SWJ Book Review: The Lands in Between: Russia vs. The West and the New Politics of Hybrid War
Mitchell A. Orenstein, The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. [ISBN: 978-0190936143, Hardcover, 248 pages]
There are a variety of definitions for hybrid warfare. Some are using the concept more haphazardly while others are applying a number of classifications. In 2005, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis identified hybrid wars as a blending of modes of warfare. In this book, Mitchell A. Orenstein, a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, follows along with Mattis’s construct. Orenstein views the geopolitical conflict in Central and East Europe (CEE) as a mix of conventional and unconventional methods, which also extends to cyberwarfare. But while the West is focused on Russia’s actions, particularly in the cyber realm, they may be missing Russian emphasis on the “lands in between,” spanning across the CEE states.
This book is organized into seven chapters, with notes and index at the end. It is intended to read like a narrative rather than a textbook. The first chapter (Introduction) is explanatory and establishes a background on how the West is missing the significance of Central and East Europe and are only gaining attention because of Russian influence. Orenstein points out in chapter 2 (Russia’s Hybrid War on the West) how in 2009, a group of twenty-two CEE leaders made an appeal to former President Barack Obama as a response to the administration’s “reset” relations with Russia. The CEE leaders “called for strengthening NATO and greater US commitment to European affairs,”(p. 8) which was not taken as seriously considering that the effects of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 were still lingering. This was a warning sign to the West that Russia was engaging in hybrid war by misleading the international community of its commitment to change and cooperation with the West. Rather, the events that unfolded, as Mitchell articulates, prove otherwise. Vladimir Putin was reelected as president in 2012, Crimea was annexed in 2014, and then allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Orenstein believes that in order to understand the nature of this hybrid war, the West needs to describe it, and question what Russia wants, why Russia turned against the West in 2007, what methods the Kremlin used to wage a hybrid war against the West—including the European Union—and what is the long term impact?(p. 10) One possibility explored is the loss of the Soviet empire and a rapidly rising Putin who wanted to rebuild a “Soviet 2.0.”(p. 11) Another possibility place blame on the West by pushing Russia away as NATO expanded, which in some ways threatened Moscow. The last possibility, according to Orenstein, is that “Russia is a ‘bad’ state, too large, too insecure, too ambitious for its means, and with too much of a history of imperial expansion to ever fit in the West.”(p. 13) Regardless of which likelihood, what is certain is that 2007 was a turning point for Russian and Western relations and foreign policy.
This began with Kosovo’s desire to become an independent state, which Russia strongly objected. This event prompted the Russo-Georgian War that asserted Russia’s dominance in this part of Europe. Moscow devised a strategy that encompassed political, economic, and military tools to produce the best possible outcome. While Russia didn’t gain much other than international condemnation, it was enough to show that they can challenge the status quo. Chapter 3 (The West’s Belated Response) addresses how the West was late to respond to Russia’s hybrid war. It is this notion that the West ignored the early signs of Moscow edging into Central and East European affairs. But the West was seemingly also blindsided by Putin’s reelection following the tenure of Dmitry Medvedev. Fast forward to 2014 when Putin annexed the Crimea from Ukraine, which was then followed by a slew of economic sanctions by the US and the West. There is still a debate as to whether these sanctions have been working to deter Russia’s geopolitical goals.
Orenstein then shifts his focus to what he calls the “lands in between” in Chapter 4 (The Lands in Between). They are “highly vulnerable to Russian influence: military, economic, and cultural,” and this greater vulnerability “sets them apart from the CEE states that joined the European Union and NATO in the 2000s and from the developed Western countries of Europe and North America.”(p. 83) For instance, over the years, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have all been subjected to Russian influence—politically, militarily, and economically. These countries are at significant risk of trade embargoes and sanctions by Russia, which shows how susceptible they are to Moscow’s aggression. As Orenstein shows in Chapter 5 (The Contest for Central and Eastern Europe), these states have to tread carefully when approaching the West for greater attention as a means to wean off of Russia. The EU protects the CEE states, but they are still “vulnerable to Russian influence than the countries of core Europe.”(p. 110) Geographic proximity to Russia is the biggest challenge; they rely on energy from Russia and the political game can be risky as Russia has shown it will cut off energy and gas.
Despite the military campaigns in Georgia and Ukraine, and the political support in other parts of the CEE, Russia has augmented its hybrid war with enhanced cyber capabilities. Influence operations in these states have had tremendous success. But as explained in Chapter 6 (Core Europe and the United States) and Chapter 7 (The New Politics of Hybrid War), Russia has also turned its sights elsewhere to inject propaganda and even meddle in elections. Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik continue to expand beyond Moscow’s borders and through a wave of social media platforms. It’s a new way of spreading false narratives, influencing populations, and showing the international community that Russia is a formidable cyber challenger. But more importantly, it acts as defense against a Western vision that has slowly permeated through the region.
As such, Orenstein correctly points out that,
Russia wants to dismantle the EU, which it regards as a geopolitical competitor, and undermine liberal democratic institutions at the national and international levels. Though fought largely through cover and indirect methods, and with limited use of force, this conflict threatens everyone on both sides of an emerging divide in Europe.(p. 152)
With a global shift towards Great Power Competition, Orenstein’s book provides an extraordinary look into Russia’s perspective on geopolitics. It’s an area that has largely been ignored and Orenstein shows how this hybrid war is a continued threat to the West. Even though it is a quick read, the book is filled with substantial detail and enough to give the reader a balanced perspective on the nature of Russia’s hybridity.