As the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region transitions from hot to cold, western leaders and foreign policy observers are now fretting about what Russia’s next move will be. Although the discussions in the media, among academics, and behind closed doors ranges across many spectrums and categories, a term that continues to crop up is ‘hybrid warfare’. Conventional wisdom is declaring hybrid warfare a new and novel approach combining hard and soft power, and that Russia is using it in the Ukraine to format and ultimately wage the 10-month conflict that is proving to be Europe’s biggest shooting war since the Balkans conflict more than two decades ago. While the term hybrid warfare has emerged in the lexicon only recently, it is an effective tool that Russia is now in its third decade of employing. What exactly is hybrid warfare, and how did it evolve into Russia’s effective tool for foreign policy?
Currently, there is no true consensus for precisely how hybrid warfare should be defined. When discussing hybrid warfare in the Russian near abroad, the definition would seem to be ‘the use of an ethnic militia with centralized, political, and economic support from Moscow, while also using decentralized force multipliers such as special forces, small detached units, and air support to increase the militias combat effectiveness in order to facilitate the completion of both narrow and broad strategic goals in the near and long term.’ Hybrid warfare is different from proxy warfare, or conventional warfare. Proxy Warfare is often a conflict against another great power’s proxies. Furthermore, proxy wars are waged in the far abroad. A good example would be the Border Wars fought between 1966-1989 throughout the Southern African region, most notably Angola, where Soviet backed Marxist rebel groups squared off against American and South African units such as the now infamous South African 3-2 Battalion. These proxy conflicts differed greatly from the recent hybrid wars in two key areas. First the conflicts had very broad foreign policy goals that basically amounted to installing pro-Soviet governments as a means to gain a geopolitical edge over the US and its Allies in the ongoing Cold War. Secondly, although in certain cases in Africa the proxy forces aligned with particular ethnic groups dominating opposing sides of the war, the official Soviet policy was focused on the political spectrum (i.e. the spread of Marxism).
In contrast, modern hybrid warfare waged by Russia discounts the political spectrum of Moscow backed groups, and is reliant on its embrace of ethnic nationalism. When comparing the effectiveness of the Marxist MPLA Angolan rebels with the Donbass Ukrainian militias, this embrace of ethnic nationalism seems to be a more effective method of unifying and motivating Russia’s militia allies. Another major variation ‘hybrid warfare’ has over proxy conflicts, is the ease with which Russia’s militia allies can receive logistical, and if necessary combat support, from conventional Russian Forces. Simply put, it’s far easier to support a group of rebels that are located a few hundred miles from your nation’s heartland, rather than half a world away. Close proximity in the Donbass conflict allowed for the easy deployment of not only Russia special forces, but also force multipliers such as tanks which could be sent in piece-meal deployments to strengthen rebel strongpoints, and artillery batteries that could roll across the rebel controlled border, engage in combat, and then scoot back to Russia. In addition to logistical and political differences, Russia’s use of hybrid warfare differs from its use of proxy warfare in that the goals of the conflicts are far more numerous, yet still easy to define.
The Ukraine conflict is the fourth time that Russia has used ‘hybrid warfare’ as a strategy to secure its goals. It began first with Transnistria in 1992, then in Chechnya in 1999, later in Georgia in the 2008 August War, and now in the Ukraine. In each of the three prior cases, a quasi-ethnic state was left in place that lacked international recognition and was thus fully reliant on Moscow for its existence. The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a breakaway region of Moldova was the result of the Transnistria conflagration, the beginnings of which actually began as early as 1990. A compliant Chechyna loyal to Moscow was the result of the Second Chechen War. The breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia resulted from the Georgian August War. And now the Novarussyia Republic, not to mention a Crimea already fully under Russian control, is the result of the conflicts in the Ukraine.
The development of hybrid warfare, by Russia is largely a by-product of the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to assert its foreign policy through the use of conventional warfare. Though proxy wars in the Far-abroad were temporally successful, when it came to conflicts closer to home, the USSR failed miserably. The Afghan War, which began in 1979 and didn’t conclude until 1989 with the Soviet withdrawal, cost 15,000 Russian lives and more than 55,000 were wounded. The war began as an attempt to install a pro-Soviet regime and ultimately escalated with the deployment of Soviet combat troops. What the Soviets learned, as their American adversaries had previously discovered in Vietnam, is that a massed formation of troops is highly ineffective against guerillas. This is especially true when those guerillas have access to a safe haven and modern military supplies. Though Soviet troops, especially the Spetznaz and Paratroopers, fought tenaciously, the war was ultimately a dismal failure. The fault lay in how the Soviet Army was structured. Its only previous combat engagement to that date other than deployments to put down unarmed demonstrators with tanks, had been the Great Patriotic War, otherwise known as World War II.
Many see the Soviet Army that emerged from the Great Patriotic War as a continuation of the traditional military orthodoxy dating back to the Russian Empire. This included a focus on massed maneuvers, and overwhelming force. Sometimes disingenuously referred to as the ‘more bodies than bullets’ doctrine, the main idea of which was to overwhelm your opponent through mass attacks. The Great Patriotic war saw an evolution of this doctrine to use combined arms attacks in mass. By the time the Afghan War started, the Soviet Army was training to attack American tank divisions with hordes of T-72 tanks backed by legions of infantry, helicopter gunships with massive artillery, and air assets in support. These tactics, minus helicopters and jets, had broken the back of the Nazis at Kursk in 1943, and might have proved effective against NATO formations. However, when an army trained for mass attack is deployed in a mountains environment against a small and highly mobile enemy, it effectively becomes a large target.
Despite the disaster that was Afghanistan, Soviet doctrine failed to evolve mostly due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting breakdown of the armed forces that followed. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Soviet units left to the newly reborn Russia suffered a complete and total collapse on every level. Lack of funds and epidemic corruption meant soldiers were not paid, let alone fed for months, while equipment lay unmaintained. Unscrupulous units began to sell their vast stockpiles of arms on the black-market while better-led formations organized themselves into farming details to simply feed the soldiers and their families. There was no room in Russian military and political circles for any rethink or reform of the armed forces. The Transnistria conflict of 1992, what may be considered the first conflict that employed hybrid warfare, was largely accidental. It was an ethnic political conflict between the Transnistria region and the newly formed Moldovan government. A brief shooting war between the two with old Soviet military formations still stationed there along with Russian volunteers resulted in a negotiated settlement in which the region would effectively be independent of Moldova, with its full status to be determined at a later date. The Yeltsin regime in Moscow consumed with economic chaos at home, stepped in only to stop a war before it started and in doing so created a breakaway region wholly reliant on Russia for its existence.
At the time, Transnistria was not seen as an example of anything. The conflict lasted less that five months, and resulted in 600 casualties in total for both sides. Meanwhile, another conflict that consumed Moscow’s attention was building in the Caucuses Republic of Chechnya. The Yeltsin regime, attempting to stop what could become a wave of ethnic republics breaking away from Russia, moved to stop the nescient Chechnya by military means. In 1994, large Russian military formations were yet again ordered into a mountainous region filled with hostile guerillas united by a dangerous combination of ethnic nationalism and religious fanaticism. The result was catastrophic. Russian military formations were a shadow of their former selves and flailed about haplessly in response to coordinated guerilla attacks. Mass use of artillery and air assets resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths, and while continues hit an run attacks by guerillas, combine with little to no pay and massively inadequate supplies, further disintegration of Russian forces as a fighting force.
In 1996, despite a military stalemate, the Yeltsin government negotiated a withdrawal of Russian Federal forces in exchange for Chechnya autonomy. Despite their victory, the new Chechen Republic quickly fell into infighting chaos. The government held little power outside of the ruined capital of Grozny. No economy existed and many Chechen warlords influenced and bankrolled by Wahhabists from the Persian Gulf, sought the creation of a Taliban like Islamic state. This division between Chechen ethnic nationalists and Chechen jihadists ultimately culminated in the Second Chechen War.
The Second Chechen conflict began in 1999 with the invasion of the neighboring region of Dagestan by jihadist Chechen militants. The Russian government responded with counter attacking and recouping Chechnya. There were many notable differences between the first and second Chechen conflicts, not only in the composition and effectiveness of Russian forces, but also in the strategies and methods used in the conflict. By 1999, the Russian Armed forces were in better condition than they had been just four years earlier. Although the situation was far from ideal, training and equipment maintenance had resumed as the political and economic situation stabilized. Of course even with military forces back in fighting shape, there was a possibility that the conflict could be a rehash of Afghanistan and the first Chechen War. However, the internal political situation of Chechnya had shifted significantly and a large number of Chechen militias and their leaders had become alienated by Jihadist Groups attempt to implement Sharia law and create a Caucasus Islamic state. These militias, many of whom had fought against Russia during the first Chechen war, this time sided with the Russian government. Using a systematic scorched earth policy combined with overwhelming firepower and the support of their new Chechen allies, Russia was able to secure an overwhelming military victory by May 2000. With the support of newly established pro-Moscow locals, the Chechen government was able to wage a successful counter insurgency campaign that resulted in the remaining Chechen separatists turning to terrorism to achieve their goals. These terrorist attacks, including the Moscow theater siege, were incredibly violent. The Russia and Chechen response to terrorism was overwhelming brutality, and soon left the Chechen separatist forces as nothing more than a hollow shell. Meanwhile, billions of dollars were pumped into Chechnya to rebuild its shattered economy. As a result of this strategy, the new Putin regime was able to build a stable, reliable vassal state wholly reliant on Russia for its independence yet politically autonomous.
With the overwhelming success of the Second Chechen conflict in both the short and long term, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin used the lessons learned in both Transnistria and Second Chechnya to wage the 2008 August War against Georgia - the first conflict where Russia deliberately used hybrid warfare against another internationally recognized sovereign state. The conflict bore many similarities to the Chechnya conflicts that Russia’s military and political establishment readily exploited. Georgia had been waging its own low intensity conflict against the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since its independence. In 2008, Georgia’s attempt to re-secure the whole of South Ossetia resulted in Russia using its conventional military forces bolstered by Abkhazia and South Ossetia militias to fully expel the Georgians from disputed territory. Once the military victory was completed in five days, the Kremlin using Chechnya as a model, set about making both South Ossetia and Abhazia fully dependent on Russia. By recognizing both states, Russia assured that any exports or imports had to flow through Russian territory. Moreover, the continued hostility of Georgia allowed Russia a pretext to garrison both states with ‘peacekeepers’.
Each of these conflicts leading up to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis resulted in a net strategic gain for Russia in both the short and long term. The breakaway Moldovan republic provides Russia with military base facilities close to the Balkans. Chechnya, under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, has become a compliant vassal state and a blunt instrument that Russia uses to suppress Caucuses based jihadist groups. In the short term, the 2008 August War netted Russia with the ability to strategically place client states in the Caucuses. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia sit astride the only overland routes into the Caucuses. Abkhazia controls the coast road from which it is possible to drive all the way to Northern Turkey or Iran. South Ossetia controls the only routes through the mountains via the Roki Tunnel, and incidentally the South Ossetia Republic’s very existence is like a dagger pointed at the Georgian heartland from which an army could in a matter of days take not only the capital, but most of the country. While the 2008 war in the short term secured Russia vital strategic assets in the Caucuses, the Longer-term effects were far more fruitful for the Kremlin. Before the 2008 war, Georgia under the leadership of pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili, had been building closer ties with the US and examining the possibility of joining NATO. In 2012, in no small part because of the horrible failure of the 2008 war, Saakashvili’s government was swept out of office by a broad coalition called the Georgia Dream that was far more congenial to Russia and its interest.
With the success in Georgia, it is little wonder that Russia is attempting to use a similar strategy in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea has given Russia control of the Port of Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet and the Russian Navy’s only warm water port. The creation of the Novorossiya Republic in the Donbass region has helped disrupt the Ukraine industrial heartland and further aggravate the already contentious relationship between ethic Ukrainians and Russians. Meanwhile, the divided Ukrainian government now has to answer to its own left and right wing constituents as the economy collapses. Some on the Ukrainian left have called for another Maiden Square style popular uprising, while Ukrainian right-wingers, many of whom have spent the last 10 months on the frontline as Ukrainian National Guard members, are threatening a coup. Russia is mindful of the weakness of the central Ukrainian government, the weakness of its economy, and once the threat posed by armed militias is removed, only now needs to wait for Ukraine to tumble into chaos. This yet again removes the threat of NATO expansion, and from Russia’s viewpoint puts a crimp in Western plans to bring about the Kremlin’s total collapse.
Whether or not that will ultimately come to pass or if Russia will use ‘hybrid warfare’ against NATO member states remains to be seen. However, the Kremlin’s past willingness to use force in order to achieve geopolitical goals, combined with the reality of Russia’s nuclear umbrella, has left Westerners scrambling for a response. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader since 1999, has made it clear that he considers the US, NATO, and the EU direct threats to Russia’s sovereignty and independence and as such, sees hybrid warfare as a way to thwart Western ambitions. In the political and diplomatic spectrum, Putin has also benefited from hybrid warfare by tapping into Russia’s own ethnic nationalism that has been a key component of the Russian collective psyche since the Czars. Putin has gained great approval ratings even in the midst of a growing recession. Diplomatically, Putin has flummoxed and out maneuvered Western leaders who, unlike Putin, are term limited and beholden to public opinion. Europe and America are restrained in the options they have in dealing with Russia whereas Putin is not. Despite imposing sanctions mere months ago; which have allowed Putin to cast the West as the cause of Russia’s economic woes and not his own administration’s failure to enact economic liberalization. While target sanctions against Russian oligarchs meant to weaken their resolve for supporting Putin, have only served to make them more dependant on him. The recent cease-fire in Ukraine already has some Westerners talking of loosening sanctions, especially in France where a state owned shipyard is under contract to deliver two Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia. Closer to home, Putin’s declaration of himself as the protector of ethnic Russian minorities everywhere, and his track recorded of using force to back that statement up has cowed Central Asian states that may have otherwise sought closer ties to the West and China. Most infuriating for some, the Putin regime can often justify its actions under the responsibility to protect. This is a doctrine cited by NATO during the Yugoslavia intervention, and it holds that it is the responsibility of major powers to protect ethnic minorities. The Putin regime can claim Russia did this in Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine. A thin defense certainly, but enough to fit into the overall narrative trumpeted by Russia’s various propaganda organs about the West’s double standard and Russia’s role as a defender of ethnic minorities, especially Russian communities living in neighboring states. Moreover Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal makes the prospect of any military action by western forces completely out of the question. No Western politician would ever be willing to risk nuclear war to save a small state on Russia’s border.
The Putin regime clearly thinks of international relations in a strictly realist sense, only focusing on what benefits Russia. Russia’s neighbors, especially those with corrupt or dictatorial governments, can look to the Kremlin for a strong ally although at the cost of being the junior partner in a relationship. The creation of the Eurasia Economic Union by Putin’s government plays into his overall narrative of creating Russian centric institutions to halt the creep of the EU and NATO. Many states, especially Belarus, and the Central Asian Republics would prefer to deal with Russia rather than the IMF or World Bank when it comes to development aid, the Kremlin being more generous with money, and less worried about corruption and structural reform.
The Ukraine crisis has been the most violent and longest hybrid war Russia has engaged in to date. Yet even after all the blood spilled and treasure spent, Putin has few reasons to be discouraged. There is no doubt that if Putin feels the situation warrants it in the future he will not hesitate to use hybrid warfare to secure his foreign policy objectives in the near abroad. With each Russian victory, the West is left looking more and more impotent and Russian neighbors more and more sure that although the Russian Empire thought dead at last with the Soviet Union - is back and ready once again to assert itself on the world stage by whatever means it sees necessary.
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