NATO and Russian Hybrid Warfare
Written by Marren Haneberg
Russia is pursuing a hybrid warfare strategy, which is defined as unconventional use of force (Van Puyvelde 2015). Using this strategy, Russia lays groundwork to continue expansion by spreading misinformation. Though Russia’s takeover of Crimea prevents Ukraine from joining NATO, as it has resulted in a territorial dispute, NATO should prioritize preventing other Russian expansion first. NATO lacks substantive policies to mitigate the effects of Russian propaganda. NATO must develop a strategy to combat Russian hybrid warfare with the following objectives:
- Counter Russian propaganda and misinformation, especially about Western democracy and Russian actions.
- Push Russia out of Eastern Ukraine, especially in the Donbass region.
- Protect countries vulnerable to Russian expansion, especially the Baltic countries: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
NATO needs to take further steps to address Russian expansion and propaganda. Russia has taken Crimea and is asserting control over other territories such as the Baltic countries. In 2017, Lithuania’s intelligence agency reported Russian military upgrades in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordering Lithuania. These upgrades gave Russia the ability to “launch an attack on the Baltics with as little as 24 hours’ notice” (Woody 2017).
NATO can start implementing this strategy by initiating committees to identify and counter Russian misinformation on television, in print, and on social media. These committees will be composed of NATO officials, local and international news sources, and government officials. These committees should provide press releases highlighting positive, but factual, Western actions and refuting false stories from Russia. Additionally, information spreads quickly through social media, so committees must also work to counter misinformation on the internet.
For physical defense, NATO has already sent military aid into Ukraine and the Baltic countries. The United States has been at the forefront of this effort. In 2017, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid called for European NATO members to spend more on defense (Tasch 2017). While military support is vital for NATO to check Russian expansion, NATO needs to apply lessons from 2014 Ukraine and focus on psychological defense. This focus starts with winning the hearts and minds of the Baltic people, as one of Russia’s key hybrid warfare strategies is the spread of misinformation.
In 2017, Russia ran a propaganda campaign saying that the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, belonged to Poland. The campaign also echoed Russian propaganda about Crimea by purporting the third-largest Lithuanian city, Klaipėda, was a gift from Stalin after World War II and belonged to Russia (Woody 2017).
In all three Baltic countries, the Russian government funds a propaganda news source called Baltnews. The government owned these news outlets surreptitiously until “Buzzfeed, Estonian newspaper Postimees, and investigative journalism outlet Re:Baltica” uncovered Russian ownership during a criminal probe of the Estonian Baltnews owner (Roonemaa and Springe 2018).
NATO needs to counter Russian propaganda to prevent a Crimea-esque Russian invasion in the Baltics. Bob Woodward, in his September 2018 book Fear, reported “if there was a war in the Baltics, Russia would not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO” (Woody 2018). Russia’s threat to the Baltics poses a threat to NATO’s defense. As Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė warned, “security of the eastern border of NATO is the security of all of NATO… If we fail in any of the 28 members, it will be a failure of all of NATO” (Barnes 2017).
|Map indicates Kaliningrad’s close location to the Baltics. Russia’s military upgrades in Kaliningrad gave it the ability to “attack on the Baltics with as little as 24 hours’ notice” (Woody 2017). Map via Google Maps/Amanda Macias/Business Insider.|
Barnes, Julian E. 2017. “Lithuania Calls for Permanent U.S. Military Presence Amid Russia Tensions.” Wall Street Journal. May 11. https://www.wsj.com/articles/lithuania-calls-for-permanent-u-s-military-presence-amid-russia-tensions-1494514736.
Roonemaa, Holger, and Inga Springe. 2018. “This Is How Russian Propaganda Actually Works In The 21st Century.” Buzzfeed.News. Last updated August 31. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/holgerroonemaa/russia-propaganda-baltics-baltnews?utm_term=.tzW95B8KZp#.tzW95B8KZp.
Tasch, Barbara. 2017. “One of the smallest countries in Europe is backing Trump on NATO.” Business Insider. February 16. https://www.businessinsider.com/estonia-backing-trump-on-nato-2017-2.
Van Puyvelde, Damien. 2015. “Hybrid war – does it even exist?” NATO Review Magazine. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/also-in-2015/hybrid-modern-future-warfare-russia-ukraine/EN/index.htm.
Woody, Christopher. 2017. “Baltic states think Russia is laying the groundwork for looming ‘kinetic operations’.” Business Insider. April 3. https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-propaganda-in-lithuania-attack-on-the-baltics-2017-4.
Woody, Christopher. 2018. “Russia reportedly warned Mattis it could use nuclear weapons in Europe, and it made him see Moscow as an ‘existential threat’ to the US.” Business Insider. September 14. https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-warned-mattis-it-could-use-tactical-nuclear-weapons-baltic-war-2018-9.