Russian Political Warfare Is a Rising Menace

Photo: The Washington dove” — Soviet cartoon published in 1953 showing American agents and military officers disguising a bomb as a dove of peace. The dove’s head reads “peaceful phrases” while the black text above is a short poem reading “Even though they are masquerading it cunningly / They can't hide the vile insides” (it rhymes in Russian). The illustration is by Boris Efimov, one of the most famous and prolific propagandists of the Soviet Union. Credit: Propagandopolis via Instagram
Photo: The Washington dove” — Soviet cartoon published in 1953 showing American agents and military officers disguising a bomb as a dove of peace. The dove’s head reads “peaceful phrases” while the black text above is a short poem reading “Even though they are masquerading it cunningly / They can't hide the vile insides” (it rhymes in Russian). The illustration is by Boris Efimov, one of the most famous and prolific propagandists of the Soviet Union. Credit: Propagandopolis via Instagram

Russia’s military may have been badly damaged but that will mean other tactics will come back into play.

There is good news and bad news. Given its well-cataloged military failures in Ukraine, Russia will be lucky to describe anything there as a victory, and may also be unable to mount conventional operations against other neighbors for years.

But this does not suggest that Vladimir Putin has given up on his political goals in Central and Eastern Europe, or the rest of the world. Indeed, failure to achieve its Ukraine objectives will likely drive Putin to seek success elsewhere (assuming he is not deposed.)

If conventional warfare is off the table, and diplomacy will not work because no one trusts him anymore, he will have to resort to political warfare. This needs our attention, even as we continue to ensure Ukrainians win their conventional fight.

Hybrid warfare and the so-called gray zone join a variety of time-tested concepts that describe this arena of competition — it is known as political warfare. The US diplomat George Kennan (who developed the concept of “containment” and described the approach in the “Long Telegram” of February 22, 1946) codified how he thought the US should conceptualize political warfare:

“Political warfare is the logical application of [the military theorist Claus von] Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In the broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”

This form of warfare is more recently described as “a form of strategy that leverages all of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic capabilities at a nation's disposal to achieve its strategic objectives.” Both the Soviet Union and the United States used political warfare as an organizing principle during the Cold War, with the former employing it from the very beginning of their regime. Dickey et al quote Stephen Blank as saying:

“The legendary tactical flexibility of the Soviet regime derives from their conceptualization of conflict as being waged on all fronts or across the board — whence the internal structure of the protagonists becomes the center of gravity. The Bolshevik vision of politics as another form of warfare endowed its practitioners with the maximum feasible number of instruments with which to wage their struggle even in the face of superior enemy military power.”

Its use by the Russians and Chinese against the United States, NATO, and the European Union continues to this day. Many individuals and organizations recognize this; however, they lack a framework for response. That needs to change.

If political warfare is the “what” they are doing, hybrid warfare is the “how” to organize and operate and the gray zone is “where” they operate.

Both hybrid warfare and the gray zone are subsets of political warfare. This can be summarized as the use of all elements of national power to achieve goals without triggering kinetic combat. Hybrid warfare is an organizational approach to political warfare that combines military and non-military, violent and non-violent, as well as criminal approaches. The gray zone is where these operations occur on the spectrum of competition, above peaceful means of competition and below the threshold of an armed attack which would allow the victim to respond with military force.

In 2007, the American Dr. Frank Hoffman developed the concept of Hybrid Warfare. He was trying to codify changes that he saw in global competition. He wrote:

“Hybrid threats incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. Hybrid Wars can be conducted by both states and a variety of non-state actors. These multi-modal activities can be conducted by separate units, or even by the same unit, but are generally operations tactically directed and coordinated within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict. The effects can be gained at all levels of war.”

The Russians conceived of hybrid warfare starting with Hoffman’s writing. They then looked at this through the lens of what they thought that the US was doing to them during the “Color Revolutions”, which began with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. They then added significant amounts of information operations to the mix for two reasons. First, Russians have used information as a weapon for centuries. Second, they believe that the USSR collapsed due to a concerted, hostile information campaign aimed at them and their allies.

The mix of these three concepts resulted in what could be called “Hybrid warfare with Russian characteristics”, although one label the Russians use is “New Generation Warfare.” Phillip Karber from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) described it asdiffer(ing) from Western views of hybrid warfare  —  a blend of conventional, irregular and cyber warfare  —  in that it combines both low-end hidden state involvement with high-end direct, even braggadocio, superpower involvement.”

At roughly the same time that Hoffman was conceptualizing hybrid warfare, security thinkers conceptualized operations in the Gray Zone. Mike Mazarr credits Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work with mentioning the concept at an April 2015 US Army War College conference. Mazarr went on to identify those operating in the zone as “revisionist or dissatisfied powers that appear to be in the market for options to transform the status quo”. The Gray Zone can be conceptualized as the area below the threshold for “use of force” or “armed attack,” as referred to in the Charter of the United Nations. If an offending state crosses that threshold (generally accepted as damaging or destroying property, or injuring or killing people) then the target state can use all elements of national power including armed force to defend themselves, as displayed in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Spectrum of Competition and the Grey Zone.

Figure 1: The Spectrum of Competition and the Grey Zone.

The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin will be desperately seeking some success to counterbalance its failures in Ukraine and seek to gain his political objectives. It will employ political warfare to do this. It will combine a variety of organizations and approaches using the concepts of hybrid warfare and will return to operating under the threshold of an armed attack. It is essential therefore that we do not take our “eyes off the ball” and stop paying attention to Russian political warfare around the globe while totally focused on conventional military operations in Ukraine.

Alexander (Alex) Crowther is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is a Professor of Practice for Cyber Issues at Florida International University, and does research for the Swedish Defense University.

May 18, 2022