KYIV, Ukraine—The recent military tension between the U.S. and Iran underscores a new era of conflict, some military officials and analysts say, in which a country’s power on the world stage is no longer measured solely by economic clout, military force, or even diplomatic sway.
Rather, the audacious use of misinformation to shape public opinion at home and abroad allows countries like Iran and Russia to punch well above their hard and soft power weight classes in shaping world events.
To that end, experts say Iran has put into practice lessons in hybrid warfare that Moscow field-tested on the battlefields of Ukraine and later unleashed against Western democracies.
“Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf resemble, in their intent, Russia’s hybrid warfare operations that we have seen in Ukraine and elsewhere,” said Nataliya Bugayova, Russia research fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank.
“Russia and Iran use hybrid warfare operations to advance their broader aims while trying to obfuscate reality on the ground and prevent the West from taking action to defend its interests,” Bugayova said, adding that Iran “has a history of learning from Russia on the battlefield.”
In this new era of hybrid warfare, adversaries are able to threaten American security interests and undermine the U.S.-led democratic world order without resorting to direct military action.
Instead, by shifting the burden of conflict escalation onto the U.S., practitioners of hybrid warfare test whether American leaders are willing to retaliate against nonlethal, “gray zone” activities with lethal military force.
“Future confrontations between major powers may most often occur below the level of armed conflict. In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent,” Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, deputy director for global operations at the Joint Staff, writes in the Pentagon’s recently released, unclassified assessment of Russia’s strategic intentions.
Since 2014, Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for both its modern conventional and hybrid warfare doctrines, providing a case study for the new kinds of security threats the U.S. and its Western allies can anticipate from their adversaries.
Iran, too, has turned to gray zone tactics to offset its own inferiority to the U.S. in terms of conventional military power.
Tehran’s recent docket of gray zone activities include unconventional attacks by proxies, as well as nonlethal acts of aggression like the sabotage of oil tankers and pipelines.
At every turn, Iran masks its operations behind the veil of barely plausible propaganda yarns—a key tenet of Russian hybrid warfare. So, too, is the concept of victim playing—the appropriation of false victimhood to justify one’s own bad behavior—which Russia has frequently invoked to justify its global hybrid warfare offensive as a legitimate counterbalance against alleged American imperialism.
“There are certainly parallels between Iran’s activities in the Persian Gulf and Russia’s activities in Ukraine, in the sense that they are both using clandestine operations as part of a broader conflict,” said Eugene Chausovsky, a geopolitical analyst who specializes in the former Soviet Union for the U.S.-based security think tank Stratfor.
Both U.S. and Iranian leaders say they don’t want war, but the prospect of an accidental conflict is increasing, experts warn.
That prognosis nearly came to fruition on June 20 when Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle with a surface-to-air missile. U.S. officials protested, saying the surveillance drone was operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz.
President Donald Trump authorized retaliatory airstrikes but reportedly called them off with only 10 minutes to spare. Ultimately, the U.S. opted for a retaliatory cyberattack, instead.
On Wednesday, tensions flared again as Iranian gunboats reportedly attacked a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.
“Such types of unconventional and clandestine operations are likely only to increase,” Chausovsky said.
In 2014, the United States and the European Union levied punitive economic sanctions on Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine. Since then, relations between Russia and the West have hit a post-Cold War nadir.
Using cyberwarfare and an empire of weaponized propaganda, Russia has embarked on a hybrid war blitz against Western democracies. Looking back, it’s clear that Ukraine was the opening salvo of Russia’s ongoing war against that American-led, democratic world order.
“Russian leadership sees itself as at war with the U.S. and the West as a whole,” notes Nicole Peterson, a security analyst, in the Pentagon white paper on Russia’s strategic intentions.
“From a Russian perspective, this war is not total, but rather, it is fundamental—a type of ‘war’ that is at odds with the general U.S. understanding of warfare,” she added.
Hybrid warfare is the Kremlin’s contemporary take on a Soviet military doctrine called “deep battle,” in which front-line combat operations are supported with other actions meant to spread chaos and confusion within the enemy’s territory.
An evolving threat that spans every combat domain, hybrid warfare combines conventional military force with other so-called gray zone activities, such as cyberattacks and propaganda, both on the battlefield and deep behind the front lines.
One of hybrid warfare’s most dangerous attributes is that it weaponizes many staples of everyday life, including smartphones, social media networks, commercially available computer software—and journalism.
“I think we’re generally moving toward a reality in which hybrid warfare will be the preferred modus operandi of states like Russia, China, Iran, over and above conventional warfare,” Aleksandra Gadzala, and independent security consultant and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily Signal.
“The way in which Moscow wages hybrid warfare has evolved and expanded rather significantly since the Euromaidan—ditto Chinese tactics since [Chinese President Xi Jinping] took office. Iran is no different,” Gadzala said, referring to Ukraine’s pro-Western 2014 revolution.
‘Poor Man’s War’
America’s military dwarfs Russia’s. U.S. defense spending in 2018 reached $649 billion, compared with Russia’s $61 billion that year, according to an April report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Economically, too, Russia is far from America’s peer. Russia’s nominal gross domestic product is about half that of California’s—roughly on par with South Korea.
With that in mind, Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is basically “a poor man’s war,” according to a June report from the Institute for the Study of War.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] is sufficiently in contact with reality to know that he will fail if he attempts to regain anything approaching conventional military parity with the West,” note the report’s authors. “Putin has every reason to believe that outright confrontation with the American military will end badly for him.”
Despite Russia’s conventional weaknesses, however, the country is a hybrid superpower with an unparalleled ability to control the world’s attention economy.
Russia has weaponized information by deploying its state-run media organizations to undermine Western societies and democratic institutions.
Taking advantage of Americans’ historically low levels of confidence in journalism, Russia’s information warfare is precision-targeted on the American people through the internet and social media. These activities manipulate and inflame divisions within American society—often turning Americans against each other.
“Shaping the information space is the primary effort to which Russian military operations, even conventional military operations, are frequently subordinated in this way of war,” according to the Institute for the Study of War report. “Russia obfuscates its activities and confuses the discussion so that many people throw up their hands and say simply, ‘Who knows if the Russians really did that? Who knows if it was legal?’—thus paralyzing the West’s responses.”
On June 19—the day prior to Iran’s attack on the U.S. drone—international investigators charged three Russians and a Ukrainian for murder for their role in using a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
The missile was fired from within territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, and its mobile launch vehicle belonged to Russia’s 53rd Air Defense Brigade and was sent back to Russia the next day, the report noted.
Putin dismissed the charges, telling journalists, “There is no evidence of Russia’s blame for the downing of MH17.”
“Russia has its own explanation of the crash of MH17, but no one is listening to us,” Putin reportedly said.
The U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018. Since then, renewed American sanctions have targeted Tehran’s financial and industrial sectors, dealing the country’s economy a devastating body blow.
With oil exports down by 90%, Tehran is quickly running out of cash while inflation skyrockets. The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by about 6% this year—an abrupt reversal from the Islamic Republic’s 4.6% growth rate in the previous fiscal year.
Under pressure from U.S. sanctions, analysts say Iran has purposefully ratcheted up its gray zone activities to scare European leaders into making concessions on sanctions.
July 6 was the end of a 60-day deadline imposed by Iran on European nations to somehow ease the pressure of U.S. sanctions. With no help forthcoming from Europe, Iran announced July 7 that it was moving forward on uranium enrichment, violating the 2015 nuclear deal’s terms. In turn, U.S. officials are now mulling additional sanctions on Iran.
“Iran better be careful,” President Donald Trump reportedly said of the recent developments.
In 2015, Iran and Russia signed a military defense pact, underscoring a closer military relationship intended to counter U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Russia supplies Iran with military hardware, including advanced surface-to-air missile systems. Russia has also helped to build some of Iran’s nuclear reactors.
It’s clear, some experts say, that Russia has also allied itself with Iran in the information war to paint the U.S. as a global aggressor.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on June 25, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a close aide to Putin, said Russia had intelligence to prove the downed U.S. drone was flying in Iranian airspace.
Patrushev went on to dismiss U.S. intelligence proving that Iran was responsible for a recent series of attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East.
“Russia and Iran are closely aligned and work to enable and shield one another’s efforts. In this instance, the Kremlin has been front and center with a broader information campaign supporting the Iranian regime’s false narrative that Iran is the victim and not the aggressor,” said Bugayova, the Institute for the Study of War fellow.
A Hybrid Failure
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. The following April, Russian intelligence agents and special operations forces orchestrated a separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, spawning two breakaway republics.
The Kremlin said its 2014 seizure of Crimea and the ensuing conflict in the Donbas were both spurred by grassroots uprisings created and led by disaffected Russian-speaking Ukrainians who believed the new government in Kyiv was illegitimate—the product of a CIA-orchestrated putsch to install a fascist, neo-Nazi, pro-American government in Kyiv.
Moscow had planned its Donbas operation for years, and many pieces were already in place before Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Consequently, in its early months, Russia’s hybrid offensive was on the march, leapfrogging across the Donbas, taking town after town.
At that time, Ukraine’s regular army was on its heels. Depleted by decades of corruption, it could only field about 6,000 combat-ready soldiers when the war began. So, to defend their homeland, everyday Ukrainians filled the ranks of irregular, civilian combat units and set out for the front lines.
It was a grassroots war effort—an example of a society that didn’t need to be prodded into a war by propaganda. Rather, Ukrainians of all stripes simply took up arms, often with little or no formal military training, and fought to defend their homeland.
Ultimately, this ragtag coalition of Ukraine’s regular and irregular forces stopped the combined Russian-separatist advance by using what the RAND Corp. described as “a siege warfare campaign, leveraging Ukraine’s vastly superior numbers, artillery, and air power to steadily encircle and push out the separatists from fortified terrain.”
By July 2014, just three months into the conflict, Ukrainian forces had retaken 23 out of the 36 districts previously under combined Russian-separatist control. Then in August 2014, with its hybrid operation in shambles, Russia outright invaded eastern Ukraine.
Ultimately, Ukraine sued for peace after the disastrous battle for Illovaisk, in which regular Russian units killed hundreds of Ukrainian troops.
The subsequent September 2014 cease-fire stopped the war from escalating further. A second cease-fire, known as Minsk II, was signed in February 2015.
Yet, from an operational perspective, Russia’s original hybrid warfare plan in the Donbas was a failure. In a 2017 study, the RAND Corp. concluded that in eastern Ukraine Russia “failed to achieve the leverage necessary without resorting to conventional war and outright invasion.”
“Ukraine is a case study not in pioneering new nonlinear approaches but in the failure of hybrid warfare to deliver the desired political ends for Russia,” note the study’s authors.
Today, the war in eastern Ukraine remains a limited, conventional conflict. It’s a static, trench war, in which the two camps take daily indirect-fire potshots at one another—and in which soldiers and civilians continue to die. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have so far died due to the conflict.
With Europe’s two largest standing land armies still exchanging daily fire along the trench lines in the Donbas, there’s always the chance of an unanticipated event—a so-called Franz Ferdinand scenario—setting off an escalatory domino chain that leads to a far deadlier cataclysm.
Case in point—a November 2018 naval clash between Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea nearly precipitated a bigger war.
Outside the Donbas war zone, Russia continues to use hybrid war tactics across all of Ukraine. Consequently, there’s hardly any part of Ukrainian life that hasn’t been affected.
Russian cyberattacks have hit Ukraine’s power grid, water supply systems, the country’s banking system (shutting down ATMs), its largest international airport, and the electoral process.
For years Ukrainian soldiers have reported receiving threats and demands for their surrender from their Russian enemies over cellphone text messages.
Russian drones have destroyed Ukrainian weapons depots, and Russian operatives have waged a clandestine assassination pogrom across Ukraine, targeting key Ukrainian security personnel and Russian turncoats.
By using hybrid warfare tactics, contemporary Russian military planners are targeting the Achilles’ heel of any democratic adversary—public opinion.
The concept of “escalation dominance” was a key tenet of NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy against the Soviet Union. In theory, U.S. military superiority would inherently deter the Soviet Union from going to war.
The problem with the concept of escalation dominance, however, is that American public opinion could turn against a conflict well before the military has fully tapped its capacity for inflicting violence.
Without public support, America’s material advantages aren’t enough to compel an adversary to give up without a fight.
Public opinion is “generally a weakness of any democracy,” said Vasyl Myroshnychenko, director of the Kyiv-based Ukraine Crisis Media Center. “And once an adverse power learns how to affect public opinion, it has the upper hand,” Myroshnychenko said.
Yet, hybrid warfare is not a one-size-fits-all formula. Rather, the Kremlin tailors its hybrid warfare tactics according to each adversary’s weaknesses.
“Russia’s gray zone tactics are most effective when the target is deeply polarized or lacks the capacity to resist and respond effectively to Russian aggression,” writes Czerewko of the Joint Staff in the recent Pentagon study on Russia.
Gray zone activities aren’t necessarily anything new, either, in terms of the history of warfare. Although it is significant to note, many experts say, that hybrid warfare is becoming the go-to strategy for America’s up and coming crop of adversaries.
For authoritarian regimes like those in Russia, Iran, and China—which lean on nationalism to retain their hold on power—hybrid warfare tactics offer a way to ceremonially push back against America for domestic consumption while tiptoeing around a conventional war.
“Antics like those we’ve seen from Iran in recent weeks, and which we continue to see from Russia and China, are those of weak governments eager to demonstrate their international importance and by extension bolster their domestic legitimacy,” said Gadzala, the Atlantic Council fellow.
In some respects, the old paradigms of the justice of war—which include time-honored metrics, such as the proportionality of the use of deadly force—are being challenged in this era of hybrid warfare.
For instance, at what point does a cyberattack merit a lethal military response? Or, is it ethically defensible to launch lethal airstrikes in retaliation for an attack on a surveillance drone?
Compounding these ethical dilemmas, hybrid warfare is inherently designed to create battlefield confusion, primarily in the command and control process, clouding the situational awareness of both personnel in combat and their commanders controlling the war effort from afar. For Western militaries, which prefer precision strikes with minimum risk of collateral damage, that kind of confusion can be paralyzing.
However, Russian and Iranian leaders are playing with fire, experts warn.
In practice, the utility of hybrid warfare hinges on a country’s ability to accurately judge an adversary’s tolerance for gray zone provocations. That’s not necessarily easy to do—especially since the U.S. and its allies have not yet created their own rules on when nonlethal gray zone activities merit a lethal military response.
“The discrepancy between the Russian and the U.S. understanding of ‘conflict’ and ‘war’ will continue to grow, leading to a higher risk of escalation in future situations involving both nations,” notes the Pentagon study.
“It is imperative that the U.S. establishes a consensus definition of ‘gray zone’ and reevaluates old paradigms defining war and peace, as we enter a new era of international politics which is defined by shades of gray,” the study continued.
In its attack on the U.S. drone, Iran misread Trump’s red line and the two countries went to the absolute brink of war. For its part, Moscow’s gross misjudgment of Ukrainians’ resolve to fight in 2014 proved to be a fatal error for Russia’s hybrid war plan in the Donbas.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, analysts say. If Russia, purposefully or not, oversteps America’s red line for tolerating gray zone aggression—it could spark a nuclear war. And Iran’s brinkmanship campaign against U.S. interests in the Middle East is hovering on the razor’s edge of igniting a regional war.
Analysts also warn that Iran’s use of proxy forces is a major concern. One lesson from Russia’s operation in eastern Ukraine is how erratic those proxy forces can be—and how a rogue element could spark an unplanned escalation.
Accordingly, U.S. officials have made their position crystal clear, repeatedly warning Iran that an attack by one of its proxy forces would not go unpunished.
“If Iran organizes, trains, and equips and provides targeting assistance for an operation and does everything except pull the trigger, they are responsible for that operation,” Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, told reporters during a telephonic press briefing on June 24.
“We do not make a distinction between Iran’s government and the proxies that it supports with lethal assistance and training and funding,” Hook said.