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Directors' Cut

Directors’ Cut Ep.3 – Domains of warfare: hybrid threats in Central-Eastern Europe

Since its conception, our Centre’s name has tried to capture the meaning of the context that we wanted to analyse. The term “hybrid” was – and still is – a clear indication of the multiplicity of (state and non-state) actors that operate in Central-Eastern Europe, and of the number of instruments used by this same actors while pursuing their respective agendas. It is in such a framework that this month’s episode of Directors’ Cut focuses on “hybrid warfare”, giving substance to its multifaceted theoretical scaffolding. 

Giorgia Miccoli: Many call it a new generation war, finding one of its most relevant examples in the 2006 Lebanon war. Since then, we have seen at least six other cases of hybrid warfare happening around Europe, with Russia being a key actor and a key threat. Many former Soviet Republics are highly susceptible to Russian hybrid warfare. Therefore, given the relevance of this threat for the European Union, Brussels has engaged together with NATO, in preventing and responding to gray zone activities. According to the EU operational protocol for countering hybrid threats, a Hybrid threat is a ‘mixture of coercive and subversive activity, conventional and unconventional methods, which can be used in a coordinated manner by state or non-state actors to achieve specific objectives’. A new threat, a new way of fighting wars and a new challenge to handle: the effort of the European defence authorities on the matter is directed towards the trembling southern and eastern neighbourhood.

Fabio Seferi: The emergence of a new type of warfare was not led by an overturning of core purposes and tactics. It was based on the development of a key enabler for new paths in the conduct of war: the cyber domain. The unconventional methods underlying hybrid warfare refer pretty much to the embracing of cyber-enabled attacks, be it with the aim of physical damage to enemy critical infrastructures, or with parallel operations aimed at disrupting overall business continuity in many different sectors. A separate note is needed for so-called psy-ops (i.e. psychological operations): actions that rely on psychological methods in order to provoke a certain reaction to a group of people. Psy-ops are channeled through propaganda, social media targeting etc., and have proven to be very effective in undermining democratic processes. Another issue concerns cyber-enabled attacks’ attribution. State (or state-backed) actor usually can display a great amount of resources to cover their operations in a tarnishing effort. Thus, often times, responsibility for a certain action/attack cannot be clearly linked to a certain actor. There is uncertainty regarding what constitutes an act of war, and which are the countermeasures allowed by international law and by the law of armed conflicts.

Giorgia Miccoli: Given its centrality in today’s international scene, hybrid warfare and its implications have been under the radar of many analysts. As some argue, hybrid warfare is a key element to read NATO’s relevance nowadays. While NATO struggles to leave behind its traditional collective defence structure, Washington places itself as the strongest western state actor when it comes to handling hybrid threats. Through its Joint Intelligence and Security Division, NATO is working on facilitating the understanding of hybrid threats for its member states. Moreover, cooperation with the European Union has aimed at improving the Western response to the events unfolding in the rest of the world. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, for example, focuses on equipping member states to react to cyber attacks. During its European Council Presidency, Finland pushed the EU to strengthen its capability to counteract to hybrid threats, even through a stronger EU−NATO cooperation. The field, anyway, is constantly evolving. 

Fabio Seferi: I agree, the field is constantly evolving and an outer look cannot return us the full picture. The multiplicity of means involved in today’s warfare – be them conventional or unconventional – are not easily analysable. Notwithstanding, we can try to focus on some major trends and try to understand them. There has been a clear shift towards non-kinetic methods of war conduct. However, a lesser deployment of boots on the ground does not reflect an overall decline in defence expenditure. Rather investment and resources shift to a cyber build-up. This means that in order not only to pursue strategic goals, but also to achieve a sufficient defensive level, states need to redirect and boost their investment in new domains. However, my question is: how many countries in Central-Eastern Europe can afford such a shift and this level of employment of resources? How many of them are already lagging behind in this new strategic domain? 

Giorgia Miccoli: Countries like Bulgaria and Croatia still heavily rely on foreign components and services, especially from Russia and still lack sufficient collaboration with the defence leading countries in Western Europe[1]. Therefore, in my opinion, there is a rooted problem in Central and Eastern Europe that derives from its recent and turbulent history. Little investments in new domains and research are seeable in the region: cybersecurity, for example, is still a niche sector to invest in. Surely a revisionist military approach should be adopted by countries in Central-Eastern Europe and this is advisable for the near future. To remain relevant in the international defence landscape, a stronger and more autonomous engagement should be put in place.

Fabio Seferi: You raised some very interesting points. In a world were complete autarky is not conceivable, the diversification of the supply chain plays a key role for achieving strategic independence. Foreign components, products and infrastructure – especially those stemming from disruptive technologies – can curtail foreign policy goals and tactics. This is a more general problem, which is not related only to Central-Eastern European countries. However, there is an important cleavage in Central-Eastern Europe, and it is one that often surfaces when talking about the region: the cleavage between EU and non-EU Member States. Cooperation and concertation of actions can more easily happen between EU Member States, which are very sensitive in pushing forward mechanisms regarding cyber resilience or contrast of hybrid threats. This hiatus only deepens the fragility of the entire region, even more so when considering truly transboundary and interconnected domains such as those linked to hybrid warfare and threats.

[1] EDA, Central and Eastern European countries: measures to enhance balanced defence industry in Europe and to address barriers to defence cooperation across Europe, https://eda.europa.eu/docs/default-source/documents/rr-1459-eda-central-and-eastern-europe-report—technical-annex—final.pdf

NB: The opinions expressed in this article represent only the views of the authors, and do not reflect the position of past, current or future employers.

By Fabio Seferi

Fabio holds a Master's Degree in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Florence, Italy. His Master's thesis focused on the role and influence of Russia, Turkey and China in the Western Balkans. He has been Programme Assistant Intern at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, and Ad-Hoc Research Assistant for The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Fabio’s main research interests focus on conflicts, political violence, hybrid warfare, intelligence analysis and organised crime.

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