“Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, wrote these words in an era when cavalry charges and smoothbore cannons were the most impressive tools of military might, but they have held up well over time.
In the past two decades or so, we have seen the development of new kinds of war and aggression playing out in the global arena, giving rise to what we call hybrid warfare.
Although “hybrid warfare” is an ill-defined and somewhat amorphous term, I would define it as a military strategy that combines traditional kinetic means (such as soldiers, aircraft, vehicles, ships and the like) with non-kinetic means, which can include political influence, cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns.
By combining the use of military and non-military tools, a country or actor can commit acts that would be equivalent to those done in a combat context but avoid attribution and retaliation.
The textbook example of this is the Russian invasion of Crimea. After Ukrainian protestors ousted the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russian troops without national insignias on their uniforms invaded Crimea, a southern peninsula of Ukraine. After seizing government buildings and dissolving the region’s government and replacing it with a pro-Russian prime minister, a sham referendum was held and the peninsula declared itself “independent.”
Part of the success of this action was based on the high percentage of Russian-speaking people in Crimea (around three-quarters speak Russian as a primary language), but it also relied on disinformation and propaganda campaigns.
Protestors aligned with the Ukrainian government in Kiev were designated as “fascists,” and billboards went up before the referendum pushing that line of untruth. One billboard had two images of Crimea: one overlaid with the Russian flag, the other colored blood-red with a black swastika in the middle. The text referred to the upcoming referendum, proclaiming, “March 16, we decide!”
With the indictment of 13 Russian nationals by Robert Mueller’s team, solidifying what the intelligence community has been saying since the 2016 election, the United States also is a target, primarily of disinformation campaigns intended to sow discord in the American public and weaken our faith in our own democratic institutions.
This form of Russian aggression is deeply troubling because it strikes at the soft underbelly of democratic societies. Our system is hard-coded to allow fervent debate; unfortunately, a trend of increased political polarization has softened the ground for Russian operatives to co-opt the political ideologies of Americans to chip away at our most cherished societal pillar, democracy.
Can we fight back without sacrificing the very system we hold dear? Or do we have to subvert our own democracy to fight those who would destroy it?
Of course we can push back. The U.S. government has the tools to respond proportionately to these Russian violations of the global order, and we should use them.
Economic sanctions are perhaps the best way to make the Kremlin pay for its bad behavior. A package of sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs, weapons sales and energy exports was begrudgingly signed by President Donald Trump last year. Though it was clear Trump was reluctant to sign the bill, these sanctions are a step in the right direction.
It is important that the United States take proportionate action against Russian actions that undermine democratic institutions both here and abroad. If we do nothing in the face of these campaigns, we may be opening ourselves and our allies to more of them later. Putin has certainly read Lenin’s suggestion: “Probe with a bayonet; if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”