Hybrid threats are a form of warfare that consists in the usage of cyber-attacks, espionage, propaganda, energy politics, stirring ethnic tensions, the use of proxy forces and other irregular warfare, coupled with the use of conventional military forces.
Although the usage of hybrid techniques in conflicts has several historical precedents, the crisis in Ukraine has drawn the attention to the unpreparedness of the European Union (EU) Member States to deal with these threats. As EU- Russia relations continue to deteriorate and the Minsk II ceasefire in Ukraine is barely holding – with daily violations from both sides – a great number of Member States is concerned that hybrid tactics may be used against them. Large-scale (cyber) attacks against the EU could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to a serious economic and security crisis. In particular, Poland and the Baltic countries fear that they could be the next target of Russian aggression by means of hybrid warfare.
In response to the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions by the EU, Russia has taken an ever-more assertive stance towards the EU. For example, it has scaled up the intensity of military exercises on the EU border, and there has been an increasing number violation of EU Member States’ airspace by Russian military aircrafts. Moreover, several countries – most notably Estonia – have been the victim of Russian cyber-attacks.
The Russian media campaign consistently aims to spread propaganda on the Russian annexation of Crimea and its behavior in Ukraine. This propaganda is often directed at Russian populations in Eastern European countries. In addition to the use of ethnic minorities to destabilize EU countries, Russia has sought to forge alliances with various right-wing, Eurosceptic political parties, such as the Front National in France, through financing their activities or tightening political relations.
For the EU as a whole, this issue could have a potentially dividing effect, as some Member States feel more threatened by the Russian capacities. A concrete danger lies in Russia attracting the support of the political elites of specific Member States, such as Hungary or, more recently, Greece. The EU can only provide an effective solution to the crisis in Ukraine if it remains undivided and acts coherently, but Russia has aimed at undermining the unity of the EU through bilaterally dealing with its Member States.
Any solution to these hybrid threats cannot be one-dimensional, but has to consider the internal-external security nexus. To address the external dimension, a military component is necessary to deter and, if required, counter the use of force by hostile actors. To respond in time is critical: the EU faced a fait accompli after Russian “little green men” overpowered Ukrainian security forces at a very high speed. This will be a challenging effort, considering that many EU Member States are still under an economic crisis and have cut their defense spending as a result of austerity policies.
However, a military response would not be enough by itself. Other urgent threats to be addressed are cyber security: the spreading of propaganda through the use of the Internet and social media; discontent among ethnic minorities; intelligence sharing among Member States; and the continued reliance on energy from volatile regions and authoritarian regimes. Possible solutions will most likely involve counter-information campaigns; stabilization of own societies through social and internal affairs policies; and capacity building for rapid response in the military and cyber security domains.