visit to Hybrid Threats Center

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Summary: I recently visited the Helsinki-based NATO/EU Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (CoE), meeting with its Head of International Relations Rasmus Hindren and analyst  Rahua-Maija Rannikko. I also had meetings with the Finnish Foreign Ministry. Established in 2017, the CoE has 33 partner nations with a staff of 80 drawn from various partners, including Canada, it operates as an autonomous network connecting to other agencies, especially its counterpart Strategic Communications CoE in Riga, Latvia and Cooperative Cyber Defence CoE in Tallinn Estonia.

1. Current Threats

The overarching objectives of hybrid warfare, said the CoE, is to undermine public trust in democratic institutions, deepen unhealthy polarization both nationally and internationally, challenge the core values of democratic societies, gain geopolitical influence and power through harming and undermining others, and affect the decision-making capability of political leaders.

While hybrid threats are seen as ‘new’, the CoE point out they  are as old as conflict and warfare. Repackaged and empowered by changing security environment dynamics, they use new tools, concepts and technologies targeting vulnerabilities in several domains. What is important is the trends and trend line and the CoE is actively monitoring the following:

  • hacking of Western governments’ and parliaments information systems
  • Polarization driven by disinformation
  • Increasing foreign ownership of Western critical infrastructures
  • Enlarging forms of non-state actors (private military companies, religious communities etc.) used as proxies
  • Increasing use of ’lawfare’
  • Weaponizing commodities and dependencies (energy, migration etc.)
  • Economic coercion
  • Disturbances in critical infrastructure
  • Leveraging and normalizing use of military means
  • Individuals as targets/tools

The CoE have developed a thorough methodological schematic that the conceptually-minded may find useful. It is premised on the belief that an actor selects a combination of tools to achieve strategic objectives.

Each tool targets one or multiple domains or the seams between them. Tools can exploit, or even create a vulnerability in one or more domains, or take advantage of an opportunity. The objective can be achieved either by the direct effect of the tool on the domain or due to cascade effects.

2. Arctic

A main output of the CoE is their reports, including a  quintet on the Arctic, the most recent of which looks at Vulnerabilities and hybrid threats in the Canadian Arctic (May, 2023)

It argues that “China, in particular, through hybrid tactics combining military and non-military actions, poses a threat to Canada’s Arctic and could exploit regional vulnerabilities to advance its interests to the detriment of Canada’s own.”

It acknowledges the recent Canadian commitment to NORAD modernization but points out “it does not account for the non-military and hybrid threats that can also challenge the country’s north. Gaps in surveillance and monitoring capabilities certainly constitute important vulnerabilities that can be exploited by foreign actors, but lack of critical infrastructure and socio-economic inequalities in the Canadian Arctic also leave Canadians vulnerable to hostile action by rival states.”

The report observes that resilience in the face of hybrid threats starts with “a comprehensive understanding of the complexity and vulnerability of the Arctic environment”. It says efforts should address upstream vulnerabilities to fill the gaps and seams presented by hybrid threats. This means breaking down silos not only across government, especially between defence and national security agencies and other departments overseeing socio-economic affairs, but also across levels of government and with other sectors of society. The authors conclude:

“If the devil is often in the details and multi-layered governance is itself a vulnerability, coordination and cooperation across Arctic stakeholders remain essential to reduce susceptibility to harm, deter hybrid threats through enhanced resilience, and counter such threats as required.”

The Arctic is always on the agenda of the Finnish Foreign Ministry.

They want Canadian participation in the Far North Fiber underwater cable system. Running from Finland and around Iceland and Greenland and then through Canada’s North West passage waters to Alaska and then down to Japan it is designed to increase the security and resiliency of digital connectivity. The attraction for Canada would be its ability to provide connectivity to northern communities. The project has secured US, Japanese and Norwegian as well as Finnish backing; The Finns  noted stepped- up Russian submarine and surface ship activity in Nordic waters around cables.

3. Russia & China

Based on my discussions and, in particular, the CoE report Russia and China as hybrid threat actors: The shared self-other dynamics (March 2023), while none of the following observation are especially original, they bear repeating:

  • The first principle with Russia is to be prepared for sudden turns and developments. It is the common thread of Finnish Russia policy to be underlined as a first thing, and after the analysis repeat it in conclusion.
  • A key influence on Russian behaviour is their persistent quest for great power status in a system with recognized spheres of influence. Expansionism plays a central role for geopolitical and symbolic reasons.
  • While both China and Russia view the West as a military threat it is more than that. For them the West presents an existential threat that is cultural, civilizational, and political. Despite having benefitted from globalization, they see it as ‘western’/ The military-technology and economic advantages possessed by the West feeds their feelings of insecurity. They will try to change globalization’s current operating norms to their advantage.
  • International recognition through diplomacy is important to Russian and Chinese leadership but it is supplemented through espionage, mercenaries and coercion, economic and political.
  • That said, neither has any commitment to what they perceive as an essentially zero-sum system where the rules are made by, and for, the ‘West’. The Chinese have been more adroit than the Russians, especially within the UN,  at working the system to achieve leadership positions from which to work the system on their own behalf.
  • Both Russia and China employ gray zone tactics including disinformation and fake news and apply psychological pressures. If the Russians are inclined to act quickly, the Chinese are more circumspect.

Both China and Russia use post-colonial narratives to underline their grievances. They cultivate a shared sense of victimhood with nations in the Global South to widen the gulf with the West. Their arguments about a still imperial West helps legitimize authoritarian rule domestically and the use of coercive measures internationally as a defensive mechanism.