Remember when Russian troops were in Crimea, they were not Russian troops? The Eastern armed rebels in Ukraine were also not supported by Russia (when they were). Then there were Russian actions in Syria, interference in the U.S. election, Brexit, and now the attempted murder of a defector in Britain with a nerve agent attack. There is a commonality between all these events and they tie into what Russian General Valery Gerasimov has termed the “hybrid war.” Back in 2013 he wrote an influential article that foreshadowed much of Russian actions since then. In “The Value of Science is in the Foresight” published in the Russian trade paper Military-Industrial Kurier, Gerasimov outlines his doctrine and ideas of war in the 21st century. He writes:

“In the 21st century we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template,” he continues, “among such actions are the use of special-operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected.” In Gerasimov’s hybrid war, “political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures” are drawn upon. In the West leaders were right to see his Doctrine as an outline for attacks on the West, it’s exactly what Russia has been doing. He wrote that “long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals,” and “all this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations forces.” Gerasimov though is no strategy architect, he believes these tactics are what are already being done by other nations and he wants Russia to outstrip the West and take a leading position.

Dr. Pawel Kowal has described how Russia’s actions with its hybrid war against the West is meant to observe reactions. He sees the nerve agent attack against Skirpal in the UK as very deliberate in being carried out in a public place. It could have been a means to test how successful an operation could be and how the situation would play out with allies and media. More importantly, these tactics involve little risk to Russia. It’s too soon to say what role if any Russia has played in the recent gas attack in Syria but again it could be part of an attempt to sow division in the West and test responses. The result is that actors like Russia continue to compile data from these events, data that is used to see how their enemies react, if they react with “fear,” as Kowal states, and what fault lines exist that can be exploited to sow division and destabilize opponents.  These tactics work because traditionally they carry little risk but have big payoffs. For this to change, the risks for Russia have to increase beyond the loss of diplomats. Sanctions that have teeth, and that target the money of Russian power brokers is a good place to start. Russia also has plenty of internal divisions of its own that it is very worried about and could be exploited, and doing so could also make this traditionally lower risk “hybrid war” one that might not be worth continuing.

Link to Kowal’s piece on Skirpal here