It is certainly irrefutable how the phenomena of war changed in the last years. An increasing of internal conflicts, involvement of subjects external to the country as well as a “weak” border between the status of regular combatants and civilians along with the state of war/peace can be noticed. Such a picture, which emphasizes uncertainty and “liquidity”, is based on three historical key points: the end of the cold war, the end of decolonization and colonial wars and – last but not least – the militarization of civil population.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the related end of Warsaw Pact ward off the idea of a nuclear war but brought in a new element: the absence of a “stabilizer”, a role played by the two global powers (CCCP and USA). As to the decolonization process as well as to the post-colonial wars, the majority of them were raising due to an attempt of regain independence or borders stabilization. Finally, following the loss of states’ monopoly in the use of force, local population (or, sometimes, subjects external to the country) started to fight for their religious, ethnic or national identity, therefore the number of conflicts, such as the one in Somalia, Libya, etc., increased. It is thus curious how, despite so many conflicts in the past 30 years, lots of attention has been paid manly to the Crimean one.
“Hybrid war” features and definitions
According to a widely accepted definition, the “hybrid war” is: “…a combination of conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, including the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict, and can include the combination of special operations and conventional military forces; intelligence agents; economic intimidation; cyber attacks; and proxies and surrogates, para-militaries, terrorists, and criminal elements.”
Such a definition has been given by American military analysts following the US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, a sort of merger between tradition and a new theoretical approach. However, it should be underlined how terms as “hybrid activities” or “hybrid warfare” have been used already in 2002 by William J. Nemeth in his work on the Russian intervention in Chechnya. The author -relates hybrid warfare not only to the Chechen fighters but also to the way in which the Chechen society works: a fusion of current political theories and traditional social organization. Such a structured society has a direct impact on the waging of a war. Thus, according to Nemeth, the hybrid warfare is characterized by three key elements:
an organization of the army reflecting the level of socio-economic development of the society (the Chechen one is decentralized, equalitarian, with a clan structure);
a perception of military strength different from the western one (a mass employment of partisan tactics, a war waged everywhere considered as the only mean to defend the endemic society. Such war therefore justifies mass murders as well as the “liquidity” of the borders delimiting regular combatants and civilians);
the capability of employing new technology in the tactical and strategic actions (mobile and satellite phones,) in order to increase the actions’ effectiveness as well as the propaganda exploitation.
Among the many scientific articles and studies on hybrid warfare, it should be pointed out the quite interesting difference in perception and understanding of such idea between the Americans and Russians. To this respect, two of the most significant studies on the topic can be stated: the US Marine Corps, Frank G. Hoffman , and the current Russian Federation Chief of General Staff, Gen. Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov .
After having analyzed various contemporary theoretical models as well as the typology of conflicts in history, Frank G. Hoffman developed the theory of “compound wars”, “unrestricted wars” and “fourth generation wars”.As far as the “compound wars” is concerned, what has been theorized is a synergistic union of conventional, non-regular on a strategic, operational and tactic level actions. The “unrestricted war” focuses on the “omni-directionality” of the conflicts and suggests how future conflicts will involve all aspects of our lives. Last but not least, the “fourth generation wars” keeps together the idea of future armed conflicts and the loss of the State’s monopoly of the force.
Thus, based on the above mentioned theories, the author gives the following definition: “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.”
Such type of conflict, according to the author, can be conducted by both states and non-state actors, by separate units or by their bigger groupings and their actions are coordinated in a single battle space in order to achieve a synergistic effect. Finally, the success can be achieved by the exploitation of modern technologies along with partisan techniques.
In such a perspective the author analyzed some armed conflicts of the last century: Ireland (1919-1920), Afghanistan (1979-1989), wars in the former Yugoslavia and in the Near East as well as the second Lebanon war between Israeli Army and Hezbollah (2006). Going into details of the latter, some peculiar characteristics makes it the best example of hybrid war . Among them, there is the capability of Hezbollah forces of employing modern equipment (as result of a high level training) as well as of infiltrating the civilian population; the way in which they coordinate operations of decentralized combat-cells, etc.
The current Russian Federation Chief of General Staff, Gen. Valerij Vasil’evič Gerasimov’s theory is well summarized in his 2013 article: Ценность науки в предвидении (The value of science in prediction). His point of view is relevant for two main reasons: first, his position as Chief of General Staff; and second, it is the result of case-studies and it also reflects the opinion of the majority of Russian military commanders. Furthermore, what happened in Ukraine in the last years, is the “best practice” of such theories.
Rather than analyzing one by one the past wars, Gerasimov makes a step forward by looking at the future conflicts and their possible evolution. He states how there will be a tendency to cancel the borders between the state of war and peace, which means that modern wars will not be announced by a formal act as happened in the past, through an official war declaration. To give an example which can support his theories, General Gerasimov mentions the conflict in the Near East and the so called Arab Springs, where the key role was played by non-military tools of war such as political, economic and humanitarian means, along with the manipulation of the local population. The result should be achieved by the employment of info-war and Special Forces units, while the evident use of military units is allowed just in a second phase (and disguised as a peace or humanitarian mission). According to Gerasimov, future conflicts will be mainly asymmetric with a high – scale employment of special units, and, to what concern political means, internal rivalries will be exploited. In addition, he highlights the importance of information technology as well as of social media in widespread information and their manipulation in order to have a proper propaganda capable of influencing local population. Probably, while analyzing the conflict in Ukraine and the war against the Islamic State (IS), these features are the only ones which could differentiate hybrid wars from other typologies of wars. There is a further point that needs to be highlighted in Gerasimov’s article: he never talks about conflicts by defining them as “hybrid wars”.
According with the military history experts, in the past years there already were conflicts with “hybrid war” characteristics, but, as it often happens, a neologism describing an apparently new phenomena is useful to create a new threat and justify actions useful to contrast them.
In such a view it could be framed the NATO approach towards the “hybrid conflicts” which, as mentioned above, despite the many theories referred to wars waged in the past, does not keep into consideration conflicts other than the Crimean one. Thus, after having “delimitated” all the techniques employed by the Russians in order to annex Crimea, they forgot that they do not represents anything new and that the combination of elements, considered in the related period of time is all but a new element. The “hybrid war” can be hardly considered a sort of “final doctrine” capable to delineate Russian expansionistic ambitions and certainly not a model which can be replayed in other regions of the post-soviet space. It is just a label that the western world placed on to justify what happened in Ukraine and give a sort of sense to the course of events.
With that said and looking at what happened from a Russian perspective, it has been underlined how Russians, for the last 10-15 years have been talking about the western use of economic, diplomatic and informatics means, along with the military ones, in order to expand their interests in Europe and beyond. The Russian military doctrine (2010) describes modern war as “…an integrated use of military strength and non-military resources”; moreover, a 2014 integration inserts a comment on the “participation of irregular armed forces as well as contractors in the military operations”. Two faces of the same medal.
What should be interesting and important to point out? Probably the fact that, as any other phenomena or action promoted by the humans, war or – just to be politically correct – an armed conflict, is the reflection of the times and the society. The XXI century is permeated by a massive employment of technology, internet, mass media, social media, and so on, which became also part of a 360° war…but was it so different in the past century when the First or the Second World War erupted?