Responding to Russia’s ‘Hybrid’ Threat

U.S. News, By Franklin D. Kramer and Lauren M. Speranza, 25 April 2017

As President Donald Trump recognized in a press conference earlier this month, one of the fundamental challenges facing the West is the problem of Russia. “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia,” Trump stated. “This has built for a long period of time.” The precipitating factor for the president’s comments was Syria, but the issue is much broader.

Since its takeover of Crimea in 2014, Russia has become increasingly emboldened, undertaking actions that, rather than propping up a failing regime, strike directly against the functioning of Western democracy. Employing a combination of “hybrid” actions – political, diplomatic, informational, cyber-, economic, covert and low-level force – the Kremlin has targeted countries not only on the fringes of its sphere of influence, but in the heart of Europe and even the United States.

Russia’s hybrid efforts have been widespread. In Germany, Russian cyberattacks targeted the Parliament. In the Czech Republic, the national intelligence service has cited “illegitimate lobbying” from Russian-backed entities. Russian security services have been accused of carrying out an assassination attempt on the prime minister of Montenegro, an allegation to which the United Kingdom foreign secretary publicly agreed. In France, Russia has been accused of meddling in the country’s presidential race; U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr stated that “the Russians are actively involved in the French elections.” And in the United States, the intelligence community concluded that the Russian government ordered “an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” which included email hacks, thefts and disclosures of information.

These ruthless actions abroad are all consistent with how Russia is now governed. It is an authoritarian regime with highly corrupt governing and economic institutions. The State Department’s 2015 Human Rights Report on Russia highlighted the “bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and improper use of official positions to secure personal profits” within the country. Experts have called it a “system based on massive predation.” Internally, the regime does not abide by democratic norms.

Externally, therefore, it is hardly a surprise that Russia combines its disregard for democracy and the rule of law with a decidedly anti-Western orientation. As the Finnish government’s foreign policy and security report states, “Russia’s leadership … perceive[s] international relations [as] a geopolitical zero-sum game.” Russian international objectives are clear: The Kremlin seeks a reordering of the existing international framework. And as the examples above demonstrate, Russia will use all available means to achieve this, including cyberattacks, subversion, low-level force and information warfare – in other words, a full spectrum of hybrid conflict.
While these actions are not new, the past few years have shown a sharp increase in their intensity and scope – particularly in the information domain. NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has described Russia’s efforts as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.” Combined with its other actions, Russian hybrid activities have presented the West with a new “warm war,” characterized not only by threats and confrontation, but also by ongoing attacks.

NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove

The West, however, is far from defenseless, but the transatlantic community must recognize that responding requires a comprehensive strategy to contain the multifaceted aspects of hybrid warfare. NATO and the European Union, which in the past year have pledged to work closely on such matters, should undertake these actions, as should their national members; their actions are key to engaging both domestic security agencies and the private sector, which owns and operates critical infrastructure that will be necessary to effectively respond to hybrid challenges.

The strategy should contain six main efforts:

Create an intelligence hub focused on Russia. NATO, the EU or, ideally, both should create an intelligence hub focused on Russia. Assessment of Russian intentions, capabilities and activities would provide the requisite agenda. Information could be gleaned and shared among the participating nations to increase the West’s collective ability to recognize and respond.

Enhance and expand contingency planning. This is important, particularly in dealing with the prospect of Russian low-level force, cyberattacks and information warfare. For example, NATO has recently placed multinational battalions in the Baltic countries and Poland. Those forces should plan with both local police and other domestic security agencies, and could potentially be supplemented by forces from the European Gendarmerie Force, which includes military police from seven European nations, including Italy’s Carabinieri and Spain’s Guardia Civil. Likewise, planning against cyberattacks should be expanded to include NATO, the EU and government agencies but, crucially, also key critical infrastructures like electric grid operators, telecommunications systems, internet service providers and financial entities.

Use legal tools in response to foreign violations of domestic laws. As an example, the United States recently indicted members of the Russian intelligence service in connection with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Moving forward, in a case such as Estonia, where a national border guard was kidnapped by Russian forces, Estonian authorities should indict those involved. More broadly, when one country has been seriously violated by Russian hybrid actions, the transatlantic community should also consider multinational sanctions as appropriate. In a move in the right direction, the United States utilized unilateral sanctions after the DNC attack, but multilateral sanctions – adopted by other nations or through the EU – would have been much more powerful as a response and deterrent to future actions.

Bar any political finance in Europe and the United States by Russia or Russian-supported entities. As a follow-on, existing European national mechanisms that review foreign investments or other financial transactions should enhance their focus on actions by Russian entities that could lead to detrimental impacts on the national security, economy and/or the democratic functioning of a country. This would help to disrupt Russian networks of influence and build more resilient societies.

Develop a comprehensive response to Russian election interference. This could include a voluntary code of standards for media-provided information in the context of elections, which could build on the EU’s recently adopted “Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online” and draw on national laws related to defamation, privacy and objectivity – such as those that already exist in Germany and the United Kingdom. Under the existing hate speech code of conduct, governments work with private sector online companies to block and/or limit hate speech. A comparable approach could be adopted to restrict the reach of Russian information efforts aimed at impacting foreign elections that do not meet the criteria of the voluntary code.

 Establish a “Coordinating Council” to work on these matters. To facilitate this coordination and go beyond the existing limited and still informal efforts between NATO and the EU, the transatlantic community should establish a “Coordinating Council.” This new entity could operate on a voluntary, consensus basis – comparably to the Financial Stability Board in the financial arena – to provide coordinated diplomatic, economic, information, security and military actions among NATO, the EU, their nations and the private sector.

Russia’s hybrid warm war against the West presents an increasingly urgent, though not insurmountable, threat. And through the steps outlined above, a coordinated response among NATO, the EU and their nations can effectively meet – and defeat – the Russian hybrid challenge.

This op-ed is drawn from the authors’ forthcoming report “Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge: A Comprehensive Strategic Approach.”

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