NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine

  Lakshmi Parimala

In the battle between Russia and Ukraine, drones are integrated into every phase of fighting, with extensive fleets, air defenses and jamming systems.

What happened?
Russia has always used unconventional strategies to compensate their military and technological weakness relative to the West. The predominant use of hybrid warfare by Russia was seen in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, where it has used several unconventional methods such as mercenaries (popularly known as ‘little green men’), cyber-attacks, propaganda, disinformation and economic pressure. Within three weeks, and with only minor skirmishes, the morale of the Ukrainian army was crushed and its 190 military bases were surrendered. Preceding and following the beginning of the ‘special military operation’ of Russia in Ukraine on 24 February, 2022, Russia has adopted similar tactics, like cyberattacks on ViaSat, an American satellite company, on which the Ukrainian military relied for communication, information warfare, in the name of stamping out Nazis and of alleged genocide of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and spreading propaganda on social media platforms such as Vkontakte, Telegram and Yandex.

However, these tactics seem to have not worked out in the favor of Russia, in contrast to what happened eight years ago. On the contrary, Ukraine, supported by the West, has been putting up a strong resistance against the Russian forces, countering Russia’s hybrid warfare.

Three issues to watch in 2023
1. Russia may not succeed in the hybrid warfare in 2023

Unlike during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s success in in 2023 in pursuing a hybrid warfare seems remote. One of the main reasons behind this is the lack of surprise element and the familiarization and adaptation of Ukraine’s security against Russia’s techniques. With the US debunking Russia’s intentions of invasion in early 2022, before the invasion, it has alerted the Ukraine's forces.

A key factor  which furthered Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was cyber warfare. By attacking Ukraine’s cyberspace - both civil and military, Russia interrupted the functioning of the military, extracted sensitive information, and at the same crippled the morale of civilians. However, eight years later, these techniques of Russia seem to be failing in achieving the same. According to …, the reason behind as the above is: ‘Kyiv’s ability to harness the experience of years of Russian cyber attacks, combined with strong support from Western governments and — crucially — technology companies has allowed Ukraine to deploy cyber defenses at a scale and depth never seen before’. The process of familiarization of Russia’s techniques to Ukraine has begun from 2014, again, from the Russian annexation of Crimea. As mentioned above, besides the adaptation of Ukraine’s cyber security to Russian techniques, the Western governments, together with private companies such as Starlink, of Elon Musk, and Microsoft have also extended their support to Ukraine.

2. Russia’s failure in information and psychological warfare
One of the main motives of a hybrid warfare is to conquer hearts and minds through information and psychological warfare. For Russia, there is a backlash, strengthening the zeal of Ukrainians to keep fighting. The motive behind this is: firstly, to defend and justify the respective country’s actions, and secondly, to influence the public psychologically by degrading their morale. Russia has spread its narrative of stamping out Nazism, genocide of Russian speakers in Ukraine, counterterrorism, ‘people’s war’ and dirty bomb attacks. It has blocked a few websites with anti-Russian information and has also banned Instagram.

Ukraine has been able to effectively turn everything from leaked, unsecure Russian communications to video of anti-armor ambushes (Sabbagh, 2022). Besides failing to justify its action through its narrative, Russia has not been successful even in demoralizing Ukrainians. However, multiple statements from Ukrainian officials and citizens show that on the contrary Russian acts of hybrid warfare such as forcible spread of disinformation and propaganda, attack on civilians and their infrastructure, such as energy grids, have instead made their resolve to fight even stronger, by inciting anger. In the words of the head of Ukrenergo, a power company in Ukraine, “Russia did not achieve its ultimate goal….Instead of making us scared and unhappy, it made us angry, more resolved to win. They did not lower the morale of the nation; they mobilized the nation.”

3. The focus on kinetic war
Recent events show a return to a more kinetic war, at a larger scale, though non-kinetic and unconventional means continue to play in the background. With the winter coming to an end, both the countries are ramping up their arms supplies, with the help of their respective allies. With the failure of hybrid warfare in the initial stages of the war, to capture Ukraine with surprise, the war has now reached an impasse, where both the sides are trying to balance out each other, with Russia having occupied only 18 per cent of Ukraine’s territory, as the war is nearing its one year anniversary. Therefore, the dependence on non-kinetic means used previously by Russia, such as cyber, information and mercenaries, are playing a limited role.

On the other hand, the West, supporting Ukraine, has taken up a few new means of hybrid warfare, such as economic warfare (through sanctions) and diplomatic warfare (using soft power such as sports and culture). Besides the failure of the unconventional means, the intensifying acquisition of arms from allies, by Russia and Ukraine, also emphasizes the impending escalation of kinetic warfare. On Ukraine’s side, ‘America is sending 50 M2A2 Bradley vehicles, part of a new package of military aid worth more than $3bn—the largest yet—including armored personnel carriers, mine-resistant vehicles, Humvees, self-propelled and towed artillery, and a large quantity of missiles and other ammunition. Germany has promised 40 Marder vehicles (and perhaps eventually its entire fleet). France is supplying an undisclosed but probably similar number of amx-10rcs’(the Economist). Though sources on Russia’s procurement of weapons from other countries are unclear, the US has said it believes China may be about to provide lethal aid to help Russia in the war in Ukraine, and previous procurements from Iran and reportedly, North Korea.

Therefore, from the above arguments, though it is evident that hybrid warfare of Russia has not been as successful as it was in 2014, in leading the war solely by itselves, it however, is playing a complimentary role, by taking forward the strategy on land through other means. For example, drone warfare has seen a heightened use in this war. Similarly, attacks on energy grids, though not successful in affecting the morale of Ukrainians, are leaving Ukraine in a stark electricity deficit and blackouts, and damaging the infrastructure, thus creating economical burden on Ukraine. On the other hand, the West is using sanctions, which, again, though turned out to be ineffective in curtailing Russian invasion further, is however, putting economic pressure on Russia. The use of mercenaries, called Wagner, by Russia has proved to be successful to an extent, as seen in capturing Soledar, a settlement in Bakhmut region. Thus, hybrid warfare is playing a complimentary role, enhancing the effectiveness of kinetic warfare by creating diversions or removing hindrances.

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