The potential for hybrid warfare in Central and Western Europe

Martin Hurt

By Martin Hurt

Deputy Director of the Estonian International Centre for Defence Studies (RKK)

Thursday 9 October 2014

One of Nazi Germany’s pretexts for starting World War II was a Gestapo-orchestrated attack on a radio station in Gleiwitz, which was then part of Germany. After the radio station was seized by German security forces masquerading as Polish military personnel, these “Polish activists” broadcasted a message in Polish before police arrested them. As part of the charade, the Gestapo murdered a German farmer known as a Polish sympathizer, creating the impression that he had taken part in the attack and been shot by the police. The events in Gleiwitz were part of a bigger operation, codenamed Operation Himmler, aimed at creating the impression of Polish aggression. The very next day, German forces poured across the Polish border. It is uncertain how many people Adolf Hitler managed to deceive with this operation, but at least it gave appeasers of Berlin a chance to believe that there was a just cause for Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Leaping ahead to the present, President Vladimir Putin has set the goal of restoring the Soviet empire. Endemic corruption in Russia currently keeps it from flourishing in terms of the economic climate and sustainable growth. For this reason, President Putin has resorted to traditional coercive tactics that he skilfully combines with softer economic aggression and propaganda. Bald-faced lies are also an inseparable element in his arsenal, shown by the initial denials of any Russian involvement in the occupation of Crimea.

It is often claimed that Russian aggression against Ukraine is only conceivable because this target country is also beset by corruption and is not a member of the EU and NATO. Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty is supposed to be a guarantee to all NATO members that their sovereignty will never be violated by an outside attack, whether from Russia or any other source. But is it right to say that the holder of an insurance policy will never experience a fire?

Up until now, Europe has not shown the will to seriously punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In September, the World Bank forecasted that even if the sanctions already established continue to be enforced, the Russian economy will grow 0.3% in 2015 and 0.4% in 2016. Compared to the situation in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain a few years ago, where economic decline was as much as 7.1%, the impact of sanctions on the already-stagnant Russian economy has been modest. President Putin would not be wrong to conclude from the tepid reaction to his incursion in Ukraine that he is being given a green light to do whatever he wants in Ukraine and in other post-Soviet countries.

Europe’s vulnerability

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become customary for most European countries to view the use of military force as a primitive and uncivilized behavioural model, one on a level to which advanced democracies do not descend. In this view, the outer limit of acceptability would be participation in an operation of the type seen in Afghanistan. One should just consider that during the 13 years of the Afghanistan operation, coalition fatalities were about 3,500 which is less than Allied losses in the first 24 hours of D-Day alone (4,413) and far below, say, the total number of Italian servicemen killed in WWII (301,000). European countries can no longer conceive of a war with massive loss of life; in the preceding decades, they simply have not thought they would have to be prepared to fight a serious opponent, who may use nuclear weapons. Yet acting weak in front of a brazen and aggressive adversary could even provoke violence as the aggressor might think it can act with impunity.

According to NATO statistics published in February 2014, since the latter half of the 1990s, when Russia was incapable of posing a military threat to its neighbours, average defence spending by NATO’s European members dropped from 2.1 percent to 1.6 percent of GDP (as of 2013). Although some countries have since decided to allocate more money to national defence, there is no reason to expect rapid results.

Besides budget cuts, many European countries have skimped on making essential defence-related reforms. To avoid unpopular decisions, armed forces have not been restructured to reflect these smaller budgets. Thus, while military personnel do get their salaries, there is no money to invest into modernization of equipment or undertake collective training. Such vegetative armed forces are found above all in European countries (e.g. Slovenia, Belgium, Italy) where personnel costs make up more than 60% of the defence budget.

European countermeasures

In early 2014, Ukraine was vulnerable to Kremlin initiated hybrid warfare mainly because of its weak central government. As the president had fled to Russia, Crimea was occupied largely due to Kyiv’s apathy. There is no reason to expect the same from Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, or Warsaw should Russia orchestrate something similar. Each country must be strong to withstand Kremlin pressure. Yet, no European country can get by on its own. Europeans can stand up to Russian subversion only if governments cooperate in the EU and NATO format. As long as Moscow can enter into bilateral agreements with individual countries for gas, nuclear power, or warships, President Putin can divide Europe.

Europe must pay more attention to military security. Countries that are not able to increase their defence budget due to economic problems should at least reform their armed forces so that they are able to deliver relevant military capabilities.

Kremlin’s propaganda offensive must be acknowledged as an effective tool, and an active response must be prepared. No matter which country Russia picks on next, it is almost certain that the first phase will be an attempt to harm its international reputation using provocations and dirty tactics in order to isolate it from its EU and NATO allies. For example, heads of governments must be prepared to explain to their publics that social media footage of purportedly murdered Russian children and elderly people are just one of many tactics whose ultimate goal is to dismantle European security. This will require European politicians to display qualities of leadership worthy of their responsibility level, and their pay grade.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN's aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe's capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of out time.

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