Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, hybrid warfare has become conversational short form in the West for describing Moscow’s sneaky ways of fighting war. If there’s one thing you’ve learned over the past two years about Russia, it’s that it uses hybrid warfare, a dangerous Kremlin innovation the West must learn to grapple with. In two short years, the word has mutated from describing how Moscow was fighting its war in Ukraine to incorporating all the various elements of Russian influence and national power. The term continues to evolve, spawning iterations like “multi-vector hybrid warfare” in Europe. Hybrid warfare has become the Frankenstein of the field of Russia military analysis; it has taken on a life of its own and there is no obvious way to contain it.
In trying to separate hybrid warfare from the classical bins of conventional or irregular war, I prefer to use Frank Hoffman’s definition, “a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain [a group’s] political objectives.” There are other definitions out there, but you will find they are not being applied correctly to analysis of Russian tactics. Unfortunately, what Russian hybrid warfare is, and how it works, varies dramatically depending on what article, report, or PowerPoint brief you are reading. The more we have talked about it, the less we understand it as a useful concept or framework for looking at Russian actions.
What’s wrong with a little hybrid warfare?
If you torture hybrid warfare long enough it will tell you anything, and torture it we have. The term now covers every type of discernible Russian activity, from propaganda to conventional warfare, and most that exists in between. What exactly does Russian hybrid warfare do, and how does it work? The short answer in the Russia-watcher community is everything. The church of Russian hybrid warfare has a broad and influential following these days, but finds few worshippers among experts who study the Russian military. There’s a reason for that: Many don’t believe it exists as described. I’m not the first to point out the problems with applying this lens to Russian tactics , and I have criticized itelsewhere, but in this piece I hope to offer a fresh perspective on why the national security establishment continues to do itself a disservice by thinking about Russia through a hybrid warfare lens.
My purpose here is not to engage in an esoteric disagreement over military terms and definitions. It matters less what we call it if there is a common and useful understanding of the subject. The trouble is that thanks to narratives surrounding hybrid warfare, we lack a shared knowledge of how Russia fights and what happened on the battlefields of Ukraine. Without a common understanding of the facts here, the United States cannot hope to successfully counter or deter Moscow elsewhere. It would be one thing for such notions to dominate the world of punditry, but the references to Russia’s dark hybrid arts permeate the conversation among U.S. policymakers and leading generals alike. I have nothing against hybrid warfare as a concept, but in the case of Russia, it has become more of a handicap than an enabler for our decision-makers and military leaders.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks