Brexit in the Age of Hybrid Threats

2019 will be remembered as the year of Brexit: bar an extension or cancellation, the UK will cease to be a member of the European Union. Even in the benign geopolitical climate, such an event would represent a significant setback to Europe as a project of peace, security and prosperity. At a time when adversaries such as Russia pursue their aggressive agenda of undermining the unity and cohesion of the West as well as the international rules-based order, it may potentially have serious consequences to the security of the continent as well as the UK itself.

Hybrid warfare

Russia’s strategy is often coached in terms of ’hybrid warfare’, while threats associated with the pursuit of this strategy are labelled as ’hybrid threats’. These terms, though, preceded the time when Moscow’s playbook became evident to all but its most ardent sympathisers. Frank Hoffman coined the terms a decade ago and defined hybrid threats as “any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behaviour in the battle space to obtain their political objectives”. However, it was in the wake of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and its invasion of Donbass in Ukraine in 2014, that the terms really burst out into the public policy discourse in the West. The Kremlin, of course, does not have a monopoly of this playbook: non-state actors such as ISIS as well as states such as Iran are also frequently seen as deploying various elements of it to advance their strategic goals. Yet, it is Russia that emerged as one of the major threats to the European security order.

The Kremlin employs a very broad array of instruments of statecraft in its hybrid campaign against the West. In some cases, Russia acts openly—albeit often under a variety of false pretexts—but in many others, it uses clandestine measures to mask its intent and make attribution more difficult or deniability more plausible. This includes the use of proxies such as sympathetic political and societal actors or organized crime (including cybercrime) groups, as well as intelligence assets. The result is what is often termed a ‘grey zone’ conflict, which is “best understood as activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.” Again, this is not a novel approach as it has been around for decades, even well before ‘hybrid’ labels became fashionable: for instance, Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, was particularly fond of so-called ‘active measures’ as a way of undermining the West. However, this modus operandi is now reinforced by modern technologies such as the Internet and social media.

The EU’s response to hybrid threats

Countering hybrid threats will remain high on the EU’s agenda, with or without Brexit. The EU characterises hybrid threats as being “multidimensional, combining coercive and subversive measures, using both conventional and unconventional tools and tactics (diplomatic, military, economic, and technological) to destabilise the adversary”. Through the Security Union, Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and other areas, its various instruments are increasingly configured to tackle the challenge in a more coherent, better integrated and holistic way. At least theoretically, the EU should be well equipped for that, as it provides cooperation frameworks for multiple areas relevant to countering hybrid threats and increasing resilience of member states. With a varying degree of depth and effectiveness, its remit spans police and judicial cooperation, external border security, counter-terrorism, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, energy security, maritime security, diplomacy, trade sanctions, technology regulation, and even modest projection of military power.

In practice, however, all this remains a patchwork of functions that often remain stovepiped, poorly coordinated between national and the EU authorities as well as under-resourced and under-developed when it comes to common action. It usually takes a serious crisis in order for the member states and the EU institutions to advance their common efforts, as it was the case with common counter-terrorism structures and policies (initiatives usually arising only after major terrorist attacks such as 7/7 in London), energy union development (spurred by a cut-off of natural gas supply by Russia to Europe via Ukraine in 2009), or pooling some external border security capabilities (addressed only after the refugee crisis in 2015). Even then, progress in those policy areas often stalls, as the EU and member states move on to other, more urgent, priorities.

A hybrid threats environment adds another layer of complications as it calls for a very coherent and coordinated response based on situational awareness. Russia’s hybrid attack on Ukraine in 2014 was a very serious shock that prompted the EU to address the hybrid warfare challenges. In addition to new formal policy frameworks, there are also structural developments–both at the EU level and between the member states. The EU Hybrid Fusion Cell was set up to bring together the information and intelligence that the member states are willing to share in order to build a common threat picture. The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki  is building capacity to analyse hybrid threats, develop concepts of countering them and provide practical training to the participating states. Cybersecurity has seen particularly active development in the light of Russia’s malicious cyber activities, with plans for a new cybersecurity agency in motion, Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox having been adopted by the member states, and even the first cyber exercise, EUCybrid 2017, held for the EU defence ministers. Still, some areas are languishing: efforts to counter disinformation by East StratCom Task Force in the EU External Action Service are severely under-resourced and under-staffed. Military crisis management capacity remains modest, despite all the hype about common EU defence.

Overall, the EU is too disjointed and bureaucratic, even sometimes mediocre in strategy-making, and bogged down by national interests as well as inter-institutional rivalries. It is thus still far from achieving real capacity to think, strategise and act cohesively across the entire spectrum of issues, weaving together a broad array of instruments of statecraft into a coherent, effective, flexible and dynamic grand strategy that builds upon the EU’s unique strengths in seizing the initiative from its adversaries.

The impact of Brexit

As a result of Brexit, the EU will be losing a very valuable stakeholder in the efforts of turning this variable geometry of common and national instruments and capabilities into a potent hedge against hybrid threats. The UK is one of the top intelligence powers in the world, with cyber and counter-terrorism capabilities to match. It is a global financial hub that enables valuable access to financial intelligence necessary to uncover schemes of funding hybrid warfare campaigns by states and non-state actors alike. It possesses a world-class science and technology base, as well as financial resources and entrepreneurial culture to draw upon in quickly developing smart solutions and capabilities for security and defence. Its competence in dealing with Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) issues is almost second to none in Europe and, thus, make it an important resource for the EU in this regard. (The Salisbury chemical attack by undercover Russian military intelligence operatives was recognised by the EU as a hybrid threat based – to a large extent –  on  British CBRN expertise).

The UK is also one of the two major military powers of Europe (the other being France), with a strategic culture that is not coy about actual employment of this power—including in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism modes that are relevant to countering asymmetric uses of force inherent to hybrid warfare. It is also one of a few major European countries that has the political will and nerve to confront Russia as well as lead the way in containing and disrupting Moscow’s aggressive designs. The EU’s capacity for and prospects of forging highly competitive, holistic and effective strategy vis-à-vis such a determined adversary will be quite diminished without the UK inside the tent.

Of course, it might be argued that Brexit will not be as painful and harmful as it is feared in the security circles. London has been a fairly minimal contributor to the EU CSDP, and its reluctance to cede more authority or grant a greater role to the EU has been well-known (especially if it could potentially undercut NATO). There are also areas in which relations through the non-EU (or not entirely EU) multilateral formats play a larger role than those in the formal institutional framework of the EU. For example, cooperation between the intelligence services of the EU members as well as Switzerland and Norway takes place through the so-called Club de Berne that is not part of the EU institutional setting and could continue having the UK as a member by invitation. The European CoE in Countering Hybrid Threats will also remain open to the UK involvement, as its membership is open to both the EU and NATO members (and currently includes the USA, for instance).

Finally, one of the central planks of dealing with the hybrid threats—building resilience—is a national responsibility. Be it strengthening critical infrastructure and building vital reserves for crises, diversifying energy supply, ensuring integrity of the electoral processes by preventing malicious interference with them, combating political corruption, raising public awareness about the threats, conducting counter-espionage operations or building readiness of the security forces to deal with disturbances–all this lies in the hands of national governments that may, or may not, choose to seek the external assistance and cooperate across borders. (For example, Estonia’s handling of the so-called ‘Bronze Soldier crisis’ of 2007 which witnessed street riots, massive cyber attacks and disinformation assaults, orchestrated by Russia and backed up by its economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure–a typical hybrid type of attack–was mostly undertaken at the national level and with national capabilities). However, due to its formidable capabilities and expertise, the UK will certainly remain an attractive bilateral cooperation partner of choice in national resilience strategies of many remaining EU members, and it can play a supportive role from outside the EU just as well. Already now, for instance, it deploys resilience officers to its diplomatic outposts (one for the Baltic states resides in Riga, Latvia) to provide advice, share know-how and coordinate relations with the UK government.

A Brexit boost for NATO?

Last, but not least, there is NATO which the UK is fully committed to. Ever since the start of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Alliance has been working to define its role and strategy in dealing with the hybrid threats. It has added cyberdefence to its portfolio of functions by designating cyberspace as a separate operational domain, and expanded activities in countering disinformation as well as in intelligence-sharing and fusion. Its Graduated Response Plans (GRPs) became a planning tool that channels the thinking, preparedness and responses—individual and collective—of the Allies in various hybrid scenarios.

Indeed, as Brexit adds to the number of the non-EU Western nations, the political importance of NATO as an overarching security forum of the West might even grow. In short, the UK can still contribute its know-how and capabilities to European defence against hybrid threats through the Alliance.

However, NATO’s core competence remains management of military power. Important as it is, military force is only a small part of the total mix required to respond to the multifaceted strategy of Russia (or any other adversary). As neither NATO nor, despite its broad remit, the EU possesses the full range of instruments relevant to countering hybrid threats, their burgeoning cooperation emerges as one of the key mechanisms in dealing with the contemporary security environment. Almost a third of the 2016 Warsaw Joint Declaration is dedicated to hybrid threats. This creates an additional avenue for London to live up to its rhetoric that the UK is “leaving the EU, but not Europe”.

On the other hand, despite the present-day momentum, NATO-EU cooperation remains vulnerable to political disruptions and whims of any individual EU or NATO members with an axe to grind against the rest—be it for the perceived lack of solidarity in handling illegal migration, or in response to punitive collective action against their alleged breaches of the rule of law, or because one side is seen as a free-rider (and an unfair trade competitor) by some key nation on the other side. Moscow’s persistent attention to the domestic politics of NATO and EU member states, with the aim of upending the established democratic institutions and facilitating the ascent to power by the anti-EU and pro-Russia radical populists, may also one day seriously disrupt cohesion and solidarity within both organisations. As a result, one or several countries may decide, at some juncture, to block further NATO-EU cooperation and resurrect the so-called ‘Brussels Wall’ between the two organisations that is still not fully down. It is not hard to imagine even the UK hampering the expansion of NATO cooperation with the EU if no-deal Brexit scenario materialises and produces significant economic hardship that further antagonises the British public and turns any cooperation with the EU—be it through NATO or directly—into a politically toxic issue.

Brexit, hybrid threats and the EU

The impact of Brexit on the ability of the EU and the UK to cope with the hybrid threats could be mitigated by reaching a sensible and wide-ranging compact of EU-UK security cooperation post-Brexit. Both sides are clearly interested in drawing upon each other’s support and strengths in managing common security challenges. (The UK top law enforcement officials, for instance, openly lament the looming loss of access to various EU databases such as SIS-2, and of the ability to issue or act upon the European Arrest Warrant, that will slow down their investigations and operations). Not removing the UK from the up-and-coming European Global Navigation Satellite System, Galileo, which has an important security function and has benefited enormously from the British space technology competence, would be a good start. Being more creative about categories of partnerships with the non-members (and what that entails)–much in the way NATO does, by treating Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden as ‘enhanced opportunities partners’ (as opposed to simply Partnership for Peace countries or various ‘global partners’)–could provide a framework for a truly special post-Brexit security relationship with the UK. This could include sustained participation in such policy areas as Security Union (e.g. counter-terrorism) or CSDP. However, the harder the Brexit and the more profound its impact on the UK and the EU, the more difficult it will be to maintain, or rebuild, trust that should underpin such a compact and a special security partnership based on it.

A messy, chaotic Brexit process itself will create, at least in short and medium term, multiple opportunities for hybrid war protagonists to exploit the uncertainty, deepen the disruption, disorient the decision-makers, polarise the societies and weaken the overall resilience of the West. It will also become a massive distraction—particularly to London, but also to Brussels—from the pressing geopolitical challenges and challengers. Whatever the new opportunities for collaborative approach to countering hybrid threats emerge between the EU and the UK after Brexit, they will count for little if both sides become too overwhelmed, self-absorbed, sapped of energy and passive. If Brexit did not exist, Russia’s strategists should have invented it for its sheer disruptive potential and ability to cause chaos—the very essence of hybrid warfare. (And there is a body of evidence gradually building up to demonstrate that the Brexit referendum was indeed a target of Russia’s ‘active measures’ in order to achieve the outcome favoured by Moscow).

The strategic initiative will likely remain on the side of the enemies of the international rules-based order who employ hybrid war strategies to dismantle this order.


Tomas Jermalavičius is Head of Studies and Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS) – a premier security, defence and foreign policy think-tank in the Baltic region, based in Tallinn, Estonia. He also teaches terrorism and hybrid warfare course to the post-graduate students at the Natolin campus of the College of Europe in Warsaw, Poland. Prior to joining the ICDS in 2008, he worked at the Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL)–a multinational joint staff and higher command studies college established by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Tartu, Estonia. In 2005-2008, he served as dean of the college. He started his professional career in 1998 as a civil servant at the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence.


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