There is no universally accepted definition of hybrid warfare, but all agree that it doesn’t look like a war, but has the same objective: to cause major harm to the enemy through unconventional means, which are cheaper and more effective.
Tanks and airplanes were the weapons of World Wars I and II. Nowadays, conflict is often waged via sanctions – initiated by the Western world, to which rogue countries respond by asymmetric reprisals.
An example of hybrid warfare which will probably enter the textbooks is Alexander Lukashenko’s response to Western pressure to bring him down, following the election he rigged last year
The Belarus dictator was unhappy with the Western sanctions but was particularly angry at Lithuania and Poland, which hosted and gave logistical support to the Belarusian opposition.
Lukashenko’s secret services, known as the KGB, were quick to invent a scheme to target Lithuania and Poland. Knowing that these countries are particularly sensitive to illegal migration, they organised a scheme to flood them with migrants.
The scheme costs next to nothing. It may even be bringing some revenue to Belarus. Minsk’s secret services spread the word that prospective migrants no longer need to take long journeys and risk their lives at sea.
Instead, all they have to do is board a plane to Minsk (no visa required), from where the country’s authorities will help them cross into Lithuania or Poland. As simple as that.
Hybrid warfare is sometimes hard to prove, but the Belarus case is an exception because evidence is plentiful.
Hybrid warfare often includes cyber-attacks (by cyber gangs enjoying state protection, not necessarily state entities), disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing elections (by troll factories, not necessarily state actors), ‘kompromat’ attacks on politicians to be eliminated, the use of mercenaries or civil contractors.
The traditional military find its hard to respond to hybrid threats because they are trained to respond to conventional attacks. Governments and military organisations, including NATO, struggle to agree on how to respond to hybrid threats because “plausible denial” applies, and it makes little sense to reply to a hybrid attack with a conventional one.
There are also counter-claims that the West also uses hybrid warfare – Moscow has accused Washington of conducting hybrid warfare against Russia during the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in particular.
The EU has a slightly outdated “Joint framework on countering hybrid threats”, which says that the primary responsibility lies with the member states and calls for intelligence and information sharing.
It also appears to extend the mutual defence clause introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, which requires the bloc to act jointly if one member state is the object of a terrorist attack or the victim of a natural or man-made disaster, also to hybrid warfare.
It is high time to see how this works. If the EU doesn’t use all its powers in solidarity in the case of the Belarus hybrid attack, we can be sure that more attacks will follow, and from more dangerous players.
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