Battlespace Tech

Russia's hybrid warfare tactics gain upper hand in Ukraine

The U.S. military and its NATO allies have faced a ramped-up—and, based on the results, effective—threat in the Ukraine from Russia’s use of a concept that has been gaining a lot of steam of late: hybrid warfare.

Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, called attention to it over the weekend in Brussels, saying Russia has used a number of tactics to destabilize Ukraine, including using information tools to “create a false narrative.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed Breedlove during the same Brussels Forum, saying hybrid warfare is “about covert and overt actions, it’s about deception.” Both said that, while the tools of hybrid warfare aren’t new, Russia is using them to an unprecedented degree in Ukraine.

Definitions of hybrid warfare can vary somewhat, but essentially it uses a combination of traditional warfare (such as tanks rolling in) with irregular warfare (such as information warfare, economic strategies and cyberattacks) to destabilize a region or country. Unlike in conventional warfare, it tends to focus on the general population in order to sow confusion and unrest through subversive, often covert, measures.

That’s what Russia is doing in Ukraine, through military, economic, diplomatic and information warfare means, Breedlove said. “Informationally, this is probably the most impressive new part of this hybrid war, all of the different tools to create a false narrative,” he said. “We begin to talk about the speed and the power of a lie, how to get a false narrative out, and then how to sustain that false narrative through all of the new tools that are out there.”

In Ukraine, Russia has, for instance, moved more than 14,000 troops into Ukrainian territory, made extensive use of electronic warfare and high-powered microwave systems to jam communications and disable surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles, and used the state-run Russia Today network to spread propaganda, according to speakers at a February forum of U.S. and Ukrainian officials, as reported by IHS Jane’s 360.

Since hybrid warfare attacks virtually every level of a government or society, NATO needs to fight back the same way, Breedlove said. “What the military needs to do is to use those traditional military intelligence tools to develop the truth. The way you attack a lie is with the truth,” he said. That means not just with traditional military force, but through diplomatic pressure and information warfare of NATO’s own in order to “drag the false narrative out into the light and expose it.”

One of the challenges of battling hybrid warfare is being prepared to respond quickly. Because many of its first steps are clandestine and/or difficult to attribute, hybrid warfare doesn’t give much warning of itself, Stoltenberg said. As NATO Review has pointed out, the emergence of open, armed conflict is a sign that a hybrid campaign is already in its late stages and it may be too late for an effective response.

Stoltenberg said the key is being prepared to react quickly or even prevent a hybrid conflict from getting underway. That would mean, among other things, bolstering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts, he said. “That’s the reason why one important element of the readiness action plan is to increase our intelligence capabilities, and special operation forces might be extremely important in a hybrid situation.”

In many ways, the hybrid warfare horse is already out of the barn in Ukraine. But officials said Stoltenberg called for improving diplomacy with Russia while improving defenses against hybrid attacks, saying combining the two was not a contradiction but a way to create “a more win-win situation in the future.”

Breedlove, meanwhile, said NATO needs to be prepared to fight a hybrid conflict on all fronts. “In Ukraine, what we see is what we talked about earlier, diplomatic tools being used, informational tools being used, military tools being used, economic tools being used against Ukraine,” he said. “We, I think, in the West, should consider all of our tools in reply. Could it be destabilizing? The answer is yes. Also, inaction could be destabilizing.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.