While America and its allies have been fighting insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Russians have been perfecting their conventional capabilities. Recently, however, they have been also building on their hybrid warfare skills. A recent study by West Point reveals how Russian special operations forces, known as Spetsnaz, have been employing hybrid warfare methodologies in Ukraine before, during, and after the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the engagements in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The Spetsnaz have been using cyber warfare in conjunction with information operations (IO) and electronic warfare (EW) to increase and enhance the effectiveness of each.
Their ultimate aim is to sow confusion in their adversary’s ranks by amplifying the impact of the fog of war and thus enabling friendly forces to gain a tactical advantage. Traditional IO is focused more on strategic targets. Consequently, the Russian application of the concepts in a tactical setting will make it harder to counter given that the American doctrine doesn’t expect to encounter IO at that level.
Ukraine has offered the Russian military the perfect opportunity to test their hybrid warfare capabilities in a real environment. Although the Ukrainian military can by no means be compared to that of the United States, the Russians have nonetheless gained valuable feedback on their approaches.
But what exactly have they been doing?
Last year, a team from West Point’s Army Cyber Institute traveled to Ukraine to examine Russian hybrid warfare operations. After interviewing several regular and territorial Ukrainian soldiers, the team discovered that Russian Spetsnaz had distributed malware to the cell phones of front-line Ukrainian soldiers via signal intercept platforms. Moreover, small teams of Russian SOF infiltrated behind the front line to intercept and disturb the communications between the Ukrainian front-line troops and rear echelons.
The malware messages the Spetsnaz disseminated to Ukrainian soldiers contained photos of family members or their geolocation. The Russians also sent messages to the family members of Ukrainian soldiers indicating that they had been wounded or killed, thus triggering a communications overload as anxious parents and spouses inquired about their loved ones. Ukrainian soldiers received messages that their government or individual units had surrendered. Behind the front lines, the Russians employed EW means to take down Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and to disrupt strategic communications between larger Ukrainian formations.
Besides showcasing the Russians’ abilities to manipulate their opponents, the above findings indicate a low level of professionalism and training on the Ukrainian side: mobile devices on the front line are highly irregular.
Another recent example of Russia’s hybrid warfare in action was the naval incident that took place in November. In that case, the Russian Navy fired at, rammed, and seized three Ukrainian vessels that were about to cross the Kerch Strait to enter the Sea of Azov. As the attack took place, the website and social media accounts of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry suddenly went down. Although they weren’t offline for long, this sowed confusion and delayed the accurate reporting of the incident, which enabled the Russians to fire first in the resulting public relations battle.