Hybrid warfare: Russia is “arch exponent” of the disappearing “distinct states of ‘peace’ and ‘war’”: U.K. military chief

Worrying though, all of these states have become masters at exploiting the seams between peace and war. What constitutes a weapon in this grey area no longer has to go ‘bang’. Energy, cash - as bribes - corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda and indeed military intimidation are all examples of the weapons used to gain advantage in this era of ‘constant competition,’ and the rules-based international architecture that has assured our stability and prosperity since 1945 is, I suggest therefore, threatened. Now this is not a crisis, or series of crises, which we face. Rather it is a strategic challenge. And I think it requires a strategic response.

The deduction we should draw from this is that there is no longer two clear and distinct states of ‘peace’ and ‘war’; we now have several forms. Indeed the character of war and peace is different for each of the contexts in which these ‘weapon systems’ are applied. And the risk we run in not defining this clearly, and acting accordingly, is that rather like a chronic contagious disease, it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained; and we’ll be the losers of this competition.

The arch exponent of this is Russia, as described by the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech last autumn [see “Russia “weaponized information” to sow discord in West, destroy post-WWII international order: Theresa May,” HSNW, 17 November 2018]. I said earlier I believe it represents the most complex and capable state-based threat to our country since the end of the Cold War. And my fellow Chiefs of Staff from the United States, France and Germany shared this view at last year’s RUSI Land Warfare Conference.

In the military we analyze threats on the basis of capability and intent. So let us just examine Russian capability at the moment and how they are applying it. Of course we must not interpret what we see as a revival of Russian Cold War practice, nor look at the Crimean operation alone.

They have no single model for conflict with NATO, they use a multi-model approach utilizing conventional, unconventional and nuclear domains. A hybrid version that might involve little green men, big green tanks and huge green missiles. Their thinking is very flexible. Their General Staff is able to change, evolve, and learn lessons with agility. For example: they know that demography is not on their side, so they are developing capability that needs fewer men - for example missiles, drones and two man tanks.

They have developed coherent concepts for equipment and training that are focused on our vulnerabilities, for example: our dependency on communications and IT; our lack of massed fires; and, perhaps, our lack of investment in air defense. They apply a ruthless focus on defeating their opponents - not seizing ground for the sake of it - but making sure that our vital ground is denied to us. I shall return to missile capability in a moment.

Since 2016 we have seen a marked shift to cyber, to subversion and to coercion as well as sophisticated use of smear campaigns and fake news. Whether you believe in interference in the US democratic process, or the attempted coup in Montenegro, they are very easily examples of this.

Chris Donnelly at the Institute for Statecraft suggests that they are creating new strategic conditions. Their current influence and disinformation campaign is a form of ‘system’ warfare that seeks to de-legitimize the political and social system on which our military strength is based. And this undermines our center of gravity which they rightly assess as our political cohesion; and Russian overtures to Turkey are a clear indication of this.

Now this ‘system warfare’ has to be defeated. One has to recognize the importance of messaging one’s intent; and the importance of deterrence. Their doctrine for war utilizes all of the instruments of national power - not just the military. They believe that any shooting war must be finished quickly if it is to be successful. Their instinct will be to escalate and to speed up the tempo of operations.

To avoid being surprised, they believe in pre-emption without long mobilization, and they will do something that their opponent least expects. They have used Syria to develop an expeditionary capability, to give very large numbers of their officers the high-end war-fighting experience they had not been able to get in Ukraine; and to combat-test their long range strike missiles and over 150 different new weapons and items of equipment.

Their conventional military posture gives them a calculable military advantage. They operate on interior lines with a very capable rail and transportation network. We saw that during last year’s ZAPAD exercise and how effective it is. They believe in connecting their strategic zones - the West, the Arctic, the Black Sea and the Far East - and rapidly switching forces between them.

In the last five years the number of air, maritime and land based platforms for long range missiles has increased by a factor of twelve. That’s in the last five years. And Gerasimov spoke last November about how they had increased the number of missiles with a range of up to 4,000 km by a factor of thirty.

This gives them the capability to create mobile ‘missile domes’ - shields in which they can assure their freedom to maneuver and deny us the ability to act. This is what we call Anti Access Area Denial and we have seen this in Syria with their capacity to seal airspace over significant distances. They use electronic warfare at scale to cue precise targeting by large numbers of drones that enable very accurate and instantaneous fires - including thermobaric warheads - to destroy an opponent’s forces; and we have seen this in Ukraine. During last year’s ZAPAD exercises they used the opportunity to suppress and, more worryingly, to distort, the GPS signal across much of Scandinavia.

Now, a vivid indication of the scale of their modernization is clear from the three minute video clip I am now going to show you. This was run on Russian TV a couple of years ago. You don’t need to understand the Russian, just simply listen to the tone of the commentary. But the key point is that what you will see is all new stuff, and the 2017 State Armaments Plan shows that even more has followed since this.

Now of course we have to accept that this is information warfare at its best, but I think you would agree it’s an eye-watering quantity of capability. Now, the other part of the threat is how one assesses intent. Now I am not in any way going to suggest that Russia wants to go to war in the traditional definition of the term, but there are factors that bear on the question of intent and one needs to understand Russian psyche, their culture and their philosophy of pre-emption.

Russia, I think, could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect, and a lot earlier than we would in similar circumstances. Most likely they will use nefarious sub-NATO Article 5 Treaty actions to erode the capability of NATO and threaten the very structure that provides our own defense and security. This is the divide and rule which the international order is designed to prevent.

I don’t think it will start with little green men. It will start with something we don’t expect. We should not take what we’ve seen so far as a template for the future. And there will be some who might ask if Russia sees itself in decline, and more able now to go to war than in the future, does this encourage them to think of war?

Perhaps compare the situation today to 1912 when the Russian Imperial Cabinet assessed that it would be better to fight now, because by 1925 Russia would be too weak in comparison to a modernized Germany; and Japan, of course, drew similar conclusions in 1941. And Russia worries, I think, that the West will achieve a technological offset in the next decade.

I suspect, though, the greatest risk is the risk of miscalculation. The recent false alert in Hawaii that warned of an incoming missile is an indication of how easy it would be to miscalculate; particularly when the level of militarization is significant. And we saw this only too vividly with the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking recently, William Perry, Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, who is all too familiar with false alerts, having been awakened by a call from a night watch officer in 1979 and thought he was “about to experience the holocaust”. And, of course, he also presided over the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in the 1990s. He warned that the threat is back. I quote:

“Because the U.S. and Russia today are confronting each other with a hostility that’s recreating the geopolitical dangers of the Cold War … and because the US and Russia are rebuilding their nuclear arsenals that’s recreating the military dangers of the Cold War.”

Now you can argue about the extent to which the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts have influenced various western countries. But the main impact has been to convince ordinary Russians that the West is a threat. We have been made to appear as the enemy, whether we like it or not, and whatever the real situation.

Moreover, we, on our side, don’t have the same level of understanding that we had of each other in the Cold War, and the tried and tested systems and diplomatic instruments are not what they once were - confidence building measures, arms reduction negotiations, public monitoring and inspection of each other’s military activity etc. So when the ante was upped following the Russian intervention in Ukraine, conversation became difficult. Now of course it does not have to be like that.

We now have to worry, not about a symmetric playing field as one saw in the Cold War, but an asymmetric one in which there are far more players. So we should not assume that events in the Pacific wouldn’t draw more US attention than those in Europe, and we, I think, should be careful of complacency. The parallels with 1914 are stark. Our generation has become used to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War - but we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia - and we should remember Trotsky’s dictum, that: “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”

So, what should we be doing differently? First of all, I think we should recognize that Russia respects strength and people who stand up to them. The original plan for Ukraine had been to acquire significantly more terrain. However, Russia was surprised by Ukrainian resistance and had to settle for less.

We should identify Russian weaknesses and then maneuver asymmetrically against them. First and foremost, perhaps we should be in the business of building real institutional capacity in neighboring states so that they have the strength and confidence to stand up to Russia and the internal resilience to withstand pressures designed to bring them down from within.

We should be making more progress on reducing energy dependency on Russia. We should be telling the Russian population what’s really going on. We should be protecting our critical capabilities; hence the importance of cyber. And we should be looking to identify our own vulnerabilities to Russian malign influence and disinformation, and act to reduce them.


Next, I think, it’s important - go back to my point on speed of recognition and speed of decision making - that we give policy makers the opportunity to exercise with military leaders, as we did during the Cold War. This goes to the heart of speed of recognition. It goes back to the point about it won’t be ‘little green men’ next time. And when you think about how difficult it is, in this era of constant competition, where there is this grey area between peace and war, the first hostile act is going to be very difficult to recognise. And when as a young officer, I sat in my trench on the West German plain, it was very clear to me what that first hostile act would have looked like and I always imagined a soldier from the Soviet Union with wire cutters, cutting the fence before his tank drove through it. It’s not going to be like that next time, so how we educate and train our policy makers in making the decision that they might need to make is vital.


We need to improve our ISTAR capability - Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance - to be able to target deep fires. Because we have got to revert to an era where we are able to focus on the enemy’s uncommitted forces; the so-called ‘deep battle’, that we soldiers talk about. But whilst we are doing that, to protect ourselves from the air and from inbound missiles. And I touched on connectivity. We must invest in our ability to communicate and to share information through a new Land Environment Tactical CIS system.

We also, though, need to continue to improve our ability to fight on this new battlefield, and I think it’s important that we build on the excellent foundation we’ve created for Information Warfare through our 77 Brigade which is now giving us the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level. And as David Patrikarakos put it in his recently published book ‘War in 140 Characters’, in which he observes on the war in Ukraine:

“… I was caught up in two wars: one fought on the ground with tanks and artillery, and an information war fought largely, though not exclusively, through social media. And counter intuitively, it mattered more who won the war of words and narratives than who had the most potent weaponry.”

He also observed that: “social media is throwing up digital supermen: hyper-connected and hyper-empowered online individuals” and I’d like a few of those in 77 Brigade, please.

So, in sum, I have inevitably looked at this through a Land prism, but you should recognize that what I am describing is part of a Joint Force. So to conclude, I believe that our ability to pre-empt or respond to these threats will be eroded if we don’t match up to them now. They represent a clear and present danger. They are not thousands of miles away, they are now on Europe’s doorstep. And the character of warfare is making it much harder for us to recognize true intentions and thus distinguish between what is peace and what is war.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this, but we cannot afford to sit back. We need to recognize that credible deterrence must be underpinned by genuine capability and genuine commitment that earns the respect of potential opponents.