Countering Russian Hybrid Warfare


With meddling in the U.S. election, connections to nerve agent attacks in Great Britain, and military deployments in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Russia is clearly a major player on the international stage. Still, these events have stolen the spotlight from the Ukrainian Civil War, which is entering its fourth year. The conflict in Ukraine is in fact representative of a broader Russian strategy and may provide insights into how the United States can better counter Russia in the future. This strategy goes by many names, including “gray zone conflict” and “multi-dimensional warfare,” but we will refer to its most common form, hybrid warfare. In recent years, Russia has shifted from conventional military tactics to hybrid warfare strategies to pursue its national interests beyond its borders. Given the effectiveness of these new tactics, the pressing question is: how can nations counter the effects of Russian hybrid warfare? Hybrid warfare, as Frank Hoffman outlines in Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, is the simultaneous fusion of conventional and unconventional methods of conflict such as economic, military and informational instruments of influence. This aligns with the European conception of hybrid warfare, or what Hoffman describes as “measures short of armed conflict.” Using this definition, we tracked and analyzed Russian influence in Ukraine in three distinct categories (economic, military, informational) from 2007-2017 as a case study of Russian hybrid warfare. From this, we discovered that the timing of Russia’s geopolitical chess moves is mostly predictable, which can allow the United States to use more restraint and prudence in crafting any diplomatic or military action against the Russian government. As a result, by studying the confluence of economic, informational and military instruments of influence, in addition to the trends across all of the previous domains, we have developed appropriate policy responses to Russian hybrid warfare.

Instruments of Influence

hard Power

We define hard power as the direct and overt application of military force to coerce a target. Since it is an overt demonstration of influence, the application of hard power is often easy to identify and attribute responsibility for. Russian military incursions in Crimea and Ukraine are well documented, although the Kremlin still maintains that pro-Russian rebels in those regions are acting separately from the Russian military.  


A form of 'soft power', economic influence relies on the manipulation of economic incentives to induce cooperation. While certain forms of economic influence, such as foreign direct investment and trade, are well documented and widely condoned in the international community, other forms of economic influence are often covert and difficult to track, but can border on the illegal. Russia utilizes both forms of influence.


A tool which has found increased efficacy in a fractured media environment, information warfare refers both to traditional media propaganda campaigns and cyberattacks, as well as modern misinformation campaigns. While the 2016 US elections have dominated coverage of this issue, Russia seems to have been attacking the critical informational infrastructure of neighboring states for several years now.