The new Russo–Western confrontation and the riseof hybrid threats

In the Western perspective, the Russian annexation of Crimea and its subsequent military intervention in Eastern Ukraine represented a new form of hybrid warfare, involving the constant and ongoing synchronised use of a wide range of covert and overt, military and non-military instruments by Russia in pursuit of its strategic objectives (Chiwis, 2017, p. 1). Russia accomplished its bloodless annexation of Crimea with covert use of special forces without markings on their uniforms (the so-called little green men), local proxies, information warfare, psychological warfare and conventional forces massed on the Ukrainian border to deter Ukrainian and Western intervention.

The same methods were subsequently applied in Southern Ukraine, but here Ukrainian military resistance forced Russia to covertly employ a significant number of conventional forces to prevent its proxies from being overrun. The war in Eastern Ukraine has involved major use of conventional force and cost Russia more than 2,000 soldiers (Garver, 2015). In the course of the war, which, by early 2018, had settled into a pattern of continuous low-intensity fighting with no movement of frontlines, Russia also resorted to economic warfare, imposing sanctions and cutting off energy supplies to the Ukrainian state, and launched cyber attacks against Ukrainian targets. In order to deter Western intervention in support of the Ukrainian government, Russia threatened to intervene elsewhere to protect Russian minorities at risk, and significantly stepped up its patrols close to NATO air space. In addition, Russia conducted snap exercises with no advance warning, demonstrating a Russian capability to mass large troop concentrations quickly on NATO’s borders, simulated air strikes on NATO countries, deployed missiles in Kaliningrad and threatened to use nuclear weapons in self-defence.

The EU and NATO have taken a long list of civilian and military countermeasures in order to coerce Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and to counter its perceived ongoing, covert subversive attempts to destabilise the West and increase support for Russian viewpoints (see Boxes 10.2 and 10.3). They accuse Russia of spreading disinformation and launching cyber attacks against critical infrastructure and private firms (Marsh, 2018), and for attempting to influence elections in several Western countries. In early 2018, the US government charged 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 presidential election (Apuzzo and LaFraniere, 2018).

Moscow rejects these accusations, arguing that the West was waging hybrid warfare against Russia and its allies long before 2014. Russian leaders view the various so-called colour revolutions occurring in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004-2005) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), in which civilian protests led to the peaceful overthrow of Russian-friendly governments, as the result of subversive and covert Western activities aimed at reducing Russian influence.

Box 10.2 NATO countermeasures adopted in response to Russian actions in the Ukraine

Nuclear deterrence:

• Reaffirmation that NATO will use its nuclear weapons to respond to nuclear attacks

Conventional defence and deterrence:

  • • Reassurance of Central-Eastern allies and deterrence of Russia
  • • Deployment of four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland on a rotational basis (enhanced Forward Presence)
  • • Fighter jets on air-policing patrols
  • • NATO AWACS surveillance flights over the territory of our eastern Allies, and maritime patrol aircraft flights along our eastern borders
  • • Intensified NATO maritime patrols in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean
  • • More NATO forces, exercises and training under Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast (Romania)
  • • Increased number of exercises

Adaptation of force and command structures for rapid crisis response:

  • • Larger NATO Response Force on higher readiness
  • • 5,000 strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force able to deploy at very short notice
  • • Eight small headquarters established in Central and Eastern Europe to facilitate readiness and the rapid deployment, NATO Force Integration Units
  • • Prepositioning of equipment and supplies


• Cyber-operations centre

Defence spending:

• Pledge to increase spending to 2% of GDP; objective not in sight but total spending increased with $40 billion in 2015-2017


  • • Suspension of all practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia
  • • Maintenance of political contacts at the level of ambassadors and above
  • • Increased support for capability development and capacity building in Ukraine


  • • Hybrid analysis branch analysing the full spectrum of hybrid actions, drawing from military and civilian, classified and open sources
  • • Enhanced cooperation with the EU to counter hybrid threats in the areas of situational awareness, strategic communications, cybersecurity, and crisis prevention and response


• Steps to increase member state ability to resist and recover easily and quickly from hybrid attacks, combining civilian, economic, commercial and military factors

Strategic communications:

  • • Enhanced to counter Russian information warfare
  • • NATO StratCom Center of Excellence established in Latvia

Compiled from NATO Factsheets and official documents, available at: www.natoJnt

This is dismissed in the West as Russian paranoia and propaganda intended to legitimise the use offeree in Ukraine (Palmer, 2015, p. 8). However, evidence does suggest that Western support did play a role in these revolutions - even if it was less decisive than Russian leaders claim (Wilson, 2006). The fact that Russian leaders expressed this concern prior to 2014 also suggests that it may be a real driver of their actions. Putin argued in 2012:

that the notion of‘soft power’ is being used increasingly often. This implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence. Regrettably, these methods are being used all too frequently to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries . . . the activities of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable.

(Putin, 2012)

Putin also accused the USA of instigating the anti-Kremlin protest movement that arose between the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-2012. To prevent a recurrence, the Russian government passed laws making it harder for foreign-funded democracy and human rights' organisations to operate in Russia and banned ‘undesirable’ NGOs posing a threat to national security (Luhn, 2015). In 2015, Russia’s National Security Strategy formally designated foreign-sponsored regime change as a security threat (Bouchet, 2016, p. 1). While the latter step also served to legitimise Russian actions in the Ukraine, the countermeasures adopted since 2012 do suggest that the Russian leadership feels as threatened by ‘hybrid warfare’ as the West does.

Box 10.3 EU countermeasures adopted in response to Russian actions in the Ukraine


  • • Association Agreement completed with the Ukraine
  • • Suspension of negotiations over Russia's joining the OECD and the International Energy Agency

Economic sanctions:

  • • Asset freeze and travel restrictions
  • • Restrictions on economic relations with Crimea and Sevastopol.
  • • Economic sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy

Hybrid threats:

• European Centre for Countering Hybrid Threats in Finland supported by the EU


• Establishment of EU Hybrid fusion cell analysing classified and open source information on hybrid threats

Strategic communications:

• East StratCom Task Force, which forecasts and responds to disinformation cases and campaigns, and highlights the concrete benefits of EU partnership to the Eastern partners


  • • Identification of common tools to improve protection and resilience of critical infrastructure against hybrid threats covering all relevant sectors
  • • Regionally coordinated management of gas shortages, in case of a crisis or a hybrid attack

Compiled from EU Factsheets and official documents available at:

In a constructivist perspective, the Russian use of force in Ukraine initiated a process of negative interactions that will make the relationship between the two sides increasingly adversarial. Both sides are increasing their defence spending and taking actions that the other perceives as aggressive and threatening. Both sides make demands that the other deems completely unacceptable. Russia wants the West to stay out of its sphere of privileged interest and stop promoting democracy, human rights and trade agreements undermining the Eurasian Economic Union. This is not on the cards. On the contrary, the EU Global Strategy signalled a commitment to ‘uphold the right’ of the Eastern partners ‘to determine freely their approach towards the EU’ (European External Action Service, 2016, p. 33). This is a recipe for continued rivalry.

At the same time, three factors suggest escalation to a direct military confrontation to be highly unlikely. The first is derived from rational deterrence theory. The nuclear weapons possessed by the parties guarantee mutually assured destruction (MAD) in the event of war, creating a strong common interest in war avoidance. Two states with secure second-strike capabilities have never fought each other directly.

The main EU and NATO concern is Russian use of covert non-military means below the threshold required to trigger a military NATO response, such as cyber attacks, propaganda, disinformation, economic warfare and attempts to influence elections. Yet, given the difficulties that Russia has experienced in using such methods to destabilise the Ukrainian state and coerce it to comply with Russian demands (Galeotti, 2015), it is hard to see Russia succeeding in destabilising the far stronger states in the EU and NATO. There is no evidence suggesting that Russian interference in Western elections has made a decisive difference to their outcomes. Consequently, it is hard to see Russian efforts succeed now that the EU and NATO member states are aware of the threat and taking steps to reduce their vulnerabilities (see Boxes 10.2 and 10.3).

Liberal interdependence theory points to a second factor reducing the risk of further escalation: the high degree of economic interdependence between the EU and Russia. The EU is Russia’s most important trading partner, whereas Russia is the EU’s fourth largest trading partner (European Union, 2017, p. 6). The sanctions the two sides have imposed on each other are hurting them both (Russia more so than the EU), giving them a common interest in ending the confrontation. As most EU sanctions are linked to the Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine, an end to the fighting would provide the EU with the argument for initiating a gradual easing of those sanctions hurting Russia the most.

Positive interaction between the two first factors limiting the risk of escalation produces a third: restraint, and a strong aversion to engage in behaviour with a high risk of inadvertent escalation. Western leaders signalled restraint throughout the confrontation, indicating that they had no intention of intervening militarily or providing military equipment to the Ukrainian government. They were slow to impose sanctions, hoping that threats would suffice to coerce Russia to stop its military involvement in Eastern Ukraine. NATO also opted for the four battlegroup-strong trip-wire posture in Eastern Europe to minimise the risk of escalation. Had NATO adopted a deterrence by denial posture, deploying seven brigades in the Baltics and Poland to stop a Russian attack on the border (Shlapak and Johnson, 2016, p. 1), Russia would have had no choice but to increase its number of troops, as these brigades would have threatened its second largest city, St Petersburg. The result would have been heightened tensions, increasing the risk of a war that no one wants. NATO and the EU have also kept a door open for dialogue and negotiation throughout the confrontation.

Likewise, Russia has consistently tried to keep its military involvement in Eastern Ukraine under the radar, using soldiers without markings on their uniforms and denying direct involvement. Russia only intervened with regular forces when it became necessary in order to prevent Ukrainian forces from overrunning its proxies. Russia has also shown restraint by limiting its frequent harassment of NATO member states to their aircraft and warships. It has refrained from harassing the ground troops guarding NATO’s borders because it would create a much higher risk of escalation. The loss of an aircraft or ship will trigger a crisis, but not a war. Harassing troops or security forces in the Baltics might do so, however. The easily outnumbered and outgunned Baltic forces have a strong incentive to escalate any confrontation with Russian proxies or little green men in order to force Russia to either back down or escalate their involvement above the Article Five threshold that will trigger a military response from the entire NATO alliance.

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