Hybrid War, a controversial but memorable term to describe war in Ukraine from 2014-15, has finally arrived in the US. Whether it stays and grows into a full-blown civil war remains to be seen.
What is “Hybrid War?” That depends on whom you ask. But since you’re asking me, in the context of this essay, I’ll tell you what I believe it to be. Hybrid War, in my estimation, is a type of conflict where an attacker exploits definitional gray areas in a country’s understanding of peace and war to gain an advantage. It is a hybrid of “peace” and “war,” wherein a defender is faced with difficult or even impossible choices that force the selection of disadvantageous courses of action.
One example of Hybrid War was an episode in Ukraine, in April of 2014 in Kramatorsk, where a crowd of ostensibly unarmed civilians surrounded an element of the Ukrainian Army’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, disarmed it, and essentially morphed into a separatist paramilitary. Picture it: dozens or hundreds of civilians throwing stones and shouting at you. Your countrymen. You’re faced with three options—first, to retreat, suffering a defeat by failing to secure or defend your objective. Second, to open fire, and be complicit in the mass murder of dozens or hundreds of unarmored civilians, a clear violation of the law of war and human rights. Third, to permit oneself to be captured, disarmed and sent on your way.
This Ukrainian unit chose the third option, and allowed themselves to be captured by an angry crowd of their countrymen. It was the wrong choice. But every choice was wrong, there was no good choice in that moment, in part because military units aren’t supposed to carry out law enforcement, they’re a violent solution to a tactical problem in war.
I don’t believe that Hybrid War is some fancy new doctrine that incorporates different types of weapons platforms. I believe it is a well-designed threat with no good tactical solution, which operates by designing a specific type of confrontation to take place where peace becomes war before a unit can adapt and respond in a military context, where one set of logic ends and another begins.
Hybrid War was the very first thing I thought of when I saw video of police officers opening a fence barricade to allow a crowd of Trump supporters into the capital. The officers were faced with a series of bad choices, the most plausible were run or be beaten (they chose to run, and some of them were eventually beaten). If they’d had firearms, perhaps they could have been tempted to open fire—certainly (and thankfully) none did. At least, until protestors breached the Capitol itself, and attempted to penetrate an inner sanctum.
But this coming long weekend, MLK weekend, no less, is bound to see violence at some of the planned 51 protests (50 in state capitals, plus a larger protest envisioned for Washington, DC). The largest protest is likely planned for Washington DC—as can be surmised from the fact that leadership has supplemented law enforcement with 20,000 mobilized National Guardsmen. State capitols will be secured by state and local law enforcement.
The police certainly were not prepared to confront their fellow citizens with violence on January 6th. Have the National Guardsmen and their police allies prepared for that possibility? In the event that the promised “storm” or “krakan” or whatever the insurrectionists are calling themselves these days arrives, are the Guardsmen and police officers prepared (as the police were not, on January 6th) for violence? If not, it won’t matter if there are 100,000 guardsmen on hand, or 1,000,000.
Law enforcement in every state capital face this threat until inauguration, as well. It won’t last forever. At some point, “Hybrid War” either evolves into full scale war, as it did in Ukraine’s East in 2014, or it evaporates into ill intention, or low-grade insurgency. Either way, the spectacle of masses of civilians spontaneously but deliberately turning into a hostile military force is no longer there—all the civilians have become active insurgents, and are therefore valid targets, or all the insurgents are in the process of becoming civilians. The threat evolves, or vanishes.
When I originally learned about Hybrid War, in Ukraine, my first thought was for the NATO soldiers stationed in the Baltic region. I talked with everyone I could about the problem and phenomenon—I was terrified that US soldiers in Riga would be surrounded by “Latvian civilians” (in reality, Russian provocateurs) and forced into one of these impossible situations. This, of course, would either lead to some sort of black eye for American forces, or, if they made the wrong choice, a horrible incident that might create a state of war, and on awful footing.
The solution, I thought at the time, was to run units deploying to NATO countries and especially those to be stationed in Eastern Europe through “Hybrid War” exercises during JRTC or NTC training. Allow Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders to encounter this Kobayashi Maru style paradox, not to demoralize them, not to bully them, but simply to allow them to think through the scenario, lest they encounter it for the first time on the battlefield with real consequences.
As far as I understand, no such readiness exercises were ever incorporated into U.S. military training, either stateside, or in Europe, with or without NATO partners. This threat remains a strategy capable of being used deliberately by Russia, and other clever non-state actors, whether consciously or because they have intuited its potential.
For now, I’m hoping that it remains a possibility, and isn’t employed against US military or law enforcement units.