Over 5 years of Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine provide lessons how to make Ukraine stronger
Colonel (ret.) Thiele is Chairman of the Berlin based “Politisch-Militärische Gesellschaft” (Political-Military Society), President of EuroDefense (Germany) and CEO of StratByrd Consulting. In several decades of politico-military service he has gained an extensive broad political, technological, academic and military background. Ralph Thiele has studied business administration (MBA) and political science in Munich. In several commanding officer assignments he has developed valuable operational expertise. As Commander of the Bundeswehr Transformation Centre he has introduced Network Enabling Capabilities into the German Armed Forces. While serving in the personal staffs of the German Armed Forces Vice Chief of Defence Staff and the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and in the Planning and Policy Staff of the German Minister of Defence, Ralph Thiele has been directly involved in numerous national, European and NATO strategic, technological and political issues. In his academic assignments he has been Chef de Cabinet and Chief of Staff at the NATO Defense College in Rome and Director of Faculty at the German General Staff and Command College in Hamburg. He has also been involved in numerous national and European Security Research Programmes. Ralph Thiele has published numerous books and articles and is lecturing widely in Europe, Asia, in the U.S. and Brazil on current comprehensive security affairs, network enabling technologies and also historical issues.
1. You refer to the "Russian" model of hybrid warfare to describe Russia's annexation of Crimea and destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine. Could you please elaborate as to a set of hybrid techniques that Russia has used in Ukraine since 2014, and what makes them so efficient?
Using the hybrid warfare model to advance its goals, Russia exploited strategic ambiguity through a blend of soft and hard power. In particular, Russia flooded the region with illegal weapons. It used mercenaries to destroy regional infrastructure. It weakened the local economy and blocked state functions such as law enforcement, justice, and social welfare. It caused a refugee crisis. In particular, it exploited social media and employed information warfare. This hybrid approach has been reinforced by the threatened use of conventional and even nuclear weaponry.
Russia pursued its objectives through a combination of local sympathizers and Russian troops that consisted of low-footprint special operations without insignia to keep the narrative of local resistance alive as long as possible. Obviously, this approach worked well in Crimea as it was, in part, supported by the local population. In the Donbas region, it worked less well. Ukrainian military success against the separatists needed to be stopped by the Russian military.
Four principal factors have contributed to Russian efficiency:
1. Thorough conceptual and operational preparation to include respective training and exercises
2. The lack of respective preparation, capabilities, and resilience on the Ukrainian side
3. A lack of trust in the own government (due to corruption and weak governmental performance) and consequently a lack of societal resilience on the Ukrainian side
4. The strategic surprise of the Russian intervention and the respective unpreparedness of international partners to support Ukraine with adequate means.
In my judgment, all four factors apply until today. Of course, the surprise factor is gone. But not insufficient international preparedness.
2. Did Russia plan its hybrid warfare activities against Ukraine since the early 1990s?
Not from my perspective. Of course, there has been discomfort with the separation of Ukraine from the Russian perspective. A couple of essential aspects, such as Russia's dependence on agricultural products from Crimea and Ukraine's military industry, have been of strategic relevance. Yet, Russia had plenty of its problems in the early 1990s. I have been professionally dealing with these and recall food problems in St. Petersburg, shoot-outs in major industries, mafia controlling banks, and ten thousand of scientists tempted to leave Russia and taking their competencies and knowledge about weapons of mass destructions for good money to places such as Libya.
Yet, there is a valid point about the early 1990s - lessons learned from U.S. technology meeting high-end Russian technology during the liberation of Kuwait by U.S. troops. In 1991 Russia became aware of the enormous importance of electronic warfare (E.W.) capabilities and joint surveillance, acquisition, reconnaissance, and targeting (JSTAR) in military operations. Although highly war experienced and equipped with modern Soviet military systems, the Iraqi forces stood no chance of successfully resisting the U.S. military that could build its attack on superior E.W. and JSTAR. Such an extremely devastating experience had a lasting effect on Russian operational and armament concepts and paid off during the Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine.
Today, the modern challenges in dealing with Anti-Access/Area Denial environments have brought E.W. back to the forefront. This applies, in particular, to hybrid challenges that emphasize ambiguity. If you look at the situation in August 2014 and January 2015, the Russian armed forces needed to run two large-scale offensives involving thousands of troops, to salvage the military situation and enable Moscow to negotiate favorable ceasefire agreements at Minsk. E.W. and ISR had a significant role. Russian troops primarily used massive artillery fire to destroy Ukrainian units from a distance. Separatist militias were deployed as screening forces to reduce casualties among Russian regulars and to spot and identify targets for the artillery.
Additionally, Russian forces were equipped with anti-air systems and sophisticated electronic warfare equipment to keep the Ukrainian air force at bay. Long-range systems explicitly served to deter a local conflict from escalating at Moscow's expense, for example, via Western military intervention. As a result, Russian forces could be deployed with a low footprint, primarily relying on local proxies, special operations forces, or private contractors while reinforcing the appearance of a local resistance movement.
3. Can we expect Russian military operation against Ukraine in the foreseeable future, or Russia will continue to resort to the use of hybrid warfare techniques to destabilize Ukraine?
The answer depends on future Ukrainian approaches in dealing with the crisis. Russia is interested in keeping the situation in "limbo," as it is – a weak and vulnerable Ukraine and the West not capable of intervening.
To my understanding, Russia will not allow any significant change unless the international boycott ends that has been launched in response to the Crimean crisis, and the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Russia is reintegrated and respected again as a global player in the international community. Until then, Ukraine remains a training space for the employment of Russian hybrid warfare techniques.
4. Has Ukraine currently successfully combated Russia's hybrid warfare techniques since 2014? What steps should Ukraine take to address them more effectively?
Clearly not. Russia can freely choose what elements of hybrid warfare it wants to employ and in what composition. Russia can escalate and deescalate the situation at its disposal. The main weakness and consequently, the preferred angle of attack remains corruption in Ukraine. Corruption weakens the trust of people in the government and its institutions. This reduces resilience against Russian hybrid threats.
To get over the "limbo" situation as of today, Ukraine needs to do the following:
• An international situation, where Russia is no longer an outsider
• A government and government agencies that serve their people well
• Armed Forces and other national instruments of power (intelligence services/ police/ etc.) that are well prepared to combat national (traditional and hybrid) threats with multidomain capabilities. This requires well-considered and implemented Jointness, Interagency, Information sharing concepts with a capable C4I backbone, building on evolving disruptive technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, drones, space, E.W., and cyber.
• Comprehensive Situational Awareness across all relevant domains – land, air, sea, space, and cyber space.
• Reliable partnerships. Yet, why should anybody help Ukraine, if it cannot help itself?
5. Have there been any substantial changes in Russia's military and informational capabilities influencing its overall strategic approach towards Ukraine since 2014? Where do you think Russia has failed and succeeded in Ukraine, and what lessons Ukraine could learn from that?
In principle, in Ukraine (and beyond), Russia undertakes a job training in hybrid warfare. Its strategic objectives have been achieved, i.e., to achieve political fragmentation of Ukraine via federalization and retain Russian influence. Operationally, Russia acts agile and ready to learn.
It would be an overstatement to link rising Russian military capabilities with the developments in Ukraine. The driving factor for Russian planning is likely contingencies in its geopolitical areas of interest and competitive capabilities vis-à-vis the USA, NATO, and China and in particular, the capability to successfully deal with Anti-access (A2) and area denial (A.D.) challenges.
In A2/AD traditionally, the focus is predominantly on sophisticated, longer-range adversary capabilities and methods – such as ballistic missiles, submarines, weapons of mass destruction, and offensive space and cyberspace assets. A critical gap has been the consideration of A2/AD challenges emerging from outside the realm of traditional military competition and violence. When opponents effectively combine political, economic, and informational tools with critical military capabilities, the A2/AD challenge becomes more acute and potent. Thus dangerous, no less technical methods such as terrorism, proxy warfare, or weaponized social media have opened alternative "hybrid fronts."
Information warfare (I.W.) is part of the game. It appears that Russia has the global lead in contemporary I.W. Russian IW has contributed to the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. In Ukraine, social media-based, narrative-focused Russian attacks, including disinformation, have been common. The ubiquity and anonymity of internet communications have offered Russia new I.W. opportunities. Among the latest developments in this arena has been the rise of professional "trolls" and other "opinion agents." Yet, such operations can be de-camouflaged and countered through the effective, real-time analysis of open-source information. This requires artificial intelligence and dedicated, sophisticated tools. Of course, it remains a challenge.
In sum, the weak state and the lack of trust of the population provide for outstanding attack vectors. These are at the core of Ukraine's vulnerability. Everything else can be tackled step by step. The good news is: Ukraine certainly doesn't lack gifted people with outstanding I.T. competencies.