Since the war in Ukraine, heightened investments by Russia in disinformation operations have prompted security concerns at the political decision-making levels of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and NATO. Parts of their more operational intelligence and ‘strategic communications’ branches are being transformed and reinforced because of it. This complex phenomenon has made both the EU and NATO to strike a path for enhanced capacity-building to deal with hybrid threats effectively, as the harmful effects reach populations and structures in their (largely overlapping) Member States.
Unsurprisingly, hybrid threats have been observed many times before in the course of NATO’s dealings with its own members and partners, and during all engagement to prepare candidate-members (like Montenegro) to formally join NATO. Think of the cyber attack to Estonia in 2005 or the politicization of border incidents in the Baltics.
Up until early 2016 the EU has remained mostly reactive to disruptive, alarming political moves and societal phenomena that add up to the criteria of being a hybrid threat. When it became apparent, through increasing use of counter-information, that Russia started to reap success with interfering in internal affairs and democratic stability of NATO and EU members, a red line was crossed.
Along with other alarming military indicators, the EU and NATO decided to advance their mutual partnership in 2016, starting in April with a ‘Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats’. However, the word ‘civilian (sector)’ only appears once in that document, and further mention about citizens is absent. A “direct liaison” between the EU Hybrid Fusion Cell and NATO’s hybrid cell is tabled, as well as “mutual awareness of each other’s respective crisis management procedures to ensure swift and effective reactions.” The EU and NATO Joint Declaration of December 2016 lists ‘countering hybrid threats’ as first of seven categories for mutual cooperation.
However, that important paragraph makes no reference to any concrete involvement or preparedness measures for civil society in particular – unless this is implicitly assumed under the enhancement of ‘stratcom capabilities’ of partner countries. The instruments for countering hybrid threats are therefore by and large calibrated on the “high political” and strategic level, though information warfare does require a civil society-inclusive approach. Since hybrid threats can target the integrity of the state security, appreciating civil society structures and involving them in the response early on enhances a path to map out integrated responses. For example, to detect and expose ‘fifth columns’ cloaked as media makers who ‘gaslight’ events to arouse suspicion or deteriorate trust in the public government system. Because of meticulous methods used for hybrid warfare, not every person has the same vigilance or critical analysis skills, and some remain susceptible to believe deceptive narratives.
A first step is to heighten situational awareness. NATO should invite and involve the middle field partners to reach certain preparedness standards, and encourage “coordinated fact checking” amongst benevolent partners in civil society and businesses. It’s relevant to be able to adapt counter-hybrid threat strategies comprehensively to ‘what happens in the field.
One suggestion is to encourage and support “Permanent Contact Groups” of civil structures who, made aware of the critical relevance of hybrid threats, can learn about the phenomenon and act as “sentinels” (think: early detection and warning nodes) for their local community towards that Contact Group.
We know that one of the tenets in hybrid warfare is undermining the credibility and legitimacy of political structures. When specialized agencies like NATO STRATCOM COE and the EEAS Stratcom division are given the reins to advance instruments and policies to tackle hybrid threats, how can they assure their actions actually reach the ‘hearts and minds’ of the very people they represent? The old sore of larger political bodies experiencing hurdles to reach out and gain broad support from ‘local’ civil society levels should not be affirmed by by leaving it on the sidelines in countering hybrid threats them of countering hybrid threat efforts.
Starting off from an inclusive concept that raises awareness of the issue and activates the ‘middle field’ (SMEs, businesses, civil society organisations) in the process may even help bolster political credibility and trust towards said institutions down the line.
Nico Segers holds an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in History. He is an alumnus of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (Switzerland). A perpetual advocate of youth leadership and civil-military cooperation, he currently works as Learning development, documentation officer / Academic liaison for a risk and security management company, based in Antwerp with a worldwide affiliates network.