Russia, Hybrid War and the Evolution of Europe


2015-02-14 By Stephen Blank

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the forms that it has taken since February 2014 have caused commentators across the globe to label it as a manifestation of hybrid war.

Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University originated this concept in a series of publications going back several years.[i]

Alternatively Russian operations in Ukraine also resemble the Chinese concept of Unrestricted War.[ii]

But however we label these operations, it remains the case that NATO and the West still have a decidedly incomplete understanding of them and their implications. Moreover NATO, impaired by this lack of understanding and the visible absence of the will to resist, has failed to develop a coherent strategy to respond to this phenomenon.

Indeed, Western analysts and politicians find it difficult to get their arms (or heads) around the many dimensions this form of warfare takes today as it appears in Russian policy.

Clausewitz reminds us that war is a chameleon, and hybrid war fully justifies this appellation. Therefore we must grasp hybrid war in its totality, a totality that embraces multiple dimensions.

To use US military terminology, it is a form of war that utilizes all the instruments of power: diplomacy, information, military, and economic (US Army analysts call this the DIME). As discussed by Moscow in its new doctrine which accuses the US and NATO of practicing it and in statements by Chief of he General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov in 2013 we can see that the military instrument per se plays only a limited role in this concept.[iii]

A Russian Orthodox Army member stands guard near Donetsk airport. Credit: Financial Times

Instead all of the instruments of power subsumed in the DIME are employed and the purpose of using these instruments in this synchronized way is to effectuate regime change, i.e. destroying or at least permanently enfeebling regimes that oppose US (or in actuality Russian) interests.

Thus across Europe and Eurasia, and even in the US, not just Ukraine, Moscow employs the following instruments beyond the use of conventional military forces, irregular, and intelligence formations (GRU and Russian Special Forces [SSO–not Spetsnaz]) and regular nuclear threats to deter NATO involvement and intimidate the alliance.

Moscow’s non-military instruments are deployed every day in a constant, regular, and strategic if not systematic and synchronized effort to break up the processes of European or even regional integration, hollow out the EU and NATO, corrupt and subvert European political and economic institutions, and to try to ensure that Russia always has significant leverage upon European economic-political processes and states who will have to confront it bilaterally rather than in multilateral institutions, and ultimately detach the U.S. from active participation in European affairs and, from the Russian viewpoint, thereby leaving Russia as a dominant player in Europe.

These non-military instruments of this strategy comprise the following elements:

  • Investments in key sectors and not only in upstream or downstream aspects of the energy sectors of European economies;
  • The use of Russian investments, trade, and capital to bribe and influence key economic and political elites;
  • Buy up media, support anti-integration and pro-Russian political parties of all stripes (not just groups like the National Front in France);
  • Arms sales to gain influence over military decision-making and bribe key elites through kickbacks and the like;
  • Vastly enhanced spying and overall intelligence penetration of European organizations;
  • Large-scale use of intelligence penetration to subvert and manipulate businesses, political parties, and movements even when not subsidizing them;
  • Forging of links between Russian organized crime and local criminal elements and local political factions;
  • Establishment of ties among religious institutions, exploitation of unresolved ethnic tensions and campaigns for “minority rights” in countries like the Baltic States or Moldova or incitement of Hungary to do the same in Ukraine;
  • Large-scale supports for Russian information outlets abroad like Russia Today to promote an unrelenting pro-Moscow political message;
  • Emphasis is upon a diplomatic insistence that the U.S. is both an alien factor in Europe and a threat to European security by threatening Russia’s vital interests and right to be a great power i.e. have a sphere of influence in Europe;
  • And massive coordinated cyber strikes on selected targets.

Although the specific features of Crimea and the Donbass may not be replicable elsewhere what we must understand is that this repertoire of instruments allows Russian “music directors” enormous flexibility in orchestrating attacks on targets even though this activity goes on every day without ever abating.

Both in military and non-military terms Russia has learned how to “tailor” forces and non-military instruments to the requirements of the theater or target/s in question, e.g. targeting British finance in the City of London, French arms sales and German oil, gas, and electricity, as well as Balkan media, and other key sectors besides energy.[iv]

Finally we must grasp the origins of this strategy.

As befits a society and state ruled by KGB and FSB alumni it is a direct descendant of the Communist International and Soviet international strategy of the interwar period.[v] It represents what is called in the West political warfare although for the Soviets and presumably Putin and Co. politics represented and represents war by other means.

It is a doctrine utilizing all the instruments of power to compensate for military weakness by developing alternatives to and surrogates for military power to corrode Western societies.

Today’s strategy, like its predecessor derives from the Russian belief that the West is intrinsically and always hostile to Russia and aims to undermine its state and system of governance as outlined in the recent military doctrine.[vi] It starts from the point that Russia and its interlocutors are in a constant, unending state of siege (worse even than a cold peace) but not a cold war for today’s world order is different.

But it is a strategy of permanent conflict played out simultaneously in multiple dimensions and countries where military force plays only a limited role to deter, intimidate, and only if necessary conduct conventional war.

It is a direct descendant of the interwar strategy of the Soviet Union and takes its point of departure from the same perceptions that drove Soviet strategy minus the ideological scaffolding of class conflict.

Today it is states not classes who are in conflict but these states are corruptible and riven by various factions that Moscow can exploit through non-military means. It begins with the presupposition of unending conflict and wages that conflict in all the sectors where Moscow can gain leverage.

Therefore in each state and in European security institutions as a whole the elements of hybrid war as a whole must be countered by truly innovative strategic means.

This is not just a question of information warfare (IW which the Russians define essentially as mass political manipulation).

IW in this context is only part of the overall equation, albeit a critical and constant part.

But until and unless we realize that Russia regards itself in a permanent state of conflict with us and wages that conflict unremittingly, Ukraine will not be the resting point in a downturn in European security but merely the prelude to the next rounds.

[i] Frank G. Hoffman, “Future threats and Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal, No. 4, Fall, 2011, pp. 17-21; Frank G. Hoffman, “Complex Irregular Warfare: The Next Revolution in Military Affairs,” Orbis, L, No. 2, Summer, 2006, pp. 395-411; Frank G. Hoffman, “’Hybrid Threats’: Neither Omnipotent Nor Unbeatable,’ Orbis , LIV, No. 3, Summer, 2010, pp. 441-455; Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Warfare” Strategic Forum, No. 240, April 2009,; Frank G. Hoffman, “Hybrid Warfare and Challenges,” Joint Forces Quarterly., No. 52, 2009, pp. 34-39

[ii] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999)

[iii] Voyennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii, December 26, 2014,; General Valery Gerasimov, “Tsennost’ Nauki I Predvidenie (The Value of Science and Foresight),” Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’yer, (Military-Industrial Courier) February 27-March 5, 2013,

[iv] Fredrik Westerlund and Johan Norberg, Tailoring War-Russia’s Use of Armed Force in Ukraine, Paper Presented to the Annual Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, San Antonio, Texas, November 21, 2014

[v] Stephen Blank, “Class War on the Global Scale: The Culture of Leninist Political Conflict”, Stephen J. Blank et al, Conflict, Culture, and History: Regional Dimensions, Air University Press: Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1993, pp. 1-55.

[vi] Voyennaya Doktrina

Editor’s Note: For a NATO Review video on the Russians, Ukraine and Hybrid War see the following:

The photo shows a Russian Orthodox Army member stands guard near Donetsk airport. Credit: Financial Times