All wars are hybrid, but war and the notion of hybrid have changed

All wars are hybrid, but war and the notion of hybrid have changed. Wooden chess pawn. Photo: George Becker.
Wooden chess pawn. Photo: George Becker.
All wars are hybrid, but war and the notion of hybrid have changed. Wooden chess pawn. Photo: George Becker.
Wooden chess pawn. Photo: George Becker.

The expression ‘hybrid war’, made fashionable by Frank Hoffman in 2007 and even more popular since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, is suffering from overuse. But not everything is war, or hybrid, despite the fact that we live in hybrid times. Take what is happening on the border between Belarus and Poland, with the use of immigrants and refugees brought in from Iraq and elsewhere, which may be described as a ‘weapon of mass immigration’, as Mark Leonard does in his rewarding book The Age of Unpeace. It is a ‘grey area’, but not a war, not even hybrid, although in the background hovers the presence of Russia, highly adept in the terrain between war and peace. In this case, it reminds us of a war in the West that was by no means hybrid, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent fallout. Manipulating irregular immigration additionally emboldens the far right and radicalises the right in Europe on this issue (witness what is going on in France).

Russia does have a concept of ‘hybrid war’, which according to Mathieu Boulègue and Alina Polyakova is a ‘tactical application of the chaos strategy. It is full spectrum warfare that deploys a blend of conventional and nonconventional means aimed at affecting on the ground changes in target while seeking to avoid direct military confrontation with Western states’. But the failed Vietnam War, with its counterinsurgency (later deployed in other conflicts), also fulfilled many of the criteria for being hybrid from a US perspective.

A recent report from Rand prefers to talk about ‘irregular threats’ emanating from Russia, which are not entirely new, apart from cyber-attacks (which are new, and are also instigated by private actors in search of profits, for example with ransomware, involving the hijacking of data and systems). They include disinformation in various areas, the promotion of political subversion and the use of violence or the indirect threat of violence to undermine the political order and influence vulnerable governments, as well as irregular soldiers, although the latter have always existed. Russian mercenaries are found throughout the world, and their soldiers (without official uniforms) in Crimea and the Donbas were not new either (the true innovation was how well prepared they were). These are instruments that have almost always been used. Examples include the newspaper manipulation perpetrated by the publisher William Randolph Hearst in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the so-called ‘fifth columns’ that accompany various conflicts. Propaganda is peddled not only by governments but also by private actors, often with private ends.

Today there are instruments with greater reach. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz said, these means have been transformed. The digital order –for now (because there are other technological dimensions)– imposes other logics, or grammars, to use the term preferred by the Prussian military thinker. There is simultaneously a great deal that is new, but also a great deal that is old and perennial.

While there are many studies of disinformation and the numerous campaigns waged by various parties (led by Russia), few measure their real impact. The reality is that Russia has not attained many of its goals, it has not been able to translate these measures into strategic achievements (with the great exception of Crimea, for which it has paid a price in sanctions). Putin, more than winning, has often sought to exert permanent influence. But contrary to the wishes and goals of Putin’s Russia, as the Rand report and various surveys suggest, public trust in NATO (by contrast to the EU and the US) in many Western countries has improved since 2010. Western countries have maintained a reasonably united front against Russia, as the sanctions and military deployments by NATO countries (including Spain) have shown. There is more unity than on the question of Beijing, which is not perceived as a military threat in Europe but as a rival in economic, technological and connectivity (in its various dimensions) terms, rather than in traditional geopolitics. China is necessary to us in various respects. Europe does not seek a radical decoupling from this country-civilisation (and nor does the US economy, for that matter).

The elements that are normally included in what is known as ‘hybrid war’ are not so much new phenomena as a strengthening and mixing of possibilities, thanks to the revolution in connectivity (digital and physical) that we are witnessing. Moreover, influenced by US thinking and politics, everything is described as ‘war’ (against drugs, against terrorism, etc.). Now there is even the use of ‘cold’ when referring to the rivalry between the US and China, which does indeed have an arms race component, but is unfolding predominantly elsewhere (first the control of new technologies, not only digital ones, and secondly geographical influence). Thus Leonard refers appositely to ‘unpeace’ and avoids the expression ‘cold war’. There are however hot wars, with the potential for escalation, for example between Russia and Ukraine. For its part, China values the strategic concept (derived from Sun Tzu) of subjugating the enemy without waging direct war. The best battles are won without being unleashed. But the West (and India) analyse it in terms of a Chinese ‘hybrid war’. Indeed, Chinese experts have been referring for years to ‘non-military warfare’.

The concept of peace has also changed, but no one refers to ‘hybrid peace’ on this account. As pointed out by the European Parliament’s Normandy Index, which seeks to gauge the level of threats to peace, security and democracy in the world, these days peace refers not so much to the absence of war as a positive dimension that includes improvements in citizens’ wellbeing.

Even the use and manipulation of migrants and refugees for political ends is nothing new. Leonard quotes a study claiming that since the Refugee Convention came into force in 1951 there have been at least 75 attempts worldwide by states (often dictatorships) and non-state actors to use displaced persons as political weapons. The numbers affected have ranged from thousands to various million, involving numerous regimes (Pakistan in 1971, Colonel Gaddafi with threats to extort money from Europe, the Turkish premier Erdoğan later threatening the EU with the Syrian refugees, and the recent Moroccan case in Ceuta). Again, this is neither war nor hybrid. But in all these cases there is a certain blending, a hybridisation of political, economic, social and, in some cases, military methods.

The concept not of war but of security has acquired new dimensions and complexity, when the boundaries between the civil and the military have been blurred, sometimes overlapping. ‘We live in a world in which everything can be a weapon’, says Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It could be a knife for perpetrating acts of terrorism. Irregular threats often necessitate prevention and defence measures that are themselves irregular, albeit, in the case of our democracies, subject to national, EU and international law.