The assumption that in hybrid warfare the risk of military escalation and political damage could be kept within limits may at the same time increase the likelihood of its offensive use. For this reason, it is more than likely that hybrid warfare in various manifestations will shape the “face of war” in the 21st century.
Hybrid Warfare – a challenge for EU, NATO and member states
At the same time, Europe’s borders, particularly in the south, are wide open, and dividing lines within European societies are growing and deepening. This exposes numerous vulnerabilities that can be exploited by all kinds of hybrid actors from various directions, not only or primarily from Russia. However, military strength provides additional opportunities to exploit hybrid methods, even without the active use of force. Military escalation potential or dominance by its mere existence would support any kind of subversive hybrid activities. However, success in hybrid warfare depends on certain preconditions that don’t automatically apply to any situation. For example, the Crimea scenario could not be implemented elsewhere in offhand manner. The war in Donbas already demonstrated the limitations of such an approach.
The Ukraine case, however, illustrates another important relationship. The more closely connected and interwoven a country’s relations with its adversary, and the more pronounced their mutual dependencies, the more potential starting points there are for hybrid methods of warfare, which will also tend to be more successful as a consequence. For this reason, globalization, close international interaction and interconnected societies – as positive and desirable as these developments may be – have the potential to open up additional starting points for hybrid methods of warfare. This could make hybrid warfare a particularly favoured means among former (alleged) friends (like Ukraine and Russia had been) within the framework of intrastate conflicts, and especially in civil wars. Open, democratic societies that lack strategic vigilance are particularly vulnerable to hybrid methods of warfare.
This situation needs to be changed.
Offensive vs. defensive
With its ability to create ambiguity by silently operating in the grey areas of interfaces, while concealing or plausibly denying an actor’s intent and role as a party to the conflict, combined with a limited use of force only as a last step, hybrid warfare offers huge potential for surprise and offensive action, even against militarily superior opponents (underdog strategy). By following a long-term, indirect or masked ‘salami tactics’ approach or, conversely, by conducting rapid, unexpected offensive operations (fait accompli), hybrid actors can create new sets of circumstances that are almost impossible to be changed afterwards without undue effort. Hence, the offensive power of hybrid warfare presents the defender with a particular challenge: being taken by surprise without even recognising that one is under hybrid attack until it is too late. Such a surprise could also be carried out indirectly and in slow motion. Hybrid warfare generally favours the offensive. Hence, countering hybrid warfare successfully in the long run requires far more forces, resources and efforts than offensive hybrid operations do.
Against this backdrop and in light of the dynamic, multifaceted nature of hybrid warfare, the crux of meeting this challenge will be to identify and understand in due time its ever-changing, multiple and often disguised appearances, as well as the pattern and strategic rationale behind it. It is impossible to respond appropriately unless the strategies and methods of a certain hybrid warfare actor are identified and understood comprehensively and early enough. Accordingly, in addition to long-term measures to build resilience, the ability to constantly perform in-depth analyses of specific war/conflict situations, related actors and strategies will become a key capability in countering and responding to hybrid methods of warfare. A comprehensive understanding of hybrid warfare and a related education of judgment, not least to prevent overinterpretation and overreaction, are decisive. For this reason, scholarship and the building of the respective analytical capabilities will play a vital role in meeting this challenge. The conceptual understanding of hybrid warfare briefly outlined below could serve as an analytical framework for considering and assessing this breed of warfare and related strategies in current and future situations.
Conceptual understanding of hybrid warfare
Conclusions for Europe
Dr. Johann Schmid is a Director COI Strategy and Defence at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, Finland.