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Fri 19 July 2019
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Counter-misinformation group director tells parliamentary session how his Institute of Statecraft was a casualty of 21st Century ‘Hybrid War’

Security experts yesterday warned the House of Commons’ Defence Committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a non-lethal “hybrid war” to divide Europe, and that the UK is on the back foot.

Chris Donnelly, Institute of Statecraft

“We, like it or not are at war. It may be a threat not to our physical existence as a nuclear weapon is, but it is a threat to the society based on liberal democratic values, which we treasure.

Chris Donnelly, Director, the Institute for Statecraft

Hybrid warfare falls short of invading an enemy with armed forces. Disinformation, bots, and disguised propaganda have a significant role to play in it, as do hacking, psychological techniques, large corporations and ‘movements’, the House of Commons’ Defence Committee heard yesterday.

They were warned that hybrid War falls short of armed conflict but it can pave the way for armed conflict, for which the UK needs to build Armed Forces reserves, experts warned.

Yesterday was the first evidence session in the Defence Committee’s investigation of hybrid war with evidence from Chris Donnelly, Director of hacked charity the Institute for Statecraft, Dr Robert Johnson, who directs of the Changing Character of War Centre in the University of Oxford, and Dr Andrew Mumford from the University of Nottingham, a former consultant to the MoD and NATO.

Origins of Inquiry

The inquiry was sparked by a ‘campaign’ by one of its members, SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes, who suggested yesterday: “Our adversaries do not want a nuclear conflict. What they want is a field of acquiescence from us … that allows them to inform and direct our political discourse.”

Docherty-Hughes said the overall aim of hybrid war is to alter our ‘System of Government’.

Our adversaries do not want a nuclear conflict. What they want is a field of acquiescence from us …

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP

Donnelly’s Institute for Statecraft which studies disinformation, particularly from Russia, was hacked last year and was involved in its own kind of information warfare when senior Labour politicians complained that it had used its FCO funding for political purposes because of several tweets from its Twitter feed criticised Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russian interference during elections in the UK and US.

The widespread claims of domestic interference are disputed by the Institute and the Government.

Asked about the hack by the Committee, Donnelly said: “This is itself a classic example of hybrid warfare. … It tells us a lot about how such an attack can be orchestrated and who is behind it and how that organisation is using people and institutions in the UK to its own ends.”

“The UK is not waging hybrid warfare, but should be,” Donnelly added. However, he said the MoD and Government needs clear guidance on how to use ‘all forms of power’ in the UK’s defence, without contravening international law.

UK Sleepwalking in Hybrid Conflict

Dr Robert Johnson, The Changing Nature of War Centre

“There are individual Russian officers who believe they are at war with the West in all but the fighting component.”

Dr Robert Johnson, The Changing Nature of War Centre, Oxford University

Five forces present major hybrid warfare threats to the UK – Russia, China, ISIL (as a ‘non-state actor’), Iran and North Korea

“We have already crossed the threshold of certain states – even those that are members of the UN Security Council, behaving in a manner that is frankly illegal and certainly not in the spirit of the UN Charter,” Dr Johnson said.

“There are individual Russian officers who believe they are at war with the West in all but the fighting component,” he added. “We have been sleepwalking our way through that 1991 moment … We are still living in the euphoria of the post-Cold War moment, and we have to ‘get real’ about where we are.

Putin doesn’t play chess to hone his strategic thinking he plays the Japanese or Chinese game of Go … [that] game becomes highly complex very quickly.

“There will be periodic crises that come up. Take for example Russia, there will be some issue with Russian domestic policy. There will be some development in the Donbas or elsewhere. So we may have periodic threats against us to which we will of course have to respond”

Donnelly expanded on that theme to MPs: “We are not understanding that there has been a paradigm shift in the nature of conflict. … the 21st century war will be a war of all against all, and everyone is a player in that conflict now. It is not just States, it is non-state actors and it is big corporations and it is movements.

Donnelly told the Committee: “Putin doesn’t play chess to hone his strategic thinking he plays the Japanese or Chinese game of Go. … [that] game becomes highly complex very quickly. All you have to do to win the game is to surround one of the other player’s pieces with your own. …[but on a large board] you’ve got an extremely complicated situation where you’ve got lots of little games going on.”

In Russia’s case: “You may be operating in Ukraine on one minute, in Syria in another, maybe doing something in the Arctic in a third, or an information warfare attack on the UK at the fourth … we fail to see the strategy being practised.”

On the Horns of a Dilemma

Dr Andrew Mumford

“The one thing that hybrid warfare has been and will continue to be is fundamentally, an act of political warfare.”

Dr Andrew Mumford

Dr Andrew Mumford answered the Committee’s question What do these states do, what do they want?

“Fundamentally they want to disrupt the decision-making process within competitor states,” he told Parliament. “Essentially, acts of hybrid war try to put a competitor state on the horns of a dilemma. Overreaction looks like you are the belligerent one, under-reaction leaves elements of your national critical infrastructure at risk. … Everything is done below the threshold of response. … Those clear lines of command and control are not there, they are very murky.”

Donnelly told the committee he believes deterrence is to some extent ‘impossible’ and that the UK may need to actively wage hybrid war on its competitors – a tactic that the UK does not currently use – in order to deter attacks.

Overreaction looks like you are the belligerent one, under-reaction leaves elements of your national critical infrastructure at risk.

Donnelly emphasised: “We, like it or not are at war … it may be a threat not to our physical existence as a nuclear weapon is, but it is a threat to the society based on liberal democratic values, which we treasure. And truly, people don’t see it happening.”

Dr Mumford agreed, that defending against hybrid war is “like trying to catch fog.”

The Aim to Break Europe

Dr Johnson believes that Russia’s strategy, while it mobilises, is ‘a divided and weakened Europe’. Putin’s plan is “really only to contain us, for the time being, so that Russian military mobilisation can be completed, and therefore it’s in a stronger position with a divided and weakened Europe.”

Dr Johnson warned MPs that more lethal forms of warfare may then follow. He concluded the session by referring to the threat embodied in Russia’s poisonous attack on Salisbury: “Trying to murder people on the streets of Britain, doing so in one particular case.”

Dr Johnson said the UK has to compel Russia to make a choice. “Either they’re going to continue that course and suffer accordingly, or realise that they have to cease and desist. We can encourage them into better behaviour, rather than continuing to do to us what they are doing at the moment.”

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