Deterring hybrid warfare: a chance for NATO and the EU to work together?

In response to the conflict in Ukraine, NATO has decided to take on an ambitious task: developing a set of tools to deter and defend against adversaries waging hybrid warfare.

As the conflict in Ukraine illustrates, hybrid conflicts involve multilayered efforts designed to destabilise a functioning state and polarize its society. Unlike conventional warfare, the “centre of gravity” in hybrid warfare is a target population. The adversary tries to influence influential policy-makers and key decision makers by combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts. The aggressor often resorts to clandestine actions, to avoid attribution or retribution. Without a credible smoking gun, NATO will find it difficult to agree on an intervention.

Undoubtedly, prevailing in hybrid warfare presents NATO with an institutional challenge. To effectively counter irregular threats, the Alliance will need to strengthen cooperation with international organisations, particularly with the EU.

NATO has a wide range of instruments at its disposal. The Alliance has expended a great deal of effort in recent years to stay abreast of new threats, especially in cyberspace. Nevertheless, NATO, as a military alliance, will never embrace the full spectrum of challenges embodied in hybrid warfare.

Why two is better than one

The current NATO deterrence policy for hybrid warfare is based on a rapid military response. This policy has three potential weaknesses. First, member states may find it difficult to agree on the source of a conflict, creating a significant barrier to prompt collective action. Second, to counter irregular threats, hard power alone is insufficient. Regardless of how rapid a response may be, deploying military force to an area swept by hybrid warfare will turn out as “too little too late”. Too often, the conflict evolves under the radar. Finally, a deterrent built upon military force alone will not be credible. To deal with irregular threats, NATO cannot simply revive the strategy of massive retaliation, or rely exclusively on one course of action.

NATO should consider a more flexible policy and strive to deter prospective adversaries with a wide range of instruments. By partnering with the EU and expanding its set of instruments, the Alliance will be able to tackle the threat from multiple angles. What is more, it may be even able to prevent it.

The EU seems the organisation best suited to complement NATO’s crisis management efforts, as it offers a diversity of instruments that can be employed in hybrid warfare. NATO and the EU could create an effective institutional tandem that has a wide range of both political and military instruments at its disposal. The NATO Summit in Wales acknowledged the EU as a strategic partner of the Alliance. And the common threat of hybrid warfare within the Euro-Atlantic area presents a solid opportunity to develop this partnership even further.

NATO and the EU should intensify consultations and engage in joint planning, especially in implementing the EU Council decisions on security in December 2013. The inter-institutional cooperation should become more systematic and pragmatic.

Events in Ukraine have changed the threat perception in Europe. Recent pledges to reverse declining defence budgets confirm this. NATO and the EU should take advantage of this momentum. Through close coordination in defence planning, both organisations can avoid duplication and achieve greater convergence. The European Council meeting in June 2015 will offer a good opportunity to review and possibly adjust the future course of cooperation. NATO’s Secretary General should not miss the opportunities this meeting will bring.

The importance of security sector reform

Prevention represents the best possible means of countering hybrid warfare. Irregular threats are far more difficult to manage once they become an overt attempt at destabilisation. Rolling armour columns and exchanges of open fire, as witnessed in Ukraine, signify that a hybrid conflict had entered its later stages. Skirmishes such as these may easily evolve into an insurgency with no foreseeable political or military solution. As appears likely in Ukraine, the result may be a “frozen conflict.”

© EU

© EU

States that appear vulnerable to destabilisation can adopt measures to increase the resilience of their security sectors in advance. The concept of Security Sector Reform (SSR), embedded in UNSC (United Nations Security Council) Resolution 2151 offers an indispensable tool to tackle the challenges of hybrid warfare. SSR aims to strengthen a state’s ability to provide public safety and secure the rule of law, while embracing transparency and accountability. The transatlantic community should call upon the countries prone to destabilisation to take on the SSR initiative. These measures will not only better prepare the country to counter external threats, but will also help pave its way to sustainable development and prosperity.

The EU has incorporated SSR into its Common Security and Defence Policy operations. It’s now concluding its first successful mission of this kind in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has recently launched an SSR mission in Ukraine. A strong security sector and well-developed soft power serves as the best measure to secure peace and stability in European neighborhood, particularly against the subversive threats witnessed in Ukraine.

An opportunity not to be missed

To effectively defend against hybrid warfare, I believe the Alliance will need to expand its capabilities and strengthen its cooperation with the EU. Through a comprehensive approach, NATO and the EU will be able to employ an entire palette of instruments to an emerging conflict. By embracing the concept of SSR, NATO and the EU can focus their efforts on the most vulnerable states and help them to become more resilient against destabilising threats. The two organisations should not miss out on this chance to advance their partnership to a new level. By more closely coordinating their efforts, NATO and the EU could not only avert irregular threats, but could help secure peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area for the foreseeable future.