Anatomy of a hybrid war on several fronts: the case of Ukraine
When we think of hybrid warfare, our minds often wander to imagining advanced surveillance technologies from TV series such as “Mission Impossible” or “Spycraft” – illustrating intriguing cases of espionage and reconnaissance. So the current debate about hybrid warfare is also somewhat contained by this Hollywood tendency to portray it as the use of advanced technologies by Kremlin agents or CIA spies.
The truth, however, is that the lines of modern hybrid warfare are very blurred and nuanced. Hybrid warfare now deploys the “full spectrum” of modern warfare to achieve the social, political, geostrategic, and economic goals of governments, non-state actors, and even large private corporations. Along with electronic surveillance, cyberattacks, and ransomware, it also involves subjecting the masses to an unrelenting theater of disinformation, even in times of low-intensity conflict.
For example, Russia is known to have broken into the computers of Germany’s lower parliament in 2015, while Russian cyber-professionals attacked the email servers of the Democratic Congress Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee during the elections. of 2016 in the United States. Apart from cyberattacks, the Russian Internet Research Agency has created fake social media pages to spread false stories about Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton.
The Russian propaganda machine has targeted Trump supporters with anti-immigration messages and black voters with such messages to discourage them from voting. This multi-pronged approach to hybrid warfare makes it a geostrategic weapon of choice to influence democracies in favor of a pro-Moscow regime. Likewise, before Moscow declared war on Ukraine, it had engaged in a decades-long campaign of “disinformation” — not to mention occasionally using cyberattacks against state infrastructure. .
However, if we compare the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 with the current situation in Ukraine, we can say that Russia played its Hybrid War cards perfectly then, but now its actions are not so effective. In 2014, Russia fueled the Euromaidan crisis to overthrow the government of President Victor Yanukovych and the new pro-Russian politician held a referendum on Crimea’s integration into Russia.
At the same time, a series of cyberattacks kept Ukraine’s security services busy, and in 2015 a major cyberattack destroyed Ukraine’s power grid, leading to widespread blackouts. Using the referendum as a pretext, the annexation of Crimea was one of the smoothest invasions of modern times – thanks to hybrid tactics. Also in 2017, Russia deployed the NotPetya malware in Ukrainian accounting software, which spread around the world, causing billions of dollars in damage. The FBI also believes a Russian spy operation was behind the 2020 SolarWinds attack, which gave Russia access to more than 30,000 public and private organizations running Orion software.
Today, in January 2022, before igniting the conflict with Ukraine, Russia used erasing malware to delete data stored on Ukrainian government computers, but Microsoft did not take the time to identified the newly designed malware and shared the information with the US government. Moreover, it seems that, this time around, Ukraine and its allies are very aware of these hybrid tactics, and Russia could not achieve a soft victory like it did in 2015.
But what the West fears is an organized cyberattack on the Swift system, which allows the transfer of payments across borders, and if that happens, the entire global financial system could collapse. Such attacks on Swift are not hypothetical and as recently as 2016 hackers stole over $80 million from Bangladesh’s central bank by exploiting vulnerabilities in the Swift system. Amid fears of such an attack, many Russian banks are pulled from the Swift. VTB and Promsvyazbank have been removed from the Swift system, but Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, is still there making oil and gas payments to Russia.
This shows that despite the launch of a full-scale invasion and amid fears of cyberattacks on the global financial system, the West is still hesitant to react – which is always a win for hybrid strategists. However, the golden age of the disinformation machine is over. Most people in Western countries are now wary of seemingly fake content and are less vulnerable to Hybrid Warfare. The other tools in the hybrid arsenal, however, are more effective than ever, and the hybrid threat remains as real as possible.
THE WRITER IS A CAMBRIDGE GRADUATE AND WORKS AS A STRATEGY CONSULTANT