postures. Hybrid should be a channel to construct our perception of major upcoming disruptions. But this is neither a linear nor a simple process. It is, after all, hybrid.


1 Examples include non-exhaustively the EU EastStratCom Task Force, the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell, The Riga NATO Centre of Excellence on Strategic Communications, in Tallinn NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and now the Helsinki Centre of Excellence on Countering Hybrid Threats.

2 Timothy Thomas (2016) The Evolution of Russian Military Thought: Integrating Hybrid, New-Generation, and New-Type Thinking, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 29:4, 554-575, DOI: 10.1080/13518046.2016.1232541

3 Robert Seely (2017) Defining Contemporary Russian Warfare, The RUSI Journal, 162:1, 50-59, DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2017.1301634

4 Rob Johnson (2017) The Changing Character of War, The RUSI Journal, 162:1, 6-12, DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2017.1301489

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