The Impact of Russia's Hybrid Warfare Strategy

MIN READAug 7, 2017 | 00:00 GMT

Hybrid warfare isn't new, but cyber warfare techniques are rapidly changing the play book.

Hybrid warfare is not a new strategy, but the inclusion of cyber warfare, disinformation techniques and propaganda have been increasingly used to change the play book.


As the Russia-West standoff heats up, the concept of hybrid warfare has emerged as a particularly relevant topic on the global stage. It’s also the focus of a new series of analysis on Stratfor Worldview. In this episode of the Stratfor Podcast, host Ben Sheen sits down with Senior Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky to explore the motivation behind Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy, which countries are impacted and what tool Russia can leverage against each of them.


Eugene Chausovsky [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Eugene Chausovsky, a Senior Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, the world's leading geo-political intelligence platform. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com.

Ben Sheen [00:00:28] Hello, and thank you for joining us for this edition of the Stratfor podcast, focused on geo-politics and world affairs, from Stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. As the Russia-West standoff heats up, the concept of hybrid warfare has emerged as a particularly relevant topic, and it's the focus of a new series of analysis on Stratfor Worldview. In this episode of the Stratfor podcast, I sit down with Senior Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky, to explore the context behind Russia's hybrid war strategy, which countries are impacted, and what tools Russia can leverage for each of them. Thank you for joining us. Eugene, thank you for joining us today.

Eugene Chausovsky [00:01:06] Thanks for having me.

Ben Sheen [00:01:07] Well, I guess a good place to start before we really get into the depths of Russia's hybrid war strategy, is to take a look at hybrid war itself. What do we mean when we talk about hybrid war?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:01:17] There's actually a number of different interpretations of what hybrid warfare means, and what it entails. But for the purposes of our investigation into it here, I think we can look at it as a combination of a number of different warfare tactics, ranging from conventional warfare to irregular warfare, to cyber and informational warfare. It's basically using any one of, or a combination of all of these tactics, within warfare or within competition between nation-states.

Ben Sheen [00:01:46] Certainly, one of the ways you can tell that this is still evolving as a concept, is that there's no one really clearly-defined definition for what hybrid warfare actually is. But it seems to incorporate a lot of new and emerging technologies, that simply weren't available to countries, or even practitioners, in previous decades. Eugene, in your opinion, what do you think have been the real major drivers for Russia to adopt this new approach?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:02:12] The broader driving force of Russia's use of hybrid warfare, I would say, is Moscow's standoff with the West, which has been going on for quite a long time, but as we've seen in recent weeks and months, it's really intensified. You have the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which is driving tensions between the U.S. and Russia; and the U.S. has ramped-up its sanctions against Russia, which is driving Russia to look for a number of different responses to the West. Now, we've seen Russia take some of the tit-for-tat responses, such as expelling hundreds of diplomats and closing some diplomatic compounds, but we've also seen Russia reference this use of quote-unquote asymmetrical warfare, or an asymmetrical response to what the U.S. is doing. So it's the broader tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and between Russia and the West as a whole, that's driving these hybrid tactics.

Ben Sheen [00:03:01] Clearly, Russia has embraced this whole idea of asymmetry, which is in many ways, using the right tool for the right job. And they've kind of rewritten their play book in this, factoring in new elements that have only recently come to the fore, such as a cyber capability, or employing unconventional tactics on the ground, and doing things that are simply unexpected. How have we seen this kind of play out, in the international realm, Eugene?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:03:25] One thing to note here is that hybrid warfare is certainly not a new strategy by any means. I mean, it's been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, by different players. But as you mentioned, Ben, the evolving technologies has really opened-up some of the tools that Russia has used in its tool kit. So for example, cyber warfare has become increasingly used by Russia, and things like information and propaganda, disinformation techniques has really been ramped-up by Russia, because they really don't have the kind of conventional power capabilities, the powered projection capabilities that they used to have, in the Soviet period. So we've seen this now play out, obviously a huge example of that has been in the U.S. election in which Russia was linked to cyber attacks, and hacking efforts on the DNC, and then now even since the election of Trump, there's been a lot of disinformation and propaganda campaigns waged out of Moscow. But it's also taken a more conventional, or semi-conventional component, as we've seen in Ukraine, where Russia responded to the Euromaidan Uprising in Kiev. Instead of going full-force to invade all of Ukraine, they went for specific, targeted areas, and used little green men, or unmarked military personnel, in order to achieve its objectives; which were essentially to undermine the pro-Western government in Kiev, and try to neutralize Ukraine and steer it away from the West. So there's a number of different things,

Eugene Chausovsky [00:04:54] and a number of different targets that Russia uses, within hybrid warfare. - And I believe,

Ben Sheen [00:04:56] And I believe, you had a lucky escape there, didn't you, Eugene? Because you were actually in Crimea shortly before the Russian forces actually rolled in, weren't you?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:05:03] That's right. And one thing that I could definitely see while I was there, is that Russia used what was a very strong pro-Russian sentiment within the population in Crimea, and this was also the case to a lesser extent in Eastern Ukraine, to manipulate that sentiment, and to use it to its advantage in order to foster things like paramilitary groups, or military takeovers. So, where that popular support is the strongest is where we see Russia's hybrid tools as the strongest and most effective.

Ben Sheen [00:05:35] We'll get back to a conversation with Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky, in just a moment. And if you're enjoying the conversation, be sure to visit us at worldview.stratfor.com. That's where you'll find our new series exploring Russia's hybrid warfare strategy in-depth, including push-back from the West and the broader implications for Russia's strategic positioning, going forward. And if you're not already a Worldview member, individual, theme, and enterprise subscriptions are available at worldview.stratfor.com. We'll also include a link in the show notes. Now let's go back to the second part of our conversation on Russia's hybrid warfare strategy. As we know just from looking at Russian geography, Russia has some key imperatives here when it thinks about protecting its borders and its sovereignty, and we can certainly delineate between the influence that Russia can have, often physically, in its immediate borderlands, compared with that that it exercises over its near-abroad. And certainly Russia can now use some of these new tools to influence overseas, and to have this global reach. How does Russia's strategy really play-out in these different spheres of influence, Eugene?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:06:47] That's a great question, and I think if you look at Russia's strategy, it definitely plays out in different ways depending on the country or group of countries that you're talking about. Within the first tier of countries that we've outlined, which, these are the countries that are most vulnerable to Russia's hybrid tactics, are countries in the immediate former Soviet periphery. Ukraine, as we've already mentioned, but also countries like Moldova and Georgia, where Russia essentially has a full array of tools, anywhere from covert or even overt military action to information, propaganda warfare. Then, as you kind of zoom out and look at the broader European landscape, you have countries like the Baltics, central Europe, southern Europe, and even the Balkan States. And these countries, Russia doesn't have as much conventional military capabilities to use within its hybrid warfare strategy, but it can really use other elements like economic restrictions. These countries are very dependent on Russian energy supplies. And of course, the information and propaganda warfare; that's quite heavy in these countries as well. And then finally, you have the third tier of countries, which are the core Western States. So this includes Germany, France, and the United States. Now, these countries, Russia has very little economic leverage; of course, military action against these countries is pretty much unthinkable. But here's where political manipulation and cyber, and disinformation really comes into play,

Eugene Chausovsky [00:08:16] because Russia doesn't have that much in terms of the conventional power capabilities here, it really ramps-up, and it really uses these techniques as much as it possibly can, to undermine both the governments in these countries, and their unity within each other, within E.U and NATO.

Ben Sheen [00:08:34] I guess the question I have, really, is: what are we going to see next? And, I understand that's increasingly difficult, because this is a new and developing strategy that we're still coming to terms with. I remember, quite a few years ago, studying in-depth Russian military tactics, specifically armored warfare, and it was all very succinctly laid-out; you knew exactly what they were going to do, you knew how rifle division would work, what you'd see, their formations and their tactics. But this is new, this is something we haven't really seen before. And what we're also seeing, is that Russia is employing this on a case-by-case basis; there isn't just a standard cookie-cutter approach. So that makes it inherently hard to predict. But in your opinion, Eugene, how do you think we're going to see this evolve in the near-term, and then certainly in the decades ahead?

Eugene Chausovsky [00:09:17] Well, as you mentioned, it's a very fluid process, and it's hard to have an exact idea of where this is heading. But one thing that we have seen on a higher level of things, is that this Russian hybrid warfare strategy, it's not a one-sided game, and we've seen the West and pro-Western countries like Ukraine, really start to not only understand what Russia is doing, but even develop strategies of their own, to counter Russia's hybrid warfare strategy. For example, we've seen the United States and we've seen other countries in the West, develop their counter-cyber capabilities. We've seen even counter-propaganda efforts, between these countries, and among them, looking at Russia's use of things like trolls, and bots, and hactivists, and really highlighting where Russia's spreading fake information, and making sure that they're coordinating in these efforts together. And what we've actually seen play out over the last year or two, is some of the tactics that Russia has, some of its tools in its tool kit have become weakened over time, since Russia has used them. One example of that is energy, which Russia has used for geo-political purposes, especially in Europe where it has undermined countries that are acting outside of its interests, by cutting off energy supplies. Clearly, that's happened in Ukraine, but also downstream countries in Europe.

Eugene Chausovsky [00:10:39] And, we've seen a huge diversification effort by countries like the Baltic States, like Poland, and even Ukraine now, which have basically built LNG terminals, or built inter-pipeline connectors between these countries. And they've really diminished Russia's use of energy as a political tool; they're still dependent on Russia for energy, but they have other options; and that's weakened Russia's hand. We've also seen some of the economic restrictions that Russia has passed; that's been matched and even out-done by the West's own economic restrictions against Russia, which, clearly we've seen in the U.S. sanctions, but also the E.U. has maintained its sanctions against Russia. That's put a lot of pressure on the Russian economy, and it's limited their ability to really make the West feel the pain. I think that what we're seeing now, is a push-back, a very concerted push-back by the West, and by pro-Western countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, to really fight back against Russia, and undermine, as much as they can, its use of these tactics that we've been discussing. If we look at a longer term, or if we take a larger perspective on it, I think that while Russia has certainly had some big successes and some very public victories; of course, the U.S. elections, and some very successful cyber attacks that its pulled off; ultimately,

Eugene Chausovsky [00:12:03] Russia's strategic position is actually weakening, because usually these tools, while effective, usually create more costs to Russia down the line than they do benefits. And with Russia's demographic projections looking to weaken in the future, with its economy still under a lot of pressure, and politically it's coming under pressure, I think that Russia, in the coming years, will not be able to wield the kind of power projection that it has in the past, even as it adapts to evolving technologies.

Ben Sheen [00:12:31] And this is what makes the great game so intriguing. Eugene, thank you so much for taking the time to really go through the Russian approach to hybrid warfare, and certainly what we can expect. Thanks again for your time.

Eugene Chausovsky [00:12:41] Thank you.

Ben Sheen [00:12:48] That concludes this episode of the Stratfor podcast. If you enjoyed today's conversation, be sure to catch our complete series on Russia's hybrid warfare strategy at worldview.stratfor.com. We'll include a link in the show notes. And if you're not already a member, be sure to subscribe for unparalleled insights on global trends now, coming forecasts, and future developments. Individual, team, and enterprise subscriptions are available at worldview.stratfor.com. If you'd like to contribute to the conversation, share your thoughts in our forum section on Stratfor Worldview, to engage with our analysts, editors, and fellow subscribers. You can also leave us a comment or an idea for a future episode, by email at podcast@stratfor.com, or by phone at 1-512-744-4300, extension 3917. And don't forget to leave us a review; we really appreciate your feedback, and your review also helps others discover the podcast. It just takes a few moments, and you can leave a review on iTunes, or wherever you subscribe to the podcast. And for more geo-political intelligence, analysis, and forecasting that brings global events into valuable perspective, follow us on Twitter, @stratfor. Thanks for listening.

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