Geopolitical Reading List – Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and the Annexation of Crimea: The Modern Application of Soviet Political Warfare by Kent DeBenedictis

At a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, when the possibility of an invasion looms large, particularly over the Donbas, it has never been more important to study Russian tactics. In the latest of our regular Geopolitical Reading List series, Editor Simon Schofield reviews Major Kent DeBenedictis’s study on Russian “Hybrid Warfare”.

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The term “hybrid warfare” is but one of a number of terms competing for prominence to describe a method of warfare that many consider novel. It has several terminological rivals, which are arguably better candidates for an accurate term.

“Non-linear warfare” emphasises the fact that this model does not operate as traditional warfare does in terms of time and space. It utilises a range of political tools concurrently to achieve an end. Unlike what Westerners consider “traditional warfare,” where an army seizes an objective militarily, fights to hold it, and then progresses to another objective to slowly erode the enemy’s space and ability to manoeuvre, “non-linear warfare” is more nebulous and often culminates in a lightning kinetic operation that consolidates gains already made in the political, informational, cultural, and psychological spaces.

“Liminal warfare” as described by David Kilcullen, highlights the fact that this model of warfare plays with thresholds; it manipulates both enemy thresholds to prevent detection or response, and its own activity signatures in order to avoid triggering opposing action until it is too late. “Hybrid warfare” was coined to stress the bringing together of efforts across a broad spectrum of theatres and expertises – including political warfare, economic leverage, active measures, intelligence work, and, of course, the kinetic military component. Whilst none quite fully describe the many faces of this model, “hybrid warfare” appears to be the term that is going to win this particular debate and, like “terrorism,” will likely be the phrase we use, even if all violence is terrorising, and all warfare operates at levels beyond bombs and bullets.

In the recent crisis surrounding Ukraine, which has not (yet) led to a Russian invasion of its neighbour as of the time of writing, the debates continue to rage about the novelty of this particular model of warfare and on how best to respond to it. Kent DeBenedictis’s insightful treatise makes helpful contributions towards both.

Firstly, he argues, and then fastidiously demonstrates, that Russian “hybrid warfare” is not a new approach, even if it does make use of new technologies and exploits new political cleavages. “Hybrid warfare” is deeply rooted in Soviet notions of “reflexive control”, active measures, political warfare, and maskirovka. Indeed, they are so closely related that one might argue they are less distant cousins and more twins separated at birth. The parallels between the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan are illuminated in great detail in this study across the four domains of security theories, informational tools, political tools, and military tools.

Secondly, whilst not making specific policy prescriptions, DeBenedictis has built a great lens that allows us to see through Putin’s eyes. He has achieved this by describing how the Kremlin sees the world and putting that in its intellectual contexts, setting out the toolbox that the Kremlin uses to pursue its ends, and outlining how these tools have been used in the past. In this offering, we are granted the power to empathise with Russia, not merely in the abstract or the high-level, but in the nuts and bolts. What levers of power does Putin pull to project his will? Specifically what tools are employed to manage the Russian sphere of influence? In knowing this, we can all better recognise Russian “hybrid warfare” at an earlier stage, and better predict what objectives might be being pursued, what tools might be pulled from the toolbox next, and what impacts their use might have. This is essential for calibrating our own preparations to detect and respond to this not-so-novel form of warfare.

In orchestrating the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin was able to engineer a situation in which their political objectives were achieved almost completely bloodlessly, presenting the world with a fait accompli against which no nation had an interest in fighting. The world was shocked and appalled, but also, even if many are loathe to admit it, impressed. Western analysts have put great effort into understanding how this feat was achieved, but they are not alone. As Russia, with an economy the size of Italy, continues its endeavour to assert itself with minimal cost and maximum impact, other nations will have taken note.

We should not be surprised to see Kremlin-branded tools furnishing the toolboxes of Turkey’s Erdogan, Iran’s Raisi, or even China’s Xi. Warfare is governed ultimately by pragmatism, and if it works for the innovator, it will be adopted by the imitator. This makes DeBenedictis essential reading, not only for those interested in Russian foreign and defence policy, but for anybody curious about how power will be projected in the near future, and what tools expansionist regimes will bring to hand to pursue their visions. In all likelihood, what we are currently discussing as, inter alia, “hybrid warfare”, will simply be referred to as “warfare” in the future. Tradition comes out of success, and whatever criticisms are rightly piled on the Kremlin, the seizure of Crimea will be used as a case study for those contemplating bloodless land grabs for centuries.

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Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2022 reading list

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Simon Schofield is a Deputy Director of the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Soldiers without insignia guard buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, March 2, 2014. Image credit: Elizabeth Arrott.