The concept of hybrid warfare: origins, application, counteraction

MOSCOW, 18 Oct 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

In recent years, the conceptual framework in the field of modern conflicts has undergone significant changes. New concepts and doctrines are emerging. However, some of them are transformed in a rather unique way. In particular, this applies to such concepts as “hybrid warfare”.

This term in Russia can often be heard from a TV screen or seen in newspapers or scientific publications. As a rule, it sounds like “the United States or NATO are waging a hybrid war against Russia”. However, in the United States, NATO countries and their clients, including Ukraine, they say that “Russia is waging a hybrid war” and therefore it is necessary to counter the growing “hybrid threats”.

It is obvious that we are talking about a specific form of indirect actions that pose a threat to both us and the other side, and the expression “hybrid war” has become a convenient meme to express this reality. But if, in the cold war era of a bipolar world, nuclear deterrence was a symmetrical effort between the two sides, is it possible to equate the current counteraction?

Obviously not. Because on the one hand, there is a state with limited opportunities in the international arena, that is, Russia, and on the other, a large group of countries and a military-political alliance. At the same time, a number of powers from this group are quite sophisticated in all kinds of subversive operations of the widest range, defined as political warfare, counterinsurgency operations, special operations, etc.

It is also clear that recently the mention of “hybrid warfare” has been used by these countries as a kind of umbrella strategy that has a global political character. This became especially noticeable after representatives of NATO countries and their partners began to accuse Russia after 2014 of “aggression” and “malicious actions”, almost always without any evidence.

Thus, we see a clear militarisation of political processes and diplomacy, which causes serious harm to international relations and, directly, bilateral relations between countries, where a number of states are deliberately labeled as subjects of hybrid warfare, against which certain preventive measures must be taken to protect and repel possible provocative actions.

In order not to fall into the logical trap and think according to Western cliches, it is necessary to clarify the concept of hybrid warfare and trace its evolution.

It is known that this term was first used and developed by Marine Corps officers of the US armed forces.

Robert Walker defined hybrid warfare as follows: “…which lies in the interstices between special and conventional warfare. This type of warfare possesses characteristics of both the special and conventional realms and requires an extreme amount of flexibility in order to transition operationally and tactically between the special and conventional arenas.” [i]    

U.S. Marine Colonel Bill Nemeth, in his 2002 paper, uses this concept to analyse the Chechen conflict in Russia. [ii]

Later, the concept of hybrid warfare was put forward in a joint article by James Mattis and Frank Hoffman, published in November 2005. [iii] Both authors were professional officers of the Marine Corps, and James Mattis later served as Secretary of Defence of the United States. It was a short, multi-page text that focused on the combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, which American forces had invaded just a few years earlier.

The main narrative dealt with irregular methods-terrorism, insurgency, unrestricted warfare, guerrilla warfare, or coercion by drug-criminal groups exploiting the lost control of a failed state. The authors report that these methods are becoming increasingly large-scale and sophisticated, and they will challenge US security interests around the world in the near future.

Later, Frank Hoffman developed this concept in his essay “Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”, published in 2007. [iv] The main idea of the author was that instead of separate opponents with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular or terrorist), there are certain opponents who will use all forms of war and tactics, possibly simultaneously.

In the official documents and strategies of the US military used in this work, the term “hybrid” is mentioned, as well as a combination of traditional and non-traditional tactics along with simple and complex technologies.

Frank Hoffman argued that hybrid threats include the full range of different modes of warfare, including conventional means, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts, including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. Hybrid wars can be waged by both states and various non-state actors.

Two years later, in an article titled “Hybrid Warfare and Challenges”, Hoffman noted that “future conflict will be multi-modal or multi-variable, rather than a simple black-and-white characterisation of a single form of war”. [v]

He asserts a “hybrid war” in which the enemy is likely to present unique combined or hybrid threats specifically targeting US vulnerabilities. Hybrid threats include a full range of modes of warfare, including conventional means, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts that consist of indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal riots.

These multi-modal activities can be carried out by separate subunits or even by the same subunit, but are usually operationally and tactically directed and coordinated within the main battle space to achieve a synergistic effect in the physical and psychological dimensions of the conflict. The effect can be obtained at all levels of the war.

The most important thing – the last word in this phrase – is war. Thus, the early detection of hybrid threats is related to the combat space, as well as military methods and means.

The US Joint Forces Command adopted the concept of hybrid threats in 2009 and emphasised that they include any enemy that simultaneously and adaptively uses a specially selected combination of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal means or actions in the operational combat space. Instead of a single entity, a hybrid threat or adversary may consist of a combination of state and non-state actors. [vi]

Later in 2014, after Crimea was returned to Russia, Hoffman wrote that “any enemy that simultaneously uses a specially designed combination of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behaviour at the same time and in the same combat space to achieve its political goals,” and noted that hybrid threats are a design developed by the Marine Corps a decade ago. [vii]

Other modern geo-strategists, such as Colin Gray, Max Booth, and John McQueen, subscribe to Hoffman’s formulation that in the future conflict will be more diverse or multivariate than a standard type of black-and-white war. [viii]

In 2015, the US Army issued Guidelines for organising a forceful structure to counter hybrid threats. This document belongs to the category of field charters. [ix]

It provides a clear definition of hybrid threats and how to deal with them. It also mentions Russia and Georgia’s aggression in 2008, where a specific interpretation of events is given. It is said that “a hybrid threat is a diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces and/or criminal elements combined to achieve mutually beneficial results.

Hybrid threats are innovative, adaptive, globally connected, networked, and embedded in the clutter of local populations. They can have a wide range of old, adapted and advanced technologies, including the ability to create weapons of mass destruction.

They can operate conventionally and unconventionally, using adaptive and asymmetric combinations of traditional, irregular and criminal tactics, and exploiting traditional military capabilities in old and new ways.

Hybrid threats seek to saturate the entire operational environment with effects that support their course of action and force their opponents to respond in multiple areas of activity. A simple military attack may not be sophisticated enough to stretch resources, reduce intelligence, and limit freedom of manoeuvre.

Instead, hybrid threats can simultaneously create economic instability, contribute to a lack of trust in existing governance, attack information networks, provide fascinating messages that match their goals, cause man-made humanitarian crises, and physically threaten adversaries. Synchronised and synergistic actions of hybrid threats can take place in the information, social, political, infrastructural, economic and military fields.”

Another TRADOC G-2 doctrine document defines hybrid warfare as “the use of political, social, criminal, and other non-kinetic means used to overcome military constraints”. [x]

In the document “Joint Operating Environment 2035. The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World”, released in 2016, uses the concept of “state hybrid stratagems”.

It says that a number of revisionist states will employ a range of coercive activities to advance their national interests through combinations of direct and indirect approaches designed to slow, misdirect, and blunt successful responses by targeted states. These hybrid stratagems will be designed to spread confusion and chaos while simultaneously avoiding attribution and potentially retribution”. [xi]

It says that “a hybrid mix of conventional deterrence and proxy warfare will challenge the ability of the Joint Force to intervene successfully in support of allies and partners targeted by nearby, revisionist powers. The core attributes of state hybrid stratagems will be ‘characterised by convergence [of] physical and psychological, kinetic and non-kinetic, combatants and noncombatants…’ and an operational fusion of conventional and irregular approaches.

It is likely that Russia will continue to use the threat of military power to secure regional interests and promote perceptions that it is still a great power. Iran will continue to develop and leverage regional proxies and partners. Meanwhile, China might develop a more dynamic and adaptive maritime stratagem in an attempt to impose irreversible outcomes for island disputes in the East and South China Seas”.

Thus, we see the globalisation of hybrid warfare, the attributes of which are automatically assigned to those states that are defined as threats in US strategic documents. But Russia is particularly featured in the analytical documents and political rhetoric of representatives of NATO countries.

A monograph published by RAND Corporation in 2017 on the topic of hybrid warfare in the Baltic region focused on current and possible actions of Russia. It was noted that:

“The term hybrid warfare has no consistent definition <…> are best described as covert or deniable activities, supported by conventional or nuclear forces, to influence the domestic politics of target countries. I divide potential Russian aggression in the Baltics into three distinct categories of scenarios: nonviolent subversion, covert violent actions, and conventional warfare supported by political subversion.

Given the gains in standard of living and increasing integration of many Russian speakers in the Baltics, Russia will likely have difficulty using nonviolent tactics to destabilise these countries. Russian covert violent action is also unlikely to succeed on its own, given preparations by the security forces of Estonia and Latvia…

The main vulnerability of the Baltics therefore lies in Russias local conventional superiority. A large-scale conventional Russian incursion into the Baltics, legitimised and supported by political subversion, would rapidly overwhelm NATO forces currently postured in the region”. [xii]

That is, Western authors are trying to pass off labelling Russia as a matter of course. There is also an attempt in Western military and political circles to assess hybrid warfare in geopolitical terms, often with reference to other concepts.

Amos Fox notes that hybrid warfare has one foot in the past, with its ability to wage conventional war, and it has one foot in the future. The hybrid way of war is a whole-of-government approach to war that seeks to integrate all the instruments of national power through campaigns in which the distance between strategic and tactical levels of war are condensed to the point that the operational level of war is razor-thin.” [xiii]

However, in 2017, the term “hybrid war” was not yet fully established, as was the attribution to Russia of the use of hybrid warfare methods. In this regard, the discussion in the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services is indicative. On March 15, 2017, Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona asked a question:

“To combat the Russian hybrid warfare, do we merely need to park armoured brigade combat teams in Eastern Europe without improving our cyber capabilities or hardening our space assets, in order to deter Russia, or do we have to sort of have a mirror effort to be able to engage them at and oppose them at every stage of their hybrid warfare?”

Thomas Timothy, a senior analyst with the Department of Defence’s Foreign Military Studies Office, responded: “Congressman, first of all, this is just my own personal opinion. I don’t think Russia does hybrid war. I know a lot of people think they do.” [xiv]

He went on to explain that Russia was building up its military force because they felt an existential threat from the United States and NATO, the same as the Baltic states probably felt from Russia when they saw a military reorganisation near their borders.

We see this assessment as quite adequate, but, unfortunately, such conclusions are not common to all military experts and politicians who make decisions in the United States.

However, then we see a re-evaluation of the concept and its application at the level of international relations. And Russia is increasingly beginning to appear as a permanent subject of hybrid warfare.

In February 2018, Senator Reid, speaking to the US Congress, said that “the Kremlin’s use of malicious financial influence is delicate and part of a larger, coordinated operation of hybrid aggression by the Kremlin using a wide range of military and non-military tools at its disposal.

Russia recognises that its military capabilities are currently limited compared to those of the United States and NATO, and it will seek to avoid direct military conflict with the West. Instead, Russia is using tactics that exploit its strengths and target our systematic vulnerabilities.” [xv]

NATO also paid special attention to hybrid threats. The Capstone concept, dated back to 2010, was used by NATO in their “Countering the Hybrid Threat” experiment. This document defines hybrid threats as threats that “come from adversaries who are able to simultaneously adaptively use conventional and non-traditional means to achieve their goals.” [xvi]

NATO officially began using the definition of “hybrid warfare” in relation to Russia after the coup in Ukraine in 2014. The NATO review article states that “hybrid conflicts involve multilayered efforts designed to destabilise a functioning state and polarise its society.” [xvii]

A 2015 NATO Parliamentary Assembly publication defined hybrid threats as “the use of asymmetric tactics to identify and exploit internal weaknesses by non-military means, supported by the threat of using conventional military means.”[xviii]

In December 2015, NATO adopted a Hybrid Warfare Strategy that defined how they were going to deal with hybrid threats. In April 2017, several European members of the NATO allies officially agreed to establish a European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki.

Patrick Cullen, in an article published by this centre, noted that “Hybrid threats are designed to blur the distinction between peace and war, as well as complicate and fall below the target’s detection and response thresholds. The wicked problems created by hybrid threats require new solutions for early warning”. [xix]

The Helsinki-based Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats describes a hybrid threat as “coordinated and synchronised and deliberately target democratic states’ and institutions’ vulnerabilities. Activities can take place, for example, in the political, economic, military, civil or information domains.

They are conducted using a wide range of means and designed to remain below the threshold of detection and attribution. <…> goal is to undermine or harm a target by influencing its decision-making at the local, regional, state or institutional level <…> The use of different intermediaries – or proxy actors – supports the achievement of these goals.” [xx]

In early 2017, a new Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD) was established in NATO. The NATO publication noted that this was “the most significant reform in the history of Allied intelligence. In response to the challenging threat environment posed by an assertive Russia and the rise of terrorism and instability in the south, the Allies are fundamentally adapting how NATO organises and analyses intelligence”. [xxi] The new structure includes 270 people from various NATO countries.

In July 2017, JISD created a new division for hybrid analysis. Its mandate is to analyse the full range of hybrid actions based on military and civilian, classified and open sources. NATO tried to develop a holistic approach, including cybersecurity.

Representatives of the new structure noted that, “modelled on already existing advisory teams for resilience or critical infrastructure protection, a Counter Hybrid Support Team (CHST) could be deployed on short notice to an Ally requesting NATO support, either in a crisis or to assist in building national counter-hybrid capacities. Such teams consist of civilian experts drawn from a pool of NATO experts as well as specialists nominated by Allies”. [xxii]

In November 2019, the first CHST was deployed in Montenegro. Upon request, Military advisory groups can also be included in the CHST, thus offering comprehensive consultations between civilians and the military. These steps demonstrate that NATO is developing options for a response below the threshold of Article 5 (Collective Defence) of the Washington Treaty.

Still now, the topic of hybrid threats is one of the main topics on the NATO agenda. For example, among the six key questions prepared for the NATO summit in June 2021, two of them related to the topic of hybrid threats:

“Deterring Russian aggression in Europe, including Russias use of cyber and hybrid warfare tactics; Enhancing the resilience of member states to respond to nonmilitary security threats and crises including hybrid and cyber threats, pandemics, and climate change.” [xxiii]

It’s possible to say that at the moment there is a strong belief in the West that Russia is trying in every possible way to harm the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole and separately, so it is necessary to counteract it in various areas and situations.

Such actions, when civilian and military specialists of NATO countries design fictional phantoms and create some kind of impact measures for them, have a clear sign of political paranoia, like the one that was in the United States in the 50s and 80s about the spread of communism. The stated opposition is nothing more than a cover for manipulating public opinion and their own aggressive activity, which often violates the norms of international law.

The word “hybrid” is used for any activity in Russia or Russian campaigns. For example, Rosatom’s interaction with foreign partners is nothing more than a “hybrid activity” for them. [xxiv] If there are problems in Georgia’s domestic policy, then “Russia is taking advantage of this sporadic and unguided foreign and security policy to wage hybrid warfare and increase its influence in Georgia”. [xxv]

Even the long-standing provocation of the Estonian leadership with the dismantlement of the monument dedicated to the Unknown soldier in Tallinn is already presented by Western authors as a method of hybrid conflicts which Russia stands behind. [xxvi]

But the problem is that any actions of Russia, whether it is strengthening its defence capability, adopting some domestic laws, or supporting compatriots abroad and international economic activity, will be perceived and declared as hybrid threats or corresponding activity.

The crisis of public confidence in its own ruling elite also encourages the West to use the bogeyman of hybrid wars to shift attention from numerous internal problems to a designated external enemy and exclude any alternative scenarios of economic and political development in its society.

How should Russia act in this case? Should we use the same tools as the United States and NATO against Russia, classifying numerous provocations and pressure attempts as signs of hybrid war?

Of course, the official position of Russia does not agree with attempts to label us as an actor of hybrid war under any pretext. Here we can recall the appearance in the West of the so-called “Gerasimov doctrine”, although in fact it does not exist. This concept was deliberately coined by NATO experts based on an analysis of the publications of the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in order to frighten their inhabitants and have a reason for further implementation of their plans. It’s the same with hybrid warfare.

There are many complex threats in the world that can be called hybrid, and from which Russian statehood and society suffer. But despite the proposals of the Russian leadership to fight these threats together, NATO countries prefer to create their own myths and act in the spirit of the cold war.

As for possible responses to these provocations, first of all, we need to understand that any tough measures will provoke an appropriate reaction and provide the West with justifications for further accusations. At the very least, this will cause a spiral of escalation.

To avoid confusion, it is even desirable to introduce a different classification of Western methods, for example, war by other means. Moreover, Western politicians and experts themselves have long used this term in relation to their own geopolitical strategy. [xxvii]

Secondly, it is necessary to try to get into the mind of the enemy in order to understand the course of its thoughts, find there weaknesses and contradictions, and after carefully analysing this, present it to the general public abroad. Thirdly, continue to strengthen one’s sovereignty and political effectiveness by showing partners and allies (as well as neutral countries) the benefits of cooperation with Russia.

Fourthly, joint efforts through the CSTO, SCO, and EAEU should take into account the realities of confrontation with the West not only in terms of a military and political confrontation, but also the broader scope of geopolitical processes, from trade and economic activities to scientific research and the level of narratives. It is desirable to create and support appropriate analytical and independent centres that deal with this issue, exchange experience and constantly monitor the activities of Western opponents.

Fifthly, by no means afford weakness and make compromises with the West on issues of principle, including values and national interests. This position is reflected both in the current strategic documents of Russia and in the latest message of President Vladimir Putin.

[i] Walker, Robert G. Spec Fi: The United States Marines Corps and Special Operations, Master’s Thesis, Monterey, CA, Naval Post Graduate School, December 1998, p.4-5.

[ii] Nemeth, W. Future war and Chechnya: a case for hybrid warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Master Thesis, 2002

[iii] Mattis, James N., Hoffman, Frank. Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars // Proceedings Magazine, November 2005 Vol. 132/11/1, p. 233.

[iv] Hoffman, Frank G. Conflict in the 21st century: The rise of hybrid wars. Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007.

[v] Hoffman, Frank G. Hybrid Warfare and Challenges // JFQ, issue 52, 1st quarter 2009. p. 35.

[vi] Russell W. Glenn, Evolution and Conflict: Summary of the 2008 Israel Defence Forces-U.S. Joint Forces Command “Hybrid Threat Seminar War Game,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2009.

[vii] Hoffman, Frank. On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs. Hybrid Threats // War on the Rocks, July 28, 2014.

[viii] Savin L.V. Network threats to national and international security: strategy, tactics, hybrid actors and technologies // Economic Strategies No. 2, 2014. http://www.inesnet.ru/article/setevye-ugrozy-nacionalnoj-i-mezhdunarodnoj-bezopasnosti-strategiya-taktika-gibridnye-aktory-i-texnologii/

[ix] Hybrid Threat Force Structure Organisation Guide. FM 7-100.4. Headquarters Department of the Army Washington, DC, 4 June 2015.

[x] TRADOC G-2, Threat Tactics Report Compendium: ISIL, North Korea, Russia, and China (Fort Leavenworth, KS: TRADOC G-2 ACE Threat Integration, 2015), 94.

[xi] Joint Operating Environment 2035. The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World. 14 July 2016. Р.6. https://fas.org/man/eprint/joe2035.pdf

[xii] Andrew Radin. Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics. Threats and Potential Responses, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2017.

[xiii] Amos C. Fox. Hybrid Warfare: The 21st Century Russian Way of Warfare. School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 2017. Р. 5.

[xiv] Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the Committee on Armed Service House of Representatives One Hundred Fifteenth Congress First Session. March 15, 2017. Р. 20. https://fas.org/irp/congress/2017_hr/counter-prop.pdf

[xv] Congressional Record Volume 164, Number 36 (Wednesday, February 28, 2018) https://fas.org/irp/congress/2018_cr/022818-reed.html

[xvi] NATO – Supreme Allied Commander Transformation Headquarters, ‘Military Contribution to Countering Hybrid Threats Capstone Concept’.

[xvii] Pindjak, Peter. Deterring Hybrid Warfare: A Chance for NATO and the EU to Work Together? // NATO Review, 2014.

[xviii] NATO Parliamentary Assembly Defence and Security Committee, “Hybrid Warfare: NATO’s NewStrategic Challenge?” Draft Report, April 7, 2015. p. 3.

[xix] Cullen, Patrick. Hybrid threats as a new ‘wicked problem’ for early warning. Strategic Analysis, May 2018. https://www.hybridcoe.fi/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Strategic-Analysis-2018-5-Cullen.pdf

[xx] https://www.hybridcoe.fi/hybrid-threats/

[xxi] Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven. Adapting NATO intelligence in support of “One NATO”. 08 September 2017. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2017/09/08/adapting-nato-intelligence-in-support-of-one-nato/index.html

[xxii] Michael Ruhle, Clare Roberts. Enlarging NATO’s toolbox to counter hybrid threats. 19 March 2021. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2021/03/19/enlarging-natos-toolbox-to-counter-hybrid-threats/index.html

[xxiii] NATO: Key Issues for the 117th Congress. Congressional Research Service. March 3, 2021.

[xxiv] Hybrid Atoms: Rosatom in Europe and Nuclear Energy in Belarus. March 11, 2021. https://icds.ee/en/hybrid-atoms-rosatom-in-europe-and-nuclear-energy-in-belarus/

[xxv] Shota Gvineria. Russia Wages Hybrid Warfare and Increases Its Influence in Polarised Georgia. FEBRUARY 22, 2021 https://icds.ee/en/russia-wages-hybrid-warfare-and-increases-its-influence-in-polarised-georgia/

[xxvi] Juurvee, Ivo, and Mariita Mattiisen. The Bronze Soldier Crisis of 2007: Revisiting an Early Case of Hybrid Conflict. Tallinn: International Centre for Defence and Security, August 2020.

[xxvii] For example, see Blackville R., Harris J. War by other means. Geo-economics and the Art of state management. Moscow: AST, 2017.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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