Nino Macharashvili, International Black Sea University
The hallmark of Russian warfare in the twenty-first century is the use of non-military means as military weapons. The objective of Russia is to establish a persistent front that will blur the lines between peace and war, spread instability and disorder, and upend the political structures of its “treacherous neighbors.”
Ukraine was attacked by Russia on February 24, 2022. In parallel with the military actions, discussions regarding Russia’s military strategy were held. The search for hybrid aspects in Russia’s actions kicked off with many comparing the current state of affairs to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. One year after the latest war began, it is clear that Russia is not succeeding in its objectives as it did eight years prior. And, therefore, questions arise: What sets today’s Russia apart from that of 2014? And what sets today’s Ukraine apart from that of 2014?
Ukraine against Russian Hybrid Warfare
Traditionally, Putin takes advantage of the fact that European nations are dependent on Russian natural resources, due to which he often begins military actions during the winter months (Crimea – February 20, Ukraine – February 24). Moscow aims to create a syndrome of fear and thus tries to indirectly influence the will of political actors.
Russia’s actions in Crimea began with manipulation of the public opinion, following which the “willingness of the people” to join the Russian Federation was made the pretext for carrying out the hostilities. In 2014, along with the military conflict, the world saw a plethora of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and propaganda. The cyberattacks carried out by Russia against Ukraine resulted in a communication collapse primarily aimed at disconnecting members of parliament from the communication space. In addition, the Ukrainian government website became the target of a cyberattack itself, prevented from running for over 72 hours after the annexation of Crimea took place. In order to demoralize the population, telephone messages were sent to family members of soldiers, and false information was dispersed regarding their lives. Russia managed to accomplish its objective in just one month thanks to all of the above, and all attempts by Ukraine to counter these attacks was unsuccessful.
Russia continued to employ its standard tactics in 2022. Before launching its military assaults, it employed a variety of active measures, including espionage, cyberattacks, and disinformation. Putin wanted to undermine Ukraine’s national security system and prevent state institutions from operating effectively. He also hindered the Ukrainians’ access to credible information sources and essential services. In theory, the abovementioned would erode public confidence in the government, make military actions simpler to carry out, and ultimately pave way for the invasion of Ukraine. The ratio of use of non-military means compared to military means was 4:1. Russia’s attack on the Kyiv TV Tower was justified as a counter measure to Ukrainian “disinformation”. Before the siege of Mariupol, telephone messages were sent to the population with the following content – “Your government has abandoned you”. Nuclear weapons and radioactive chemicals have been mentioned in blackmail narratives on several occasions.
Russia’s action strategies did not differ much between 2014 and 2022, but the outcomes of those strategies did: The cyberattacks were mostly unsuccessful, and the espionage and disinformation campaigns were mainly ineffective (see the table for the hybrid tactics used by Russia). In comparison to 2014, Russia chose to start employing greater military power.
cyberattacks, misinformation strategies
|Short-term/immediate impact||Long-term/delayed effects|
|Destruction of objects||Hacking of electric grid||Hacking of physical infrastructure and civic systems
|System access/disruption||Distributed denial of service cyberattacks
|Phishing and password spraying cyberattacks
|Text messages about the disconnection of services and the death of loved ones; Bomb threats||Videos of fake or false-flag operations
|Propaganda||Fake accounts and posts on social networks|
Source: The Wall Street Journal
In 2022, Ukraine significantly changed tactics to combat Russia’s hybrid attacks:
- Ukraine confronted Russia in all dimensions of the war. It used a range of social media strategies to combat Russian propaganda; public morale in Ukraine was strengthened by the government’s daily interactions with the population, particularly those with President Volodymyr Zelensky. The release of photo-video footage and the coverage of events made the cruelty of the Russians evident – the tragedy in Bucha became a global tragedy. At the same time, the Georgian internet space was taken up by footage depicting the events that took place in Abkhazia – members of Georgian society expressed regret that in the 1990s, Georgia, unlike today’s Ukraine, failed to reach the world’s leading actors and international organizations. The tragedy of Abkhazia remained only a national tragedy. This contrast once again demonstrated how crucial it is for a nation at war to create an information campaign.
- In his speeches, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that if Russia won, the entire West would be defeated, not just Ukraine. The use of this discourse helped Ukraine win worldwide respect and support.
- Ukraine clearly showed the world that the line between Russia and the West passed through its territory. If Ukraine was defeated, Russia would continue its military expansion and its main target would be post-socialist countries, primarily Poland or the Baltic states. The fact that Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership in order to insure against potential threats proves the validity of these concerns.
- The West has provided extensive support to Ukraine through the transfer of IT equipment, software and training. Along with private sector assistance, real-time cyber intervention by European and US cyber agencies was critical. Because of initial expectations of a short war, Moscow’s cyberattack against Ukraine turned out to be ill-prepared; Western economic sanctions and the “brain drain” of Russian IT experts played a significant role in this process.
The answer to the question is as follows: Today’s Russia is not significantly different from the Russia of 2014, something which cannot be said of Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was a bitter lesson in how to fight the Russian hybrid war. In 2022, Ukraine began to respond to all types of attack, and beginning to put to use non-military means as weapons of war. With its own efforts and the support from the West, Ukraine proved to us that it is possible to effectively fight Russia’s hybrid war. In his speech before the US Congress, Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Ukraine is alive and will continue to fight; he called this fact the first joint victory and announced the defeat of Russia in the battle for the minds of the world.
Unfortunately, the war between Russia and Ukraine is ongoing, so all the threats discussed above remain active. The diverse means of hybrid warfare and their adaptability increase the likelihood of cyberattacks. The change in the ratio between the use of military and non-military means by Russia, with a growing focus on conventional warfare, increases the need to strengthen Ukraine with modern combat equipment. Russia is also expected to expand the limits of its destructive actions and “retaliate” against anyone who supports Ukraine, making the response of the West to these threats critically important.