The new security environment is amongst others experiencing asymmetric security threats that are often referred to as hybrid warfare or deployment of grey-zone tactics. Whilst such tactics were observed to be used by various non-state actors in the past decade, the actions carried out by the Russian Federation in the spring of 2014 against its neighbour Ukraine have brought a new era to the international order. This chapter examines the actions and decisions undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the aftermath of the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea in 2014 and NATO’s response to the newly changed environment in the Euro-Atlantic area. From strengthening its regular defence posture and beefing up its deterrence to improving the resilience of its individual allies and adopting measures to strengthen its cyber defence capabilities, NATO continues to adapt to the new challenges to Euro-Atlantic security.
NATO in the Hybrid Warfare Environment
Hybrid warfare is nothing new. The military strategist Colin Gray argues that this modern warfare is not new and that mankind has always used asymmetric approaches to exploit the enemy’s weakness. New technologies, such as cyber-attacks, are in fact not changing the nature of asymmetry and warfare. They just add a new dimension.
In the history of humanity, we can find many examples of deliberate twisting of information to mislead the enemy: One of the oldest examples is the Trojan horse offered to the city of Troy by the Greeks. The point of the gift was pure deception to gain a strategic advantage. In their encyclopaedia of the history of propaganda and persuasion, leading authors in public diplomacy provide dozens of case studies, from the 1500s up until today, with illustrative examples of the use of propaganda, disinformation, and deception during the Reformation period in Europe, the French Revolution, the First and Second World Wars, and the infamous Nazi and Soviet propaganda tactics.
Diego Ruiz Palmer from NATO writes in his article for NATO Defence College:
While the fog of war is inherent to warfare, hostilities in this new age of asymmetry have exhibited, nearly universally, complex combinations of actors, narratives, tactics and technologies – as well as ambiguous interaction between the local, regional and international contexts in which they take place.
And whilst aspects of asymmetric warfare were used already by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and ISIL in Iraq and Syria , these were carried out by non-state actors, using asymmetric tactics to make up for their weakness vis-a-vis a greater military power.
Some experts argue that actors of asymmetric warfare resort to the use of so-called grey-zone tactics. Grey-zone tactics are to be sufficiently ambiguous to leave targets unaware of how to respond, writes the Economist in its special edition The Next War . Hal Brands from Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia states that grey-zone tactics are frequently shrouded in misinformation and deception and are often conducted in a way that is meant to make proper attribution of the responsible party difficult to nail down. Grey zone success depends on patience and an ability to blend together all the instruments of state power in ways that pluralistic, democratic societies find harder to achieve.
The proliferation of terminology to respond to the current asymmetric warfare environment suggests the seriousness of the issue, necessity of further expert research as well as appropriate adoption of policies and strategies by state actors and institutions such as NATO.
A new moment in the hybrid warfare era emerged when a state actor engaged in a well planned and executed hybrid warfare in the winter and spring of 2014 towards its neighbour, Ukraine. From the moment of the illegal annexation of Crimea by the “little green men”, experts and military strategists have all agreed that the new hybrid warfare has arrived and is here to stay for an indefinite period of time until a new form of warfare arises.
The tactics used by the Russian Federation were intrusion of the “little green men” (i.e. Russian troops without insignia) into the Crimean peninsula, a bogus referendum on the annexation of Crimea to Russia combined with wide-spread propaganda and disinformation about attacks of Ukrainian nationalists on Russian-speaking citizens in both Crimea and Donbas, a bogus distortion of modern history, and cyber-attacks combined with energy blackmail.
As early as February 2013, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, General Gerasimov had proclaimed that the role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and that new methods of conflict include a broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures.
In February 2017, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that he had created units within the army to wage an information war: “Essentially, the information conflict is a component of general conflict. Deriving from that, Russia has made an effort to form structures that are engaged in this matter.” He added that these were far more effective than anything Russia had used before for “counter-propaganda” purposes. According to Ruiz Palmer, Russia’s adoption of hybrid warfare is a combination of a strategic opportunity and necessity, tailored to today’s environment of high connectivity and thus vulnerability, allowing the usage of mixed, mostly non-military means to achieve its goal without resorting to destructive military power that could prove ultimately unachievable.
The events in Ukraine in spring 2014 have been an awakening to many in the West and confirmation of what Russia’s neighbours have been trying to say for several years already – be in Georgia or the Baltic states, that the Kremlin conducts confrontational policy and violates international law, destroys the global and regional security architecture, and seeks to divide Europe and weaken trans-Atlantic structures. The Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has long been vocal about her country’s vulnerability to its neighbour:
“Lithuania is ‘already under attack’ from Kremlin propaganda and disinformation”
, a targeted campaign she considers a possible curtain-raiser to an invasion of her country.
The former NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow argued on 01 May 2014 to a group of journalists in Washington DC that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its apparent manipulation of unrest in eastern Ukraine have fundamentally changed the NATO-Russia relationship. In February 2015, he developed the arguments further:
“To the East, Russia has torn up the international rule book. It has returned to a strategy of power politics, threatening Ukraine and European and global security more generally.”
NATO’s Response to Hybrid Warfare
In its Wales Summit declaration dated 05 September 2014, NATO describes hybrid warfare as a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures employed in a highly integrated design.
NATO’s heads of states and governments have identified the organization’s response to hybrid warfare in urging the alliance to develop:
The necessary tools and procedures required to deter and respond effectively to hybrid warfare threats, and the capabilities to reinforce national forces. This will also include enhancing strategic communications, developing exercise scenarios in light of hybrid threats, and strengthening coordination between NATO and other organizations, in line with relevant decisions taken, with a view to improving information sharing, political consultations, and staff-to-staff coordination.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg asserted that:
NATO must be ready to deal with every aspect of this new reality from wherever it comes. And that means we must look closely at how we prepare for; deter; and if necessary defend against hybrid warfare. To be prepared, NATO must be able to see and analyse correctly what is happening; to see the patterns behind events which appear isolated and random; and quickly identify who is behind and why.
At the Warsaw Summit in July 2016, NATO adopted a strategy and actionable implementation plans on NATO’s role in countering hybrid warfare. The primary responsibility to respond to hybrid threats or attacks rests with the targeted nation. NATO is prepared to assist an ally at any stage of a hybrid campaign. The alliance and allies will be prepared to counter hybrid warfare as part of collective defence. The Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
Several important steps were adopted by NATO since the Warsaw Summit in NATO’s response to hybrid warfare:
- NATO undertook the biggest reinforcements of its collective defence since the Cold War through a set of measures to strengthen its defence and deterrence.
- NATO has taken steps to improve its situational awareness and sharpen its early warning system. This is about intelligence, expert knowledge, and analytical capacity. NATO has strengthened its intelligence coordination by creating a dedicated division in NATO Headquarters in 2016.
- In the area of cyberspace, several important decisions and initiatives have been undertaken. At the Warsaw Summit, cyberspace was recognised as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside sea, air, land, and special forces. Cyber defence will continue to be integrated into operational planning and the alliance’s operations and missions. NATO continues to implement NATO’s Enhanced Policy on Cyber Defence and to strengthen NATO’s cyber defence capabilities, benefiting from the latest cutting-edge technologies. NATO allies have also adopted the Cyber Defence Pledge. This commits the member states to enhance the cyber defences of their national networks and infrastructures as a matter of priority. Each ally will honour its responsibility to improve its resilience and ability to respond quickly and effectively to cyber-attacks, including in hybrid contexts. During the February 2018 NATO defence ministers’ meeting, the decision was taken to set up a new Cyber Operations Centre at the military headquarters in SHAPE to further strengthen NATO’s cyber defences.
- A joint NATO-EU declaration adopted at the Warsaw Summit with further adoption of concrete 42 joint measures between NATO and the EU was announced at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in December 2016. These include cooperation in the area of cyberspace, exercises, and strategic communications, and other.
- In the area of exercises, NATO military planners regularly include hybrid warfare scenarios. Cyber-attacks, disabling of critical infrastructure, and spread of disinformation are woven into the exercise scenario.
- Enhanced allied resilience through civil preparedness is a central pillar of allies’ resilience and a critical enabler for the alliance’s collective defence. While this remains a national responsibility, NATO can support allies in assessing and, upon request, enhancing their civil preparedness. NATO adopted its baseline requirements for national resilience, which focus on continuity of government, continuity of essential services, security of critical civilian infrastructure, and support to military forces with civilian means.
- NATO has developed its own robust strategic communications system – implemented inside NATO and used in daily advancement of its political and operational priorities. In addition to NATO’s strategic communications, individual allies have established their own national systems and processes that reflect their national realities and priorities. A robust and well-functioning strategic communications is an important element in the fight against propaganda and disinformation. NATO does not fight propaganda with propaganda but with facts and information. It undertakes serious efforts to communicate proactively NATO’s decisions and policies to a wide range of actors, including journalists, academics, opinion formers, representatives of the civil society, and the wider public. Furthermore, NATO engages on a regular basis with Russian media, including on the occasion of important NATO events, such as for instance NATO summits and meetings of NATO foreign affairs and defence ministers. In the wake of Russia’s destabilizing actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, NATO set up a dedicated webpage called “Setting the Record Straight.” This is a public document, available on the NATO website, aimed at debunking a series of long-standing Russian myths about NATO.
- Countering hybrid threats cannot be done in isolation but in cooperation with other partners. That is why NATO has undertaken additional initiatives with other international organisations and actors in improving its situational awareness, sharing knowledge and best practices. Besides the joint set of measures stemming from the Joint NATO-EU Declaration signed at the mentioned NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016, NATO also works closely with the NATO Centre of Excellence on Strategic Communications located in Riga, Latvia, and the NATO Centre of Excellence on Cyber Defence located in Tallinn, Estonia. Furthermore, NATO is a member of the European Centre of Excellence on Countering Hybrid Warfare recently established in Helsinki, Finland. NATO provides assistance and carries consultations with a number of partner countries that are particularly affected by Russian hybrid warfare and disinformation such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova and partners who have experience with building strong resilience, such as Finland and Sweden. It provides platforms enabling practical exchanges of information and best practices in countering Russian propaganda such as the Hybrid Warfare Platform established between NATO and Ukraine.
- Countering hybrid warfare features also in the framework of NATO-Ukraine cooperation. In June 2017, a NATO-Ukraine Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare was established with a two-fold rationale: to increase the ability for NATO and Ukraine to identify hybrid threats; and to build capacity of state institutions to be better prepared to counter hybrid threats and to strengthen their resilience in the areas of civil preparedness, critical infrastructure protection, strategic communications, the protection of civilians, cyber defence, and counter-terrorism. A crisis management seminar was conducted in Poland this past October. It featured the participation of more than 100 representatives from 22 allied countries and the deputy director of the mentioned European Centre of Excellence on Countering Hybrid Warfare. A new seminar has been scheduled for this year.
As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated at the NATO Allied Transformation Seminar in Budapest on 25 March 2015:
Hybrid warfare is a probe, a test of our resolve to resist and to defend ourselves. And it can be a prelude to a more serious attack; because behind every hybrid strategy, there are conventional forces, increasing the pressure and ready to exploit any opening. NATO and its partners need to demonstrate that we can and will act promptly whenever and wherever necessary