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Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense

The concept of hybrid warfare has become entrenched in Europe’s security-policy vocabulary. NATO and the EU are working on strategy papers aimed at strengthening defensive capabilities and preventing hybrid attacks. The German federal government’s White Paper on security policy and the future of the German armed forces, which has been announced for 2016, should also address hybrid threats. There has been a proliferation of newspaper articles calling Russian tactics in the Ukraine a hybrid war, without further explanation, apparently on the assumption that readers already know what this means.

In itself, the combination of regular and irregular forces in one theater of operations is of course quite a conventional strategy.1 What is new, however, is the immediate relevance to Europe’s security today. Hybrid actors in the east and south are directly threatening European security interests, and even appear to be calling the entire Euro-Atlantic security order into question. Vladimir Putin’s great power ambitions are just as incompatible with the regulatory framework and value structure of European security institutions as the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is the barbarity and nihilistic contempt for humanity of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Da’esh) that makes a negotiated solution with this actor seem unlikely, if not plain absurd, whereas with regard to the Russian government, the established methods of international relations, including their military dimensions, should still be effective.

Hybrid wars have therefore reached Europe from two directions, and in very different form. In the east is a state actor who deliberately uses non-state means, and in the south is a non-state actor who is attempting to establish structures which are at least similar to a state, and who also has access to means of violence which ordinarily tend to be attributed to states, or more precisely to their armed forces. These enemies of Europe are hybrid in the sense that they are able to use all available instruments of power in a theater of operations in a coordinated way, and with at least a certain degree of central control. At the same time, they are pursuing the same goals that have always motivated actors in armed conflicts: to gain a psychological and physical advantage. In this struggle, hybrid warfare is no different from other forms of war.

The challenges for Europe

Neither the EU nor NATO is sufficiently prepared to defend against or prevent attacks whose destructive force is exerted in the spaces between peace and war. It is mainly Russia who operates in these spaces, blurring and distorting facts into indistinctness through propaganda and misinformation. Members of the Euro-Atlantic community of states are evidently finding it difficult to keep up at the level of strategic communication.

Russia’s activities in the Ukraine, the developing Russian military doctrine, and significant investments in modernizing the Russian armed forces raise the question of whether NATO’s conventional deterrence is sufficiently robust to guarantee Alliance members’ security. It is not a question of whether NATO forces could assert their superiority in a large-scale military conflict. Rather it is the lower thresholds of conflict that are currently causing concern among Alliance strategists. Scenarios are multiplying which suggest that Russia, pursuing the methods of hybrid warfare, could with a limited deployment overcome defense structures on the Alliance’s eastern flank.2 Advantages that can be achieved at a lower escalation level would then be consolidated by the threat of deploying much more extensive means of violence – demonstrated for example, by the ability to rapidly concentrate and deploy sizable military formations. This would signal that NATO has to learn to live with the new circumstances, or be prepared for an escalation. Temporary occupation of part of a NATO member state could on its own be enough to confront the Alliance with an existential question: invoke Article 5 and risk a war, or put up with the provocation and accept the disintegration of the Alliance? It is unlikely that NATO can continue to exist if its essential core of collective defense is undermined.

Of course, an attack on NATO territory has a different quality than the annexation of the Crimea, with regard to its effect on the Alliance, and still remains unlikely. However, the impression may arise on the Russian side that a geographically and militarily limited confrontation with NATO could be successful. At least some of the NATO member countries are aware of this vulnerability in principle, which is destabilizing in itself. Attempts at intimidation as part of a hybrid attack have a particularly promising chance of success if they can target political fault lines in the fabric of NATO and EU members.

The hybrid threat that emanates from the IS has a different character. In this case, the mix of conventional military action and other instruments is a necessity and less of a choice. If the IS had greater military capabilities at its disposal, these would presumably be used and assume an even more dominant role in its tactics. Moreover, the IS has succeeded in setting in motion and maintaining, via modern communication means including social media, an international mobilization and recruitment campaign that is historically unparalleled. As well as recruitment, this propaganda machine serves the purpose of raising financial resources and launching information operations against IS enemies.3 Because of the many international combatants in its ranks, the IS projects a terrorist threat into the international sphere that reaches well beyond the territory it controls.

British foreign minister Philip Hammond stated recently: “Defeating Da’esh is not enough. To eliminate the underlying threat to our security, we have to defeat the extremist Islamist ideology on which Da’esh is based.”4 In combating the IS, military means are just as essential as counterterrorism tools. If this hybrid threat is to be suppressed, the extremist ideology on which the IS feeds must also be defeated.

Comprehensive defense

It is obvious that even deciding on responsibilities at national level and task-sharing between NATO, the EU, and other organizations will be anything other than easy. The theoretical synergies of the networked approach are hard to achieve in practice. What approaches are there? First of all, it is a matter of systematically identifying vulnerabilities to hybrid threats so that the currently much-vaunted resilience can be strengthened. This may include marginalized groups in society, who may be targets for radicalization efforts or ideological mobilization. It may be a case of energy dependencies that can be turned into means of exerting political pressure. Equally: are our armed forces in a position to respond rapidly in the event of a conflict? There is no single responsibility for defense against hybrid threats. The spectrum is wide, and the end result will be a picture that makes it only too clear that at national level and international level, the available instruments are insufficiently interconnected.

An example: information operations are an integral part of hybrid warfare, and are used to form narratives and generally to influence political opinion-making among the target population. Strategic communication offers an opportunity to counteract this, but only if it is coherent, consistent, fast, and precise. On June 22, 2015, the EU adopted a strategic communication action plan. Back in July 2014, NATO set up a center of excellence for the same topic in Latvia. The EU action plan makes no reference to this, while the work plan for 2015 on the NATO center’s Web site does not indicate any prioritization of cooperation with the EU. And yet both organizations have stated that close coordination is needed in precisely this area.5 

Another important area of action for defense against hybrid threats is early warning, and to produce a situation assessment that is appropriate to the character of this form of conflict. Here it will be necessary to share and evaluate findings and results of national intelligence service work more rapidly in the international framework within the EU and NATO than is currently the case. Even weak signals pointing to a hybrid attack may consolidate into a pattern if coordination of this kind takes place.

There is also a need for action in the area of conventional military deterrence. This includes the permanent stationing of significant NATO forces in the territory of at-risk member states, ideally in the form of multinational units. The deterrence strategy should not be based exclusively on the assumption that in the event of a crisis, NATO will at that point be able quickly and easily to strengthen its forces. NATO exercises are now taking hybrid threat scenarios into account, a development that corresponds to the changed security environment. Visibly demonstrating via exercises that NATO member states are able and willing to defend themselves is also a form of communication, quite aside from the immediate military benefit that contributes to deterrence.

One reason why Europe has difficulty in effectively counteracting hybrid threats is that its response must be adequate to the character of the conflict, but without making this character a standard for its own action. In other words, the integration of the means of diplomacy, the media and information landscape, the intelligence services, the economy, of police and justice, and of the armed forces is essential to deter and prevent hybrid threats. This is a task for society as a whole. Justice, law, morality, and ethics are not weaknesses that to a certain extent prevent equality of arms with hybrid attackers. They are the foundation on which defense against precisely these attackers must be based.

1 Boot, Max (2015): “Countering Hybrid Warfare”, in: International Institute for Strategic Studies (ed.): Armed Conflict Survey, Abingdon, pp. 11–20.

2 Popescu, Nicu (2015): “Hybrid tactics: Russia and the West,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, Issue Alert 46/2015, October, Paris.

3 Gaub, Florence (2015): “Hybrid tactics: ISIL & Co,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, Issue Alert 47/2015, October, Paris.

4 Speech by Philip Hammond, “The Challenge of Extremism,” at the 11th IISS Manama Dialogue – Regional Security Summit, October 30–November 1, 2015, Manama, Bahrain.

5 European Union (2015): “Action Plan on Strategic Communication,” Ref. Ares (2015)2608242 – 22/06/2015, (accessed on October 31, 2015); NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, (accessed on October 31, 2015).


Bastian Giegerich

Bastian Giegerich has been Director of Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London since March 2015, where he previously conducted research on questions of European security policy from 2005 to 2010. From 2010 to 2012, he was a researcher at the former Social Sciences Institute of the German Armed Forces (Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut der Bundeswehr) in Strausberg, before transferring to the policy department of the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesmi­nisterium der Verteidigung) in 2012. Giegerich studied political science and international relations at the University of Potsdam and at the University of Maryland (College Park, MD). He obtained his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2005.

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All articles in this issue

Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense
Bastian Giegerich
Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences
Herfried Münkler
"Hybrid Warfare" – A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?
Fouzieh Melanie Alamir
From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy
Christian Mölling
Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars
Drew Christiansen SJ
Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women
Karin Nordmeyer
Myths of Hybrid Warfare
Mary Ellen O’Connell
"Hybrid Warfare" and the Continuing Relevance of the Just War Tradition in the 21st Century
David Whetham
Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declarations of War
Bernd Zywietz


Michael Gmelch Jan Heymann Andreas-Martin Seidl Elke Tießler-Marenda Jürgen Weigt