If war is politics, but with different means, why can small states not conduct hybrid warfare? Take the so-called Nordic and Baltic states. For now, nationalist/illiberal/populist parties do not hold much power in these states (n.b. Norway might be the exception). This means that they all have an interest in seeing Russia not become poorer and weaker, but rather more likeminded. These states (i.e. the states’ leaders and many of their citizens) would approve of Russia becoming more liberal and less belligerent. An ideal Russia would be a pro-free trade Russia, a Russia that give rights to minorities of all sorts, a Russia that prefers cooperation and dialogue over conflict, and a Russia that could offer an alternative to the United States, should it continue down its path towards illiberalism, if not authoritarianism. In short, the Nordic and Baltic states could take shelter under a liberal democratic Russia. Or as Joschka Fischer put it, “a Europe without its North Atlantic backstop has no choice but to turn toward Eurasia”.
Would not some sort of whole-of-government, hybrid approach be an effective way to influence Russian politics? In other words, since President Vladimir Putin is already accusing ‘the West’ of interference, ingerence and regime change, would it not make sense to actually engage in such practices? Moreover, since most of these states are EU MS, would it not make sense to cooperate with EU institutions and agencies in some of these practices?
Beyond the reference to a whole-of-government approach, the second characteristic of hybrid warfare is the targeting of local populations. In other words, hybrid warfare aims to wine ‘hearts and minds’ with ‘mixed methods’. This means that the first tactic in this war to convert Russians must be found in the realm of communication, propaganda and psychological operations. Here, the Baltic states but other Eastern Europeans have the necessary resource: Russophones. From Helsinki to Sofia, investigative journalists, public relations firms and advertising agencies could be employed to tailor messages that resonate with Russia’s various communities – there might even be some jobs for all those unemployed anthropologists and linguists. The tricky ethical question would be whether to engage in ‘fake news’ and fictious online profiles. If the existence of these small states is in question, then the answer for them is relatively simple: all is fair in war.
Economically, trade liberalisation might make more sense than sanctions. In line with the cultural war that took place during the Cold War, these states should use their best weapon: soft power. Of course, diplomats and politicians can make speeches and send artists into Russia, but the private sector would be a far more effective actor. In addition to spreading liberal values via Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, private US media companies could produce goods destined for Russian consumers. But maybe the Nordic states would have the best resource: these states are known as “norm entrepreneurs” (Ingebritsen 2002). Their national brands are recognised and respected – the trick would be to get these brands ‘respected’ in Russia. One idea would be to sell Nordic goods and services in Russia. Simple things, from Ikea kits to luxury furniture could open the way to more exhaustive trade relations, selling all types of things to all types of budgets. Most importantly, what would be hiding in these trojan horses is not the value of capitalism and free trade, as was the case during the Cold War, but other liberal values, such as worker’s rights, environmental standards, gender equality, fair trade, etc. Later, these private sector initiatives could be coupled with free trade agreements that have strict regulations on these matters (cf. the work of Alina V. Vladimirova on the normative power of trade agreements).
The final ingredient in this small state hybrid warfare would be covert operations, focusing on causing division within Russia, not just between liberal and illiberals, but also between communities, regions, and between Russia and its neighbouring states. Politicians could be corrupted, factories could be sabotaged, marches turned violent, etc. The question here, once again, would be how far the small states are prepared to go, i.e. how much the means justify the ends.