The Russian Hydra

If you want to understand international affairs but only have time to read one academic article, the one I’d recommend would be Robert Jervis’ “Hypotheses on Misperception,” published in World Politics in 1968. It contains 14 hypotheses about how states misperceive one another, creating many of the problems which endanger international security. None of it is exactly rocket science, but it’s the kind of obvious truth that needs to be said, and then repeated over and over again, because people seem to be unable to take it in.

I give the article to students in my defence policy course so we can discuss things such as “Hypothesis 8 is that there is an overall tendency for decision-makers to see other states as more hostile than they are,” and “Hypothesis 9 states that actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.” Obvious stuff, as I said, but it comes in useful when we move on to discuss other matters such as this week’s class topic, which was hybrid warfare.

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of the concept of hybrid warfare, but as it’s something students of defence policy will hear a lot about I kind of have to discuss it, for which purpose I googled around looking for suitable diagrams to use to explain the idea. In the process, I came across this one that accompanied an interview a couple of years ago with a guy called Mark Voyger who was at one time a special advisor to Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe.

I thought this depiction of the Russian ‘hydra’ with multiple tentacles emanating from a central core to attack the ‘target nation’ was great because it so clearly demonstrates hypotheses 8 & 9 mentioned above, as well as highlighting the absurdity of the hybrid warfare concept.

For what it does is label absolutely everything ‘war’. Intelligence, diplomacy, law, social-cultural activities, cyber, information, energy, economic relations, infrastructure, crime, and conventional military forces are not just intelligence, diplomacy, law etc. They’re WAR!! Which if you think about it is kind of odd. Isn’t diplomacy meant to be kind of the opposite of war? Why are social-cultural activities (e.g. cultural exchanges) war? Why are information or economic relations war? It’s an extraordinarily paranoid view of the world, in which everything another state, or its citizens do, is part and parcel of a campaign to destroy us from within. They don’t trade with us to get rich. No, they trade with us to subvert us! And so on.

In short, the hybrid warfare concept is pretty much an embodiment of hypothesis 8, allowing those who propagate it to exaggerate threats, and make just about everything a matter of security. That, if you think about it, is more than a little scary. Trade, diplomacy, culture, etc. shouldn’t be securitized. But it’s also conceptual dodgy – after all, when everything is war, then the term war loses any meaning as something distinct.

Beyond that, the Russian hydra model in the diagram above perfectly illustrates hypothesis 9 – i.e. the tendency, “to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.” For in the diagram, all the tentacles come out of a single core, suggesting that the Russian political leadership is coordinating everything everybody in Russia does and directing it towards a single common purpose – destroying the “target nation.” Which is of course absurd – not only does it exaggerate the Russian state’s power and abilities, but it also ignores the fact that many of those engaged in activities such as cultural exchanges, trade, the media, etc., etc., are following their own agendas not those of the state.

Unfortunately, the hydra model seems quite well entrenched in Western thinkers’ minds. I was looking today at the British government’s new review of foreign and defence policy, and it had the following to say:

A more integrated approach supports faster decision-making, more effective policy-making and more coherent implementation by bringing together defence, diplomacy, development, intelligence and security, trade and aspects of domestic policy in pursuit of cross-government, national objectives. The logic of integration is to make more of finite resources within a more competitive world in which speed of adaptation can provide decisive advantage. It is a response to the fact that adversaries and competitors are already acting in a more integrated way – fusing military and civilian technology and increasingly blurring the boundaries between war and peace, prosperity and security, trade and development, and domestic and foreign policy.

You get it – foreign, “malign” states have fully integrated policies, “blurring the boundaries between war and peace” by coordinating defence, diplomacy, trade, etc., etc, in a seamless strategy of aggression.

And here we run into another danger of the hybrid warfare theory. On the basis of the myth of the hybrid ‘hydra’, Western states are now arguing that they need to become the hydra themselves. I can’t see it ending well.

23 thoughts on “The Russian Hydra”

  1. “No, they trade with us to subvert us! And so on.”

    Right now Russia is prevented by the US to force their vaccine onto poor Brazilians to at least cut one arm of the hydra and prevent subversion. Success…likely not so much for the Brazilians…

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  2. Hydra-schmidra. The current state of affairs is far beyond the ‘overall tendency to see other states as more hostile’ and ‘the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated’.

    “Extraordinarily paranoid view of the world” is a symptom, and my humble diagnosis is that the western socioeconomic system is in a deep crisis. As usual, admitting the problem has to be the first step, but, alas, it ain’t happening. So, in all likelihood it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

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    1. According to Greek mythology, the Hydra-Schmydra was created by Zeus’ lovely wife, Hera. Who created it specifically to kill Hercules, hubby’s son by another mother, whom she abhorred.

      Slaying the Hydra-Schmydra was one of the tasks or “Labors” assigned to Hercules. He received the complaint from suffering villagers tired of being randomly terrorized by this annoying multi-headed serpent.
      Upon attacking the Hydra-Schmydra Hercules was surprised to learn, that every time he chopped off one head, the serpent would grow two more to replace it. The more he chopped, the less he killed. This was becoming so mathematically exponential, that Hercules realized his legendary strength and chopping skills were not sufficient, he would need some expert help. So, he recruited his nephew Iolaus to help him. More importantly, these two brutes had the assistance and support of the goddess Athena, who was also not a fan of the Great White Bitch Goddess Hera, her putative step-mom.

      Specifically, Athena provided Hercules with a golden sword, sharp enough [wait a minute, isn’t gold actually sort of a dull metal?] to slice off any slimy reptilian Hydra-Schmydra head. After each slice, Iolaus would use a torch to cauterize the stump of a neck, thus preventing the head from growing back! (Good job, Iolaus!)

      In the end, the Hydra-Schmydra was left with just one head. This particular head was immortal, so Hercules couldn’t cut it off, but he was able to contain it underneath a rock. Task completed, and kudos to all!

      And let this be a lesson to NATO: It’s not enough to cut off each head of the poisonous Russian Hydra-Schmydra. Even if we’re just talkin’ ’bout, say, a dance troupe! No, you gotta then cauterize the bleeding craw!

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      1. Yeah, the Nazis are doing it the correct Hercules way, cauterizing the necks! But still, methinks, one of the tentacles got that Nazi guy on the left…

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      2. “Upon attacking the Hydra-Schmydra Hercules was surprised to learn, that every time he chopped off one head, the serpent would grow two more to replace it. The more he chopped, the less he killed. This was becoming so mathematically exponential, that Hercules realized his legendary strength and chopping skills were not sufficient, he would need some expert help.

        […]

        In the end, the Hydra-Schmydra was left with just one head. This particular head was immortal, so Hercules couldn’t cut it off, but he was able to contain it underneath a rock. Task completed, and kudos to all!”

        This, and other similar episodes just show us , that Herc was an idiot. Instead of bothering with this whole “hack-chop-burn” rinse and repeat an routine, he’d should keep cutting the heads off. Why? Because Hydra might have any number of heads, but had only one heart. Meaning – much sooner than later, it’d eventually grew too many heads to supply them with the oxygen and would have fallen into a coma. Boom – mission accomplished, and no need to pester Athena, who being goddess of Wisdom, might have just give this valuable advise instead of dashing out valuable equipment.

        That kind of solution would not only keep the Hydra (an endangered species!) alive, but, by doing so, give the Herc a constant source of its blood, which was, ahem, “a force multiplier”, into which out Hero dibbed his arrowheads anyway. Now, instead of one off “bonus”, he’d be doing it, like forever.

        Finally – think of the scientific applications of keeping Hydra alive, but in coma! Why, I heard this Asclepius fellow was a sharp one. Surely, with such willing “patient” he’d perfect his art as a Chirurgeon, let alone as a pharmacists!

        Just about any kind of animal involved “labour” undertaken by the Heracles could be done better, more peacefully and with more lasting impact and benefit “For the Whole of Mankind” ™. Nemean lion? Catch it then attempt to breed – stone-hard pelt is worthy it. Stymphalian birds? They, literally, shed arrowheads – a gift to the Ancient Hellas MIC! Cleaning of the Augean stables via colossal (and potentially destructive) use of the civil engineering? Pfft! Instead, he’d rather:

        A) Start a rumour, that divine livestock living there produce equally divine…eh…ἡ ὄνθος. Surely, would do wonders as a fertilizer!
        B) Announce, on behalf of king Augeus, that the local peasants are strictly forbidden of poaching all kinds of the royal property – yes, including the dung. Herc here is enforce that!
        C) Leave the stables unguarded and unlocked for the next night.
        D) […]
        E) Boom! Squeaky clean stables!

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  3. I suggest reading Livia Rokach’s “Israel’s Sacred Terrorism: A Study Based on Moshe Sharett’s Personal Diary and Other Documents” if one is interested in how ‘projection’ is used in the real world. Exceptional historical document.

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  4. “And here we run into another danger of the hybrid warfare theory. On the basis of the myth of the hybrid ‘hydra’, Western states are now arguing that they need to become the hydra themselves.”

    Well, this blog (and the person behind it) is certainly not coordinated with the central Western message with regard to Russia if that is the case. That all the comments appear to be from people supportive of the author’s position (including me I suppose), or even more extreme, means that if this blog is not a part of the Russia Hydra strategy, then it is an obstacle to creating the domestic English/Canadian/US Hydra centered on opposing Russia. In any case, it doesn’t look good, and the person writing the blog appears to be influential in various circles…

    It certainly appears that the amount of censorship has increased quite dramatically in 2021 in the West. It can be argued away that it goes for platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, or Parler, and for people who don’t voice their opinion more eloquently. At this point I wouldn’t argue that your opinion is ‘less extreme’ than those of others because writing something that can be used by the ‘Russian Hydra’ probably means that you are extreme in the current 2021 sense, so the eloquence and the careful argument are what’s left. Lots of journalists are now arguing that Substack has to censor problematic writers to defend the integrity of journalism.

    https://greenwald.substack.com/p/journalists-start-demanding-substack

    WordPress is only different from Substack by having a much smaller reach I suppose. And there is a case to be made here that the author can be drowned out or doesn’t have a big platform contrary to the media that are part of the hydra.

    I wonder Prof. Robinson, is this what you mean by not ‘ending well’? Well, in any case, good luck. You do have a backup copy of your posts I hope…

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    1. Along those same lines, Professor, as commenter blatnoi notes, I highly recommend backing up one’s posts. WordPress Admin provides a tool to back up one’s blogposts into a bulk archive.

      Like, for example, worst case scenario, if WordPress banned you and deleted your posts, you might be able to port your backup archive to a different platform. Not sure, though, exactly how portable, do they use something generic/portable, like HTML, or their own proprietary XML format for the bulk backup? How easy or hard would it be to reconstitute the original posts? I am actually not sure, just thinking out loud here. Perhaps I will do some research on this, because you never know nowadays, what with all the blatant censorship going on….

      Worst-worst case scenario: If there are some posts you particularly care about, then back them up yourself manually, by going to the “HTML” tab of each post, copy-paste the text which is pure HTML and thus highly portable, into a text editor like Notepad. (Don’t use Microsoft Word.) This would be a lot of work to do them one at a time, but more reliably portable than WordPress bulk backup, I reckon.

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      1. This advice might come in handy. WordPress’s reach is getting quite large these days, if their claim of “40% of the internet” is true.

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      2. Good point. Thanks. I have also thought of bundling together some of the better blog posts along with my op-eds from The Spectator and various newspapers into an old-fashioned hard-copy book, but it requires time.

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      3. if WordPress banned you and deleted your posts,

        Do I have to fear something is wrong with me, if I or one or the other comment has been banned?

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      4. For sure! Good old-fashioned hard-copy text is the best back-up of all.
        It’s one lesson I learned while working in the data processing industry: If you don’t backup your work then you take a huge risk of losing everything.

        I could regale you with many horror stories about people who didn’t take backups, including myself!
        🙂

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      5. JT: As WordPress becomes more important, they run the risk that somebody will try to get to them. We live in an Orwellian world, alas.

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  5. > Isn’t diplomacy meant to be kind of the opposite of war?
    Sort of — the war is the extreme form of diplomacy, where all other means to persuade the other side proved insufficient.

    > They don’t trade with us to get rich. No, they trade with us to subvert us!
    Well, a) would having us subverted allow them to become richer than if we stayed un-subverted? and b) would trading with us would help them to subvert us? If the answers to both questions is “yes” (or to those questions modified with adding “Do they believe that…” to them), then this line of reasoning is, well, reasonable.

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  6. hybrid ‘hydra’, Western states are now arguing that they need to become the hydra themselves.

    Rooms full of mirrors, inside is out, and outside is in. When I got interested in politics post 9/11, something I had never cared much about before, that image was a lot on my mind.

    Otherwise, highly appreciated will try to read the article you recommend.

    Like

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