Why Russia and China's hybrid warfare could go terribly wrong

by Robert Patman / 12 November, 2017

Russian troops without insignias in Ukraine in 2014. Photo/Getty Images

Russia and China are using hybrid forms of warfare that disguise their military objectives, but that may ultimately backfire. 

Since 2014, the crisis in Ukraine has seriously challenged the West’s binary understanding of “war” and “peace”, and the term “hybrid war” has come into use to describe the Russian offensive in the former Soviet republic.

Hybrid warfare employs a combination of military and non-military means in peacetime to achieve traditional military objectives, such as territorial control or conquest, with the aim of changing the “facts on the ground” without resorting to actual conflict. Ambiguity is the name of the game: troops and operations are managed to make it unclear to the “enemy” and the media whether the forces are under a national command authority.

Whereas Ukraine could be described as a classic hybrid war, there is evidence that China has used the same strategy to support its long-standing claims to territory and resources in the South China Sea.

The emergence of hybrid warfare highlights the profoundly different security environment of the post-Cold War era. Since the early 1990s, intra-state war has substantially displaced inter-state strife as the dominant pattern of conflict.

However, after a disastrous armed humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, the United States tended to assume that conflicts within states, especially in failed ones, were not a strategic threat.

But since 9/11, that stance has been revised. In the wake of the September 2001 attacks that killed thousands on American soil, the US and its allies joined Russia – which had been periodically fighting secessionist Chechen rebels after 1994 – in waging a war on terror.

It was in this context that the US and allied states encountered hybrid-warfare strategies in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq that had become a hallmark of many civil conflicts, and now several governments have adopted this approach.

China’s navy on manoeuvres in the South China Sea in February. Photo/Getty Images

Little green men

In its campaigns in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has deployed its own land forces wearing military camouflage uniforms, and often face masks, but without insignia that would clearly identify them as Russian military. By claiming the well-equipped and well-trained soldiers were merely home-grown separatists, the Russians created the desired ambiguity. The international media sometimes referred to these mysterious forces as “little green men” who appeared in numbers too large and with capabilities too sophisticated to fit the Kremlin’s description as locally formed separatist groups.

Nevertheless, the strategy achieved plausible deniability long enough to change the facts on the ground. Nato officials estimated in March 2015 that more than 1000 Russian military and intelligence personnel were deployed in eastern Ukraine. It’s probable that they managed or supervised the operation of sophisticated weapons systems, including tanks, artillery, air defence and command, control and communications networks supporting separatist forces.

Russia’s Ukraine campaign is probably the starkest example of hybrid warfare that includes the use of lethal force. But China has been engaged in something similar in the South China Sea. Through the use of non-military and paramilitary forces such as its coast guard, fisheries enforcement vessels, oil exploration ships, oil-drilling platforms, Chinese-registered commercial ships and fishing boats, it has been exerting influence and asserting its territorial and maritime claims in the disputed waters.

China’s version of hybrid warfare has so far remained non-lethal. Nevertheless, serious military hardware, including fighter aircraft, air defence missiles and artillery, is being deployed on contested islands.

Since 2013, China has, among other things, engaged in island construction at seven disputed sites in the Spratlys; declared a special air defence zone hundreds of kilometres into the East China Sea; rejected, last year, an international tribunal’s ruling on its claims in the waters; and facilitated the convoying of more than 300 fishing vessels to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, also last year.

US and Philippine personnel on an exercise in May. Photo/Getty Images

Redrawing boundaries

The “peacetime” use of hybrid warfare has had dramatic results: boundaries have been redrawn in Europe and new artificial islands created in the South China Sea. As the Russian and Chinese examples show, operations carried out below the threshold of military conflict have enabled Moscow and Beijing to advance their political and territorial agendas without triggering forceful military responses from the US and other state players.

But tactical gains should not be confused with strategic triumphs. Hybrid warfare can stimulate international counter-responses that in the long term will nullify and undermine stealthy efforts to covertly and coercively change the status quo on the ground.

Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 triggered several rounds of European Union and US sanctions against Moscow’s already struggling economy and has served to significantly bolster American and EU support for the elected government in Kiev. At the same time, Nato has strengthened its presence around Ukraine, leaving the Putin regime more geopolitically isolated than before the beginning of the crisis in 2013.

Equally, China’s salami-slicing tactics in the disputed areas of the South China Sea have generally alarmed and alienated many of Beijing’s neighbours and provided a key stimulus for the US Administrations of both Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, to reinvigorate the already strong influence of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region.

In particular, Beijing’s actions have served to bolster the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances and provoked stern warnings from Washington and its allies that China’s moves could make conventional military conflict more likely in the future.

Ultimately, countries that engage in hybrid warfare may find the strategic costs outweigh the tactical gains.

Robert G Patman is a professor of international relations at the University of Otago.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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