Russia’s embrace of “hybrid war” as a strategy in Ukraine has successfully enabled it to destabilize and fragment the nation in a way that obfuscates the political and military involvement of Moscow.

A girl in an apartment of a residential building damaged as a result of the fightingd between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian forces in Gorlovka. Photo: RIA Novosti

 For a very different take read "The myth of ‘hybrid war’ in Ukraine"

Russia’s present involvement in Ukraine — at both the strategic and tactical level — epitomizes war as a continuation of politics by other means. While a great many precedents exist in Russian and Soviet foreign policy for such wars (most recently, in Georgia in 2008), the current Russian approach in Ukraine embraces a much wider mix of instruments and tactics. And it has even spawned its own unique vocabulary: terms such as “non-linear war,” hybrid war,” and “special war.”

The term “non-linear war” was coined by a dystopian short story, Without Sky (Bez Neba), authored by Natan Dubovitskiy and published by Russkiy Pioner, a magazine, days before Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea in 2014. This story tells of the “first non-linear war” which, unlike the “primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries,” is fought “all against all.”

As Dubovitskiy writes, “[S]ome provinces took one side, some took the other,” and “[i]t was a rare state that entered the coalition intact.” They fought for disparate means yet seldom for traditional ‘victory’—“war was now understood as a process, more exactly part of a process: its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.”

Its most significant insight followed publication: Dubovitskiy was a pseudonym. The author was former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Vladislav Surkov—the “hidden author of Putinism,” in charge, among other things, of managing “the public image” of Eastern Ukraine’s newly minted separatists.

Hybrid war in Ukraine

Surkov’s story envisions the fragmentation of the state — the traditional actor of international relations — and events in Ukraine appear to bear this out. Both the majority-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, along with their military detachments and police forces, have declared independence — acts eagerly espoused as exercises in their right to self-determination. At first, their pro-Russian alignment appears to be the result of ethno-cultural loyalties more so than strategic concerns.

However, upon closer inspection, these claims wear thin. Instead, one sees Russian nationals like Igor Girkin and Aleksandr Borodai fomenting unrest in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, only to be replaced months later by locally born (but vehemently pro-Russian) figures, such as Aleksandr Zakharchenko and the celebrity commanders, Mikhail ‘Givi’ Tolstykh and Arseny ‘Motorola’ Pavlov.

What is happening in Ukraine, writes former National Security Agency officer, John Schindler, is "special" war (also known as “hybrid” war): an “amalgam of espionage, subversion and terrorism” conducted principally by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Whilst Girkin admits employment in the former (and is sanctioned by the European Union for his service in the latter), Borodai’s involvement remains frequently alleged. Denying this, he instead depicts himself as a “crisis manager” and “starter-upper” content to cede the presidency of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to Zakharchenko, now that the state has been established.

As Schindler writes, special war “is already known to Russia’s neighbors” and the 1990s are indeed ripe with precedents. Throughout this decade, Russian security services played a substantial role in each of the incipient conflicts around Russia’s periphery, usually in supporting pro-Russian secessionist movements, providing materiel and even armed force where necessary.

Hybrid war in Georgia

Previously foremost in this category were Russo–Georgian hostilities, beginning almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which culminated in a five-day war in August 2008. Comparing the origins of this conflict with Ukraine’s yields some noteworthy conclusions.

In the build-up to war in Georgia, Russian interference was frequently alleged—a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from July 2007 implicated Russian authorities in military attacks, murder, sabotage, espionage, support of extremists, and a wide-ranging disinformation campaign. Russian intelligence acted with similar, if not greater, impunity in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and an agreement in 2010 even enshrined the FSB’s right to recruit agents from within the Ukrainian government.

Though of less prominence in Georgia, disinformation played a significant role, with both the Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ narrative and the claim that Georgia was perpetrating a genocide of its Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities surviving just long enough for Russia to prosecute a successful war.

At the political level, gas prices were doubled and Georgian wine suddenly embargoed by Russia in 2006, whilst Russia’s bid to wrest Ukraine from its European aspirations and into its Eurasian Economic Union degenerated into a full-scale trade war in August 2013.

When fighting broke out in Georgia, semi-irregular forces like the Vostok and Zapad “special battalions” loyal to GRU played a substantial role — the former of which is, in some form, now active in Ukraine. Most significantly, membership of NATO (and Russia considers the EU its “stalking horse”) has been the source of Russian hostility each time after it was declared in February 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members.”

How hybrid war influenced the Minsk agreements

With these activities conjoined, it is difficult to state definitively where war begins and ends — but for the formal recognition of hostilities, it has lost its definition entirely. Clearly non-linear war can be debunked as the confusing and obfuscating narrative that it is; “Novorossiya” is not rising —t he war in Ukraine is fought principally between the Russian and Ukrainian states. According to the terms first set by Clausewitz in 1832, war is the act of force Russia utilizes to compel its neighbors to do its will — to renounce their Westernizing ambitions.

The non-linear narrative cloaks state interests in those of spies and "useful idiots". This narrative and its practical counterpart, special war, wax and wane in response to Russian state interests alone. As a result, when sanctions, diplomacy, and other political tools fell short, increasingly warlike methods were employed, culminating in full-scale warfare in Georgia and a heightened special war in Ukraine. Interestingly, this dynamic is observable at the micro, as well as macro, level.

Using the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine’s situational maps, one can accurately chart military undertakings from July 11, 2014 to May 26, 2015. It is particularly interesting to look at the periods surrounding the signing of the Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014, and Minsk II on February 11, 2015.

Having been roughly adapted from Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko’s fifteen-point peace plan, the Minsk Protocol clearly favored Ukraine and the West, and read “like an ultimatum” according to Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Maps from the period between September 7th and 26th illustrate the most immediate and egregious infringements of the Minsk ceasefire. This was when considerable territory dividing the cities of Donetsk and Mariupol, and surrounding Luhansk and Debaltseve, was seized by pro-Russian forces, and the second battle for Donetsk International Airport commenced.

The contrast with Minsk II is stark. Labelled “an unqualified victory for Russia,” Minsk II gave Russia and the separatists most of what they sought, and asked for little in return. As maps from February 15th to May 26th show, barring the closure of the ‘Debaltseve pocket’ on February 18, there have been no significant territorial seizures since Minsk II was signed. Though the artillery duels that have characterized fighting continue, they are less frequent—a show of strength, rather than intent, bent on consolidating a long-term frontline.

When war is no longer “war”

As special war abates, its narrative — non-linear war — obliges. As bloggers cited by The Interpreter on March 14 note, the terms ‘DNR’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (LNR) are increasingly being replaced by Russian state media with the term “Donetsk and Luhansk regions” — and some separatist forces were even labelled as “bandit formations.”

The brutality of the Ukraine crisis exceeds that of many wars, but ‘war’ it declines to be. As has been demonstrated, war is only a formal recognition of hostilities, and while special war achieves Russia’s state interests, this flexible and fluctuating application of force will remain an essential tool of Russian foreign policy—the epitome of war as a continuation of politics by other means.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.