Stop calling every potential act of Russian aggression ‘hybrid warfare’

Alexander Lanoszka

International Affairs
International Affairs Blog
5 min readMay 24, 2018


Scene from the 71st Victory Day Parade, Moscow, 2016. Image Credit:

When reading the headlines these days one quickly learns that the Kremlin is waging a systematic campaign against the West in the form of ‘hybrid warfare’. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson labelled Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections as ‘hybrid warfare’. Pundits, analysts and other international observers have invoked ‘hybrid warfare’ or ‘hybrid threats’ to describe alleged Russian meddling in Catalonia’s independence referendum and the recent elections in Italy. Even the attempted killing of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury has qualified as yet another instance of Russia practicing hybrid warfare against its western adversaries. And, of course, Russia has been waging hybrid warfare against Ukraine since its illegal annexation of Crimea.

If we are to use the examples listed above as a guide, then hybrid warfare would seem to encompass a wide range of sinister actions: from interference in foreign elections and assassinating double agents living abroad to military operations. In other words, hybrid warfare has come to mean any deliberate and aggressive act of wrongdoing committed by some political organization. After all, even non-state actors like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban can engage in hybrid warfare.

In an article published in International Affairs, I argue that if we are going to use the term ‘hybrid warfare’ — a debatable proposition in its own right — we should at least be precise. I define hybrid warfare as a strategy in which an aggressor uses the social links — that is, ethnic ties — it has with a target society to subvert it under the shadow of military power. The hybridity of the strategy comes from combining the actual use of guerrilla tactics and other forms of subversion — be they sabotage, criminal disorder and agitation — with the threat of escalation in the conventional military domain.

To illustrate, consider two examples. What occurred in Ukraine in 2014 qualifies as hybrid warfare as the governing authorities in Kiev might have reasoned that local support in Crimea did in fact exist for some sort of union with Russia. The ‘little green men’ might have come from Russia, but who was to say that they did not have popular backing? In light of this uncertainty, and the military power that Russia could bring to bear against the new government in Kiev, Ukraine was self-deterred from issuing a powerful response to ensure its sovereignty over that region. To plumb the historical record further, Nazi Germany employed similar tactics towards Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s: it leveraged local ethnic ties to sponsor paramilitary groups that would agitate in the Sudetenland, while relying on its military power to discourage strong counter-measures from Prague.

Hybrid warfare is thus not a new form of conducting war or engaging in coercion nor is it a particularly proficient tactic as waging hybrid warfare carries with it significant risk. After all, a bluff lies at the heart of this type of strategy. By resorting to using ‘little green men’ in Crimea — that is, the use of soldiers bearing no markings or insignia that indicate their origin — Russia showed itself averse to military escalation. It had to disguise its aggression in such a way that would pre-emptively confuse those audiences that could put together a robust response. Had Russia been so powerful to do what it pleased with immunity, it might not have gone through the theatrics associated with hybrid warfare.

That is why the best response to the tactics that make up this aggressive strategy involves force. Any hesitation in the face of the uncertainty created by the aggressor allows hybrid warfare to succeed. Grey zones only exist if they are allowed to be grey. To be sure, force need not mean violence: if agitators appear to be fomenting local unrest or spreading inflammatory propaganda at the behest of an adversary, then they should be apprehended and, when appropriate, returned to their origin.

The manner that Poland recently dealt with two alleged instances of Russian hybrid tactics is instructive. Rather than being cowed by Russia’s military strength, Polish intelligence agencies identified the individuals seeking to incite hatred between Poles and Ukrainians before banning them from the country. Similarly, the Baltic countries have already exercised scenarios in which their national guards retake sites from ‘little green men.’ Failing to undertake these basic steps would only invite more brazen efforts of aggression.

Gratuitous invocations of ‘hybrid warfare’ not only creates uncertainty over what the term really means, but could also cloud our judgement as to what can be done about instances of actual hybrid warfare. Electoral interference is simply electoral interference. Killing a former spy abroad is extraterritorial (and extrajudicial) murder. If hybrid warfare is used to refer to any sort of provocation, then the result could be a misunderstanding of the broader strategic context in which such aggressive behaviour takes place and of the manner in which to deal with this behaviour. After all, hybrid warfare is not necessarily a strategy of the powerful. If anything, it is an admission of weakness.

Alexander Lanoszka is a Lecturer in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London and Non-Resident Fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute. His research addresses issues in American foreign policy, alliance politics, nuclear strategy and theories of war — largely focused on central and north-eastern Europe.

All views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the US government.

His article, titled ‘Russian hybrid warfare and extended deterrence in eastern Europe’, was published in the January 2016 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.



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