News September 4, 2017
by Matti Saarelainen, Director, Hybrid CoE

Blog: Hybrid threats – what are we talking about?

When the EU and NATO agreed to enhance their cooperation at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, countering hybrid threats was identified as one of the most prominent fields of cooperation. A few weeks ago, the joint report of the European Commission and the European External Action Service described the current security environment in Europe as being filled with hybrid activity.

“Hybrid activities are becoming a frequent feature of the European security environment.

“Hybrid activities are becoming a frequent feature of the European security environment. The intensity of these activities is increasing with growing concerns over elections being interfered with, disinformation campaigns, malicious cyber activities, and perpetrators of hybrid acts trying to radicalise vulnerable members of society as their proxy actors.” In this way, European security has become a negotiated, contested and combatted issue involving non-state and state actors.

The Cold War environment was defined by one superpower aiming to outdo the other. Today, the security environment is harder to define, but feels no less dangerous. This is to do with the nature of hybrid threats. The threats, methods, and activities are multidimensional and the links between different actions are unclear. Sometimes they are even impossible to verify. Hybrid threats as such fall short of hybrid warfare, but if they are not detected or responded to, hybrid warfare can ensue. For example, hybrid threats – different threats linked to each other but where the links were hard to detect – existed well before the annexation of Crimea or the rise of ISIL. In other words, if the hybrid threats are not countered, we face the threat of hybrid warfare operations.

Now weaker state actors are aiming to become stronger, seeking global Great Power status, while non-state actors are seeking their own statehood, or recognition of their activities. This results in challenges for a stronger actor (the West, individual countries or institutions); hybrid threats to our security.

It is important to note that the hybrid threats are transnational as well as transregional. Borders are not respected. “Vulnerabilities to hybrid threats are not limited to national boundaries.”

“Vulnerabilities to hybrid threats are not limited to national boundaries.”

Hybrid threats refers to the methods and tools used by individual state or non-state actors to enhance their own interests, strategies and goals. The range of methods and activities is wide: influencing information and propaganda, logistical weaknesses like energy supply pipelines, economic and trade related blackmail, undermining international institutions by rendering rules ineffective, terrorism, increasing insecurity (border incidents like airspace violations without admission, talking about legitimate interests, immigration questions) etc. Those using hybrid methods and activities are usually in some ways weak actors/states or actors avoiding openly declared war. Without a hybrid activity, they could not push their agenda forward.

As the MCDC project ‘Understanding Hybrid Warfare’ concluded: “Hybrid warfare involves the synchronised use of military and non-military means against specific vulnerabilities to create effects against its opponent. Its instruments can be ratcheted up and down simultaneously, using different tools against different targets, across the whole of society”. In this way, if hybrid threats are not detected and analysed in time, the threshold between hybrid threats and hybrid warfare will be crossed. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between war, peace and grey zones. Hybrid threat operations that fall short of becoming hybrid warfare can be successful if the opponent is intimidated enough to change its political course or respond in a way harmful to itself. Both a hybrid threat situation and hybrid warfare “also creatively exploit our cognitive predisposition to emphasise the military instrument of power, allowing opponents to leverage non-military ((M)PECI) means against a wider set of unconventional targets” as the MCDC project report has shown.

In short: We live in the era of hybrid influencing, meaning that state and non-state actors are challenging countries and institutions they see as a threat, opponent or competitor to their interests and goals. Hybrid threats are methods and activity that are targeted towards vulnerabilities of the opponent. Vulnerabilities can be created by historical memory, legislation, old practices, geostrategic factors (logistics, geography, natural resources, infrastructure), strong polarisation of society, technological disadvantages, ideological differences, etc. If the interests and goals of the user of hybrid methods and activity are not achieved, the situation can escalate into hybrid warfare where the role of military and violence will increase significantly. Hybrid threats are the “power of the weak”, and when effectively used can give significant advantages to the “weaker side” as well as create a future conflict potential where military instruments will also be deployed.

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