Russian Hybrid Warfare

This paper is part of ISW's Military Learning & The Future of War series. Click here to go to the series homepage.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (Download the full report here)

America’s current strategy for responding to the Russian threat is based on a misunderstanding of the Russian approach to war and exposes the United States and its allies to a high risk of strategic defeats. The 2018 US National Defense Strategy gives primacy to deterring major conventional great power wars. Russia also seeks to avoid such wars even as it designs a different way of waging war to achieve its revisionist objectives. The US largely views this Russian approach, hybrid war, as a set of activities below the level of conventional conflict. But Russia includes significant conventional conflict in its conception and execution of hybrid war. If the US continues to focus on deterring the kind of war Russia does not intend to fight while underestimating the role military force can and must play in preventing Moscow from accomplishing its aims through hybrid war, then the US will likely suffer serious strategic defeats even as its defense strategy technically succeeds.

The Kremlin is even now waging a hybrid war against the United States. The Kremlin assesses that hybrid wars already dominate 21st century conflict and will continue to do so. The Kremlin believes it must adapt to win this struggle, profoundly shaping Russian military development and assessments of the future of war.

Russian hybrid wars include the use of significant conventional forces and conflict. The Russian military defines a “hybrid war” as a strategic-level effort to shape the governance and geostrategic orientation of a target state in which all actions, up to and including the use of conventional military forces in regional conflicts, are subordinate to an information campaign. 

The Russians define hybrid war precisely and coherently as a type of war, rather than a set of means to conduct state policy. The U.S discussion of hybrid war overly focuses on the means short of conventional forces and conflict that the Russians have most famously used. The Russian soldiers without insignia (“little green men”) who helped seize Crimea in 2014, and the proxies Russia uses in eastern Ukraine, are most often the focus of Western assessments about how to respond to Russian hybrid war.

The Russian conception of hybrid war is much more expansive. It covers the entire “competition space,” including subversive, economic, information, and diplomatic means, as well as the use of military forces extending above the upper threshold of the “gray zone” concept that more accurately captures the Chinese approach to war.

The Kremlin considers conflicts including Belarus, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Venezuela to be hybrid wars. The Russian Armed Forces openly discuss several ongoing conflicts as hybrid wars. The Kremlin is actively refining and utilizing its theory of hybrid war in Europe and around the world. It uses a blend of means and instruments, including conventional military forces. Russian Air Force aircraft in Syria constitute its most important means of influencing that conflict, although it has also deployed Russian Army Military Police and special forces (SPETSNAZ) troops as well. Russian hybrid war efforts in Belarus include sending three battalion tactical groups from Russian Airborne Forces divisions to exercise there, along with Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers. Russia’s engagement in Libya, by contrast, has been primarily through its private military companies (PMCs), which are also operating in Syria. The Kremlin adjusts the kinds of forces it commits to hybrid conflicts according to its assessment of the conflict’s requirements. The Kremlin does not shy away from sending and using units from its conventional military forces just because it has defined the war as hybrid.

Russia sees hybrid wars as the main line of future military development, rather than a temporary phenomenon. The Russian military maintains theoretical space for the idea of a traditional conventional war and does not assert that all conflicts are now inherently hybrid. It instead argues that conventional war is a legacy type of conflict that is increasingly unlikely in the 21st century due to technological changes and strategic power balances. The Kremlin further asserts that Russia should shape its military and national security tools to optimize for hybrid wars not only because they are increasingly common, but also because they are now more practical and effective than traditional conventional warfare.

The Russian military is therefore adapting to improve its capabilities to conduct hybrid wars. The Russian military is not attempting to hide its intent to conduct offensive hybrid wars. Russian military theorists write extensively and openly on general strategies and doctrine for offensive hybrid wars, and additionally discuss the development of individual hybrid means. The Kremlin’s ongoing adaptations include efforts to:

  • Centralize all potential Russian decision-making bodies—civilian, military, media, and economic—to coordinate whole-of-government efforts.
  • Adapt traditional military theories and doctrine to enable the Russian military to conduct hybrid wars as a core mission.
  • Conduct society-wide information campaigns to improve “patriotic consciousness,” which the Kremlin assesses is essential in hybrid war.
  • Increase the adaptability and strength of Russian information campaigns to successfully conduct hybrid wars over many years.
  • Improve the conventional expeditionary capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces to enhance their capability to deploy abroad in support of hybrid wars.
  • Improve the Kremlin’s capability to employ PMCs and other supposedly deniable proxy forces.
  • Subordinate kinetic operations to information operations—which the Kremlin assesses is the ongoing foundational change in the character of war—in planning processes and execution.

The United States must revise its strategy for confronting the Russian threat and re-examine the tools and resources it will need to support that strategy in light of a more accurate understanding of the Russian concept of hybrid wars. The US must avoid imposing its own conceptual boundaries on the Russian threat—particularly regarding the Russian theory of hybrid war. The Kremlin has established a continuum between and among military and non-military means to conduct unified campaigns – hybrid wars - to achieve its strategic objectives. The United States must also recognize that deterring major conventional and nuclear war with Russia is not a sufficient objective to preserve US interests in the face of Russian hybrid war efforts.  And it must accept that US and NATO conventional military forces must play an essential role in any counter-hybrid war strategy.

The United States should take several actions to support this revision of its strategy and approach to Russia.

  • Analyze the Kremlin’s decisions within the Russian framework of hybrid war to understand and mitigate Russian lines of effort. Obfuscating the nature and purpose of Kremlin activities is a key objective of hybrid war, and US confusion about the term and the Russian approach to such conflicts hinders the development of effective counterstrategies.
  • Confront Russian hybrid wars in their entirety as synthetic threats instead of confronting individual Russian lines of effort separately and partially. 
  • Counter the Kremlin globally as well as in Europe. Putin is not playing three-dimensional chess, but instead playing many games of checkers simultaneously. The US policy and military community should increase its analysis of the Kremlin’s hybrid wars outside Europe, including in Syria, Libya, and Venezuela while retaining necessary focus on Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States.
  • Pursue whole-of-government coordination of information and kinetic operations.
  • Reinforce Western norms and institutions—key targets of Russian hybrid wars. The United States should not allow the Kremlin to normalize its malign behavior and worldview.
  • Work to align the Russia policy of the United States and its allies. The United States should particularly seek to standardize across NATO the red lines that would lead to responses to Russian actions.
  • Actively challenge Russian information campaigns. The Kremlin’s information campaign is its center of gravity in each hybrid war. The United States cannot win hybrid wars with Russia if it loses in the information space.
  • Deprive Russian PMCs and proxy forces of their deniability. The United States and its allies must relentlessly work to expose the connections between these forces and the Kremlin and highlight that they are direct tools of Russian military policy to reduce the Kremlin’s freedom of action.
  • Recognize and plan for the military requirements to confront hybrid threats. The United States should be prepared to confront Russian hybrid wars with the conventional forces that will be required and avoid establishing false red lines for the use of Western forces against Russian aggressions.
  • Recognize that Russia also aims to avoid major great power war.  The US must of course continue to deter both nuclear and full-scale conventional war with Russia.  But it must revise its strategy to recognize that Russia also seeks to avoid such conflicts while nevertheless accomplishing it goals. 
  • Shift its military posture to confront the global nature of the Kremlin threat.
  • Enable deployed US forces to combat Russian hybrid wars with non-kinetic means. Conventional forces can act as a platform for additional cyber, civil-military relations, intelligence, technical, and special operations assets which are essential in hybrid wars.

The challenges presented by Russian hybrid war and preparations for the future of war are not insurmountable. The West must not throw up its hands at the challenge of confronting an unfamiliar conception of the future of war. The Kremlin is optimizing for its expectations of the future of war, not ours, and the West must fully understand the Russian threat to successfully confront the Kremlin.

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