Conventional Warfare versus ‘Hybrid Threats’:
An Example of the Either-or Fallacy
By Tarik Solmaz
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has undermined the prevailing premises in the West about the character of contemporary warfare. Over the past decade, the Western world, generally speaking, had seemed to be convinced that actions that fall below the threshold of the outright act of war will be the most dominant form of conflict in the 21st century. As such, Western states and institutions had primarily focused on countering measures short of conventional war. The focus on ‘sub-threshold threats’ emerged primarily in reaction to Russia’s ‘unconventional’ operation against Ukraine in 2014.
Briefly speaking, in 2014, Russia achieved its strategic objectives in Ukraine by combining covert and indirect military actions such as employing masked soldiers called ‘little green men’, deploying private military contractors, and empowering local paramilitary forces, with a diverse range of non-military instruments, including coercive diplomacy, cyber-attacks, propaganda, disinformation, and economic pressure, without actually engaging in an overt war with Ukraine's armed forces.
Because Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014 did not fall into the category of traditional state-on-state conflict, it has widely been referred to as a new form of warfare in the Western academic, political, and media circles. Hence, there has also been another battle taking place in the realm of theoretical debates aimed at labelling such a mode of warfare. In this regard, a wide range of terms including ‘hybrid warfare’, ‘political warfare’, ‘unconventional warfare’, ‘grey-zone conflict’, ‘subversion’, ‘shadow war’, ‘ambiguous warfare’, ‘sub-threshold activity’, and ‘new generation warfare’ have been used to describe Russia’s so-called new way of warfare. Yet, probably because NATO, the EU and several Western countries have adopted the term ‘hybrid warfare’ in their strategy and policy documents, it has come into prominence within the context of this debate.
In fact, the term 'hybrid warfare/threat’ itself had already been included in the West's military lexicon before Russia’s so-called ‘hybrid warfare’ campaign against Ukraine. It was Frank Hoffman who popularized the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ in the military debates in the mid-2000s. In short, Hoffman used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ to refer to the merger of regular and irregular modes of warfare in the same battleground. According to his conception, ‘hybrid threats’ include states that carry out irregular forms of warfare, using swarming tactics and operations, and politically motivated violent non-state actors employing sophisticated military capabilities normally associated with nation-states. In my view, the notion of ‘hybrid warfare’, as characterized by Hoffman, has provided a useful analytical framework because it challenges the traditional paradigms based on the false dichotomy between conventional and irregular warfare.
However, ‘hybrid warfare’ has been subjected to conceptual stretching over time, and thus, has gained new meanings. Without a doubt, the most important milestone in the evolution of the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ is Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Since the Russian way of warfare employed against Ukraine did not fully fit previous definitions of ‘hybrid warfare’, the connotations of the concept were significantly changed. Accordingly, since then, ‘hybrid warfare’ has often been characterized as a way of achieving political objectives by any blend of kinetic and non-kinetic tools while remaining below the threshold of direct and large-scale military confrontation.
Alongside Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, activities of other revisionist states have sometimes been dealt with through a ‘hybrid warfare’ conceptual lens too. For example, Chinese bullying activities in the South China Sea, consisting of using maritime militias called ‘little blue men’, conducting cyber-attacks, carrying out psychological operations, and building artificial islands have been considered an example of ‘hybrid warfare’. Likewise, the Iranian pursuit of regional hegemony in the Middle East, including a mix of military and paramilitary activities, cyber warfare tools, and information operations has been linked to the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’.
Furthermore, although ‘hybrid warfare’ was generally codified as sub-threshold activities consisting of any mix of military and non-military tools after 2014, the term has also been used just to imply non-military destabilizing activities such as black propaganda, cyber-attacks, election meddling and using refugees as a political weapon. Actually, there is nothing ‘hybrid’ in the use of cyber operations or migrants as a tool of aggression given that an object and/or organism should consist of two different elements to be called hybrid. However, because ‘hybrid warfare’ has become a buzzword, all kinds of disruptive actions have been associated with the ‘hybrid model of warfare’
The specter of 'hybrid warfare’ (or ‘hybrid threats) has haunted the Western world for nearly a decade. Accordingly, countering ‘hybrid threats’ has become a top priority for NATO. The defense against ‘hybrid threats’ has been also one of the main focuses of the NATO-EU cooperation. Western decision-makers have often used the term ‘hybrid warfare’ to refer to present-day security challenges. These concerns have also been echoed by Western media. The most popular news platforms have talked of ‘hybrid warfare’ even as the Russian army amassed near Ukraine’s borders.
During this period, several defense analysts announced the death of conventional warfare which has generally been characterized by direct force-on-force confrontation and defeating an adversary’s military capability in line with the strategy of annihilation. Indeed, in today’s world, revisionist states mainly prefer the indirect method of attacks due to the high costs and the potentially devastating impacts of large-scale armed conflicts. Therefore, ‘hybrid threats’ or whatever they are called should definitely be addressed in strategy and policy documents adopted by Western states and institutions. Additionally, intellectual efforts in conceptualizing modern ‘sub-threshold’ activities may be considered useful in raising awareness about revisionist authoritarian states. However, Russia's invasion campaign in Ukraine in February 2022 has clearly and unambiguously shown that ‘hybrid warfare methods’ are not the sole components in revisionist states’ toolkit and conventional warfare is here to stay. So, it would not be wrong to say that the overemphasis on ‘hybrid threats’, which has led to the underestimation of the role of conventional military force in today’s conflicts, actually causes more harm than good.
Unsurprisingly, Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine has brought renewed prominence to the debate around conventional warfare, and many have talked of the return of traditional state-on-state armed conflict. And relatedly, the dominant position of the notion of ‘hybrid warfare threats’ in the West’s strategic discourse is being contested. This would be an important step in the right direction. However, focusing solely on threats of conventional warfare would also be misleading. The return of traditional interstate war does not necessarily mean the end of ‘hybrid warfare threats’ just as the rise of hybrid 'threats' did not represent the end of the era of conventional warfare. These forms of conflict are not mutually exclusive, and revisionist states still pose the biggest conventional military and ‘hybrid threat’ to Western security. Hence, key actors in Western security architecture ought to be prepared to deal with both conventional and ‘hybrid’ warfare threats.
With Russia’s invasion campaign in Ukraine, we will probably witness renewed academic attention/debate on the exact character of contemporary warfare. This debate will certainly contribute to the West's preparation for the next war/conflict as long as defense intellectuals can avoid the trap of wishful thinking and exaggerated concerns.