Small State Hybrid Warfare
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.
Having finished my internship at NATO and having just attended a conference on the (dis)integration of Europe, I have been thinking about (ir)regular fighters. Recent and not-so-recent events in Ukraine and other regions of South Eastern Europe demonstrate that the term 'insurgent' must always be defined in relation to a concrete situation of established authority, the history of that authority, and the degree of legitimacy that authority caries. As much as the term 'terrorist' relates to methods, and 'freedom fighter' relates to goals, 'insurgent' relates primarily to a positional (i.e. asymmetric) relationship vis-a-vis an opponent, i.e. an authority in the from of a government, an empire, etc.
Defining 'insurgent' only becomes problematic (in terms of political neutrality) when it is applied to a concrete set of actors. To avoid bias, one would have to determine empirically the identity of the legitimate authority. In some situations, such identifications will seem facile and remain uncontested, but it others such identifications will be one of the reasons for conflict and thus one of the issues to be resolved politically (or militarily).
Without expanding on what methods could be employed to determine 'authority' from 'insurgent', it will suffice to say here that insurgent is just as polemical a term as terrorist, if not more. If we look to Ukraine, all sorts of terms have been used in public discourse (NAZI, little green men, etc.). The term the most contested, however, is insurgent and the like (e.g. bandit, rebel). In a situation of contested legitimacy, where all actors are trying to win popular support, the term 'insurgent' becomes subjective and of little analytic use.
I continue to believe that one of the fundamental ways to improve the social sciences today is to improve the concepts used. One area where this is especially needed is in the study of political violence.
As I am currently conducting an internship at the US Mission to NATO, I have not had much time to dedicate to my research. But I have managed to go to NATO's library during my lunch breaks. NATO's library holds a great number of books on insurgency and counterinsurgency. Moreover, these books are often grouped into a series of thematic bibliographies. One of my favorites is the one on irregular warfare. The library also develops a series of online guides, on subjects such as counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Looking through the thematic bibliography on counterinsurgency forces one to conclude that the study of irregular warfare is quite affected by terminological trends and fads. Year by year, the books often respond to the latest foreign policy debate. Being policy relevant is a laudable endeavor, but this should not come at the expense of analytical rigor. Rather than these two interests having to be balanced, I believe the former should be based on the latter -- policy guidance that is not based on analytical rigor could even be considered unethical.
The first step towards analytical rigor is conceptual clarity, and I ( and others) believe this is currently lacking in counterinsurgency studies and irregular warfare studies writ large. I would argue that those who seek to study current events should always critically examine the concepts they employ, especially when these concepts are borrowed from governments and the press. When scholars do not have the benefit of hindsight, they should always ask whether other concepts (terms and definitions) could better describe and differentiate their objects of study. We could start, for example, by asking: what is counterinsurgency? And then move on to asking: what is the opposite of counterinsurgency? With these answers in hand, we could then develop a universal conceptualization of counterinsurgency ready to be made operational in the study of any historical period, even the current one.