The 4th March poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a Novichok nerve agent has once again brought Russia, and its foreign affairs strategy, to the fore of Western politics. As such, the ‘Fusion Doctrine’ recently announced by Theresa May, which will allow the UK to utilise a wide spectrum of resources to counter Russian aggression, has reignited interest in the concept of Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ and its “Hybrid Threat” among the intelligence community.
The Russian intelligence services remain notoriously secretive, despite the insights and documents revealed by defectors such as Vasili Mitrokhin and Oleg Gordievsky, and the controlled release of sensitive information after the collapse of the USSR. It is therefore unsurprising that they have yet to be fully understood by Western intelligence practitioners. Whether Russia follows a consistent strategy when conducting their foreign intelligence operations is a question which has particularly fascinated experts in recent years. In February 2013, the chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, published an article that gave the perspective of a senior military leader on the future of war. While this piece was not remarked upon in the West after its publication, it has been heavily scrutinised in the wake of the 2014 Russian intervention operation in Ukraine.
Within his article, Gerasimov remarks that “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed”, suggesting that non-military means have become more important than weaponry when conducting military operations. By urging greater cooperation between the Russian military, intelligence agencies, and the Academy of Military Sciences, Gerasimov highlights the importance Russia places upon the information sphere, and the use of political, diplomatic, and other measures in winning wars. This article has become the focus of recent Western efforts to understand Russian military and intelligence strategy, leading to a theory of ‘hybrid warfare’, in which a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare is utilized. This has become the principal term in which Russian intelligence is discussed by Western theorists, and now (it seems) politicians, leading to the suggestion that the strategy currently being used by Russian in its foreign intervention operations is frighteningly new and unpredictable.
Despite its recent popularity, however, the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ is largely unhelpful when applied to Russian intelligence strategy. It was a term coined in 2009 by Frank Hoffman, who did not mention Russia at all when describing his theory, perceiving no uniqueness in a Russian incarnation of the strategy. Furthermore, intelligence scholars Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky have pointed to the imprecision of the term, which is simply a new word to both define a combination of previously defined types of warfare in order to make sense of the 2014 Ukrainian security crisis. Most importantly, notions of a Russian strategy of ‘hybrid warfare’ assume that Russian actions in Ukraine are unprecedented and unpredictable. Despite a multitude of recent discussions about the form which modern Russian military strategy assumes, a coherent Western understanding of Russian intelligence strategy during foreign intervention operations remains elusive.
In actuality, when Russian intelligence strategy is examined throughout a number of foreign intervention operations, it becomes apparent that there are notable consistencies in the ways in which the intelligence agencies have conducted themselves since the 20th century and beyond. A Russian ‘hybrid threat’ is therefore nothing new. For example, the use of the information sphere has been cited as a defining characteristic of this new Russian way of working. However, the use of ‘dezinformatsiya’ (disinformation), as a method of promoting the Russian state while simultaneously reducing popular trust in alternate governments has been utilised before this new buzzword.
Prior to the second Chechen invasion, the Kremlin used a Russian Information Centre, which released videos of Chechens killing Russian soldiers in the First Chechen War, as a tool to denounce Chechen separatists as terrorists in order to legitimise another intervention. This use of the newly established internet easily parallels Russian use of social media during the Ukrainian conflict and in influencing the US 2016 election. The covert nature of recent influence campaigns is equally traceable to the KGB use of ‘front organisations’ such as the World Peace Council during the Cold War in order to undermine Western narratives and willingness to invest in defence. ‘Hybrid’ warfare is thus far from a new doctrine.
This remarkable consistency in Russian strategy can be explained. Gerasimov states that “In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the states of war and peace”, thereby linking hybrid warfare doctrine to Russian activities. This mentality is undeniably held by Russian intelligence practitioners, who have consistently made use of the information and political spheres, as well as non-combatants. However, far from being the new phenomenon suggested by some theorists, this has formed an underlying factor in the consistency of Russian intelligence strategy since the Tsarist period.
Russia has traditionally viewed war in a similar way to Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote in the early 1800s that “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument”. Indeed, Russia has consistently lacked a delineation between war and peace and has instead seen itself as under constant hybrid threat from its neighbouring states, most recently NATO and the EU, as reflected in the 2014 Military Doctrine which details fourteen major risks to the Russian Federation, each a thinly veiled criticism of Western expansionism. Therefore, rather than being seen as new, threatening and ‘hybrid threat’, the eagerness of the Russian intelligence services to make use of non-state actors and the information sphere should be viewed as symptomatic of a deeper intelligence culture that has consistently informed its strategy during foreign intervention operations.
It is also worth noting the extent to which the modern intelligence services base their culture and doctrine upon that of their predecessors. The KGB was officially dissolved on 31 December 1991, an act heralded as signalling impending oversight of the intelligence activities of the Kremlin. However, due to the volatile political environment of the post-Soviet state, Yeltsin relied upon the security services to stay in power, leading to a dependence on former KGB personnel. Thus, the five new agencies which were formed from the KGB directorates were headed by ex-KGB staff. This has important ramifications for the consistency of a Russian intelligence strategy, since with the continuation of personnel in the Russian security services came a continuity in methodology. Putin’s assertion that “There is no such thing as an ex-KGB man” suddenly takes on a more sinister meaning.
Thus, the attempted murder of the Skripals should not come as a shock. Even leaving aside the case of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, the Russian government has a long history of targeting dissidents, often many years after their defection. Despite now forming part of intelligence legend, the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov with a ricin tipped umbrella is a very real case of so-called ‘hybrid’ techniques being employed before the incarnation of any such doctrine. One could even go so far as to trace the strategy back to the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, who operated in Paris in the 1920s to eliminate Tsarist sympathisers and further bolster the fledgeling Communist state.
While the targeting of the Skripals appears to have confounded the UK and its allies, it is simply the latest case of a Russian strategy that does not delineate between war and peace, combatants and non-combatants. The current preoccupation with a ‘hybrid threat’ merely distracts from recognising the consistency and precision with which Russia conducts its foreign intelligence strategy; a strategy which sees nothing new in the use of old KGB tactics, including the use of poisons and nerve agents.