In recent years, it’s begun to seem like cyber attacks from national level opponents are just a way of life. Reports of Russian efforts to gain access to the U.S. electrical grid or Chinese operatives seeking technical data on the U.S. defense apparatus have become so familiar that the stories themselves no longer draw a great deal of public interest. With no shots fired and no forces crossing any borders, a form of warfare is already raging — with digital security professionals squaring off against offensive operations aimed at the United States, and of course, others likely launching American offensives of our own.
This new battlespace is widely considered to be part of a new strategy commonly referred to as “hybrid warfare.” The basic tenants of hybrid warfare are fairly simple: it’s a blurring of the lines between conventional warfare, political and social manipulation, cyber efforts, and irregular warfare of the sort you might expect out of highly trained special operations troops. Russia used this approach in their 2014 military annexation of Crimea: combining fake news reports, social media manipulation efforts, public denials, mercenary forces and conventional soldiers in such a manner that allowed the Kremlin to actively deny what they were doing in the public sphere until it was too late. The world watched as Russia steamed into Ukraine, then they watched on TV as Russian officials like President Vladimir Putin said that they weren’t, and the ensuing confusion was enough to allow the hybrid “invasion” to carry on unabated.
This same method of taking action and then merely denying it has become the modus operandi for Russia’s more nefarious foreign policies all across the globe. There is no doubt that Russia played an active role in trying to affect the 2016 American presidential election, just as there’s no doubt that they attempted to elicit a heightening of social and racial tensions among the U.S. populous that year and since. However, their concerted and bold-faced denials of those acts are enough to sew the seed of doubt in the minds of many. Couple those denials with a very active social media manipulation infrastructure and a few state-owned media outlets that purport their efforts to be objective journalism (TASS, RT, Sputnik) and you have all the elements of a hybrid warfare campaign, short of the physical violence.
This trend forces us, as American voters, to consider how our nation is engaged with this (not exactly new, but growing) brand of warfare. If we agree that weaponizing information, hacking into secure elements of national infrastructure, working to manipulate the perceptions of the public and then denying their involvement are all elements of the hybrid warfare doctrine, then we have to accept the idea that warfare in the 21st century doesn’t always begin or end with kinetic operations and if we’re willing to take this broader definition of warfare to its logical extreme, then in some respects, a war with Russia is already raging. However, just like with their military operations in Crimea, we remain confused and uncertain as a people — watching Russia steam in, listening to them deny it, and staying steadfast in our disinterest of the complexity.