Hybrid warfare and the future of NATO defence policy
On Saturday 18 March the first 150 of 800 UK armed forces troops landed in Estonia, as part of the UK’s commitment to defending NATO’s Eastern border. The 150 troops will establish a military base in time for the arrival of the further soldiers, tanks and artillery. This will be the UK’s largest deployment to Europe since the end of the Cold War. Much like the Cold War, the role of these troops will be to deter Russian aggression. However, now the threat Russia poses is not nuclear or conventional invasion, but hybrid warfare.
Hybrid warfare is a somewhat contested term, but is broadly considered to be the combination of elements of conventional warfare, irregular warfare, cyberwarfare and information warfare. This combined approach aims to destabilise regions for strategic gain, whilst at the same time avoiding direct attribution. Causing instability weakens opponents and could facilitate regime change or even justify armed intervention.
The threat of hybrid warfare was made apparent by the Ukraine crisis. Following the Euromaidan revolution, Russia began a hybrid warfare campaign against the new regime. In Crimea the appearance of unmarked Russian special forces – “the little green men” –created a sense of confusion which allowed Russian forces to swiftly annex the region. The pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, mostly consisting of ethnic Russians, was supported with conventional weapons and special forces, whilst cyber-attacks were directed against Ukrainian infrastructure. Throughout this conflict a concerted information war has been waged to counter these accusations and encourage anti-western sentiment. This hybrid approach has enabled Russia to sustain a long-lasting conflict, which has crippled the Ukrainian economy and left the country divided in stalemate.
Post-Soviet states, such as Estonia, now fear similar tactics being used against them, particularly due to their own Russian diaspora communities.
Hybrid warfare poses a unique challenge to NATO, one that traditional deterrence cannot overcome. Unlike a conventional attack, hybrid warfare involves subversion and the use of communities within the attacked state to avoid attribution and retaliation. NATO’s article 5 states that if one member state is attacked, all other member states must act collectively in defence. It is unclear whether a hybrid attack would fit into this conventional model of collective defence. The uncertainty and confusion created by hybrid warfare makes it problematic for democratic nations to justify retaliation – particularly as the threat of great power conflict or even nuclear escalation remains ever present. This has led some commentators, including from the Labour party, to question whether NATO would uphold the principal of collective defence if a state such as Estonia were attacked in such a way.
Nuclear weapons and large conventional militaries cannot deter hybrid warfare. The use of hybrid warfare exploits NATO members’ weaknesses – their democratic politics, free press and a lack of cohesion between the US and Europe and old and new member states. This has already enabled Russia to flex its muscles and achieve regional objectives. NATO must now establish a new form of deterrence and defence policy that can overcome the challenges hybrid warfare poses.
The UK’s deployment in Estonia and NATO’s overall drive to increase its forward presence along its eastern border is part of a new form of deterrence. But this decision also generates certain risks that if not managed well could be detrimental to regional stability.
The UK’s deployment should not be seen within the prism of conventional deterrence. Whilst the number of UK troops is significant, it is not comparable to the thousands of Russian forces across the border. The role of the UK forces is not to be able to repel an invasion. Their function is as a tripwire and as observers, this should deter hybrid warfare.
Whilst some have questioned whether the UK would retaliate if Estonia was attacked, it is unquestionable that the UK – and NATO as a whole – would respond if UK forces were killed in fighting – this is the tripwire effect. The risk of the conflict rapidly escalating is enhanced by the British presence, thereby reducing the likelihood of Russian aggression.
Additionally, UK armed forces can act as observers, providing intelligence from the ground. This will be vital in countering misinformation and reducing uncertainty: a characteristic that limited the international response to the Ukraine crisis. UK forces will act as observers in Estonia: providing live information that can be used to make more informed policy decisions and to combat misinformation.
However, the UK military deployment also poses several risks. Pro-Russian media have already begun framing the deployment as aggression towards Russia. If this narrative is not effectively challenged it will mean the operation is counterproductive. The Russian diaspora in Estonia is not well integrated, with many feeling greater attachment to Russia and predominantly watching Russian language television. If this diaspora is convinced Britain is acting as an aggressor, it could lead to instability and community agitation. For the deployment to be a success, community relations must be a priority.
Deterrence policy cannot only be military; it must also be political, social and economic. Russian speaking diasporas must be treated equally, made to feel like part of the country, thrive economically and have their culture respected. Otherwise these communities will be more susceptible to Russian influence. Moreover, bolstering the political institutions, economies and societies of eastern NATO and EU member states will prove to be the greatest defence to Russian aggression.
The Labour party helped found NATO in 1949. Now they ought to campaign to develop the institution for the future, not oppose it or question our commitment to Article 5. Labour must push to renew and evolve NATO to better reflect the security challenges of the present and the future.
The increased forward presence in NATO’s eastern borders, typified by UK’s Estonia deployment, is a positive start. However, more must be done to tackle the threat of hybrid warfare – including political, social and economic programmes to bolster the EU and NATO’s eastern most member states. In addition to this, a sophisticated approach to countering both information and cyber warfare must be developed. Brexit and the Trump election are unhelpful setbacks for European security. Nevertheless we should champion the evolution of a NATO fit to defend Europe in the twenty first century.
Image: Defence Images