Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.
Fridman notes that the term hybrid warfare was first developed by American military theorist Frank Hoffman following the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. He therefore starts his analysis by tracing the development of ideas which led to Hoffman’s theory of hybrid warfare. These include a 1999 book by Chinese air force officers Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, entitled Unrestricted Warfare, and American strategist William Lind’s concept of Fourth Generation Warfare. Hybrid warfare, as eventually theorized by Hoffman, is a military phenomenon, in which regular military forces are combined with irregular ones, as well as with terrorism and criminality. What one might term ‘non-military’ warfare – information warfare, and the like – falls outside of Hoffman’s definition.
In this way, Fridman argues, American conceptions of hybrid warfare were initially very different from Russian ones, for which reason he distinguishes the latter by referring to it by its Russian name, ‘gibridnaya voyna’. Fridman traces the development of ideas of gibridnaya voyna through the writings of émigré strategist Evgeny Messner (who had been the last Chief of Staff of the Kornilov Division of General Wrangel’s White Russian Army), Aleksandr Dugin, and Igor Panarin. Despite the fact that my first book was a history of the Russian military emigration, I’d never heard of Messner until very recently, so I found the section on his thought particularly interesting (though I do wonder how influential he really is). After the Second World War (in which he joined the German-backed 1st Russian National Army of General Boris Smyslovsky), Messner concluded that nuclear weapons made large-scale inter-state war impossible. In the future, therefore, states would seek to destroy their opponents by what he termed ‘subversion war’, the aim of which was primarily ‘the conquest of the souls in the enemy’s state’. Deeply conservative, Messner viewed the Soviet Union as waging subversion war against the West not just through propaganda but also by encouraging ‘anarchic-nihilism … drug addiction and debauchery (all-ages sexuality, homosexuality, pornography)’, and so on. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dugin and Panarin flipped this around – it was the West, not Russia, which had engaged in subversion war, destroying the Soviet Union without firing a shot by subverting it through networks of ethnic and religious minorities, NGOs (human rights movements, etc), agents of influence, and international institutions (IMF, World Bank, etc), and through information warfare.
The Russian concept of gibridnaya voyna is, therefore, very different from that of Hoffman – the latter is a hybrid of different types of military power; the former is a substitute for military power. As Fridman explains, following the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, military officers in both camps became dissatisfied with these definitions. In the West, the concept of hybrid war was expanded to include non-military as well as military means. In Russia, strategists chose instead to differentiate gibridnaya voyna from ‘new generation warfare’. The former, according to Russian military officers, is entirely non-military, and therefore, despite its name, is definitely not ‘war’; war must involve military power. The latter, by contrast, involves a combination of military and non-military means, and therefore is war.
Consequently, says Fridman, the concept of hybrid warfare has become extremely confused, covering a variety of different ideas. Furthermore, most of the claims about the novelty of hybrid warfare are false: war has always been ‘hybrid’, in the sense of being a mixture of multiple elements. Given this, writes Fridman:
The contemporary conceptualisation of hybridity is more a mélange of different concepts than a theory that helps to understand and interpret the complex reality of contemporary conflicts. … Describing war as ‘hybrid’ is similar to describing grass as a ‘hybrid yellow-blue colour’ and not as ‘green’ – it is conceptually confusing and ultimately unhelpful for clarifying the nature of the described as war.
Absolutely! It’s great to read somebody writing this stuff. But it raises of the question of how such a useless concept should have gained such enormous traction. Fridman provides an answer: influential individuals and institutions found the concept of hybrid warfare useful as a tool to promote their own interests. In the process, hybrid warfare/gibridnaya voyna was politicized. For instance, Fridman argues that:
The revival of the Russian threat has proven convenient to NATO’s leadership at the rhetorical level. Conceptualising and politicising Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as a hybrid threat that endangers the West by compromising its core democratic values has served NATO’s interests … forcing NATO’s member states to commit resources to a whole spectrum of activities outside the traditional military challenges. … The narrative of Russia’s revival as a threat to these values has consequently been used as a means to resolve NATO’s post-Soviet identity crisis.
According to Fridman, Central and Eastern Europeans have played a major role in this. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the amount of expertise on Russia in Western Europe and North America declined significantly. Now that Russia is back in the news again, the vacuum has been filled by experts from Central and Eastern Europe, who have brought with them significant historical anti-Russian baggage. The alleged hybrid threat has suited their particular political agenda.
Meanwhile, on the Russian side, the development of the twin ideas of new generation war and gibridnaya voyna has allowed the Russian military to carve out a space for military power in a world in which such power was being seen as increasingly irrelevant. In this way, ‘the politicisation of the concept of new-generation-war has sought to preserve the status of military means and methods, ultimately calling for additional investment in the Russian armed forces.’ Fridman concludes that:
In the case of both Russia and the West these discourses were infected by the attempts of different actors to promote their own political interests, rather than a more composed, dispassionate and professional attempt to understand the true nature of conflicts in the contemporary geo-political environment.
Russian Hybrid Warfare ends with an appeal to both Russia and the West to rethink what they are doing. Fridman argues that it would be futile for the West to try to wage hybrid war against Russia. Rather, it should focus on fixing its own internal problems, since it is the existence of these problems which provides Russia with some weaknesses which it can exploit via gibridnaya voyna. Fridman finishes with a warning:
The West will need to accept not only that the Russian regime is Russia’s business but also that the regime is likely to survive and that it would be beneficial to work with it rather than against it. … The West faces a choice between taking a politically difficult but responsible path … and a more impulsive and reckless path … Unfortunately … it seems that the West has chosen the latter path rather than the former. … [At the same time] The Russians, it seems, are talking themselves into a new round of unhelpful confrontations to the same extent and with the same speed as the West. … Both sides need to recognise that the world needs to change on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, as well as an ability to take responsibility for previous mistakes and to be ready to compromise.
This is an excellent book. It bursts the bubble of ‘hybrid warfare’, exposing it for what it really is – a theory which masquerades as something new but in reality isn’t new at all, and which therefore is almost worthless as a concept for understanding modern conflict. Its value is primarily political, as a tool to exaggerate threats and justify budgets. Russian Hybrid Warfare demonstrates this in a cool-headed, informed, and reasoned manner. It doesn’t take sides. It stays clear of moralizing language. And its conclusions, in my opinion, hit the nail bang on the head. Two thumbs up to Ofer Fridman. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.