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What is Behind Russia’s ‘Hybrid Aggression’?

Today, it is quite common to interpret Russia’s geopolitical activity in the form of “hybrid aggression” as a qualitatively new phenomenon that is unique to our time. But does such a reflection correspond to the real state of affairs? What does “hybrid aggression” really mean? What are its essence and conditioning?

The entire nature of modern Russian expansionism is inspired by Russia’s desire to regain its superpower status and undermine the United States as the world’s sole hegemon. The realisation of this desire is based on the concept of “Eurasianism,” according to which the whole world should be divided into zones of influence of the leading states (according to the Kremlin’s vision, Ukraine is in Russia’s orbit of influence). Moscow regards the interference of one leading country in “foreign” affairs as an act of aggression.

However, without proper resources for direct incorporation and subordination of “its own sphere,” Russia uses indirect methods of control over the so-called “own region.” Perceiving international politics through the prism of the theory of “Eurasianism” (this is why Moscow reacts so sharply to the European or Euro-Atlantic integration of neighbouring countries), but technologically and economically yielding to the West, Russia is forced to resort to “hybrid warfare” that can give rise to “hybrid wars”.

“Hybrid war” means military actions carried out by combining military, quasi-military, diplomatic, informational, economic, and other means in order to achieve strategic political goals. The specificity of this combination is that each of the military and non-military methods of waging a “hybrid conflict” is used for military purposes and is used as a weapon. To a certain extent, the concepts equivalent to “hybrid wars” are “full spectrum war” and “combined war.” “Hybrid war” differs from classical conventional war by another combination of proportions of traditional elements of war and the use of completely new components, non-classical for combat operations.

No less essential features of such a war are its undeclared and undefined subjects of the conflict both for each of the warring parties and the world community.

War of Russian Federation against Ukraine

Russia mapRussia’s “hybrid aggression” against Ukraine began in 1991, not in 2014. In a broad context, Russia’s “hybrid aggression” against Ukraine (1991 – present), which for Russia is a struggle for Ukraine, conventionally includes three phases: preparatory (passive), active (since 2014) and legitimising.

The preparatory phase required the initial internal political consolidation of the neo-totalitarian regime and the “massification” of Russian society in order to return to Russia a superpower status, which is implemented through aggressive external humanitarian, information and economic policies, the creation of alternative international organisations and associations, the conduct of exercises and the location of Russian military bases in the territory of other countries, and interference in internal politics of other states using various methods. The preparatory phase can otherwise be called passive, because it is an indirect mediated aggression.

The beginning of the active phase is (“hybrid” or direct) intervention and occupation of the territory or part of the territory of another state. The transition from a passive to an active phase occurs mainly due to the risk of Russia losing control over a certain region or state.

The final phaselegitimising – is used to cover up aggression and as its “democratic facade” to legalise invasion and legitimise annexations (creation and support of puppet quasi-states, pseudo-referendums and pseudo-elections to present annexation as incorporation).

All three phases are accompanied by hypocritical diplomacy, which is used to manipulate the consciousness of the domestic electorate and to reduce its responsibilities in foreign policy.

Types of Expansion

  1. Humanitarian and information expansion. The entire humanitarian and information policy of the Russian Federation is aimed at creating a Russian cultural and information space in other states (which is formed, in particular, by leveling linguistic, cultural and historical differences in Russia’s neighbouring countries, appropriating history, and creating myths about a common past, etc.).

This space has always been an integral attribute of the “Russian world” and served as a prerequisite for more decisive action at all times: the factor of the same Orthodoxy was actively used by Russia during the 17th – 18th centuries in its confrontation with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the 19th century – in competition with the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and even in the 20th century – to justify the Soviet occupation of Poland in 1939 or the offensive on Berlin in 1945.

  1. Economic expansion. It is expressed in the desire for economic domination in the post-Soviet territories and the formation of Europe’s resource dependence on Russia. An example of this is the support of an artificial status quo in linking the economies of Ukraine and Russia, inherited from the Soviet era (this principle of functioning of the economy was to artificially “cement” the communist empire into a single “organism” and contribute to the formation of relations according to the “center – periphery” model) for which purpose for decades Russia has created all sorts of obstacles in building in Ukraine its own complete production cycle in various industries.

Money UkraineStriking manifestations of Russia’s aggressive economic policy were the reduction in oil supplies to Belarus in order to force it to reduce oil exports to Ukraine, and Russian theatrical performances with bulldozers, which were supposed to serve as a response to sanctions against the Russian Federation.

However, an energy weapon is of primary importance for Moscow. In the gas sector, Russia uses the practice of “gas wars,” with the help of which, in particular, it managed to extend the period of deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea by signing the Kharkiv agreements in 2010. In the nuclear power industry, Russia has resorted to investment, restoration or construction of new nuclear reactors in other countries that can operate exclusively on Russian nuclear fuel.

A derivative of energy is a transit weapon, the use of which is aimed at creating isolation from the fuel market of entire countries (for example, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have almost no opportunities to export their energy resources bypassing Gazprom). Instead, Russia itself seeks to improve its economic and geographical position through the construction of new oil and gas pipelines (Nord Stream and South Stream projects).

Another manifestation of Russia’s economic expansion is financial weapons, which are sold by investing or providing bond loans to other countries, the operation of Russian banks in their territory, and the location of enterprises with a significant share of Russian capital. Thus, a “recipient country” falls under Russian influence. But as soon as it ceases to be “obedient,” Russia begins to resort to various financial manipulations, such as delaying funds.

In fact, it has become a tradition since the revolutionary era. The Bolsheviks blocked the flow of cash in the UPR at the end of 1917 to put pressure on the Central Rada, which prevented a large part of the population from receiving a salary. In this way, Petrograd tried by blackmail to force the Ukrainian government to recognise the power of the Soviets.

In general, all methods of economic expansion are actively used by the Russian Federation for political manipulation and create the basis for further political integration.

  1. Creation of alternative international and interstate associations and organisations. This method takes its roots from the Communist International, through which the Bolsheviks coordinated an international network of puppet communist parties and movements with the aim of “subversive anti-capitalist activities” and “exports of communism,” or supported communist and loyal governments in various countries. In order to expand its spheres of influence, Moscow, through the Comintern, resorted to the formation of “red international brigades,” in particular during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

Accordingly, starting from this point, we are talking about the means of political and military pressure and expansion, because a modern Russia in all international organisations created under its auspices, even economic ones, also has primarily political motivation: they should help oppose the integration of neighbouring countries into Western international structures.

Such an international organisation is the CIS, which from the beginning of its creation has been seen as a reintegration political superstructure for the potential restoration of the Soviet Union. Other such platforms are EurAsEC, Customs Union, EAEU, and CSTO.

All of them are tools for realising Russia’s geopolitical goals in opposition to the West, with which Russia is trying to turn as many neighbouring countries as possible into its actual satellites. And as soon as a country tries to break out of the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation, the use of other “hybrid methods”  begins.

The experience of Armenia is vivid here, which at one time took steps towards association with the EU, but was forced to join the Customs Union due to Russia’s threats to assist Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to Russia’s plan, the same fate was to befall Ukraine, where events began to develop according to the Georgian scenario.

  1. Exercises and deployment of Russian military bases in the territory of other states are possible primarily within the framework of the CSTO member states (a modern analogue of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation).

An example of this is the Zapad-2017 large-scale exercise in Belarus, which is also increasing the capacity of regular Russian military bases. The deployment of bases in the territory of other states leads to the expansion of military infrastructure of the Russian Federation and the use of military resources of “friendly countries” for their own purposes on the one hand, and on the other hand, it can serve as a pretext and tool for Russian invasion.

Parad CrimeaThus, Ukraine, not being a member of the CSTO, paid dearly for the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, which almost caused Crimea’s rejection of Ukraine in the early 1990s, but then Russia made a compromise – the autonomy of Crimea within Ukraine and the transfer of the Russian fleet in the hope of establishing full control over all of Ukraine. However, given Ukraine’s separation from Russia, the use of the Black Sea Fleet factor against Ukraine was only a matter of time.

  1. Creation or support of pro-Russian or marginally destructive political forces and puppet governments (“true representatives of their peoples”) in Russia or other states as a “hybrid means” of creating a platform for intervention has its origins in the events of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921.

Being in the minority at the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets in Kyiv in December 1917, the Bolsheviks moved to Kharkiv, where they convened an alternative congress and proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets and the formation of a Soviet government – the People’s Secretariat as opposed to the existing UPR and the General Secretariat, thus creating a springboard for the attack on the UPR. This move serves as a legitimisation for the first Soviet invasion of Ukraine.

Retreating under pressure from German-Austrian troops after the conclusion of the Treaty of BrestLitovsk, the Bolsheviks formed the CP(b)U in Russia, the first meeting of which took place near Moscow in July 1918.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I and a change in foreign policy, the Communists organised an “independent” Provisional Workersand Peasants‘ Government of Ukraine, headed by Pyatakov and consisting mainly of non-Ukrainians, under the auspices of the Council of People’s Commissars in Kursk in late November 1918. The main task of the government was to restore the power of the “Soviets” in Ukraine. This was the beginning of the second Soviet-Ukrainian war (also undeclared), which contributes to the final assertion of Russian domination.

The same tactic was used during the “Winter” Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 when the “People’s Government” of the “Finnish Democratic Republic” was formed from representatives of the Communist Party of Finland in the USSR. Subsequently, recruitment to the “Finnish People’s Army” was announced.

Polishing of ‘Hybrid’ Political Methods

The final polishing of Moscow’s “hybrid” political methods took place during the construction of a “socialist camp,” when the Kremlin created and supported a number of parties and governments of satellite states (socialist Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc.).

Kremlin RussiaSometimes it was about economic support or even bribery of loyal political forces. This practice has become the embodiment of a method of integrating the political elites of other states into the general imperial policy – an historically traditional method for the Kremlin since the imperial era – with the help of which Russia incorporated Ukraine at the end of the 18th century, equating the Cossack sergeant in rights with the Russian nobility (now the Russian Federation uses the same means to contain in its composition some Caucasian regions, for example, Chechnya).

Today, Russia has only modified and improved its mechanisms of political influence. An example of this was the activity of openly pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine: the Party of Regions, the Communist Party, the Union of Left Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Russian Unity, and others.

Europe is no exception, where in some countries (Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Greece) Russia openly supports either marginal and destructive parties (left or right) or Eurosceptic and pro-Russian forces. The Kremlin also has its puppet politicians in Europe, among whom there are quite high-ranking officials: such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the short run, this gives Moscow leverage to fight for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia in the domestic political space of other states, and in the long run, it should facilitate the disintegration of traditional European and democratic values and the politics of these countries.

  1. Institute of Dual Citizenship of the Russian Federation. If the previous method is an example of organisational Russian influence “from above,” then the issuance of Russian passports to citizens of other countries is a manifestation of political manipulation “from below.” Such political Russification became most widespread in the territories bordering the Russian Federation and in some cases preceded the direct invasion and annexation of these territories or the creation of “gray zones” in the form of quasi-state formations.
  2. Interference in elections and domestic politics of other states. Recently, the Russian Federation has been increasingly practicing interference in election campaigns in other countries, which is implemented directly (through funding of marginal and pro-Russian parties and individual politicians, integration of political elites of other countries into the Russian political space, expanding the pro-Russian electorate by promoting and granting Russian citizenship as a second one) or indirectly (cyberattacks during elections in the United States, France and Germany) in order to influence the domestic policies of entire states.

Bilorus protestWith the help of the aforementioned set of “hybrid methods,” Russia was able to establish complete control over the entire policy of individual countries. This is most clearly reflected in the situation with Belarus, whose independence de facto does not go beyond the classical confederation with the Russian Federation. The leadership of Belarus must coordinate its foreign, military, economic, financial, customs, tax, transport, and even cultural policies with Moscow. Ukraine under the Yanukovych regime was in a similar position until it began to get out of Russian influence.

Anton Tverdovsky, researcher of totalitarian regimes and movements, Department of Contemporary History of Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia National University

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