Russia’s hybrid war on the West

Putin aims to weaken the US and its allies without sparking all-out war with a combination of nuclear posturing, tech and covert action

This month marks the fourth anniversary of Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea, an event that shocked the world and shook European faith in the post-Cold War security order.

It has become clear that, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, annexing the peninsula was not so much an end goal as a declaration of future intent, an early escalation in a broader and ambitious effort that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently termed Russia's "World Hybrid War" on Western democracy itself.

L ast week, Mr Putin put Moscow's remilitarisation and its confrontation with the West at the heart of his pitch for re-election. His approach to this confrontation, which many term "hybrid warfare", mixes nuclear posturing and cutting-edge technology with covert action, and was designed to make it difficult for the West to respond.

Combatants have always looked for innovative ways around the rules and conventions of conflict, and Israel, Iran and the Gulf states have used common hybrid tactics - including cyber attacks and use of armed proxy groups - for years.

What Moscow has successfully done is refine old and new techniques to a higher level, and to employ them in a wider range of ways.

As with China and Iran, Russia's aim in perfecting its hybrid warfare capabilities is to weaken the US and its allies without sparking all-out war.

It is a dynamic that brings with it some very real dangers, not least of accidental conflict.

The US air strikes that killed Russian mercenaries in Syria last month marked the bloodiest confrontation between the two nations in decades.


US prosecutor Robert Mueller's decision to charge 13 Russians and several Russian companies with interfering in the 2016 election also amounts to a significant escalation.

What prompted Russia's interest in reheating Cold War-era animosities remains a subject of debate among security analysts.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and when a wider conflict erupted in Russian-speaking Ukrainian regions that year, it acted with ruthless efficiency.

By using troops wearing uniforms without identification - who became known as "little green men" - Russia achieved surprise and dominance on the ground before the authorities in Kiev, let alone Washington, knew what was happening.

Russia's seizure of the important Crimean peninsula, and its apparent role in shooting down a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in July 2014, forced the US and its European allies to reconsider their beliefs about Russia's intentions.

Since then, Nato has deployed battle groups to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States (in case Moscow wants to try out the techniques it used in Ukraine against Nato members).


In some ways, this resembles the Cold War, but it is a much more dynamic confrontation. Russia is now more closely intertwined with the West through investments and business deals, and this gives it new vulnerabilities - to sanctions, for example.

A similar welter of international anxiety and confusion formed the base of dry tinder that World War I set alight.

Russia and its rivals must take great care not to allow history to repeat itself. - REUTERS

The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist.