Between the Russian annexation of Crimea and Chinese incursions in the South China Sea, deniable interventions seem to be growing in popularity. The seemingly increasing prevalence of asymmetric warfare and deniable land grabs is generating untold amounts of angst within the academic and policymaking communities. Some scholars think that these forms of territorial expansion are novel approaches to foreign policy while others believe that “hybrid warfare” is nothing more than a modern twist on an age-old strategy. Moreover, there is much debate concerning how best to deter and defeat this increasingly popular strategy.
I firmly believe that Crimeaesque operations are nothing new. In fact, just within the past 100 years, this “hybrid warfare” strategy has been used three times to try to acquire land. The Pakistanis sent “volunteers” into the Kargil region of Kashmir, an area on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LoAC). While it is was widely known that these “Kashmiri insurgents” were simply Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan continued to assert that they were merely autonomous actors. In 1935, Peru also utilized irregular forces to capture the Colombian town of Leticia. Even the Fins have a history of using hybrid strategies to try to seize land. Right after the Russian Civil War, for example, Finland used deniable forces to capture Russian Karelia. Ultimately, the attacking forces failed every time because the countries being invaded fought back. The countries on the receiving end of these irregular tactics refused to play the game and treated the invasion like any other invasion. They defended their territory, and they won.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why everyone is so concerned about this new hybrid warfare. Hybrid tactics actually impose severe costs on the attacker. They can either send in understrength “partisans” or launch a conventional attack. States that use hybrid approaches clearly don’t want to risk full-on war, but their irregular soldiers are much easier to defeat because they lack the full power of a modern conventional military structure. This dilemma forces countries to make hard choices. Of course, an aggressor can escalate from hybrid to conventional approaches, but this comes with severe costs. For one, it makes it far easier for the defender to rally support. Hybrid warfare is just like any other type of warfare. Defenders must use deterrence and show a clear willingness to escalate. They must call the bluff of the attacker and force their hand because simply acquiescing effectively allows an attacker to seize territory with a weak, undersized force.
Hybrid warfare is not some brilliant tactical development. In fact, it is actually far easier to counter than traditional conventional war because defenders only need to be able to defeat a small, deniable force. This hurts countries like Russia, for example, because it means that even relatively weak countries like Estonia can beat back Russian aggression. Russia can launch a traditional invasion, of course, but then it is faced with the traditional deterrence problem: invade and fight NATO or withdraw. Hybrid warfare artificially weakens the attacker by limiting their options and diluting their combat power. While hybrid warfare has seen some success in Ukraine, that is only because Ukraine is too weak to defeat even limited numbers of Russian “little green men,” not because Russia has suddenly invented some unbeatable strategy. In short, I hope Russia continues to use irregular tactics because it just means they have developed another way to lose. They can either embarrass themselves by being defeated in a one on one contest with Lithuania, or they can be humiliated by the overwhelming might of NATO. Either way, Russia ends up on the bottom. Putin’s strategy is not half as smart as many give him credit for; his current opponents are just weaker and more incompetent than most.