Relatively few in Western democracies seem to realize that a fledgling democracy in Ukraine is in a fight for its life. Even with the current attention over Zelenskiy’s upset over the post-Euromaidan establishment, the real dangers of Ukraine slipping to the West’s proverbial backpage remain ever present. And to do so would spell certain doom for not only democracy in Ukraine, but also the country’s independence from Russia as well.
The initial Euromaidan protests garnered widespread attention in late 2013, as did Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea several months later. By the time war erupted in the eastern regions in April 2014, Ukraine was making the regular rounds of the European and American news cycle. When Putin’s forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July, killing nearly 300 people, the struggle took on even broader proportions. Yet despite the 13,000 Ukrainians who have died over the past five years, caught in the crossfire as much as along the Donbass battle lines, few outside the immediate conflict zone or those facing their own ‘Crimea’ threat along Russia’s periphery, are still paying attention.
The dangers evident in Ukraine exceed one nation’s survival, as vital as that is to the Ukrainians themselves. Russian aggressions through the use of thinly veiled local freedom fighters and aggressive cyber campaigns across social media, infrastructure, and banking, point to a full-spectrum conflict with implications far beyond Ukraine. In that regard, while the 2018 attack on Ukrainian naval vessels and kidnapping of their crew in the Kerch Straits sparked a temporary resurgence in news coverage, its impact was felt much further afield. The Kerch attack showed the next escalation of Russian revanchism in hybrid warfare can extend beyond the territorial boundaries of Ukraine proper into areas of maritime law and core Geneva Convention protections.
To say Ukraine is the epicenter of hybrid warfare means more than showcasing full-spectrum activities there. It also means other regions will likely face escalation as well, following the pattern begun in Estonia and Georgia in 2007 and 2008, and solidified in Ukraine since 2014. When considering the configuration of forces and the risk of escalation in the Baltics and Gdansk region near Kaliningrad, Russian naval incidents and Kremlin-inspired separatist referenda can easily follow defensive narratives requiring Russian intervention beyond the scope of current deconfliction efforts.
Hybrid warfare includes all of these possibilities, from full-spectrum conflict that seeks to undermine everything from legitimacy in political systems and economies, to breaking apart societies themselves by any means necessary. This is the strategy Russia has employed for some time, one that raises real concerns over the April 2019 Ukrainian presidential election results. Thus, while the European Union grapples as much with Brexit as with increasingly independent Central and Eastern European members, the dangers will only get worse if the U.S. does not increase its support for Ukraine. Ongoing efforts to increase defensive arms sales are a step in that direction and a necessary part of a U.S. national security strategy that seeks to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Assisting partner nations remains a critical component of that strategy, not to mention greatly improving Ukraine’s chances to make it out of this war as a free and independent country. Regrettably, that possibility remains deeply in doubt in an increasingly volatile conflict zone. Worse still, part of the problem stems from a lack of attention by U.S. decision makers.
During a recent conversation, a senior National Security Council member described the problem of getting U.S. action on Ukraine as like “poking decision makers with a wet noodle.” The myriad challenges pressing in on the administration notwithstanding, the fight in Ukraine is the epicenter of the global struggle against Putin’s increasingly aggressive empire building. The line of contact in the Caucasus keeps moving as Russian forces use creeping borders to claim more territory in Georgia. Russian-speaking Estonians in the border region of Narva present low-hanging fruit for a district plebiscite on everything from formal grievances against Tallinn, to autonomy within or even separation from Estonia itself. Threats to expand control in Ukraine southward to Mariupol for a land bridge to Crimea, or northward through Belarus towards Kaliningrad grow rather than diminish over time. In that regard, past can become prologue in an expansive zone of conflict, and Ukraine’s struggle could be mirrored in numerous other regions facing renewed hostilities. Given these expansive threats, the real failure to see them seems to lie within the nature of hybrid warfare itself and the feeble attempts to explain it thus far, rather than an otherwise-engaged U.S. administration.
Hybrid warfare may seem like a new concept when viewed through the lens of non-state threats that have preoccupied the West for the last two decades. The current U.S. National Security Strategy takes a more complex approach with the emergence of great power rivalries that both raise threats to existential levels, as well as subsume non-state actors into the global competition space. Yet these are not new rules of war. Conventional military forces are as necessary for strategic victory in hybrid warfare as public diplomacy and special operations are necessary to support vulnerable populations enabling democracy to flourish.
Hybrid warfare combines all aspects of competition and conflict—regular maneuver by conventional forces as much as irregular, human-domain contests for hearts and minds. Even more so, the logic of hybrid warfare means that victory is not fungible, as success in one area does not inherently translate to victory elsewhere. Low opportunity costs mean great powers can endure losses in low-visibility areas as a way to manage escalation risks with rivals. They will also fight all the harder in key areas embedded in national security interests and identities, where victory is non-negotiable. These truths are most clearly seen in Ukraine.
Some worry that supporting Ukraine will antagonize Russia. This misses the vast threat posed by Russia as an expansionist empire and the Kremlin’s mastery of narrative manipulation to justify it. Equally troubling is not seeing Ukraine’s central place in the resurgence of great power competition. Hybrid warfare makes that competition even more dangerous, because it operationalizes all elements of national power to achieve core strategic goals. Like Soviet active measures of the past, hybrid warfare’s flexibility gives Putin an almost limitless range of possible vulnerabilities to exploit, especially among the closely integrated open societies of the West. Including long-standing Russification of elites and key government personnel in its near abroad, opportunities abound to do more than simply reacquire the lost Tsarist Empire. Hybrid warfare makes it possible to claim global dominance beyond even the wildest dreams of the Communist International, the Soviet Union’s primary means of undermining democratic cohesion abroad.
Whether called statecraft, political warfare, or even total war, the same enduring concept means that all aspects of state and society can be operationalized in hybrid warfare, so they must all be utilized to win. The Kremlin understands this long-term struggle, partly as an ancient empire that witnessed and weathered precipitous falls from power, as much as through its revisionist efforts to regain primacy. As the United States shifts its core paradigms to see the competition space with a longer view, part of that effort includes seeing violent extremist organizations as potential resources in great power competition. Whether that includes existing terrorist groups, emerging independence movements, or ever-present transnational criminal organizations, great powers have a bevy of options that need to be accounted for in the increasingly complex security environment.
Just as all elements of national power become necessary for competing in hybrid warfare, so too must the two halves of the U.S. defense enterprise work more closely to counter Russian threats. At their core, conventional forces close with and defeat the enemy. They also lay the foundation for irregular warfare successes by giving credible deterrence against escalation outside of the human domain—credible conventional capabilities become the sledgehammer to the death by a thousand cuts of irregular warfare. Special operations function in much the same way by reinforcing the legitimacy of broader efforts to support legitimate governance, and by bolstering deterrence through societal resilience. Both are needed to counter Russian aggression.
…to say that conventional war is dead completely misses the nature of hybrid warfare and its centrality to Russia’s strategy.
Russian strategy combines conventional and irregular elements regularly in Ukraine and elsewhere. Soft power instruments like Night Wolves motorcycle clubs present a public face of Russian patriotism, but also offer the Kremlin an inroad to destabilize democratic civil societies as much as still autocratic post-Soviet countries. Hard power armored columns can just as easily operate interchangeably in those battles, as seen with the expanding battlefields in Ukraine and potential flashpoints in the Baltics. So, to say that conventional war is dead completely misses the nature of hybrid warfare and its centrality to Russia’s strategy.
Conventional war will also likely expand in the emerging global competition space as the international arms trade grows in both absolute numbers and within Ukraine. Even though Russian market share has declined relative to increased Chinese and Indian competition, Russia continues to test innovative conventional arms. In 2017 and 2018, Russian Army Chief Sergey Shoygu and his deputy Yury Borysov claimed to have fielded more than 600 types of weapons in various theaters, including sales of T90MS tanks to Syria—the most advanced model in Moscow’s arsenal. Many of those weapons have found their way to Ukraine, both in the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone of the Donbass region and in territory still under Kyiv’s control. Direction finding counter-battery artillery and T90 tanks confront Ukrainian forces along the line of contact. In the same way, electronic warfare, cyber intrusions, and unmanned aerial vehicles also operate beyond the conflict zone. Unmanned aerial vehicles, in particular, have expanded the reach of conventional arms into supposedly non-combat areas, as both reconnaissance and explosive device delivery platforms. Large-scale Zapad and Vostok military exercises also communicate to adversaries, allies, and would-be customers the potency and readiness of Russian conventional forces.
Hybrid warfare expands upon these combined arms approaches to include counter-governance, false flag and information operations that mobilize populations away from legitimate governments, and towards Russia’s vision of imperial oversight. Decades of forced Russification of populations provide networks for personnel placement and the justifications to intervene on their behalf. Cyber vulnerabilities built into the fabric of open societies and integrated telecommunications systems mean hardware becomes a tool as much as software and the messages it spreads. As an example, until the Ukrainian government closed V Kontakte (Moscow’s version of Facebook) in 2017, the Kremlin’s bot and troll army used those opportunities to operationalize nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s social media space.
A core message of Russia’s hybrid warfare has been to highlight pervasive corruption in the Ukrainian system. Accordingly, despite marked improvement in establishing independent regulatory agencies, increased tax collection, and prosecutions of numerous officials, the perception of corruption remains high among Ukrainians. A recent Ukrainian survey evaluated that dichotomy to find that while an overwhelming majority of respondents had few if any actual experiences with corruption, most still considered it the major problem facing the country. Real corruption problems certainly exist, but hybrid warfare makes perception of those problems more important than their reality, and Russian narrative manipulation effectively operationalizes every vulnerability in the Ukrainian system.
In that regard, while other regions face hybrid warfare threats in part, Ukraine endures the brunt of Moscow’s wrath and revenge where everything can be operationalized from election interference to disincentivizing foreign investment; from redefining historical truths to undermining local infrastructure. Influence has thus become the main asset, information and interpretation the central avenue to gain it, and governance the core arena to fight for legitimacy as the basis for resilience or collapse. As in the Cold War and the Global War on Terror, hearts and minds are still the key to victory in hybrid warfare today. Without popular support for legitimate governments, even established democracies can deconsolidate; how much more so countries trying to build democracy from scratch? The Kremlin understands this and operationalizes the gamut of state-society and international relations in the battle to reclaim Ukraine. Hence, Ukraine’s struggle for survival is both a battle along front lines, and one to enshrine the belief that Ukraine exists as a free, democratic, and independent country outside of Russia’s imperial grasp.
However, accepting that hybrid warfare dictates increased physical and cognitive maneuver across the full spectrum of conflict does not mean accepting the results will be durable disorder. Instead, gaining positional advantage in the global competition space is possible and of paramount importance for the United States and its allies. Small-footprint presence operations can raise operating costs for an opponent and have broad strategic effects from reducing or holding in place the rate of escalation of forces, to refocusing resources to more vital areas away from the flashpoints along the European line of contact. Much like large-scale naval port calls or combined arms exercises, special operations teams can operate in a rival’s back yard or far flung locales, shaping how great powers see opportunities and vulnerabilities in geopolitical competition. The United States has functioned this way for decades, and with Russia’s reemergence on the great power stage, Moscow increasingly applies this logic with military advisor relationships within and beyond the old Cold War alliances. If Spetsnaz members sitting in a Tripoli café raise concerns for the United States because of their role in the Libyan civil war, they also signal Russia’s strategic intent to expand influence globally.
Playing to win in great power competition therefore requires globally integrated campaigning—coordinating these kinds of efforts on multiple boards, played simultaneously across different games in numerous locations. As a result, victory in hybrid warfare requires indirect approaches as much as overt engagement, and Ukraine is the epicenter of that struggle. Currently, Russia holds the advantage in Ukraine, but the United States has the opportunity to change the Kremlin’s strategic calculations by doing more than lethal arms sales. The United States is bound by international agreement to assist Ukraine in the defense of its territorial integrity. Even more so, it is honor bound as the world’s sole democratic superpower to defend a fledgling democracy fighting for its life. Clear, credible U.S. commitment to defend democracies in Europe during the Cold War supported NATO resolve and helped build resilience within vulnerable populations. So too must the United States reemerge into the competition space for the populations of Eastern Europe, even as that competition extends beyond the borders of the traditionally described European theater.
…victory in hybrid warfare requires indirect approaches as much as overt engagement, and Ukraine is the epicenter of that struggle.
Latin American allies watch U.S. commitments as Russia increases support for the pariah Maduro regime, despite its abuses of the Venezuelan people. They also watch as Russian entrenchment in Syria and the risks of a Russian-sanctioned land bridge from Tehran raises the costs of Turkey’s drift from other NATO member states. In the same way, the apparent rise of pro-Kremlin governments in Bulgaria and Bosnia undermine an already fracturing European Union.
Yet the opportunities to reshape the Kremlin’s strategic calculations are clear and readily available in Ukraine. As the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe spelled the end of the Soviet Union, updating former National Security Advisor Brzezinski’s prescient comment for today’s struggle reveals the same opportunity—the survival of an independent and democratic Ukraine means defeat for Russia’s revanchist empire, and that will always be in the interest of the United States and its democratic allies.
Spencer B. Meredith III is a professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Pro-Russian separatists ride tanks in Luhansk region in Eastern Ukraine, October 28, 2014. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)
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