Putin’s Postmodern War With the West

It may not look like war, but perhaps it should. Russia’s interference in American democracy proves that popular conception of the term needs to be updated – and failure to do so could increase U.S. susceptibility.

By Patryk Babiracki

Previously published in The Wilson Quarterly; republished on this page with kind permission of the author.

“We have been attacked. We are at war,” American actor Morgan Freeman gravely intones in a recent video. “Imagine this movie script,” he continues: “A former KGB spy, angry at the collapse of his motherland, plots a course for revenge. Taking advantage of the chaos, he works his way up through the ranks of a post-Soviet Russia and becomes president. He establishes an authoritarian regime. Then he sets his sights on his sworn enemy, the United States… He secretly uses cyber warfare to attack democracies around the world. Using social media to spread propaganda and disinformation, he convinces people in democratic societies to distrust their media, their political processes, even their neighbors.”

“And,” Freeman adds emphatically, looking straight into the camera, “he wins.”

Yes, Vladimir Putin is that “spy.” Behind this short film stands the Committee to Investigate Russia, an organization created in September 2017 by actor, director, and activist Rob Reiner. To this historian, Freeman’s narrative sounds a little too seamless in describing Putin’s ascendancy as the outcome of a brilliant master plan. Still, the film conveys an important message to all Americans: despite the evident scale of Russia’s meddling, few U.S. officials openly and consistently acknowledge Russia’s war.

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley did mention Russia’s “warfare” last October; Senator Ben Cardin talked about Russia’s election meddling as an “act of war” in November; and even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to “hybrid warfare” in December – but these pronouncements came late and constitute exceptions that prove the rule. As for public perceptions, nearly 40 percent of Americans did not consider Russia’s interference in the U.S. election “a serious matter that should be fully investigated,” according to the December 22 CNN poll. While Russia’s digital disinformation campaign in the U.S. is not a secret, and many do take it seriously, countering it effectively may hinge on whether politicians, officials, and voters see it for what it is – part of Putin’s hybrid war against the West.

A War of Fog

What is hybrid warfare? In basic terms, it’s the mixing of conventional and unconventional “organizations, equipment, or techniques” to gain an asymmetrical advantage over the enemy. A regular army would fit in the first rubric, while the second would include a criminal gang, a group of hackers, or internet trolls. The briefly unidentified “little green men” who took over Crimea in 2014 would fall somewhere in between.

Attack measures can be myriad, too: anything from dissemination of disinformation to cyber interference, economic sanctions to breaking diplomatic relationships, or mobilizing protest groups within a disaffected foreign society. None of the items on this lengthy list could be, by itself, easily seen as an act of hybrid war; rather, it’s about how various measures are coordinated and used. For instance, in 2008, Chinese hackers stole internal documents from both the McCain and Obama presidential campaigns. Instead of making them publicly available, though, they used them strictly for intelligence purposes. That differentiates them from the Russians, who apparently sent their 2016 spoils to WikiLeaks, turning them into a divisive political force. Indeed, the scope, scale, and purpose of the actions are key to determining whether a hybrid war is being waged. The U.S., of course, has “meddled” in various countries’ affairs, either in pursuit of direct gains or to foil others states’ imperial or authoritarian goals. Ultimately, it should be up to the citizens in democratic societies to decide if the objectives and means make a hybrid, or any other war, just.

When the battlefield is transferred to a different environment, the boundaries are blurred between war and peace as it’s commonly imagined, experienced, and described by international law. For instance, international legal norms criminalize “hate speech” and “incitement to war,” but Russian fake news falls below that threshold. Law requires evidence, but it may be impossible to prove the Kremlin’s direct role in the hacking of the U.S. election – even though it is inconceivable, given power realities in Russia and the significance of this effort, that orders came from anywhere but the top.

And, of course, nobody declares a hybrid war. On the contrary, as with Russia’s involvement in Ukraine or the U.S., the attacker is likely to deny involvement. Missiles need not be flying and ordinary life generally proceeds as normal. In short, hybrid war is ambiguous, rather than black-and-white; focused on engagement with the target society, rather than that society’s armed forces; and aims to reduce the opponents’ capability by fomenting disruption, division, and confusion, rather than by outdoing them militarily or by imposing a coherent ideology.

For that, there’s disinformation. “Dezinformatsiya, as Russians call it,” writes Vera Zakem, an analyst at the CNA research organization, “is meant to instill fear and confuse audiences, blurring the lines between truth, falsehood, and reality.” There is much overlap between hybrid strategies and the confrontation repertoires of the Cold War, but there are also significant differences; chief among them is the altered messaging style, enabled by the vastly expanded information technology universe which Russia has molded and mastered for its own destructive goals. It used to be a world of paper, teletypes, and “active measures” overseen by Moscow; now, fake news is churned out and amplified by Russia-connected Twitter bots and complemented by misleading Facebook ads, designed by the Kremlin to spark insecurity and outrage among U.S. citizens.

Given its elusive nature, hybrid war – and disinformation, in particular – can serve as superfood for the schizophrenic mind. Think Philip K. Dick’s agonies over the nature of what’s real; think half-human, half-robot androids and the literary sub-genre of cyberpunk; think the dark, futuristic Netflix series, Black Mirror – except this is now and it’s more fact than fiction. Russia exploits that potential slippage into fantasy and paranoia, too; I was only half-surprised when I heard that following the release of Freeman’s solemn appeal to stay vigilant, psychiatrists featured on Russian state TV essentially pronounced the American actor to be an aging, drug-abusing maniac who, having once played god in a film, now believes himself to be one.

A Hybrid Investment

Even as the term overwhelmingly comes up in discussions of Moscow’s actions in the last several years, hybrid warfare is not distinctly Russian. The term became popular just over a decade ago in analyses of non-state actors such as Hezbollah, which sought to challenge Western military supremacy. China pursues expansionist policies through faits accomplis, manipulation of international law, and information warfare. Nor is “hybrid war” the only term experts use for this approach; other jargon includes “competition short of conflict,” “new-generation warfare,” “gray-zone strategies,” “active measures,” and “smart” power (as opposed to “hard” or “soft”).

In truth, the core principle of hybrid war – an all-out effort to gain an asymmetrical advantage against the enemy – goes as far back as warfare itself. Indeed, non-conventional warfare holds great appeal to those who might see conventional combat as an unfeasible approach or a cumbersome constraint. To borrow the phrase used by political scientist James C. Scott to describe forms of peasant resistance, hybrid warfare may be seen as the ultimate international “weapon of the weak.”

Russia’s presence may feel counterintuitive amidst terrorist organizations and guerilla groups, but it actually makes sense. Russia is weak in terms of its conventional capabilities, so were it to challenge NATO with aircraft, rockets, and tanks, it would stand no chance. Accordingly, Barack Obama was right when he called Russia a “regional power” in March 2014, but he was also wrong, as he underestimated the Kremlin’s determination to seek global influence via alternative means – and, it appears, the potency of those means. Now, all of a sudden, Russia doesn’t seem so weak, and Putin must feel like he is having the last laugh.

Albeit underestimated in the West, there were signs that Russia intended to increasingly invest in hybrid. In a 2013 article, the chief of the general staff of the country’s armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, explicitly prescribed the approach in his vision of the country’s future. The piece’s premise was a lesson from the Arab Spring: “A perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months, and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”

There’s a precious historical resonance here: “This war is not as in the past…Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system,” Stalin said in 1945. What Gerasimov tells us is that destroying the enemy’s social system now makes more sense than trying to impose one’s own.

American Susceptibilities

But enough about Russia. The Kremlin is bound to continue its war, so the question should be: How can the West counter? To answer it, we should start by putting away the binoculars for a moment and taking a look at the mirror: Where are America and the West especially weak?

Disinformation is a good place to dig in. It’s central to hybrid war and to Russia’s attacks against Western democracies, and there are several reasons why this tactic works wonders. The first is that we live in what’s often called a “post-truth” world. Historian Marci Shore suggests facetiously that we might thank French literary theory for this; that is, postmodernism, with all its ambiguities, gray zones, and insistence on fluidity of meaning to “safeguard” us against the twentieth-century’s “totalizing ideologies.” Alas, in the digital age, neo-totalitarians on the right are finding it easy to tap into our truth-wary universe. “Post-truth” takes relativity to extremes and the idea of reliable evidence fails to appeal in the age of self-branding and media hype. As Shore points out, citing journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s book on contemporary Russia, “In this world of enlightened, postmodern people, ‘everything is PR.’” Why else would Kellyanne Conway so confidently conjure up “alternative facts”?

The recent demonstrations of U.S. susceptibility may also be predicated on the military’s not being quite ready for the kind of threat that disinformation and hybrid warfare present. Back we go to the slippery-slope definition of “hybrid warfare.” (It’s a bit like pornography in that it’s easy to describe, but hard to define.) Military planners routinely categorize conflicts into boxes such as “conventional,” “unconventional,” and “criminal,” while a hybrid attack, as we’ve seen, occurs in the “seams” in between. Moreover, the “thresholds” that separate a hybrid war from an open conflict are somewhat arbitrary and highly situational; an effort to theorize these thresholds would yield a laundry list of cases, rather than generally applicable guidelines for a future war.

Offering no strategic significance in strictly military terms, argue Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky, disqualifies the concept of “hybrid war” from use. There is ostensibly some ambivalence within NATO, prompting articles with titles such as “Hybrid War – Does It Even Exist?” But in the case of Russia, in particular, it’s imperative to call a spade a spade; the concept, even in its somewhat adumbrated shape, helps make sense of the various elements of Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy used to weaken the political and philosophical pillars of the West.

To those who agree, the real problem lies elsewhere. Hybrid war is waged in a largely non-physical operational environment – as in: forget army boots, look out for Twitter bots. Washington, overly focused in its theory of war on “the kinetic and the tangible – infrastructure, arms, and personnel,” may be conceptually underequipped to face the challenge of a hybrid war. After Vietnam, argue military historians Williamson Murray and Peter R. Mansoor in their book, Hybrid Warfare, U.S. defense planners reckoned that the worst kind of scenario they would face would be the Red Army’s conquest of Europe. Gearing up for a conventional conflict, they abandoned the lessons of Southeast Asian counterinsurgency and only the 2003 Iraq War made them think again. Judging that Russia wouldn’t dare to attack America, the U.S. largely withdrew from information warfare. That failure of vision is, to some extent, haunting the country today.

Strong leaders are also required to fight hybrid wars. These individuals, argue Murray and Mansoor, must “develop and explain the strategic narrative to keep the war effort popular” and “set national objectives, work to bolster national will, and build and keep intact international coalitions to share resource burdens.” However, top politicians on friendly terms with Putin in the U.S. and in Central Europe are doing exactly the opposite, and so trouble is brewing in this area on both of NATO’s flanks.

Summoning Courage

Certainly, there’s nothing easy about countering hybrid threats. Indeed, doing so complicates a leader’s traditional position in multivalent ways: How do we respond to attacks that are designed to be deniable? And so long as we can’t actually prove a crime, can’t we at least hope to win the suspect’s cooperation on other international crises? NATO turned this dilemma into a strategy of cooperating and confronting Russia at the same time, an approach which, U.S. Army War College Professor John R. Deni has argued, enables Russia and “fails to sufficiently protect vital Western interests.” With similar dilemmas in mind, President Obama refused to call out long-active Russian hackers by name. Presently, European security experts and politicians are blasting EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini for doing the same.

It’s not total doom and gloom, though. Efforts to establish closer cooperation between NATO and the EU in response to “hybrid threats” from “the East” are under way. Sanctions legislation passed by the U.S. Congress refers once to Russia’s “hybrid warfare.” The new realities seem to be sinking in among legislators, although slowly. Besides strategic convenience and commendable caution, is it possible that pride lurks behind the reluctance to call Russia’s hybrid war by its proper name? Arguably, in Western eyes, “war” restores a defeated and long-dismissed U.S. rival to its former great-power status. That’s fine, I’d argue, insofar as it gives Americans more freedom to discuss Russia-related dangers to democracy.

Most importantly, it’s worth remembering that ultimately, hybrid war isn’t so much about crossing swords; it targets societies. Perhaps this time of crisis is a chance to take a critical, introspective look at the American collective self. Some propose increased controls within the public sphere, and even censorship, as a way of fighting back. The Baltic states’ relatively long experience with Russian disinformation, however, shows that such responses don’t work very well. In any case, we should sense intuitively that defending ourselves against authoritarianism with Orwellian measures would be unwise. I, for one, side with those who suggest that promoting fact-based narratives, internet-literacy programs and local journalism is a better way.

Even these medium-term solutions aren’t enough. President Trump and the tsunami of populism that engulfs the West is an expression of disappointments on a massive scale. The same globalization that enables Russia’s hybrid warfare really has left many people behind in the West. And arguably, our most tender spots are hidden within the deep, festering wounds of our own prejudices and social inequalities that current politics in the U.S. and Europe so powerfully exemplify. These are our true vulnerabilities. These schisms turn our societies into easy prey. It is worth considering that the best means of disempowering Russia and defending the West against other postmodern hybrid threats might be to summon all the honesty, strength, and courage possible, and to begin to reinvent ourselves.


Patryk Babiracki (@PatrykBabiracki) is associate professor of Russian and East European history at the University of Texas at Arlington and a former Title VIII research scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He is the author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957.