Security and Defence


Russia’s Hybrid Doctrine: Is the West Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

28 Nov 2019 - 15:50
Source: Christiaan Colen / Flickr

When NATO leaders meet in London from 3-4 December to celebrate the Alliance’s 70th birthday they will, apart from addressing some existential questions about the organisation, also discuss Russia. For sure, in this context the term ‘hybrid’ will be used more than once. But is this an apt concept to apply to Russia’s military, or general, behaviour? Or is this, ironically enough, conjuring up a mirror image of our own thinking?

The problem with catchy buzzwords is that once they have been coined they tend to stick around, even when they are unhelpful. Buzzwords in international security policy are no exception to this rule. Already for over half a decade, the term hybrid accompanies most, if not all, discussions on Russia. ‘Hybrid’ or, more ominously, ‘hybrid warfare’ (gibridnaya voyna) has joined the ranks of other concepts such as siloviki (officials with a military or security background) and maskirovka (disguise) that are invariably used by Russia commentators to suggest in-depth knowledge about their topic. But, as we will see, ‘hybrid’ is an inappropriate adjective, certainly in combination with the noun ‘warfare’. Why? Because it aims to describe something that is imprecise, hardly Russian and hardly new. Besides, unless in a metaphorical sense we should try to limit the use of ‘warfare’ to situations of armed conflict.

"Catchy buzzwords tend to stick around, even when they are unhelpful."

When in 2007 Frank Hoffman wrote the article “Conflict in the 21th Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”, he was referring to a new paradigm that had emerged after 9/11 and that had further evolved with America’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hoffman built on the theory of the so-called Fourth Generation Warfare and his central case study was the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, highlighting the challenges non-state actors can pose to Western style militaries: “Hybrid Wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder” [1]. Unsurprisingly, this theory, as well as other ‘new wars’ theories, has been criticised and indeed empirical evidence indicates these enumerated phenomena have a longer history.

Since 2014, however, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support to separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine, ‘hybrid’ has become the preferred catch-all term to apply to Russia’s policies, tactics, strategies and doctrines[2]. Not least because by that time Western analysts had dug up an article by Russian chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov (“The Value of Science in Prediction”, published in February 2013 in a rather obscure military magazine[3]) and a ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, proposing a new Russian way of hybrid warfare, was born. A remarkable development. First, because Russia’s operations in Ukraine amounted to a fairly traditional mix of instruments and tactics and, second, Gerasimov’s article actually came down to a call to brace for unconventional tactics by the West.

The seizure of Crimea by Russian armed forces in February-March 2014 may have come as a surprise, but Moscow’s long-standing anxieties about the eventuality of this strategic and spiritual asset (home to its Black Sea fleet since the late 18th century and considered the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity) falling into the hands of NATO were well known. After President Yanukovych’s ignominious flight from Ukraine, Russia decided not to wait for an incoming government’s position on the lease-term for its fleet but to first covertly, and then overtly move into the peninsula. On its way, it could exploit Crimea’s unique circumstances (e.g. geographical shape, the legal presence of Russian forces in Sevastopol, a majority ethnic Russian population, the dismal quality of Ukrainian armed forces) while combining military power with disinformation campaigns and electronic warfare measures. Russia’s involvement in the Donbas region remains covert to this day, since the goal there is not annexation but sustained low-intensity conflict by proxy forces. Nothing unprecedented, and certainly not something “easily reproducible elsewhere”[4].

"In Ukraine, Russia exploited unique circumstances, not easily reproducible elsewhere."

Nevertheless, whatever Russia has undertaken since this episode, and what otherwise might have been labelled as ‘integrated’, ‘non-linear’, ‘cross-domain’, ‘informational’ or even ‘public diplomacy’ activities, has been grouped under 'hybrid’ methods of conflict or, indeed, warfare. Meanwhile, strong evidence that Russian outlets have been actively engaged in influencing, not deciding, election or referenda outcomes in a number of Western countries[5] has boosted the prominence of the ‘hybrid’ category headings, and tilted interpretation towards disinformation efforts – purportedly serving as precursors to other forms of conflict that are “conveniently categorized as being under the threshold of war”[6]. Various authors have, patiently but fruitlessly, debunked the notion of a Russian hybrid warfare doctrine or the newness of some of its apparent components[7]. Rather, it appears the West has attempted to cast a mirror image of its own concepts onto Russian military thinking[8]. By doing so, the West has framed a distracting threat perception that may keep it from addressing the right issues.

Both in his now famous 2013 article and in a more recent, March 2019 strategy speech at the Academy of Military Sciences, Gerasimov pointed to the increased role of non-military methods by Western states to achieve strategic objectives[9]. Indeed, according to Russian military thinkers “gibridnaya voyna  is about [Western] attempts to erode the socio-cultural cohesion of the adversary’s population, ultimately leading to the replacement of an unfriendly regime by a colour revolution, with minimum (if any) military intervention”[10]. Difficult as it may be for Westerners to appreciate, Russia believes the series of ‘colour’ revolutions in former Soviet republics, as well as the ‘Arab Spring’ movements starting in 2011 have been fomented by Western powers bent on regime change and engaging in ‘Trojan horse’ tactics against Russian interests. That is why the Russian military is encouraged to take these developments into consideration when formulating responses (the 2014 Military Doctrine already alludes to a broadened concept of non-military means). It is important to note that in his 2019 speech Gerasimov concluded that the decisive role in conflict is still played by military force. At the same time, it will be interesting to monitor whether the current concept of a ‘strategy of active defence’ will be further elaborated upon in the next edition of Russia’s military doctrine (expected in 2020) and whether it will provide clues to a higher level of integrated defence[11].

"NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg stated “hybrid is the dark reflection of our comprehensive approach”."

Of course, the Russian government is actively involved in all kinds of disruptive activities to weaken the fabric and unity of Western societies and institutions, primarily NATO and the EU. But this is not a new phenomenon either (think of the massive Soviet programme to whip up public resentment against the deployment of nuclear missiles in NATO countries in the early 1980s, to name but one example), even though new instruments and technologies are used and this modern campaign is non-ideological. It is important to realise these measures, nasty as they may be, concern attempts to deepen existing rifts rather than to create turmoil from scratch. Ultimately, it is the next best instrument from the weaker party’s toolbox for lack of stronger coercive means.


It is ill-advised to interpret virtually everything Russia does in the framework of an all-encompassing hybrid military doctrine, because the concept is a dangerous oversimplification. The West should not succumb to an iteration of earlier ‘red scare’ or ‘missile gap’ mythologies. Besides, it would run the risk of militarising our overall perception of and responses to Russia while inadvertently blurring lines between military and non-military domains ourselves. For various reasons the concept of security has been widening, with more explicit references being made nowadays to the economy, energy, climate, migration and information. But this amplified understanding of security must not induce Western governments to gratuitously extend the perimeters of warfare to non-kinetic domains, eliciting Russian counter-criticisms of Western ‘hybrid’ methods.

"The West should not succumb to a ‘hybrid’ mythology."

Since, presumably, the term ‘hybrid’ is here to stay let’s relegate it as much as possible to the realm of politicised tit-for-tat rhetoric. Outside this frame, let our Western militaries focus on Russia’s military actions and study the evolution of Russia’s ‘active defence’ strategy and relevant new forms of warfare. In parallel, let Western governments take appropriate action to remedy non-military vulnerabilities, for example in the informational sphere, without fashioning this as countering ‘hybrid’, or any other kind of warfare. Once you start collectively barking up the wrong tree, you may be missing important things that happen elsewhere.


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[2] See, for instance, NATO’s description (clearly inspired by the crisis in Ukraine) of ‘hybrid warfare threats’ in paragraph 13 of the Wales Summit Declaration of 5 September 2014 as “a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures (...) employed in a highly integrated design”:

[3] For an annotated translation see Mark Galeotti’s “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War”:

[4] See “A Closer Look at Russia’s ‘Hybrid War’” by Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky:

[5] Meddling in foreign elections is not exactly a Russian prerogative. For the US track record in this regard:

[7] See for instance Roger N. McDermott (2016) ‘Does Russia Have a Gerasimov Doctrine?’; Charles K. Bartlet (2016) ‘Getting Gerasimov Right’; Robert Johnson (2018) Hybrid War and Its Countermeasures: A Critique of the Literature, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29:1, 141-163, DOI: 10.1080/09592318.2018.1404770

[8] NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg exemplified this point when he stated in 2015 that “Hybrid is the dark reflection of our comprehensive approach.”


[10] Fridman, Ofer (2017) “Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’ Resurgence and Politicisation” (Hurst&Company, London)