The main problem of hybrid warfare is that it is easy to start and even easier to accelerate its momentum. Stopping it is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, a smouldering and self-sustaining hybrid war may well devalue political agreements and diplomatic efforts, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev.
Over the past decade, the concept of hybrid warfare has firmly established itself in political rhetoric in the West and in Russia. Russian experts have rightly pointed out the vagueness of the concept, its intersection with other concepts (such as irregular wars), as well as its weak scientific base. Nevertheless, the widespread use of the term can hardly be called accidental. There were clearly gaps in the conceptual apparatus of international analytics: the new realities of international relations were not adequately described by existing concepts. The rapid spread of the notion of hybrid warfare has been a spontaneous reaction to such gaps, while the concept really suffers from excessive blurring. It is more suitable for journalism than for science. However, the phenomena that are covered by the concept of hybrid war require reflection and a more rigorous study of this concept. It is also appropriate to ask about the opposite concept — hybrid peace. If there is a hybrid war, is it possible to transform it into a hybrid peace? Is modern diplomacy capable of negotiating a hybrid peace and reaching any sustainable agreements to end hybrid wars?
Summarising the many interpretations, one can single out a couple of common features attributed to the phenomenon of hybrid warfare. The first feature is the presence of a conflict between states, in which one side tries to impose its will on the other, to force it to fulfil certain requirements, to inflict damage on it, or to achieve a change in its foreign and domestic policy. The second feature is the use of non-military methods to win the conflict. For one reason or another, the direct use of military force to resolve a conflict to a certain point is viewed as risky. Therefore, opponents are trying to impose their will using other means. The set of such means is extremely broad. They can be related to the military sphere and include, for example, military assistance to individual countries, groups, rebels, insurgents, etc., as well as their training, financing, supplying, etc. At the same time, many other means of hybrid warfare are not related to armed struggle. They include economic sanctions, information and propaganda campaigns (including the dissemination of fake information), bribery of political forces and movements, organisation of protests, as well as collection and subsequent use of information of various types and from various sources for hostile purposes. Today, the increasing use of artificial intelligence on social media is added to this set. The list of applied methods and their combinations is open and continues to grow.
It is also important to note that the conduct of war and its coordination are not necessarily centralised. Its individual elements can have vertical control with a single centre that translates solutions down the control ladder. But many others can be generated from below. For example, content generation can be carried out at the grassroots level quite sincerely and without any political order. It is enough for the assumed centre to recognise the activity, not to interfere with it, and if necessary, to support and direct it.
The conflict between Russia and the West, which escalated against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and rapidly gained momentum after the start of the Special Military Operation in 2022, has all the signs of a hybrid war, and the parties have long been accusing each other of unleashing it. The Russian side focuses on large-scale military assistance to Ukraine, active anti-Russian propaganda in Western global media, attempts to manipulate public opinion, incite and direct social protests, directly or indirectly contribute to the change of systems in neighbouring countries, as well as in Russia itself, the use of unilateral sanctions, persecution of Russians abroad, promoting pseudo-values, attacking the Orthodox Church, etc. Western sources focus on interference in elections, the elimination of certain individuals hostile to Russia, interference in democratic reforms, manipulation of prices for raw materials and other products, informal economic restrictions, promotion of narratives hostile to the West through Russian broadcasting abroad, support for certain political forces, the use of church institutions to promote their interests, etc. There is a mutual antagonism and fierce rivalry in various fields.
Can the hybrid war between Russia and the West be considered exceptional? No, it cannot. Today we see an increase in the hybrid rivalry between China and the United States. At the regional level, there are many hybrid wars — in the South Caucasus, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Historically, hybrid warfare is also hardly a new phenomenon. The Cold War was accompanied by a large-scale confrontation in the information and economic spheres. The same goes for many earlier conflicts. Today, however, hybrid wars are acquiring a new quality given the unprecedented interdependence, the development of information technology, social control tools and other factors.
Moreover, hybrid wars, or at least hybrid operations, are possible even between allies. For example, the US and Turkey are NATO allies. However, Washington uses economic sanctions against Ankara, Turkish individuals and organisations, and supports anti-Turkish forces. From time to time, there are scandals involving the secret wiretapping of the leaders of allied countries. Democratic elections are overshadowed by the tacit participation of intelligence agencies, lobbying groups, ethnic communities, and so on. It is clear that the intensity of such operations against allies is less than against rivals. But their very existence suggests that the tools of power and coercion are used against enemies as well as against friends. In the second case, they can be even more effective. Back in the late 1990s Daniel Drezner, the well-known researcher of the policy of sanctions, showed this pattern on empirical material, calling it the “sanctions paradox”.
The widespread use of hybrid war tools in modern international relations brings us back to the classic maxim of Thomas Hobbes that relations between states are doomed to anarchy. The state of peace is temporary, and at any moment can turn into a state of war.
The key practical problem of hybrid warfare is that it is extremely difficult to control via conventional diplomatic means. You can stop hostilities by concluding a truce or a peace agreement. But how can two belligerent parties agree on the end of a hybrid war? Even if we assume that governments agree with each other that the media, institutions and groups under their control will stop hostilities, will they be able to control the activity of those who wage their struggle in a decentralised way? For example, Russia and the United States ended the Cold War, but already in the 1990s, despite positive relations between governments, individual media and public organisations, on their own initiative, carried out hostile activities. After the political environment changed, their services and impulse received political demand. In other words, governments can stop what they can control and mute what they can get their hands on. The question is how omnipotent are state institutions?
Another problem is that even in government-controlled areas of hybrid warfare, there is virtually no diplomatic practice of agreeing to end such confrontation. A number of instruments have their own inertia. It would seem that it is easy enough to agree on the lifting of economic sanctions. But in practice, lifting sanctions is much more difficult than imposing them. For example, the United States is the largest initiator of sanctions. Over the past century, Washington has introduced more of them than all other countries and international organisations combined. The President of the United States can cancel his executive orders about sanctions. But he is significantly limited in the lifting of sanctions which are cemented in the laws adopted by Congress. Such institutional features became one of the reasons for the disruption of the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal, when the opponent of the agreement, Donald Trump, simply abandoned the decisions of its supporter, Barack Obama, using the possibilities of the sanctions legislation. A number of sanctions against Russia are also cemented by law and cannot be lifted by a simple decision of the president. That is, even in such a relatively formalised area as sanctions, the stability of any agreements raises big questions. What can we say about a truce or peace in the media, social networks, social movements and other areas of hybrid confrontation?
The main problem of hybrid warfare is that it is easy to start and even easier to accelerate its momentum. Stopping it is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, a smouldering and self-sustaining hybrid war may well devalue political agreements and diplomatic efforts. The termination of hybrid wars and their transformation into a hybrid peace is the fundamental problem of modern diplomacy. Many of the usual diplomatic tools are simply not adapted to its solution. Moreover, diplomats themselves become tools of hybrid warfare, but do not have the tools to end it, even if they have such a desire or have the political will to do so. The development of diplomatic tools for achieving peace in a hybrid war is not a trivial task. To some extent, the future of diplomacy as an institution depends on its decision. If diplomats do not find ways and tools to turn a hybrid war into peace, they risk devaluing their negotiating positions, finding compromises, resolving existing problems, minimising the number of enemies and achieving peace in the interests of their country.