Monday, February 25, 2019

Book Review: 'Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change' by Andrew Korybko


Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach To Regime Change by [Korybko, Andrew]


In “The Age of Neutralisations and Depolitications”, Carl Schmitt in 1929 observed that Central Europe lives sous l’oeil Russe - under the Russian eye - meaning scrutinised with a specifically Russian “psychological gaze”. It “sees through (European) great words and institutions”, writes the German legal philosopher and evokes cool motionless Slavic X-ray eyeballs pervading idealistic Western surface politics to excavate raw ossified power structure.

How little has changed then roughly 90 years later, with the West still submitted to Russia’s unswerving, unpleasant and often embarrassing critique. The short 1990s global honeymoon of mob-looting Russia’s industrial assets and flooding it with Pepsi imports gave way to the slow and painful reconstitution under Putin I including of the legendary Soviet psychological warfare apparatus. Slowly and awkwardly at first but with increasing single-minded sophistication, Russia’s state-funded global propaganda giants RT and Sputnik have fast-track-reindustrialised Russia’s critical faculties against Western governments by providing a platform for popular left and right-wing Western dissidents shunned by their respective domestic mainstream media. In return, these pundits further the Russian perspective also pervasively whispered across the non-Western world: Of Western powers as essentially exploitative and aggressive actors in international relations. More specifically, according to disenchanted Russia, the Cold War never ended in 1990 and the West and Nato have only sought different means to catalyse Russia’s dislocation while inexorably positioning their military bases ever closer to Russian borders through the installation of friendly governments in post-Soviet and post-Warsaw Pact territory via so-called colour revolutions. Contemplating the ensuing political instability and fragmentation in Europe, Central Asia and beyond, Vladimir Putin once famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20st century”. 

Andrew Korybko’s book “Hybrid Wars” (2015) published by the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Predictions appears in this legacy of a materialist and geopolitical perspective that must seem unpleasant and alien to Western transcendental sensibilities, given the virulence with which the angle is avoided in Western discourse.  Analysing international relations like a chessboard and zero-sum game of an expansion of military bases and missile deployments, of course, in its very aesthetic undermines Western idealist communications. Media takes of regime change as struggles for self-determination supported as a result of Western humanitarian concern are cut short by a bottom-line view on results: the de-facto proliferation of Western friendly governments, trade partners, military cooperation agreements and bases.

Korybko thus sets the stage by providing a theoretical background of the classical geopolitical themes and literature- the ugly suspicion that continues to haunt international relations. According to the discipline birthed in the late 19th century with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” and Halford Mackinder’s “The Geographical Pivot of History”, the world is divided into a world island, offshore islands and outlying islands. Control of the world island, of Eurasia - the “Heartland”, essentially equals “command of the world” and thus becomes something of a persistent object of concern and desire in geopolitics for the rulers of the offshore islands and outlying islands – roughly the Anglo-American Sea powers and Japan. Regardless of whether such a perspective suffices to explain international politics, it is at least remarkable how little the fundamentals of the discipline have changed when reading more recent and influential tracts on geopolitics like “The Great Chessboard” (1997) by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the eminence grise Polish-American strategist who advised numerous US administrations from LBJ to Carter and Obama and only passed recently in 2017.

Having set the conceptual stage to explain the fierceness of ongoing and persistent US-Russian rivalry, which is counterintuitive[1], Korybko’s continues by tracing the recent evolution of Western warfare strategy by piling up popular American warfare manuals. Readers learn about incisive paradigm shifts such as William Lind’s Fourth Generation Warfare (1989) postulating an evolution from large mass armies towards fluid, decentralised and asymmetrical forms of confrontation. It is complemented by Steven Mann’s “Chaos Theory and Strategic Thought” (1992) and an integration of internet communications into tactical strategy as early as in 1996 with Arquila and Ronfeld’s “The Age of Netwar” and Admiral Cebrowski’s and Garska’s “Network Centric Warfare” (1998).  Warfare hence becomes reinvented. It transforms from clunky mass military strategy towards today’s lean, fluid, decentralised[2], digitised precision tactics either as exhibition corps complemented by private military contractors or led-from-behind/outsourced to regional actors discretely infused by quasi-invisible imperial thanato-supply- and assistance chains.

It is along these vectors that a contemporary form of hybrid warfare has developed. “At its core, Hybrid War is managed chaos”, Korybko summarises the theme, which should be an eye opener given that the literature of the manuals analysed mirrors the de-facto situation of never ending military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasingly in other states such as Libya or Yemen. Low level conflict becomes the seeping wound of status quo, withdrawals are ever rescheduled but never accomplished, private contractors alternate with covert presences of special forces and military instructors. The appearance of “managed chaos” in US military manuals of course also casts doubt on whether there had ever been any genuine will of the US to create stable political destinies in any of the states crushed by its war machine in recent years.

Meanwhile, exploitable chaos is only at the endpoint of a continuous gradient which commences with civil technologies of regime change. Korybko attributes a decisive influence to the teachings of Gene Sharp dubbed “The Macchiavelli of Non-Violence” and his manual “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” a sort of hands-on and go-to resource which has influenced non-violent resistance strategies from Serbia (2000) to Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgisztan (2005), Lebanon (2005), Iraq (2005) to Iran (2009) and the more recent “Arab Spring” events: they have been termed colour revolutions for their similarity in using branding-like tactics supported by networks of Western influence.

Hybrid Wars meanwhile go beyond the organisation from abroad of regime change through peaceful and non-violent tactics. Rather, colour revolutions are a first stage and only in the case of a failure to achieve objectives, warfare is escalated by integrating unconventional warfare tactics as recently in Syria and Ukraine, where direct full-scale US intervention would have risked large scale military confrontation with Russia. US Lieutenant Colonel Brian Petit defines unconventional warfare as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerilla force in a denied area.”

Korybko presents the US Army’s “Special Forces Unconventional Warfare” classified training document 103 as one of the pillars of hybrid war tactics. The document, also known as TC 18-01, was leaked by a whistleblower and eventually published on NSNBC International’s webpage in early 2012. The objective for the interfering state becomes “to degrade the government’s security apparatus (the military and police elements of national power) to the point where the government is susceptible to defeat.” From the perspective of unconventional warfare, every civil movement and unrest in a country thus becomes a potential prelude to escalating conflict for the sake of weakening or toppling a government or creating managed chaos. Warfare becomes a malign virus precision-infiltrated into fragilised social tissue proliferating in a weakening host state that becomes vulnerable to external political and military will. The state has to expend increasing resources draining itself and binding its external political capacities, becomes politically eliminated from the international scene.

After an extensive review of literature and its synthesis, Korybko concludes with surprising brevity offering only two short recommendations to defend against foreign-led subversion. On the one hand, he alludes to governments facilitating popular identification via common goals which might be read as a good omen for populism - as a cultural immune system against hybrid warfare. Common goals, Korybko explains, will lead to pro-government hive mind capable of countering the protesters in times of crisis. Secondly, on the level of infrastructure, Korybko advocates the creation of national internets and countries taking control of social media services. These recommendations have already been largely implemented by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all with their own forms of authoritarian and partly or wholly nationalised internet infrastructure. China has even recently emerged as a champion of exporting its authoritarian model of the internet[3] and services: a promising business model given states’ increasing dual-use suspicions against Western global internet services with their proprietary algorithms and intransparent policies.

Korybko warns that national internet must not to be confused with censorship: The reason for this, he suggest, is that such a policy would have detrimental effects for Russia’s soft power prestige. Instead, Russia should focus on the promotion of its own services. Meanwhile, he is aware of the organisational difficulty and ambitiousness of such an endeavour which might still result in censorship as in the case of China: Freedom of information risks becoming the collateral of hybrid warfare. While Western internet freedom policies have arguably always been tied up with Western interests, they have also provided an outlet for critical information both against authoritarian regimes and Western governments themselves. This informational liberalism currently seems in decline in the West and elsewhere with dominant US platforms becoming more subservient to the explosion of censorship demands by governments and their non-governmental fronts. States meanwhile seem content with the alibi of foreign subversion enabling them to blame domestic dissent on outside actors (as in the hysteric plethora of US “Russiagate” accusations or in France on the occasion of the Gilets Jaunes protests). While the involvement of foreign actors is hard to rule out, its extent and impact remains subject to often wild and disingenuous speculation.

In return, what is certain is that hybrid wars postulate a strategic evolution that will preoccupy states in the years to come:  the emergence of warfare taylored to the open society. Korybko reminds that it is a development that was and continues to be heralded by the United States. With the sophistication of strategies and the saturation of the public sphere with partisan information warfare, it becomes questionable whether states will continue with their policy of open information systems in the future. The spectre of hybrid warfare is an incentive for states to proceed with a nationalisation of services and a territorialisation of the internet in the process sacrificing the availability of a diverse range of information.

In all, Korybko’s Hybrid Wars must thus be seen as an important contribution and an eye-opening overview of the evolution of modern warfare tactics. Despite its four years of age, it serves as a valuable resource and analytical guide of the latest manifestation of Clausewitz’s chameleon such as in Venezuela.

Whether, sceptical readers in general and Western readers in particular will take serious the Russian geopolitical narrative and military perspective meanwhile remains questionable. They ignore it at their own peril:  The existence of this interpretation alone, along with the military conferences it inspires, is a solid argument for an increase in attention and vigilance towards this novel form of warfare. Korybko’s “Hybrid Wars” should then be understood as an opportunity - For Westerners to endure the frighteningly bleak and calculating Russian gaze and discover their own reflection in the black abyss of its pupil.



[1]     Counterintuitive because China’s vastly superior economic prowess should make it the main rival
[2]     Compare also with Weizman’s exploration of Israeli strategy using Deleuze’s “Thousand Plateaus” http://eipcp.net/transversal/0507/weizman/en





Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.