By Mihail Naydenov, for Bulgaria Analytica

Hybrid war is not declared. Instead, it is just fought. The countries under attack are quite often unable to understand that they fall victim to hybrid influence. This is first of all a war of perceptions and the main assault is directed at this juncture. The aim is to keep as long as possible a state of ambiguity and confusion among the country’s leadership and society. The subversive role of local actors, who are supporting the aggressor’s activity, is particularly damaging in this context. The first task of such actors is to vigorously and even aggressively deny the presence of whatever hybrid activity is occurring against their own country. If this situation lasts for too long, it is possible that one day it becomes too late for the state under attack to be able to defend itself.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” says in “The Art of War” the Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu 25 centuries ago. Russia succeeded in achieving exactly this result in 2014 when it annexed Crimea. Russian special operations forces without any identifying markings, the so called “little green men”, supported by the forces of the Russian Black Sea Navy deployed in Crimea, in several days’ time occupied the peninsula, without meeting adequate resistance by the paralyzed Ukrainian security structures. Their operation was actively supported by local actors working in Moscow’s favor. In parallel, an active information campaign was carried out, predominantly targeting the local population and the Russian society. In order to cover up the movement of its military formations and to divert attention, Russia used the conduct at this time of a large snap exercise in proximity to Ukraine.

“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu says also. That is the reason why hybrid war is in the first place an information war. Nowadays media and social media in particular are the most effectively used manipulation instrument. Nevertheless, fake news is only the tip of the iceberg in the ocean of psychological warfare. Hybrid war starts undeclared and continuously submits public opinion to narratives and manipulated public messages that are fabricated and promoted by aggressors. As an example for such a false pro-Russian narrative in Bulgaria is the following: NATO is militarizing its Eastern flank in order to prepare to attack Russia. Under this logic the legitimate right and duty to beef up national and collective defense potential is distortedly presented to society as preparation to carry out aggression.

Hybrid war is also an enduring subversive activity initiated in peacetime against key sectors guaranteeing security and normal operation of any state. The impact is along the full spectrum of national power, known in NATO as DIMEFIL – Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement (also Rule of Law). Regardless that hybrid war is originally focused on the non-military spectrum, it can later on escalate and therefore include the application of military power. For instance, in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine Moscow first started its subversive activity by exercising influence on local politics, using local political and economic actors, and afterward it started to actively provide support to the pro-Russian separatists.

In the case of Ukraine, as well as in the case of Georgia in 2008, Russia tried to destabilize these countries by means of military intervention and as a consequence to prevent their Euro-Atlantic integration. What is more, in this manner Russia is trying to send a signal to other countries from the post-Soviet space that the same development would follow, if they take the road of reforms and seek membership in NATO and the EU. However, there are some cases in which the aspiration of Moscow is to attain this goal not through direct military intervention, which is not always conceivable, but by the use of local agents, in order to destabilize potential members of both NATO and the EU. As an illustrative example here can be pointed out the failed attempt of Moscow to plot a coup in Montenegro on 16.10.2016 with the aim of toppling the government, in order to prevent the accession of this country to NATO in 2017.

In hybrid warfare the full toolkit of „soft“ (non-military) and „hard“ (military) power could be exploited. In various combinations are employed either conventional/traditional or asymmetrical methods and means. Depending on the goals and the characteristics of the targeted country can be applied information, political, diplomatic, economic, trade, energy, military and other instruments. Corruption and organized crime can also be of use to exercise hybrid influence. Cyber-attacks are becoming an even more largely employed instrument and their application will grow in the future.

Hybrid impact could comprise both pressure tools and „stimuli“, i.e., the tactics of either „sticks“ and „carrots“. The „stimuli“ offered by Russia are mostly in energy, including nuclear, while energy resources are promised in exchange for following a political line which is favorable for Moscow. In the end, the „carrot“, particularly with reference to investments in nuclear energy, could lead to substantial long-term financial losses as well as to unhealthy dependence on Moscow. The attempts to reanimate the construction project of the “Belene” nuclear power plant in Bulgaria that most probably will turn out to be financially not profitable in perspective could be seen in this context. The “Belene” nuclear power plant will constrain the freedom of choice of the generations to come. This project, coupled with the gas pipeline project „South Stream“, is an additional attempt of Russia to bind Bulgaria in the energy sphere in the long-term. This opens up new avenues for subversion in both domestic and external policy. Energy and politics for the Kremlin in this case represent the different sides of the same coin.

Hybrid influence nowadays enjoys an incontestable advantage. It provides the actor, be it state or nob-state, which is initiating it with the opportunity to deny it long enough. The goal pursued is that such an actor is not identified soon enough and unambiguously as being guilty. This is already known, based on the experience with the annexation of Crimea, as „plausible deniability“. Some hybrid influences in the “soft” spectrum of power at present are difficult to be early and unmistakably defined as hostile actions carried out in preparation for an escalation to come. For example, this could be an information media and social media campaign, aimed at distorting public perceptions prior to elections or these could be attempts to intervene in the domestic politics of a given target country through providing support to a specific internal political actor. Actions of this type could be aimed at dividing and weakening the country under attack so as to lay the ground for penetrating its politics in the future. This is impossible not to have a negative impact on its foreign policy course, and even on its strategic orientation.

Under this logic it is possible to carry out a dynamic hybrid campaign against a member state of a collective defense alliance, including NATO. In such a case, because of the opportunity to be denied, the initial subversive activities of non-military character do not provide enough ground for resorting to a collective defense clause activated in case of an armed attack, such as the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In this manner the country under attack could be progressively enfeebled and finally captured from inside by using the “soft” power of economic/energy, political and information tools, until one day its allies face a fait accompli.

Given the today’s dynamics in the development of hybrid warfare as phenomenon, the influence on each state is unique and is including a different combination of methods and means. In some countries the resort to the use of “hard” power is swift and resolute, while in other cases the influence is attained by non-military tools with the purpose of de facto capturing the state institutions, without military power, primarily via economic means as well as by making use of the local corruption potential. Nowadays this is known under the term “state capture”, albeit in its initial usage its sense is narrower, focused on the business sector.

The “state capture” in this sense will be present when the aggressor achieves a sufficient level of influence on the internal and external policy of the country under attack. In some cases, for the country that is initiating hybrid warfare it would not be necessary to make the country under attack leave the alliances that it is a member of. It would be enough only to have a change in its policy. Furthermore, the targeted state could be transformed into a vehicle allowing the penetration of the aggressor’s influence in the alliances the former is member of, i.e., to be converted into a “Trojan horse”. This is the goal that Russia is aspiring to achieve nowadays with regard to Bulgaria.

The Russia domination strategy regarding Bulgaria is aimed at establishing a sufficient level of control over the development of the country with the aim of having Sofia unable to conduct an independent foreign and security policy as a member of NATO and EU. The essence of this strategy is “Bulgaria: Trojan horse” in NATO and in the EU. Its name is derived from the cynical remarks of the Russia Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov in 2006, who called Bulgaria the Russian “Trojan Horse in the EU”. Under this logic, Sofia could make part of both alliances, but on the condition that the Kremlin would have a sufficient level of influence over the policy decisions of the state. In this way, the Bulgarian membership in NATO and EU is more of an opportunity rather than a threat.

In carrying out this strategy Russia is systematically interfering in the internal political process in Bulgaria. This is exposed also by the openly cynical statements regarding Bulgaria and Bulgarian politics of Leonid Reshetnikov, director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies at the President of the Russian Federation in the period 29.04.2009-04.01.2017, who is also lieutenant-general (Retd) from the Foreign Intelligence Service of the country. Not only the words of Reshetnikov, but also the analysis of the Russian influence over Bulgaria after 2014, reveal the existence of a Russian subversive strategy on the political processes in the country. Reshetnikov explicitly recognized that there were Russian attempts to interfere into the presidential elections in Bulgaria in 2016. This is disclosed also by his meeting held in the summer of 2016 in Sofia with the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party Kornelia Ninova in connection with the nomination of Rumen Radev, who was elected president later on the same year.

It is not surprising that Moscow is trying to interfere in the Bulgarian political affairs. Russia is doing the same in in other NATO members, such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain (the so called referendum for the independence of Catalonia), just to name a few. Moscow is pursuing its geostrategic interests in South Eastern Europe and Bulgaria is a key country for its strategy. Reshetnikov confessed that for Russia Bulgaria is the „gate to the Balkans,” that are traditional sphere” of the Russian economic, cultural and spiritual influence. According to him, without Bulgaria, Russia would have difficulty in reaching to Serbia, Montenegro and Greece and this is the reason why the country is of so high importance to Moscow. This is why Moscow is expected to go on with its offensive strategy with regard to Bulgaria. One of the goals pursued in its implementation is isolating from government the people who are working to make Bulgaria a more effective NATO and EU member state. This is the so called by Reshetnikov himself “cleansing” of the pro-European and pro-Western elite that is pejoratively labelled by him “the foam” of the Bulgarian nation.

The Russian influence in Bulgaria is now discernible in economy, and energy in particular, as well as in politics, including in the sphere of defense. The latter is still not paid enough attention to. Subverting these sectors is achieved also through subverting the rule of law. The unsatisfactory state of the rule of law is described in the annual Reports from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on Progress in Bulgaria under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism.

The Russian policy towards NATO and the EU is revanchist. The Kremlin is seeking to restore the spheres of influence of the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, as of today, Russia does not have a well-defined vital geopolitical project which is able to present an alternative to the Western model of democracy, shared values, security, development and prosperity that is now represented by EU and NATO. The so called Eurasian Union remains a conceptually vague and it is charged more with revanchist expectations, nostalgia for the USSR and authoritarianism, rather than with truly feasible content. This is why Russia is seeking to exploit above all the weaknesses of NATO and EU through destabilizing them. For hybrid warfare first and foremost exploits the weaknesses of the adversary. At this stage the Kremlin is capable of doing only this and it is doing it determinedly.

Today Russia is in quest of dividing EU and NATO, with the intention to provoke their weakening and even their potential disintegration. Such an outcome will result in the formation of a new “grey zone” of insecurity in Eastern Europe sandwiched between Russia and the West. Even if Russia does not manage to attain this goal, in the present day it is still acceptable for Moscow that the Central and Eastern European member states of NATO and EU continue to make part of these organizations. However, its objective is that these countries are weak allies, heavily penetrated by Russian influence, and hence to be useless members, living off the rest of the member countries. This is exactly the purpose of the Russian strategy “Bulgaria: Trojan horse” in NATO and in the EU.

In order to be able to realize the challenge that Bulgaria is facing today, first of all it should be taken into account that in its strategic documents Russia perceives NATO as the “main external military danger”. NATO, however, does not define in any of its official documents the Russian Federation as a threat. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, approved by the President on 26.12.2014, points out as the “main external military danger” “the increase in the power potential of NATO”, coupled with the “military infrastructure of the NATO member countries getting closer to the Russian borders, including through further enlargement”.

Instead of hybrid war, the Russian military thinking uses the term “non-linear war”. This concept is explained by the Chief of the General Staff of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Army General Valery Gerassimov. In his opinion today the “rules of warfare” are substantially changed, and the role of non-military tools is growing in importance for attaining the strategic goals of the state. In many cases they are more effective than the power of weapons. It is worth mentioning that the term non-linear war appeared in a short story written by Vladislav Surkov, one of the closest advisors of Vladimir Putin, who published it under the name Natan Dubovitskiy a few days prior to the illegal annexation of Crimea. According to the author, in a non-linear war everybody is at war with all. There is no middle ground. There could be only victory or death.

Lead by this revanchist dualistic understanding of “victory  or death”, the Russian president Vladimir Putin today is seeking to subvert the foundations of democratic societies in Europe and North America. For achieving this, Russia employs overt or covert means and instruments in various domains – military, political, economic and informational. In a number of cases Russia is seeking “to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy, and corruption.”

It is known today that in Russia, under the conditions of an economy that is controlled by the Kremlin, in order to survive the business hinges on on the protection of the country’s leadership.  This opens up the way for the state authorities to exercise undue influence either over Russian companies doing business abroad, or over Western companies operating in Russia. Moscow is able to put pressure on business so as to make it finance its subversion of political processes elsewhere — by making contributions to an anti-NATO organization in Sweden, for example, or establishing anti-fracking groups in Bulgaria and Romania to fight developments that might threaten Russia’s dominance of the eastern European gas market.

The main obstacle to the implementation of the Russian subversion strategy today is not only the military potential of the Western NATO and EU member countries, but first and foremost their internal stability with regard to hybrid attacks. This stability is based above all on the rule of law. This is why in this context the main target is the rule of law. For where there is a sufficient level of law and order the Kremlin meets the greatest difficulty in its quest to subversively capture countries from within. Local actors sponsored by the Kremlin cannot easily operate with effectiveness in an environment that has a sufficient level of rule of law, free and based on clear rules market economy, transparency and vibrant civil society. The business connected to Russia nowadays operates best in an environment where institutions are weak and civil society is asleep. In this context the feeble components these days in EU and NATO are the former communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria.

This is the reason why, in addition to military measures, NATO and EU should focus on reinforcing the rule of law in their Central and Eastern European members as well as in the applicant countries. If it is deficient, the power instruments (internal security structures and military potential) of the NATO countries from Central and Eastern Europe will finally be useless. There could not be strong police, security and intelligence services as well as dependable armed forces, if there is not enough degree of rule of law. Its shortage undermines both internal security and defense of any member state and thus is making it an easy target for external powers.

In view of all the above said, it is necessary to determinedly counter Russian hybrid warfare waged against the NATO and EU members, including Bulgaria. In the wake of the illegitimate annexation of Crimea both organizations embarked on preparing to counter hybrid threats. Nonetheless, building-up such capabilities is above all a responsibility of the member states.

The foremost problem today is that not all NATO and EU members share a similar assessment of hybrid threats as a fundamental security challenge. Witnessed are variations in perceptions on either their character or their source. In general it is recognized that hybrid impact comes from both East (Russia) and (chiefly terrorism, regional instability in the Middle East and North Africa, mass migration). However, at present not all the NATO and EU countries share a similar view on the Russian revanchist policy. For example, the Baltic States, Poland and Romania judge the actions of Russia in one way, whereas Hungary, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Greece and Cyprus in a more different.

The activity in countering hybrid threats in NATO started in 2014. For strengthening the collective deterrence and defense potential as well as for effective protection of the member states important decisions were taken at the Summits in Wales (2014) and Warsaw. The Alliance’s approach in dealing with hybrid threats is based on the understanding of the necessity to focus the efforts in three main directions – prepare, deter and defend. At the end of 2015, the Alliance adopted its own strategy for countering hybrid warfare.

The EU is also investing efforts in this direction. The EU understanding is described in the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats – a European Union response, 06.04.2016.

The EU and NATO have been developing cooperation in this field and the concrete areas of joint activity are defined in the Joint Declaration adopted in Warsaw in 2016.

The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) was established in October 2017 in Helsinki by Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA. The Hybrid CoE will be the focal point of the best expertise in countering hybrid threats and it is intended to support the efforts of NATO, EU and the member states. The Hybrid CoE is open to other member countries. It is high time for Bulgaria to join this structure.

In light of all the above said, the real issue today is whether and to what extent Bulgaria is ready to counter hybrid threats.

Unfortunately, the Bulgarian politicians in general are still not able to assess hybrid threats in an adequate manner. At the state strategic level of government a sufficient level of shared understanding on the essence and sources of hybrid threats is still missing. Today the country’s leadership as a whole is neglecting the problem with the hybrid threats that are coming from the East. This is revealed also by the contradictory positions amongst the political leaders with reference to EU and US sanctions imposed on Russian entities and persons. The shift in the strategic military balance of power in the Black Sea in Moscow’s favor is also being ignored. On the other hand, there are many Bulgarian politicians who are ready to speak about hybrid influence as long as it originates from the South.

The objective findings on the Russian policy in the Report on the State of the National Security of the Republic of Bulgaria in 2016 represent a step in the right direction, albeit belated. Well-grounded are the statements that “the activity of Russia are a source of regional instability and are threatening our fundamental aim of having a united, free and peaceful Europe.” The Russian actions aimed at militarizing Crimea are mentioned together with “the durable shift in the geostrategic and military balance in the Black Sea”. Nevertheless, this report is only an initial step that must be followed by actions.

What is necessary to be undertaken by Bulgaria so as to prepare to effectively counter hybrid threats, regardless of the direction they are coming from?

To begin with, Bulgaria should adopt as early as possible a national strategy for countering hybrid threats. It must be harmonized with the NATO and EU corresponding documents in this sphere and be based on the updated National Security Strategy, which takes into account hybrid threats as a national security challenge. The document should be subject to periodic review and update in view of the dynamics of this problematics. The strategy should be updated every two years at the latest.   Preparing such a document, however, would not be a small challenge nowadays, taking into consideration the variety of attitudes among the main political actors, but there is no more time to put this off. A passive, wait-and-see position in a fundamentally changed security environment is detrimental to the national interests.

In order to put into practice such a national strategy for countering hybrid threats, the development of a sufficient institutional capacity is of decisive significance. This is a primary task of every institution related to national security (Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Ministries, counter intelligence and intelligence services etc.). Within all of these institutions there should be a designated structure, charged with tackling hybrid influences and provided with enough human, financial and material resources.

It is also necessary to build-up an effective mechanism for interagency cooperation and coordination among all the state structures involved in this domain. In order to have this accomplished, first, there should be a designated strategic level coordinating structure that is charged with directing the activities, receiving and processing information, and, regularly reporting to the Government and to Parliament. Most logically, the role of such a body should be assumed by the Secretariat of the Security Council at the Council of Ministers. However, the Secretariat is yet to be provided with the needed resources. Just to remind that, under the current legislation in force, the national crisis management system is to be composed of national, institutional and regional situation centers. The Secretariat of the Security Council is supposed to function as a National Situation Center. This is still not put into effect.

Bearing in mind the growing danger of cyberattacks and the growth of their destructive potential, a stronger emphasis should be put upon building-up cyber protection and cyber defense capabilities, in active cooperation with NATO and the EU and the use of their experience and achievements.

With regard to the fact that hybrid warfare is first and foremost an information war, it is about time to pay more attention to developing the institutional capacity to carry out effective strategic communications directed both towards society and abroad. This is needed not only to counter foreign propaganda, media manipulations and fake news, but mostly to convey convincing positive public messages in support of the state policies.

In the context of hybrid attacks that can start with subversive impact in the civilian spectrum, it is necessary to work intensively to strengthen the resilience of the country in crises, particularly by covering the civilian aspects of resilience. “Each NATO member country needs to have the resilience to withstand shocks like natural disasters, failure of critical infrastructure and military attacks. Resilience is a society’s ability to resist and recover easily and quickly from these shocks, combining civilian, economic, commercial and military factors.”

To put into practice all the above recommended, a Crisis Management Law should be drafted and adopted. Such an Act should regulate the coordinated countering of hybrid threats. The current Law on the Management and Functioning of the System for the Protection of the National Security,that regulates the management and functioning of the system for the protection of the national security of the Republic of Bulgaria and the control over it, is only a framework law that is yet insufficient. Chapter three of this law only most generally outlines crisis management, and hence this must be written down in detail explicitly in a separate law, together with the ensuing secondary legal base.

In this respect, it is essential to develop and adopt a modern concept of escalation, in conformity with the best NATO practices. This means to clearly and unambiguously legally describe and delineate the powers and responsibilities of the institutions as well as the interaction amongst them in the four possible states – peacetime, increase in tension, crisis and war. This would necessitate not only legislation, but conceivably also constitutional changes, as under the current Constitution now present are the states of peace, war, martial law and “any other state of emergency”. This status quo is no longer answering the real needs of the national security system of Bulgaria as a member of NATO and EU in a fundamentally changed strategic environment.

Bulgaria faces today unprecedented challenges. Nevertheless, the country makes part of the Euro-Atlantic community of free nations. The NATO and EU membership guarantees not only security, but also opens up new avenues for development. To enjoy prosperity, Bulgaria needs to build-up a sufficiently high degree of rule of law as well as to strengthen its national security system as a part of NATO and EU. This will guarantee a reliable defense against any kind of external threats, including hybrid ones, regardless of their source and character. In order to have this, the political class must possess enough strategic wisdom that at the moment is yet to be proven. That is the reason why today Bulgaria needs a much more critically thinking and active civil society.

By Mihail Naydenov, for Bulgaria Analytica

Mihail Naydenov is a defense and international security expert. He is a member of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria. Mihail Naydenov has been a civilian expert at the Defense Policy Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Bulgaria since 2001. He is experienced in defense policy formulation and implementation, analysis, speech-writing and conduct of Strategic Defense/Force Structure Reviews.