Japanese prof : Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shines light on hybrid warfare as military strategy

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoko Hirose

In the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is pursuing a strategy called hybrid warfare. The following was excerpted from remarks by Yoko Hirose, a Keio University professor, about Russia’s military strategy in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun interview.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again focused attention on hybrid warfare, a military strategy that combines armed aggression with information warfare and cyber-attacks.

Hybrid warfare involves spreading fake news to sway public opinion and establishing false pretexts for an invasion. The strategy also aims to disrupt an opposing country through cyber-attacks targeting its communications infrastructure.

As hybrid warfare uses relatively inexpensive, largely effective and highly secretive measures, it is an important tool for Russia, whose military spending stands at about 8% of that of the United States.

The concept of a power bloc is at the core of the diplomacy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration. The important spheres of influence for Russia are first, former Soviet states and second, the former Communist bloc. Recently, the Arctic and other regions are considered to be Russia’s new strategic areas. Russia views the territory of the former Soviet Union as extremely valuable.

To support its power bloc, Russia has placed great value on hybrid warfare. Although the concept itself originated in the United States, Russia attracted attention in particular with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when its modus operandi was conspicuous.

Russia’s actions during the Crimea annexation and the current invasion of Ukraine are basically the same. First, Russia deploys operatives called “political engineers.” These agents pretend to be new residents who have moved from Russia, blend into society and work to instill a pro-Russian mindset among the local people.

Communicating with neighbors, they spread disinformation such as “Pensions will increase if Russia annexes Ukraine” and “The Ukrainian authorities are persecuting residents of Russian descent.” Their aim is to spread information favorable to Russia in Ukraine.

Russia also spreads huge amounts of fake news. While putting pressure on Ukraine by deploying more than 100,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border, Russia deliberately spreads false information such as “Ukrainian agents are planning terrorist acts” and “An all-out attack by Ukrainian forces on pro-Russian areas is imminent.”

It is believed that Russia has been trying to destabilize Ukraine for quite some time. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russia disseminated propaganda that the United States easily abandons a country once it has extended its hand.

Putin apparently thought Russia could overthrow the Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a quick military operation. However, the war has dragged on and seems not to be going as Putin planned. Putin’s decision-making regarding this war appears to lack any semblance of rationality. That is a different dimension than hybrid warfare.

The Ukrainian side is also using hybrid warfare effectively. In response to Russia’s information warfare, Zelenskyy is successfully utilizing social media and other means to inform domestic and international audiences about his country’s predicament. Zelenskyy’s messages have inspired Ukrainians, and his approval rating jumped to over 90%. As a result, Zelenskyy has strengthened the unity of the people and created a situation in which countries around the world support Ukraine.

Since the annexation of Crimea, the United States, European countries and Ukraine have recognized Russia’s hybrid warfare as a threat. They have prepared countermeasures and worked to build multilateral cooperation.

The United States in particular has been on alert even before the invasion, knowing full well that Russia was spreading propaganda. The United States has been telling the world that Russia may justify its intervention in Ukraine after spreading false information that pro-Russian groups were attacked in Ukraine.

Among the citizenry in Russia, two groups have emerged: those who follow only the official media and those who get a picture of reality through social media and other means. Russians can read Western information via the internet. Those who believe the government propaganda on state-run broadcasts are expected to eventually learn the truth, and the Russian government’s control will no longer be effective.

The goal of using hybrid warfare is often to probe for the extent to which one would face retaliation. The main users of it are Russia, China and Iran. China is aggressively using hybrid warfare. Japan no longer can stay on the sidelines regarding the issue. We should be aware that Japan is always in the shadow of danger.

To counter hybrid warfare, it is important to strengthen critical infrastructure in preparation for cyber-attacks. Education on media literacy is also essential to determine the truth against false information that may sway the public psychologically.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Yasushi Kaneko

Yoko Hirose, Keio University professor

Born in 1972, Hirose was an adviser for the National Security Secretariat, and she specializes in international politics and the regions of the former Soviet Union. She won the 21st Asia-Pacific Award for “The Caucasus: The crossroads of international politics.”