June 2, 2016 | Press Release

Putin Using Hybrid Warfare to Challenge United States and Allies, FDD Study Finds

Washington, DC – President Vladimir Putin has shifted Russia to a permanent war footing to advance a long-term objective of regaining Soviet-era geo-strategic parity with the United States and its European allies, according to new study by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This offensive, an attempt to overturn pillars of the post-war political and economic order, relies on major regime-linked corporations, cyber weapons and information warfare, among other instruments.

The FDD study chronicles how a nimble, opportunistic Putin is using hybrid warfare to reestablish a Soviet-era strategic superpower, creating a Cold War-like standoff with the United States that is likely to persist for years. In conjunction with the study, FDD has released an interactive timeline chronicling Russia’s hybrid warfare activities in the U.S. and Europe. 

To counter this challenge, the United States and the European Union, among other steps, should improve offensive and defensive responses, including a stronger attack on state and non-state Russian corruption, which can lead to instability that Putin can exploit using hybrid tactics.

The study, “Russian Hybrid Warfare: How to Confront a New Challenge to the West,” is the first in a three-part series on the dynamics of the intensifying financial, military and geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States and its European allies.

“Since his rise to power, Putin has repeatedly surprised the West with demonstrations of an emboldened Kremlin, and revived some of the most troubling aspects of Cold War politics,” says Pasi Eronen, a Russia Project researcher at FDD, and the report’s author. “But most recently, he has pursued his political goals through hybrid warfare. His apparent new objective has been to revive Russia’s strategic global parity with the United States.”

Eronen writes that, since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Moscow has relentlessly sought, generally without success, to recover its lost role as an essential superpower. But its recent actions – from military offensives in Ukraine and Syria to a confrontation with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the SWIFT banking system – demonstrate a new sense of determination. “Taken as a whole,” Eronen writes, “Putin is attempting to overturn pillars of the post-World War II political and economic order.”

While hybrid warfare activities between the West and the Soviet Union were not atypical, Russia’s conduct is novel in the modern age, deploying comparatively few conventional forces explicitly aimed at attacking the West, and focusing instead on the agile coordination of other instruments of national power.

Since Russia cannot hope to match U.S. capability head-to-head, Eronen writes, these tools are by necessity asymmetrical. Moscow’s over-arching tactic is maskirovka – subterfuge – the elements of surprise, diversion, and deception. This includes cyberwarfare, information warfare, and classic espionage.

Eronen cautions western governments to avoid wasting resources by attempting to counter every move by a Putin whose strategy includes tempting the West into needless and costly operations. Instead, the West should clearly identify crucial strategic and economic assets for possible targeting, while acting to undermine Russian capabilities, he said.

He says the United States and its allies can take defensive measures to shield government, economic, and public infrastructure targets, and offensive methods to exact a high price from transgressors, including:

  • Build up dedicated national and international coordinating centers for hybrid defense, including permanent local and supra-national coordinating centers that are integrated within current agencies and organizations, such as NATO. These interagency centers should gather and analyze information on Russian hybrid activities, and propose defensive action and resilience against current and future threats.
  • Enhance a common defense against cyber-intrusion and information warfare, including military and civilian exercises and public-private partnerships. Western forces deployed to the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe should be equipped and trained to continue to operate even when lacking control of the information space or the electro-magnetic spectrum.
  • Tighten and expand economic sanctions and financial measures. The U.S. and the EU should maintain pressure on Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and cease other hybrid attacks in Europe and the U.S., including cyber and information warfare. This would include prioritizing the identification of Russian hackers, organizations, and businesses engaged in or profiting from malicious cyber activity against key systems in the U.S. and the EU.
  • Step up the battle against state and non-state Russia corruption. In particular, Western authorities should coordinate targeted anti-corruption prosecutions, especially those tied to Russian influence; ensure that Western investment and interests are observing international anti-bribery and anti-corruption practices; and, using sanctions, exclude actors involved or associated with Russian corruption from legitimate financial and commercial transactions.

“The West simply cannot ignore Putin’s hybrid warfare activities,” Eronen said. “While Russia is going through the diplomatic motions, it is resorting to hybrid war tactics as a first order of geostrategic business.”

About the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)3 policy institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. Founded in 2001, FDD combines policy research, democracy and counterterrorism education, strategic communications and investigative journalism in support of its mission to promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism. Visit our website at www.defenddemocracy.org and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

About FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance (CSIF):

FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance is a project designed to illuminate the critical intersection between illicit finance and national security. The Center relies on regional and sanctions expertise within FDD, including a core cadre of financial, economic, and area experts and analysts, to promote a greater understanding of illicit financing and economic threats. The Center also designs creative and effective strategies, doctrines, and uses of financial and economic power to attack and protect against priority threats and vulnerabilities. More information on CSIF is available at http://www.defenddemocracy.org/csif.

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