There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about the different approaches taken by the Americans and the Russians to a simple problem. At the height of the Cold War, during the space race, the Americans were having problems using their pens for checklists in zero-G spaceflights – the ink wasn’t flowing correctly to the nib. A committee at NASA was formed, a design for a new type of pen agreed, a project started, a contractor to produce the pen selected, and millions of dollars spent all along the way.
The Russians decided to use pencils.
This straightforward difference in mentality and approach has now been extended by the Russians to their techniques of warfare. While the United States has spent trillions developing the best tanks, aircraft, smart bombs, missiles, ships and submarines, Russia, with some cunning and relatively cheap tactical tweaks, has all but rendered the West’s advantage in conventional warfare redundant, as its annexation of Crimea and land grab in eastern Ukraine has demonstrated. It must be admitted that the West, and more specifically and worryingly NATO, has been found to be impotent in the face of Russian military aggression.
None of the four components of the new Russian style of war, dubbed Hybrid Warfare, are innovations in themselves. These components - the military, the political, the economic, and the informational - have long been present in the field of conflict. What is new is the way in which the Russians have seamlessly blended them into a tactical doctrine that guides their actions. They have also enhanced the informational component in ways that could not even have been conceived before the advent of the Internet.
The political component is the one we are most familiar with from the Cold War. Stony faces at the Security Council. Political pressure being exerted on allies and foes. Both sides are long practiced in the arts of superpower diplomacy, and neither has any particular advantage in this area. Observers of UN meetings have already noted the return of a chilly Cold War atmosphere at UN headquarters since the Ukrainian crisis erupted. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of the governments of the West, wrongly assuming that the threat from Russia was history, let their Russian desks get dusty, and neglected the science of Kremlinology. As a result, the West has realized with a jolt that it cannot fathom what Vladimir Putin is up to. We don’t understand the Russians anymore. We stopped thinking of them as enemies, but it seems they never did so of us.
The long shadow of the bomb hangs over the military component. No side will risk all-out war for fear of any conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange. The West, as noted, retains its advantage in conventional weapons and technology. But Russia has used subterfuge, and covert operations by special forces, to achieve a spectacular military success in the virtually bloodless takeover of a prized chunk of Ukrainian territory – Crimea. By escalating its confrontation with the West step by step, the Kremlin never puts its foes in a position in which a conventional military response would be feasible or appropriate. The Russians have also demonstrated the ability to use a wide range of tactics, and adapt them to the situation as it evolves. We probably won’t see the Little Green Men of Crimea again – they would probably be shot on sight if they turned up, for example, in eastern Estonia (or at least one hopes so), but Russia no doubt has many other tricks up its sleeve. The use of a massive “aid convoy” to provide a logistical support resource for the Russian military in eastern Ukraine was another such trick. There was impotent outrage when the first convoy barged into Ukraine on August 22, in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but sanctions threats and dire warnings by the United States that it would see the convoy’s unauthorized crossing into Ukraine as an “invasion” proved to be nothing but hot air and bluster. Now Russia is readying a fourth convoy. We’ve got to the point that Russia can send hundreds of trucks into Ukraine, unchecked, unsupervised, carrying only the Russians know what, without a whimper of complaint from the West.
Then there is the economic component. Russia has actually been using economic warfare on Ukraine for a number of years, but now the NATO countries of the European Union are in the Kremlin's sights, and are at a clear disadvantage. The EU imports around 30% of its natural gas from Russia (half of that coming through the Ukrainian gas transit system.) Germany and Italy consume about half of these Russian gas exports. The implications of Russia’s controlling the supply of such an amount of the raw energy supplies of large Western democracies are obvious, and will not be dwelt upon here. The economic sanctions threatened and imposed by the EU and the United States in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have so far had no effect in influencing Russia’s actions. Indeed, the issue of the annexation of Crimea, which saw Russia wreck the post-war international order in a matter of days, now seems to have slipped off the agenda completely. Now that Russia appears to have succeeded in setting up a frozen conflict in the east of Ukraine, and the fighting appears to be winding down, at least slightly, the EU is even considering reviewing its package of sanctions against Russia! It appears that Russia correctly guessed that the EU was too weak, divided, and self-interested to impose and maintain for the time required the kind of economic sanctions that would make the Kremlin back down. Meanwhile, Russia has imposed sanctions on the EU that have a direct impact on Russia’s own population – restrictions on imports of EU goods and foods. The message is clear: “We can take the pain of your sanctions, and we don’t mind hurting our own population – we’ll just tell them it’s all the West’s fault, that they’re our enemies, and they’ll rally around us.” The West’s sanctions could work, but they’d have to be a lot tougher, long-lasting and also be of the kind that would also inflict damage to Western countries’ own economies. The West has no stomach for such sanctions, and Russia knows it.
Lastly, the informational component: Here Russia has been at its most deviously brilliant. By using its tight control over the Russian media, the Kremlin has been able to shape the narrative underlying the whole Ukraine crisis by creating an interlocking series of myths that not only win the hearts and minds of the Russian public, but also appeal to left- (and right-) leaning elements in the West and elsewhere around the world who have a visceral dislike of the United States and its foreign policy. The main myths are that it was the EU and the West that started the Ukraine crisis (while it was actually a popular revolution sparked by Russia’s own meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs); that Kyiv was taken over by a fascist junta; that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were under some sort of threat and required protection; and that the fighting in Ukraine is a purely internal conflict (although it was actually fomented by Russia). Russian officials and journalists are prepared to utter, without a blush, the most blatant lies in order to support these myths, in a way that simply flummoxes the Western media (who are also baffled over how to report the obvious but infuriatingly difficult to prove involvement of Russian troops, tanks and artillery in the fighting in the east of Ukraine.)
The information component also includes the innovative use of hacking (Estonia has suffered Russian attacks on its modern e-government, and there is circumstantial evidence that Russia may have tried to interfere in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election by infiltrating the central election commission’s servers.) Moreover, as Western newspapers like the UK Guardian have found, Russia is able to call on an army of Internet trolls to disrupt, confuse, and mold public discourse in the West in matters pertaining to Ukraine, spreading misinformation in support of Russia’s myth narrative. We can be quite sure that Russia has even more capabilities to attack the West via the Internet, such as clogging up the banking system, attacking utilities operating systems, and stealing valuable data. It is not known yet whether the West has any way of countering such attacks, or responding in kind. But the Russians are clearly taking no chances: President Putin recently held a meeting on ways to cut the Russian part of the Internet off from the rest of the Web.
All of these components have been used together, in an integrated fashion, to support one another. As special ops forces moved in to seize buildings in eastern Ukraine, Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to the country (which it did in May), its diplomats in the UN lied shamelessly about Russia’s involvement in the conflict, and Russian media and Internet trolls howled and snorted if it was suggested that Russia might be behind the so-called rebellion in the Donbas, all the while spreading misinformation about Ukraine and the Ukrainian government to the Russian and Western public alike.
This is a new kind of war. It is aggressive and offensive (in both the main meanings of the word). New methods will have to be devised to defend against it, or the Russian advance into territories it once ruled in an empire will not stop in eastern Ukraine.