Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with the use of so-called “little green men” and Moscow’s subsequent meddling in elections across the transatlantic community, “hybrid warfare” has become the term du jour in Western foreign policy circles.
Perhaps the best definition of hybrid warfare is offered by the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which describes it as “coordinated and synchronized action that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions’ systemic vulnerabilities, through a wide range of means (political, economic, military, civil, and information),” and “activities [that] exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution, as well as the border between war and peace.”
The aim, the Helsinki-based center says, is to “influence different forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level to favor and/or gain the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.”
Of course, cyberattacks, economic warfare, energy warfare, and the use of “little green men” are all crucial components of Russia’s strategy. Its most effective tool is probably its propaganda and influence operations in the form of dubious nongovernmental organizations and the funding of political parties.
Moscow is very active in the nongovernmental organization world, showing a tendency to fund those organizations and think tanks in the U.S. and Europe to advance its energy, strategic, and political goals. Russia has funded shell organizations and fake think tanks that promote anti-fracking messages in the U.S. and Romania.
In a story first reported by The Daily Signal in 2017, the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee wrote to the Treasury secretary to complain about a dubious nonprofit called Sea Change with links to Russian money and pushing an anti-fracking agenda in the U.S.
In 2014, the secretary-general of NATO accused Russia of doing the same thing in Romania.
In Georgia, a nation under constant Russian pressure, Moscow constantly sows division in society by funding nongovernmental organizations—the founders and managers of which are often the same people.
Just recently, in a report in the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times, the Brussels-based Open Dialogue Foundation was accused of working with Russian security services and of receiving funding from Moscow to spread misinformation in countries that opposed the Kremlin’s policies.
The Kremlin link was dismissed by the foundation, but considering its past support for dubious individuals (for example, convicted fraudster Mukhtar Ablyazov and Uzbek-born businessman Nail Malyutin, who is currently in prison and who has close links to organized crime), it’s not surprising that people question its wider motives.
According to another Sunday Times report, 1.5 million pounds (more than $1.8 million) from offshore areas of “dubious, unknown routes and origins” were sent to the accounts of two firms in Britain and ended up in the bank account of the Open Dialogue Foundation, which was allegedly used to fund lobbying campaigns. Its director, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, was even banned from traveling in much of the European Union by Poland last year.
Russia also expands its reach through the attempted funding and influencing of political parties.
An investigation last month uncovered a plot between an associate of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right populist Italian Lega party, and Russian businessmen to covertly fund the Lega’s election campaigning.
Prosecutors in Milan, Italy, have since started an investigation into the latter. Salvini, who also serves as Italy’s deputy prime minister, holds Moscow-friendly views on contentious issues, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Another example of Moscow’s reach is the troublesome ideological and financial connection between Russia and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Rally party (formally known as the National Front). Le Pen’s positions often mirror those of the Kremlin—whether it’s calling Syrian President Bashar Assad “the most reassuring solution for France” or backing the Russian takeover and occupation of Crimea.
During the most recent French presidential elections, Le Pen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a curious thing to do at a time when France had joined other European countries to slap economic sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, her party is still trying to pay off a loan worth $12.2 million from a small—and now defunct—Russian bank.
So, as the international community is focused on the Russian war machine in Syria or eastern Ukraine, or the illegal occupation of Crimea and Abkhazia, policymakers cannot ignore the softer aspects of Russia’s war against the West.
So, how do we make our societies more resilient against Russia’s influence operations and propaganda?
The most important thing to do is to deny Russia the fertile soil in which to sow the seeds of instability. That can be done in three ways.
First, establish good governance on the local and national level. If people think they are being governed fairly and governed well, then they become less susceptible to Russian disinformation and propaganda efforts.
Second, there must be economic freedom. People need to believe they have economic stability and that their children have a bright economic future.
Finally, there must be a bond of trust and respect between the average person and their nation’s law enforcement and intelligence services. If people believe they are being policed fairly and that intelligence services are not overstepping their bounds, then society will become more resilient against Russian hybrid tactics.