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Nationalism: Russian Hybrid Warfare

“People are bewildered, without anchor or perspective. Too many people have been left behind, creating a deep-felt need for protection. A need for security, not of a military kind, but of a social kind. The populist answer is: exclusion. Shut others out. Not just Muslims. Anyone who disagrees is the enemy. After the British Referendum and the US elections, you could hear: ‘I am the people’ or ‘We are the nation.’ As if the ‘others’ didn’t matter anymore. I reject this solution. Because where exclusion wins, freedoms suffer. As we have all too often seen in our history.”

These were the observations of Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission at the Future Force Conference.

Over 1,200 leaders from over 50 countries attended the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s Future Force Conference 2017 held in The Hague on February 9 and 10. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Dutch Minister of Defence, stated that the conference was organized to bring, “people together in order to create a more secure world.”

Opening the conference General Tom Middendorp, Chief of Defence Netherlands Armed Forces, stated that “An uncertain future is looming on the horizon…this affects us all.”

Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert concurred, stating, “Security in the world has seriously deteriorated since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood of it improving any time soon. We have to be realistic. We are living in a time of violent change.”

While participants were predominantly military, private sector leaders, representing the full range of NGOs, were also active participants. The conference’s focus was to develop new ways of avoiding conflict, countering nationalism and misinformation, re-conceptualizing conflict, and post-conflict peace building and peacekeeping through an ecosystem that is inclusive of all stakeholders at every stage. For instance, collaborative defense could use technologies to help people rebuild their houses or obtain potable water.


The most critical concern is that the Russian Federation is and has been determined to destabilize Europe and now the relationship between Europe and the United States. Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, its ongoing aggressions in Ukraine, its military buildup on its Western borders and in the Baltic region, and its interference with elections in Europe and the United States, were also of significant concern to conference attendees.

These are examples of Russian hybrid warfare. Russia’s hybrid warfare toolbox also includes the rapid dissemination of misinformation and propaganda, conventional warfare, nuclear armament, cyberattacks, espionage, and the ever-increasing use of proxies, including Syria and even the Afghani Taliban.

“[S]ince Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, we have been alerted to the particular threat of hybrid warfare. This threat, too, is borderless and multi-dimensional. It affects all of us. It is designed to remain below the threshold of open interstate war [under Article Five of the Washington Treaty]. And to reap rewards that are normally associated with victory in war. Hybrid warfare is real indeed!” explained Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert.

In an interview just days prior, Jamie Shea, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, stated that, “Where Russia is different vis-à-vis the old Soviet Union, is that it now has a much stronger foothold within our western democracies, in terms of media ownership, influence on populist parties, cyber instruments, energy relationships and other business deals. All of this gives Russia a much larger keyboard on which to play and it tends to use all of these instruments and to see in each particular case which one can produce the most confusion and destabilization. [T]he key thing is to expose Russia’s behavior quickly and effectively by clamping down on fake news and attributing cyber operations. We also need to build a strong military defence because the key thing is preventing Russia from trying to convert a hybrid warfare-type of attack into an actual military attack. We can recover quickly from the first type but unfortunately not so quickly from the second type.”

“Russia has less checks and balances than at any time before in history. Putin has unparalleled power. Now more than ever, when we see the return of geopolitics. Russia is challenging the European order. We see hybrid warfare, now in Ukraine. Will the Baltic states be next?” asked Mr. Timmermans.


The battles won against ISIS in reducing the territory it controls and by increasing screening at borders in the United States and Europe have resulted in retaliatory attacks abroad. In recent years, only a few attacks have been directly controlled by ISIS from abroad. Now, the majority of attacks come from lone actors; typically individuals who feel disenfranchised and disempowered by society or who were previously trained by ISIS abroad. In many cases, these lone wolves have been directly recruited and directed by ISIS operatives via the Internet.

(Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

“The fight against terrorism is borderless. We also have to deal with it in our own inner cities,” confirmed Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert.

“Terrorism is very much defined by its international character. And the internet has transformed the way crime is conducted online,” agreed Europol Director Rob Wainwright.


There have been a plethora of reports of misinformation funneled by the Kremlin through third-party actors. The most recent incident involved the 2016 American presidential election. Another example occurred in the Netherlands on April 7, 2016 when voters overwhelmingly rejected a Ukraine-European Union treaty for closer political and economic ties. It was evident that many voters were influenced by misinformation as to the breadth of the treaty and that Russia was the source of the misinformation. Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, pronounced the result “an indication of European attitudes to the Ukrainian political system.”

Mr. Timmermans explained that, “In Europe, we see the return of the politics of paranoia. Fueled by alternative facts in Internet echo chambers, the disruptive forces of xenophobia, intolerance, illiberalism and nationalism and are on the march. New parties are peddling old, dangerous ideas. Brexit, Turkey, Poland, Hungary and even in the Western Balkans we see the return of fault lines in Europe. Not an iron curtain of machine guns and minefields, but a barrier of the mind, between inclusion and exclusion, between open and closed societies.”

“Nothing of ‘the old war’ is here anymore. We’re facing terrorism that is using information as a powerful weapon,” opined Monica Maggioni, President of RAI Italia and Vice President of the European Broadcasting Union. Ms. Maggioni emphasized the role social media plays in the dissemination of false information. She stressed the importance that the Fourth Estate engage in rigorous fact checking prior to publication.


To counter Russian interference with democratic processes there is the growing need for enhanced cybersecurity and intelligence sharing amongst Western countries. There are intelligence agencies, such as Europol and the National Security Administration, already hard at work with increasing collaboration. While most collaboration occurs behind the scenes one public example is Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, tipping off its American counterparts as to Russian interference in the United States presidential election.

“Cyber space risks becoming the battlespace of the future, as it is less well governed and regulated,” said Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert.

The problem with regulation is that state and non-state actors, such as ISIS, are responsible for cyberattacks and cyberwarfare will never succumb to any sort of governance or regulation.

This is why Dr. William Roper, Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office, United States Department of Defense, stressed that, “It’s critically important to talk about the future now.”

Discussing cyber warfare and cyber security, “Our whole approach to warfare will have to fundamentally change,” said Dr. Roper.

Dr. Roper said that we must “Change the game. Try a disruptive flipping of the paradigm, like changing offensive technologies to defensive weapons.”

Dr. Roper employed a sports team analogy. “Sports teams don’t throw out the whole playbook, but simply change it so that the new playbook has all the advantages of the old one but with restored surprise.”

“Living within the constraints of existing hardware and software focuses ideas, encourages joint cross-domain thinking, and necessitates partnerships,” explained Dr. Roper in a 2016 report to the United States Senate Armed Services Committee.

Dr. Roper went on to emphasize the importance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Deep Learning. “There is not a single domain that will not be touched by AI. Go all in. If we don’t, we’ll be like a museum defence organisation,” stated Dr. Roper.

AI and Deep Learning have a full range of military and intelligence functions. For instance, through remote operated drones, the number of troops deployed is reduced and, ergo, the number of casualties is reduced.

Going “all in” requires acclimating troops to rapidly evolving technologies. “Soldiers [become] information warriors: when they are proud of what they do, they can explain this to their direct environment.” said moderator and keynote speaker, Jonathan Holslag, Professor of International Politics, Free University Brussels.

The EU, Brexit and the United States

Since World War Two the United States has led the world in geopolitics. With every conflict, attack and disaster, the world has always looked first to hear what “Washington” has to say. In recent years, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Li Jinping have challenged United States dominance by increasing their global power base, something former President Barack Obama fought hard to protect against. With the advent of the Trump administration and Brexit the global power structure is uncertain causing insecurity among countries not only in the European Union but in Southeast Asia. For the European Union the greater threat emanates from Russia President Vladimir Putin’s grandiose expansionist foreign policy evidenced by Russia’s military buildup.

“The drawing inwards of the United States increases the spheres of influence for Russia and China,” observed Mr. Shea.

Addressing this issue head-on Mr. Timmermans stated that:

We see the return of the menace of nuclear war. Russia has less checks and balances than the Soviet Union had. President Putin enjoys more unrestrained power, than Nikita Khrushchev ever did. For a moment, just imagine the Cuban nuclear missile crisis fought out on Twitter between Presidents Trump and Putin. We need a new rule book, new red lines and most importantly of all, we need a new escalation control. The Transatlantic relationship transcends any singular politician on any side of the Atlantic and remains the bedrock of our security. But it does mean we have to do our bit: Europe must pull its weight and shoulder its burden for its own security.

I strongly believe that our strategic interests run completely parallel to those of the United States. Our relationship goes back a long way and supersedes transitory personalities and politicians. We are relatives by history and friends by choice. We are friends because the same values underpin our societies: Openness. Diversity. Pluralism. Freedom. Democracy. I am not afraid these values will erode. I believe in the strength of American society. I am sure that checks and balances will ultimately win the day. But let’s not worry about what goes on across the pond, when right here, on our own doorstep, our fundamental values are under threat.

Mr. Timmermans cautioned that, “The future of Europe is not decided by the tweets of the President of the United States. Brexit and Trump are having enormous centripetal effect on the [European Union] Member States.”

Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, Chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, spoke of the “disaffection in the United States” stating that “Trump is the insurgent in office.”

Admiral Duncan Potts, Great Britain’s Director of General Joint Force Development & Defence Academy, the equivalent of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Europe can no longer assume that the United States is the trusted ally it once was and that, over the last few years, the number of United States allies has slowly declined.

“The taken for granted can no longer be taken for granted. Experts can no longer be trusted. Assertions seem to trump evidence,” concluded Admiral Potts.

Their comments contradicted the information released earlier by British Prime Minister Theresa May following her meeting with President Donald Trump as to the strength of the relationship between the two countries.

“The question is not can America lead but will America lead?” asked Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who served as NATO’s 11th Secretary General, speaking during a breakout session on “Access Denied – Dealing with Degraded Political and Operational Environments.”

Without offering any rationale Mr. de Hoop Scheffer expressed concern that the United States is more concerned with developments in the South China Sea that in Europe. While United States Secretary of Defense General James Mattis’ first visit abroad was to Southeast Asia, the comment ignores the fact that on his first day in office General Mattis spoke to both NATO and NATO member nations reassuring them of the United States’ continued support.

Perhaps Europe will find greater confidence in America’s commitment by virtue of General Michael Flynn’s February 13, 2017 resignation as National Security Advisor.

Unity Trumps Nationalism

A recurrent theme was the growing nationalism in Europe and the United States. Nationalism isolates people from people and nations from nations. Nationalism is a destabilizer. Nationalism empowers not only Russia but also China.

“There is a strong and understandable desire among many citizens in Europe, the United States and elsewhere…to ‘take back control.’ By closing borders. By raising levies and protectionist walls. By reaffirming national identities,” stated Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert.

“To create a positive ecosystem, try positive patriotism as an alternative for negative nationalism. Walls don’t work,” suggested Mr. Holslag.

“Make no mistake: if our morale falters, military security will not help us,” warned Mr. Timmermans.

The United States, Europe, NATO and their allies should take heed of the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”


The Future Force Conference highlighted that we can no longer depend on our defence institutions. It is incumbent that stakeholders become invested in security and stability in the democratized world.

“We all live in a time of confusion where our usual point of reference no longer works to understand the world,” said Alia Aoun, Legal Advisor, Lebanon Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In order to maintain and foster societies adhering to the Rule of Law we must take a step back and evaluate our values and how they impact the world around us. This is a wake-up call for collective and conscious global thought and action. The need for change in perspective was perhaps no better expressed than in a short video of World War II veteran and the last surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor Ben Ferencz who spoke about the future if humanity fails to chart a new course:

“Together, we are the force for good. It is up to us to walk that talk. By thinking big, and by acting small,” concluded General Middendorp.

Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert concurred, stating that, “On this tiny planet, we depend on each other like never before. Let us start behaving accordingly. Let us start turning the tide.”

Imagine that.