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The Cold War is over — we need a new playbook for Russia

NATO and the United States are failing to curb Russian aggression in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. By only using diplomatic forums, limited counter disinformation and continued economic aid to Ukraine while unilaterally engaging Russia, we are failing to meet the diversity of the effects of Russian aggression with our own diversity of deterrence.  

NATO is a security architecture that still operates with a Cold War mentality — awkwardly sustaining hard power while ignoring the impact of hybrid methodologies despite recognizing them. The answers are already known, but not acted upon: double-down on the cooperation of liberal-minded states and fight disinformation with accurate and credible information that discredits Moscow.  

Russia, of course, has been playing this game in Ukraine for some time. Hybrid warfare defies a single definition but consists of a state using multiple vectors of intelligence, information, cyber, conventional military and, at its core, political efforts to divide adversaries while avoiding open conflict. Hybrid warfare is indisputably how aggressor states subvert international stability, and states concerned with maintaining rules-based international order are not effectively responding to the threat that hybrid activities create.  

What then, are the ways to deter this escalating threat and offset the capacity for instability by the future use of hybrid mechanisms? The problem lies in both the complexity of the adversary’s capabilities and the old dictum of a legitimate, rules-based body confronting a totalitarian regime: When fighting against a ruthless adversary, the arena forces one to become just as inhumane and ruthless — in which case, how are we different? 

An important aspect that those abiding by rules-based order seem slow to realize and act upon is the aggressive use of exploitative information to discredit and isolate Russia. In short, credible, damning information is the inverse of disinformation. We live in a hyper-connected world where trust in legitimate institutions has wavered as a result of disinformation being used as a warfare activity. While intelligence activities have already shined a light on possible Russian false flags, to the surprise of no one concerned with the broader situation in Ukraine, it does not serve as fodder for delegitimizing Russian interference. 

Military and cyber capabilities employed to highlight Moscow’s activities in the public forum are a vector of countering hybrid strategy that doesn’t fall into the aforementioned dictum of becoming like the adversary. Exploiting a figurative and literal flank in the Arctic to create an inversion of the Ukraine crisis for Moscow remains one vector that offers potential, but the West has been slow to utilize that active theater. Electronic warfare, the effects of which include collection and intelligence gathering, as well as interference against existing architecture, remains yet another medium of deterrent power in which Russia enjoys an advantage but one where the Western alliance can and should invest resources to disrupt.   

While Russia moves across a variety of fronts to achieve political end-states (even if that iterative end state might simply be creating instability to justify intervention) the alliance remains reactive.  

Following the Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014, the U.S. bolstered economic aid and arms exports to Kyiv. Economic sanctions have been so overused as to no longer serve as meaningful. As Moscow massed conventional power at sovereign borders — conventional military power still matters — the United States called for a summit. Even while attempting to seize the information initiative by releasing intelligence reports about Russian false flag operations pretexting an invasion, Moscow summarily denied the reports amidst declining future dialogue on defusing tensions. The situation is not advanced or improved by wavering commentary that fails to decry Moscow’s aggression.  

Political solutions already exist — exemplified in the Pacific, where Japan is leading regional efforts to bolster collective security against Chinese aggression with the United States and Australia as key partners. It would be a mistake to immediately lob Beijing and Moscow into one monolith of counter-liberal power, but they should be viewed as similar, distinct problems with a common solution: unify the liberally minded states into a common front and make concerted efforts to reverse the effects of hybrid strategies.  

This isn’t a new concept; it’s simply being ignored. Indeed, the very basis of hybrid warfare seeks to disaggregate collective institutions that challenge authoritarianism near its borders. This thinking is precisely why Moscow has exploited its generous authorities under the Collective Security Treaty Organization; the CSTO essentially recreates the Eastern bloc of the Soviet era, allowing Russia to insulate itself from perceived Western encroachment.  

Rebuilding U.S. cohesion within the NATO and EU alliances is critical. These relations have been fractured further by the United States leading a unilateral approach to negotiations with Russia, largely excluding the rest of the alliance and Ukraine from the ineffective diplomatic process. The EU, whose presidency has recently been assumed by French leadership bent on reducing integration with the U.S., is hardly a cohesive unit capable of effectively deterring Russian aggression on the European continent. 

 Thus, an aggressive engagement to rebuild relationships and unity in the region — combined with actions that bolster democratic credibility, highlight unacceptable activities by aggressors and solidify the fragile status of the Atlantic alliance — are the obvious course forward. Yet it seems that the United States and NATO are failing to realize this reality before possible conflict breaks out. 

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.

Tags Disinformation Hybrid warfare Military NATO Political science Russo-Ukrainian War

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