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Nord Stream sabotages: the "hybrid war" has well and truly begun

Seen from the sky, the images are spectacular.

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Nord Stream sabotages: the "hybrid war" has well and truly begun

Seen from the sky, the images are spectacular. Bubbling on the surface of the Baltic Sea one kilometer in diameter signal gas leaks linked to the sabotage of Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Four holes in total in less than a week. NATO denounced on September 29 "irresponsible" acts. All eyes are on Russia, which for its part denounces an "act of international terrorism" and hints at the United States. The visibly coordinated operation marks in any case a new stage in the "hybrid war". For Maxime Lebrun, senior analyst at the European Center of Excellence for the fight against hybrid threats in Helsinki, this offensive seeks above all to "test the Western response". According to this researcher, Americans and Europeans must absolutely better anticipate these new threats, whether they target cyber, underwater or extra-atmospheric spaces. Maintenance.

L'Express: Westerners suspect Russia of having sabotaged these gas pipelines. Are we facing a war that does not say its name?

We are witnessing a blatant physical manifestation of what is called "hybrid warfare" or rather a coordinated campaign of hybrid threats. For the time being, we do not yet know which power is behind these leaks, even if the Russians are strongly suspected. This type of attack aims to test the limits of the Western response. The North Atlantic Council issued a statement on September 29 stating that any deliberate attack on the alliance's critical infrastructure will require a united and determined response. But NATO faces a major problem: the burden of proof. If we want to respond to a deliberate attack, we have to demonstrate who is behind it. However, the physical evidence in this type of attack is often thin and questionable.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that if it turns out that Russia is responsible, this would mean that it is attacking its own infrastructures. We can see how Moscow would use the figure of the madman as a strategic asset. Vladimir Putin sends a subliminal message: "Yes, it's my infrastructure, I depend on it economically, but I attack it anyway, I shoot myself in the foot. In doing so, I appear crazy, therefore unpredictable ", which complicates the strategic calculations of its adversaries and the response of Europe and NATO.


Dario Ungiusto / L'Express

There are other examples in history. Hitler was the figure of the madman and the unpredictable: will he really invade Czechoslovakia? Everyone thought at the time that it would be crazy to do it. He took action. Ditto for Mussolini concerning the campaign of Ethiopia. Everyone thought Italy could never take Ethiopia, Mussolini tempted him, and that contributed to his downfall.

Giving yourself the face of a madman isn't so strategic, then?

In reality, it would be strategic if the madman was served by a competent administration, which had the courage to tell him the reality of his abilities. However, to understand the governance of contemporary Russia, it is necessary to refer to the concept of bad governance, highlighted by the Russian political scientist Vladimir Gelman in his book published in 2019 The Politics of Bad Governance in Contemporary Russia.

In this book, he explains that in a corrupt authoritarian regime, the lower echelons never report to their hierarchy the reality of what they see, do, and spend. As a result, Putin has an extremely biased image of Russia's capabilities. When he thinks he can take kyiv in three days, he acts like a madman thinking that his administration will follow and that his state has the means. Except that if the bishop is alone or badly served, nothing works as planned.

Can you come back to the characteristics of "hybrid warfare"?

I would define it as a strategy that exploits a series of threats, accidents or risks that, combined, form a hybrid threat aimed at three objectives: 1/ To complicate the decision-making of our liberal democracies; 2/ calling into question the integrity, the added value or the merits of governance in a liberal democracy; 3/ while saturating political and media attention on these threats. Unsurprisingly, these practices emanate from more or less authoritarian regimes that seek to discredit the democratic model.

Hybrid warfare also has the particularity of blurring the line between times of war and times of peace...

The question of the threshold - from which 'we go to war' is constitutive of the hybrid war paradigm. Of course, everything will depend on the circumstances. This is why it would seem to me counterproductive for NATO to define in advance a threshold beyond which a conflict would no longer be considered as hybrid and would call for a strong operational response. Because the whole interest of the adversary would then be to stay as much as possible below this declared threshold, while causing maximum damage.

It is the same reasoning as for nuclear deterrence. In French doctrine, the threshold beyond which a nuclear response would be implemented is not defined in advance, otherwise it would empty the very concept of nuclear deterrence of its meaning.

When did hybrid warfare start? What were the main markers?

The concept of hybrid warfare took shape in the mid-2000s, with the military engagements of the Israeli army in Lebanon, which suffered a crushing defeat. To explain how the technologically and numerically superior IDF army was defeated in the face of ill-armed and ill-equipped terrorist groups, US Colonel Frank Hoffman popularized the phrase "hybrid warfare". He explains the rout by a combination of military and non-military means, and the maintenance of a permanent blur between civilian and military capabilities.

In 2007, a large-scale cyberattack against Estonia - in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Russia - marks a new stage.

Then came, in 2014, the first Russian offensive in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. There, we pass to a more intense stage since the Russians deploy unidentified troops (the famous "little green men"), and maintain the vagueness between the military and the civilian, the state and the non-state, the assumed and the not assumed.

Then, in 2018, there was the poisoning of Sergei Skripal (a former Russian intelligence agent) and his daughter in England. Although the use of nerve agents is not new to the Russians, it once again marks the confusion between civilian and military capabilities. This kind of poison is not found in a household products store, only a limited number of actors - state - have access to it.

During the election of Donald Trump, there was also a mix of espionage, classic intelligence and disinformation operations that relied on private actors, with the involvement of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. to exploit personal data on a large scale for political marketing purposes; information then shared with Russian companies linked to the Kremlin spy service.

Finally, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, we have witnessed a brutal military operation comparable to the wars of the 20th century, which is articulated with hybrid threats in the information or energy fields, such as the recent sabotage of gas pipelines.

So Russia would be the "champion country" in terms of hybrid threats?

These practices are inexpensive, not very moral, and bring in a lot: an ideal recipe for Moscow.

How do Western states organize the response to this new hybrid war?

Our Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, based in Helsinki, works with state actors to help them project themselves into this new world and avoid mistakes as much as possible. Because a campaign of hybrid threats seeks to push its opponents to make mistakes or to take decisions that would be contrary to our democratic values. For example, when you want to counter disinformation or propaganda from what you consider to be a foreign power, there is a rather slippery slope, which is the limitation of freedom of expression and of the press.

The debate was very lively on this subject before the invasion of Ukraine. The attack was a game-changer as Russian state-run media glorifying the crime clearly violated international law, leading to their ban on European soil.

But in normal times, the situation is not so clear and there are many hidden propaganda organs. What to do ? Invite them into the media debate? Ban them systematically? These are serious moral and ethical questions.

What about when the attack is no longer virtual but physical, as in the case of these gas pipelines?

The extent of our underwater critical infrastructure is enormous and no Navy, not even NATO - unless it mounts a large-scale operation - can monitor everything in real time. It is a diffuse threat. How to prepare for it? By internationalizing the response, by working at the level of the European Union and NATO, so that each State does not remain alone in its corner. We are trying to implement mechanisms, it so happens that the European Commission and the European treaties have articles on solidarity in the event of an attack or disaster caused by human, accidental or industrial causes. We have legal and financial tools, for example to deal with a shortage of gas or electricity if this type of attack were to happen again. These mechanisms must be strengthened to have better room for manoeuvre, to be more resilient and to avoid too much disruption at the first threat.

The digital field and the submarine are two spaces that remain relatively unregulated. Does this make them favored territories for hybrid warfare?

Indeed, this is what is called "the gray zone". In summary, the less clear laws, regulations, thresholds and jurisdictions there are, the more fertile ground there is for hybrid threats. For example, it is more effective to conduct a sabotage operation in less regulated international waters. It is no coincidence that the gas pipeline leaks took place just outside Danish territorial waters. China is doing the same in the Taiwan Strait. Its aircraft are still very dangerously close to Taiwanese territorial waters, but remain at the edge of its area of ​​sovereignty, so Taiwan cannot say that there has been a violation of its space.

Outer space is also one to watch. For now, few players can afford to launch satellites. They are growing in number, but not yet enough to generate unbridled competition favoring hybrid threats on this scale.

What types of threats can we imagine in the future in this space?

Private commercial satellites crashing into or disrupting earth observation satellites, for example. One can also imagine a space saturation effect, called the "Kessler effect", according to which, due to too many vehicles orbiting in space, collisions will multiply and satellites will become inoperable.

What about underwater threats?

There, it is above all the submarine cables that carry risks. Obviously, the gas pipeline affair is in the headlines because it is quite spectacular, but we can have much more discreet operations, for example spy devices that would be grafted onto a cable to suck up the contents. [In 2021, an investigation by Danish public television revealed that Denmark would have let the United States plug into its cables to spy on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, between 2012 and 2014, Editor's note].

Who says spying on submarine cables says potential collection of personal data, for example those of millions of voters from this or that country to potentially be able to calibrate an information campaign to guide the outcome of an election. A priori, however, we do not see very well the link between an election and submarine cables. It is the whole purpose of our work to help the States to make this kind of connections in order to consider all possible fields.

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