Liberal democracies ill-equipped to deal with autocrats’ ‘hybrid warfare’


The latest version of Russia’s National Security Strategy is the most specifically anti-Western one to date, Leonid Bershidsky writes for Bloomberg:

NATO and the European Union are accused of being unable to ensure the security of Europe, and the EU refugee crisis is held up as proof. The U.S. and EU, the document says, backed “an anti- constitutional coup” in Ukraine that “led to a deep split in Ukrainian society and an armed conflict.”  The document argues that the West is out to topple “legitimate political regimes,” which creates instability and new hot spots.

The new strategy aims at protecting Russia’s “cultural sovereignty” by blocking external “destructive informational-psychologic influence,” notes Jamestown analyst Pavel K. Baev:

No useful tools exist yet for policing the Internet, however; and the vicious TV propaganda is becoming stale and tiresome (, December 24, 2015). As the chain of crisis situations increasingly becomes the new norm, Russians tend to lose interest in Syrian adventures or missile defences and start to ponder their deteriorating quality of life (, December 30, 2015). Revelations of hyper-corruption in the highest echelons of law enforcement, which a year ago made no impression, have again started to produce angry resonance in public opinion (, December 24, 2015).

The strategy also again demonstrates that Moscow is conceptually ahead of the West in realizing that security and governance are essentially indistinguishable, notes Mark Galeotti, director of New York University’s Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats:

Russia’s new style of so-called “hybrid warfare” is in so many ways simply a logical reflection of that understanding, and suggests that — even if out of political constraints, economic shortage, inefficiency and downright stupidity in some cases — they may not be able to pull it off, they are also well aware that Russia needs also to be considering “hybrid defense.”

There are three takeaways for the West, Galeotti adds:

  • First of all, do not get too worried about the strident new language; the tone reflects Russia’s new antagonisms with the West, but the underlying strategy is the same.
  • Second, the Kremlin’s real security concerns are not so much military threats as political, economic, and technological challenges.
  • Third, while the Russian economy may be in trouble and their geopolitical aspirations disproportionate to their actual capacities, the Russian state still has sharp strategic thinkers and their understanding of the modern “full spectrum” political-informational-economic battlespace is still unappreciated by their Western counterparts.

The U.S. government’s international media operations lack funding to counter the global blitz of state-sponsored propaganda from Russia, China and other rivals, says the head of the federal board that oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.

“There’s no question we’re badly underfunded and don’t have enough money to compete with our adversaries,” Jeff Shell, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, told The Washington Times.

“We have three great challenges right now,” he said. “The challenge of this newly nationalistic Russian media, the challenge of China presented increasingly through cybertechnology and, finally, the challenge of violent Islamic extremists spreading their propaganda online.”

“We should be marshaling our resources,” he said.

2015 has seen the flourishing of conflicts that exist in a gray zone, one which is not quite open war but more than regular competition, which is attuned to globalization, which liberal democracies are ill-equipped to deal with, and which may well be the way power is exercised and conflict conducted in the foreseeable future, analyst Peter Pomerantsev writes for The Atlantic:

In the case of Russia’s ongoing campaign in Ukraine, for example, hyper-intense Russian propaganda has cultivated unrest inside the country by sowing enmity among segments of Ukrainian society and confusing the West with waves of disinformation, while Russian proxy forces and covert troops launch just enough military offensives to ensure that the Ukrainian government looks weak. The point is not to occupy territory—Russia could easily annex rebel-held eastern Ukraine—but to destabilize Ukraine psychologically and advance a narrative of the country as a “failed state,” thus destroying the will and support inside Ukraine and internationally for reforms that would make Kiev more independent from Moscow and might, in the longer term, create hope for democratic reform inside Russia.

China on Monday hailed Russia’s updated security strategy which names the United States as one of the threats to Russia’s national security for the first time, and also lists threats from NATO and “color revolutions”, the BRICS Post reports:

The document describes those involved in “colour revolution” as “radical social groups which use nationalist and religious extremist ideologies, foreign and international NGOs, and also private citizens” who work to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity and destabilize political processes.

The document says that the United States and the EU have supported an “anti-constitutional coup d’etat in Ukraine”. China, has also, in the past, warned against attempts to destabilize the country through “colour revolutions”.

“I want to make it clear that China categorically opposes the sanctions the United States and Western countries have taken against Russia. China categorically opposes colour revolutions and attempts to hold back Russia’s development,” said Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli in September in Moscow.

China’s doctrine of the Three Warfares  stretches non-physical aspects of hybrid warfare even further, Pomerantsev adds

….using “legal,” “psychological,” and “media” warfare to, in the words of the analyst Laura Jackson, who directed a Cambridge University and U.S. Defense Department research project on the subject, “undermine international institutions, change borders, and subvert global media, all without firing a shot. The Western, and especially American, concept of war emphasises the kinetic and the tangible—infrastructure, arms, and personnel—whereas China is asking fundamental questions: ‘What is war?’ And, in today’s world: ‘Is winning without fighting possible?’”

However, though Moscow’s ties with Beijing have never been better, they have never been very good, Hudson Institute analyst Richard Weitz writes for The Diplomat:

The bilateral relationship is still mostly marked by harmonious rhetoric but few specific projects outside of Central Asia, arms sales, and intermittent energy deals marked by protracted negotiations over pricing and other disputes. Chinese entrepreneurs have been as wary as others about investing in Russia, with China’s FDI flowing overwhelmingly into other Asian countries as well as the EU and the United States. Despite Moscow’s outreach to Beijing, there is no indication that China has made any effort to use its much greater leverage with ASEAN to assist Russia’s integration efforts.

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