A looming large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely. However, this does not preclude alternative, nonconventional military measures by Russia. These could entail various aspects of hybrid warfare, such as covert activity, political manipulation, cyberattacks, propaganda, and misinformation including the signaling of a potential invasion that we are seeing now. There is also the possibility of Russian military buildups elsewhere, such as weapons deployments to Kaliningrad or in countries that are friendlier to Moscow, such as Belarus.

Russia may sow chaos to achieve its agenda beyond its borders by deploying an array of hybrid warfare tools. From the Kremlin’s perspective, hybrid warfare is a tactical application of the chaos strategy. It is full spectrum warfare that deploys a blend of conventional and nonconventional means aimed at affecting on the ground changes in target while seeking to avoid direct military confrontation with Western states.  Hybrid warfare is employed in a tailored way to sow chaos in target countries. Such efforts generally include irregular warfare, active measures, and special operations. Chaos can be seeded via asymetrica means through disinformation, cyberattacks, political subversion, business ties, and economic warfare among other tools. Such means represent a coordianted and tailored effort at the strategic level to reshape the internal course be it political, economic, or societal of target countries. Russia uses a synergetic and convergent toolkit of military and nonmilitary tactics. In this context, Russian operations must lead to information and psychological dominance of the enemy. Seeding chaos is, therefore, part of what Russian military strategists refer to as the “initial period of war” taking after Soviet military theory but applied to modern warfare. These concepts eradicate the line between peace and war, placing politics and armed conflict in the same category.

It reflects a pragmatic acceptance of the need to take what opportunities arise. What makes this chaos strategy unique is the fact that the synergy between nonlinear and nonmilitary tactics is no longer auxiliary to the use of force, but rather the equivalent of force itself. 

There are two main vectors in the development of Russian military strategy: limited action and active defense. The strategy of limited action outside Russia’s borders seeks to counter existing threats to Russian national interests through limited out-of-area military intervention. Accordingly, asymmetric and nonlinear methods of action are paramount, not least to obtain and keep informational superiority throughout the duration of military operations with an emphasis on surprise and decisiveness. Limited action endorses the focused application of conventional military power as a tool of state power to achieve national aims. The strategy of active defense aims to preemptively neutralize threats through active measures. Accordingly, this would be a response to Western interference, “Trojan Horse.” This reference to the West is more confrontational than before: it frames the United States as an “aggressor” and accuses it of developing interference strategies that combine fifth-column political warfare and color revolutions with high-tech global strike capabilities. This, too, is linked to the preparation of the operational environment through information superiority and the use of nonlinear tactics. Active defense employs the Soviet toolkit of deception (maskirovka) and places the onus on nonmilitary means of action.

Among the drivers of change in Russian thinking, disappointment and unexpected outcomes have been some of the most powerful. This is most notably the case with low-intensity military operations in Ukraine: difficulty in upholding a degree of “plausible deniability” of direct military intervention; war fatigue; issues with managing proxy groups and local militia; the failure of “Novorossiya” and other ideological products in Ukraine; the absence of an exit strategy in the Donbas, etc. Russia has now altered its originally ambitious aim (to control Crimea and the Donbas) in favor of perpetuating a persistent, low-scale conflict that will impede Ukraine’s integration into Western security structures.

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