Eyes Wide Shut: How Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Exposes and Exploits Western Vulnerabilities

The 2015 Russian National Security Strategy aims to achieve autarky from Western influences on global security, the rule of law, and global trade. By applying a holistic mix of military, political, and economic means to weaken the West, Russia is working hard to strengthen its own role as a global player. Militarily, Russia makes good use of Hybrid War against its Western neighbors, as seen in its intervention in Syria and in its efforts to undermine NATO and the EU.

Hybrid Warfare is an emerging notion of 21st century conflict that combines four elements along the spectrum of warfare, namely conventional warfare, irregular warfare (terrorism and counter-insurgency), asymmetric warfare (waged by resistance groups), and compound warfare (wherein irregular forces supplement a conventional force).” Hybrid Warfare primarily expands on existing doctrinal elements in two ways: first, by evolving unconventional war-fighting capacities, such as cyber-warfare; and second, by pursuing activities in the so-called "information sphere.” On December 1st, 2015, in response to these trends, NATO announced the development of a new NATO Hybrid Warfare Strategy.

The EU, NATO, and to a certain extent the United States, still adhere to an outdated dogma of peaceful conflict resolution that, to paraphrase the German military strategist and thinker Carl von Clausewitz, is hesitant to engage in politics by other means. This makes it difficult to respond to Russia’s belligerent activities in Eastern Europe. The unwillingness of Western European leaders to see the war in Ukraine as a war of aggression is a direct consequence of this outdated dogma. This blindspot has lead Western Europe to abandon the protection of its core values. International conventions against “wars of aggression” are meaningless without backing or enforcement by relevant states. Therefore, as Russia continues to violate the core principle of international law and comity, so does it erode the international legal system with virtual impunity. Consequently, Russia presents the West as weak and undecided, while also demonstrating its own efficacy in using military force without concern for the rule of international law.

Russia may be engaging in Lawfare in "using law as a weapon to manipulate legal paradigms.” Lawfare, therefore, takes place outside of a traditional armed conflict. As such, Russia’s use of Lawfare is just a continuation of its policy of using every tool at its disposal to achieve its political and geo-strategic goals.

Russia’s continued use of lawfare to meet its political, military, and legal objectives are explicitly highlighted in the 2014 Russian Military Doctrine and fall under the wider scope of the Russia’s 2015 National Security Strategy. Unlike the West, Russia does not distinguish between conventional war and other nonlinear, hybrid methods – as long as they serve its national security and allow Russia to reduce its economical and political dependence on the West.

Russia is also utilising other non-kinetic war-fighting methods. Its use of the information sphere to systematically gain political leverage is often harmful to Western information management. In Syria, Russia demonstrated its military capability by striking well beyond its territorial borders with high precision as it successfully operated expeditionary forces combining air, land, and naval assets. These strikes allowed Russia to communicate, to NATO in particular, that its military is on par with the rest of the world’s and to challenge the United States’ role as the sole proprietor of these capabilities.

Equally important is to recognise that Russia often exploits its adversaries' weaknesses. Russia attacks asymmetrical weaknesses – and the worst way for the world to respond is with ignorance and denial. Russia’s exploitation of such vulnerabilities is particularly stark in Syria, where its involvement is driven by two key motivations. The first aim is to weaken the EU by forcing another wave of immigrants into its already overburdened shores. The second motivation is to create a frozen conflict at the periphery of NATO, as Russia did before with Ukraine. In this regard, Russia has succeeded. The Russian air force in Syria has not only supported the Syrian army, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and Iranian troops in the country, but also the Sunni Kurds. Russian support of the Kurds, in particular, has created a frozen conflict at the steps of NATO.

Responding to Russia’s aggression will be extremely difficult given the economic, political, and geo-strategic vulnerabilities of Western Europe. Much of this difficulty comes from a lack of motivation in the West to make sacrifices for the sake of opposing Russia. Fantasies about strengthening sanctions against Russia are futile. For example, the Nordstream gas pipeline bypasses Eastern Europe and supplies Western Europe with gas from Russia. It is owned by Gazprom, which is under the control of the Russian state. While a prime target for sanctions, Gazprom has in actuality pumped more gas into the EU in 2015 than it did in 2014. Furthermore, ideas about blocking international transactions via SWIFT payments to Russia (as it was successfully done in the past against Iran) could elicit harsh Russian retaliation. Would the EU risk retaliation for its engagement in Syria when it seemed too consequential in responding to Ukraine? It is precisely this type of Western vulnerability that Russian hybrid warfare aims to exploit.

Turkey has, on the other hand, demonstrated its conventional defence capabilities when it shot down a Russian airplane allegedly violating its airspace in December 2015. These provocations on the part of Russia happen regularly in Northern Europe—although without any downed planes as a consequence. Russia answered Turkey by establishing heavy anti-air batteries in Syria capable of covering major parts of Syria and Turkey. This opened up a whole new problem for NATO. As Russia acts as Syria’s protector by virtual invitation by President Assad, any airplanes in Syrian airspace – except for Russian and Syrian aircrafts – are now under direct threat. Any NATO or NATO friendly air assets conducting missions in Syria are in reach of this Russian “defensive” shield, encompassing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). Australia, for example, disengaged its air force from Syria before the appearance of the anti-air units, when Russia sent its air force there. This scenario directly connects with Ukraine, as the southern flank of Russia and Ukraine is now checked by Russian air defence capabilities deployed in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia has greatly increased its influence across the Arab world and created a long-term security problem for Turkey in its support for Assad. NATO and EU come out as the losers, having invested much and gained nothing. It will not be hard for Russia to spin this very narrative.

We are witnessing the dawn of a post-cold war Russian strategy of deliberately detaching itself from Western security, legal, political, and economic influences. The million-dollar question, now, is how to respond. With force? Or in a measured fashion that exploits Russian vulnerabilities? A forceful approach will first require a willingness to address security threats and concerns Russia poses. The existing division within NATO and the EU’s political and military perception regarding the Russian threat must be overcome and a clear doctrinal approach on Hybrid Warfare determined.

The full spectrum of kinetic and non-kinetic options must be considered, such as economic sanctions, strategic communication of objectives, lawfare, and increased military capabilities. Si vis pacem, para bellum is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago but it is doubtful that the main Western states will agree on a robust response. With Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States, the prospects of a continuation of former President Obama’s policy of “measured” confrontation towards Russia is highly unlikely. This year will see more national elections in Europe and the possibility of Russia/Putin friendly parties gaining popular support. This, in turn, will directly impact the potential of any future comprehensive defensive approach against Russian aggression Europe. In that sense, Russia seems to be winning this battle.