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Hybrid Warfare: A Known Unknown?


By Col. Tomasz K. Kowalik and Dominik P. Jankowski

Since the beginning of the Russian operation in Crimea in 2014, which led to an illegal and illegitimate annexation of the peninsula, hybrid warfare became a buzzword used in all transatlantic security policy circles. For many in the West, the Crimea operation came as a surprise and the term “hybrid warfare” was meant to intellectually embrace this shock.

Yet, many experts claim that there is nothing new in the current model of hybrid warfare as it is based on hybrid wars conducted in Vietnam, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, to name a few. In fact, hybrid warfare can be more easily characterized than defined. But is it really—to use the famous expression by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—a known unknown?

Based on the Russian operation in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, hybrid warfare can be described as a centrally designed, coordinated, and controlled use of various covert and overt tactics, enacted by military and non-military means, ranging from the use of conventional forces, through economic pressure to intelligence and cyber operations.

By employing a hybrid strategy, the attacker seeks to undermine and destabilize an opponent by applying both coercive and subversive methods. The aggressor may also work by empowering proxy insurgent groups or disguising state-to-state aggression behind the mantle of a “humanitarian intervention.” Massive disinformation campaigns designed to control the narrative are an important element of a long-term hybrid campaign. All this is brought to bear with the objective of achieving political influence, even dominance over a country in support of an overall strategy.

The Russian model of hybrid warfare is easily recognizable. Its effectiveness is grounded in military instruments. These consist i.e. of unjustified concentration of troops at the borders, large-scale snap exercises based on offensive scenarios, the use of provocative maneuvers in international airspace and at sea as well as the use of the (in)famous “little green men,” but also cyber attacks, aggressive media campaigns, and other activities. One of the main features of the Russian model is deniability. How many times did we hear from the Russian side such statements as “there are no Russian troops in Ukraine” or “Russia is not providing arms to the separatists”? Their goal was to generate ambiguity both in the affected population under attack and in the larger international community.

Flexibility and adaptability are two other key components of the Russian hybrid warfare model. Indeed, one will not witness two identical hybrid warfare campaigns. In the case of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict there were at least five key prerequisites for a successful employment of a hybrid strategy. First, clear military superiority of the Russian side. Second, a weakened and ineffective central power and dysfunctional security structures. Third, presence of a considerable Russian-speaking minority which became a source of claim for the aggressor. Fourth, strong media presence in Ukraine and Russia which allowed a massive propaganda campaign. Finally, logistical requirements—such as weak or non-existent border-guard service—all were essential as a full-spectrum hybrid war cannot operate in isolation.

Unfortunately, the Russian hybrid warfare model is being further developed, perfected, and tested as we speak. Russian ability to escalate rapidly across the whole spectrum of conflict makes the West prone to the “surprise effect.” Hybrid operations seek to weaken our domestic and international resolve. The Russian hybrid warfare model is particularly focused on impairing decision-making processes. Ambiguity can divide the international community, limiting the speed and scope of a response to the aggression.

The West is not immune to hybrid threats. Thus, NATO has a prominent role to play in countering hybrid threats which may easily and rapidly evolve into hybrid warfare, and—if not properly addressed and countered—possibly into a regular war. The NATO Summit in Warsaw was an essential part of manifesting that the Alliance is ready to face potential hybrid warfare from any strategic direction. A joint adequate response to hybrid warfare should be based on four pillars.

First, in order to respond one needs to know that an action might be required. In a hybrid environment proper awareness is key. It is critical to be able to recognize any subtle changes to the threat landscape which later may turn out to be elements of an adversary’s larger campaign. Therefore, NATO needs robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities which are a fundamental requirement for effective situational awareness, strategic foresight and early warning. In response to the threats and challenges on the eastern flank, NATO should consider emplacing a Regional Intelligence Analysis Centre (RIAC) on its eastern flank as well as strengthening its ISR presence in the region, e.g. by establishing additional AWACS and AGS forward operating locations in Poland.

Second, even the best ISR capabilities will not be enough if awareness is not enhanced by timely decision making. NATO should demonstrate that it has developed a culture and a habit of prompt decision making in hybrid conflict environment. Article 9 of the Washington Treaty stipulates very clearly that the North Atlantic Council “shall be so organized as to be able to meet promptly at any time.” Consequently, the military side of the house—especially the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)—should have some more politically pre-authorized prerogatives to act in a situation of a potential hybrid warfare campaign. In a hybrid scenario time is of the essence, and a prompt and early politico-military reaction may prevent an adversary from further making advances.

Third, allied boots on the ground will remain the best way to deter hybrid warfare. Therefore, enhanced forward presence will be of crucial importance in a hybrid environment. Hence, NATO’s battle groups to be deployed in the coming months to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia must be combat ready, but also properly equipped and trained to face threats which might emerge below the threshold of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (collective defense). In the same spirit, NATO needs to make sure that the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)—which was created at the 2014 Wales Summit to ensure that the Alliance is ready to respond swiftly and firmly to security challenges, including hybrid warfare—is not a paper tiger. The VJTF should be seen as a military preventive option which could thwart the spread of a potential conflict, if deployed timely to areas contiguous to the crisis.

Fourth, only by employing a sound long-term communication strategy NATO can effectively counter information warfare. In a hybrid environment, large populations can be “brain-washed” through the manipulation of the media or by spreading false hopes and hatred. In fact, since Russia began its illegal military intervention in Ukraine, Russian officials have accused NATO of a series of mythical provocations, threats, and hostile actions stretching back over 25 years. The allied response was simple: propaganda can only be challenged by facts.

Hybrid warfare is indeed nothing new. Yet, what makes the current Russian model so challenging and threatening is the level of its integration and coordination as well as speed in which hybrid threats can evolve into hybrid warfare. The model will also change and adapt over time. The NATO Summit in Warsaw sent a clear signal that the Alliance long-term adaptation process takes Russian hybrid warfare model seriously. The hybrid environment requires boldness rather than caution.

This article was originally published by “New Eastern Europe“.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do neither necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of National Defence nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Col. Tomasz K. Kowalik, PhD, is the Director of the Department of Military Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defence of the Republic of Poland.

Dominik P. Jankowski is the Chief Specialist for Crisis Management, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.



Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.