As tension between Russia and the West has mounted in recent years, Moscow has increasingly turned to hybrid warfare to gain and hold ground in their contest for power and clout. This is the fifth installment of a five-part series exploring the geopolitical context, targets and tools of that strategy, as well as the steps Russia's adversaries are taking to counter it.
In its hybrid war against countries near and far, Russia has fought its share of losing battles. The country's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, prompted Congress to redouble its sanctions against Moscow, even though the Kremlin's desired candidate won the race. Similarly, in the Baltic states, Russia hasn't managed to replicate the success of its disinformation campaign in Moldova, where voters elected a presidential candidate sympathetic to Moscow in November 2016. Hybrid warfare, after all, is not a one-sided game. In each of the three tiers of countries that Russia has targeted, states have responded in kind with a full range of countermeasures.
Fighting Fire With Fire
Russia's military and paramilitary actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, a response to the Western-backed Euromaidan uprising in Kiev, met with an array of reprisals. On the ground, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization beefed up its presence and security commitments in Poland, the Baltics and Romania. The United States and NATO have increased security support to Ukraine, too, as the country retools and bolsters its military capabilities to meet the defense bloc's standards. Kiev, meanwhile, has worked to subvert the Russian-backed rebels in Donbas in retaliation for the protests and attacks Moscow and the separatists have sponsored on its territory.
Ukraine, the European Union and the United States have also taken economic action to increase the pressure on Russia. Brussels and Washington slapped sanctions on the Kremlin, which they have kept in place for more than three years. Kiev has begun to sever its extensive economic ties with Moscow, instating an economic blockade of the separatist territories while banning Russian financial institutions such as Sberbank from doing business in Ukraine. In addition, Ukraine has followed the example of states such as Poland and found new suppliers in Europe to meet its energy needs instead of Russia. Moldova has joined its neighbor in standing up to Moscow; controls at its border with Ukraine have made it more difficult for goods and people to pass in and out of Transdniestria, another breakaway territory Russia supports.
The Web of Russian Influence
Countries in the West have taken steps to address Russian cyberattacks as well. Several nations, including the Czech Republic and Estonia, have established centers and programs devoted to cybersecurity in recent years. (Estonia's cybersecurity center, in fact, has received accreditation from NATO and drawn the support of 20 of the bloc's members.) Furthermore, countries increasingly are joining forces to boost cybersecurity defense and awareness; in June the European Council announced a joint framework called the "cyber diplomacy toolbox," meant to unify responses to malicious cyber activity.
And on the issue of propaganda and disinformation, states across Europe are likewise arming themselves against Moscow's attacks. Ukraine has banned major Russian social media and email sites, while the Baltic states blocked Russian state-run media outlet RT. Lawmakers in Kiev passed legislation limiting the use of the Russian language in television and radio broadcasts. And Lithuania's parliament approved a similar bill capping the use of "non-EU" languages — in other words, Russian — in televised programming at 10 percent. Political parties in Germany have agreed to try to thwart Russian disinformation campaigns by not using automated bots in their social media campaigns, and anti-propaganda centers have cropped up in the country, as well as in Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and the United Kingdom. Fact-checking consortiums and cross-border journalistic partnerships throughout the West aim to further keep Russia in check online. For example, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S.-backed group housed at the German Marshall Fund, launched a website Aug. 2 to monitor and analyze the Kremlin's disinformation offensives on Twitter. All of these efforts have made Moscow's propaganda easier to detect — and made it harder for Russia to use disinformation to sway public opinion abroad.
Cutting Both Ways
Hybrid warfare so far has proved a double-edged sword for Russia. On the one hand, it has enabled Moscow to manage various threats and challenges from the West like never before. The Kremlin has sowed political chaos in the United States, forged deep divisions between Kiev and the separatist territories in Donbas, and facilitated the rise of a pro-Russian president in Moldova. But on the other hand, Russia's successes with its hybrid warfare strategy have come at a substantial cost. Ties between Moscow and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War ended. The sanctions regimes put in place by the European Union and United States, moreover, helped plunge Russia's economy into a yearslong recession from which it is barely starting to emerge. And not only did Russia's meddling in the U.S. election lead to more sanctions, but it also alerted other countries to the risk that Moscow could intrude on their votes, prompting governments to shore up their cybersecurity and counterpropaganda abilities.
As Russia's exploits in cyberspace have shown, the country is creative and adaptable. Moscow is sure to find new ways to surprise the West, notwithstanding its recent setbacks. Its resources, however, are finite. Apart from the challenges that today's lackluster oil prices and financial troubles pose, Russia's population is in decline, projected to fall by more than 10 percent by 2050. The drop will limit its financial as well as military resources, both of which are essential to Moscow's hybrid warfare strategy. At the same time, Russia and its government will come under mounting pressure from a new generation of citizens who will challenge the status quo.
Whether Russia's hybrid warfare strategy will succeed depends largely on whether Moscow can fulfill its strategic imperatives to counter encroaching Western influence in its periphery and entrench its power there. But considering the heavy costs of its campaigns against the West so far, and its waning conventional power, Moscow faces an increasingly difficult road ahead to meet its strategic objectives. Though the hybrid warfare strategy will continue to be a key component in Moscow's standoff with the West, it probably won't be enough to fortify Russia's strategic position in the years to come.