The Agenda: Comment - Issue 172 - Magazine | Monocle

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Unarmed and Dangerous

Petri Burtsoff on the body helping the West to react to hybrid warfare – and why a firmer response is needed.

Hybrid warfare is a 21st-century security buzzword. It describes the use of both conventional and unconventional methods to inflict damage on your opponent, and can involve anything from cyberattacks and election interference to the use of non-state actors in combat or the sabotage of critical infrastructure.

“We in the West did not take these threats seriously at first, which is why we are on the defensive,” Teija Tiilikainen, director of the Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid coe), tells monocle. “We were caught off-guard.” Hybrid coe, which describes itself as a “do tank”, is an autonomous organisation founded in 2017 with a remit to provide expertise and training to its 35 participating states – essentially all the EU and Nato member states with the exception of Albania – to help them counter hybrid threats.

But what does “counter” mean in this context? If hybrid warfare is an extension of conventional warfare, shouldn’t the West respond to these attacks with ones of its own? For example, why hasn’t the West launched a cyberattack against Russia as a response to those it has suffered at the hands of the country and its proxies? “The West has a disadvantage because we want to uphold a rules-based international order and the rule of law but our opponents are not bound by the same rules,” says Tiilikainen.


In other words, if the West wanted to fight fire with fire, it would have to renounce its core values, which is exactly what its opponents, such as Russia and China, want. But if it can’t strike back, how can it ever win the war? Indeed, it looks a lot like Hybrid coe is simply putting out fires instead of preventing them. For example, election interference has been an issue since at least the 2016 US presidential poll and yet, eight years and nearly two election cycles later, it is still a major threat to democracy. And there is probably more disinformation being spread by state- sponsored actors today than there was then.

Hybrid coe argues that victory in hybrid warfare does not look like normal victory. “We cannot fully stop cyberattacks or attacks on critical infrastructure such as gas pipelines and data cables,” says Tiilikainen. “But we can stop them from destabilising our societies by improving our resilience.” This is exactly what Hybrid coe’s 41 experts from 16 different countries do – study what exploitable weaknesses its participating states have and then work out how to make sure that they stop being weaknesses. This can involve sponsored initiatives such as educating populations to recognise fake news, like Finland does as part of its national curriculum, as well as promoting backup energy sources or advocating for a more agile legislative process to stop the weaponisation of migration. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” says Tiilikainen. “The enemy, just like us, is always looking for new vulnerabilities.”

Resilience is important but it is not enough. Western societies are based on openness and freedom, and so will always be susceptible to those looking to exploit these things. The West needs a credible deterrent against hybrid operations. “Western countries need to learn to put a price tag on these acts,” says Tiilikainen. “That means responding with sanctions as well as naming and shaming.” It is doubtful, however, that naming and shaming, or sanctions for that matter, will prevent hybrid attacks. The West needs a firmer response. There is talk within Nato of making it clear that a hybrid attack will trigger the alliance’s collective defence clause, Article 5, which is currently reserved for armed attacks. But it is unclear what this would mean in practice. Perhaps the alliance wants it to remain ambiguous. Either way, there will come a time when it must act. Hybrid warfare has changed the nature of conflict – it’s time the West moved from the defensive to the offensive. — L

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