Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics

Edited by Ofer Fridman, Vitaly Kabernik, and James C. Pearce (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2019), 271 pages. Book Review

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Nir Boms (2020) Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: New Labels, Old Politics, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs,  DOI: 10.1080/23739770.2020.1815959

Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare, edited by Ofer Freidman (Kings College, London), Vitaly Kabernik (Moscow State Institute for International Relations), and James C. Pearce (Angila Ruskin University), focuses on an especially timely aspect of the nature of modern-day war and conflict. There are more than forty active conflicts around the world today involving sixty-four countries and, according to one source, no less than 576 militias and separatist groups.

Very few of these conflicts, however, are called “wars.” Traditional wars that involve armed confrontation between two conventional militaries and end in defeat, surrender, or marriage among royals are, of course, long gone. Today, warfare often takes the form of “conflicts” precisely due to its hybrid nature and the loss of clarity regarding conduct, theater of battle, and tactics. In other words, traditional war was largely a confrontation between opposing forces on land, sea, or air. In hybrid war, on the other hand, proxy groups or paramilitary forces are used, creating new “borderless” theaters of battle with an emphasis on cyberattacks and the utilization of political and other non-military means in order to advance a given party’s interests.

Since the nature of conflict is increasingly shifting toward the hybrid, the importance of the book under review here cannot be underestimated, and happily, it does not disappoint. Featuring a rich collection of perspectives from Western and Russian experts (fourteen articles thematically divided into three parts), it offers an important contribution to our understanding of the nature of contemporary conflict and the role of information warfare.
Frank G. Hoffman (National Defense University), an American scholar and
former US military officer and one of the leading authorities on hybrid war,
defines it as the “simultaneous and adaptive employment of a complex combination of conventional weapons, irregular warfare, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the battlespace to achieve political objectives.”

Quoted by many of the authors contributing to this volume, it appears that there is little disagreement about the theory of hybrid war. In practice, however, there are significant differences in the way the game is played by Western and Russian competitors and, naturally, by non-state players who have benefited the most from new possibilities of fighting by other means.
The hybrid nature of modern warfare is full of nuance, and as such, a thorough examination of its genesis is warranted. To begin with, as we are reminded by David Betz (Kings College), the idea of hybrid war is not entirely new.

He takes us back to 1806, when a British force with its eyes on Buenos Aires led by Admiral Home Riggs Popham was defeated by a Spanish-led local insurgency— locals with “neither order nor uniformity among them”—the very opposite of an “army” (p. 13). In 1812, the Denis Davidov Detachment—comprised of 130 hussars and Cossacks—acted behind the Napoleonic lines as an official partisan force (p. 47).

Vitaly Kabernick, who offers a Russian perspective, reminds us that “most military conflicts in the past included the use of irregular forces, but those fought in the different battlespaces are sometimes mistakenly called ‘hybrid’” (p. 45). In short, context may serve us well as we explore what appears to be a ‘new’ genre of war that is, in fact, almost as old as war itself.

He argues that hybridity may simply be another component of war. According to Soviet military doctrine, war is a sociopolitical phenomenon, and a “denial of law” is implemented during any kind of war (including civil war); also, during a war, violence leads “to quantitative changes of all the spheres of social life” (p. 46).

Kabernick maintains that according to that doctrine, armed violence replaces the conduct of law during wartime. This definition of war as a separate entity divorced from any other code of conduct
(including, for example, ethics of war), which is taken directly from Vladimir Lenin and is apparently still used in Russian textbooks, may provide interesting context to an understanding of Russian sensitivities (or lack thereof) to various hybrid tactics.

The second part of the book focuses on the information dimension of twenty-first century warfare. Mervyn Frost and Nicholas Michelsen (both of Kings College) begin by addressing the topic of ethics and asking whether they exist in the less structured hybrid world. They seek to understand the “ethics of information war” (p. 89) in order to develop a “practice theory” that will enable us to better understand this new communication conduct (although they admit that broad skepticism exists regarding the idea of developing an overarching ethical framework around this issue). While I am not convinced that one framework of analysis can cover both state and rogue actors such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, Frost and Michelsen provide some important insights into the “price of lying” that even rogue groups pay when they apply the wrong communication strategy.

Subsequent chapters focus on the development of American and Russian information warfare strategies. The former is addressed by Matthew Armstrong, to whom on public diplomacy, international information, and propaganda. The latter is looked at in two separate articles, one by Radomir Bolgov (St. Petersburg University) and the other by Oxana Timofeyeva (National Research University, Moscow). Juxtaposed with Armstrong’s chapter on the US Information Agency (USIA), these articles explain the “cold war” of what, “post-cold war” dynamics, and the Russian fears of American “information dominance” (p. 132). Bolgov notes that although there are more than forty federal laws, eighty presidential acts, and 200 governmental acts relating to the field of information security, Russia was late to develop a policy in this area and began the process only in the Cyber Command, Russia’s leading agency responsible for information security and warfare, was modeled on the US body (p. 143).

Timofeyeva’s contribution offers an especially interesting collection of case studies in which information warfare techniques were used; for example, the creation of the Russian Travel Guide TV documentary channel that takes viewers on virtual journeys throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union and to places such as Crimea (p. 156). The Russians’ more centralized style—for example, the development of a model similar to that of China that enables maximum government control over the internet—is another noticeable difference between the Russian and Western approaches. Timofeyeva also touches on the interesting issue of the Russian “cyber army,” an operation that utilizes trolls, bots, and fake accounts in order to “provide a necessary point of view in some debates by diverting and
shifting public attention or by suppressing unwarranted opinions” (p. 157).
The next section, “Information Warfare: The Case of the Islamic State,” looks at the lessons learned from the emergence of ISIS. As one would expect, the contributions of Charlie Winter (International Center for Counter-Terrorism, the Hague), Vladimir Sotnikov (Institute for Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences), Akhmet Yarlykaov (Center for Caucasian Studies and Regional Security, Moscow State Institute of International Relations), and Craig Whiteside (International Center for Counter-Terrorism and Naval War College) focus mainly on the communications strategy of ISIS but unfortunately pay less attention to other hybrid-related dimensions. It appears that there is less of a difference
between the observations of Russian and Western scholars when it comes to the question of ISIS, although it is interesting to see what each thinks of the others’ perceptions of this issue. For example, Sotnikov observes that “those highest ranked in the US establishment do not even know intellectually what to do with the Islamic State in the long run” (p. 207).

The last chapter of the book, entitled “‘Hybrid’” and “‘Information’”: New Labels, Old Politics,” (by co-editor Pearce), offers an appropriate conclusion to this solid collection. It first brings us back to the idea that hybridity is not an altogether new concept, since “no war or conflict is confined purely to one space, is fought solely by military means, or spans a period that can be defined explicitly by military actions” (p. 249). This is an important point (albeit perhaps overemphasized throughout the book), as we sometimes tend to offer “old wine in new bottles” (the “new Cold War,” or “war 2.0”). As articulated in the first section of the book, terms are important because they provide an essential descriptive tool.

“Information warfare,” “cyber wars,” and “proxy wars” all appear in the discourse on “hybridity,” which is also related to newer interpretations of the old “Cold War.” Hybridity is utilized far beyond the axes of propaganda, technology, and Islamic terrorism, which were the main themes covered in this volume, which provides an excellent meeting of minds of Russian and Western scholars. Perhaps less focus on one particular case study (the Islamic State, which is certainly not the only relevant one) and more on other players who utilize hybridity (terrorist groups, proxy players, and states that seek to influence politics by attempts to establish think tanks and influence academic institutions) would have helped broaden the scope of this important discussion. I, for one, would rather have seen more on the changing paradigms of power and the use of hybrid techniques as an equalizer between state and non-state actors. Perhaps this is something that
could be examined in future publications.

Overall, this is a very useful book for those who seek to better understand the (notso-) new reality of hybrid war and especially its information and propaganda dimension. The diverse selection of topics and contributors is refreshing and commendable. The attempt to elaborate theory on this topic as well as to provide context is likewise very helpful, as it enables us to place hybridity in a more solid historical framework. This “evolutionary” approach is very important to our understanding of a term that, perhaps mistakenly, is sometimes perceived as a new form of twenty-first century warfare.

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