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Deterring Putin’s Hybrid Warfare

European leaders pose during the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, (PESCO), a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together, at the European Council on December 14, 2017 in Brussels, Belgium. (Getty Images)

by Maia Otarashili*

Russia has at least four years worth of lessons learned from its active measures in Europe and the United States. Moscow now has a proven success record of its influence operations in the West from election-meddling to online robo-trolling. Undoubtably these lessons will feed into Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy strategy as he goes into his fourth term as Russia’s president. Yet the West is still playing catch-up, with the US rapidly disengaging from its global leadership position, NATO still in urgent need of modernization, and the EU lacking confidence and ability to act swiftly and collectively.


In recent years Western democracies have found it difficult to defend themselves from resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin’s third tenure as president. This is mostly thanks to the fact that when it comes to mastering hybrid warfare techniques, Russia is far ahead of Europe and the United States. Moreover, Russia has pioneered many of the hybrid warfare tactics by taking full advantage of modern advancements in technology. Moscow has taken a multi-prong approach to establishing itself as a formidable global player. It has cleverly deployed its capabilities in various places of strategic importance. While Moscow is fighting conventional wars in Europe’s backyard in Ukraine (since 2018) and previously in Georgia (August 2008), it has used Europe as the testing ground for its modern warfare capabilities, deploying tactics that are still proving nearly impossible for the West to deter. This has included the cyber war on Estonia in 2007, and influence operations (fake news and media propaganda) in Britain, Netherlands, France, Germany and elsewhere in the West during critical moments such as referenda (see Brexit vote) or elections (see French presidential elections). The aftermath of Russia’s successful meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections is still unfolding as Moscow has managed what many previously thought impossible – it has undermined democracy in the US. The key result of this effort is a disengaged America marred by domestic upheavals.

As Putin prepares for his fourth term as Russia’s president, the West is bracing for another round of Russian influence operations aimed at breeding more social and political chaos. Yet despite the multiple years of lessons learned from the wide array of examples of Russian hostile behavior, the West still seems to be playing catch-up. While the United States further disengages from the world within the auspices of President Trump’s “America First” agenda, Europe is left to fend for itself against the Russian hybrid threats. After a disappointing G7 summit in May 2017, German chancellor Angela Merkel boldly declared that Europe must “take its destiny into its own hands” in view of Brexit, Trump, and hostile Russia. But for an institution that is not exactly known as limber or efficient, the idea of swift action to get ahead of Moscow is easier said than done.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov (R) and Presidential Aide Andrei Belousov (L) observe a model of new highway to Crimea at the exhibition during the congress of transport workers on March 5, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Getty Images)


It is a widely shared sentiment that Russia’s attack on Ukraine was a wake up call for Europe. But it has been four years since that happened and not only is the war in Donbas still ongoing, but also no effective means have been implemented to successfully deter further Russian active measures within the EU borders. The 2016 NATO Warsaw summit was a turning point, as NATO formally recognized Russia as a major threat, and made a resolution to take on new initiatives aimed at increasing its deterrence capabilities for European security. Yet mere two months ago, before a NATO military committee meeting, US Marine Corps General and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford said “none of us are comfortable with where we are. If you are complacent in this business, you are obsolete.” He then proceeded to list the areas where modernization is still most urgently needed: “I would highlight the maritime domain, rear-area operations, organizing land forces in context of NATO contingencies. In terms of capabilities: cyber, information warfare and missile defense.”

In late 2017, 25 of 28 EU members launched a joint effort to boost common defense. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement has jump-started a process of closer cooperation in security and defense within Europe. “Member States agreed to step up the European Union’s work in this area and acknowledged that enhanced coordination, increased investment in defense and cooperation in developing defense capabilities are key requirements to achieve it.” According to the PESCO fact-sheet, “PESCO is a Treaty-based framework and process to deepen defense cooperation amongst EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so. The aim is to jointly develop defense capabilities and make them available for EU military operations.” The initiative currently includes ideas for 47 projects.

This German-led initiative was made possible thanks to Brexit; while the idea has been floating around since the 1950s Britain has always opposed it. However, PESCO is still in a concept stage, thus it is premature to discuss its possible effectiveness, and it is not a reliable counter-measure against Russia at least in the short-term.


Unfortunately the ongoing, albeit too slow, efforts to deter Russia are only directed towards one or two of the many vulnerabilities that previous Russian attacks have exposed. Enhancement of military and even certain types of cyber capabilities are the lowest hanging fruits, but the deeper, more difficult vulnerabilities are yet to be addressed. Yes, a significant part of the Russian threat involves traditional warfare and requires the EU to build up its defense capabilities. This has included a buildup of NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as part for NATO’s forward resilience efforts. NATO has also made a new commitment to ensuring all of its member states meet the requirement of contributing 2% of their respective GDPs to NATO by 2024. There was indeed a moment when many experts thought Russia might instigate a physical conflict somewhere in the Baltics. But turns out Russia has no need to physically attack the NATO member states, when it is seeing so much success from its influence operations. Russia has found hybrid warfare advantageous because it allows for Moscow to make limber, covert maneuvers that fall somewhere in the grey area between staging illegal military attacks, and exertion of soft power abroad. Democracies by nature are not equipped to effectively retaliate in cases of these types of grey area operations. For example, the EU cannot produce fake news and spread them within Russia, because that would go against its core democratic values. But it must become able to make its citizens less susceptible to Russian influence operations. A great deal of this takes place in the cyber space, where the EU continuously finds itself exposed.

In sum, NATO is still modernizing itself to meet its ever-changing defense needs, and PESCO is very much still a concept. Russia is ready now. Will the EU manage to build consensus within its member states quickly enough to be ready for Putin’s fourth presidency? Unfortunately the positive shifts in this regard appear to be all too small compared to the great Russian resolve.

*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.

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Maia Otarashvili
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). She is co-editor of FPRI’s 2017 volume Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support. Her research interests include the geopolitics of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, the post-Communist CEEE countries, EU’s eastern enlargement policies, and Russian foreign policy. Maia is a regular contributor for the Majalla Magazine. She holds an M.A. in Globalization, Development and Transition from the University of Westminster in London. Maia is currently pursuing her PhD at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, researching the post-Soviet conflicts of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

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