Deadly cha­rades

Rus­sia and China are us­ing hy­brid forms of war­fare that dis­guise their mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives, but that may ul­ti­mately back­fire.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Robert G Pat­man

Rus­sia and China are us­ing hy­brid forms of war­fare that dis­guise their mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives, but that may ul­ti­mately back­fire.

Since 2014, the cri­sis in Ukraine has se­ri­ously chal­lenged the West’s bi­nary un­der­stand­ing of “war” and “peace”, and the term “hy­brid war” has come into use to de­scribe the Rus­sian of­fen­sive in the for­mer Soviet re­pub­lic. Hy­brid war­fare em­ploys a com­bi­na­tion of mil­i­tary and non-mil­i­tary means in peace­time to achieve tra­di­tional mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives, such as ter­ri­to­rial con­trol or con­quest, with the aim of chang­ing the “facts on the ground” without re­sort­ing to ac­tual con­flict. Am­bi­gu­ity is the name of the game: troops and op­er­a­tions are man­aged to make it un­clear to the “enemy” and the me­dia whether the forces are un­der a na­tional com­mand author­ity.

Whereas Ukraine could be de­scribed as a clas­sic hy­brid war, there is ev­i­dence that China has used the same strat­egy to sup­port its long-stand­ing claims to ter­ri­tory and re­sources in the South China Sea.

The emer­gence of hy­brid war­fare high­lights the pro­foundly dif­fer­ent se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment of the post-Cold War era. Since the early 1990s, in­tra-state war has sub­stan­tially dis­placed in­ter-state strife as the dom­i­nant pat­tern of con­flict.

How­ever, after a dis­as­trous armed hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion in So­ma­lia in 1993, the United States tended to as­sume that con­flicts within states, es­pe­cially in failed ones, were not a strate­gic threat.

But since 9/11, that stance has been re­vised. In the wake of the Septem­ber 2001 at­tacks that killed thou­sands on Amer­i­can soil, the US and its al­lies joined Rus­sia – which had been pe­ri­od­i­cally fight­ing se­ces­sion­ist Chechen rebels after 1994 – in wag­ing a war on ter­ror.

It was in this con­text that the US and al­lied states en­coun­tered hy­brid-war­fare strate­gies in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq that had be­come a hall­mark of many civil con­flicts, and now sev­eral gov­ern­ments have adopted this ap­proach.


In its cam­paigns in Crimea and east­ern Ukraine, Rus­sia has de­ployed its own land forces wear­ing mil­i­tary cam­ou­flage uni­forms, and of­ten face masks, but without in­signia that would clearly iden­tify them as Rus­sian mil­i­tary. By claim­ing the welle­quipped and well-trained sol­diers were merely home-grown sep­a­ratists, the Rus­sians cre­ated the de­sired am­bi­gu­ity. The in­ter­na­tional me­dia some­times re­ferred to th­ese mys­te­ri­ous forces as “lit­tle green men” who ap­peared in num­bers too large and with ca­pa­bil­i­ties too so­phis­ti­cated to fit the Krem­lin’s de­scrip­tion as lo­cally formed sep­a­ratist groups.

Nev­er­the­less, the strat­egy achieved plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity long enough to change the facts on the ground. Nato of­fi­cials es­ti­mated in March 2015 that more than 1000 Rus­sian mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel were de­ployed in east­ern Ukraine. It’s prob­a­ble that they man­aged or su­per­vised the op­er­a­tion of so­phis­ti­cated weapons sys­tems, in­clud­ing tanks, ar­tillery, air de­fence and com­mand, con­trol and com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works sup­port­ing sep­a­ratist forces.

Rus­sia’s Ukraine cam­paign is prob­a­bly the stark­est ex­am­ple of hy­brid war­fare that in­cludes the use of lethal force. But China has been en­gaged in some­thing sim­i­lar in

Rus­sia has de­ployed land forces wear­ing cam­ou­flage uni­forms without iden­ti­fy­ing in­signia.

the South China Sea. Through the use of non-mil­i­tary and para­mil­i­tary forces such as its coast guard, fish­eries en­force­ment ves­sels, oil ex­plo­ration ships, oil-drilling plat­forms, Chi­nese-reg­is­tered com­mer­cial ships and fish­ing boats, it has been ex­ert­ing in­flu­ence and as­sert­ing its ter­ri­to­rial and mar­itime claims in the dis­puted wa­ters.

China’s ver­sion of hy­brid war­fare has so far re­mained non-lethal. Nev­er­the­less, ­se­ri­ous mil­i­tary hard­ware, in­clud­ing fighter air­craft, air de­fence mis­siles and ar­tillery, is be­ing de­ployed on con­tested is­lands.

Since 2013, China has, among other things, en­gaged in is­land con­struc­tion at seven dis­puted sites in the Spratlys; de­clared a spe­cial air de­fence zone hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres into the East China Sea; re­jected, last year, an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal’s rul­ing on its claims in the wa­ters; and fa­cil­i­tated the con­voy­ing of more than 300 fish­ing ves­sels to the Ja­panese-con­trolled Senkaku Is­lands, also last year.


The “peace­time” use of hy­brid war­fare has had dra­matic re­sults: bound­aries have been re­drawn in Europe and new ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands cre­ated in the South China Sea. As the Rus­sian and Chi­nese ex­am­ples show, op­er­a­tions car­ried out be­low the thresh­old of mil­i­tary con­flict have enabled Moscow and Bei­jing to ad­vance their po­lit­i­cal and ter­ri­to­rial agen­das without trig­ger­ing force- ful mil­i­tary re­sponses from the US and other state play­ers.

But tac­ti­cal gains should not be con­fused with strate­gic tri­umphs. Hy­brid war­fare can stim­u­late in­ter­na­tional counter-re­sponses that in the long term will nul­lify and un­der­mine stealthy ef­forts to covertly and co­er­cively change the sta­tus quo on the ground.

Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine in 2014 trig­gered sev­eral rounds of Euro­pean Union and US sanc­tions against Moscow’s al­ready strug­gling econ­omy and has served to sig­nif­i­cantly bol­ster Amer­i­can and EU sup­port for the elected gov­ern­ment in Kiev. At the same time, Nato has strength­ened its pres­ence around Ukraine, leav­ing the Putin regime more geopo­lit­i­cally iso­lated than be­fore the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis in 2013.

Equally, China’s salami-slic­ing tac­tics in the dis­puted ar­eas of the South China Sea have gen­er­ally alarmed and alien­ated many of Bei­jing’s neigh­bours and pro­vided a key stim­u­lus for the US Ad­min­is­tra­tions of both Barack Obama and his suc­ces­sor, Don­ald Trump, to rein­vig­o­rate the al­ready strong in­flu­ence of Wash­ing­ton in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

In par­tic­u­lar, Bei­jing’s ac­tions have served to bol­ster the US-Ja­pan and US-South Korea al­liances and pro­voked stern warn­ings from Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies that China’s moves could make con­ven­tional mil­i­tary con­flict more likely in the fu­ture.

Ul­ti­mately, coun­tries that en­gage in hy­brid war­fare may find the strate­gic costs out­weigh the tac­ti­cal gains.

Hy­brid war­fare has had dra­matic re­sults: Euro­pean bound­aries have been re­drawn and ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands cre­ated in the South China Sea.

Septem­ber 11, 2001: the World Trade Cen­ter at­tack sig­nalled the start of the war on ter­ror.

Stealthy shows of strength: clock­wise from top left, China’s navy on ma­noeu­vres in the South China Sea in Fe­bru­ary; Rus­sian troops without in­signias in Ukraine in 2014; US and Philip­pine per­son­nel on an ex­er­cise in May.

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