The Concept of Hybrid War: Origin, Application and Limitation

The Concept of Hybrid War: Origin, Application and Limitation

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By Leonid Savin

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For a competent understanding of the actions of the United States and NATO and the development of appropriate strategic responses, it is necessary to clarify the concept of hybrid war and trace its evolution

In recent years, the conceptual framework in the field of modern conflicts has undergone significant changes. New concepts and doctrines are emerging. However, some of them are transformed in a rather unique way. In particular, this applies to concepts such as “hybrid war”.

This term in Russia can often be heard on television or seen in newspapers or scientific publications. As a rule, it sounds like “the USA or NATO are waging a hybrid war against Russia.” However, in the US, NATO countries, and their clients, including Ukraine, say that “Russia is waging a hybrid war” and therefore it is necessary to confront the growing “hybrid threats”.

It can also be seen that recently the mention of “hybrid war” has begun to be used by these countries as a kind of umbrella strategy that has a global political character. This became especially noticeable after representatives of NATO countries and their partners began to accuse Russia after 2014 of “aggression” and “malicious actions”, almost always without any evidence.

Obviously, we are talking about a specific form of indirect actions that pose a threat both to us and to the other side, and the expression “hybrid war” has become a convenient meme for expressing this reality. But if, during the Cold War era of the bipolar world, nuclear deterrence represented an asymmetrical effort by two sides, can an equal sign be put between the current opposition?

Obviously not. Since, on the one hand, there is a state with limited capabilities in the international arena, that is, Russia, and on the other hand, a large group of countries and a military-political alliance. At the same time, a number of powers from this group are quite sophisticated in all kinds of subversive operations of the widest range, defined as political war, counter-insurgency operations, special operations, etc.

It can also be seen that recently the mention of “hybrid war” has begun to be used by these countries as a kind of umbrella strategy that has a global political character. This became especially noticeable after representatives of NATO countries and their partners began to accuse Russia after 2014 of “aggression” and “malicious actions”, almost always without any evidence.

Thus, we see a clear militarization of political processes and diplomacy, which causes serious harm to international relations and, directly to bilateral relations between countries, where a number of states are deliberately labeled as subjects of a hybrid war, against which it is necessary to take certain preventive measures to protect and repel possible provocative action.

In order not to fall into a logical trap and think according to Western clichés, it is necessary to clarify the concept of hybrid war and trace its evolution.

It is known that this term was first used and developed by the officers of the US Marine Corps.

Robert Walker defined hybrid warfare this way: “Hybrid warfare is what lies in between special and conventional warfare. This type of warfare has the characteristics of both special and conventional arenas and requires extreme flexibility for operational and tactical transition between special and conventional arenas . ” [i]    

Colonel of the US Marine Corps Bill Nemeth, in his 2002 paper, uses this concept to analyze the Chechen conflict in Russia. [ii]

The concept of hybrid warfare was later put forward in a joint article by James Mattis and Frank Hoffman published in November 2005. [iii]  Both authors were professional officers in the Marine Corps, and James Mattis later became US Secretary of Defense. It was a short text, several pages long, about the combat experience in Afghanistan in Iraq, where US forces had carried out the invasion just a few years earlier.

The main narrative dealt with irregular methods – terrorism, insurgency, unrestricted war, guerrilla warfare or coercion by drug crime groups exploiting the lost control of a failed state. The authors reported that these methods are becoming more extensive and sophisticated, and in the near future they will challenge US security interests around the world.

Later, Frank Hoffman developed this concept in his essay, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Emergence of Hybrid Wars, published in 2007. [iv]  The main idea of ​​the author was that instead of separate adversaries with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular or terrorist), there are definite adversaries who will use all forms of war and tactics, possibly simultaneously.

US Joint Forces Command adopted the hybrid threat concept in 2009 and emphasized that this includes any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively uses a specially selected combination of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal means or actions in an operational combat space. 

The official documents and strategies of the US military used in this work refer to the term “hybrid”, as well as a combination of traditional and unconventional tactics along with simple and complex technologies.

Frank Hoffman argued that hybrid threats include the full range of different methods of warfare, including conventional means, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist attacks including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disturbances. Hybrid wars can be waged by both states and various non-state actors.

Two years later, in Hybrid Warfare and Challenges, Hoffman noted that ” future conflict will be multimodal or multivariate, not a simple black-and-white characteristic of one form of war .” [v]

He argued that “hybrid warfare,” in which the adversary is likely to present unique combined or hybrid threats, specifically targeting US vulnerabilities. Hybrid threats include the full range of methods of warfare, including conventional means, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist attacks that consist of indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disturbances.

These multimodal activities can be carried out by separate units or even by the same unit, but, as a rule, they are operatively and tactically directed and coordinated within the main combat space to achieve a synergistic effect in the physical and psychological dimensions of the conflict. The effect can be obtained at all levels of the war.

The most important thing – the last word in this phrase – is war. Thus, early identification of hybrid threats is associated with combat space, as well as military methods and means.

US Joint Forces Command adopted the hybrid threat concept in 2009 and emphasized that this includes any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively uses a specially selected combination of conventional, irregular, terrorist and criminal means or actions in an operational combat space. Instead of a single actor, a hybrid threat or adversary can be composed of a combination of state and non-state actors. [vi]

Later in 2014, after the return of Crimea to Russia, Hoffman wrote that “any adversary who simultaneously uses a specially designed combination of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior at the same time and in the same combat space to achieve its political goals, ”and noted that hybrid threats are a design developed by the Marine Corps a decade ago. [vii]

Other contemporary geostrategists such as Colin Gray, Max Booth, and John MCain align themselves with Hoffman’s formulation that future conflict will be more diverse or multivariate than the standard type of black-and-white war. [viii]

In 2015, the US Army released the Hybrid Threats Force Structure Guidelines. This document belongs to the category of field manuals. [ix]

It provides a clear definition of hybrid threats and how to perceive them. At the same time, Russia and Georgia’s aggression in 2008 are mentioned, where a specific interpretation of the events is given. It is said that “a hybrid threat is a diverse and dynamic combination of regular forces, irregular forces and/or criminal elements combined to achieve mutually beneficial results.

we see the globalization of hybrid war, the attributes of which are automatically assigned to those states that are identified in the US strategic documents as threats. But Russia is especially featured in analytical documents and political rhetoric of representatives of NATO countries.

Hybrid threats are innovative, adaptive, globally-connected, networked, and embedded in local clutter. They can possess a wide range of old, adapted, and advanced technologies, including the ability to create weapons of mass destruction.

They can operate conditionally and unconventionally, employing adaptive and asymmetric combinations of traditional, irregular, and criminal tactics and exploiting traditional military capabilities in old and new ways.

Hybrid threats seek to saturate the entire operating environment with effects that support their course of action and force their adversaries to respond along multiple lines of action. A simple military attack may not be complex enough to stretch resources, reduce intelligence, and limit freedom of maneuver.

Instead, hybrid threats can simultaneously create economic instability, contribute to a lack of confidence in existing governance, attack information networks, provide a compelling message consistent with their goals, trigger man-made humanitarian crises, and physically threaten adversaries. Synchronized and synergistic actions of hybrid threats can take place in the information, social, political, infrastructural, economic, and military fields. “

Another doctrinal document TRADOC G-2 defines hybrid warfare as “the use of political, social, criminal and other non-kinetic means used to overcome military restrictions.” [x]

Joint Operating Environment 2035. The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, released in 2016, uses the term “hybrid government stratagems”.

It says that  “a number of revisionist states will use a range of coercive measures to advance their national interests through a combination of direct and indirect approaches aimed at slowing down, misdirecting and blunting responses from targeted states. These hybrid stratagems will aim to spread confusion and chaos while avoiding attribution and potential retaliation. ”  [xi]

It is said that “a hybrid mixture of conventional deterrence and proxy warfare will challenge the combined forces’ ability to successfully intervene in support of allies and partners opposed by neighboring revisionist powers. The main attributes of state hybrid stratagems will be “… characterized by the convergence of physical and psychological, kinetic and non-kinetic, combatants and non-combatants …” and the operational fusion of conventional and irregular approaches.

It is likely that Russia will continue to use the threat of military power to protect regional interests and promote the idea that it is still a great power. Iran will continue to develop and use regional proxies and partners. In the meantime, China may develop a more dynamic and adaptive maritime strategy in an attempt to impose irreversible consequences on the island disputes in the East and South China Seas. ”

Thus, we see the globalization of hybrid war, the attributes of which are automatically assigned to those states that are identified in the US strategic documents as threats. But Russia is especially featured in analytical documents and political rhetoric of representatives of NATO countries.

In a monograph published by the RAND Corporation in 2017 on the topic of hybrid warfare in the Baltic region, an emphasis was placed on the current and possible actions of Russia. It was noted that:

“The term“ hybrid war ”has no consistent definition, but generally refers to negative and covert action supported by the threat or use of conventional and/or nuclear forces to influence the domestic policies of target countries. Russia’s potential hybrid aggression in the Baltics can be divided into three categories: nonviolent subversion, covert violence, and conventional war supported by subversion.

Given the rise in living standards and the growing integration of many Russian speakers in the Baltic states, Russia is likely to find it difficult to use nonviolent tactics to destabilize these countries. Covert Russian violence is also unlikely to be successful on its own, given the training of the Estonian and Latvian security forces.

Therefore, the main vulnerability of the Baltic states lies in the local traditional superiority of Russia: a large-scale invasion of the Baltic states by ordinary Russians, legitimized and supported by political subversion, will quickly crush the NATO forces currently in the region. ” [xii]

That is, Western authors are trying to pass labels on Russia as a matter of course. Also noticeable is an attempt in the military-political circles of the West to assess the hybrid war in geopolitical coordinates, often with reference to other concepts.

Amos Fox notes that  “hybrid warfare has one leg in the past, with its ability to wage a conventional war, and it has one leg in the future. Hybrid warfare is a nationwide approach to war that seeks to integrate all the instruments of national power through campaigns in which the distance between strategic and tactical levels of war is reduced to such an extent that the operational level of war becomes razor-thin. ” [xiii]

However, in 2017, the term “hybrid war” was not yet fully established, as well as the attribution of the use of hybrid war methods to Russia. In this respect, the discussion in the Subcommittee on New Threats and Opportunities of the Arms Committee of the US House of Representatives is indicative. On March 15, 2017, Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona asked the question:

“ Will the fleet of an armored brigade tactical group in Eastern Europe be enough to fight the Russian hybrid war without improving our cyberspace capabilities and strengthening our space resources to contain Russia, or should we mirror all actions to be able to participate in them? and confront them at every stage of their hybrid war? “.

Thomas Timothy, the senior analyst with the Foreign Armed Forces Research Division of the US Department of Defense, responded: “ Congressman, first of all, this is just my personal opinion. I don’t think Russia is waging a hybrid war. Although I know that a lot of people think they are leading it. ” [xiv]

He went on to explain that Russia was building up its military strength because they felt an existential threat from the United States and NATO, the same that the Baltic countries probably felt from Russia when they saw a military reorganization on their borders.

We see this assessment as quite adequate, but, unfortunately, such conclusions are by no means common to all military experts and politicians who make decisions in the United States.

However, then we see a reassessment of the concept and its application at the level of international relations. And Russia is beginning to figure more often as a permanent subject of hybrid warfare.

In February 2018, Senator Reed, speaking to the US Congress, said that “the Kremlin‘s use of malicious financial influence is delicate and part of a larger, coordinated operation of the Kremlin’s hybrid aggression using the wide range of military and non-military tools at its disposal.

Russia recognizes that its military capabilities are currently limited compared to the United States and NATO, and it will seek to avoid direct military conflict with the West. Instead, Russia is employing tactics that take advantage of its strengths and target our systematic vulnerabilities. ” [xv]

NATO has also focused on hybrid threats. The Capstone concept, dating from 2010, was used by NATO in their Counter the Hybrid Threat experiment. In this document, hybrid threats are defined as threats “emanating from adversaries capable of simultaneously adaptive use of conventional and non-traditional means to achieve their goals .” [xvi]

NATO began to formally use the definition of “hybrid war” against Russia after the coup in Ukraine in 2014. A NATO review article states that ” hybrid conflicts involve multi-level efforts aimed at destabilizing a functioning state and polarizing its society .” [xvii]

A 2015 NATO Parliamentary Assembly publication defined hybrid threats as “the use of asymmetric tactics to identify and exploit internal weaknesses by non-military means, supported by the threat of conventional military means .” [xviii]

In December 2015, NATO adopted the Hybrid Warfare Strategy, which defined how they are going to deal with hybrid threats. In April 2017, several European NATO Allies formally agreed to establish a European Center of Excellence for Combating Hybrid Threats in Helsinki.

Patrick Cullen, in an article published by this center, noted that “ hybrid threats are designed to blur the distinction between peace and war and to complicate and lower the thresholds for target detection and response. As a result, the serious challenges posed by hybrid threats require new early warning solutions” [xix]

The Helsinki Hybrid Threat Center of Excellence describes a hybrid threat as “coordinated and synchronized action that purposefully targets the systemic vulnerabilities of democracies and institutions through a wide range of means (political, economic, military, civilian and informational).

The activity uses detection and assignment thresholds and the boundary between war and peace. The goal is to influence various forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level in the interests and/or achievement of the agents’ strategic goals while undermining and/or damaging the goal. ” [xx]

In early 2017, NATO created a new Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD). The NATO publication noted that this was “the most significant reform in the history of Allied intelligence. In response to the complex threat environment posed by an assertive Russia and the rise of terrorism and instability in the south, Allies are fundamentally changing how they organize and analyze intelligence. ” [xxi]  The new structure includes 270 people from various NATO countries.

In July 2017, a new division for hybrid analysis was created at JISD. Its mandate is to analyze the full spectrum of hybrid actions based on military and civilian, classified,, and open sources. NATO has tried to develop a holistic approach, including cybersecurity. 

Representatives of the new structure noted that   “modeled on already existing Advisory Groups on Resilience or Critical Infrastructure Protection, a Hybrid Situation Support Team (CHST) can be deployed as soon as possible from an ally requesting NATO support, either in a crisis or for helping to build national capacity to cope with hybrid situations. Such teams are composed of civilian experts drawn from the NATO pool of experts as well as experts nominated by the Allies” [xxii]

In November 2019, the first CHST was deployed in Montenegro. On request, Military Advisory Groups can also be incorporated into the CHST, thus offering in-depth consultation between the civilian and military. These steps demonstrate that NATO is developing options for response below the threshold of Article 5 (Collective Defense) of the Washington Treaty.

Until now, the topic of hybrid threats has been one of the main topics on NATO’s agenda. For example, among the six key questions prepared for the NATO summit in June 2021, two of them related to the topic of hybrid threats:

“Containment of Russian aggression in Europe, including Russia’s use of cyber and hybrid warfare tactics. Enhancing the resilience of member states to respond to non-military security threats and crises, including hybrid and cyber threats, pandemics, and climate change” [xxiii]

It can be said that at the moment there is a firm conviction in the West that Russia is trying in every possible way to harm the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole and individually, therefore, it is necessary to resist in a variety of areas and situations.

Such actions, when civilian and military specialists of NATO countries design fictitious phantoms and create some measures of influence for them, have a clear sign of political paranoia, similar to the one that was in the United States in the 50-80s. about the spread of communism. The declared opposition is nothing more than a cover for the manipulation of public opinion and one’s own aggressive activity, which often violate the norms of international law.

The word “hybrid” is used for any activity in Russia or Russian campaigns. For example, the interaction of Rosatom with foreign partners is nothing more than a “hybrid activity” for them. [xxiv]  There are problems in the internal politics of Georgia – it means “Russia is using this sporadic and unmanageable foreign and security policy to wage a hybrid war and increase its influence in Georgia.” [xxv]

Even the long-standing provocation of the Estonian leadership with the demolition of the monument to the unknown soldier in Tallinn is already being presented by Western authors as a method of hybrid conflicts, behind which Russia is behind. [xxvi]

But the problem is that any actions of Russia, be it a strengthening of defense capability, adoption of some internal laws, or support of compatriots abroad and international economic activity will be perceived and announced as hybrid threats or corresponding activity.

The crisis of public confidence in its own ruling elite also spurs the West to use the scarecrow of hybrid wars in order to shift attention from numerous internal problems to a designated external enemy and exclude any alternative scenarios of economic and political development in its society.

How should Russia act in this case? Should we use the same tools as the US and NATO against Russia, classifying numerous provocations and attempts at pressure as signs of a hybrid war?

Of course, Russia’s official position does not agree with attempts to label us an actor of hybrid war under any pretext. Here one can recall the appearance in the West of the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine”, although in fact it does not exist. This concept was deliberately invented by NATO experts based on an analysis of the publications of the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces in order to frighten their inhabitants and have a reason to further implement their plans. It’s the same with hybrid warfare.

There are many complex threats in the world that can be called hybrid, and from which the Russian state and society suffer. But despite the proposals of the Russian leadership to fight these threats together, NATO countries prefer to create their own myths and act in the spirit of the Cold War.

As for the possible responses to these provocations, firstly, you need to understand that any tough measures will cause an appropriate reaction and give the West grounds for further accusations. At the very least, this will trigger an escalation spiral.

To avoid confusion, it is even desirable to introduce a different classification of Western methods, for example, war by other means. Moreover, Western politicians and experts themselves have long been using this term in relation to their own geopolitical strategy. [xxvii]

Secondly, it is necessary to try to penetrate into the consciousness of the enemy in order to understand the course of his thought, to find their weaknesses and contradictions, and after thoroughly analyzing this, present it to the general public abroad. Third, continue to strengthen its sovereignty and political effectiveness, showing partners and allies (as well as neutral countries) the benefits of interacting with Russia.

Fourth, joint efforts along the lines of the CSTO, SCO, and the EAEU should take into account the realities of confrontation with the West, not only along the line of military-political confrontation but also the broader framework of geopolitical processes from trade and economic activities to scientific research and the level of narratives. It is desirable to create and support appropriate analytical and independent centers that deal with this issue, exchange of experience, and constant monitoring of the activities of Western opponents.

Fifth, by no means, give up the slack and make compromises with the West on issues of principle, including values ​​and national interests. This position is reflected both in the current strategic documents of Russia and in the last message of President Vladimir Putin.


Leonid Savin is a Russian geopolitical Expert and the deputy head chief of the International Eurasia Movement

Republishing is allowed with a copyright credit to © The Radical Outlook


[i]                Walker, Robert G. Spec Fi: The United States Marines Corps and Special Operations, Master’s Thesis, Monterey, CA, Naval Post Graduate School, December 1998, p.4-5.

[ii]                 Nemeth, W. Future war and Chechnya: a case for hybrid warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Master Thesis, 2002

[iii]               Mattis, James N., Hoffman, Frank. Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars // Proceedings Magazine, November 2005 Vol. 132/11/1, p. 233.

[iv]               Hoffman, Frank G. Conflict in the 21st century: The rise of hybrid wars. Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007.

[v]               Hoffman, Frank G. Hybrid Warfare and Challenges // JFQ, issue 52, 1st quarter 2009. p. 35.

[vi]               Russell W. Glenn, Evolution and Conflict: Summary of the 2008 Israel Defense Forces-US Joint Forces Command “Hybrid Threat Seminar War Game,” Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2009.

[vii]              Hoffman, Frank. On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare vs. Hybrid Threats // War on the Rocks, July 28, 2014.

[viii]             Savin L.V. Network threats to national and international security: strategy, tactics, hybrid actors and technologies // Economic strategies No. 2, 2014. taktika-gibridnye-aktory-i-tex …

[ix]       Hybrid Threat Force Structure Organization Guide. FM 7-100.4. Headquarters Department of the Army Washington, DC, 4 June 2015.

[x]       TRADOC G-2, Threat Tactics Report Compendium: ISIL, North Korea, Russia, and China

        (Fort Leavenworth, KS: TRADOC G-2 ACE Threat Integration, 2015), 94.

[xi]       Joint Operating Environment 2035. The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World. 14 July 2016. P.6.

[xii]      Andrew Radin. Hybrid Warfare in the Baltics. Threats and Potential Responses, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2017.

[xiii]             Amos C. Fox. Hybrid Warfare: The 21st Century Russian Way of Warfare. School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 2017. P. 5.

[xiv]             Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Enviroment. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities of the Committee on Armed Service House of Representatives One Hundred Fifteenth Congress Firts Session. March 15, 2017. P. 20.https: //

[xv]      Congressional Record Volume 164, Number 36 (Wednesday, February 28, 2018)

[xvi]             NATO – Supreme Allied Commander Transformation Headquarters, ‘Military Contribution to Countering Hybrid Threats Capstone Concept’.

[xvii]             Pindjak, Peter. Deterring Hybrid Warfare: A Chance for NATO and the EU to Work Together? // NATO Review, 2014.

[xviii]            NATO Parliamentary Assembly Defense and Security Committee, “Hybrid Warfare: NATO’s NewStrategic Challenge?” Draft Report, April 7, 2015. p. 3.

[xix]             Cullen, Patrick. Hybrid threats as a new ‘wicked problem’ for early warning. Strategic Analysis, May 2018.


[xxi]     Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven. Adapting NATO intelligence in support of “One NATO”. 08 September 2017.

[xxii]     Michael Ruhle, Clare Roberts. Enlarging NATO’s toolbox to counter hybrid threats. 19 March 2021.

[xxiii]    NATO: Key Issues for the 117th Congress. Congressional Research Service. March 3, 2021.

[xxiv]    Hybrid Atoms: Rosatom in Europe and Nuclear Energy in Belarus. March 11, 2021.

[xxv]     Shota Gvineria. Russia Wages Hybrid Warfare and Increases Its Influence in Polarized Georgia. FEBRUARY 22, 2021

[xxvi]    Juurvee, Ivo, and Mariita Mattiisen. The Bronze Soldier Crisis of 2007: Revisiting an Early Case of Hybrid Conflict. Tallinn: International Center for Defense and Security, August 2020.

[xxvii]   For example, see Blackville R., Harris J. War by Other Means. Geoeconomics and the art of government. M .: AST, 2017.

Source: Russtrat

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