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Why the world needs to stop saying “hybrid war”

When used to describe recent actions by Belarus and Russia, the term is not only misleading, it’s also dangerous.

By Megan Gibson

As the migrant crisis at Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania has escalated in recent months, so too has the use of the term “hybrid war”. Suddenly, it’s everywhere. Pundits and prime ministers alike have described Alexander Lukashenko’s cynical tactic of flying desperate Middle Eastern migrants into the country, before shuttling them across EU borders, as an act of hybrid war.

And it’s not just Belarus. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has garnered his own checklist of tactics that have been held up as examples of a new era of hybrid war (including, according to many pundits, backing Belarus’s actions).

There’s no doubt that Lukashenko’s actions on the border are hostile and have created an alarming humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, Putin’s antagonism is troubling. But suggesting they are launching a hybrid war is not simply misleading, it is also risky.

In recent years, any number of actions have been branded hybrid warfare, including: the spread of propaganda; the sowing of misinformation; cyberattacks; jamming foreign GPS signals; election interference; restricting commodities, such as the flow of gas via a pipeline, to other countries; sending civilian fishing boats into contested waters; and even sanctions.

See the problem? When the term is used to describe pretty much everything, it’s not actually describing anything. As the phrase has proliferated in the media and within pundit circles, not to mention in statements made by government officials, it’s become a useless catch-all to describe any unwelcome action taken by one country against another. And lest you think it applies just to Putin and his allies, the US has been accused of it as well: in Hong Kong, by Xi Jinping’s government mouthpiece; in Ethiopia; in Iran. The vagueness of the term has allowed all sides to abuse it.

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Yet, when used in scholarly circles, “hybrid war” has a very specific meaning. It is used by academics to refer to a country combining kinetic – that is, military – action with non-kinetic – that is, anything else – methods to attack another country. It’s not a new phenomenon: as Elisabeth Braw, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and the author of The Defender’s Dilemma, argues, all wars are hybrid wars. Even sending in a Trojan horse to expedite the invasion of Troy, she pointed out, could be considered hybrid warfare. “I mean, it was just a horse – a non-kinetic tool,” she said. But crucially, “it was followed by military violence.” (It should also be noted that even in academic discussions there is debate on whether the term is useful.)

And it’s not for a want of a better term that the use of “hybrid war” has exploded. A more accurate phrase already exists: “grey-zone aggression”. Though not as buzzy, grey-zone aggression means precisely what many people talking about hybrid war are actually referring to: hostile actions against another country that attempt to weaken it, yet stop short of military force. Many in the media, intent on crafting as compelling a narrative as possible, might favour the tidy succinctness and Hollywood tagline sound of “hybrid war”. But it’s not accurate.

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It’s not just a problem of imprecise language. When “hybrid war” is casually used to describe a hostile act – however unpleasant and destabilising – which isn’t actually military aggression, there is a risk of inadvertently escalating a situation.

“It’s [become] a soundbite with scary implications,” said Anna Arutunyan, a Russian-American analyst and the author of The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult. Since the term assumes that non-military action is waged alongside military action, by dubbing something as part of a hybrid war, then “the next step of that – which we are basically saying as a statement of fact – is war”, said Arutunyan. “And that’s not true. We don’t know what the next step is. So why are we using a term that implies that the next intention is kinetic war?”

Even in the case of Russia’s build-up of troops along Ukraine’s border, it’s risky to suggest that the inevitable next stage will be an attempted invasion. As my colleague Ido Vock cogently pointed out in a piece last week, Russia has amassed troops there before without escalating further. What’s more, the situation on the ground in Ukraine is less favourable for an invasion than it was in 2014’s annexation of Crimea.

Then again, we might see true hybrid warfare against Ukraine in the coming weeks. But until that occurs, ratcheting up tension with rhetoric that suggests war is already under way is only likely to escalate the situation still further.

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin preparing for war?]