Hybrid warfare, a challenge for the West

With the occupation of Crimea and the events in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, it became clear that a new form of warfare had materialised
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It never ceases to amaze me how easily we forget situations, conflicts or issues around which only a few days ago the world seemed to revolve. How quickly these events pass into the endless list of "forgotten conflicts".

Strangely few seem to remember any more a confrontation that is unfolding on Europe's doorstep and whose last major episode took place a few days ago, in the form of the 31 March presidential elections in Ukraine.

Other scenarios have been and continue to make headlines: DAESH when it was at its peak, or now that its defeat is being proclaimed to the four winds (it would be better to limit ourselves to talking about the loss of control of territory in Iraq); Venezuela, or what seem to be the symptoms of a new 'Arab spring' that began with the events in Algeria, something that we should not lose sight of due to the profound consequences it could have for the whole of North Africa and therefore for Spain.

But this is not the purpose of these lines. It is only a reflection on how short our memory is

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Returning to the conflict in Ukraine, I am sure it would surprise not a few to learn that the fighting has not ceased for a single day since this issue disappeared from the media. The conflict is still alive and kicking, and its consequences remain unpredictable because of its implications for European-Russian relations and its relationship with other latent frictions, such as the situation in the Baltic republics, NATO expansion, the Kaliningrad enclave and Russia's Arctic policy. All of these are issues that we are sure to hear about in the medium term, with the Arctic being of particular interest and to which we will devote several sections in the near future.

With the occupation of Crimea and the events in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, it became clear that a new way of waging war had materialised. It was what we might call the presentation in society of what has come to be called "hybrid warfare". A concept developed and implemented by Russia with astonishing effectiveness. So much so that the success of the Crimea operation led Russia to initiate the initial phases of this new way of operating in the Baltic republics and even Poland, forcing NATO to rethink its strategy and redeploy forces on its eastern flank.

I will therefore begin by trying to shed some light on the new type of war we are facing.

When we talk about Russia, we cannot forget that it is a culture substantially different from our own, a country whose historical evolution has shaped a vision of the world and of politics that is quite different from that of the West.

First of all, it should be borne in mind that the political and military spheres are intimately linked and that, in its strategic vision, both lines of action are usually intermingled unambiguously and without the complexes or reticence that can be found in Western Europe.

It is therefore necessary to begin by looking at Russian military thought, whose concept of the phenomenon of war has undergone a major evolution, taking as its starting point the events of the first decade of the 20th century up to the present day, the result of the experiences of the Soviet era combined with the contributions of brilliant military theoreticians.

The Russian concept of modern warfare envisages the use of a synthesis of all national resources, directed from the new Central Command in Moscow where all necessary civilian authorities and institutions would be subordinated to General of the Army Valerij Gerasimov, Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in a crisis or war situation.

This military theory and the perception of war that follows from it is totally different from the one we have in the West and, in some ways, in our view, is challenging if not threatening. For Russia, war is based on its national interests, its geopolitical, historical and cultural position.

War involves both civilian and military resources and, in the new conception of modern warfare, the early stages of a conflict focus on 'soft' and 'hard' civilian targets in the adversary's society. So much so that in the Russian Military Doctrine of December 2014 information operations (INFOOPS) and psychological operations are described as possible threats.

Already in their day, Soviet military theorists shared the deep conviction that the influence of science and technology were fundamental to the success of military operations. Both helped to generate products and systems that directly had an effect on military scenarios, threats and capabilities, influencing and modifying them. 

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The coordination of Russia's civilian assets with its military capabilities is a perfect example of how unexpected changes influence Russian military objectives, means and methods. This pattern of development runs in parallel at the political, strategic, operational and tactical levels.

Russian military theorist Sliptjenko developed his theory of "Sixth Generation Warfare" in 1999, according to which this new modality has three main objectives: the military defeat of the enemy on his own territory; the destruction of his economic activity and industrial potential; and subverting or changing the opponent's political system. The aim of all of the above is none other than to attack the military and political leadership in order to achieve as quickly as possible the strategic political and military objectives set.

The use of a wide variety of capabilities is optimised to achieve effects at the highest possible level. Indirect and asymmetric methods are employed as the operation evolves in order to identify and influence the enemy's weak points as effectively as possible, both in preparation for and during the conduct of operations.

In this new type of conflict, the war does not stop, it is simply unleashed and evolves continuously from the preparation phase, varying in intensity and progressively changing its centre of gravity. The appropriate strategic military means are deployed to create a favourable strategic situation and a permissive operational environment. The desired end state is a weakened, destabilised and isolated society.

To achieve this, the initial attack is first carried out with a combination of psychological warfare, information operations (INFOOPS), and by employing elements that exert their influence on it. Once a favourable situation is created, coordinated attacks are launched using previously infiltrated special operations units, adept militias armed by those same special operations units, and using remote weapons systems deep in enemy territory. In sixth-generation conflicts, the different phases described above unfold sequentially and in parallel.

Political leaders, vital infrastructure, regional institutions and military infrastructure will be neutralised or destroyed as far as possible throughout the operational area.

This new type of conflict has undergone a rapid evolution and is based on Soviet military theoretical thinking developed between the 1920s and the late 1980s.

The concept of hybrid warfare emerged strongly about ten years ago, limited at the tactical level to irregular or asymmetric warfare scenarios and developing strongly. But it has evolved and taken on a more operational and even strategic nature, including economic and political factors among others. The path of Russian strategic thinking is marked by the country's socio-economic development, national security strategy, foreign policy concepts, Russia's Arctic region development strategy and security policy until 2020.

Russia's aspiration is for a multipolar world with several regional power centres instead of the current configuration with a single dominant military, economic and political power. In the current scenario, the biggest threat to Russia remains NATO and the US. In Russia's eyes, the Alliance's expansion into areas closer to its borders than desirable is a particularly worrying problem.

The 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation describes the characteristics of today's military conflicts. The document draws on previous studies and, of course, has elements in common with the 2013 Defence Plan. The conclusions reached in establishing these characteristics basically describe the "Gerasimov Doctrine", and are based on the concept of "Sixth Generation Warfare" with a clear adaptation to the current situation.

Another "theoretician", General Alexander Vladimirov, in his book "General Theory of War", states that the phase or period of armed confrontation itself, in this new concept of war, takes on less importance or is shorter in duration. This is because in "Hybrid Warfare" it represents the culmination of attack operations, which have been preceded by diversionary actions against the civil society of the target nation, its political leadership, its population and by information operations and psychological warfare.

The actions are carried out at various levels of depth and can be quickly redirected in terms of geographical distance and direction. Vladimir Vladimirov already foreshadowed in his work an increase and further development of precision weapons, non-lethal weapons and all kinds of unmanned, autonomous and armed vehicles and aircraft.

The text makes a very interesting reflection on the evolution from the classic and clear difference between the situation of war or peace towards a permanent state of war as something consubstantial to the existence of nations. This previous clear boundary between war and peace is diluted in a state of transition full of insecurity and fear of war itself. 

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He goes on to list three characteristic aspects of this "permanent total war"

  • A shift from conflicts over territory to war over existential nature itself. 
  • The transition from a type of warfare that seeks the destruction and physical annihilation of the enemy to an effort to influence the enemy's politics, culture and economy. 
  • And finally the evolution from direct military confrontation to a war of "non-contact". 

Existential warfare means that the objectives of warfare are no longer the physical conquest of a territory, of a specific place. The strategy is no longer one of destruction, intimidation or annihilation. Thus, the use of direct military force is no longer the most important method to be employed against other military elements. 

Strategy is transformed into the use of other indirect methods aimed at creating "organised chaos". This brings us to another concept, "cultural warfare", which is nothing more than creating currents of political, economic and cultural influence. This requires means or channels that provide direct influence on the opponent's target figures or strata (politicians, influential groups, military commanders, sectors of the population...), in order to provoke an internal collapse, or at least a situation of instability. 

It is the combination of this "cultural warfare", which must be very proactive, through the media, social networks and agents of influence, together with in-depth operations carried out by special operations units, the use of proxies or related irregular forces and the search for a confrontation on the very existence of war through psychological operations, which makes up the concept of sixth generation warfare or, as we know it today, hybrid warfare. A war with almost no direct contact between opponents, using remote elements that minimise, or seek to minimise, direct confrontation. However, this type of conflict requires much more study and intelligence about the enemy as a whole, its society, its history, its culture, its political and economic system, than is necessary for a more conventional conflict. All with the aim of identifying very well and in an extremely precise way the targets on which to act or influence in one way or another. The preparation period is infinitely longer

According to Vladimirov, the war is conducted in enemy territory using subversion and diversionary operations that are complemented by long-range attacks by land, sea and air, and even from space when strategic and operational conditions are favourable

In short, this "low-contact warfare" is interpreted as a way of waging war using technical elements, actors and methods that minimise direct confrontation as much as possible. Therefore, war against an opponent must be understood as a total and continuous war with varying degrees of intensity along several lines of simultaneous operations. 

And this is the future, or rather the present. This is what we are facing. This new way of understanding war is a reality applied not only by states, but also by organisations such as Daesh. Evidently without the same resources, and with notable differences, but the root of their actions is beginning to be based on the new parameters. 

A new situation that makes it very difficult to specify the moment when a war begins, as we can no longer focus on the simple confrontation between two armies, and which leads us to new approaches and complicated challenges, above all in the area of intelligence, as in this new reality it takes on an unprecedented role as a key factor in identifying the indicators that place us in the face of a conflict. The spectrum is very broad, and to some extent we have all misinterpreted and in some cases even underestimated the intentional capabilities of the Russian military concept

The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the Donbas opened the eyes of some, but we seem to have lost focus again, and sooner rather than later we will see similar situations. Russia is very clear about its objectives, seeking to assert its role in the world, and so far they have shown that they have the capacity and the intention to put the theories described above into practice. It is not a question of whether it will do so again, it is a question of where and when


.- Peter A. Mattsson. Swedish National Defense College. 2015 “Russian Military thinking – A new generation of warfare” Journal on Baltic Security Vol 1 

.- Gerasimov, V. 2013. “The value of Science is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations”, Promyshlennyy Kuryer Online Voyenno online 

.- Kissinguer, H. 2014. “World Order. Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History”, Londres:Penguin Books 

.- Chekinov, S.G., Bogdanov, S, A. 2014 “Initial Periods of Wars and their Impact on a Country´s preparation for a Future War”. Military thought nº1 

.- The Militay Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2014 

.- Slipchenco, Vladimir. 1999. “Voyny budushchego – Shestoye pokoleniye”. Moskva: Nonogovernmental Science Foundation.