With Russia, the West must cut to the chase and speak the language of power

Written by Sten Rynning, Head of Center

Hybrid war is upon us, more or less engineered by Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel and now refined by Russia in its bid to destabilize Ukraine. Hybrid war is a peculiar war effort that integrates asymmetry (militias, insurgency, terror, public info campaigns) and symmetry (regular forces and big weaponry). A smart hybrid actor will know how to scale the campaign to maximize confusion, maintain surprise, and deny the opponent pause to reflect.

Little green men 

Russia has been ingenious in this respect. Little green men, a veneer of legal arguments, local militias - it all gives Russia deniability and hampers Western diplomacy. Perhaps its public diplomacy has been the most impressive piece: witness the ongoing Western debate on whether the war is really the fault of NATO's twenty-year old decision to enlarge the Alliance. 

Sadly, the Western response has been inappropriate. It has been as hybrid as Russia's campaign - involving sanctions, a degree of military mobilization, information campaigns, diplomatic talks, and governance support to Ukraine. A hybrid threat begets a hybrid response, apparently. However, the impact on Russia so far has been nill. The latest round of Minsk peace diplomacy in February was a victory for President Putin who secured a deal to fragment Ukraine and maintain open borders as long as the fighting is ongoing. Peace, it was agreed, is in Putin's hands. Russia won.

A hybrid war 

The West has misunderstood this hybrid war. Russia is not Hezbollah. Hezbollah is by its very nature a hybrid actor - part social movement, part militia, part political party - but Russia obviously is not. Hezbollah may beget a hybrid response by way of its nature but not Russia. Russia is a territorial state which plays power politics and understands the language of inter-state power - a direct language of threatened escalation and political denial. The West once knew how to play this game. It had a solid policy of coordinated deterrence and diplomacy whereby the threatened punishment of aggression enabled deal making.

I suspect that the West has preferred hybrid policy to deterrence because deterrence is really difficult. It requires unity and political determination  - to right Russia's wrong and to put Western money where the mouth is. And frankly, deterrence is not on the agenda: its Cold War flavor is not popular among Western decision-makers and publics. President Putin knows this, of course, and so hybrid war plays to his advantage.

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