Waging War in the 21st Century - The Nature of Hybrid Warfare - Characteristics of Russian Hybrid Warfare

Giorgi Butikashvili | Academic Essay | 2021


In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea using methods of warfare that were completely unusual for the international community, military researchers and scholars began to re-examine modern Russian warfare strategies. This paper reviews the methods of modern Russian warfare that are reflected in the articles and theories of Russian military thinkers. Messner, Panarin, Dugin, Chekinov, Bogdanov, and Gerasimov can be considered as the main theorists of the Russian hybrid war, who develop modern scenarios of war-waging. The starting point of these theories is to avoid traditional warfare. In their view, the focus should be on the use of non-military: political, economic, cultural, informational, ideological, and financial methods, and in this way the indirect destruction of the opponent.


In 2014, almost a hundred years after the start of World War I, the world found itself facing a new World War phenomenon, which completely changed the discourse of war and laid out complex challenges for the international community. The secretly carried out annexation of Crimea by Russia can be considered as a starting point for the wage of modern war. As a result of observing these developments, war theorists, based on observation of these changes, have developed new concepts and paradigms that allow us to better understand the challenges of modern international security and to define the nature of modern warfare. Carl von Clausewitz, one of the founders of the theory of war, describes war as a true chameleon that changes qualitatively according to circumstances: "The nature of war is an ever-changing phenomenon. Its changing nature depends on several factors, including the geographical location of the battlefield, the warriors, and the level of their technological development."[1] Consequently, it can be said that the actors of war-waging are changing their approaches and strategies in the wake of world development, to achieve their goals more effectively and successfully. For more visibility, in parallel with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar world order, in the 1990s, many ethnic wars, secessionist conflicts, and coups broke out in Eastern Europe. The successor state of the Soviet Union, Russia, became an accomplice of eleven wars in these circumstances.[2]The political and strategic goal of the West[3]  and its desire to help the former Soviet states in the process of transformation into democracies was perceived by Russia as a loss of its own power in the sphere of its immanent influence. As a result, to maintain control of the former Soviet republics, Russia established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which would allow Russia to define its spheres of influence. Moscow's political leadership hoped to be able to reincarnate the Soviet Union in some other way. Over time, however, it became clear that the former Soviet republics were not going to turn into new so-called quasi-states. On the contrary, in recent years Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus have linked their foreign policy entirely to the EU's Eastern Neighborhood Policy; The Kremlin viewed this event as the beginning of the weakening of Russian power. Russia's elite described NATO expansion eastward and the relocation of military infrastructure along Russia's borders as "a great foreign military threat."[4]In addition, the war waged by Russia against Georgia in 2008 eventually became a turning point in Russia's military policy. Moscow realized that it needed to change its combat strategies and methods to achieve its goals and interests more effectively in a globalized world.[5]The statement of Vladimir Kozin, Professor of the Academy of Military Sciences, once again confirms this thesis:"The decisions made at the NATO summit in Wales were openly anti-Russian, so Russia was forced to change its military doctrine."[6]This adaptation of the new military doctrine in practice meant: “hidden faces, hidden command-and-control, hidden orders,”[7]As a result, we got an annexed Crimea by Russia, the crisis in eastern Ukraine, and the Kremlin interfering in the internal affairs of Western countries. Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war in 2015 revealed the improved capabilities of the Russian military.[8]Besides, Moscow is accused of influencing the UK in the Brexit referendum[9], In 2016, in the United States Russia was accused of manipulating Donald Trump's election campaign.[10]In Germany, the Kremlin has tried to shake the chances of re-electing Chancellor Angela Merkel.[11] In other words, the peculiarities and forms of modern Russian warfare have become increasingly unconventional and obscure, which is characterized in scientific literature and debate as a new phenomenon of war, the so-called hybrid war.

Consequently to all that was said above, it is logical to ask the question, how has war developed in the 21st century? And more specifically, how does Russia understand the concept of modern warfare? Since non-military means are playing an increasingly important role in modern conflicts, are we facing a situation where the line between war and peace is blurred?

1. Western Understanding of Hybrid Warfare

If in the first half of the XX century the answer to the question - what is war? - was simple, since it was based on existing experience, at the beginning of the XXI century, war acquired a new dimension and its unambiguous definition got complicated. One of the fundamental definitions of war belongs to the already mentioned Carl von Clausewitz, who in his work "On War'' describes the classical nature of war. According to the author, the main purpose of war is to destroy the enemy. This is an absolute war where one force seeks the complete annihilation of another force. However, the reality is sometimes different, so depending on the circumstances, the state changes its strategy, goals, and methods, which helps it to achieve the set task. According to the author, war is the continuation of the political relations of the state in other ways, and the stronger the political aspirations of the state, the stronger the probability of war.[12]  Military historian Martin van Creveld notes that modern analysis of the war should be more focused on the so-called low-Intensity Conflicts, where the state is one of many potential conflicting parties.[13]Mary Kaldor discusses new war strategy in her book, "New and Old Wars", in the context of globalization. According to Kaldor, the so-called "revolution" in information and communication technologies has blurred the line between war, organized crime, and serious human rights abuses. The waging of war today is largely decentralized and disorganized, but at the same time controlled and influenced by various factions.[14]In addition, Herfried Münkler talks about asymmetric military forces. According to Münkler, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and information warfare are, some of the possible forms of asymmetric warfare strategy.[15]Felix Wassermann even describes unconventional war as the greatest security challenge of the 21st century.[16]Thomas Hammes and William Lind talk about the changing nature of war and discuss modern warfare in the context of the Fourth Generation War (4GW). For example, according to Thomas Hammes, the fourth generation (4GW) war is more complete than the previous three generations. Social, economic, political, and technological developments, globalization processes, and the means of rapid transmission of information have had a major impact on changing the nature of war. The Fourth Generation War is modern war in its essence. If the wars of the previous generation were characterized by fighting for territory, the wars of the fourth generation aim to influence the political decision-making process of the adversary and weaken his fighting ability. This new form of warfare is mainly characteristic for non-state or sub-state actors.[17]

The systematization of the "new wars" described above should be considered mainly in the context of non-state actors. Criminal gangs, illegal military formations, guerrilla units, and terrorist groups are the central focus of "new wars" research. However, the non-traditional war strategies produced by the state need more structuring. This became especially clear after the special units of the Russian Federation carried out covert military operations in Ukraine, and which eventually ended with the full annexation of Crimea by Russia. This new nature of war strategy, for Frank Hoffman, can be interpreted as a combination of physical and mental, kinetic and non-kinetic, military and non-military actions that one state may carry out in another state.[18]The main purpose of such actions is to destabilize the state. Initially, these actions hinder the political and economic development of individual states, create a sense of insecurity in society, and ultimately can undermine the entire state system. "This is a limited war whose main goal is to change the political regime or create its spheres of influence."[19]Frank Hoffman defined this phenomenon of war as a hybrid threat characterized by a variety of forms of modern conflict:

"There are hybrid threats when any adversary simultaneously uses the appropriate combination of traditional weapons, asymmetric tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior, and the area of armed hostilities to achieve their own political goals."[20]

Frank Hoffman's theory of hybrid warfare is largely based on an understanding of modern conflict. The theory focuses on hybrid warfare not as a possible future strategic use, but as an already existing, 21st-century challenge.

2. Russian Understanding of Hybrid Warfare

If the central subject of the new wars discussed in the previous subsections were non-state actors, this phenomenon of war has acquired a completely different face in Russian military literature. According to Russian military experts, the starting point for modern conflicts is to avoid traditional warfare. In their view, the focus should be on the use of non-military: political, economic, cultural, informational, ideological, and financial methods, and on the indirect destruction of the adversary in this way. The main goal is to lead the enemy to a socio-political crisis and the complete destruction of its statehood. These concepts are found in the works of Evgeny Messner, Alexander Dugin, Igor Panarin, Sergei Chekinov, Sergei Bogdanov, and Valery Gerasimov, which are discussed in the next chapter of the article.

2.1. The Theory of Subversive Warfare[21]

When analyzing Evgeny Messner´s "Theory of Subversive War" it should be mentioned that his concept of war was written in the first part of the twentieth century and was banned in the Soviet Union, because of its anti-communist ideas; however, after the end of the Cold War, Evgeny Messner's theory gained great popularity among modern Russian military theorists. His works mostly outline the Cold-War era and are based on political, geopolitical, and socio-cultural developments of those times. According to Messner, rising secularism and liberalism, human rights and mechanization, urbanization and decolonization, an increase in people's active participation in political processes and the appearance of international institutions have caused progress for humankind. However, they also generated opportunities to weaken the enemy´s political will by influencing the minds of its population through mentioned characteristics[22]:

„people will be active participants of war and might be even more active than military. In previous wars, the most important part was considered the conquest of territory. From now, it will be the conquest of the souls of the enemy."[23]

Another dimension of war, which is developed by Messner is the psychological character of war: “The soul of the enemy´s society has become the most important strategic objective … degrading the spirit of the enemy… the main means of doing so is through propaganda and agitation.”[24]According to Messner, propaganda is a tool with different appearances; propaganda by words, which includes radio, official speeches, theatre movies and publications, and propaganda by deed, the main value of which is in its psychological effects. [25]

“Today, however, in times of psychological war, neither victory in battle, nor territorial gains, are the goals themselves: […] one should think not about the destruction of enemy´s manpower, but about the crushing of his psychological power.[26]

The main idea is to control minds and generate the emotional field that mobilizes friendly groups, mostly opposition movements or insurgencies, which simultaneously demoralize others and create political disorder. [27]

“Today, the strategic idea might be like a ball, shot by football players from one side of the field to another: there is one final goal, but there are also many intermediate ones, and they are in different fields: military, diplomatic, economic, socio-political and physiological”[28]

Using the above-mentioned tools, according to Messner, one can conduct the subversion-war. The time and duration of subversion war are unpredictable, it takes time until the goals are achieved.

2.2. Net-Centric[29] and Information Wars[30]

Alexander Dugin[31]has developed the theory of net-centric war. He is a Russian political scientist, geopolitical philosopher, and historian of religion. The main idea of his theory is based on the concept of Russia as Eurasian civilization, that Russia is a unique phenomenon with European and Asian socio-cultural characteristics.[32]According to Dugin, the Eurasian Model is an opposite model of the Atlantic-American model that should create its own network to enforce the multi-polar world. The main element for the creation of the network is the exchange of information. The network in such a wide understanding includes various components at the same time that were strictly separated previously: Combat units, communication system, information support of the operation, the formation of public opinion, diplomatic steps, social processes, intelligence and counterintelligence, ethno psychology, religious and collective psychology, economic security, academic science, technical innovation and so on. Military operations play a secondary role during informational warfare.[33]Dugin singles out four important characteristics of net-centric war.

1. The battlefield is scattered in a virtual space. The main thing is to gain control over this field.

2. Control means not just possessing information, but the ability to manipulate it.

3. Network manipulations can wage war against everyone in a virtual environment and thus achieve the set goals.

4. The process of globalization, which contributes to the formation of a global network and also develops the implementation of external control mechanisms.

According to Dugin, all four characteristics were developed by the United States, which in this way seeks to establish global influence around the world, including the Russian Federation, so, in Dugin's view, it is important to develop a Eurasian model that establishes a multipolar world order.[34]

During the same period as the concept of Dugin´s net-centric warfare was designed, Igor Panarin [35]developed the theory of informational warfare. The focus of his theory is on the informational dimensions of war. In dimensions,he does not mean direct political, diplomatic, financial-economic, or military activities, but rather “the manipulation of their informational images to control the targeted public opinion to gain certain political benefits. This control can be achieved by informational manipulation, disinformation, fabrication of information, or any other possible way […] to manipulate the international or domestic public opinion."In other words, Panarin´s theory is about controlling public opinion by spreading information and influencing the political decision-making process. To have a dominant influence on public opinion, Panarin uses three different types of „social objects“.

Object I – „Large social group“s like people on the state level, which are responsible for the development of spiritual-ethic values and traditions.

Object II – „Medium social groups“, in which he considers the groups with strict hierarchy associations, like academic institutions, commercial organizations, and military units.

Object III – „Small social groups“, there are accumulated families, neighbors or friends; they have direct communications with each other. The medium social groups are like informational hubs between the small and large groups; they set the informational trends and generate a public opinion.

It is also important to explain that according to Panarin's theory, the waging of information and psychological warfare can be extended to all social groups in society. They aim to form the opinion of the political elite and the public in general, the implementation of which in practice largely depends on the specific political goals and objectives of the state.[36]

2.3. The Rise of New-generation Warfare[37]

The theory of new-generation warfare by Russian officers Sergey Chekinov and Lieutenant General Sergey Bogdanov has been at the center of academic and military discussions in Russia since 2000. Both authors were at different times the head of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces. In the theory of new-generation warfare, the authors look at the main characteristics, recent trends, and contemporary perceptions in asymmetrical actions and their potentials to maintain the military security of Russia. The theory develops two main aspects of the transformation of war in the 21st century.

The first aspect focuses on the socio-political character of war and its non-military dimension, which mostly includes information and psychological operations. Information-psychological operations aim to substantially weaken the enemy´s military capabilities by non-violent methods that target its information processes, misleading and demoralizing its population and members of its armed forces. [38]

The second aspect deals with political confrontation in a globalized world and develops the idea of ​​"local wars". According to the authors, in a globalized world where economic interdependence between states is enormous, there is no objective need for them to wage large-scale wars; "Local wars and indirect, covert actions" are enough to achieve political and strategic goals. [39]Hence, according to Chekinov and Bogdanov in that new technological environment, the indirect action has great diversity and can be classified as military operations, including informational and remote (non-contact) warfare, segmented, polycentric, electronic, land and naval, air, and, in the short run, anti-satellite operations. Furthermore, the main idea of the „new generation-warfare“ is not grabbing and holding the enemy´s territory; it is about setting the spheres of influence, but sometimes, if the goals could not be achieved, some combat operations should be undertaken.[40]

Another concept of non-military actions and their contemporary character has been developed by the Russian chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, who in 2013 in the weekly Russian trade paper Military-Industrial Kurier published an article "The Value of Science Is in the Foresight." [41]According to Gerasimov, the rules of war have changed significantly. The role of non-military methods of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and in some cases, it is more effective than the force of weapons. To be more precise, the main focus in the confrontation process is shifting to the comprehensive use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures, which can manipulate the protest potential of the population. [42]The author also focuses on the "concept of permanent war" and how the adversary state can, in a matter of months or days, become an arena of intense armed conflict and sink into complete chaos.[43]

3. Summary: Constant war, until the goal is achieved

An analysis of articles and concepts by military theorists of the Russian Federation reveals that the understanding of modern Russian warfare developed by Messner, Panarin, Dugin, Cheknov, Bogdanov, and Gerasimov is closely related to the hypothetical concept of the above-mentioned hybrid war. The use of political, economic, informational, ideological, and psychological methods has become an important tactic for Russia to wage war.

According to Gerasimov, since 2016, the combination of traditional and non-traditional methods has become a key feature of armed conflicts, so Russia is forced to contribute to its military development and modernization.[44]As international political discourse shows, the above-mentioned military theories and concepts also enjoy great support in Russian political leadership. Russia's defense and security budget has increased significantly since 2008. The military doctrine of the Russian Federation has also undergone significant changes and adapted to the modern challenges of war.[45]Although the academic analysis of the dangers of hybrid warfare in the West began mainly after Russia intervened in Ukraine, the Russian approach to hybrid warfare dates back to the second half of the 20th century. Russian hybrid war theory and international practice show that political goals can be achieved with minimal military involvement. The main focus has shifted to the use of non-military methods. Thus, the Russian hybrid war can be defined as a combination of multidimensional, comprehensive, and non-traditional methods of warfare, the main purpose of which is to blur the dividing line between war and peace, ally and adversary, state and non-state actors. As a result, there is no official declaration of war and no formal peace agreements.

Returning to the main question given in the introduction, it is possible to conclude that for the Russian hybrid war, the time, place, and rules are vague, and the traditional boundaries of the war are erased. Deliberate disorientation, uncertainty, and chaos are the hallmarks of modern Russian warfare.

[1] Lonsdale, D. (2016) The Study and Theory of Strategy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 22

[2] Abkhazia - (1991-1993), Civil War in Georgia - (1991-1993), Transnistria (1992), South Ossetia - (1992), Tajikistan Civil War - (1992 - 1997), Chechen War I - (1994 - 1996), Dagestan - (1999), Chechen War II - (1999 - 2009), Georgia - (2008), Ukraine - (2014), Syria - (2015-2019).

[3] The West is perceived in the work as part of a world, which is distinguished culturally - with common Greco-Roman and Christian roots, socially – dominance of industrial capitalism, and politically - by the prevalence of liberal democracy.

[4] Ehrhart, G. (2014) Russia's unconventional war in Ukraine: the transformation of collective violence. Zeitschrift Sicheheits und Politik

[5] Nichol, J. (2011) Russian Military Reform and Defense Policy. FAS Publishing, p. 1

[6] Vladimir, K. (2014) Новая военная доктрина России: ответ на агрессию, https://defendingrussia.ru/a/novaja_vojennaja_doktrina_rossii_otvet_na_agressiju-1271 (Accessed 15 February 2021)

[7] Washington Post, Playing by Putin’s tactics, (2014 March 09)

[8] Jonsson, O. (2019) The Russian Understanding of War - Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace. Washington: Georgetown University Press, p. 43

[9] Kante, J. and Bienkov, A. (2017) "www.businessinsider.com." UK officials now think Russia may have interfered with the Brexit vote. https://www.businessinsider.com/labour-mp-ben-bradshaw-suspicious-russian-interference-brexit-2017-2 (Accessed 9 September 2018)

[10] Collins, M., Gaudiano, N. and Collins, E. . www.usatoday.com. July 18, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/07/17/paul-ryan-really-clear-russia-meddled-presidential-election/791541002/ (Accessed 9 September 2018)

[11] Wagstyl, S. (2017) "Financial Times." German politics: Russia’s next target? January 29, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/31a5758c-e3d8-11e6-9645-c9357a75844a (Accessed 9 September 2018)

[12] Beckmann, R. (2010) Kriegstheoretische Analyse von neuen Gewaltformen. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, pp. 8-15

[13] Ibid. p. 8

[14] Kaldor, M. (2000) New and old wars : Organized violence in the age of globalization. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, pp. 7-14

[15] Münkler, H. (2004) Die neuen Kriege. Reinbek: Rowohlt Verlag, pp. 6 - 15

[16] Wassermann, F. (2015) Asymmetrische Kriege: Eine politiktheoretische Untersuchung zur Kriegführung im 21. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt: Caumpus Verlag, p. 10

[17] Ofer Fridman, Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation, (C.Hurnt, London, 2018),19-24

[18] Hoffman, F. (2014) On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats. http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/on-not-so-new-warfare-political-warfare-vs-hybrid-threats/ (Accessed 17 August 2016)

[19] Ehrhart, G. (2016) Unkonventioneller und hybrider Krieg in der Ukraine. Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik, pp. 223–241

[20] Hoffman, F. (2014) On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs Hybrid Threats. http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/on-not-so-new-warfare-political-warfare-vs-hybrid-threats/ (Accessed 17 August 2016)

[21] The Theory of Subversion-War / мятежевойна

[22] Friedman, O. (2018) Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation. London: C.Hurst & Co. Ltd., pp. 55-57

[23] Ibid., p. 58.

[24] Ibid., p. 61

[25] Месснер, Е. (2005) Хочешь мира, победи мятежевойну. Москва: Военный университет, с. 128-132

[26] Friedman, O. (2018) Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation. London: C.Hurst & Co. Ltd., p

[27] Месснер, Е. (2005) Хочешь мира, победи мятежевойну. Москва: Военный университет, с. 128-132

[28] Friedman, O. (2018) Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation. London: C.Hurst & Co. Ltd., pp. 70

[29] Дугин, А. (2018) Сетевая война и Глобализация. http://federalbook.ru/files/OPK/Soderjanie/OPK-7/V/Dugin.pdf (Accessed 13 September 2018)

[30] Панарин, И. (2003) Информационная война и мир.  Москва: ОЛМА ПРЕСС

[31] Alexander Dugin is a Russian political scientist, geopolitical philosopher, and historian of religion.

[32] Дугин, А. (2018) Сетевая война и Глобализация. http://federalbook.ru/files/OPK/Soderjanie/OPK-7/V/Dugin.pdf (Accessed 13 September 2018)

[33] Ibid. Сетевая война и глобализация

[34] Friedman, O. (2018) Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation. London: C.Hurst & Co. Ltd., pp. 76 - 82

[35] Igor Panarin is a member of the Academy of Sciences of the RF, he has a Ph.D. degree in political science and psychology.

[36] Панарин, И. (2003) Информационная война и мир.  Москва: ОЛМА ПРЕСС, с. 128-130

[37] The "New-Generation Warfare" unites the concepts of contemporary warfare published by Sergey Chekinov and Sergey Bogdanov at different times, including Asymmetric Actions to Ensure Russia's Military Security; The Evolution of the Essence and Content of Understanding War in the 21st Century; Characteristic features of armed struggle in wars and conflicts of the last decade.

[38] Чекинов, С. (2010) "Прогнозирование тенденций военного искусства в начальном периоде XXI века", Военная мысль, 7: 19-33, с. 24-25

[39] Чекинов, С. и Богданов, С. (2017). "Эволюция сущности и содержания понятия «война» в XXI столетии" Военная мысль, 1: 32-45, с. 37 - 45

[40] Чекинов, С. и Богданов, С. (2010) "Асимметричные действия по обеспечению военной безопасности России." ВОЕННАЯ МЫСЛЬ, 3 : 13-22, с. 10-13

[41] Герасимов, В. (2013) Ценность науки в предвидении. ВОЕННО-ПРОМЫШЛЕННЫЙ КУРЬЕР. https://vpk-news.ru/articles/14632 (Accessed 15 September 2018)

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Friedman, O. (2018) Russian Hybrid Warfare - Resurgence and Politicisation. London: C.Hurst & Co. Ltd., pp. 143

[45] For detailed information see: (Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2014)