Mark Voyger: Russian hybrid warfare can still bring surprises in the future

Masked unidentified soldiers and local residents are seen inside a shop in Perevalne, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. In a referendum watched closely around the world, residents in Ukraine's strategic Crimean Peninsula voted Sunday on whether to demand greater autonomy or split off and seek to join Russia. The vote has been condemned as illegal by the United States and European countries.

PHOTO: Vadim Ghirda / AP

Mark Voyger, former special advisor to retired Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of US Army Europe, says in an interview to Georgi Beltadze, that calling hybrid warfare a completely new type of war is a misnomer. We are dealing with the same devil, which we have already seen in the past, only this time it is using new high-tech tools and methods.

Mark, could you please tell me, is hybrid warfare really a new type of military strategy or has humankind already experienced it, but may have largely forgotten about it?

You are absolutely right, it is not a totally new phenomenon. I usually point out that hybrid warfare Russian-style is as old, if not older than the United States of America, as your Eastern neighbour has been using methods that can be described as 'hybrid' since at least the 18th century.

What is interesting, it can be traced back exactly to the first annexation of Crimea by the Russian Empire under Empress Catherine the Great. While addressing the other Great Powers of Europe in her Manifest of 19 April 1783 she used the same justification and described the same range of tools used to annex the peninsula – political, diplomatic, legal, cultural, economic and intelligence – that were used by President [Vladimir] Putin in March of 2014. In a way, that date can be considered the birthday of Russian hybrid warfare.

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky: Arrival of Catherine II in Feodosia during 1784, directly following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

And back then, just like nowadays, Russia’s claim was: 'To protect the people there.'

Indeed, but not just then. This type of claim was first used in 1774, and then throughout the entire 19th century every time that Czarist Russia meddled in the Balkans that were then under Ottoman rule. At that time, the Russians claimed that sole intent was to protect Orthodox Christians in the region, while every time annexing more and more territories. Later, in the 20th century, the Soviets used similar pretexts when invading neighbouring countries – they claimed that they needed to support the oppressed masses of international workers.

So, why does everyone talk about that as if it is some sort of a new invention?

The reasons are multiple – hybrid warfare has multiple highly integrated elements that use extensively cyber and information warfare – so to some it may appear as a brand new weapon of war.

‘Hybrid' actually means 'a mixed child' in Latin, so the word itself is very old. Frank Hoffman first spoke of the rise of hybrid wars in 2007, but this term was only adopted by NATO in the summer of 2014 to emphasize the combination of military and non-military tools used by Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. So, many people probably assumed that since the use of this term is fairly new, then this type of warfare must also be new.

The Russians themselves began to use the term ‘hybrid’ in 2015 to describe what they claim are the subversive methods of the West used against Russia and regimes opposing the West. Prior to that they referred to it as 'new generation warfare', but this is also a misnomer, as Putin and his regime have effectively a long and thick textbook to learn from. They do not have to reinvent the wheel, or start from scratch, but obviously their toolbox nowadays includes many new elements.

Which elements are we then talking about?

Russian hybrid warfare can be compared to a hydra, an ancient mythological monster – it has a political 'head' and multiple tentacles. As early as the 1920s Soviet military strategists, such as [Alexander] Svechin and others elaborated on the concept of political warfare, as the centerpiece of modern warfare.

Russian hybrid warfare 'hydra'.

PHOTO: Mark Voyger

These concepts were re-discovered and incorporated in the 21st century version of Russia’s hybrid warfare, in this so-called 'Gerasimov Doctrine'. The famous hybrid warfare model, of course, is not the personal invention of [the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Army General Valery] Gerasimov, as it builds on deeply institutionalized knowledge within the Russian strategic military thinking. Some Western scholars even claim that there is no ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, and that what he describes is Russia’s perception of contemporary warfare and the threats it poses to Russia itself. In my opinion, his model has both descriptive elements (showing how Russia sees warfare in the 21st century), and prescriptive ones (what the Russian military should do to both counter and exploit those trends). Ultimately, Gerasimov’s writings and statements since 2013 effectively form a Russian hybrid warfare doctrine for the 21st century.

To achieve its goals, the Russian hybrid warfare ‘hydra’ uses also legal, diplomatic, intelligence, socio-cultural, economic, financial, energy and infrastructure tools, as well as organized crime, and conventional and covert military actions, to target both adversary nations or the Russian population, domestically and abroad.

The cyber actions are definitely among the most dangerous and destructive methods, as they can disrupt a nation’s energy infrastructure, financial systems, etc., along with …

…  information?

Yes. But propaganda on its own cannot justify the movement of Russian troops. For this purpose, the Kremlin also needs quasi legal justification. Thus, we have come to one of the most important elements of hybrid warfare which is usually not discussed much, but that is critically important. It is what U.S. legal experts have called 'lawfare' or legal warfare.

Could you, please, explain it?

The way Russia use international law as a weapon, the way they exploit and manipulate the international legal system in order to present its actions as justified, which of course, does not mean, that what it does is legal. Still, this ‘bending’ of the international law allows Russia to create the quasi-legal framework that it needs to justify the deployment of its troops to Crimea, Georgia, Moldova, and ultimately – to occupy territories claiming that this is necessary to protect the people there.  

Russian lawfare is so dangerous because it can create alternative legal realities – this process also strengthens their information warfare by matching false legal claims with false narratives and fake news. The whole world knows that they lie, but when they frame it as a legal issue, unfortunately it becomes very difficult to counter this in practice. The West must focus on this issue on the legislative level and address it at the level of international institutions.

September 10, 2014. Army General Valery Gerasimov, Head of the Armed Forces Staff, First Deputy Defense Minister, at a Kremlin meeting on the development of the State Armament Program for 2016-2025.

PHOTO: Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti

Why hybrid, and not conventional warfare?

First of all, whenever Russia feels constrained by the existing international system and by the security arrangements in Europe, it resorts to those clandestine means of hybrid warfare. Simply launching an open conventional aggression for the sake of occupation without also creating some sort of legal justification would be difficult to justify in the eyes of the world.

Secondly, Russians use hybrid warfare to destabilize its strategic competitor, such as the EU and the US. They know quite well that they cannot win a conventional war against the West, as the capabilities of NATO are definitely much higher. One has to only look at the sheer numbers – the military budgets, the number of soldiers, etc. There is huge advantage on our side. Therefore, Russia relies on ‘hybrid’ as the weapon of choice of the weaker actor to compensate for its structural deficiencies.

I do not know if the Russians realize what sort of Pandora’s box they have opened with this type of warfare.

And thirdly, after the Cold War the West had somewhat lowered its guard, so to speak, and directed its focus elsewhere, especially following the 9/11 attacks. Thus, by using hybrid methods, Russia is trying to slow down the Western reaction and prevent a coherent Western response to Russian aggression, so they can achieve their goals against their target-nations without invoking a conventional response. They even try to convince the West that there is no Russian threat at all, and that NATO’s Eastern European members are paranoid and Russophobic, and that NATO’s actions are unnecessary and provocative.

Hybrid warfare is, looking from the outside, quite complicated. It shows clearly the capabilities of the Russian military command and control, their ability for forward thinking, the interoperability of the different types of Russian political institutions. How far can this complexity evolve? Could we witness new hybrid elements in the future?

That complexity and unpredictability actually represent the greatest dangers of hybrid warfare. I do not know if the Russians themselves realize what sort of Pandora’s box they have opened with this type of warfare. There are many phases before this whole process turns into a conflict, so one can never be sure if the information campaign which Russia has launched is only meant to harass its targets, or if ‘little green men’ will eventually follow the propaganda efforts. Still, even Russia cannot use the same template all the time. Gerasimov himself emphasized that all wars are different, and that even when hybrid actions can go without the use of conventional military force, conventional wars will always incorporate hybrid methods and tools. So, there could be other elements which we have not seen yet, or which they emphasize in one theatre and underemphasize in another, and because of that, there still could be surprises in the future, unfortunately.

What could represent a potential failure of Western powers to counter hybrid warfare?

The main problem from the military point of view is that hybrid warfare occupies the dangerous grey area of sub-Article 5 actions. If you look at Gerasimov’s doctrine, its initial phases involve mostly non-military or clandestine means, followed then by direct military action. So, what then constitutes an attack against NATO? This is a serious question. And the alliance is definitely working hard to find solutions to those uncertainties.

The Role of Non-Military Methods in the Resolution of Interstate Conflicts. Source: Valery Gerasimov, 'The value of science in anticipation', VPK news, 27 February 2014. Accessed 2 July 2014,

PHOTO: Internet

In order to counter hybrid warfare we first must build resilience within our societies, whether in the states which are under Russia’s direct aggression, or in the West where the public needs to understand what is happening regarding RUS-generated fake news and information campaigns.

What else?

Well. Corruption must be eradicated, because it is one of the most powerful and widely used Russian hybrid tools.

The Kremlin does not hesitate to take advantage of the instability of political systems, as well. Russia does not need to attack a country militarily if it could manipulate its political system to replace the government with a Russia-friendly one.

Also, any existing issues related to the local Russian-speaking population must be addressed, and border issues with Russia must be resolved. We all know what is happening in Georgia with South Ossetia, where Russia constantly pushes the administrative line deeper inside Georgian sovereign territory. With regard to Estonia, Russia has recently refused to finalize the long-standing border dispute. This is also part of Russia’s lawfare technique.

We are not facing an omnipotent adversary, although they can definitely try to surprise here and there. We have become much more aware of its actions.

If Russia’s hybrid actions trigger NATO’s Article 5, will the Alliance then respond reciprocally, or will it go fully conventional?

That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? There is no doubt that any actions, which pass the Article 5 threshold will be countered decisively by NATO. The bloc has currently drawn 'red lines' for Russia by boosting the presence of Allied troops in the Baltic states. NATO is also increasing its readiness and capabilities to respond. Are we where we want to be? Are all systems perfect? Not yet, but neither is Russia. So, we are not facing an omnipotent adversary, although they can definitely try to surprise us here and there. We have become much more aware of Russia’s hybrid actions, and most importantly – nowadays the NATO is much more cohesive and filled with resolve than four years ago.

Mark Voyger.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

Mark Voyger 

  • Currently he is the Senior lecturer in Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Baltic Defence College.
  • As of this Spring he was the Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to the Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany.
  • Previously he worked for NATO as Cultural Advisor and Senior Russia expert.
  • He was also member of the Russia Advisory Group for Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign.