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From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy

There is an inordinate amount of hype around the term “hybrid warfare.” Under this heading, sections of the security community excitedly discuss the strategies which Russia is employing to destabilize the Ukraine – whether propaganda, covert military operations or infiltration of society. The worry is that these strategies could also be used against the West.

Yet the problems that NATO and EU countries face in dealing with hybrid threats extend far beyond the Ukraine conflict. They are the result of chronic shortcomings in European security policy that have been known about since the 1990s. At the core, the issue is always the systematic vulnerability of Western societies.

However, the much wider range of risks that this involves is lost from sight, because the debate remains narrowly focused on the conflict with Russia and its military dimension. There is no reason why even the next hybrid conflict should follow the Ukrainian pattern, and Russia does not have a monopoly on the use of hybrid strategies. NATO and the EU should therefore place this systematic vulnerability of Western societies at the heart of a hybrid security policy that reorders the relationship between resilience, deterrence, and defense.

The real danger: extension of the "combat zone"

In essence, the phenomenon discussed under the “hybrid” label is not new. For example, it has already been written about extensively in the debate concerning “asymmetric wars”: the perpetual principle in conflicts of looking for the enemy’s weaknesses and exploiting these to achieve one’s own goals. Because the West – particularly the United States – is still perceived as an opponent that is hard to beat militarily, adversaries choose other fields for conflict. The “combat zone” therefore extends or shifts, especially into “nonmilitary” fields such as politics, the economy, and societies. Accordingly, the means of combat are not the classical military means. Force can take many different forms, such as blackmail via economic dependency, or propaganda, and be used by different actors, well below the threshold of warfare. As a result, the gray area between war and peace also expands.

Europe’s chronic vulnerabilities

Not only Russia but also any other actor can make use of these possibilities for engaging in conflict. By focusing on Russia’s activities, Europe even risks losing sight of the fundamental issue, namely that of Europe’s “vulnerabilities,” and therefore overlooking those areas in which any of Europe’s adversaries might wage conflict.

Territorial integrity: Because Europe has significantly reduced its military capabilities in recent years, military conflict has become more likely. Owing to Europe’s relative military weakness, others may be tempted to assert their interests by military means – for example in the Baltic. But we Europeans can hardly escape the repercussions of conflicts on our borders either, whether in the east or in the south, since they destabilize the border region or affect Europe’s security interests. This point is demonstrated by the “Islamic State” (IS), conflicts in Africa, and the Arab Spring.

Political cohesion: From Russia to climate change – acting individually, European states are individually too insignificant and powerless. But together, they are able to exert influence. Yet the different priorities set by EU and NATO states in national foreign and security policy are a threat to the necessary political cohesion. While eastern members are concerned by Moscow’s activities, the southern states are worried about the considerable problems in the Mediterranean area.

Global interdependencies: In the course of globalization, Western societies have become enormously dependent on internationalized infrastructure such as Internet communication and flows of goods, services, people, and capital. These interdependencies are not limited to the European region – they are global in nature. The openness from which Europe benefits so greatly also makes it susceptible to disruptions in its global connectedness. For instance, energy supply dependencies can be exploited.

Inner vulnerability of open and pluralistic societies: The radicalization of persons (e.g. by the IS) is happening in the midst of European societies. Especially in urban centers, different ethnic and religious groups live in shared social spaces. This increases vulnerability if communities with incompatible values clash, if groups are excluded, or if they no longer provide an identity for their members, who then seek new role models. On top of this is the fact that infrastructures providing essential functions for our societies – such as the water and electricity supply, transportation, the financial and economic system – are not designed to operate in conflict situations. Here, too, European countries are susceptible.

Three answers: deterrence, defense, resilience

To address these risks, what Europe needs is not a European army, but a hybrid security policy. Hybrid here means, first and foremost, meeting adversaries in the nonmilitary arena to prevent an escalation toward military force. Thus the military plays a role, but does not take a prominent position in the front row.

Deterrence: Of course, Europe should be prepared for the risk of a military conflict. The measures adopted by NATO at the 2014 summit in Wales are therefore correct. However, the debate surrounding hybrid wars shows precisely that an escalation does not need to begin by sending in the tanks – it could, for example, take the form of exploiting weaknesses in internal order. Escalation prevention is therefore extremely important. And it necessarily has a civilian face: it is a question of safeguarding internal security – for instance, by means of a functioning police force, judiciary, and administration.

Resilience: Because Western societies are characterized by their openness and interconnectedness, it is not possible to build a “protective wall” around them. Instead, it is a case of making them able to withstand an attack on their values and “way of life.” The terror attacks in London and Paris (“Charlie Hebdo”) showed that Europe is indeed resistant and can collectively recover from such attacks. It is a matter of improving these abilities. Firstly, this requires strengthening social unity in diversity: migration and integration policies should treat cultural diversity as a basic requirement that is worthy of protection, thus reducing the possibility of radicalization. Suitably designed economic, education, and social policies can boost resilience in the long term by evening out excessive social or economic differences. Critical infrastructure should be better protected. Resilience can mean, for example, specifically developing buffers and redundancies in supply channels.

Defense: The defense of political institutions and territory remains a core task for security policy. Yet precisely because the risks are not found in the immediate vicinity and because Europe is so closely interconnected with the rest of the world, crisis management is a typical feature of security policy that does not wait until the problem arrives in its own country. The military remains as a last resort in acute crises. But for the time being, the West and Europe possess the political and economic power to champion a world order that secures the openness, legal certainty, and interconnectedness from which Europe itself has so greatly benefited.

Challenge for (German) policy and societies

What is new about this form of security policy challenge for Germany is the mixing of internal and external security. This raises special questions for government, policymakers and the population at large. It is important to clarify whether there is a greater role for the military at home, and for the police and administration abroad.

Reactions so far to this supposedly very new challenge seem only too familiar. They are based on the old Cold War pattern of spiraling actions and reactions – namely, ramping up military defense. Yet exactly this is the trap. Concentrating on the threat of the day is not a strategy; it is actionism. The action, however, usually comes too late. Even before political decisions are implemented, a new threat of the day makes headlines. Currently it is the fight against the IS and the security implications of the refugee crisis. The second challenge, therefore, is to stop chasing after events in this way, and instead seek out and tackle the causes of these developments, which still persist.

At a global level, we must deal with the fact that – up to the present time and probably in the foreseeable future as well – globalization produces losers. These can be states, social groups, or individuals.

Regionally, these centrifugal forces threatening to pull states and societies apart can only be contained with very unspectacular measures. And their mode of action is almost exclusively preventive.



Christian Mölling has been a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin since October 2015. He investigates questions relating to European security, defense, and the arms industry, with a special focus on Germany and the German armed forces. Previously he was a senior research fellow and project leader – from 2009 at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, from 2008/09 at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, from 2004/05 at the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin, and from 2000/04 at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg. As a visiting fellow, he carried out research in the Permanent Representation of Germany to the EU in Brussels, at the Royal United Services Institute in London, at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, and at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris. He studied political science, history, and economics at the University of Duisburg and at the University of Warwick. He gained a doctorate from LMU Munich in 2009.