Small Wars Journal

Assessing Russian Hybrid Warfare: A Successful Tool for Limited War

Mon, 08/08/2016 - 4:39pm

Assessing Russian Hybrid Warfare: A Successful Tool for Limited War

Amos C. Fox and Andrew J. Rossow


Currently, Russia is engaged in leveraging limited wars to advance their political aims.  To do so, Russia is waging a sophisticated hybrid warfare campaign.  Much like the Athenians forced their will on the weaker state of Melos and other lesser powers during the Peloponnesian War; Russia is forcing their will on weaker nation-states because they can and because no credible force is intervening to deny their aggression[1].  Russian political aims appear to be focused on creating a buffer between NATO and the West’s encroachment on the Russia’s historical sphere of influence.  Additionally, Russia appears to be pursuing regional hegemony through territorial expansion and political intimidation.

Russia’s hybrid warfare paradigm is an innovative approach to modern conflict, which has defined total war in pursuit of unlimited objectives as no longer an acceptable method in the pursuit of political interests.  Russia’s incremental innovations toward warfare, much like those of the German’s leading into World War II, has created a chasm between how Russia and other nations, to include the United States, have thought about war, prepared for war, and conducted war.[2]  Moreover, Russia’s operations serve as a proof-of-concept for other nation-states with comparable capabilities.  

The purpose of this essay is to provide a basic operational framework for how the Russian military appears to be operating based upon their recent actions in Eastern Europe.  Conversely, this essay does not attempt to be a definitive answer on Russian hybrid operations; but rather, a collection of inferences based upon readily available, unclassified material.  Likewise, this essay provides relevant tactical and operational deductions for the US Army in respect to Russian hybrid warfare.

Why Hybrid Warfare? Finding the Context of War

To understand Russian actions, it is good to reflect on war.  Carl von Clausewitz defined war in three ways: 1) war is a duel, 2) war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will, and 3) war is a collision of living forces. Clausewitz states that the use of force is the means of war, and that the true aim of war is to render the enemy powerless.[3]  Clausewitz’s definition of force was focused solely on physical force, but as time and technology has progressed, “force” has morphed from physical force applied from land and naval forces, to a more nebulous definition of force. At the national level “force” can be understood as the instruments of power, diplomacy, information, military, and economic. At the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, “force” operates on land, in the air, in the sea, and through informational, cyber, and electronic means. The method of employing force, or how those forces are applied, is just as nebulous as the domain in which force is applied. 

This indicates the Clausewitzian idea of applying force against an animate object to render them powerless is no longer as transparent as it was during Clausewitz’s time, nor as it was in during the 20th Century.  Force now resides in multiple functions and in multiple domains, which means modern military leaders must think in more terms than just fire and maneuver.[4]  In addition, force is no longer just being applied against living forces, but against extensions of living forces.  Force, in all its abstractions, is today applied through people, machinery, and things not visible to the human eye, such as the electromagnetic spectrum, digital networks, and radio waves.     

Moreover, the ultimate goal of any military seeking to impose its will against another is not in seizing the initiative or in applying any of the other principles of war.  Rather the goal is to achieve an advantage over one’s adversary prior to engaging their forces.  The of idea of ‘advantage’ is the reason combined arms, joint, and maneuver warfare concepts developed – to achieve a relative position of advantage in time, space[5], and combat power through the employment of complimentary arms, in complimentary domains, through the use of fire and movement in relation to the enemy.

The highest form of advantage is to defeat the enemy without having to formally engage them with conventional forces, or as Sun Tzu stated, to subdue to the enemy without fighting.[6]  Therefore, one could deduce that a nation, state, or group with political objectives will use force to achieve those objectives. Yet, if possible, they will also attempt to defeat an adversary without leveraging physical force while engaging across the range of the national instruments of power. This idea was recently echoed by the Lieutenant General Michael Williamson when addressing the Subcommittee on AirLand, Committee on Armed Services, in which he stated, “In terms of state-based challenges, Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine demonstrated a sophisticated combination of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic means to achieve objectives below a threshold that the Russian leadership believe would elicit a concerted NATO response.”[7]

Combining these ideas, it can be presumed that nations, states, or political movements have objectives.  Those objectives may or may not be at odds with other nations, states, or political movements.  A nation, state, or political movement will first try to acquire those objectives without the physical use of force.  If that technique is unsuccessful they will use force to achieve their objectives.  In either situation, the instruments of national power (or their relative equivalent) are leveraged to seek a victory.  The goal is to strike and win before the international community can intervene with sufficient force to deny the accumulation of aims.  The use of limited war in the pursuit of limited objectives makes this goal achievable in the contemporary operating environment.

Information Age Technology’s Influence on Contemporary Forces

Novel and innovative capabilities, concepts, and methods are often rarely understood across organizations or armies, especially in their infancy.  This lack of understanding creates weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  If these vulnerabilities are tied to critical capabilities, they in turn become critical vulnerabilities.  If they are critical vulnerabilities, they are likely to be high on an adversary’s target list.

Today’s Information Age world has pushed most modern military forces towards incorporating digital architecture for command and control of their organizations.  However, as these systems are still in the nascent stage of development and employment, they are fraught with vulnerabilities.  Modern army’s that have tethered their operations to the nascent nature of Information Age military technology have implicitly tied the vulnerabilities of emerging technology to their formations, thus making themselves vulnerable to a cognitive enemy.

Russia, among other nations, spent the period between the Gulf War to today observing US operations throughout the world.[8]   Those operations provide valuable insight into how the US Army fights, but also highlight weaknesses and vulnerabilities in how the Army is manned, equipped, and trains.  Furthermore, it highlighted the limitations of US doctrine.  For instance, the phases of joint operations, as articulated in JP 5-0 provide a template against which an enemy can plan. Phase 0 (Shape) and Phase I (Deter)[9] provide excellent windows for an adversary, focused on limited objective war, to strike before the U.S. military, or any other military employing the same or a similar operational paradigm can act.  In many instances, we may view ourselves in Phase I, while Russia, or any like-minded adversary, having already achieved their limited objective, is in their final phase of the operation.    

Pulling those previous thoughts together lends well to the explanation of the hybrid warfare concept.  Hybrid warfare seeks to blend conventional, unconventional, cyber, information, electronic operations to achieve an advantage over an adversary to enable the successful accomplishment of either political and/or military objectives.[10]  While the theory of hybrid warfare is not new, the methods and current applications of the Russian military are fresh and require examining.[11]

Russian Operational and Tactical Approach in Hybrid Warfare

In thinking about Russia’s approach to hybrid warfare, it would serve well to hearken back to Sun Tzu, who stated, “Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards.  So in war, the way to avoid what is strong is to strike what is weak.”[12]  While not explicitly stated so, Russia’s current approach to warfare embodies Sun Tzu’s maxim.  Russia’s bloodless annexation of Crimea in March 2014 embodies this idea and largely serves as the archetype for Russian hybrid warfare.  

Strategically, Russia’s operations are not formally declared wars, but rapid advances for limited objectives.  They blend military and non-military action, maximizing their ability to employ the national instruments of power to achieve their limited objectives.  They leverage information, conventional, unconventional, electronic, cyber, and precision-based forces as the military means to achieve their objectives.[13]  They seek to employ conventional forces only after ‘provocation’, in many cases this is tied to locations where ethnic Russians are located.  They do this to stay below the threshold of the trigger for NATO’s Article Five.[14]

Operationally, Russia has been employing a strategy of annihilation through the use of hybrid warfare to win quickly.  Russia’s strategy of annihilation appears to be a three-pronged approach.  First, Russian cyber and electronic capabilities set the stage for effective offensive operations that paralyze command and support nodes.  In this case, paralysis is defined by denying or disrupting their opponent’s ability to see, hear, and talk; rendering them unable to commit ground forces or coordinate retaliatory fires.[15]  Second, Russian forces quickly destroy those nodes through the employment of long-range fires and then rapidly exploit their success through the employment of mechanized ground forces.[16]  Highly coordinated information operations link the components of the attack into an exceedingly effective offensive approach.      

Russian hybrid operations appear to be operating in a six-phase model.[17]  Much is already written on the strategic context of these phases; however this essay will explore those phases through a mixed operational and tactical lens.  Russia seeks to rapidly transition through each of these phases.  Their goal is to transition mission accomplishment before the international community has time to react or before the United States and our NATO allies have time to transition from Phase 0 to Phase I. 

Phase I is centered on influencing the population and shaping the operational environment for Phase II, III, and IV operations.  Phase I leverages information operations and unconventional forces (e.g. “little green men”) to set the conditions for Phase II.  Phase I is characterized by information operations focused on fomenting discontent among those predisposed to manipulation.  Additionally, Phase I features multi-tiered long-range reconnaissance and surveillance to develop understanding of the operating environment, and to developing target priorities.  This phase is conducted on land, in the air, in the cyber domain, and at sea.  These operations are conducted by a variety of forces operating in every domain.[18]  Operations in Ukraine and Crimea demonstrate Russia using a multitude of UAS, stacked at a variety of altitudes, coupled with Special Forces and irregular forces as the primary means of information collection during this phase.[19]

Phase II appears to be focused on cognitive disintegration of enemy ground forces.  Phase II capitalizes on the information gathered during Phase I through the application of cyber and electronic attack to disrupt command and control and communications capabilities.  Furthermore, Russia employs long-range fires (ground and air) to destroy command posts, sustainment nodes, thus paralyzing ground forces.  Similar to Phase I, operations in Phase II are conducted across all domains and are largely conducted by highly skilled unconventional forces.  Operating close behind the cyber and electronic forces are ground, air, and signals based reconnaissance forces.  Their purpose is to simultaneously develop the operational picture for Phase III and conduct counter-reconnaissance.  In effect, Phase II destroys command and control and sustainment nodes, which isolates units on the battlefield, thereby disintegrating the formation and leaving it vulnerable to piecemeal destruction by coordinated land and air operations in Phase III.

Phase III is the rapid destruction of resistance through the use of conventional and unconventional forces.  Rocket and tube artillery are the likely Russian leads for destruction during Phase III.[20]  As defense analysts, David Schlpak and Michael Johnson highlights, Russia has a distinct advantage in number of rocket and tube artillery, highlight the fact that Russia rockets can range up to 90 kilometers, while U.S. multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) can only reach ranges of 40-70 kilometers.[21] Tanks and heavily armored infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) will quickly follow on the footsteps of massed rocket and tube artillery salvos to quickly destroy remaining resistance.[22]  Russian offensive operations at the Donetsk airport from May to December 2014 highlight the effectiveness of the linked Phase II and Phase III operations.[23]

Phase IV and V seek to rapidly conclude the conflict.  These phases include the acquisition of political, economic, information, and military resources in order to control the defeated enemy.[24]  Furthermore, Russia seeks to consolidate gains and transition to resolution at the national level during Phase V.

Russian Deterrents

Russia enjoys five primary deterrents to counter-aggression or preemptive action.  First, Russian history and geography serve as a warning to invading forces from the West.  Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 demonstrate the futility in marching to Moscow to achieve political aims with Russia.  The nation’s vastness takes advantage of the cumulative effects of time, distance, and weather on an invading army.  These effects are linked to either a strategy of attrition or a strategy of exhaustion - while Russia contracts inward it gains strength, while continuing to deplete the means of an encroaching army.

Second, the Russians still maintain a large ground combat capability. On its own, Russia’s army might not be entirely impressive, but when juxtaposed against European land armies or the land forces available to NATO, it is a quantitatively dominant adversary.  Furthermore, Russia reactivated the First Guards Tank Army and two additional armored divisions.  Those formations were positioned in Russia’s Western Military District, augmenting the forces already reported to be positioned in the area.[25]  Prior to the reactivation of those units, most estimates assess the Russians to already have four tank battalions, twenty-one infantry battalions (variety of types), three tube artillery battalions, seven rocket battalions, surface-to-surface missile battalions, and six Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter battalions within the Western Military District.[26]  This positions a significant conventional, ground-based threat on the door step of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, this does not take into consideration Russian air power, unconventional forces, or other aspects of hybrid warfare, to include electronic, cyber, and information capabilities in the region. 

Third, Russia has demonstrated the ability to employ highly effective cyber and electronic capabilities.  Operations in Crimea and Ukraine demonstrated the primacy of Russian cyber and electronic capabilities.  The power of these capabilities, in relation to those of other nation-states around the world, serves as a deterrent just by existing.[27]

Fourth, Russia still maintains a nuclear arsenal.  The trigger for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is unclear, but the existence of those weapons forces caution and deliberate thought before committing forces in an offensive campaign against Russia.[28]  However, what is clear is that Russia still maintains the capability to launch massive, devastating nuclear attacks on the United States and other nations across the world.[29]

Last, recent Russian successes serve to deter potential offensive threats.  Many militaries across the world are attempting to discern how to compensate for, and counter Russia’s battlefield advantages.  As such; in the near future few militaries will want to confront Russian hybrid dominance on the battlefield, whether that be physical force or in the cyber, electronic, or information domains.

Thoughts Moving Forward

First, Russian hybrid warfare provides a successful model for nations to imitate.  Nations with comparable means in pursuit of limited objectives will likely view Russia’s approach to hybrid warfare as an example of how to operate aggressively without provoking a large international response from a military standpoint.

Next, the US Army should adopt concepts that embody dispersed operations guided by a unifying purpose. The Army Operating Concept states that Army forces achieve surprise through maneuver across strategic distances and arrival at unexpected locations. In high anti-access and area denial environments, dispersion allows future Army forces to evade enemy attacks, deceive the enemy, and achieve surprise. Even when operating dispersed, mobile combined arms teams are able to concentrate rapidly to isolate the enemy, attack critical enemy assets, and seize upon fleeting opportunities.[30]  Joint leaders must, through intelligence preparation of the operational environment, analyze Russia’s recent execution of operations, the operational environment and its impact on friendly operations.  Recent Russian operations, resulting from the proliferation of a combination of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) capabilities, blended with strike capabilities, warrant mobility on the battlefield, characterized by tactical level dispersion.[31]

Similarly, tactical-level formations should not erect large, immobile command posts.  Contemporary command posts, filled with network-based computer systems are prime targets in the hybrid environment.  Tactical headquarters should break away from their reliance on digital mission command systems.  Weaknesses identified in our current systems are a critical vulnerability to ground operations in hybrid environments.  Survivability on the hybrid battlefield necessitates the adjustment.     

Static formations, large command posts, and exposed sustainment nodes are primary targets in hybrid environments and are likely to be high on the enemy’s target list.  Likewise, tactical formations must continually relocate and reposition, to include command posts and sustainment nodes to disrupt combined identification and targeting by UAS, long-range fires, and air assets.  These positions must maintain the smallest possible signature, they must maintain maximum dispersion, they must employ camouflage, and they must maintain local security when static.

Moreover, commanders and staffs must ensure they are utilizing concise mission orders. The tactical character of the conventional component of hybrid warfare, as demonstrated by Russia in Ukraine, Crimea, and Georgia demand an agile headquarters that employs truncated orders, which are focused on rapidly getting formations moving in the appropriate direction.  Long, ponderous orders and drawn out planning processes will not be viable on hybrid battlefields where the threat is seeking to win before their opponent can uncoil.  This position is echoed by defense analysts David Schlapak and Michael Johnson in stating that in order to prevent rapid Russian victories we need commands that are able to plan and execute rapid, integrated, fluid campaigns.[32]  At the tactical level, the use of standard operating procedures (SOPs), born out of thoughtful, predictive analysis regarding likely situations in which a unit will find itself can alleviate some of the problems associated with the planning process.

The US Army must work rapidly to close numerous capability gaps which Russia has produced through ten plus years of largely overlooked materiel development.  Russian long-range fires capabilities greatly exceed those of the US Army.  This, along with the degradation or complete loss of certain assets in the Army’s artillery inventory has left US forces extremely vulnerable.  Messaging emanating from Moscow also indicates the return of tactical nuclear capability.  The Army must quickly develop systems to counter this capability, as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty’s requirements have already been breached by Russia. Section 1243 of the 2016 NDAA authorizes the military to develop response options to Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty.[33]

Russian forces, as previously discussed, have also developed very successful cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.  Russia has been identified as having one of the most developed offensive cyber capabilities, capable of destroying enemies’ communication networks and jamming radio communications, GPS systems, and radar.  The Army must invest significant time, personnel and resources into countering this capability, or command and control in hybrid theaters will not be achieved.

What’s more, Russian systems dedicated to anti-access and area denial challenge the joint and multinational community’s ability to simply arrive in theater, much less physically approach the battlefield. Russian artillery and integrated air defense capabilities far exceed that of the U.S. both in capability and capacity.  The Baltic Sea should not be considered accessible without significant operational expenditures to create freedom of navigation.  Air supremacy and/or air superiority is also no longer a given, as it has been in previous years.  Creating freedom of maneuver for the joint force will require well-orchestrated joint cross-domain fires and maneuver.  The full scale of the US military’s joint capabilities must be brought to bear, working together across domains to enable Joint Forcible Entry Operations.[34]

Lastly, the ubiquity of Russia armored forces on the hybrid battlefield indicates the US Army should commit to thoughtful development and application of anti-armor capabilities, centered around mounted and dismounted tandem-warhead capabilities and the application of active protection systems on US combat platforms – systems which the enemy already possesses.  The US Army’s limited armor in relation to the size and capability of Russia armor dictates a stop-gap be identified – increasing the US Army’s anti-armor capabilities is quick, cheap way of plugging this gap.  Furthermore, this approach enables the US Army’s ability to functionally and positionally dislocate armored forces by fighting dispersed, increasing standoff, and hiding anti-armor systems in restrictive terrain.  Defensive systems for armored platforms are also critical.  Active protection systems are already present in many armies, one such being Russia’s.  Active protection systems enable combat vehicles to defeat guided missiles (ATGMs), thus rendering many of our offensive systems ineffective.  Without this system in our own platforms, we are effectively leaving ourselves exposed to exponentially more threats.      


Douglas Macgregor suggests, “Given the proliferation of powerful new military technologies in both the physical world and cyberspace, America’s margin of victory in futures wars of decision is likely to be thinner than ever.”[35]  Russia’s hybrid warfare modeled during the early years of the 21st Century provides insight into the ways in which we can anticipate regional powers to fight in the pursuit of limited objectives.  They will blend the employment of conventional, unconventional, cyber, information, and electronic forces at the tactical and operational level, while manipulating the instruments of national power at the strategic level.  Russia’s recent battlefield successes in Eastern Europe are not anomalies of modern war, but likely harbingers of what is to come.  To insure the US Army does not fall prey to the traps of hybrid warfare, like that employed by Russia, the US Army must assess remain cognizant of emergent approaches to warfare, while understanding that failure to adapt, innovate, and internalize the actions of those around them can erode their margin of victory in future conflict.

End Notes

[1] Thucydides, in Rex Warner trans., History of the Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 400-405.

[2] Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future” in Williamson Murray and Allen R. Millet ed., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 309.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, in Michael Howard and Peter Paret ed., On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 75.

[4] Robert R. Leonhard, The Principles of War for the Information Age, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998), 58.

[5] Space can consist of physical space (land, air, sea), cyber space, and electromagnetic space.

[6] Sun Tzu, “On the Art of War”, in Lionel Giles trans. and Brig. Gen. T.R. Phillips ed., Roots of Strategy, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1985), 27.

[7] LTG Michael Williamson, LTG H.R. McMaster, LTG Joseph Anderson, and LTG John Murray statement to the Subcommittee on AirLand, Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, on Army Modernization in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2017, Second Session, 114th Congress, 5 April 2016.

[8] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Little Green Men: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine, Ukraine 2013-2014, 49.

[9] JP 5-0, Joint Operational Planning (Washington, D.C., 2011), xxiii-xxiv.

[10] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Little Green Men: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine, Ukraine 2013-2014, 5.

[11] Keir Giles, Russia’s New Tools for Confronting the West, Russia and Eurasia Programme, March 2016, 8.

[12] Sun Tzu, On the Art of War, in Lionel Giles trans. and Brig. Gen. T.R. Phillips ed., Roots of Strategy, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1985), 36.

[13] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Little Green Men: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine, Ukraine 2013-2014, 49.

[14] Janis Berzins, “Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy”, in National Defense Academy of Latvia, Center for Security and Strategic Research, Policy Paper No.2, April 2014, 8.

[15] Joe Gould, Electronic Warfare: What the US Army Can Learn from Ukraine, August 4 2015, accessed April 25, 2016,

[16] TRADOC G-2 ACE, Threats Integration, Threat Tactics Report Compendium: ISIL, North Korea, Russia, and China (Fort Leavenworth, K.S., 2015), 139.

[17] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Little Green Men: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine, Ukraine 2013-2014, 18-19.

[18] Tara Copp, Ukraine, Syria Giving U.S. Glimpse into Russia Tactics, December 9, 2015, accessed April 25, 2016,

[19] Keir Giles, Russia’s New Tools for Confronting the West, 58.

[20] Ibid.

[21] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Outnumbered, Outranged, and Outgunned: How Russia Defeats NATO”, War on the Rocks, April 21, 2016, accessed April 25, 2016,

[22] Keir Giles, Russia’s New Tools for Confronting the West, 13-25.

[23] Ibid., 27-28.

[24] TRADOC G-2 ACE, Threats Integration, Threat Tactics Report Compendium: ISIL, North Korea, Russia, and China (Fort Leavenworth, K.S., 2015), 128.

[25] Nikolai Novichkov, Russia Completes Reformation of 1st Guards Tank Army. February 9th, 2016.

[26] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics, (RAND Corporation, 2016), 5.

[27] Keir Giles, Russia’s New Tools for Confronting the West, 63.

[28] Ibid., 23.

[29] Robert Blackwell and David Allison, “Ten Reasons Russia Still Matters”, Politico, October 2011, accessed April 28, 2016,

[30] TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, Army Operating Concept. Washington, DC: GPO, October 2014), 18.

[31] Douglas Macgregor, Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 181.

[32] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (RAND Corporation, 2016), 9. 

[33] 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Section 1243.  

[34] Douglas Macgregor, Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War. 186.

[35] Ibid., 309.


About the Author(s)

Andrew J. Rossow is a promotable captain in the United States Army.  He is an Armor officer and currently a student at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College.  He holds a BS and MS from Texas A&M University.  His assignments included tours with the 4th Infantry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC).

Amos C. Fox is a Lieutenant Colonel  in the US Army. He is a graduate from the School of Advanced Military Studies, Ball State University, and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Reading. He is also an associate editor at the Wavell Room and the Deputy Director for Development with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.