Studying Russia’s hybrid warfare

The University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute has produced new research results on the best ways to counter the threat of Russian hybrid warfare. The research is funded by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office.

Russian hybrid warfare has become a central concern in European security policy. Hybrid warfare involves several different forms of warfare, such as disinformation, to reach strategic goals.

In a research project carried out at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute, researchers generated new empirical data on Russia’s strategic thinking and methods of hybrid warfare as well as ways to counteract these hybrid threats. The project was funded by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The research results are intended to support security policy in Finland and in other EU member states, in addition to which the project participates in the development of international strategic research. In addition to University of Helsinki researchers, the project involved experts on Russia, security policy researchers as well as strategic research experts from the US, the UK, Germany and Norway. The principal investigators are PhD Hanna Smith and PhD Bettina Renz.

Hybrid warfare cannot explain everything

The concept of hybrid warfare alone is insufficient for estimating and explaining Russia’s foreign, security and defence policy or their causes and effects.

According to Hanna Smith, postdoctoral researcher, the concept of hybrid warfare is now spoken of in more measured terms  and paired with other hybrid threats and operations.

“In the recommendations in our final report we proposed that hybrid warfare cannot be used as a catch-all to explain nearly every political move in Russia. If the concept is employed too broadly, it is likely to do more harm than good when we evaluate and analyse Russia’s behaviour and consider how to react,” says Hanna Smith.

“If every statement and measure is attributed to hybrid warfare, we will be unable to recognise real acts of hybrid warfare when they do take place,” she continues.

The information produced by the researchers has had great impact, and the study has garnered international interest. The first report from the project was highlighted on the front page of NATO’s Strategic Communications and cited in many international sources, including

“We happened to hit the perfect point in public discussion after the events in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, when the world wanted to know what was happening.”

Russia as a superpower

While the underlying factors and motivations for propaganda and information operations are similar to what they were before, the global environment has changed. The aim is to create mental images that lead people to challenge regional stability and order. It is now possible to share and influence communication in nanoseconds.

A particular challenge for research is to highlight larger patterns in a time where the meaning of a single headline or tweet can become tremendously inflated.

In the report, the researchers emphasise the way Russia is often spoken of as an omnipotent power, with the West practically powerless to oppose it.

When not explicitly justified, Smith claims that such rhetoric can influence politics and the general atmosphere. Consequently, negotiations with Russia are often based more on perceptions than on facts.

Russia has strengths and weaknesses

An especially interesting facet of the study is its explanation of the discussion and rhetoric around Russia.

Smith calls for transparency and an analytical approach in a broader context regarding both Russia’s strengths and its weaknesses. This means no emotional comparisons between Russia and the seemingly divided west or the diminutive Finland.

“Of course it is an indisputable fact that we share 1,300 kilometres of border with Russia, and Russia will always use its military might to ensure its superpower status. However, these things do not mean that Russia is a threat that we cannot manage.”

International collaboration

Cooperation and the exchange of ideas in the multidisciplinary research team was excellent.

“The international research team became very interested in Finland’s foreign and security policy as well as its history,” says Hanna Smith, postdoctoral researcher.

This can also be seen as one of the benefits of the project: Finland gained an exceptionally high level of expertise, while bringing issues in its foreign and security policy into international contexts.

“All in all, I believe we were highly successful, considering that the project was specifically designed and arranged around a piece of information that was missing,” says Smith.

“It would naturally be interesting to develop more methods which we could use to verify the social impact of our research project in a broader sense than just measuring media hits, expert appearances or downloads of the final report,” muses Smith.

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