Wake up, West! The Era of Hybrid Warfare Is Upon Us


on August 25 | in Europe, Foreign Policy, Russia, War of Ideas

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Times have changed. We in the West—especially in Europe—should know by now that we’ve left behind us an era when wars took place in some remote foreign location, waged by professionals with American accents utilizing high-tech weapons systems in an apparently surgical manner with a limited number of casualties.

This kind of war allowed Western civilians to be seduced by an idea of perpetual peace, briefly disturbed by occasional acts of terrorism. We could stay detached from the complexities of power struggles taking place in the international arena. Similarly, this state allowed many Western militaries to resemble more of an international policing force than a solid fighting machine prepared for national and alliance defense.

Europe has now entered an era of hybrid warfare that will force us all, civilians and military alike, to participate. The events in Ukraine—first in Crimea and then in the eastern part of the country—are still currently unfolding. It’s important for the West to understand hybrid warfare is not limited to Ukraine. Russia is already waging hybrid warfare throughout the West.

We have been challenged on several fronts, which means that the time of perpetual peace is over. It’s time to wake up to the way the world is.

What is Hybrid Warfare?

These instruments, such as cyber attacks, economic blackmail, information warfare, and exploitation of ethnic divisions, target various parts of society. Targets reside wherever there are major societal vulnerabilities and greatest asymmetry between target’s weaknesses and own strengths are found.

The use of violence is by no means necessary—or even desired. The political end state should be preferably reached without reaching the threshold of war, which would allow an opponent to legally use force. This would make the conflict much more expensive, as well as draw unwanted international attention.

This is why hybrid warfare presents a great challenge to Western countries. The whole-of-society targeting makes the hybrid threat even more difficult to fight, as our siloed defense mechanisms do not work particularly well when the adversary strikes at soft targets throughout society.

Russia Is Already in the Game

Our old adversary is already mastering this new type of warfare. The Russian toolkit contains a wide variety of instruments that can be applied against a target. The recent uses of those instruments indicate the extent of the challenge the West now faces.

Russians already see themselves being in conflict with us, which is why they have deployed various instruments from their toolkit against the West. All these serve Moscow’s political goals.

As we have witnessed, Russia conducts information warfare activities in an industrial manner. Ethnic Russians residing outside ‘Mother Russia’ are taken advantage of in justifying diplomatic bullying, and military forces are used to intimidate and threaten both neighboring countries and NATO members farther away. Furthermore, Russia exploits energy issues—both as a tool for blackmail and to build new dependencies for later use.

Despite Russia’s WTO membership, trade is applied as a weapon for example by limiting imports from the West and by threatening to deny exports critical to trade partner’s industries. Other economic links are taken advantage of, such as using sovereign debt as pressurizing means. Financial means are used not only to lobby, but given out as loans to buy political influence, financing NGOs and popular movements that can help reaching Kremlin’s goals. Moreover, Russian individuals and companies are buying stakes in Western critical infrastructure and key resources, investing in land plots located next to critical military installations.

Russia has also engaged in lawfare, utilizing legal agreements and frameworks, to serve its goals. Kremlin is also a major cyberpower, as the Pentagon recently noted. Members of German parliament, and hundreds of private sector companies have been subjected to sophisticated cyber attacks. Most worrisome, nuclear threats have been brought back to the table to test NATO’s unity and determination.

This all leads to an unsettling conclusion that Russia has already mobilized and deployed its hybrid instruments against the West.

What Can The West Do To Defend Against Hybrid Warfare?

While we might not be fully aware of Moscow’s intentions behind the use of its hybrid capabilities, we are not powerless to face this challenge. The West can build defensive mechanisms to shield our societies and alliances while establishing deterrence to ensure any aggressor will pay a high price.

Furthermore, updating and strengthening our policies can help us deny Russia’s access to its hybrid warfare instruments by both limiting the number of the instruments available and supportive allies. Lastly, certain steps can be taken to erode Russia’s current ability to field its existing hybrid capabilities.

There have already been a number of individual and collective actions that have some success in countering Russia’s efforts. Regarding information warfare, in addition to wide recognition of Russian information warfare activities throughout the Western media, NATO established in 2014 a Center of Excellence in Strategic Communications to Riga, Latvia. There are also other geographically well-targeted initiatives, such as offering grants for training journalists in countering the Russian narrative in Baltics

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In the area of energy security, the EU has taken concrete steps to blunt the efficacy of Russian energy blackmail against European countries. These steps have been supported by US diplomatic efforts.

In addition to defensive actions, there has been several military exercises conducted with allies and partners, and forward deployment of equipment shows support deterrence and resolve. The most proactive instruments the West has taken into use are the economic sanctions that deny certain actors Western capital and technology, thus eroding the long-term outlook both for the Russian economy and the unity of the ruling clique.

What More Can Be Done?

While the existing actions serve as a good start, there are further steps to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare activities:

In the short-term:

  • Any political, military or economic benefits that Russia receives from their illegal annexations and establishment of proxy powers should continue to be denied, while Western powers should continue to increase costs for this behavior. One form of cost imposing is continued and tightened sanctions.
  • More attention should be paid to identify both national and international societal vulnerabilities that can be targeted and exploited by hybrid operations. These vulnerabilities can be patched with whole-of-society approaches, such as Finnish “comprehensive security” concept. Identifying vulnerabilities helps also preparing relevant threat scenarios that support defense planning.
  • As it has been already requested and despite of their known shortcomings, additional intelligence assets should be dedicated to Russia. This is necessary in order to gain more accurate situational awareness, and to better understand Russian decisionmaking system and the actions it takes. This would also help to see through the Kremlin’s diversion-and-deception tactics, thus partly removing the element of surprise. Lastly, intelligence from Russia will help the West determine whether our own response to Russian hybrid operations has been efficient.
  • Counterintelligence efforts should receive further resources to prevent any further penetration of the Western societies by Russian intelligence agencies, and to begin to expose and roll back their existing networks in political, cultural, economic, and civil society circles.
  • Russian propaganda and information warfare efforts needs to be exposed without at the same giving any credibility to their narrative or attempts to mess the information space. Instead of engaging in counter-propaganda, Western societies need to continue to rely to the power of free media and private organizations that reside outside governmental command structure. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure Russians will continue to have an unobstructed access to trustworthy information sources on various media platforms.
  • There should be tighter cybersecurity collaboration between the United States and EU. Collaboration should include information and technology exchanges while also sharing exercises between militaries and civilian organizations. Private sector entities should also be involved.
  • Furthermore, Russia should be denied from any Western developed dual-use cyber technologies. Cybercrime originating from Russia should be actively fought, as they supply some of Moscow’s hybrid capabilities.

In the medium-term:

  • In order for the defensive efforts to be effective against hybrid threats and operations, they need to be well coordinated both on national and international levels. For the coordination purposes there needs to be administrative and communication structures established that help break the siloes, support sharing situational awareness, and enable preparations and defensive actions.
  • Existing sanctions need to be enforced closely and evasion mechanisms have to be identified and plugged. Contamination zones should be established to ensure certain entities don’t evade sanctions.
  • In addition to blocking access to Western capital, safe havens for illicit funds should be denied, and flows of illicit funds should be better blocked, as they serve the Moscow’s overall interests.
  • Greater transparency should be required from Western politicians, businesses, and civil society organizations to combat toxic economic connections. Toxic economic connections help Moscow penetrate our decisionmaking systems and societies, corrupt them, and use them for their purposes.
  • More US military equipment and personnel should be deployed to Europe. Force levels should be similar to those during the cold war years than those that were considered necessary during the time of ‘peace dividend’. European allies should also be more willing to bear a part of the burden and increase their military expenditure levels towards more sustainable levels.
  • Russia’s nuclear rhetoric need to be countered by clearly stating that any use of nuclear weapons against any alliance members would lead to a nuclear response by the United States. Further reassurance to allies most threatened by Russian nuclear rhetoric could be offered by re-establishing the missile shield initiative in collaboration with local partners in Europe.

In the long-term:

  • At the grand strategic level, there should be extra efforts taken to ensure that the transatlantic bonds are further strengthened through free trade agreements that would also have positive geostrategic implications.
  • In a similar geostrategic move, China’s will to stand by Russia and collaborate with it in a creation of geostrategic alternative reality should be more rigorously tested.


While we focused upon Russia’s hybrid operations and policy options countering them, it would be a mistake to state only Russia is capable of engaging in hybrid warfare. It is not far-fetched to see several analogies between those instruments that Russia has been utilizing and those that China has in its own toolbox.

While strong, developed, autocratic nations may have an edge on the offensive side of hybrid operations, all countries have an opportunity to organize their defenses against hybrid threats. It is important to build a more resilient society. This should not be viewed only as an extra burden to already economically-struggling Western societies, but is should be seen as an opportunity to get one’s house in order.

Why? Because the structures that allow a society to respond in an agile manner to hybrid threats can better cope with the complex underlying frictions that make our modern societies fragile. A more resilient society does not equate to a militarized or fear-driven society, but rather a more functional one, as decisionmaking processes becomes more transparent and inclusive.

Putting one’s own house in order and improving defenses is only one side of the story. The other side is taking a more active role in the game. This requires assets in place to deter the adversary, actions taken to deny adversary’s access to their own and allies’ instruments, and finally using strengths to erode adversary’s ability to deploy hybrid operations.

Yet we must be wary of going too far. The West must counteract Russia’s hybrid warfare efforts without unnecessarily crossing the threshold of war-justifying destruction of lives and physical infrastructure. That would allow Moscow to legally resort to massively violent means to achieve its goals. While uncontrolled escalation of events is in no nation’s interests, Western countries need to establish a credible deterrent that will deny also Kremlin from resorting to that tool again in hopes of making more gains.


Aapo Cederberg is an associate fellow in the Emerging Security Challenges Programme at Geneva Centre for Security Policy and also a retired colonel from the Finnish Armed Forces. He was previously the Secretary General for the Finnish Security Committee and prior to that was the Head of Strategic Planning in the Ministry of Defence. Twitter: @ace_aapo

Pasi Eronen is a project researcher for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on economic power projection and cyber warfare. Twitter: @pasieronen

photo: The National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) in Kiev, Ukraine, by Bert Kaufmann (Creative Commons)

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