Deep dive: Hybrid Warfare

The 20th century was a very specific one.  It was a century of extreme violence, as witnessed by the years 1914 and 1939 with the outbreak of the First and Second World War. Simultaneously, however, there were also turning points of remarkable progress of technology and communication. The First and Second World War produced deadly weapons and witnessed wide array of clashes of clashes which resulted in millions of victims. But things have changed. The beginning of the 21st century marked the shift in definition of the power from conventional, military and hard power to its much more non-violent, selective and non-conventional form, in a way that mass media, social media, propaganda and information have become weapons of choice #1.

The relative novelty of modern warfare, labeled as “hybrid warfare”, lays in the ability of an actor to synchronize multiple instruments of power (political, military, economic, informational) simultaneously and intentionally exploit creativity, ambiguity, non-linearity and the cognitive elements of warfare, targeting vulnerabilities across societies in ways that we do not  think about.

“Hybrid warfare” is a concept of a military operational approach that was first employed in 2007 by a former US Marine officer, Frank Hoffman, What makes a war ‘hybrid’, in Hoffman’s view, is the coordinated use of different modes of warfare, both military and non-military to achieve ‘synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict’ within the main battle space. [1]

It can be conducted by both state and non-state actors. These campaigns mainly rely on contemporary technology that characterizes 21stcentury and may not be seen until they are already well underway, as it is customizedto remain below detection radius.

Nowadays, this term is mainly linked to Moscow due to the broad use of different non-military instruments and weapons to further and accomplish national interests. Some examples of such attempts are dividing NATO, knocking down pro-Western governments (Russian military intelligence, for example, is believed to have created a 2016 plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government of Montenegro), annexing territories without the use of conventional forces (Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea,the move that launched the debate over Russian “hybrid warfare”,without the need to fire a single shot using (dis)information as the main weapon, took the world by surprise in 2014). Moreover Moscow tends to increase its political influence, especially on the Balkans (lack of progress to EU membership, persistent ethnic tensions, and Russian cultural and historical links are just some of the main reasons). Kremlin has established a base in Serbia that could be used for covert operations across the Balkans underthe guise of a “Humanitarian Center” in Nis. [2] Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Baltic states represent target areas for the foreign malign influence (due to the ties to Soviet Union).

Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Toolkit

(Dis)information campaigns – Russia has become notably more effective in its use of strategic communications to shape political narratives in many countries. Media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News are among the most well-known instruments for this strategy, but Moscow also uses targeted television programming, employs large number of Internet trolls, bots and fake news factories. The primary goal is to cast the doubt upon the objective truth. These media outlets and their proxies aim to shape the political discussion and opinion of targeted groups in the desired ways. [3]

Cyber – The Kremlin now has access to a growing cadre of cyber warriors, which allows it to collect valuable information that is used to influence elections and other political outcomes outside Russia’s border. This was the strategy that seems to have been employed by Russia during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Proxies – Russia also uses a range of proxies to further its interests. Proxies are often groups that have broad sympathy toward Russia’s objectives. One of the Kremlin’s typical proxies is the Night Wolves, a biker club and ultranationalist, anti-American gang, whose leader is a personal friend of President Putin. Russia also seeks to exploit European protest movements. For example, it backed anti-European Union (EU) groups in a 2016 referendum on trade with Ukraine in the Netherlands. [4] It is also suspected of supporting the anti-shale gas and other protest movements in Bulgaria that have complicated Bulgaria’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy sources.

Economic influence – Russia uses both direct and indirect economic influence to have more impact on European politics. Moscow used energy as foreign policy tool when it cut the natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the winter in 2006 and 2009 in an overt effort to coerce Ukraine into agreement on the price of its gas. Taking advantage of the vast network of natural gas pipelines built in Soviet times, the Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom and its subsidiaries wield influence over the politics and economics of many European countries. Russia has also offered large-scale investment to build energy pipelines and other infrastructure in countries that are dependent on Russian energy supplies as a means of growing its influence.

Secret measures – Russia also has the ability to use traditional espionage as part of its hybrid methods as part of its broader military modernization program, Russia has invested in strengthening its special operations forces. These forces have a wide range of roles, but one of their most dramatic has been in infiltrating other countries and directing hybrid warfare efforts there. Russian military intelligence, for example, is believed to have instigated a 2016 plot to overthrow the pro-NATO government of Montenegro. Russian Special Forces were crucial in seizing Crimea and supporting separatists in the Donbass, and they are likely operating in several NATO-allied countries.

Political influence – Certainly, Russian leaders also use traditional diplomacy to support their preferred political parties and candidates, offering high-level visits in Moscow, while deriding the positions of political leaders more critical of Moscow.

Hybrid methods of warfare, such as propaganda, deception, sabotage and other non-military tactics have long been used, since the Cold War and even before. What is new about attacks seen in recent years is their speed, scale and intensity, facilitated by rapid technological change and global interconnectivity and as such they require swift response. [5]

The rising hybrid threat to the democracies around the world has been recognized on the highest level and that’s why in July 2017, NATO formed a special unit within the existing Joint Intelligence and Security Division, with purpose to analyze hybrid actions, drawing from military and civilian, classified and open sources.

Brussels Summit Declaration 2018

Moreover, Brussels Summit Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 11-12 July 2018 focused heavily on the mentioned issue.


The Declaration states that the primary responsibility to respond to hybrid threats or attacks rests with the targeted nation, but NATO is prepared to assist any Ally against hybrid threats as part of collective defense. The Alliance has developed a strategy on its role in countering hybrid warfare to help address these threats. In article 20 the declaration reaffirms NATO’s mandate for collective defense against the full spectrum of cyber threats, followed by groundbreaking article 21 claiming that in cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, as in the case of armed attack.

The Document announced the establishment of Counter Hybrid Support Teams, which will provide tailored, targeted assistance to Allies, upon their request, in preparing for and responding to hybrid activities.  These teams will strengthen resilience of NATO allies when facing hybrid challenges.

The last few articles of the Declaration emphasize the importance of Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen its resilience against hybrid threats, including intensifying activities within the NATO-Ukraine Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare.  Ukraine’s significant contributions to Allied operations, the NATO Response Force, and NATO exercises increase security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond. [6]

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE)

Hybrid threats represent a global issue – the response should be the same. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), an intergovernmental think tank established in 2017 and based in NATO partner country Finland. It serves as a hub of expertise supporting the participating countries’ individual and collective efforts to enhance their civil-military capabilities, resilience, and preparedness to counter hybrid threats with a special focus on European security. It operates as a center that offers collective experience and expertise for the benefit of all participating countries, as well as the EU and NATO. The Centre follows a comprehensive, multinational, multidisciplinary and academic-based approach. [7]


In terms of research and analysis, the Strategic Communications CoE is the leader, having released more than a dozen analysis papers, reports and practical studies of influence operation examples. In addition, Alliance countries such as Denmark have decided to train their soldiers how to combat disinformation before they are posted to NATO service. [8]


Hybrid measures of warfare, such as propaganda, deception, sabotage and other non-military tactics have long been used by many states since the Cold War and even before in order to gain influence and shape the political landscape in Europe and beyond. But the hybrid war tactics that Russia uses today, however, are not identical to those used during the 20thcentury. The reach is far greater and the consequences far more severe due to the globalization and interconnectedness of the societies and countries around the world, through the internet, media and social media being main channels and tools of influence.

Hybrid warfare expands the battlefield across the political, economic and social dimension that extends far beyond the mere military realm.  These campaigns are synchronized and systematic and mainly rely on the contemporary technology that characterizes 21st century and may not be seen until are already well underway, as it is customized to remain below detection radius.

Therefore, national governments should conduct a self-assessment of critical functions and vulnerabilities sectors, and maintain it regularly. National efforts should enhance traditional threat assessment activity to include non-conventional political, economic, civil, international (PECI) tools and capabilities. [9]

Apart from the theoretical solutions, practical efforts have been made against this clear challenge to the EU, NATO and democratic system in Europe, like 1) the Brussels Summit Declaration, 2) forming a special unit within the existing Joint Intelligence and Security Division, with purpose to analyze hybrid actions, drawing from military and civilian, classified and open sources, 3) starting the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats with the goal to work with members, NATO and the EU to understand different dimensions of hostile state influence and enhance their ability to respond and help them to recognize their vulnerabilities, 4) strengthening the NATO-Ukraine Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare and 5) many more initiatives around the world, especially in Central Europe and Baltic States.

National governments should coordinate and work closely with NATO, the EU, as well as with other international organizations, NGOs and different initiatives around the world to support and develop more practical solutions in ever-changing security environment.

[1] Frank Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007, p. 8

[2] Dusan Stojanovic, “Inside Russian ‘Spy Base’ in the Balkans”. link: URL Link

[3] Christopher S. Chivvis, Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can be Done About It, RAND, 2017, link: URL Link

[4] Anne Applebaum, The Dutch Just Showed the World How Russia Influences Western European Elections, Washington Post, April 8, 2016


[6] Brussels Summit Declaration, July 11, 2018, url: URL Link


[8] The Warsaw Institute Review, qr. 3. 2018, no 6, url: URL Link

[9] MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project: Understanding Hybrid Warfare, url: URL Link