By Kaan Sahin, Visiting Mercator Fellow on International Affairs
Whenever academic and government circles in Europe discuss hybrid warfare they focus on defending against it. Efforts to strengthen resilience have been identified in national defence white papers, EU strategies and NATO summit communiqués as the most important response in this regard.
Hybrid warfare is seen as something that happens to democracies, with authoritarian or non-state actors being the hybrid attackers. The overriding assumption is that Western democracies cannot wage hybrid war themselves, at least not as a full-spectrum activity combining defence and offence.
Interestingly, Russian policy makers and strategists have a different view. For them, the West has waged offensive hybrid warfare against Russia and others for years; this has been claimed by Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov. From this perspective the Russians – not the West – are the ones who have to defend themselves.
In an article for Foreign Policy Max Boot even calls for the West, and in particular the United States, to wage hybrid war on the Kremlin – to revive the 'political warfare skills it once possessed and that have since atrophied.' But are today’s democracies equipped with the tools to do so?
There are three factors which suggest that democracies are unlikely to engage in offensive hybrid warfare. Together, they create a structural asymmetry favouring authoritarian and non-state actors.
Firstly, Western democracies would struggle to coordinate decision-making across different levels of power at speed. Checks and balances would complicate successful hybrid warfare operations, as would institutional and bureaucratic competition and rivalry. Democracies also have to act within a well-defined legal framework, without breaching the boundaries of their own constitutional order and the norms of international law. In a state of war or emergency these laws can be temporarily suspended, but hybrid warfare very often occupies a space somewhere in the grey zone between peace and war. In such grey zones liberal democracies would struggle to mobilise the public and state institutions.
Secondly, hybrid warfare would be challenging for democracies from an ethical point of view. Certain elements – like terrorism or employing organised criminals as proxies – are off limits for democracies, diminishing their toolbox of offensive hybrid tactics. Even tools like counter-propaganda are considered morally problematic. German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, for example, has stated that such measures do not suit free societies.
Furthermore, leaders in democracies have to generate and maintain a measure of public support for their actions to legitimise and justify their choices. In the age of social media and decentralised access to information, every step taken by a Western government is meticulously inspected and questioned. Moreover, unlike their autocratic counterparts, democratic governments would not be able to co-opt domestic media outlets for conducting information operations. While hybrid tactics would only present a challenge of legality for democratic governments in some cases, they would often present a challenge of legitimacy, nationally and internationally.
Thirdly, and finally, democracies have comparative disadvantages in terms of global interdependencies. Free societies are dependent on international infrastructure, access to capital and energy markets and natural resources. Turning these global flows into weapons in a conflict would always carry an immediate cost. Moreover, democratic governments would find it difficult to enrol help from private enterprises in such efforts.
Given these structural issues, it is not surprising that much intellectual energy in EU and NATO member states is spent on defending against hybrid threats, rather than even thinking about hybrid warfare in a full spectrum sense. Nonetheless, their toolbox is not completely empty. Covert operations and the use of proxies – under certain circumstances – are established practice. Mixing conventional military means with guerrilla-style tactics carried out by trained forces is equally not beyond reach. Also, democracies have sophisticated information tools, which can be used offensively. Even ‘plausible deniability’ is used, for example in the cyber space.
However, these limited tools do not mean that democracies can wage hybrid war in a comprehensive and orchestrated way like their autocratic and non-state counterparts can. If they did, they would compromise the very essence of what they seek to defend.