Tag Archives: hybrid warfare

Hybrid confusion

Well I’m inclined to believe,
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave,
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying.
Can you see these tears we’re crying?
Is there some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.

(Mumford & Sons)

The British House of Commons Defence Committee has been holding meetings as part of the ‘UK Response to Hybrid Threats Inquiry’. On Tuesday, it invited along a trio of experts to advise it about the dangers Britain faces from the likes of Russia. As so often in these cases, the guests seemed to be chosen specifically in order to reinforce the existing prejudices of the committee, and the meeting was something of a love-in, with nary a word of disagreement and a lot of chummy use of first names. As the MPs commented on a couple of occasions, the guests were ‘preaching to the choir’. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that the whole episode was characterized by an astonishing lack of intellectual coherence.

The first guest was Chris Donnelly, who has recently acquired fame due to his connection with the Integrity Initiative. As I’ve noted before, Donnelly takes a very extreme position vis-à-vis Russia. He’s also convinced that Britain is at war and needs to start acting like it. I have to say that he wouldn’t be my first choice of person to invite if I was looking for sober, balanced advice.

Guest number two was Robert Johnson, who runs a project titled ‘The Changing Character of War’ at the University of Oxford. I’ve always viewed this with some scepticism. I tend more to follow the line of the eminent strategist Colin Gray, who argues that despite changes in technology, the fundamental essence of war has never really changed at all. But that’s by the by. Johnson is a respectable scholar. He has also written numerous works as a consultant for NATO. I didn’t get the impression that he disagreed with Connelly in any substantial way.

The final invitee was Andrew Mumford of the University of Nottingham. When I looked him up, Google gave me lots of hits for a nice little song called ‘Not in Nottingham’ by Mumford & Sons, but I was eventually able to track him down. He’s written a lot about the British experience in counter-insurgency. His book The Counterinsurgency Myth: The British Experience in Irregular Warfare looks quite interesting.

So what did this trio have to say for themselves?

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Bad statecraft

In a 2011 article titled ‘The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return’, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney discussed a distinction between ‘deliberative’ and ‘instrumental’ mindsets, and linked this to the origins of the First World War. When in a deliberative mindset, people consider whether they ought to do something; when in an instrumental one, they think about how to do it. Some time in August 1914, the authors argued, European politicians shifted from a deliberative to an instrumental mindset – instead of thinking about whether they should be going to war, they started thinking about how to fight it. Once they did, war became inevitable.

We’ll get back to this a little later, but first we need to take a diversion. As some readers will be aware, the UK-based Institute of Statecraft and its associated project, the Integrity Initiative, have been in the news a lot recently due to leaks of documents about their campaign to combat ‘Russian propaganda’. Today another batch of leaked documents was published on the internet. Among these is a set of notes for a talk entitled ‘Genesis and Features of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine’. The notes seem to be a few years old and to have been written by someone called Jon Searle, who is described as ‘HDIS, Bedford Modern School’. A bit of investigation indicates that Bedford Modern School is an ‘independent day school for boys and girls aged 7 to 18’ and that Mr Searle teaches religious studies there – not an obvious qualification for expertise on Russian hybrid warfare. Given some clues in the document, I’m guessing that Mr Searle didn’t give this talk; rather it was given by a Ukrainian delegation, and these are just Searle’s notes. Anyway, they contain the following striking lines:

General Conclusions.

The Russian Federation is a constant source of aggression aimed at the territorial, economic and political stability of the Russian Near Abroad and other European countries. There is a desire to re-establish Soviet/Czarist Era borders.

Simply responding to Russian actions will be self-defeating.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Question: Where does Russia go next?

Military and political leaders harbour a desire to return to the ‘glory’ of the USSR: aggression is inherent in the Russian condition, ‘aggression will [only] be over when Russia is over.’

This reminds me a bit of James Clapper’s remark that Russians are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt and penetrate’, though it’s a bit more chilling because of the phrase that ‘aggression will only be over when Russia is over’, which suggests a desire actually to destroy Russia. The fact that Mr Searle doesn’t consider it worth his while to comment critically on all this suggests to me some degree of agreement. In another document, the Institute of Statecraft’s director Chris Donnelly also seems to concur, remarking that, ‘A fundamental, universally-held Russian belief is that Russia can only be secure at the expense of their neighbours’ security. All the Russian leadership and military consider that other countries’ security is secondary to, and must be subordinated to, Russia’s.’

Russia, in short, is innately aggressive. What’s interesting is that Donnelly allies this with a very elevated opinion of Russian strategy and of the qualities of the Russian General Staff. According to Donnelly, Western states are incapable of proper strategy – they’re very bad at defining national interests and directing means to achieve them, and they’re also very bad at coordinating the efforts of all the parts of government towards a common goal. By contrast, he claims, ‘Russian thinking is not fixed but very flexible. The General Staff (GS) is able to change and evolve, learn lessons, develop new capabilities and concepts. Today, this is a very dynamic organisation.’ Russia has an ‘integrated strategic campaign’, says Donnelly, which involves more than just the military, but brings together all aspects of state power in a coherent whole. It is marked by ‘strategic coherence … concepts, training, equipment are coherent.’ This combination of strategic coherence and aggressive strategic culture make Russia a particularly dangerous enemy. Connelly concludes:

This is the strategic situation we will face for the next 25 years. Moreover, the “war” mindset is being pumped into the Russian population. It is one of the great successes of Putin’s propaganda offensive.

Donnelly adds a curious statement, that ‘Seizing and occupying territory is not the ultimate Russian objective, whereas for the Soviet Armed Forces it was. Their objective today is the destruction of our Armed Forces and war-fighting capability.’ I say this is curious because as Clausewitz pointed out, in war ‘the aim is to disarm the enemy.’ So of course the objective of the Russian military in case of war against us would be ‘the destruction of our Armed Forces’. But I don’t think that Donnelly is thinking in those terms. He takes a lot of effort to explain that the boundaries between war and peace have disappeared. So when he talks about the Russians wanting to destroy our armed forces, I think that he means right now, ‘today’ as he puts it, not in some future war.

How is that to be achieved? A clue comes in another report which came to my attention this week, published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and entitled ‘Complex Strategic Coercion and Russian Military Modernization’. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute might seem far removed from the Integrity Initiative, but I read in the blurb at the end that the report’s author, Julian Lindley-French, is among other things a ‘Senior Fellow for the Institute for Statecraft’. According to Lindley-French, Moscow intends to achieve its objectives ‘via complex strategic coercion’:

 The modernization of Russia’s armed forces must thus be seen in the context of a new form of complex strategic coercion that employs systematic pressure across 5Ds: disinformation, destabilization, disruption, deception and implied destruction. Russia’s strategic goal is to conduct a continuous low-level war at the seams of democratic societies. … In the worst case, complex strategic coercion would be used to mask Russian force concentrations prior to any attack on NATO and EU states from above the Arctic Circle and Norway’s North Cape in the north, through the Baltic States and Black Sea region and into the southeastern Mediterranean.

Again, we see an interesting combination of beliefs in Russia as a) inherently aggressive, b) remarkably powerful (able to attack all the way from the North Cape to the Mediterranean!), and c) extraordinarily capable when it comes to strategic thinking and to the enactment of coherent policies which integrate all aspects of state power in pursuit of clearly defined objectives. Allied to this is a belief that the distinction between war and peace has disappeared, and that the West must act as if it is at war.

So, let us return to how I started this post and to the distinction between deliberative and instrumental thinking. When you look at the Institute of Statecraft, you see in essence the following argument: Russia is aggressive, its policy is coherent, it aims to destroy us, and it is already waging war against us. Alternatives – such as that Russian actions are largely reactive and improvised – are not considered. The conclusion is that we should stop thinking about whether we ought to be at war with Russia (we are), and think instead about how to fight it – i.e. we should start thinking instrumentally not deliberatively. And that, far more than Donnelly’s connections with British military intelligence (of which I too could be accused), is what worries me about him. For as Johnson and Tierney point out, what gets you into serious trouble is when you start thinking about how to do stuff which you really ought not to be doing at all. Fighting wars with Russia is a case in point. Donnelly and Lindley-French represent the Institute for Statecraft, but the statecraft they propose is one which we should all reject.

Book of the year prize 2018

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

Continue reading Book of the year prize 2018

Debunking myths

In my final post of 2015, I said that I would try to focus more on good analysis of things Russian and less on bad. So here are links to three recent articles which go some way towards debunking some common myths about Russia.

First, Mark Galeotti punctures the myth that Russia is ‘weaponizing’ everything from information to refugees. As Galeotti correctly points out, the weaponization meme, ‘reflects and encourages poor analysis’. He concludes:

Realistically, it is unlikely that there will be any change from the Kremlin. Rather, it will have to be the West that instead starts to wean itself off the addictive temptations of caricature. Not to be the bigger party (though it will be), not on the condition that Russia follow suit (it won’t), but because better policy comes from better understanding.

Second, Michael Kofman points out the fallacy of the concept that Russia is waging ‘hybrid war’ against the West. I said the same back in December 2014, and endorse Kofman’s final words:

We spend too much time chasing hybrid ghosts, confusing ourselves, and diffusing lines of effort. In Washington, Russian hybrid warfare has come to embody Frederick’s [Frederick the Great’s] warning on defending everything; while in Europe they seek to defend against Moscow everywhere. If the West is to come up with a political and military strategy that deals with Russia, it must start by killing bad narratives and malformed analysis: Russian hybrid warfare should be the first on that list.

Third, Sergei Armeyskov denounces the recurring claim that Russia is on the verge of collapse. As Armeyskov says, ‘real Russia’s problems do exist and they serve as the realistic basis for the mythology of “imminent Russian collapse”. This Western “collapsophilia” can be referred to as crussialism (from crush +Russia + [certain amount of] realism). Crushialism [sic] has been an inseparable part of Western master discourse of Russia for years.’ But this crussialism is wrong. According to Armeyskov:

Russia has many serious economic and social problems. I know it much better than any BBCNN ‘Russia watcher’ because I’m a common Russian living in Russia, so I see the signs of crisis every day. But ‘crisis’ doesn’t mean it will necessarily result in a revolution/regime change (we had enough), and even the latter isn’t equal to ‘collapse’.

Amen to all that.

Crackpot theory #3: Hybrid Warfare

Although it has been around for a few years, the expression ‘hybrid warfare’ really caught on in 2014. All and sundry are now repeating it to show that they are ‘in the know’ and understand that warfare is changing in important and mysterious ways.

The theory is that war has undergone a profound transformation. Whereas once it was just a matter of armies fighting armies, now it is a hybrid of military power and other forms of power. According to Captain Robert A. Newson of the US Navy, hybrid warfare can be defined as:

A combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; political provocateurs; media representatives; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.

And according to NATO:

A hybrid threat is one posed by any current or potential adversary, including state, non-state and terrorists, with the ability, whether demonstrated or likely, to simultaneously employ conventional and non conventional means adaptively, in pursuit of their objectives.

The NATO definition reveals an immediate problem with the idea of hybrid warfare: it is so vague as to be meaningless. But there are other problems with it too.

The theory that it represents something new is profoundly ahistorical. With the exception of the mention of cyber attacks, Newson’s definition above could apply to pretty much any war ever fought. War has rarely if ever been solely a matter of military force. ‘Political and ideological conflict’, ‘intelligence agents, ‘proxies and surrogates’, and ‘economic intimidation’ have accompanied war for centuries.

Even the claim that the non-conventional elements of war are becoming more important than traditional combat is hardly a new one. Martin van Creveld made this claim in his book The Transformation of War 25 years ago. William S. Lind has been making similar claims with his theory of ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ for just as long. Before that, Cold War theories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency similarly stressed that combat was just one facet of a wider socio-economic-political struggle. And even before that, Clausewitz spoke of war as consisting not just of armies, but also of governments and the people, while Sun Tzu spoke at length about secret agents and the importance of maintaining popular support.

The main example currently used by hybrid warfare theorists to illustrate their case – the war in Eastern Ukraine – in fact proves the opposite. The weapons of choice are rifles, machine-guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, and multiple launch rocket systems. The war in Ukraine is not hybrid warfare – it is war, as traditionally understood.