Russian Hybrid Threat: Cheap and Lucrative

  • European Security Journal
  • 26.3.2021 13:38

Hybrid warfare and hybrid threats have become popular concepts in both political and academic circles. There is little consensus what exactly these two concepts mean, but an absolute clarity in who is guilty of them. Russia became a serious threat for other states, but in ways that redefine the idea of warfare and state of war. However, while Russia is accused of posing a hybrid threat, only a certain group of people is truly behind the cultural, social and informational undermining.

What is “hybrid” and when it is a warfare or a threat.

Recent years have brought the “hybrid warfare” concept under the spotlight. Instead of having direct references to the tactics employed by certain states to destabilize their rivals we now have a catch-them-all terminology. Cyberwarfare, economic and diplomatic pressure, state-sponsored PMCs and the fake-news-producing bot factories – all of it has become known as a part of the hybrid warfare. But if there is warfare employed against the West by certain Eastern countries, why is there no state of war? Is it because there is no actual warfare and the terminology is used in a confusing way? Russia is the perfect example to understand that.

Hybrid warfare is something along the lines of Huntington’s civilizational warfare – the civilization, or a society, employs various covert or overt methods to destabilize and overtake the rivaling society, creating a short-of-war relationship between them. Today, the methods included are representative of the whole DIMEFIL power spectrum. But can something short-of-war be considered warfare? Various publications in the IR and security sphere have started to openly question this notion. And it makes sense to the point that NATO in its review published an article critical of the ongoing hybrid warfare framing.

Instead, hybrid threat should be the concept used to explain Russian and Chinese subversive activities. As long as the actions are calculated as to stop at the “short-of-war” threshold, the country presents a hybrid threat, but is not employing hybrid warfare. Clausewitz understanding of how a “war” attains a “hybrid” trait is not applicable to the modern globalized international environment. 

Hybrid warfare today would mean not only military operations, but auxiliary actions that destabilize one of the belligerents. Hybrid warfare includes hybrid threat methods, but not vice-versa, as hybrid threat does not escalate into a full-fledged war. Employing hybrid threats also does not mean that a country is preparing for hybrid warfare. In case of Russian hybrid attacks, there is no underlying ideology and the threat is rather a product of a pragmatic gain-based strategy. Previously, these actions have been understood by realists as a hegemonic rivalry between the U.S./Europe and the Russian political elite. This realist viewpoint made sense during the Cold-War, but it fails to explain the current situation. Approaching it as a gains-based strategy however, helps understand the complex motivation behind hybrid threats. Framing the issue properly is crucial in a level-headed analysis and response planning.


Hybrid threat’s source and targets

When talking about hybrid threats, it is important to understand the difference between the Russian state and the Russian people. In Russia, they do not equal each other. The state is formed of powerful oligarchs, a closed circle of only dozens of people, who own both the government and the economy. As we argue, the desires of this group are the political desires of the Russian state. In other words, what ancient Greek understood as the Oligarchy political system, today is embodied by Russia.

Russian oligarchy includes the communist regime’s high-functionaries and the 1990s most ruthless businessmen, such as Evgeniy Prigozhin and the already dethroned Mikhail Chodorkovsky. President Vladimir Putin, who is, for the sake of nationalist propaganda, presented as the strongest leader in the world is, in fact, a source of state power against the society. He exclusively acts in accordance with the wishes and interests of the Russian oligarchy. For them, Putin is merely an elaborate PR stunt that helps them keep the power centralized and in their hands.


“President Vladimir Putin exclusively acts in accordance with the wishes and interests of the Russian oligarchy.”


This is confirmed by the power and business distribution inside of Russian society: the recent Alexey Navalny’s palace investigation, businessmen-sponsored PMC Wagner activities in the Middle East and South America, the African business contracts - all involve certain individuals well outside the political dimension, on paper. Yet it is precisely these individuals that form the Russian oligarchy and own the power structure in Russia.

These are the businessmen that are tied to each other by either history, their USSR career or business activity, they own whole industries and receive public procurement orders that make billionaires out of them. Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin's closest friends, has been proven by an investigation to own, through proxies, the “PMC” Wagner, which operates in areas where direct military involvement would be too costly for Russia. Sanctions-wise, primarily. Then there are problems with justifying military casualties to the general public, as well as risk of being charged in the international courts. Prigozhin is also responsible for one of the largest business conglomerates in Russia, Concord Management and Consulting. 

One of the CMC’s subsidiaries is the largest catering corporation in the whole Russia – Concord Catering, which is almost solely responsible for the schools and military catering. It has publicly received billions of dollars procurement requests from the government. Prigozhin himself has been seen negotiating contracts with African leaders as a part of an official diplomatic mission. This is but the most evident example of what oligarchy means in Russia. Just recently, Russia set on another adventure in middle Africa.

Given the control that oligarchs exert over the Russian government and Duma, it has to be understood that these select people are the original source of the hybrid threats. Why would they create these attacks on other states then? To weaken them internally. The activities that the oligarchs perform to either consolidate their power or increase their gains are predominantly illegal, both from the standpoint of Russian Constitution and international law. After the Crimean crisis in 2014 the relatively united response by the international community has devastated Russian economy and especially the wealth of the indicted oligarchs and their servants. Since then, there has been a considerable spike in activities that are today categorized as parts of hybrid warfare or hybrid threats.

“Subversive tactics that do not necessarily destroy societies like war would, but eat away at them, make them weaker, invite discord. But these tactics are effective insofar the society is already undermined by internal conflicts.”


As the Russian political elite realized the power of a united international response, they decided to take a hybrid approach to international politics. Subversive tactics that do not necessarily destroy societies like war would, but eat away at them, make them weaker, invite discord. But these tactics are effective insofar the society is already undermined by internal conflicts.

A prime example would be the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Everyone agrees that the Kremlin has sponsored certain groups to meddle in the elections. Has it undermined or influenced the elections? No. The results would have been the same regardless of how many hackers and bot-accounts Russian oligarchs sponsored. An intelligence report finds the impact neglectable, albeit real. But the idea itself – the delegitimization of the elections based on foreign interference – has widened the rift amongst U.S. citizens even further. 

Russian disinformation and influencing has exacerbated the internal U.S. problems. Facing a political crisis always weakens a state’s international standing and its ability to effectively conduct its foreign policy. Even creating the controversy of possibly rigged elections itself is a powerful weapon to destabilize the society further. The United States found themselves stuck in an internal conflict, with their own citizens, while at the same time looking for domestic support for more international sanctions against Russia, to prevent its activities in Africa, Syria, Ukraine and in other regions. 


Hybrid Threats response – defense or offense?

Since 2015, smart sanctions have become the main response to the evident subversive tactics by the Kremlin. Smart sanctions target not the society on the whole, but the individuals deemed responsible for sponsoring and lobbying, the ones that promote the hybrid threat. The EU and the United States have long identified these people and those who serve under them. Nationwide sanctions have proven to be ineffective as in Russia the nation is not the state and vice-versa.

There are certain risks associated with targeting the oligarchs, however, the risks that cannot be mitigated by the policy makers. It lies in the possibility, or, rather, reality that the ruling class will try to close the gap made by sanctions by exploiting the Russian people even further. Before the Crimean crisis, Putin has promised the Russian people not to raise the retirement age. Just three years after it he reneged on his promise. This can be easily explained by the fact that the oligarchy has to mitigate the losses, and they do so by making Russian people work even longer than was acceptable during the times the dollar was just 30 rubles, not 70+.

Sanctions have to be, thus, drafted with care and providence, if they are to have a desirable effect on the Russian regime. On another hand, there is little else that can be taken from the Russian population, and more exploitation will result in unprecedented civil unrest, which is not anyhow in the interest of the established political power.


“If risking an unstable Russia is an acceptable risk, then draconic sanctions against the oligarchs are the surefire way to accelerate the dissolution of the existing power structure in Russia. Otherwise, a more defensive approach is needed.”


The goals have to be clearly defined – if risking an unstable Russia is an acceptable risk, then draconic sanctions against the oligarchs are the surefire way to accelerate the dissolution of the existing power structure in Russia. Otherwise, a more defensive approach is needed.

Defense against the hybrid threats should not be understood as deterrence, as they cannot be deterred. The costs are irrelevant compared to the intel/material gains/political leverage received as a result and the response is never immediately life-threatening to Russian oligarchy and the material sanctions are possible to mitigate. Instead, defense should be understood as the capability to withstand those attacks, to successfully resist them. A threshold needs to be conceived, one under which these subversive tactics can be safely absorbed. This, in turn, makes the cyberattack more costly if Kremlin wishes to do serious damage, affects the gains-loses ratio and will slow the attacks down.  

For these purposes, strengthening cybersecurity and infrastructure is in order. Army budget could be divided, the army could transform into a more defensive entity, assisting with protection of the state not only from direct attacks, but also overt and covert operations in the hybrid-threat fashion. 

Civil governments should invest into educating the population towards recognizing the intentionally fake narratives from real ones. Being told so by the government can have exactly the opposite effect, citizens must be capable to recognize the lies on their own. 

Newly established highly professional cybersecurity agencies could monitor the cybercriminal activity and react to it swiftly to prevent extensive intel theft and infrastructural damage. There are numerous ways to defend the societies from hybrid threat tactics, but they require a change in the framing of the issue and a modern way of approaching national defense not reliant on raw military power.

About author: European Security Journal


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