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Hybrid Warfare and the New Normal: Criteria and Retaliatory Threshold
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Sumantra Maitra | Date:10 Mar , 2017 0 Comments
Sumantra Maitra
is doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK.

As Russian involvement and covert interference arguably increases in US and European democratic processes, and with the ever-increasing chances of open conflict in Eastern Europe, the focus on the concept of “Hybrid War” is back in discussion. But as technology blurs the line it is easy to conflate what constitutes hybrid war, and what is just simpler propaganda.[i]

The question is important, because while propaganda is tolerated and stays within the threshold of retaliation, hybrid warfare deserves and should invite a proportionate response, as per Lex Talionis. Given the adversarial dynamics and great power relations in Asia, this is a subject worth pondering for the strategic community in India. Hybrid warfare is also an ever expanding concept, therefore an urgent ascription of criteria is needed, because with the domain increase tomorrow everyday life might be affected by what might or might not constitute an act of war.

Hybrid warfare is a comparatively new concept under discussion in the West, as well as perhaps in the strategic circles in India and China, but it traces its origins in Soviet Union. The Soviet forces practiced and mastered the Reflexive Control theory, what is defined as a “means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action”.

It is a sort of coercion through means of information warfare or Dezinformatsiya, which will incline a great power’s opponents to act in a pre-simulated way.[ii] In that tradition, Russian military has a dedicated information warfare force (VOI: Войска информационных операций, Voiska informatsionnykh operatsii). Per current Russian military operational doctrine, information operations (IO) means everything that would involve information. Therefore, propaganda, disinformation, psy-ops, and even cyber warfare which stays below the bar to invite a retaliation all falls within this arc. [iii] NATO, which started debates on hybrid warfare during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, states that hybrid warfare can essentially be anything which is non-linear, and multi-spectrum conflict.

In NATO’s debate, to paraphrase, modern adversaries make use of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, overt/covert means, which seeks to exploit the full spectrum of modern warfare, and is by no means restricted only to conventional means. [iv]As per this expanded definition, for example, if a neighboring state pushes funding for insurgency within India, that would be also hybrid warfare, and would demand a retaliation.

Even though, as per Russian records, Russia started to debate the implementation of hybrid warfare after the South Ossetian conflict of 2008, between Russia and Georgia, a much more workable approach and explanation was given after the successful Crimea operation. ‘Hybrid warfare’ is considered ‘hybrid’ is because of the mix of both military and non-military approaches.

In Crimea for example, as Renz and Smith pointed out, not just information and psychological operations were played out, but actual Russian military victory and annexation was not done by psy-ops and propaganda warfare. Ultimately, Crimea, was won and annexed by the use of “Little Green Men”, or Russian Spetsnaz, as well as more traditional military massing at the border, operational exercises, and implicit threat of more force projection.[v]

Even though, theoretically in  the Russian debate, information war and influence operations are framed in terms of the correlation of forces, and implies that information warfare is part of broader geopolitical debate, the Crimea operation proved that Russian hybrid warfare, is only war technically when there’s a physical quotient and force projection involved. [vi]

That said, the key elements, of hybrid warfare, therefore, as studied from Crimea and subsequent Russian operations in Ukraine can be identified as these. Denial and deception, which includes operational concealment and obfuscation of troop presence. This is war using troops without colors or flags or insignia, and using special forces as intelligence agents, with plausible deniability.

The second aspect is a more traditional threat of force. This includes, calling snap operations including all commands, massing of troop at borders as psychological operation and brinkmanship, closing of airspace for a short period of time, at the risk of shooting down civilian as well as military aircraft and jamming all radio and cyber communications as part of the snap command and control exercise.

The third aspect is using information rapid warfare, in as many channels of communication possible to shape the ongoing narrative in favour or lacking that, implant as many contradictory narratives that it results in complete communication breakdown and chaos. All of these, simultaneously operational, will constitute the triad of a successful hybrid warfare and might demand some sort of proportionate retaliatory measures. Russia has successfully used this triad, and has fundamentally altered the map of a European country by force, the first time it has happened since the end of the Second world war, altered the balance of power in the region, and compelled other Western powers to stay out of the fray.

Hybrid warfare is the new normal. Information war is a potent measure of destabilisation, and chaos, and chaos always invites force projection, as it begs for power to balance. Enough research is being undertaken in the West, as the world enters further great power rivalry as the post cold war era of liberal peace is over. [vii]The task in front of the Indian strategic community therefore is to urgently corroborate the theory and criteria of hybrid warfare, with the actions of rival and adversarial great powers and proceed to draw up a proportionate response, should such situations arise.



[i] Anja Kaspersen “Is Technology Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace?” World Policy Blog Winter 2016/2017

[ii] Thomas, Timothy L. “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17: 237–256, 2004

[iii] Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? By Mark Galeotti, lecture at Prague available online; Also read Galeotti’s explanation in WOTR, “Russia’s hybrid war as a byproduct of a hybrid state”

[iv] Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde, “Hybrid war – does it even exist?”

[v] Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith. “Russia and Hybrid Warfare – Going Beyond the Label”, Co-authored by Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith, with insights from Tor Bukkvoll, Antulio J. Echevarria, Keir Giles, Sibylle Scheipers, Sir Hew Strachan and Rod Thornton Project “Russia and Hybrid Warfare: definitions, capabilities, scope and possible responses” report 1/2016 Funded by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, government’s analysis, assessments and research activities fund; NATO StratCom

[vi]  Katri Pynnöniemi & Martti J. Kari, Finnish Institute of International Affairs ,”Russia’s New Information Security Doctrine: Guarding a besieged cyber fortress” Dec 2016.

[vii] John Schindler, Feb 2017, Observer “KremlinGate Enters Uncharted Waters as Russian Links Overwhelm DC”; Read also, Maitra, S. “Artificially inflating the threat from Russia does nobody any good” Feb 2017,

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