Kremlin’s Hybrid War: Is Europe Under threat?

by Anastasiia Gnatenko

The Crisis in Ukraine brought a number of notions back to the fore of international discourse, which, before 2014, were considered historical heritage rather than political reality. We have been witnessing the triumphant return of the classic Cold War vocabulary of East-West division: “deterrence” and “containment” being increasingly used in the media, academia, and by those in power. Does it mean that we are now back to the “bad old days”? It seems to be difficult to find a univocal answer. The international relations chessboard has been resolutely shaken up as an outcome of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The Kremlin has opened Pandora’s box and has been accused of resorting to hybrid war.

An ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine challenges traditional Western concepts of warfare. Modern military doctrines define only two types of conflicts: conventional and irregular. The former is conducted by using conventional weapons and battlefield tactics, and the latter favors indirect and asymmetric warfare approaches. However, neither of these categories fits the events in Crimea, Donetsk and Lukhansk. Given the unprecedented nature of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the concept of “hybrid warfare” has become more important in the security policy discourse of the West.

The notion of hybrid warfare includes a wide spectrum of hostile actions, including propaganda offensives, as well as psychological, economic, cyber, political and diplomatic instruments, according to Frank G. Hofman, Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University. The use of force and military components are the last elements in this chain. Hybrid warfare first appeared in academic discourse during the 2006 war in Lebanon, referring to the battle between Israel and Hezbollah, while history provides countless more examples of the above-mentioned tactics being deployed in various conflicts.

International law does not regulate this form of war. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter implies that the states “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” It covers only the last and arguably least important component of hybrid warfare, which is the use of force, without mentioning other aspects. Able to avoid international responsibility, acting in this grey area proved to be an effective instrument in the Kremlin’s pursuit of its foreign policy goals. The illusion of impunity provided the room to maneuver. With this strategy Moscow has turned Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia into frozen conflicts, and most likely the same future is awaiting Donbass.

Russian aggression in Eastern European post-soviet republics was a response to NATO’s expansion to the East and, to some extent, to the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, as asserted by John J. Mearsheimer in his Foreign Affairs article last year. Russia has constantly opposed these initiatives, viewing NATO’s expansion as the biggest threat to its own security interests. In one of his interviews President Putin accused NATO of being a “geopolitical game changer” in Europe since 1991. If that is the case, the Alliance’s plan of granting membership to Balkan countries like Montenegro and Macedonia may also potentially provoke a response from the Kremlin.

President Putin has used the frozen conflict instrument to contain NATO’s expansion and to keep Kiev and Tbilisi away from pursuing their “western ambitions.” The threat belt was thus created on NATO’s Eastern border. Meanwhile, despite all diplomatic efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, Ukraine is still a hot zone. Even if a solution to this ongoing conflict was found, how confident can one be that history will not repeat itself somewhere else? The European Union is under severe pressure. Not only is its political-economic interest at stake, but also its security and its power status on the global scene.

The Crisis in Ukraine is widening the rift between Moscow and the West. It goes beyond the borders of Ukraine, as Putin made it clear that the defense of ethnic Russians does not lie with the countries in which they reside, but with Russia. Baltic countries have significant Russian minorities, with around 25 percent of Estonian and Latvian populations being ethnic Russians, most of whom maintain close ties to the country through family and other relations. What is more, these countries are dependent on Russian energy supplies and are currently trying to diversify in this area. Over the past year, NATO presence in this region has significantly increased, and all smaller NATO members were reinsured that the alliance will grant them protection under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, in the event that Russia takes action.

Anastasiia hybrid 2The Alliance learned this lesson well in 2007, when a series of cyber attacks swamped the websites of numerous Estonian government organizations, banks, and media over the country’s disagreement with Russia regarding the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet-era grave marker. Russia was blamed for these attacks by Estonian officials, as the onslaught on the country was of unprecedented sophistication. An increased NATO presence in Estonia followed, thus triggering an alliance to reconsider the importance of cyber security to modern military doctrine. The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence was established to address these new kind of threats.

So far, NATO has not developed a hybrid threat response strategy. This matter was discussed during the last Summit in Wales in September 2014, but defense budgets of the EU Member States and Europe’s security threat potential so far seem to have an inverse relationship. At the same time, Russia’s defense budget has reached its record of $81 billion in 2015, being 4.1 percent of country’s GDP.

The EU Defense Ministers met in Riga in mid-February to prepare the agenda for the European Council meeting in June 2015, which will be devoted to defense and security issues. The ambition is to further advance the EU Common Security and Defense Policy, develop rapid response capacity and improve strategic communication. However, not all EU Members states have the same position on sanctions policy and relations with Moscow. Greece and Hungary, for example, were initially opposed to EU sanctions against Russia.

To meet the new threats, the EU might want to consider becoming more flexible in crisis management and improving internal coordination. Closer cooperation with NATO is of paramount importance to develop coherent strategies and common action plans, as hybrid threats require strong response capabilities on both political and military levels. The Wales NATO summit was a good starting point. Now it is important to deepen this foundation, and find new strategies for conducting dialogue with the Kremlin.

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