Hybrid war as a war on governance ( part II )

Hybrid war as a war on governance ( part II )

Mark Galeotti

Professor of Global Affairs, NYU

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Mark Galeotti

New York, United States

Interview with Mark Galeotti

What made Ukraine the ideal victim/target for hybrid warfare? What are the societal prerequisites/conditions, the ideal set-up that enable hybrid warfare?


The tragedy of Ukraine has been the tragedy of its history since 1991. This is not so much a failed state as a state that never succeeded in the first place. For all the genuine passions, enthusiasms and professionalism of many people within it, Ukraine has demonstrated that it is possible to run your country worse than Russia: extraordinary levels of corruption, the worst kind of predatory corruption, but also a failure to cohere socially and politically. Although clearly the referendum in Crimea was a questionable one, nonetheless, I don’t doubt that the majority of Crimeans thought that Moscow couldn’t be a worse master than Kiev. Ukraine is physically large, but in governance and resilience terms looked incredibly weak. On the one hand, there is the presence of disgruntled Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were afraid of what may happen in the post-Maidan order. The security structures, both military and internal security agencies, were thoroughly penetrated by Russian allies and agents, but also thoroughly mistrusted by the new regime in Kiev. On top of that, we have a country that was in an awfully state ranging from the quality of its military to the quality of the public services. From Russia’s point of view what was not to love? Russia had already a huge network in place in Ukraine, a thoroughly corrupted political system vulnerable to its use of bribery and suasion, an economy dependent on trade with Russia.


How would you assess the ability of Russia to create disorder on NATO’s Eastern Flank?

Particularly in Northern and Western Europe, is always nice to think of it as a Southern and Eastern problem. But, look for example to the extent to which the rise of Marine Le Pen in France does cause significant issues for the Western Alliance. Or, at the potential for disruption that would have been created if Scotland voted to separate from the United Kingdom and, it is worth noting that Russian TV channel RT was a strong supporter of this step. Before we analyze the real vulnerable flanks, we should realize that this is something broader, reflecting problems in the legitimacy and coherence of Europe as a whole.

That said, on the whole the Russians’ opportunities are limited. They are able to take advantage of the simple fact that in the West, especially in Europe, we don’t like conflict. We follow rules, norms and etiquette. The Russians have little scope to make the West do anything; what they can do in their interest is making Western countries not do things. They want to encourage divisions, uncertainties within the population; they want to create a situation where actually challenging Russia looks a lot more dangerous than it really is.

When it comes down to it, Putin is actually risk-averse and quite limited in what he wants. His catchphrase always has been sovereignty: no one should have the right to tell Russia what to do, not an international court, not the international norms of governmental behavior. In his optic, Russia deserves to have a sphere of interest – the post-Soviet area. He is quite conservative and defensive in his posture. Of course, he would love to dictate policy in Bucharest or Berlin, if he had the opportunity. But when it comes down to it, that is not really on his wish list or expectation. What he wants to do is to make sure that governments in Bucharest, Berlin and elsewhere cannot do anything that would actually resist Russia in the areas that really matter to him.

The nature of this long term geopolitical campaign is that when perceived opportunities and vulnerabilities arise, then the Russians will seek to seize them. The Donbass adventure was because of a misperception, a Russian belief based on how easy Crimea went, that actually Ukraine as a whole could be easily bullied. This is one of my concerns. Not because I think there is a grand Russian plan to press forward Westward. But, if we (it could be one country, could be the whole Western alliance and anything in between) look vulnerable, then it might raise temptations in Moscow. Just as the authoritarianism in Moscow means that it is in some ways more able to knit together a whole variety of capacities in order to wage a full-spectrum campaign, it also means that they have fewer checks and balances, obstacles to dumb ideas coming from the very top. For this reason, it is not just that we need to be secure in the West, but we need to be clearly, visibly secure such that Moscow doesn’t mistakenly think that we are vulnerable.


How should the hybrid defense look like? How should we re-conceptualize defense in this world where non-military tools are becoming in a way the first line of offense?

We live in an era of the insurgency of the mind. This is not about encouraging people to blow up post offices. It is not even about encouraging people to take a particular position. Back in the Cold War period, Soviet propaganda aimed to persuade everyone else about the rightness of their position, of the Soviet way of looking on the world. The interesting thing is that the modern campaign has been flipped around. It is not about convincing anyone else of a Russian point of view so much as to undermine people’s belief in any point of view, to create an environment in which no one can be quite sure about anything. In the West, what they are doing is trying to exploit every single vulnerable point, whether it is the exclusion of communities or the people’s concern about gay couples being able to adopt. Not for a minute do the Russians care whether European gay couples adopt or not. But if they can put a little bit of money and a little bit of support into dividing communities and creating a problem for a government so it is distracted, then all to the good. By throwing out a variety of ludicrous conspiracy theories about how the MH17 plane was shot down (when the reality is pretty cut and dried – a Russian missile launched by Russian-backed insurgents) their hope is that people will start believe that we will never know for certain. They try to undermine our certainties. And this links back to the governance issues. Why are people willing to believe some of the bizarre conspiracy theories that come from RT or other state-backed media? The answer is because people are mistrustful in their own governments and their own politicians, so public disillusionment becomes an opportunity. They feel they’ve been lied before. All the Russians are doing is tapping into all that.

Ultimately, hybrid defense is about legitimate and effective governance. On so many levels this is precisely a war of governance. If for example the Russian speaking Estonians really feel angry about the way they are treated, then they become potential instruments for Moscow. On the whole, my sense of Russian-speaking Estonians is that they are solid Estonian citizens,  who realize that in terms of everything from economic opportunities to political rights, being member of an EU state is infinitely better than being a Russian citizen. So what are the other threats to the sovereignty and to the capacity to act of the Western Alliance? It is that moment when the public becomes sick of spending money on the military, on supporting Ukraine, or when they question the credibility of their legal and political systems. Or the challenge comes from financial systems that are not only thoroughly penetrated by dirty money from Russia and elsewhere but thoroughly unstable because of their own internal practices. We must realize that, however effective capitalism and democracy are, as systems for managing modern societies, they do have distinct internal contradictions. And the Russians will exploit those precisely to weaken, divide and demoralize the West. In many ways, going back to this point of whole-of-government responses, proper financial regulation is just as much an effective security issue as spending 2% of your budget on tanks.

One can look at the situation in Greece as a classic example. On one hand, Greece willfully mismanaged itself over multiple political generations. But on the other hand, the EU and the lenders facilitated this process. They didn’t properly assess whether or not Greece should be part of the euro. For ideological reasons, they just decided that it is something that they had to swallow. Everyone knew that Greece was cooking the books, but no one wanted to say so. It was a problem that everyone hoped would naturally go away. I have little sympathy for the Greek regime, but it is clear that the way the lenders and the European community treated Greece was quite toxic. For all these reasons, I feel quite likely that, at least for a generation, Greece will be vulnerable to Russian propaganda, to Russian influence and will precisely be the awkward element in both NATO and the EU. By mismanaging, by letting legitimate politic and economical grievances arise, we have given Russia if not a win, certainly an opportunity.


As the nature of this war is one on governance, does this mean that EU should be in the lead and not necessarily NATO?

It is not something that NATO is for or can do. Ultimately NATO is a military alliance. Military structures these days are governments’ Swiss army knives. Saving migrants in the Mediterranean, delivering disaster relief, going to New Orleans after a terrible storm, if in doubt you call on your soldiers. Soldiers can do policing, but they are not as good for it as police. Soldiers can do development work, but they are not as good at it as development agencies. If we suddenly said that NATO has to handle everything from countering Russian propaganda, to auditing financial flows to ensure that Russian dirty money is not used for corrupting financial and political systems, to ensuring that ethnic minorities in border regions have their own schools, NATO would become a Western super-governmental structure. It is better for NATO to handle the kinetic stuff and someone else to do the governance stuff.

In many ways the EU is a very elephantine beast, it is not quick, subtle or cheap. So if we put our trust in the EU, I am not sure of how effective the results will be. The EU should play a coordinator role, in terms of spreading best practices, providing active support rather than trying to regulate. Maybe it is better to have regional sub-blocs because I think that de facto there is increasingly an Eastern Flank policy emerging. Most of the CEE countries see a common threat and essentially are looking for common responses to those threats. In these frontline states, the concern is much more about political, financial and intelligence penetration and also having a very clear tripwires to make clear that NATO is behind them in case of a direct threat.

In the end, in my perspective, we need to be thinking about re-writing our concept of what “security” means. On a theoretical basis, we all talk the talk that security is equally about “soft” security issues, about human trafficking, about epidemics spreading across borders and so on, but we still naturally default to an old model, hard power related mindset. We really need genuinely to address the issue of what is security and create structures that are going to address the real threats rather than threats of 1940s or 1970s. Corruption and kleptocracy should be seen as absolutely central to the modern security. Too often they are seen as a frictional cost on governance rather than as a real security issue. The EU cannot impose good governance and legality. What it can do is support and facilitate when there is a genuine grass-root desire to see them take root. It empowers and gives certain political and judicial actors an alibi to declare war on the corrupt elite within their own political and economical system: I have to change the rules on you because of Europe, because of outside forces. But its virtuous role is in supporting society rather than imposing change on it. If it tried that, then it would become part of the problem, one of the grievances that outside actors, including the Russians, could exploit.

Interview conducted by Octavian Manea

August 18, 2015

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