Hybrid war at work in the post-Soviet space

War is based on the use of the military force to dominate or weaken an opponent, to ensure that it no longer represents a potential threat. For centuries, victory relied on the size of the army, but the traditional approach changed due to nuclear deterrence. Thus, peace on the European continent is also due to the psychological trauma of the Second World War and the Cold War.

This article was first published on The CDA Institute blog. 

However, if Europeans think peace and diplomacy are the only means to limit territorial conflicts, one can argue that the world does not necessarily agree with them. For example, the United States is not nearly so reluctant to use force according to its own geopolitical imperatives. China is also no exception, evidenced by tensions with Japan concerning ownership over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands and its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, not to mention its military presence in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, also reflect Moscow’s desire to increase the size of the national territory without consultation with other powers.

In the case of Russia, expansion in Europe has become increasingly problematic due to NATO’s presence in the region. Given the Kremlin’s policy, it would ideally have no objection to expand in the Baltic states, much as it did in Crimea and Ukraine. To take as an example the case of Estonia, a pro-Western Nordic country located in post-Soviet space, Russia would have no objection to finally rid itself of an opponent that has never ceased to oppose Moscow’s influence on the continent.

Yet one should note that, despite its military power, the Kremlin has been unable to consider military intervention. Even if Estonia is less than 1.3 million inhabitants and has no nuclear weapons, it is a member of two crucial organisations – NATO and the European Union. Consequently, and in accordance with Article 5 of Alliance’s Washington Treaty: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all of them.” An attack against Tallinn therefore implies a confrontation with all the powers of the Alliance, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. If Russia wishes to recover Estonia, the Kremlin must find ways to make war without intervening directly. It is in this context that the principle of hybrid warfare makes sense.

If NATO Article 5 is crystal clear regarding military intervention, it is much less so in relation to country providing armed support in the event of civil war. In this scenario, it is the Russian-speaking residents of Estonia who would play a major role, given that they currently account for over 25 percent of the population and experience some attraction to Moscow’s policy. The Kremlin could exploit local claim to create tensions within the country to destabilize national unity. For example, Moscow could use its media apparatus to present a reform of Tallinn in a negative light, and encourage Russian speakers to oppose to it. Moscow did not hesitate to do so with the Bronze Soldier demonstration in 2007. The aim would be to push the citizens of the same country to oppose, and if possible to start a civil war, in order to weaken the local government.

If a civil war begins, Moscow might get involved in the conflict without deploying its troops in the territory. The Kremlin could send arms via mafia networks, which could help protect the pro-Russian citizens living in Estonia and give them a strategic advantage. To a similar extent, Russia could finance the pro-Russian by funding organisations involved in the conflict in favour of the Kremlin. This first step would be to ensure Tallinn is in the grips of constant insecurity and considerably weaken the country economically.

Subsequently, the Kremlin could push pro-Russian residents to go further, encouraging them to take power in the country, or separate to found a new independent state. This objective is reminiscent in Ukraine with Novorossia, in Moldova with Transnistria, and in Georgia with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the case of a victory by pro-Russian forces and a reversal of the Estonian government, Russia would then be able to play its relationship with the new government to encourage them to get out of NATO and the European Union and to integrate with Russia or the Eurasian Union. In the case of partial success, the creation of a new de facto state would allow Moscow to continue to economically weaken Tallinn by building relationships with the separatists.

To date, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia can’t apply to become members of the European Union and NATO because of the presence of de facto states on their territories, which provide a means of pressure for Moscow in what it considers to be its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. In view of the Estonian case, the hybrid warfare concept – often described as contemporary – seems to rest on the adage of Philip II of Macedon “διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε” (divide and rule), and based on pre-existing ethnic, economic, political or cultural tensions within a state. It remains to be seen whether NATO is fully prepared to deal with such a scenario.

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Cover: Model “little green men” – masked unmarked soldiers in green army uniforms wielding Russian military weapons and equipment within Ukraine during the 2014 Crimean crisis, when said soldiers occupied and blockaded the Simferopol International Airport, most military bases in Crimea and the parliament in Simferopol.

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About the author: Michael E. Lambert

Michael E. Lambert is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Sorbonne Doctoral College and the University of Tampere in Finland. He is a researcher at the French Ministry of Defence and visiting scholar at the University of Ottawa. He is participating in the exchange program between Sorbonne University and the University of Ottawa within the Mitacs Globalink program. His research focuses on the emergence of smart power Transatlantic (TTIP, NATO) following the Cold War, on the soft and smart power of the European Union and the Eurasian Union in the states of the Eastern Partnership also the use de facto states by Russia.