The West currently faces a number of actors who employ a wide range of measures to influence, coerce, intimidate, or undermine its interests. Many of these measures are often collectively referred to as “political warfare”, a term originally coined by former U.S. State Department diplomat George F. Kennan in 1948. This report defines political warfare as the intentional use of one or more of the traditional implements of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to affect the political composition or decision-making within another state. It then analyzes political (or Hybrid) warfare as it is practiced today by the Russian Federation, before concluding that political warfare is the expression of international relations in today’s competitive and polarized world.
The West currently faces a number of actors who employ a wide range of measures to influence, coerce, intimidate, or undermine its interests. It is a phenomenon that former U.S. State Department diplomat George F. Kennan once referred to as “political warfare.”
Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.
The term political warfare refers to the employment of military, intelligence, diplomatic, financial, and other means—short of conventional war—to achieve national objectives. It can include overt operations like public broadcasting and covert operations like psychological warfare and support to underground resistance groups. Political warfare is but one term among many that describes this arena of conflict short of actual warfare. Chinese analysts have employed the term “unrestricted warfare”, Russian officials have used “new generation warfare”, and a variety of terms are in use by Western analysts and officials, including “gray zone warfare” and “hybrid conflict”. This report defines “political warfare” as consisting of the intentional use of one or more of the implements of national power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) to affect the political composition or decision-making within another state. It is often - but not necessarily - carried out covertly, but it must be carried out outside the context of traditional war. The key characteristics are the following:
Employs all the elements of national power
Relies heavily on unattributed forces and means
Stays below the legal threshold of an open armed conflict
Extends traditional conflict and can achieve effects at lower costs
Exploits shared ethnic or religious bonds or other internal seams
Detecting it requires a heavy investment of intelligence resources
Political warfare and its various synonyms became a much discussed concept in the West after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. While the phenomenon itself is nothing new, in fact dating back to the strategic writings of Sun Tzu and Thucydides, the re-emergence of significant great-power frictions combined with new technologies, such as those that enable the cyber or digital domain, have triggered fresh evaluations of the phenomenon and its impact on (inter)national security.
The rationale to focus this report on political warfare on the actor Russia in particular was that it is believed (by analysts and officials) to engage in various forms of such conflict in Europe. Moreover, Russia has a political system that is based on values that contrast strongly with those on which the Dutch political system is founded, and some of the presumed targets or counterparts of Russia’s efforts at political warfare are either allies or allies-of-allies of the Netherlands. Therefore, at least from a Dutch security perspective, these activities potentially also affect the Netherlands. And notwithstanding the fact that the ways in which Russia engages in political warfare could directly affect Dutch national security, this phenomenon should also be seen in a broader perspective of conflicting interests (such as political values and membership of security alliances, like NATO).
Moreover, in Europe, it is the Russian case that has generated most attention, for instance because of the role of so-called “little green men” during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s involvement in the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and its alleged meddling in American and European elections over the past few years. While Russia’s immediate neighbors are faced with a much wider range of influencing tools, including military means, in Western Europe the most notable aspect of the way in which Russia engages in political warfare relates to the shaping of public opinion via the instrument of ‘Information Confrontation’. Plus, over the past decade, the Russian approach appears to have shifted from being mainly defensive against Western political influence in Russia itself, to a much more offensive stance, actively influencing developments in Western Europe.
In this report, we analyze the threat of political (or Hybrid) warfare as it is practiced today by Russia.
Over the past year, Russia has once again demonstrated both the capability and intent to employ a wide range of hybrid tools to undermine European interests. Russian actors have sustained ambitious disinformation campaigns, conducted cyber-attacks, targeted critical (election) infrastructure, fueled social discord through the use of proxies, and almost certainly used chemical weapons on European soil. These actions are intended to undermine the foundation of Europe, erode confidence in the media, silence the Kremlin’s critics, and interfere in the democratic processes of European countries. These geopolitical goals shape Russia’s hybrid campaign against both Europe. In particular, President Putin seeks to prevent an expansion of European influence in its so-called ‘near abroad’. The Kremlin fears a continued erosion of its traditional sphere of influence, continuing from the Baltic States to the Western Balkans. Although other states, including China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea possess hybrid capabilities, no state actor currently comes close to rivalling Russia’s ambitious hybrid campaign against Europe.
Russia utilizes Information Confrontation as the predominant form of hybrid activity against Europe, as it seeks to dominate the information sphere. Russia’s widespread disinformation and propaganda campaigns rely heavily on traditional media platforms (i.e. radio, television), amplified with internet-based media, including websites, blogs, and social media. These campaigns target both domestic and foreign audiences. Information Confrontation activities are assessed to be sustained by the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) and similar organizations. Pro-Russian narratives are frequently amplified online by a network of trolls and automated language bots, particularly on Twitter and Facebook. These tactics are used to foment political, social, ethnic, or racial divisions in the targeted population. The challenge posed by Russian Information Confrontation is growing. Over the past year, Russian state-sponsored media outlets have expanded their presence throughout Europe and beyond. RT now broadcasts in Russian, English, Arabic, Spanish, and French, and has announced plans to create a German-language outlet in the future. A similar trend is evident in the Western Hemisphere, with Information Confrontation efforts focused against the U.S. in particular. Russia has also been promoting its Spanish-language media outlets to the Latin American audience.
Russia relies on cyber activities to enable Information Confrontation efforts, particularly by accessing sensitive or damaging information on opponents. Once such information is obtained, various media tools and botnets are employed to reach a wide audience. In recent years, Russian actors have also used cyber tools to infiltrate networks controlling critical infrastructure, such as electrical power grids. Russian-linked Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) networks were highly active over the last year. Numerous APTs, including the Russian military intelligence (GRU)-linked APT 28 were deeply involved in conducting cyber intrusions and attacks against EU member states, civil service, military (especially defense industry) and academic institutions, and critical infrastructure. Russian state and state-sponsored cyber actors likely attempt to conduct cyber intrusions on a daily basis in order to gain the advantage on the Information Confrontation battlefield. Cyber capabilities will remain an essential aspect of Russia’s hybrid campaign, especially as cyber activities are difficult to attribute and have the capability to effectively erode European cohesion.
Operatives of the Russian Intelligence and Security Services, in particular GRU military intelligence, play a key role in a variety of direct and indirect actions against Europe. Whenever Russia’s interests are at stake, or if the Kremlin believes specific actions are essential to achieve certain goals, it is highly likely that the Intelligence and Security Services will be involved, often to provide oversight and initiate so-called ‘active measures’ to ensure that Moscow’s interests are protected and its goals are attained. The Intelligence and Security Services embed operatives in civil society engagement organizations, and seek to infiltrate foreign national institutions, law enforcement, political parties, and NGOs, to gather information and influence decision-making processes. Within a hybrid context, the Intelligence and Security Services play an important role in identifying fissures in target countries, and then developing plans and employing resources to more effectively exploit these fissures. Due to the discretion employed, individuals and organizations can play unwitting roles in such operations, and identification and attribution of Russian involvement in certain actions remains difficult. In a recent article, David Gioe coined the term “hybrid intelligence” to describe the Russian admixture of classic intelligence tradecraft with cutting edge cyber tactics, including hacking, spear-phishing, and social engineering, and information warfare by weaponizing purloined information. The terminology is reminiscent of the Cold War-era Soviet ‘active measures’, but updated for the twenty-first century, and with its synthesis yielding greater effects than the sum of its parts, making it truly hybrid.
Although Russian military exercises, such as VOSTOK 2018 (the most recent iteration of a major strategic military exercise that occurs yearly), serve primarily to develop Russian military capability, they also play a key role in demonstrating Russia’s great power status and readiness to the world. Military exercises and other displays of military prowess, such as Russia’s current military operations in Syria, support the strategic messaging for Russia’s Information Confrontation efforts. Over the past year, Russia has also demonstrated a willingness to develop and sponsor paramilitary organizations that further Russian interests. This trend has increased since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, where Russia used numerous paramilitary organizations to fight in the Donbass. Russia has also used Private Military Companies (PMCs), especially the Wagner Group, in Syria, Central Africa and the Western Balkans. The facilitation and sponsorship of Russian PMCs and other paramilitary groups has enabled Moscow to utilize a cadre of skilled paramilitary operatives in a variety of non-attributable hybrid actions wherever and whenever required by the Kremlin.
Russia devotes a significant level of its hybrid activities towards its so-called ‘near abroad’, with an aim to prevent states within these regions from abandoning the Russian sphere of influence in favor of the Euro-Atlantic institutions. This is particularly true in states that have exhibited an inclination of joining NATO and/or the EU, like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the Western Balkan states of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, more recently, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Moscow is using pro-Russian movements, personal and business connections, as well as corruption and organized crime to pursue its interests in these regions. As it moves closer to NATO and the EU, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is very likely to face intense Russian hybrid activity. In March 2018, Russia’s ambassador to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ominously warned Skopje that it would become a “legitimate target” if it continued down the path of accession.
Moscow has strengthened its civil society engagement programs, utilizing a range of government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), proxy NGOs, and other state-sponsored organizations to shape public opinion and advance its interests. This engagement includes establishing cultural centers in key cities and regions that focus in particular on building connections with potentially sympathetic Russian compatriots. Moscow also employs think-tanks to create pro-Russian domestic and international narratives, often providing the false impression of an objective, academic voice, and it identifies and supports opinion leaders who can advance Russian narratives, leverage organized crime networks, and manipulate Orthodox-Slavic Christianity and identity through the influential Russian Orthodox Church. Moreover, Russia’s engagement includes sponsorship of multiple ultranationalist groups that seek to advance Russian interests throughout Europe. One of the most prevalent examples is the Night Wolves motorcycle club, an ultranationalist movement that has chapters throughout Eastern Europe.
Although Russia’s overall economic power is currently limited, it has the ability to employ energy leverage in its direct neighborhood and against EU member states. Russia uses its dominance in the energy field as an instrument of economic, political, and diplomatic influence and coercion, as well as a tool of corruption. Moscow will likely seek to expand its presence in the European energy market in order to generate revenue and access strategic infrastructure and assets in EU member states. This includes the construction of new gas pipelines to Europe (i.e. Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream). In addition to generating revenue for Russian exporters, the construction of new export gas pipelines will considerably erode the importance of current export routes through Belarus and Poland, as well as through Ukraine, Slovakia and Czech Republic. Diverting export to new routes likely will increase economic pressures on those countries, as Russia could use tactics such as the disruption of gas deliveries and price manipulation to achieve its geopolitical goals. Several European countries remain highly vulnerable to energy leverage and pressure. In order to retain and secure this, Russia will likely further utilize its hybrid tools, including Information Confrontation, hostile lobbying, informal business channels, and covert intelligence activities.
Some observations emerge from studying the relevance for Dutch national security policy of Russia’s activities in the sphere of political warfare and influencing. First, political warfare and influencing play a role in international relations that is neither new nor confined to situations that verge on a major conflict. It is a permanent feature of the foreign policy of Russia, but also of the United States and many other countries in the world. Second, the Netherlands is not the prime target for political warfare operations by Russia. In the case of Russia the Netherlands is a target, but only one target among many, and thus far it seems that Russia pays more attention to its immediate neighbors and to larger Western countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Third, the cyber domain in particular has strongly increased the vulnerability of the Netherlands for political warfare and associated targeted influencing because of its open, free and very digitalized society.
Russia currently remains unrivalled in its intentions and capabilities to use political warfare tools against Western Europe. Moreover, Moscow likely judges that its efforts have yielded effective results. Consequently, the frequency and sophistication of these challenges is expected to increase, even when attribution is reliably pinned to Russia. Russia will continue seeking fissures within and among EU member states, and will try to exploit any opportunities to erode Euro-Atlantic cohesion. Russian efforts will also likely increase in the so-called ‘near abroad’ and in the Western Balkans, especially in states that approach accession within Euro-Atlantic institutions, as preventing NATO and EU expansion in these regions remains the strategic goal for Moscow.
Russia will likely employ both direct and indirect actions, and closely synchronize these activities across the spectrum of national institutions, while concurrently keeping its activities non-attributable, thereby complicating effective policy responses. As the Kremlin faces increasing internal pressure, it might even conduct more aggressive political warfare, to include deliberate cyber targeting of critical (election) infrastructure, more provocative activity by the Intelligence and Security Services SVR, FSB and GRU, aggressive civil society engagement aimed at exacerbating the fissures and existing tensions within EU and NATO member states, and an increased penetration of media environments to advance Russian narratives. To conclude, Russia will likely remain the most active and aggressive hybrid threat actor confronting Europe. And Information Confrontation, including targeted disinformation and propaganda, will remain the central element of Russia’s hybrid activities, enabled by sophisticated cyber operations.
In recognizing that states like Russia routinely conduct political warfare, in 1948 George F. Kennan encouraged American policymakers to disabuse themselves of their “handicap” of the “concept of a basic difference between peace and war” and to wake up to “the realities of international relations - the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.” Kennan’s advice may be even more relevant today in our competitive and polarized world in which political warfare once again appears to have become the favored expression of international relations.