In war studies, one can distinguish between the futurists on the one side and the traditionalists on the other: those holding that everything in today’s wars is new versus those holding that what happens today has already been seen in history, albeit in different guises. Within the debate between these two camps the question persists, whether so-called hybrid war is war at all, whether we even need the ‘hybrid’ label, and whether we should not just focus on kinetic large scale warfare and allow the minor stuff to function as a safety valve to release tension. The traditionalists are certainly right in some ways: there is nothing new about competition and conflict under the threshold of large scale political violence and there is no need to call it war. Yet, the futurists are right too. The size and scale of hybrid campaigns under the threshold of large scale political violence are of a different nature today due to globalisation and progressive digitalisation, which have opened up new ways to project power and to wreak havoc on one’s opponent.
The Russia-Ukraine war has major implications for the prospect of hybrid threats in the 2020s. The onset of one of the largest interstate wars in Europe since the Second World War might suggest we should gear up and prepare for large scale war only, rather than to ponder smaller, hybrid, challenges. Indeed, NATO is well advised to ramp up its conventional forces, beef up its strength, replenish its stocks, increase readiness, and enhance mobility. Because if we do not, the opponent might come through the so-called front door. But once we secure this front door, it is likely that opponents will try to come in through the back door. And we have seen how cyber strategic actors can target vital infrastructures from afar; manipulate public discourses and undermine democratic decision-making processes at scale and with speed. Hybrid strategies can be expected to stick around in this era of Persistent Confrontation.
What does this mean for NATO?
In his latest contribution, Dr. Tim Sweijs argues that NATO must shift from deterrence by reinforcement to deterrence by denial posture at the same time as it further develops its counter hybrid posture.
Dr. Sweijs’contribution to the seminar ‘The Madrid Summit and the Future of NATO at The Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI)’ can be read here.
Author: Tim Sweijs, with special thanks to Mattia Bertolini.