7.3.5 Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid warfare combines political subversion and military force, preparing a country’s population to be occupied with no resistance.

NATO has been increasingly concerned about the emergence of new forms of hybrid warfare.  One of its briefings, Enlarging NATO’s toolbox to counter hybrid threats, describes the problem:

“Social media campaigns create alternative realities that seek to destabilise political communities without a single soldier crossing a single border. And the “hybrid” combination of military and non-military instruments creates ambiguities that make NATO’s situational awareness and, consequently, consensual and speedy decision-making far more difficult.”

The new element of this problem is that the Internet allows countries to operate almost invisibly within each other’s borders, using propaganda to prepare a political situation that makes an eventual military action much more likely to succeed.  As the article acknowledges, the target country needs to be aware of the threat and to ensure that it retains the support of all its population.

The annexation of Crimea illustrates hybrid warfare.  The BBC article, Ukraine crisis: What’s going on in Crimea?, accused Russia of infiltrating “little green men”, sparking protests, supplying military equipment and then holding a referendum in Crimea – which showed that the population wanted to become part of Russia, giving a veneer of political respectability to the annexation in 2014.  This narrative was widely reported in the West, and it presents Russia as an aggressor.  Reuters offered another explanation as to Why Ukrainian forces gave up Crimea without a fight, though:

“Russia’s actions were not the only factor in the Crimean events. Ukraine’s military had suffered years of neglect, there was a power vacuum in Kiev after the government was overthrown, and many Crimean residents felt more affinity with Moscow.”

Russian speakers were at a disadvantage in Ukraine after it won independence from the USSR in 1991, because Russian was no longer regarded as an official language.  The narrative of a voluntary secession of Crimea from Ukraine has some credibility, therefore, but Russia was undoubtedly an active participant.  Its strategy has avoided provoking direct Western military intervention, but it has still been costly: as reported by the BBC, Crimea annexation: Putin admits sanctions ‘damaging’.

The Reuters article quoted above mentions the Baltic states as being potential targets of hybrid warfare, but it points out that lessons have been learned – and Baltic populations are more satisfied than the Crimeans were with how they were governed.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/735a.htm.