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Hybrid Wars in Post-Soviet Spaces as a Challenge to the West

Iulianna Romanchyshyna wrote “Hybrid Wars in Post-Soviet Spaces as a Challenge to the West” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave former Soviet Republics the chance to devise their own foreign policy based on what are commonly understood as key Western values. However, in Russia, the post-Soviet decades have also produced a great deal of nostalgia. The fall of the Soviet Union has not only been seen as one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the century as Vladimir Putin put it, but also an enormous personal drama for many Russians.

Michael A. McFaul, a former United States (US) ambassador to Russia, has noted how the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite many initial hopes, led neither to a smooth transition to democracy in Russia, nor to Russian integration into Western political institutions. (1) In fact, Russia has continued to regard post-Soviet spaces as a region of special interest. It has also demanded that others respect this view.

Moscow sees closer ties between post-Soviet states and the West as a threat to its authority in the region. It considers the tightening of such ties to be an attempt by Western states to weaken Russia’s standing in global affairs. Vladimir Putin and other top-level officials have repeatedly made this clear. In reference to the recent events in Ukraine, the head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev, framed the troubles in the country as a US initiative that is part of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy Russia. (2) The fact that post-Soviet states have started to establish closer economic and political ties with the West has also been taken as a threat to Russian internal policy.

Russia has been faced with the reality of independent post-Soviet politics, and especially the prospect of policies that are oriented toward the European Union (EU). Many Russian policymakers see a further Westernization of Eastern Europe as a significant risk to its national interests. It views this process as a provocation, and, in turn, provokes more confrontation with the West.

It has recently become evident that the three independent post-Soviet countries of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have become targets of Russian aggression in its self-directed battle against the West encroaching on territory it deems part of its sphere of influence.

The maintenance and expansion of that sphere has run into difficulties. These include the geopolitical status quo, the sovereignty of states to determine their own internal and external policy, and the constraints of international law. On top of these difficulties, Russia also finds itself limited by an economy that is highly dependent on gas and oil exports to European markets. As such, a deterioration of economic relations with the West has unfavorable consequences.

The solution to maintaining or tightening control in post-Soviet space while avoiding open confrontation with the West was found in the implementation of the “hybrid war,” a novel kind of warfare that encompasses a number of complex actions aimed at exerting influence on an independent country in order to achieve specific political goals. Russia’s hybrid warfare has allowed it to effectively distance itself from conflicts it has helped to create or reinforced and to justify its actions whenever necessary.

Hybrid War as a Novel Concept and its Understanding in Russian Military Doctrine

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion on the evolution of contemporary warfare. It has become possible to simultaneously employ a variety of strategies that are of both a conventional and unconventional nature. After all, the distinctive feature of a hybrid war is that it is not limited to the traditional battlefield or to the use of heavy weapons and military operations.

Instead, it combines different types of battlefields in a variety of domains, such as cyberspace, economics and diplomacy among others. As Frank Hoffman puts it, hybrid warfare “blurs the distinction between war and peace, and combatants and non-combatants.” (3) It can be characterized by cooperation with proxies and local criminals, who are trained, equipped, and financed to carry out the “job” that regular military units would otherwise complete. To reach people instantaneously, this strategy makes extensive use of propaganda, misinformation, and the manipulation of facts. Hybrid wars thus enable the real aggressor to distance itself from a conflict and to achieve strategic objectives without appearing directly involved.

The concept of hybrid warfare is not a new one. Some of its features can be seen in different military conflicts throughout history. It has repeatedly discussed by diplomats, military officials, and scholars across the globe. Nevertheless, earlier examples of hybrid wars did not reflect the kind of “multi-dimensionality, operational integration and exploitation of the information domain to the degree we see today.” (4)

Thus, contemporary forms of hybrid warfare indeed pose a challenge to long-standing military doctrines. As it continuously evolves alongside our societal and technological developments, it can be difficult to formulate an adequate response to it.

Russians have acknowledged this new reality. Consider this statement by the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov:

“The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and in many cases they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures – applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population. All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces. The open use of forces – often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation – is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.” (5)

Though Gerasimov was referring to the lessons of the “Arab Spring,” he very well could have been speaking about Russia’s approaches in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Russian Involvement in Conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine

Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine became sovereign states after the collapse of the USSR. The fact that these countries found themselves squeezed between two geopolitical realities significantly complicated the task of devising independent approaches to their foreign affairs. These countries had to engage in a balancing act. Ultimately, they ended up looking toward the EU. In 2014, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine took a big step toward closer ties with Brussels, by signing the Ukraine-EU Association Agreements in an attempt to create a framework for cooperation in areas such as the development of political, social, cultural, trade, and security links.

However, this process was met by significant resistance from Russia. In the early 1990s, the country had already started to use elements of hybrid war in Moldova and Georgia, namely by financing and providing military assistance to separatists in the regions of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. This resulted in permanent peacekeeping troops in Transnistria that put pressure on Moldova, and a Russian-Georgian war in 2008. In Ukraine, Russia employed a full spectrum of hybrid war techniques, which started with repeated energy disputes in 2005, and resulted in the recent military confrontations.

There were certain factors beyond geographical proximity that made these countries vulnerable to Russian hybrid attacks. These included a certain level of sympathy for Russia among the population, economic and energy dependence on the country, and Russian military bases within Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Crimea. Russia effectively exploited each of these factors.

Hybrid warfare strategies do not follow a single recipe for gaining influence. In some cases Russia aided the establishment of de-facto independent states such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donetsk, and the Luhansk People’s Republic, other times Moscow has annexed territories, as in the case of Crimea. Another scenario, and one that did not prove to be particularly successful, was support for a puppet central government. This strategy failed in Ukraine, where the Maidan Revolution forced Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president at the time, to flee. A further approach is diplomatic pressure for federalization, which is currently on trial in Moldova and Ukraine. This could enable Russian proxies in Transnistria, Donetsk, and Luhansk to act as a “fifth column” in relation to the Moldovan and Ukrainian governments. They would be able to oppose any further Western integration, thereby maintaining and reinforcing Russian influence.

Hybrid War as Information War

The importance of information warfare, as a key element of contemporary hybrid wars, can scarcely be overstated. At times, this information component has played a role equal in significance to that of military operations.

Information warfare takes place on several fronts, within the target country’s populace, among citizens of the aggressor state, and also in the international community. The specific feature of Russian information warfare is enabled by the fact that in Russia, media resources are subordinate to the state. Critics risk persecution or worse. According to the Global Campaign for Free Expression, Russia’s main newspapers, radio, and television stations are owned either by the government or companies with close ties to Russian authorities. (6) The measurements of press freedom in Russia paint a devastating picture: the country’s score places it 148th out of 166 countries, according to the World Press Freedom Index. (7) Freedom House, on the other hand, places it 83rd out of 100 countries. (8) Government control over media ensures the dissemination of officials’ views on a massive scale.

Myths are a powerful tool of information warfare. Myths can generate popular support and forge unity in the name of countering the external threat. Russian government media like to portray their country as under attack by outside forces.

In the case of Moldova and Ukraine, this threat was the West’s geopolitical “game” and the spread of Nazi ideology. Gerasymchuk explains that in the case of Transnistria, the main emphasis of Kremlin propaganda was the Romanian threat. In Donbas, the propagandists were more creative. They frightened local inhabitants with warnings about NATO weapons and the “immoral values” of contemporary Europe. In Moldova, people in Transnistria were warned that they would immediately join Romania and they would suffer discrimination at the hands of “Nazi Romanians.” Likewise, the population of Donbas was intimidated by threats that the region’s Russian-speaking inhabitants would be forcibly “Ukrainized” by “Nazi Ukrainians” (the so-called “Banderas” (9)). (10) In Georgia, Russian propaganda claimed that massive atrocities had been committed by Georgian military units during the conflict in South Ossetia. Propagandists made use of the term “genocide” in public speeches and newspaper articles, prompting the local population of the conflict zone to treat Russians troops as saviors and peacekeeping units.

The main goal of information warfare is to undermine the credibility of the government within the population of the targeted state. One can see this tactic in Ukraine, which Russian mass media usually portrays as a failed state, unable to cope with the deep economic and political crises it faces. In the international community, on the other hand, information war techniques are usually focused on manipulating facts and presenting them in such a way that distances the aggressor from the conflict or justifies it as a third party carrying out peacekeeping operations.

Again, today’s Ukraine illustrates some of these moves. Russian media portrays what is happening there as a “civil war” and a “crisis.” Surprisingly, European media also picked up on this narrative in the very beginning, demonstrating that information warfare can be surprisingly successful. As an example of manipulation of facts to justify actions, Russia significantly exaggerated the number of deaths among civilians during the Georgia-South Ossetia military confrontation, in order to intrude as a “peacekeeper.” (11) This created a more positive image of Russia in the international community and went towards legitimizing its military intervention in an independent state, which resulted in even more deaths and destruction.

Hybrid War as Economic Conflict

The situation in the post-Soviet space is still characterized by post-Soviet countries’ significant economic dependence on Russia, which is explained by a common past where all Socialist Republics in the Soviet Union were economically dependent on Russia as the center for decision-making. Although the republics gained political independence, their industries still have strong ties with Russia. Russia uses this to influence these countries’ political course.

In retaliation for Moldova and Georgia edging closer to the EU in 2006, Russia suspended the imports of Moldovan and Georgian wine, both were to key to the countries’ economies. For instance, before the ban, Russia accounted for over 80 percent of total wine exports from Moldova. (12) This decision was adopted on the grounds of an alleged breach of sanitary standards. The ban on Moldovan wines was soon lifted and re-imposed again in 2013 at the time of Moldova’s negotiations on the Association Agreement with the EU. For Georgia, the ban was suspended only prior to Russian accession to the WTO to secure Georgian consent to its membership. It is noteworthy that Moldovan and Georgian wines had not been banned for sanitary reasons in any other countries at that time. Russia used this justification to pressure the Moldovan and Georgian governments.

Similar trade restrictions as a tool of economic warfare can be seen in Ukraine. In 2013, the Russian Sanitary Service banned imports of ‘Roshen’ confectionary alongside a number of Ukrainian producers of meat, dairy, and steel products. Furthermore, Russia’s Federal Customs Service included all Ukrainian importers on its “list of risk.” The political motivation of such actions was laid bare in an interview with Sergei Glaziev, adviser to Vladimir Putin on the Customs Union, a regional bloc designed by Russia as an alternative to the European Free Trade Area: “We are preparing to tighten customs procedures if Ukraine suddenly makes this suicidal step of signing the EU Association Agreement.” (13)

The same tendencies can be observed in the oil and gas markets, which Russia frequently uses to exert economic pressure.

Denying Involvement in the Conflict

Hybrid warfare allows the aggressor to effectively distance itself from the conflict by portraying the intervention as an internal conflict. There is a paradox here: In Moldova and Ukraine, violent clashes resulted in de-facto losses of state sovereignty over secessionist regions. Even though it had instigated these conflicts, Moscow was able to join ceasefire talks, playing the role of peacemaker. (14) Denying involvement in the conflict is a very convenient tactic, since the position of a third party observer allows greater space for movement while maintaining good relations with the rest of the international community.

Since the start of the conflict in Crimea to the complications in Donbas, Russia has consistently denied its involvement. Instead, it blamed Ukrainian authorities for their unwillingness and inability to take into account the interests of local people, thus leading to separatism. Russia continues to insist on this position despite significant evidence, including video and audio material, satellite images, and witness testimony, that Russia backed proxies, providing advanced weaponry, including tanks, heavy artillery and armored vehicles. Russian troops deployed to the territory have concealed their identities. They have used unmarked uniforms. The media has called them “little green men.” When some have been caught red-handed on Ukrainian territory, Russian authorities have insisted that they are “volunteers.”

Misinterpretation of International Law

One of the main features of hybrid war is that actual military confrontation is usually a last resort in the range of possible options. Here, too, the Russians have provided clues.

Gerasimov states that “the open use of forces is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.” (15) However, even if regular military troops were to invade the territory of an independent state, they would always be accompanied by an array of diplomatic actions and arguments referencing international law in order to legally justify or legitimize the actions.

When sending troops to Georgia and Ukraine, Russian officials have insisted that these have been “peacekeeping operations” or “humanitarian interventions.” The evidence to back up these claims is scarce. First, there was no authorization from either the international community nor a particular state party related to the conflict. Separatists exempted since they lack international recognition or sovereign status. Russia also failed to present undisputed evidence of the mass murder of a civilian population and as it can be seen from further events, its military intervention led to even greater humanitarian costs.

Russia has also frequently insisted on the need to “protect Russian citizens abroad.” It has typically relied on a broad interpretation of the concept of “self-defense” under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, based on the idea that citizens abroad are part of a country’s population and thus entitled to protection.

However, such an interpretation does not meet the requirements of Article 2(4), which states that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” Moreover, Russia has proven willing to create such populations of Russian citizens abroad artificially by way of granting Russian citizenship to residents of post-Soviet countries.


The end of the Cold War has transformed the world and that includes international relations. But tensions between the world’s major players remain. The recent manifestation of this shift is the clash between the West and the Russian Federation in Eastern Europe and in the Caucasus. These territories have historically been under Russian influence.

Events in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, and former Soviet Republics now seeking closer ties with the West, demonstrate Russia’s ability to adopt different methods to impose its influence abroad. It extensively uses the methods of hybrid warfare to advance its political goals in the region. At the same time, this allows Moscow to avoid being seen as the aggressor on the international stage.

The distinctive feature of hybrid warfare is its multidimensional nature and the fact that it may take different form all in parallel. These could include media and trade channels that are used to exploit a target state’s internal and external vulnerabilities.

Western countries position themselves as democratic, progressive champions of human rights and the international legal order. But as yet they are proving helpless in the face of Russia’s willingness to appropriate these concepts in the service of its own Realpolitik. Hybrid warfare makes defense planning harder. It requires the revision of military doctrines and a greater focus on non-military threats. The West also needs to go beyond political rhetoric and provide real help in reducing existing vulnerabilities in the countries facing Moscow’s hybrid pressure. 

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About the Author 

Iulianna Romanchyshyna is a Master’s Student at the World Trade Institute at the University of Bern. She previously worked as a lawyer at Ernst & Young in Ukraine. Romanchyshyna also participated in various youth projects with Youth in Action and AEGEE and took part in the program “Youth Will Change Ukraine,” where she researched anti-corruption policy and the system of international relations in Norway.


Romanchyshyna, Iulianna. “Hybrid Wars in Post-Soviet Spaces as a Challenge to the West" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 112-121. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


The author and editor thank Dr. Elidor Mëhilli and Djeyhoun Ostowar for their dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. Michael A. McFaul, “Confronting Putin’s Russia,” The New York Times, Mar. 23, 2014, accessed Apr. 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/opinion/confronting-putins-russia.html?_r=0.

2. Nikolay Patrushev, “Behind the destabilization of Ukraine lies the attempt of radical weakening of Russia, interview by Elena Chernenko,” Komersant ru, June 22, 2015, accessed Apr. 14, 2016, http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2752250.

3. Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007), 7.

4. Ibid, 35.

5. Вaлерий Герасимов, “Ценность науки в предвидении”, Военно-примышленный курьер, 8 (476), Feb. 27, 2013.

6. Article 19, Written Comments of ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression Concerning the Review of the Sixth Periodic Report of the Russian Federation, Sept. 2009, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ad824900.html.

7. Reporters without Borders, World Press Freedom Index 2014, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://index.rsf.org/#!/.

8. Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2015, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/report/ freedom-press/2015/Russia.

9. Named after Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian independence movements in the 1930s. After the 1940s, the concept of “Banderas” was used to refer to all Ukrainian nationalism. The name “Banderas” was used most often by Soviet and, later, Russian propaganda in a negative way, as a synonym of Ukrainian Nazism and a threat of Russian imperialism.

10. Sergiy Gerasymchuk, “Frozen Conflict in Moldova’s Transnistria: A Fitting Analogy to Ukraine’s Hybrid War?,”Atlantic Council, Sept. 1, 2015, accessed Sept. 6, 2015, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/ blogs/new-atlanticist/frozen-conflict-in-moldova-s-transnistria-a-fitting-analogy-to-ukraine-s-hybrid-war.

11. Russia claimed the number of deaths among civilians amounted to 2,000, while Human Rights Watch confirmed only 162 civilian deaths and 300-400 total casualties. See: Human Rights Watch, Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations and Civilian Victims in the Conflict over South Ossetia, Jan. 23, 2009, accessed Aug. 6, 2015, www.hrw.org/report/2009/01/23/flames/humanitarian-law-violations-and-civilian-victims-conflict-over-south.

12. “Assessing Competitiveness in Moldova’s Economy: A study conducted for USAID,” July 2004, assessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pnadc977.pdf.

13. Nikolaj Nielsen, “Ukraine and Russia on path of trade war over EU pact,” EU Observer, Aug. 19, 2013, accessed Aug. 6, 2015, euobserver.com/foreign/121146.

14. Gerasymchuk, “Frozen Conflict”.

15. Герасимов, “Ценность науки в предвидении”.

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