It’s an especially tense time for the Baltic states and Russia’s other Western-leaning neighbors. Wariness with regard to Vladimir Putin and long-term Russian intentions toward the “near abroad” has long been the norm here, well before the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia and Russian military action against Georgia in 2008. But with the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, general wariness has given way to focused concern about the new threat Russia poses.
Call it “hybrid war,” “unconventional conflict,” “political warfare,” or “little green men.” The sense is not only that Russia is now unwilling to abide by such twenty-first-century principles as “no changing borders by force,” but that Putin has developed sophisticated new methods of asserting power unconstrained by conventional notions of warfare and even the law of armed conflict between states.
As to whether “hybrid warfare” is really new, opinions differ. At the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky have written a short paper dismissing the utility of the concept, preferring to think in terms of “a combination of previously defined types of warfare, whether conventional, irregular, political or information.” General Ray Odierno, on the other hand, finds the concept useful, describing a hybrid threat as “a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace.” Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University says he would add to Odierno’s description “instruments including economic and financial acts, subversive political acts like creating or covertly exploiting trade unions and NGOs as fronts, or information operations using false websites and planted newspaper articles” as well as other “diplomatic and financial and information tools.”
All these elements were at play in Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which involved Russian soldiers in and out of uniform, covert border crossings, a bogus narrative in which ethnic Russians in Ukraine were in mortal danger, rigged elections, gun-running, grave threats, economic pressure, and serious atrocities, the biggest of which was blowing a civilian airliner out of the sky.
Valery Gerasimov, the Russian military chief of staff, published an article in early 2013 drawing attention to “a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. . . . The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
You said it, Val. To be fair, the Russian view is that the United States is the master of this dark art of blurring lines; Russia is just catching up. But the cumulative impression coming out of Ukraine is of the emergence of an insidious and potentially unstoppable new mode of aggression.
In truth, it may be that the real novelty here is simply the return of aggression and conquest as such, at least to Europe. One thinks of the Bill Clinton-era scandal defense that “everyone lies about sex”: If your intention is to take a chunk of your neighbor’s territory by force, why wouldn’t you include in your plan blithely lying about your intentions and actions while playing for time, all the while making counterallegations that portray you as the real victim? The laws of war are the last thing states agree to before they decide to quit fighting each other altogether. Marquess of Queensberry rules are for suckers.
I would be all in favor of a Russian embrace of what the Obama administration likes to call “twenty-first-century norms.” In the absence of such a move, however, it’s time to get back to basics—which may turn “hybrid warfare” or “little green men” into a more manageable problem.
The most important issue here is not from the twenty-first century but the seventeenth: the sovereign power of states. The most basic test of sovereignty is a state’s ability to maintain a monopoly on the use of force in its territory. Not just the “legitimate” use of force, but something close to all forceful means that bear on the continuity of the state and its territorial integrity.
Criminal violence is not the concern. The objective of criminals is to keep what they steal, not to promote conditions in which no one has secure possession of anything; if they commit murder, it is not with the view that murder should be legal. Although order can break down if authorities lose control of criminal activity, in most cases, criminal violence is not political.