Hybrid Warfare in the Gray Zones

“He who knows how to wage war conquers another’s army without fighting; takes another’s fortresses without laying siege; crushes another’s state without keeping his army out long,” says the famous ancient Chinese treatise The Art of War, whose authorship is traditionally attributed to the military commander and strategist Sun Tzu (6th-5th centuries B.C.).

Surprisingly, this statement is still very relevant. Moreover, Sun Tzu can be called one of the first theorists in the field of hybrid warfare, which seems to be a modern phenomenon. The treatise of the ancient Chinese philosopher still serves as the basis for theoretical approaches in the activities of the intelligence services of many countries, including the United States.

Speaking of the role of the United States in the formation of the concept of hybrid warfare, it is worth noting that this country was the first to develop and apply the term. Over time, the American (and generally Western) concept of hybrid warfare has been constantly changing, causing a lot of controversy among many researchers and analysts studying hybrid warfare. One such analyst is Leonid V. Savin, who in his book Hybrid War and the Gray Zone examines in detail the genesis of the concept of hybrid warfare, the scholarly developments of Western authors and the further transformation of the term. From the title of the book, it is easy to understand that in addition to hybrid warfare, the work examines another no less remarkable phenomenon, namely, the “gray zone. Thus, in his book Savin examines in detail the evolution of the Western concept of hybrid warfare and the gray zone, and analyzes the changes that have occurred in the approaches to the study of these phenomena in the context of the changing geopolitical picture of the world.

Before turning to the content of the book, I would like to say a few words about the author. Savin is a political scientist, the author of many books on geopolitics and contemporary conflicts, including such works as Towards Geopolitics, Network-centric and Network Warfare: An Introduction to the Concept, Ethnopsychology: Peoples and Geopolitical Thinking, New Ways of Warfare: How America Builds its Empire, and many others. He is the editor-in-chief of the information and analytical portal Geopolitika.ru, following the Eurasian approach. In this regard, even before reading the book, one might assume that Savin in his work will speak in the spirit of Eurasianism, criticizing the unipolar globalist model of the world, promoted by the United States. As it turns out, these assumptions are not mistaken.

Hybrid War and the Gray Zone consists of three parts, which, in turn, are divided into smaller sections. However, before proceeding directly to the consideration of the concepts of “hybrid warfare” and “gray zone,” L.V. Savin highlights some of the changes that have occurred in modern conflicts in recent years. In addition, the author discusses new trends in international relations, in the context of the current geopolitical reality. According to the political scientist, in our complex and contradictory world, the problems of new forms of conflicts should be approached as objectively and cautiously as possible, because a common understanding of any modern problem is not so easy to find.

The first part of the book is devoted to the evolution of the term “hybrid warfare,” from its first mention in 1998 to the present day. Savin examines various interpretations of the concept developed by the Western military-scientific community. Thus, the author studies and analyzes the works of R. Walker, J. Pinder, B. Nemeth, J. Mattis and F. Hoffman, C. Gray, M. Booth, J. McQueen, N. Freyer R.W. Glenn, B. Fleming, as well as US doctrinal documents on hybrid warfare, including the US understanding of Hybrid Warfare (2010), Guide to Organizing a Force Structure to Counter Hybrid Threats (2015), the Military Strategy Analysis of the US (2015), TRADOC G-2, Joint Operating Environment 2035, and the Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World (2016). In addition, Savin examines the approaches of NATO and the EU, which have developed their own concept of hybrid warfare.

It is worth noting that a separate place in all theoretical developments of Western countries on the problems of hybrid warfare is given to Russia. The author of the book devotes a separate chapter to this phenomenon. In particular, Savin describes in detail the approach of U.S. Army Major Amos Fox, who assesses Russia’s actions in the context of hybrid warfare.

After reading this chapter, it is clear why the term “hybrid warfare” is so difficult to understand. The answer is simple: there is no single definition of “hybrid warfare” because, first, each researcher interprets the concept differently, and second, it is constantly changing and evolving depending on the geopolitical context.

In addition, the term is very ambiguous and is interpreted by all sides in their own interests. As for Western interpretations of the concept of hybrid warfare, most of them state that hybrid warfare is waged primarily by Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Obviously, labeling these countries as “hybrid actors” is largely meaningless, since there are hardly any countries (much less major powers) that are not currently engaged in hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare is the new reality (is it new?) in which modern society exists. Moreover, the label of “hybrid actor” is itself part of the hybrid warfare waged by Western countries, among others.

The second part of the book, as one might guess, is devoted to the study of another concept—the “gray zone.” This part again begins with how Russia is labeled. This time Savin cites the example of a statement by Brian Clark of the Hudson Institute, who noted that “Russia is waging an aggressive war in the gray zone against Japan.” Thus, the author begins the topic for a new discussion—about the interpretations of the concept of the “gray zone.”

The second part also examines the evolution of the concept, giving interpretations by the U.S. State Department and Congress, as well as by major think-tanks such as RAND and CSIS. It is worth noting that many approaches are accompanied by illustrations in the form of diagrams, which makes it much easier to understand one or another interpretation of the “gray zone” concept. Savin considers two interpretations of the “gray zone”—as a disputed geographical area, and as an instrument of political struggle. The author presents the cases of China, which has disputed territories in the South China Sea, and Israel with its long-standing activity in the gray zone.

The concept of the “gray zone” is no less ambiguous than the previously considered concept. As in the case of hybrid war, Savin also believes that the “gray zone” in the coming years will serve as a special label for any actions of certain states, primarily Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. After reading this section, one can draw a conclusion similar to the one given earlier on hybrid warfare; and this is no accident: the concepts of “hybrid war” and “gray zone” are indeed very similar and interchangeable in many ways; it is not immediately clear what their difference is, and whether there is one at all. This is what the author devotes the third part of the book to.

Thus, in the third part, the political scientist combines the two concepts under study by analyzing various documents and studies in which “gray zone” and “hybrid warfare” act as synonyms. This part of the book definitively answers the question of whether a war can still be fought without direct combat operations. In addition, the last case study examined by the author, the Russian special operation in Ukraine, once again proves that the actors of hybrid warfare and actions in the “gray zones” are not only Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, but also the “collective” West. New instruments and methods of confrontation are indeed regularly introduced and tested in hot spots by different countries, including both Russia and NATO member states and other international actors.

As for the differences between the two terms, they are indeed difficult to define, and the third part of the book confirms this. As many of the studies examined by Savin show, mixing the concept of “gray zone” and “hybrid warfare” is indeed possible. This phenomenon is most clearly explained by Arsalan Bilal, a member of the Arctic University research group: “The hybrid war itself can take place in the gray zone, and the gray zone, respectively, creates conditions for the hybrid war.”

In summarizing, Savin repeats the thesis that the West will continue to label Russia a “hybrid actor” and accuse it of malicious actions in the gray zone, using political rhetoric and fabricated data to do so. In addition, Savin explains why it is important and necessary to study Western approaches and experience in hybrid warfare.

Speaking about the overall impression of the book, we can say without a doubt that it greatly adds to the body of knowledge on the topic of hybrid warfare, which is currently more relevant than ever. The book will be especially useful for those readers who study new forms of conflicts—information confrontation, cyber warfare, economic wars, etc.

It is also worth noting some nuances. First, despite the small size of the book, one cannot say that it is easy to read. It contains a lot of complex terminology, which is not suitable for the unprepared reader. But we should not forget that this work is intended for a specialist audience—researchers and theorists in the field of conflictology, international relations and military strategy; people who make political decisions and are engaged in the development of information content. In effect, to read this monograph, one must have a certain knowledge base, at least in the field of international relations.

Second, for the most part, the work describes Western research on the topic at hand. Although the author’s point of view and sentiment can be felt “between the lines” while reading the book, I would have liked to see more commentary and explicit discussion by Savin in the work. This would have helped to delve even deeper into the topic of hybrid wars and “gray zones,” as well as to better understand what Western experts are trying to convey to the readers of their works. An expert’s comments are never superfluous.

After reading this book, two important conclusions can be drawn. First, hybrid wars are a reality in which we will always have to exist. We ourselves are part of hybrid warfare; and, in many ways, we are its object. In the age of information society and technology, there is no other way—we have become part of this geopolitical reality whenever we access social networks, read the news, turn on the television, etc. We are all objects of pervasive influence, objects of an endless flow of information that serves the interests of one side or another of the hybrid warfare. The second conclusion, which follows from the first, is the need to be able to perceive critically any information. Even if the source is authoritative (and the sources given in the monograph are very authoritative), all of them also serve someone’s interests and are always biased, as Savin’s book readily proves.

Anastasia Tolokonina is a graduate student, Department of Journalism Theory and History, at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. [This review comes to us at the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.]

Featured: “Die Schachpartie” (The Chess Game), by Lucas van Leyden; painted ca. 1508.

The Imagined Unity of NATO

Will NATO members be able to overcome their differences within the alliance?

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lost much of its meaning. Rather, it lost its initial common purpose of containing the Soviet Union, which at a certain point simply disappeared from the world map. Therefore, since 1991, the alliance began to look for its lost purpose; and while relations between Washington and Moscow were relatively normal, the organization became more and more anachronistic. But then Kosovo happened, followed by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then Crimea in 2014. Thus, as the confrontation between the West and Russia intensified, and as Moscow increasingly disagreed with the policies of the US-led NATO bloc, NATO’s original and true purpose of deterring Russian power was gradually revived.

Nevertheless, there were still serious divisions within the alliance, which were dramatically sidelined when first the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders began and then the announcement of a military special operation. The conflict in Ukraine returned NATO to a common goal and, as many experts have noted, demonstrated the lost unity of NATO, which was especially noticeable after the fiasco in Afghanistan and the humiliation of France with the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal.

The conflict, which increasingly resembled the Cold War—with its dividing line across Europe, competing systems with different views on the enforcement of rules and use of power and force, and spheres of influence between Russia and the West—returned NATO to its role as a counterweight to Moscow, and forced a rethinking of the basics of relations with allies. The cohesion that the bloc’s members had so long been unable to achieve for lack of a common global purpose seemed to have returned to the alliance. But is this unity really that strong? Is it a reality, or is it an illusion that will disappear as soon as the allies fail to find a compromise on existing differences?

Russia: Isolation or Dialogue?

Despite the fact that after the start of the Russian special operation, all NATO members reacted with lightning speed and unity by supplying Ukraine with weapons, anti-Russian sanctions, isolation policies, and attempts to “undo” Russia’s culture, many contradictions emerged within the bloc.

Thus, in April, came the disagreements which arose regarding the further alignment of the relations of the alliance countries with Russia within the conditions of the new geopolitical reality. It was reported by The New York Times, with reference to two high-ranking American officials. According to them, the Baltic states are in favor of breaking off relations with Moscow completely and intend “to bring Russia to its knees.” They are concerned that whatever Russia presents as a victory will seriously damage the European security.

This position was expressed by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who called the dialogue with Russia “senseless,” as well as the Lithuanian Seimas speaker, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, who stated that Europe needs to isolate itself from Russia, not only in political and trade-economic contacts, but also in the sphere of culture. It is worth noting that the United Kingdom also has a tough stance on Russia: the head of the British Foreign Office, Liz Truss, has repeatedly made belligerent statements regarding Russia. For example, during a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Truss said that she would call on the United Kingdom’s Western partners to ensure Ukraine’s victory and warn against attempts to appease Russia.

For their part, countries with more pragmatic and far-sighted policies, such as France, Germany and Turkey, intend to continue contacts with Vladimir Putin and are not ready to break off relations with Russia, despite all accusations of the West against Moscow. Back in April, French President Emmanuel Macron said that his policy of maintaining a dialogue with the Russian leader was the right one. The Chancellor of Germany also supports dialogue, regularly calling Putin on her own initiative and discussing the situation in Ukraine. The head of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is known for his ability to “have his feet in both camps,” combining support for Ukraine, mutually beneficial relations with Russia, but also membership in NATO and attempts to mediate between the parties to the conflict. He also recently expressed his views on future relations with Moscow, saying that Turkey intends to continue relations with Russia “on all levels.”

“We have clearly and courageously told Russia our position on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. But we do not intend to get involved in this show, relations with Russia continue exactly on all levels,” the Turkish leader said, addressing the nation after a cabinet meeting.

However, when talking about disagreements among NATO member states on the further development of relations with Russia, one should not forget who is the connecting link of the alliance. The conflict in Ukraine has once again demonstrated NATO’s continued dependence on the United States. Today, there is no independent European strategy or even a European viewpoint different from the one proposed by Washington. Therefore, Washington will obviously have the last word on the Russian vector of the alliance’s foreign policy.

The Imagined Unity Concerning Ukraine

Three months after the start of the Russian special operation, some NATO members have begun to declare that the priority should be to end hostilities as soon as possible. The bloc members realize that the war will drag on for a long time, and they simply cannot endlessly provide military assistance by supplying weapons—the stocks of weapons will start to run out at some point, and they need them themselves. Moreover, on May 22, Josep Borrell, head of EU diplomacy, said that the EU’s military reserves had already been exhausted because of supplies to Ukraine. “The depletion of reserves as a result of our military assistance to Ukraine is the most obvious example of our defensive shortcomings,” Borrel said.

Many countries have already refused to supply weapons to Ukraine, despite pressure from the alliance to increase arms supplies. For example, Bulgaria initially limited its contribution to Ukraine’s defense to humanitarian aid, helmets and body armor, even though it is a producer of Kalashnikov assault rifles. The reason for Bulgaria’s refusal of military aid to Ukraine, in addition to disputes among government participants, was also the long history of ties with Russia.

Greece has also refused new arms supplies, saying that the country is not obliged to provide military assistance to Ukraine at the expense of its own defense, especially the defense of its islands. According to Greece’s national defense minister, weapons were provided to Kiev from the country’s own stockpiles. Ukraine was also criticized by Germany, which refused to supply Kiev with tanks and heavy equipment.

Presence in Eastern Europe

In addition to disagreements over the provision of weapons to Ukraine, disagreements are emerging among NATO members over how to deploy additional troops in Eastern Europe after the start of Russia’s military special operation. The Washington Post has reported about this controversy.

The source of the disagreement is again the Baltic states and Poland, which demand a significant expansion of the military presence on their territory and new capabilities, such as air defense, which could make further Russian “invasion” much more difficult.

“Direct Russian military aggression against NATO allies cannot be ruled out,” said a confidential joint statement from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia obtained by an American newspaper.

Other countries, notably France and Italy, are highly skeptical that Russia will pose a threat on alliance territory in the near future. Many alliance members are cautious about committing to Eastern Europe, fearing to sign up to large-scale troop deployments that would cost them dearly.

This disagreement stems in part from fears that NATO’s support for more vulnerable allies (i.e., those close to Ukraine’s borders) will end in the post-conflict period. In addition, some countries fear that the alliance will turn its back on other threats on which it has focused in recent years, including terrorism and illegal migration across the Mediterranean Sea. These threats are of particular concern in countries close to North Africa, such as Italy and Spain.

The issue of NATO’s presence on the eastern flank will be one of the topics of discussion at the Madrid summit in June. The same summit will also determine the fate of Sweden and Finland, if Turkey drops its objections.

Erdoğan’s Bargaining

The Russian special operation has forced many countries, including “neutral” Finland and Sweden, to think seriously about their security. And it would seem that their accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be quick and painless, given that they have long been leaning toward the West, despite their declared neutrality. However, things did not go according to plan.

In mid-May, Turkey blocked applications from Finland and Sweden to join NATO, taking its allies by surprise. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said he could not support the inclusion of Sweden and Finland in the military bloc because the organization would then become a “guesthouse for terrorists.” The statement came as a result of the Turkish leader’s discontentment with the fact that members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Hizmet movement (FETO), which are recognized as terrorists in Turkey, are living in Sweden and Finland and participate in the Parliament. The Republic even began to talk about the possible withdrawal of the country from the alliance in case Sweden and Finland join it. Will Turkey block the new NATO expansion, or is Erdogan simply bargaining politically?

Everything that is happening really indicates that Ankara has decided to use the issue of Sweden and Finland joining NATO for its own purposes—as leverage against Washington, despite the statement of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that this is not an example of political bargaining.

The fact is that the crisis in the alliance has brought Ankara’s grievances against its NATO allies to the forefront, while at the same time allowing it to use its position in the bloc to obtain concessions. Of course, an agreement with Erdoğan is feasible, but it ought to be Washington, not Helsinki and Stockholm. Turkey has repeatedly complained about the lack of support it needs to fight Kurdish militants, the main threat to Turkey’s national security. The government has accused Sweden of harboring its opponents and supporting Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. The issue of Ankara’s extradition request also remained open: Sweden and Finland refused to extradite 33 people who are members of organizations banned in Turkey. Another of Erdoğan’s demands was that Sweden and Finland lift the arms embargo, which was imposed on Turkey in 2019.

And these are only the obvious demands made by Turkey. However, there are many more hidden reasons. A key issue may be the Turkish president’s frustration over his failure to establish a stable working relationship with Biden, as he did with Obama and Trump. Therefore, he expects to be persuaded and eventually rewarded for his cooperation. In addition, Erdoğan probably wants a green light from the U.S. for a new military operation in northern Syria. Also unresolved is the issue of the extradition by the US of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in the US in 2016 and accused of helping to circumvent US sanctions against Iran as well as money laundering. Turkey had already sought his extradition, but was unsuccessful. At the same time, elections are coming up in the Republic, and Erdoğan needs to consolidate voters’ votes around him; and given the current state of the country’s economy—record high inflation and a currency that has lost almost half its value—the Turkish leader has to use any leverage to gain the support of the electorate. After all, Turkey’s veto of Sweden and Finland joining NATO may be an attempt to please Russia, since Erdogan has long been famous for his “Turkish loop” stretching from Washington-led NATO to Moscow.

In fact, blocking NATO expansion is not the only case of Turkey’s disruption of the alliance’s unity. This week Erdoğan also lashed out at Greek Prime Minister Kariakos Mitsotakis for trying to block the sale of American F-16 fighter jets to Ankara. “For me, there is no one named Mitsotakis anymore,” the Turkish leader said after a cabinet meeting on Monday, May 23.

Erdogan also said he would cancel a meeting with his Greek counterpart at a previously planned summit later this year. The Turkish president’s comments came a week after the Greek prime minister met with U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill and urged them to consider NATO security when making “defense procurement decisions concerning the eastern Mediterranean.” And while Mitsotakis did not mention Ankara, his comments clearly hinted at a longstanding quarrel with Turkey over alleged airspace violations.

Erdoğan is now perhaps the main source of undermining military bloc unity. Some analysts even speculate that Turkey is acting as Putin’s “Trojan horse” to block NATO expansion and sow turmoil within the alliance. But such assumptions are unlikely to be correct—Erdoğan is not that simple; and he does not want to be anybody’s pawn. The Turkish leader is simply trying to balance his advantages by minimizing his disadvantages.

Oil and Gas Contradictions

It is worth noting that Erdoğan is not the only leader within NATO to sow the seeds of discord in the alliance. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also often has his own point of view, different from the bloc’s member states, on all issues that are on the agenda of NATO or the EU. For example, the Hungarian prime minister continues to block attempts by the European Union to impose an embargo on Russian oil, which is part of the sixth package of sanctions against Russia.

While Hungary has endorsed all previous sanctions packages, including the embargo on Russian coal, Orban stated that an oil embargo would be the equivalent of an “atomic bomb” for the Hungarian economy. The Hungarian prime minister also recently suggested that discussion of the oil embargo be postponed until differences are resolved.

“Discussing the sanctions package at the leadership level in the absence of consensus would be counterproductive. It would only emphasize internal disagreements and not provide a real opportunity to resolve them. Therefore, I propose not to raise this issue at the next meeting of the European Council,” Orban said.

However, Orban’s decision was gladly received in Moscow. The deputy head of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, called Hungary’s rejection of the oil embargo “a courageous step for a voiceless Europe.”

The European members of NATO also had a disagreement over the purchase of Russian gas. The reason for this was Vladimir Putin’s demand that gas imports from Russia be paid for in rubles. When the EU was finally able to work out a mechanism for purchasing Russian gas without violating sanctions, which implies the possibility of opening accounts at Gazprombank, while making payments in dollars or euros, the countries began to have disagreements. Germany, Hungary, France and Italy immediately supported the proposed plan, but Poland had questions about the legal side of the new solution. In addition, some countries were unhappy with the fact that the new rules did not specify the possibility for European companies to open ruble accounts in Gazprombank.

In addition to disagreements over paying for Russian gas in rubles, there are other problems. Unity may also be undermined by the nuclear failures of the French company Electricité de France SA, which are causing fluctuations in European energy markets, threatening to disrupt allies’ plans to completely abandon gas imports from Russia in the future. The company has already cut its nuclear power production plan three times this year, pointing to a worsening energy crisis in the region. The situation could get even worse in winter, as France, traditionally an electricity exporter, could be forced to import more electricity from its neighbors.

“We have a French problem that comes at the wrong time, given the geopolitical situation. The whole European equilibrium could be at risk,” said Nicolas Leclerc, co-founder of the Paris-based energy company Omnegy, in a conversation with Bloomberg.

Therefore, the unity of Europe on the issue of rejection of Russian gas in the near future may be undermined. In particular, Germany, which is 40% dependent on Russian gas and has decided to shut down its own nuclear industry, may have problems. Attempts to replace Russian gas with supplies from the United States, North Africa and the Mediterranean could also fail, since the current climate agenda, investor sentiment, political instability, and territorial disputes between potential fuel suppliers make it difficult for the EU to reject Russian gas.

All of these issues seriously undermine NATO unity that allies have been demonstrating so blatantly of late. Therefore, these contradictions will be a good test for NATO. And if it can pass this test, it will prove its true unity. But if there is no consensus on the disagreements, the alliance will once again prove that this unity is just an illusion, based on the common anti-Russian sentiment (which, in fact, is not apparent in all members of the bloc, either).

Anastasia Tolokonina is a graduate student, Department of Journalism Theory and History, at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. [This article comes to us at the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.]