Putin: Master of Hybrid Wars?


The expression “Hybrid war” was first brought into fashion in 2007 by Frank Hoffman. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 made it more important. However, it currently suffers from overuse.

Not everything is war

First of all, not all is war or a hybrid war – despite the fact that we live in hybrid times.

Think about what happens on that Border between Belarus and Poland. Immigrants and refugees were brought to the border region by Lukashenko from Iraq and elsewhere.

This act can be described as a “weapon of mass immigration”, as Mark Leonard did in his book “The Age of Unpeace”. Recourse to this instrument as a means of foreign policy is a “gray area” of power politics. But it’s not a war, not even a hybrid.

This is true even if Russia hovers in the background. This is a nation very skilled in the terrain between war and peace.

Putin, the clever splitter

In this case it is reminiscent of the aftermath of a by no means hybrid war in the West, the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Of course, Vladimir Putin, with his fertile “divisive” mindset, recognizes that the manipulation of irregular immigration flows will further radicalize the extreme right in Europe on this issue (testify to what is going on in France).

A tactical application of the Chaos Strategy

Russia has a concept of “hybrid war”. According to Mathieu Boulègue and Alina Polyakova, it is a “tactical application of the chaos strategy.

It is a full-spectrum warfare that uses a mixture of conventional and non-conventional means aimed at influencing target changes on the ground while avoiding direct military confrontation with Western states.

However, let us not jump to the conclusion that this is an exclusive prerogative of Russia.

The US’s failed Vietnam War with its counterinsurgency (later also used in other conflicts) also met many of the criteria for being hybrid from the US point of view.

Irregular threats

One recently Report from Rand prefers to speak of “irregular threats” emanating from Russia.

This is not entirely new, apart from cyber attacks (which are new and also initiated by private actors looking for profit, for example with ransomware, in which data and systems are hijacked).

These “threats” include disinformation in various fields, the promotion of political subversion and the use of force, or the indirect threat of force to undermine political order and influence vulnerable governments and irregular soldiers, although the latter have always existed.

No mercy, for-profit mercenaries

Russian mercenaries can be found all over the world. Russian soldiers (without official uniforms) in Crimea and Donbass were not new either. The real innovation was how well prepared they were.

These are instruments that have almost always been used. Examples are the newspaper manipulation 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 sold not only by governments but also by private actors, often with private purposes.

Clausewitz digitized

Today there are instruments with a greater range. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz said, these means have been transformed.

The digital order enforces other forms of logic or grammars to use the term preferred by the Prussian military thinker. At the same time there is a lot of new, but also a lot of old and permanent.

Russia failed to achieve many of its goals

Although there have been many studies of disinformation and the numerous campaigns by various parties (led by Russia), few measure its real impact.

In reality, Russia failed to achieve many of the goals of its disinformation campaigns. It has not been able to translate these measures into strategic achievements (with the exception of Crimea, for which it has paid a price with sanctions).

Putin as a (desperate) influencer

Putin has often tried to exert lasting influence, more than just winning. But contrary to the wishes and goals of Putin’s Russia, as the Rand report and various surveys show, public trust in NATO (in contrast to the EU and the USA) has improved in many Western countries since 2010.

Moreover, it stands to reason that Putin’s actions did the opposite of what he wanted. The western countries have maintained a reasonably united front against Russia, as the sanctions and military operations of the NATO countries (including Spain) have shown.

The West is consolidating its position

There is also more consensus than on the question of Beijing, which in Europe is not perceived as a military threat, but rather as a rival in economic, technological and connective terms (in its various dimensions) rather than in traditional geopolitics.

China is necessary for us in many ways. Europe is not striving for a radical decoupling from this country civilization (and neither is the US economy).

Enter China

It is also interesting that Chinese experts have been talking about “non-military warfare” for years instead of turning to the concept of “hybrid” war.

As the use and manipulation of migrants and refugees for political purposes underscores, there is a certain intermingling – if you will a hybridization – of political, economic, social and sometimes also military methods.

The term not war but security has taken on new dimensions and complexity as the lines between civil and military have become blurred and sometimes overlapped.


“We live in a world in which anything can be a weapon,” says Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It could be a knife for carrying out acts of terrorism in urban settings.

The challenge for Western democracies is that irregular threats often themselves require irregular preventive and countermeasures, which are, however, subject to national, EU and international law.


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