Who is ready for hybrid warfare? What a catchy title for one of sessions of the 2015 Munich Security Conference, which opened on February 6.
The panel included General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military commander (and the United States’ top soldier in Europe), Edward Lucas, the Economist’s energy editor, and Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s minister of defense.
They all have their own experiences and interpretation of hybrid warfare, a relatively new term that has come in for much use and criticism ever since Russia sent “little green men” into parts of eastern Ukraine over a year ago.
Breedlove, who has been unusually outspoken as a NATO commander, tried to persuade his audience that NATO was prepared for hybrid warfare. The four-star general explained how the alliance had increased the number of troops that would be sent to the Eastern European members of NATO to protect their borders and airspace. He said the alliance was now at the ready and able to mobilize within hours to protect its members.
Yet what do these new measures have to do with hybrid warfare?
What happens when ethnic minorities in, for example, the Baltic states are infiltrated in a way that could lead to instability? What happens when an Estonian intelligence officer is kidnapped while investigating an incident on his country’s border with Russia, as happened in 2014? Is NATO prepared for this different kind of war, and should it be?
These issues, unfortunately, were not broached during the panel discussion. Modern warfare has changed, in some cases so far beyond recognition that the old NATO handbooks have to be thrown in the bin.
Yet that is no excuse for European governments, the EU, and the media not to deal with hybrid warfare, which actually involves the use of propaganda.
Is #NATO prepared for hybrid warfare, and should it be?Tweet This
Given the immense influence of social media—and, of course, television—it is perplexing to see how Russia has been so quick to seize the advantage while the Europeans have been caught napping. Lucas spelled out the role of Russia’s powerful propaganda machine, arguing that it has had a free ride, largely because the Europeans have been so slow to react.
But why? One reason is the cuts in the language services of the BBC World Service and the U.S. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At the end of the Cold War, it was assumed that such Cold War–era institutions could be reduced or even phased out. Clearly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s understanding of the power of the media has capitalized on that assumption.
What an irony. As he clamps down on the media at home, he gives it free rein to promote the Kremlin’s own version of information. And frankly, if he can get away with it, why not? European governments, the EU, and the media generally have allowed this to happen.
Dealing with this kind of hybrid warfare is not that difficult. It requires the opposite of what those brave dissidents did in Communist times. They slaved away over typewriters, with three or four wafer-thin pages separated by smudgy carbon paper. At great risk, they disseminated their writings to their friends and smuggled them out to the West.
Now, it is the turn of the West—and especially the Europeans—to respond. And not just by increasing funding for the language services of the BBC, Deutsche Welle (which is closing almost all its language services), and Radio France Internationale. Maybe, as Lucas suggested half in jest, the Economist should be translated into Russian and air-dropped into Eastern Europe!
As it is, the EU is appalling at promoting itself.Tweet This
But seriously, European governments in general and the EU in particular need to explain to Russia as well as to the countries of Eastern Europe what the union stands for—a point Søreide made. As it is, the EU is appalling at promoting itself. The fact that there was no EU representative on the panel was a pity. Maybe those in the EU think hybrid warfare is not for them to get involved in. But in fact, it is. If the EU wants to get across to its Eastern and Southern neighbors what it stands for, it has to go on the offensive.
That does not mean setting up an agency for information and communication—perish the thought, and the bureaucracy. It’s much simpler. It means using all those swanky missions now under the European External Action Service to change how the EU promotes its values. That would be a good start in Europe’s efforts to stand up to hybrid warfare.