War isn't what it used to be. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Russia's ongoing struggle with the West for influence, which now seems to take place in the shadows as often as it does in plain view. With the dawn of the digital age, conflicts between great powers have spread from battlespace to cyberspace, something the Kremlin has embraced with open arms by honing its capabilities in hybrid warfare.
The term "hybrid warfare" may be in vogue these days, but it has been in practice for centuries. The Napoleonic Wars, revolutions across the Americas and the Cold War all featured it in one way or another by combining conventional and unconventional tactics. But the recent evolution of technology and mass media has reinvented the concept, changing its very nature with the introduction of elements like trolls, bots and hacktivists. Though there is some debate about the term's definition, hybrid warfare — at least for the purposes of this analysis — now can include the deployment of any number of tools in the cyber realm, in addition to traditional troops, paramilitary groups, punitive economic measures, political manipulation and the spread of propaganda and disinformation. And as the costs of conventional conflict have risen, so, too, has hybrid warfare's prominence as a tool in international relations.
Pitting the West Against Itself
At the forefront of this movement is Russia. Since recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and re-emerging as a regional power in the mid-2000s, Russia has made ample use of hybrid warfare as a central component of its national security strategy, particularly in its dealings with the West. Because it no longer boasts the overwhelming conventional force needed to stare down the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and reclaim the lands it lost in the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, Russia has had to turn to other means to maximize its advantages and minimize its weaknesses.
This strategy has been on full display in Ukraine, where Russia has relied on several hybrid warfare tactics in the country's war-torn east. There the Kremlin has deployed "little green men" — forces that some say are Russian troops, though Moscow has claimed they are organized local self-defense forces — as well as cyberattacks and propaganda campaigns against the government in Kiev. Russia hasn't stopped there, either, launching similar operations against Ukraine's Western allies (including meddling in the U.S. presidential election) and Western-leaning countries in Moscow's backyard.
The Russian government even hinted at its intention to conduct these attacks in advance. In March 2014, just days before Russia annexed Crimea, top Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov published a fictional dystopian story under his pseudonym, Natan Dubovitsky, describing the future of warfare. In it he writes,
"It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all."
Power Is Relative
Though the manner and intensity with which Russia uses hybrid warfare has evolved over the years, its motives have not. Because of its geographic location, the country has long been vulnerable on its western flank. After all, Russia is separated from Europe's biggest powers only by the vast Northern European Plain; few other physical barriers stand between them. As a result, the borderlands caught in the middle have traditionally been the site of constant competition and conflict.
Historically, Russia and Europe's exposure to each other has led to political maneuvering and military invasion in both directions. From Napoleon's 19th-century march toward Moscow to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the Soviets' subsequent reach into Germany during the Cold War, the two have gone back and forth seeking to build their spheres of influence. The United States' ascent on the international stage and its alignment with Western Europe against Russia have only intensified this competition. Though the end of the Cold War removed the immediate threat of military conflict between Russia and the West, it did not eliminate their rivalry. Far from it, in fact: The spread of the European Union and NATO in recent decades has only reminded Russia of the threat — one that could prove existential — looming on its doorstep.
In the late 2000s, Russia began to regain some of its former standing, thanks in part to Russian President Vladimir Putin's consolidation of power, an economic recovery fueled by high oil prices and the United States' distraction in the Middle East. The country's remarkable comeback enabled it to push back against what it viewed as Western encroachment in its periphery. But its success was short-lived, and between Ukraine's Euromaidan uprising and Western sanctions and military buildups, Russia found itself struggling to protect its interests once again. Tensions between it and the West have since mounted, and Moscow has turned to hybrid warfare in search of the upper hand.
And that is precisely how Russia intends to wield such tactics: as a means of strengthening its own power relative to the West's. Moscow hopes to undermine its adversary by creating instability within Western governments, opening rifts among European states, weakening trans-Atlantic solidarity and stalling countries' integration with the West.
All of these efforts are aimed at meeting three of Russia's biggest strategic imperatives. The first is to protect its seats of power in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moving outward, Russia's second goal is to block foreign influence in its periphery before tackling the third objective: stretching the Kremlin's reach to key geographic anchors like formidable mountain chains or access to the open sea. But since few of these anchors exist in the open terrain between Russia and Europe, there is no end in sight to Moscow's constant push and pull with the West on the Continent. And because Russia is no longer able to project the kind of global power it claimed in the Soviet era, hybrid warfare will increasingly become its best option to compensate for its weaknesses and sap its enemies' strength.