In the attempt to respond to these questions, Dr. Thomas Peak, former Research Associate at Cambridge University and now Researcher at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science (Vilnius University) offers us a commentary about the notion of “hybrid war” and the war in Ukraine.

– Social scientists, experts, and even traditional militaries seem to have a varying notion of “hybrid war”. What is the scope of activities under this term? Are there any key differences in how this term is perceived by different countries or states?

– ‘Hybrid war’ is indeed a broad term. We can find all sorts of practices described in this way. Principally they can be divided into two general categories. On the one hand, hybrid war is used to describe the combination of formal ‘hard’ military power with the plethora of other resources available to a state to achieve their objectives in armed conflict. These resources can include those from the economic, technological, and cultural spheres, to take a few. An example might be the extensive efforts that occupying forces invest into the ‘winning of hearts and minds’. In a way this is quite intuitive. Many (if not most) wars will be ‘hybrid’ in this sense. Indeed, historians have traced this type of hybrid war at least as far back as the Peloponnesian War.

The second understanding of ‘hybrid war’ refers to a broad range of competitive practices between hostile states, outside of ‘traditional’ war. The best known examples will be such things as cyber attacks, assassinations, ‘dark’ propaganda such as ‘fake news’ and election interference, certain forms of espionage. In this understanding it can be really quite broad: arms embargoes and arms supplies, energy, trade, and even cultural policies, even fights between gangs of football hooligans can be ‘hybrid war’. And especially in this part of the world, in the Baltic Sea region, it is only a few months ago that we saw some very new developments stemming from the horrendous policies of the government in Belarus. By inviting desperate people from the Kurdish regions of Iraq to Europe under false pretenses – then forcibly pushing them across the border with Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia, they were widely said to be pursuing ‘hybrid war’ in response to the European sanctions targeting the regime. And for sure, this was not only a significant diplomatic provocation, but more than anything it was a terrible abuse of human rights.

All of these practices feel threatening. The hybrid war label really sums this up. They make us feel under attack and to feel as if we need some kind of strong defense besides the usual diplomatic toolkit, even a ‘war like’ response. Yet there is a difficulty with the extension of this language to cover such practices. As despicable, dangerous, and even lethal as many of these practices are – for sure, they oftentimes more closely resemble terrorist violence than anything – conceiving of them as a form of ‘war’ can blur the already strained dividing lines between war and ‘non-war’. This is a real difficulty, and it might pose critical questions for political and other leaders when they choose to frame issues in this way.

– Since the invasion began, the Ukrainian authorities launched an “IT Army of Ukraine”, which has been carrying out cyber-attacks on Russian targets. Russian sports and cultural icons were shunned by the rest of the world. In addition, the role of private companies increased: SpaceX, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta, Apple, and Twitter are fighting the cyber war against Russia. How to define the scope and participants of the hybrid war? What impact does it have on the broader international relations?

– These are all important developments. Within the context of the hybrid war in Ukraine I think it is obvious that – between Russia and the west – this can be seen as a kind of evolving proxy-hybrid war. The scope and participants of such a conflict becomes extremely challenging to define. Of course, global public opinion becomes a significant factor – to an extent that we are all participants.

And speaking of the wider impact on international relations, this could be very significant. The war in Ukraine has deepened (and strongly reflects) a fundamental crisis in world order. It is pretty much uncontested by scholars that the liberal world order is in crisis. The system of institutions and global agreements centered around the United States and based on openness, the rule of law, and multilateral cooperation is in transition. Now, to describe this transition as a crisis should not be taken to imply that any and all challenges to the status quo are to be feared or rejected. States and peoples in the global ‘periphery’, a great many of them desperately impoverished, are increasingly demanding that their voices, too, should be heard, that their interests also be taken into account by those who ‘make the rules’. And for too long the ‘international community’ has spread the benefits of this order too narrowly.

Yet, the challenge coming both from authoritarian states – Russia and China most of all – and illiberal political currents within the domestic political structures of the liberal order’s core states – just look at the UK’s leadership – threatens the very foundations of international order, at just the time when the world is facing global challenges that can only be solved through cooperative action. This is one important way to view the Russian war on Ukraine. Encouraged by apparent division between the leading states of the West, and especially by the humiliating military defeat of the US at the hands of the Taliban, Russia saw an opportunity to extend their sphere of influence and to place themselves in a position of strength for the coming more fractured international order. It is obvious that this has not gone well. The level unity and resolve displayed by the US and many European partners, in supporting Ukrainian military forces on the battlefield and in isolating Russia economically and politically, was not expected. This said, it is still too early to definitively say how the conflict will end, and whether these levels of commitment will continue. There are many uncertainties, and additional shocks could also come from renewed escalation in the Indo-Pacific, most likely over the sovereignty of Taiwan. In the short term, however, the global condemnation of Russia’s illegal war of aggression and the degree to which ‘international society’ have aligned themselves behind the US and Europeans indicates that the appeal of the authoritarian model presented by regimes such as China and Russia might not be as attractive as previously thought.

It remains to be seen how this crisis of international order will resolve itself. There is a long way to go. But the war in Ukraine is undoubtably an important moment. We at least have a fighting chance that the better inclinations of humankind will win through, and that an open, democratic, cooperative, and free international society will be preserved in some form.

– How is the war in Ukraine, modifying, our latest interpretation of “hybrid” wars? Has the notion changed?

– One thing that intensified war in Ukraine has certainly done is to remind us that large-scale kinetic war is not a thing of the past. We have not, unfortunately, reached the End of History. Many Western publics especially have grown ‘comfortable’ (or rather ‘numb’) to living with a state of perpetual warfare. Decades of fighting in the ‘grey space’ overseas, through counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism, combined with an increased terrorist threat in Europe itself and a gradual notching up of militarism at home have muddied our perceptions of what exactly a war is; at least so far as ‘we’ are concerned. This could be one reason that war in Ukraine is so deeply shocking. The problem that I spoke about previously, that the very broad idea of ‘hybrid war’ could lead us to sleep walk over the line towards a ‘traditional’ war is a live one. The stakes are so very high. At the moment, in the context of Ukraine, it seems as if red-lines – drawn either by Russia or NATO – are fairly well understood and have not been crossed by either side. But the fact of experiencing such a real, kinetic war – on the borders of the European Union, no less – might have the effect of modifying how we see ‘war and peace’.

– We have been witnessing increasing competition between the EU and China in the field of cyber security, AI and development of digital technologies in the recent decades. While it might be still too early to talk about that, could you please share your initial insights on “lessons learned” by other countries? Could we expect any strategic changes in the positions of the key actors and if yes, what kind of changes?

– There is indeed an enormous amount of competition, but also of continued cooperation. I think that societies in the west will be more attuned to the risks – as well as the economic benefits – of working with dangerous authoritarian regimes, especially in sensitive areas such as energy and technology. The ‘whole of society’ implications of hybrid war (or war in general) is being amply demonstrated by the energy crisis that reliance on Russian supplies has facilitated. Is it sensible to continue allowing Chinese firms and researchers access to sensitive elements of western infrastructure? There is of course a cost involved. If western governments are not prepared to pay anything of that cost in the present awareness of China’s human rights abuses – including genocide in Xinjiang and stamping out any semblance of democracy in Hong Kong – they might later be compelled to pay an even greater price in the future. Especially as we look to places such as Taiwan as critical to the global supply chain, particularly of semi-conductors, one lesson that ought to be learned is how important it is to protect them from aggression.

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