The West Shouldn't Fear Russia's 'Hybrid Warfare'

Strong institutions and good governance are the best defense against petty interventions.

That was war. This is different.

Photographer: Madeleine Lenz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Image

In the two years that have passed since Russia annexed Crimea, the expression "Russian hybrid warfare" has become a fixture in the Western political, media and academic lexicon. It's a catch-all for Russian hostility -- and a perfect mirror image of the Kremlin's own paranoia about the West. 

The Atlantic Council recently published an article by Ruth Forsyth, a member of the think tank's Transatlantic Initiative, about Russia's actions to destabilize Germany. It mentioned a suspected Russian cyberattack on the German Bundestag in 2015, the recently increased visibility of the Russian-speaking community in Germany, and increased Russian espionage activity.

"Taken together, Russian actions against Germany represent another example of hybrid warfare targeting the legitimacy of a European government," Forsyth wrote.

This is a typical example of the misuse of the "hybrid warfare" term, which first emerged in 2006 as a description of Hezbollah tactics against Israel in the Lebanon war to refer to conventional warfare plus the use of terror and guerrilla action. Its applications to Russia stem from a 2013 speech by General Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian General Staff, about the changing nature of wars. According to the general, they are now fought in the media as well as by economic and diplomatic means. 

Gerasimov's concept was hardly ground-breaking: Strategists from Carl von Clausewitz to Mao Zedong have stressed the usefulness of non-military efforts in conflict. Yet many watchers thought the doctrine fit Russia's devilishly inventive, multi-channel disruption of Ukraine, and the "hybrid war" meme was born.

Academics have tried to clarify things. In a paper published this year in the journal International Affairs, Dartmouth College post-doctoral student Alexander Lanoszka defined it as a strategy that "deliberately integrates the use of various instruments of national power so as to achieve foreign policy objectives in the light of the believed goals and capabilities of the adversary." The objectives are "to undermine its target’s territorial integrity, subvert its internal political cohesion and disrupt its economy," and the instruments include espionage, propaganda, agitation, the use of "fifth columns" and criminal elements, and the limited use of conventional military force, often with deniability. Without substantial military capability that provides an "escalation advantage," though, a hybrid warfare strategy is not complete: The target must know that retaliation would be difficult.

Some consider that definition so broad as to be useless. "The idea that Russia is conducting ‘hybrid warfare’ against the West tells us nothing about Russian goals or intentions," Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith wrote in a recent paper for the Finnish prime minister's office. "The idea mistakenly implies that Russian foreign policy is driven by a universal ‘grand strategy.’ However, Russian goals and intentions, as well as likely approaches, differ on the global level, within the former Soviet space and with regards to the European Union."

Others have mocked the "hybrid war" concept as "an overcorrection by the West for inadequate attention previously paid to Russia, resulting in a misguided attempt to group everything Moscow does under one rubric."

I don't think grouping the Kremlin's actions in this way, or even calling them a strategy, is necessarily a mistake. Putin and his circle of former and current security professionals certainly strategize, and the propaganda, intelligence, military and paramilitary operations are indeed coordinated by the Kremlin; they are not isolated efforts. But the use of the term amounts to needless scaremongering in the West and simply mirrors the paranoia that is often ascribed to Russia. 

But there are other reasons why the "Russian hybrid warfare" meme is misguided. For one, the Kremlin views its own actions as it as defensive. Various Russian officials -- from General Anatoly Sidorov, the commander of the Western Military District to Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia's counterpart to the Federal Bureau of Investigations -- have claimed that the West is conducting a "hybrid war" against Russia. In the minds of the Putin security apparatus, it has been going on since before the breakup of the Soviet Union: economic undermining, pernicious propaganda, the sponsorship of insurgencies, intensive spying and cyber attacks using the alleged hidden capabilities of Western computer equipment, gradual military encirclement.

In effect, Putin's people have believed in the "hybrid war" concept longer than the Western analysts who are debating it now. Since 2012, when Putin's third presidential term began, they have been openly justifying increased domestic suppression with the need to defend and retaliate.

Labelling any of this "war" is dangerous, as Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has noted. It is that thinking that led the Kremlin to conclude that Ukraine's 2013-2014 revolution was an act of Western wafare against Russia.

Even if Kremlin propagandists believe they are at war when they go out and film a segment about the "raped" Russian girl in Berlin, it's not really war, though it may provoke some misguided Russian-speaking Berliners to take to the streets. It's just bad, biased journalism that is best counteracted with truthful reporting, not with any counter-propaganda effort, as the German press proved in this particular case.

Cyber attacks against government institutions or companies aren't war, either, even when they are government-sponsored. They don't kill anyone, even though they can create a major nuisance. And they don't require a military response -- just better security engineering.

Not even spying is war, otherwise revelations that the U.S. once monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone would have led to the wrong conclusion that the U.S. is at war with Germany.

Strong institutions, a free press, technological expertise and good governance to keep citizens happy are enough to combat any and all of these elements of so-called "hybrid warfare." Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves once told me that Russian-speakers in his country can ignore Kremlin propaganda against Estonia because they enjoy their non-Russian living standards. As numerous analysts have pointed out, Ukraine's case is unique because it has been such an easy target -- precisely because it lacked institutions, expertise and good governance.

The lack of "hybrid war" paranoia in Germany, which Forsyth criticized in her article, is a sign of health, not cluelessness. The West does better when it leaves the siege mentality to the Kremlin.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.