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The best defence against hybrid warfare is methodical skepticism

Simon BennettIt has finally dawned on the West’s leaders that the impetus behind the Cold War – a deep mistrust between East and West – endures and that, rather than ending, the Cold War has evolved into a struggle between totalitarianism and pluralism, oppression and freedom.

The New Cold War sees various instruments deployed, from armed intervention, as with Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea and Donbas, to espionage and propaganda. The latter are instruments of hybrid warfare, a form of coercive engagement. Hybrid warfare involves using non-military, soft-power instruments to:

  • cultivate influence with potential allies
  • secure advantage over perceived foes.

The instruments of hybrid warfare include:

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  • overseas aid. Framed as beneficence, monies are invested to secure influence
  • political donations. Monies are donated to politicians, parties, trade unions and other social actors who share the donor’s worldview
  • propaganda, vectored through traditional communication instruments such as TV, radio and the printed word and through new mechanisms such as the Internet and social media (which should be called ‘anti-social media’ – there is nothing social about runaway libel)
  • the cultivation of dependencies in basic amenities. Witness Russia’s efforts to gain traction over the EU via the Nord Stream project. Putin has weaponized hydrocarbons and food

Characteristics of hybrid or grey zone warfare include:

  • Cheaper than armed conflict, hybrid warfare appeals to economically disadvantaged countries
  • Campaigns are relentless. Continuous threat induces paranoia, suspicion and in-fighting and fatigues the enemy
  • Specific populations, such as trade union and political party memberships, are groomed to create proxies.

The success of a hybrid warfare campaign is measured against a variety of metrics. These include:

  • paranoia
  • in-fighting
  • corruption
  • days lost to industrial action
  • street protests
  • civil unrest
  • policy shifts that favour the instigator of the hybrid warfare campaign.

There is a simple logic behind hybrid warfare: the less stable a state, the more malleable it becomes. Hybrid warfare’s appeal is long-standing. Here are two examples:

Post-war Italy

In 1945, after almost six years of war, much of Europe, including Italy, lay in ruins. In his Iron Curtain speech, Churchill had warned of Russia’s intentions. Like the great empires of the past, Russia understood the world in terms of spheres of influence. Stalin, shocked at the slaughter inflicted on his people during the Great Patriotic War, sought security in conquest.

In 1947, the Russian leader called on Europe’s communist parties to seize power. In 1948, workers’ committees collapsed Czechoslovakia’s democratically-elected government. The loss of Czechoslovakia shocked Truman’s America. In Italy, the Popular Front, a coalition of left-leaning parties, threatened to take power in the general election of April 1948. Concerned at the possibility of losing not only Czechoslovakia but also Italy to the Soviets, Truman sanctioned a hybrid warfare campaign against the Popular Front. The campaign featured:

  • soft power instruments such as letter writing. Italian Americans were encouraged to write to family members in the old country encouraging them to vote for the Christian Democrats
  • the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) first covert intervention in a foreign election. The CIA provided financial support to politicians who stood against the Popular Front
  • the U.S. Marshall Plan of financial aid to struggling European economies. Framed as a no-strings-attached gesture of goodwill to erstwhile allies, the Marshall Plan was, in reality, an exercise in geopolitical manipulation intended to prevent vulnerable countries such as Greece and Italy from being recruited to the Communist Bloc.

Truman’s hybrid warfare campaign against the Popular Front was supplemented by a campaign run by the Catholic Church, whose leader, Pope Pius XII, established Election Committees that highlighted to Italy’s electors the atheistic, indeed, heretical leanings of the Communist Party. There were threats of excommunication. Thus terrorized, many of Italy’s Catholics turned against the Communist Party. The Church likened its campaign against the Popular Front to a Holy War. Interestingly, during the Second World War, Pope Pius supported Mussolini’s fascists.

Today’s Europe

Russia’s inexorable slide into totalitarianism has seen that country’s use of hybrid warfare increase to the point where European states are implementing ever-more costly, complex and invasive countermeasures.

The UK, for example, has taken Russia Today – a vector for Kremlin propaganda – off the air. Regardless, the Kremlin persists with its hybrid warfare campaign against the West. In his documentary Russia – the Empire Strikes Back, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg noted how Baltnews, a web-based conduit for Kremlin propaganda, had, in line with the Kremlin’s narrative of an expansionist Nazi Europe, claimed Mein Kampf to be the best-selling book in Latvia, a NATO and EU member state. In reality, Mein Kampf was a poor seller. Putin’s weaponization of essentials has produced a cost of living crisis that in Britain has caused serious industrial unrest – a coup for the Kremlin.

The best defence against hybrid warfare is methodical skepticism, the essence of which is encapsulated in the ABC of policework: Accept nothing. Believe no-one. Check everything. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated – by anyone.

Dr. Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. He’s interested in the organizational, social, economic and political origins of risk. He has worked with the Royal Air Force and U.K. National Police Air Service on human-factors issues. His latest book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach, was published by Routledge in 2022.

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