Hybrid influencing is a grey zone between war and peace – how to resist it?

Information technology and our dependence on it expose us to cyberattacks in an entirely new way.

In September 2012, Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astahov asked on Twitter whether Finland should be declared unsafe for foreign families with children. Officially, Astahov was concerned about a custody case in Vantaa targeted at the children of a Russian national.

The commissioner proposed the establishment of a family commission, a new bilateral cooperative body for Finland and Russia, which could in the future solve custody cases and disputes.

Innocent concern for the safety of children? Anything but, according to Hanna Smith, Director of Strategic Planning and Responses of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

“It was a hybrid operation, the actual goal of which was to get Finland to compile and disclose a register of Russian citizens living in Finland,” Smith assesses.

“Similar operations were being conducted in Norway, the Czech Republic and France, all with the same aim.”

In all cases, the operations were foiled either by direct denial or by burying the matter beneath vague promises.


“Hybrid operations aim to influence the internal affairs of other states without resorting to direct use of force,” explains Jarna Petman, a docent of international law at the University of Helsinki.

Methods used may include propaganda and support offered to extremist movements, hoarding of sensitive information, cyberattacks and hacking. Hacking in particular has the potential to damage a multitude of functions from authorities to banks. Modern societies are reliant on well-functioning web connections.

“In 2007, during the Bronze Soldier uproar, Estonia was targeted with a web attack that paralysed the entire country. For example, it was impossible to call for an ambulance, and online banking services were down,” Petman notes.

The identity of the aggressor was never definitely ascertained.

Hybrid threats often comprise simultaneous actions in many different quarters. In the absence of an agent with a specific agenda readily identifying as the perpetrator, the objectives of such actions must often be independently deduced.

The email hacking related to the presidential election in the United States has been thought to originate in Russia’s desire to weaken the prospects of Hillary Clinton, the nominee of the Democratic Party. The goals of the Russian hackers are known only to themselves – and perhaps to those who commissioned the hacking.


Russia is often mentioned in connection with hybrid and cyber threats. Hanna Smith is an experienced scholar of Russia herself, who transferred to her current position from the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki, focused on the study of Russia and Eastern Europe. Yet, Russia does not have the monopoly in hybrid influencing.

In 2002, troops from the Royal Moroccan Navy landed on Perejil Island, a part of Spain located off the coast of Morocco. The official explanation for the landing was the prevention of illegal immigration. Media in Northern Africa had already earlier highlighted views according to which an island off the coast of Morocco belonging to Spain was a historical injustice. The Spanish military captured the Moroccan troops who did not offer resistance.

It was likely that Morocco was mostly hoping for a renewed debate on the island’s ownership.

“In most cases, international treaties are the result of compromise. Underdogs usually consider the act of getting to the negotiating table to be a small victory in its own right,” Smith explains.


Proper hybrid operations are only rarely carried out by Western nations, but it is likely that cyberattacks are part and parcel of their toolbox as well. For example, in 2009 and 2010, attacks by the Stuxnet virus were detected in the information systems of Iran’s nuclear power plants. The tracks led to Israel, but many believe the United States was the virus’s country of origin.

Why has hybrid influencing become such a central issue in the 2010s? According to experts, there are many reasons.

“Information technology and our dependence on it expose us to cyberattacks in an entirely new way,” Smith says.

In cyberattacks, the risks are small and finding the guilty party is difficult. On the other hand, they have the potential to cause a great deal of damage.

“The use of social media has also predisposed the West to information influencing in a new manner.”


The changing trends of world politics also have an effect on the increase in invisible threats.

“Ever since the Cold War ended, the world order has been in a state of agitation of sorts. Various parties are seeking to boost their influence and stature. One way to achieve this is to sow general confusion and mistrust,” Smith assesses.

Jarna Petman emphasises that the threshold for traditional warfare is becoming increasingly higher.

“The use of armed force is sanctioned by international treaties. Getting caught in the act easily results in isolation and other problems, which is why softer measures for achieving one's objectives may be more attractive.”

A globalised world is made up of increasingly far-reaching networks. According to Professor Aki Huhtinen, an expert in information warfare at the National Defence University, there are few isolated pockets in the world.

“While we used to have crisis areas and peaceful regions, the increased interconnectivity of the world has increasingly blurred the boundaries between war and peace. A single military conflict can plunge the stock market into chaos across the globe.”

The key to hybrid threats seems to be that the situation is not really under anyone’s control. Hybrid factors sometimes encroach on the battlefield as well.

“The crisis in Afghanistan is quite a hybrid entity in itself, comprised of financial, military, ideological and religious interests. It may influence, say, elections across the globe,” Huhtinen says.


How to fend off ambiguous threats?

“One significant protective measure is information,” Smith says.

In Huhtinen’s opinion, clarifying the roles of socially active parties and considering collaborative reactions to international events are essential.

“In addition to traditional defence, the National Defence Forces in Finland are currently putting emphasis on international crisis management and relief activities. Preparedness for all related eventualities must be sufficient.”

After the occupation of Crimea, legislation concerning national defence was amended in Finland. Before, the Finnish National Defence Forces had the right to repel organised attacks, but now even ambiguous situations would make it possible to mobilise the armed forces, if need be.

“Of course, the new intelligence legislation is an important factor. Its enactment is justified from the perspective of preventing threats, but it may come extremely close to curbing constitutional rights. The law can be considered successful if we are able to trust in the fairness of those in power,” Petman estimates.

“Only in constitutional states where decision-makers and authorities are accountable for their actions can we be sure that they are using the mandate bestowed on them in an appropriate manner.”


Director of Strategic Planning and Responses at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Expert in Russian affairs.


Professor of International Law at the University of Helsinki. Expert in human rights.


Professor at the National Defence University, Docent of Social and Moral Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Expert in information warfare.

Observing European hybrid threats

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats launched operations in 2017. The centre has 18 member states and a team of about twenty permanent employees. One half of its budget is covered by Finland, the other by the rest of the member states.

The centre’s goal is to compile information acquired and research conducted in the member states. It trains member state officials and promotes cooperation between the EU and NATO in hybrid affairs.

Hanna Smith, the centre’s research director, highlights the importance of networking. The goal is to establish a network of European researchers to identify hybrid threats together.

The centre has published a number of analyses on various forms of hybrid threats. In the summer, a report on the Finnish capital’s potential weaknesses related to hybrid threats was completed in collaboration with the City of Helsinki.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/09/18 issue of Yliopisto magazine. 

What is a hybrid threat?

Hybrid influencing means a range of measures targeted at another party from several directions with the aim of unbalancing them. Such measures include information warfare, cyberattacks and clandestine military operations. Hybrid activities can be described as a grey area between war and peace. Their objective is to override the other party’s sovereignty, most often, however, without direct use of force.