The Weekly Standard

It’s an especially tense time for the Baltic states and Russia’s other Western-leaning neighbors. Wariness with regard to Vladimir Putin and long-term Russian intentions toward the “near abroad” has long been the norm here, well before the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia and Russian military action against Georgia in 2008. But with the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, general wariness has given way to focused concern about the new threat Russia poses.

Call it “hybrid war,” “unconventional conflict,” “political warfare,” or “little green men.” The sense is not only that Russia is now unwilling to abide by such twenty-first-century principles as “no changing borders by force,” but that Putin has developed sophisticated new methods of asserting power unconstrained by conventional notions of warfare and even the law of armed conflict between states.

As to whether “hybrid warfare” is really new, opinions differ. At the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Michael Kofman and Matthew Rojansky have written a short paper dismissing the utility of the concept, preferring to think in terms of “a combination of previously defined types of warfare, whether conventional, irregular, political or information.” General Ray Odierno, on the other hand, finds the concept useful, describing a hybrid threat as “a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace.” Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University says he would add to Odierno’s description “instruments including economic and financial acts, subversive political acts like creating or covertly exploiting trade unions and NGOs as fronts, or information operations using false websites and planted newspaper articles” as well as other “diplomatic and financial and information tools.”

All these elements were at play in Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which involved Russian soldiers in and out of uniform, covert border crossings, a bogus narrative in which ethnic Russians in Ukraine were in mortal danger, rigged elections, gun-running, grave threats, economic pressure, and serious atrocities, the biggest of which was blowing a civilian airliner out of the sky.

Valery Gerasimov, the Russian military chief of staff, published an article in early 2013 drawing attention to “a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. .  .  . The role of nonmilitary 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.”

You said it, Val. To be fair, the Russian view is that the United States is the master of this dark art of blurring lines; Russia is just catching up. But the cumulative impression coming out of Ukraine is of the emergence of an insidious and potentially unstoppable new mode of aggression.

In truth, it may be that the real novelty here is simply the return of aggression and conquest as such, at least to Europe. One thinks of the Bill Clinton-era scandal defense that “everyone lies about sex”: If your intention is to take a chunk of your neighbor’s territory by force, why wouldn’t you include in your plan blithely lying about your intentions and actions while playing for time, all the while making counterallegations that portray you as the real victim? The laws of war are the last thing states agree to before they decide to quit fighting each other altogether. Marquess of Queensberry rules are for suckers.

I would be all in favor of a Russian embrace of what the Obama administration likes to call “twenty-first-century norms.” In the absence of such a move, however, it’s time to get back to basics—which may turn “hybrid warfare” or “little green men” into a more manageable problem.

The most important issue here is not from the twenty-first century but the seventeenth: the sovereign power of states. The most basic test of sovereignty is a state’s ability to maintain a monopoly on the use of force in its territory. Not just the “legitimate” use of force, but something close to all forceful means that bear on the continuity of the state and its territorial integrity.

Criminal violence is not the concern. The objective of criminals is to keep what they steal, not to promote conditions in which no one has secure possession of anything; if they commit murder, it is not with the view that murder should be legal. Although order can break down if authorities lose control of criminal activity, in most cases, criminal violence is not political.

No, the violence that states must be effective in suppressing in order to exert sovereign authority is of two types: revolutionary violence at home and enemy intervention from abroad. This observation may help clarify what went wrong in Ukraine.

The sovereign power, within its borders, is a police power, not a military power. The correct response to the appearance of a little green man is not to bemoan the inability of conventional military power to cope with such a threat. It’s to arrest the little green man. More precisely, it’s to arrest the very first of the little green men, to prevent his establishment of a local sphere of control beyond the reach of the authorities.

This may not be a simple task, nor may it be possible without resort to violence. But it hardly defies summary: “Drop the gun and put your hands up.”

This was not well understood in Ukraine, whose problems were myriad. The Ukrainian police seem to exemplify the country’s estimable tradition of corruption, and it certainly does not appear that anyone gave much forethought to the problem of securing order from breakdown under various possible types of pressure. The generally nonviolent response of the national government to the Russian move in Crimea made a virtue of necessity, namely, the inability to coordinate an effective response in the first place. Nonviolent resistance may be a useful tactic for protesters in opposition to state authority, but when adopted by a state against a violent aggressor, it simply misconstrues the nature of state authority, which is the monopoly on violence.

Would a more assertive response in Crimea, had one been possible, have prevented the Russian takeover? Perhaps not. Putin seemed determined, and if it came to blows, the Russians had the advantage in military power. But the lessons of Crimea and eastern Ukraine have not been lost on others in the neighborhood.

I ended up at exactly the right place in Tallinn to get a sense of how Estonians are thinking about the problem. No, I was not visiting the Estonian Ministry of Defense. The military balance is important, of course. But Estonia is a NATO ally, and the United States and all other members are obliged under Article V of the NATO treaty to regard an attack on any of them as an attack on all of them. To that end, energetic defense planning is under way. The United States now has troops rotating through the Baltics, and the value of such tripwires as a caution to Russia can hardly be overstated. The question of how to defend the Baltics in the first days of a Russian military incursion, and in subsequent days and weeks, is one military planners are assessing. Their answer needs to be convincing, because the need for old-fashioned deterrence is at a 30-year high.

The place to discuss the “little green men” was the office of Estonia’s interior minister, Hanno Pevkur. He briefed me on a training exercise his special operations police units had conducted earlier that week. The scenario was a small number of individuals crossing the southeastern border into Estonia from Russia without permission. The police task was to find and apprehend them. The exercise was successful.

I asked, how many infiltrators? Unsurprisingly, Pevkur declined to give specifics. But he did note that large numbers crossing the border would be an invasion—and treated accordingly. In a “little green men” scenario, the first contingent over the border would likely be a small number seeking to probe resistance and establish sufficient control to allow more to stream across. That’s why the first contact is so important. Pevkur told me he had just returned from Washington, where he met with Department of Homeland Security officials to talk through capabilities and procedures for border monitoring and protection.

We also talked about such matters as ensuring that Estonia’s ethnic Russian population feels secure and appreciates the advantages in prosperity of living on the Western side of the Russian border—a key theme in conversations I’ve had with Estonia’s president, Toomas Ilves. This, too, is an important element in countering instruments of hybrid conflict.

One implication of the Gerasimov view is that threatening uncompliant neighbors is now a matter of doctrine: Every relationship Russia has is, in principle, a conflict calling for “blurring the lines” between peace and war in pursuit of “political and strategic goals.” It’s an ugly view, but it seems to be the vogue in Moscow these days. Countering it begins with understanding what sovereign authority means and its importance in maintaining a country of one’s own.