Mark Voyger: “There is nothing fundamentally new in today’s Russian hybrid warfare”

24 December 2018, 09:00

What is the nature of modern warfare? How can you describe the meaning of hybrid warfare?

– As a matter of fact, there is nothing fundamentally new in today’s Russian hybrid warfare. They are using the same old methods, just with new tools and technology. Some of their tactics goes back to the 18th century, to the times of Catherine the Great. So, the Kremlin just enhances those old tactics and uses them against their neighbors, the West and even against its own population.

Nowadays hybrid warfare is debated widely, everyone talks about it, from journalists to analysts and political leaders, and they all claim to be experts in what is hybrid, just like several years ago everybody thought they were experts on terrorism. The term “Hybrid warfare” was coined in 2007 by Frank Hoffmann, a US military analyst to describe the tactics used by terrorist groups and insurgencies especially those in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2014, when Russia attacked your country, there was an initial confusion in the West regarding the “little green men” in Crimea.  There was no doubt for my colleagues and myself at NATO that these were Russian soldiers, but some were still having doubts in the beginning. Afterwards, when Russia invaded Donbas, the question at NATO became how we should define this type of warfare – as a classical war or something different?  The term “hybrid” was re-discovered, and NATO officially adopted it to describe this type of Russian asymmetric actions.  The word “hybrid” is of Latin origin, it refers to a child of a mixed marriage, and although it is not perfect, it has proven to be the best term so far to describe this “mixed” type of warfare. However, it is not only its mixed nature that makes hybrid warfare what it is. Quite naturally, when nations go to war they use military, as well as non-military tool such as humanitarian aid, political activities, social networks, etc. Apart from this broad range of non-military aspects hybrid also requires the element of deception and deniability, such as when Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea, but denied the involvement of Russian troops, and claimed that it is only trying to help and protect the Russian speakers. This “Russian way of war” is therefore, not a new phenomenon, as the Russian leadership has been using such methods for centuries. If you read the manifest of Catherine the Great from 19 April 1783, and then you change the old Russian orthography and replace some of the old words with modern Russian ones the documents could have been signed by Vladimir Putin. What the Manifesto clearly demonstrates is that as far back as the 18th century, Russia used a hybrid campaign to take over Crimea, which involved political, diplomatic, legal, social, economic, intelligence and military efforts – the same tools that are used by the Kremlin nowadays. Similarly, in Soviet times they not only used military tools, but also propaganda and disinformation to support their political warfare against the democratic West. The writings of a number of Soviet military theorists from the 1920s, such as Svechin and Isserson that had been largely underestimated and unappreciated before the Second World War, were rediscovered and used extensively in the so-called “Gerasimov model” of hybrid warfare, which the Russian military leadership initially referred to “new generation warfare”.

So is there anything new in this Russian theory?

– The basic principles of what is, in essence, Soviet-style hybrid warfare, are almost a century old now, and the main one among states that wars in the modern world are not declared openly, as they can be launched following secret troop deployment. Primacy is not so much in military domain, but in the political one. What was new is collecting all those different techniques and tools and presenting them as part of a single model in Gen. Gerasimov’s article of February 2013.  The British scholar Mark Galeotti called it the “Gerasimov’s strategy” when he first analyzed it in June 2014 although he has been writing recently against the use of that term. In my view the model that Gerasimov presented, although it is not a full hybrid strategy by itself, has two elements – one is the descriptive one, that is what Russia perceives as the world of modern warfare, where the ratio of non-military to military means is 4 to 1; and the other element is the prescriptive one, whereby Gerasimov provides guidance to the Russian military and their military scientists on what they should do to both respond to those challenges and use those tools of warfare themselves. Ultimately, it would be fair to say that the collective body of his writings since 2013 do form a doctrine of Russian hybrid warfare, as they are not only analytical in nature and purpose, but also provide specific directions as to how the Russian military should take the initiative in a world where information warfare is often the dominant factor on the battlefield.

One of the new elements nowadays is the high-level of technological innovations that are used in Russia’s hybrid campaigns, with cyber being the most prominent one. Today cyber is a primary Russian tool of penetrating the ranks of Russia’s adversaries, their entire societies, and not only their armed forces. Another new phenomenon is the high level of integration when it comes to information warfare, such as Russian disinformation, propaganda, fake news, troll factories, the huge network of information warriors. Thus, by now information and cyber are widely recognized as the main pillars of Russian hybrid warfare. There is a third one, however, that I have been studying since 2014, and it is equally important and dangerous, and it is Russia’s use of the law as a weapon of state power, the “weaponization” of the international and domestic law. The term that was coined in the US in 2008 is lawfare (from “law warfare”). It is an extremely important tool, and not a product of boring theoretical debates about legal details. Lawfare is what allows Russia to make its aggressions legal by saying, for example, that they did not actually occupied Crimea, but that is was re-incorporated into the RF legally, because the people there voted in a referendum. They claim it was all in accordance with international law, because the people in Crimea have the right to self-determination. They use the Kosovo example to justify their actions, while actually twisting the legal interpretations and bending the legal rules. Ultimately, every time Russia breaks the international law, they claim that their actions are in accordance with it. 

This Russian lawfare has been going on for centuries – since 1654 (against Ukraine), since 1774 (the wars against the Ottomans), but they have now perfected it, and they also benefit hugely from their UN veto right.

Russia also uses economic warfare as a tool of hybrid warfare. In a classical conventional war between two countries, they usually break all connections including trade. Ukraine, however, still has economic ties to Russia, including buying Russian gas – in a hybrid context, this is one of the tools that Russia is using to pull Ukraine more toward itself, to keep it in its orbit. The financial and banking sectors are another such tool. You would not imagine US banks operating in Germany or Japan during World War II, but Russian banks still operate in Ukraine.

Russia also uses infrastructure as a weapon, especially in the Donbas. In the summer of 2014 the Russian agents began systematically targeting the electric and water supplies of Donetsk and Luhansk, hospitals, schools and civilian infrastructure, in order to trigger a humanitarian crisis, for which Russia officially blamed Ukraine. The even tried signing petitions to the UN in order to try to justify Russian involvement masked as a humanitarian operation. This technique was first tested in Ukraine, but then in 2015 they repeated this scenario in Syria against the Syrian opposition.

Last, but not least – crime is also used by the Kremlin as a hybrid tool, by weaponizing criminal syndicates who are protected by the Russian security services and operate throughout Europe and on a global scale.

And what about the military tools?

– On the military side, the Soviets realized in the 1980s that they are lagging behind the US in terms of military technology, given that after the Vietnam trauma, the US under President Reagan was able to recover militarily largely by making the US army professional and by massive military investments in new technology, especially computer-based ones. While the US was building this strong reformed army, the Soviet Union got involved in Afghanistan, so it was forced to fight a massive insurgency. On the European theater, the Soviets were testing and trying to implement the so-calledOgarkov Doctrine, whose objective was to break through the NATO defenses in Western Europe. The Soviets however, were lagging behind the West and the US because of the lack of computer technology, and in the first decade after collapse of the Soviet Union funding was limited, and so was the will for genuine innovation. When Putin and his circle came to power, however, they started investing in their intelligence services, testing various models for reforming the army in order to make it more flexible.Ultimately, the existing limitations of Russian military power forces the Russian leadership to adjust their methods and objectives, from invasions based on massive conventional power, to the more clandestine and affordable campaigns based on asymmetric methods. Their objective is not direct military conquest, but dividing the West, slowing down or even preventing a cohesive NATO response.  Of course, the military options are always on the table, as the Russian doctrine even envisages the use of tactical nuclear weapons in order to quickly deescalate the conflict at its initial phases, and to try to force NATO to give up and back out by targeting some of NATO’s deployed forces. The Russian thinking is that some NATO nations might decide not to fight over a small piece of occupied territory in one of the NATO member-states in Eastern Europe, if Russia threatens to destroy a European capital with nuclear weapons. This is a misperception, but a very dangerous one, as the Russian leadership might ultimately convince itself that they can win this type of nuclear “game of chicken” with NATO.

That actually fits the last speech of Putin in Valday on nuclear weapons

– Putin’s statements there were a clear indication that the Russian top political leadership is really losing touch with reality, almost in a psychological sense. Putin is clearly trying to scare the West, but he seems to have surrounded himself with people who apparently feed him constant conspiracy theories instead of giving him the truth. They are reinforcing the “besieged fortress” mentality, and on the other hand the so-called “Color revolutions”. The regimes that come to power in illegitimate always fear that one day someone else from within the state could challenge them and take their take power. I call this the Chronos syndrome. Chronos was the ancient Greek god of time – after he took down his father, the god of the sky, he became concerned that his children, the gods of Olympus, could do the same to him. I think that this is a good psychological explanation of the Kremlin elite’s behavior. That is why Putin was claiming in 2014 that supposedly the CIA had paid $5 million to organize the Maidan. Even if they don’t actually believe in all those lies and conspiracies, day after day all of them – Putin, Lavrov, Shoygu, the entire Russian leadership – repeat the same narratives, as they also act as if they believe them to be true, and most dangerously – they also influence the common people in Russia.


At this point, the success of the reforms and the democratic process in Ukraine is the only positive development that can inspire the Russian people, especially the younger generations, so they can see that another model of governance and political development is possible. The current corrupt, oligarchic, mafia-style KGB-run model is going nowhere. The Russian people deserve to live in a democracy, this change cannot come, cannot be forced from the outside. This is why the battle for Ukraine is also a battle for the future of Russian democracy. Thus, the ability to halt the Kremlin’s hybrid machine in Ukraine is not only a matter of military warfare, but also represents a struggle for the future of the entire European continent.

Which perspectives in developing warfare you see in other parts of the world?

–There is a paradox that the generals are always fighting the last war, the wars of the past. When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, the US still had largely a Cold War-type army. There was the need to adapt to a new, more flexible environment where the insurgents and terroristic organizations used culture and religion as weapons. So, for almost two decades the US was developing new military capabilities to better suit this type of warfare. Unfortunately, in the course of doing that, we had forgotten some of the Cold War tactics. When Russia attacked your country, the US realized that in some ways Russian army is quite advanced, if not better, for example, electronic warfare, long-range artillery, etc. The US and NATO forces in Europe need to increase their mobility and logistical infrastructure in order to move troops faster. For now, most of the infrastructure in Eastern Europe is not sufficiently prepared for that, and in the context of Russian hybrid warfare military mobility is a key factor.

We have also started learning from Ukraine, since your army is currently the only one in Europe that is successfully fighting against the Russian hybrid warfare machine. You have actually proven wrong Gen. Gerasimov that hybrid warfare is the 21st century blitzkrieg that allows for the quick takeover of a target-country. The name of the game for Russia is being able to catch their adversaries unprepared, but in the case of Ukraine this did not actually work as predicted or expected. Thus, the lessons that you have learned from this war, however tragic and painful for your people, are also invaluable for West.

Another field where the Russian military has increased its capabilities is the extensive use of drones, for reconnaissance, targeting and electronic warfare.

All those innovations have allowed Russia to establish the so-called Anti-Access and Area Denial” or A2AD, that look like bubbles above Crimea and Kaliningrad, trying to prevent access of NATO forces inside, especially the air and naval access. So the vision in the US is that if you have sufficient long-range artillery and the hypersonic weapons, then you will be able to penetrate those bubbles.

And the final lesson is the principle postulated by General Gerasimov, that in the future all conventional wars will contain hybrid elements even if predominantly hybrid wars include mostly special forces and not massive conventional ones. We – the West and Ukraine – need to prepare for that, as the process of military innovation is ongoing, and and both sides are learning from the successes and mistakes of the other.

At the same time the United States is facing the likelihood of conflict not only with Russia, but with China, which is already showing its growing will for military expansionism?

– Some analysts seem to think that war with China is probably, about 15 years away from now. If we look back in the history, in the 1930s the US military began to realize that war with Japan is very likely in the future. While the US did not want to start a war, we began investing in naval assets, such as aircraft carriers which was a new type of vessel at the time. Due to the fact that the United States had constructed several aircraft carriers, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and destroyed a number of battleships, which were actually the most powerful naval assets of World War I, that attack did not impact the US naval capabilities dramatically. The US was able to take back the initiative and push back the Japanese forces across the Pacific, and barely a few months after the attack the US launched its first aerial attack on Japan from an aircraft carrier. That means, that even if you don’t war you have to think of that possibility and prepare. In the case of China it is likely that they also think the same.  They build new bases, the use lawfare to legitimize artificially created islands in the South China Sea. So they are learning from Russia in certain ways, too. I personally do not think that war is inevitable, but we should learn from what happened in the 20th century. As the ancient Romans used to say – “If you want peace, prepare for war”. The hope, of course, is that both sides see how strong the other one is, and they will not dare launch an attack.

But, that actually can start a new arms race

– Yes. This is another one of the ancient principles of international relations, called “the security dilemma”. This is what led to the Peloponnesian Wars in the 4th century BC, when the rising power of Athens made Sparta nervous, so they decided to act first. Germany used this logic in World War I, as they were concerned that in the future they would not have a military advantage against the Russian military machine. That is, of course, always an issue, and is based on the threat perceptions that define the behavior of the political leadership of Russia and China.

RELATED ARTICLE: Phillip A. Petersen: “We thought ideological competition was over, but it just shifted”

But by building up conventional military forces and deploying them closer to the borders the risk of triggering a conflict based on an accident is higher

– The probability of an accident or a miscalculation triggering a larger conflict, is, of course, always a concern. But if you think of the actual incidents of this nature, for example, the Russian plane that was shot down by the Turkish military – that did not trigger a conventional war between two countries. Also, the destruction of Wagner unit in Syria by the US air force, with over 200 Russian mercenaries killed – that also didn’t elicit any conventional response on the part of Russia. Surely there can be other types of non-conventional asymmetrical responses – that is the nature of hybrid warfare, after all. Still, any defensive military build-up should account for such eventualities, but it also should not be stifled by the irrational fear that one separate accident will immediately lead to war. There does not seem to be automaticity in Russia’s reactions to such events, at least not in conventional terms.


Mark Voyger holds a Master of Arts in Law and Dipomacy degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and has done PhD research in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University. In 2009-2013 he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a US Army Social Scientist. In 2007 and 2012 he was a member of the Russia advisory group for Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaigns. In 2013-2018 he served as the Cultural Advisor and Senior Russia expert at NATO Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, and then as Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to the Commanding General of US Army Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany. Currently he is the Senior Lecturer in Russian and Eastern Studies at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia.

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