Counterring Hybrid Threats


2015-11-08 By Richard Weitz

The United States and European allies and partners can respond more effectively against the kinds of hybrid threats we gave been discussing on Second Line of Defense.

NATO can take actions, primarily in the military and intelligence fields, to deter and counter direct Russian threats against alliance members.

But the very nature of the hybrid tactics require a wider array of response tools: well-trained police forces, functioning border management systems, effective anti-corruption agencies, measures to support media freedoms, as well as more transparent energy and party political activities.

From the analytical perspective, the important point is that this is an inherently “whole-of-government” and probably “whole-of-society” issue that further warrants extensive international cooperation.

The critical nature of hybrid threats is that they blend military and non-military issues.

The Pentagon and other NATO militaries cannot address them in isolation.

They need to partner with the non-military national security agencies such as the diplomatic corps, homeland security and interior ministries, law enforcement and police agencies, as well as other branches of the national government.

Subnational, provincial, and local agencies that can first identify and respond to hybrid threats and work with private sector actors that in many countries control critical national infrastructures that are vulnerable to hybrid threats. Furthermore, national governments must pool their resources with foreign partners in both bilateral and multinational frameworks.

To mobilize these capabilities, NATO must partner more effectively with other organizations for dealing with specific non-military hybrid techniques, such as collaborating with the EU to promote energy independence, political reform, anti-corruption, and human rights.

Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).
Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).

Partnering with the EU might also make it easier for the allies to make the challenging transition in their intelligence gathering and exercises. In NATO, this has traditionally focused on external military threats and related developments, whereas hybrid warfare tries to exploit the internal vulnerabilities of targeted states. Governments are naturally reluctant to share information about these domestic problems even with the closest of allies.

Similarly, NATO and the EU need to participate in, and if necessary arrange, more domestic exercises involving hybrid scenarios the controversial but important question of how allied and partner countries can render assistance to a friendly state experiencing domestic political and other challenges.

NATO and the EU can also better pool their growing cyber and strategic communication capabilities, which are inherently dual-use in having both military and civilian applications. In a future hybrid crisis accompanied by economic threats to a targeted state, the EU can more easily provide emergency financing to repay loans, support the local currency, and cover other immediate and longer-term expenses than NATO.

As a crisis develops, NATO should work with the EU and member governments to resist subversion, train and exercise how to rapidly secure strategic points and infrastructure, establish detection and early warning procedures, and plan crisis response contingencies. The local civilian agencies will need to be able to identify and understand the threat of hybrid warfare so that they can provide early warning to NATO.

Importantly, NATO should work with the EU and other forces to encourage the local governments to address the issues that Moscow is using as rallying points for hybrid attacks before the Russian exploitation becomes effective. Inclusive government policies that offer opposition a means to raise and resolve grievances through peaceful political action will remove conditions conducive to hybrid tactics and reduce Russia’s ability to generate a powerful internal force against the targeted state.

For the sake of illustration, let us assume a scenario similar to that seen in eastern Ukraine.

Assuming the target state’s intelligence service is unable to detect the clandestine preparatory steps Russia might take against their regime, the first indications of a Russian subversion operation against a neighboring state would probably, as they were in eastern Ukraine, be mass pro-Russian protests.

If the subversion continues to follow the Ukrainian model, several weeks would pass before the protesters begin taking more direct action, during which time, the protests may appear to be dying down if they were originally spontaneous, since Moscow would require some time to organize them into a force capable of meaningfully contesting their government’s authority. However, if the subversion campaign is pre-planned and based on an artificial crisis, there will be little grace period between peaceful protests and direct action.

As soon as this becomes evident, NATO must use the opportunity to take countermeasures such as countering Russian propaganda, threatening sanctions, and rendering economic and military support to the targeted state. NATO should consider deploying forces to the frontline state’s borders since sealing them could prove critical to keep Russian arms from flowing to its proxies, as in Ukraine.

NATO and EU personnel may also need to supplement domestic military and law enforcement personnel, but if NATO protects the border, then the targeted government’s military and law enforcement personnel can concentrate better to suppress the anti-government unrest. If the protests actually do begin to morph into an insurgency, and Russian complicity is suspected, NATO should act decisively against the insurgents before they can organize, train, arm, consolidate their control, or gain credibility as a serious movement among the local population.

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

Hopefully, domestic and NATO intelligence will be sufficient to estimate the strength of the threat and determine whether domestic forces are sufficient to counter it. If they are, then NATO forces should be kept in the background, available only for emergencies. However, if the intelligence is insufficient to reliably determine the insurgency’s strength, or if the strength is estimated as potentially high, then NATO should more plausibly consider supporting the internal counter-insurgency operations.

In most cases, however, NATO forces may be most useful in securing the frontline state’s borders to prevent the transit of insurgents and weapons or a Russian invasion, which would allow the frontline state’s forces to fully commit to crushing the insurgency, unlike in Ukraine, where fear that excessive force or success might provoke a total Russian invasion restrained them.

NATO forces are generally militarily and politically unsuited for waging protracted counter-insurgency campaigns against Russian minorities in NATO members. That could alienate them further from the West and would fuel Kremlin propaganda about anti-Russian genocide as well as could provoke a Russian military intervention. Ideally the OSCE or some other less controversial body could take charge of stabilizing the conflict regions.

U.S. and NATO planners should also look beyond the Georgia and Ukraine campaigns as they consider the future nature of hybrid warfare.

We see hybrid conflicts in the former Soviet Union, but also in the Middle East and the South China Sea, as well as previously in Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

Western experts should also revisit the Western campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq for insights on the now better understood hybrid warfare concept, since the insurgents in both countries tried to apply sub-conventional as well as conventional tactics to overcome U.S. military superiority.

Furthermore, Chinese scholars are undoubtedly studying Russia’s hybrid tactics as Beijing pursues its own “grey area” challenges in the contested maritime domains of the western Pacific.

While China does not use “little green men,” Beijing does employ paramilitary forces, economic coercion, disinformation, and cyber tools to press its territorial claims and regional order visions against neighboring countries.

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