Ambiguity of hybrid warfare

Understanding what hybrid warfare means to political and military representatives allows us to correctly interpret country’s policies and countermeasures. In a recent article, Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejnková analyze the British political-military discourse on Russia’s hostile activities, and the role of defense policy in countering it. This gives us a bottom up understanding of hybrid warfare.

“Hybrid warfare” and “Russia” have become connectively used words in political, military, academic, or even public spheres almost on daily basis since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in describing what hybrid warfare means, let alone the correct use of the term itself, which is further reinforced by conflicting arguments about the novelty of this concept. Such lack of clarity raises the question of how a particular country and its leaders understand hybrid warfare, which has important implications for formulating respective policies and countermeasures.

This article focuses on the British political-military discourse on hybrid warfare in the context of Russia’s hostile activities and the role of defense policy in the period 2014-2019. However, rather than examining this issue solely by applying the concept itself, as compared to other studies, a bottom-up approach, qualitative content analysis with quantitative aspects in particular, is used to obtain results from 68 primary sources of various actors relevant to British defense. The analysis itself aims at three areas: terms used to describe Russia’s hostile activities; Russia’s hostile activities abroad and their perception including corresponding tools and methods; and UK’s response to Russia’s hostile activities.

The results provide number of interesting insights and allow to indicate further implications. For example, the representatives not only used a wide range of different terms to describe Russia’s hostile activities, which corresponds with the overall ambiguity of hybrid warfare and its conceptualization and which tends to approach this issue in a further context, but the quantitative perspective further showed that they highlighted information and cyber warfare more often in comparison to other particular components of hybrid warfare definitions.

In the context of the UK, this calls for a more unified understanding of the issue, whether it could be in the form of adopting NATO’s approach to hybrid threats or formulating UK’s own perspective, for example, within the MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project which the UK is a member of. And since there is naturally a risk of creating more ambiguity than there already is, it is crucial to base such an approach on facts and proper understanding of Russia’s aims, tools and methods, since it would have additional implications for response measures.

Similarly, while keeping in mind the limits of generalization of one case study, these results also deserve some attention in regard to the hybrid warfare debate since they raise the question whether hybrid warfare is not really just a label primarily used for political purposes and it is really more suitable to research the particular components – an approach already held in academic circles.

Another example is the role of defense policy in countering hybrid warfare in the context of Russia, which was undoubtedly recognized in the British political-military discourse, although its engagement was considered being ultimately dependent on the nature of a particular hybrid threat that Russia poses. The results and their analysis may represent a helping tool in interpreting British strategic documents (including the potential differences between the political-military discourse and the documents), decisions made in relation to defense (such as preferences in development of particular capabilities or support of certain propositions at NATO level), or related countermeasures. And if additional data and governmental actors were added to the analysis, this approach could also be adopted towards other British policies which are impacted by the same threat.

Last but not least, the article shows that focusing on hybrid warfare within a particular discourse can provide interesting insights into particular country’s understanding of the concept as well as respective policies and countermeasures. The case study of the UK could thus serve as an example for researching political-military discourses in other countries/institutions that also have to deal with such a threat, in order to generate more data and even provide some comparisons, and the applied bottom-up approach, which proved its usefulness in analyzing such discourse, may represent a way how to achieve it.

Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejková are researchers at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, the Czech Republic. They are the authors of “The Ambiguity of Hybrid Warfare: A Qualitative Content Analysis of the United Kingdom’s Political-Military Discourse on Russia’s Hostile Activities and the Role of Defense”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.



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