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How to Defeat Hybrid Warfare Before It Starts

A well-governed society is a resilient society.

Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, there has been a lot of discussion in Western policy circles on how to deal with Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics. There is also a debate on how to define hybrid warfare.

Perhaps the best definition is offered by the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki: “coordinated and synchronized action, that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions systemic vulnerabilities, through a wide range of means (political, economic, military, civil, and information),” as well as “activities exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution as well as the border between war and peace.”

The aim, the Centre continues, is to “influence different forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level to favor and/or gain the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.”

I recently attended a tabletop exercise at the Atlantic Council that was based on a hybrid warfare scenario in Lithuania: cyber-attacks, civil unrest, Russian biker gangs — the usual stuff.

After this exercise, one lesson really stood out: hybrid warfare is something that has to be prevented or deterred. It cannot be easily defeated. Once the social, political, and economic conditions exist to allow hybrid tactics to be effective, it is probably too late to stop it. 

So hybrid wars have to be won before they’re even fought. To do this, countries with Russian minorities (or any minority group that is at risk of being marginalized in society) in central and eastern Europe need to create the conditions that deny Russia the effective use its hybrid tactics. 

There are three main ways to do this. 

First, establish good governance on the local and national level. If people feel like they are governed fairly and governed well, then they become less susceptible to Russian disinformation and propaganda efforts. Where there is endemic corruption, a lack of strong local government, and the disconnection of central government to legitimate political grievances on the local level, the stage is set for Russian meddling.

Secondly, there must be economic freedom. People need to feel like they have economic stability and that their children have a bright economic future. Pursuing pro-growth policies that help grow economic prosperity is an important part of countering hybrid tactics. People who feel as if they have economic opportunities are less susceptible to Russian meddling.

Finally, there must be a bond of trust and respect between the average person and law enforcement and the intelligence services. If people believe they are policed fairly and that intelligence services are not overstepping their bounds, then society will become more resilient against Russian hybrid tactics. 

In addition, law enforcement is often the first line of defense in a hybrid war scenario. A very capable and professional law enforcement and intelligence service can mitigate the effectiveness of agents provocateurs acting on behalf of Moscow. 

While these three measures are easier said than done, if they are genuinely pursued by national and local governments, they can deter Russian hybrid tactics, or at least reduce the effectiveness of such tactics.

An example of a place that has done a great job at building resilience to Russia’s hybrid warfare is Estonia. Even though the Russian minority makes up roughly one-quarter of the population, Moscow hasn’t been able to cause the same problems using its hybrid tactics as it has in other places. 

It is clear why the Russian population in Estonia is not susceptible to Moscow’s hybrid tactics of “little green men” and propaganda. Polling shows that a vast majority have a lot of trust in their governing institutions.

For example, according to a public opinion survey conducted by the Estonian Ministry of Defense earlier this year, 66 percent of Estonians have confidence in the country’s president and 56 percent in the prime minister. According to the same survey, 87 percent of Estonians said they have confidence in the police. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Estonia seventh in the world in terms of economic freedom.

The trust in government and police, combined with Estonia’s economic opportunities, deny Russia the ability to use hybrid tactics. Estonia has been able to win the hybrid war even before it starts.

Compare Estonia’s situation today to that of Ukraine’s in 2013 and 2014. Due to a dismal economic situation, and years of political and economic corruption at the top of government, Russia was able to exploit the situation in Ukraine. As soon as the “little green men” appeared in Crimea, it was too late. 

One does not have to look too far from home to see how Russia has employed effective hybrid tactics. The 2016 Presidential election is a great example. Certain sectors of American society are ripe for Russia’s meddling. Certain minority groups feel mistreated by the police. Some on the political right feel a massive distrust of the FBI. There also exists a strong cynicism of the federal government in some sectors of American society.

Whether any of this is true does not matter. It is the perception that counts. Russia has and continues to take advantage of this. 

Ultimately, good governance, economic freedom, and trusted law enforcement and security services are the best bet to stop a hybrid war before it even starts.

So while policymakers should look towards NATO to provide a robust conventional and nuclear deterrence for members of the Alliance, only the national capitals can establish the political and economic conditions that can prevent Russia from using hybrid tactics effective. 

Now is the time to get their houses in order before it is too late.