Global Hybrid Threats and European Security in the Age of Trump, Growing Populism, and International Terrorism

As hybrid threats to international security have evolved, their use in scholarly and policy debates have become a source of on-going confusion. In many instances, it can be noticed that concepts such as “hybrid threat” and “hybrid war” are used randomly, without even a working definition provided for the terms. This has led to further confusion for policy-makers instead of much needed conceptual clarification. In addition to conceptual clarification, this section aims to put these terms into context. To this end, this commentary refers to NATO and EU definitions from official reports as primary sources, which reflect a consensus among respective member states about their understanding of these key terms. As NATO and the EU are the two core institutions organizing Euro-Atlantic cooperation againsthybrid threats, their definitions present a meaningful starting point. In a 2011 report, NATO describes hybrid threats as:

Hybrid threat is an umbrella term, encompassing a wide variety of existing adverse circumstances and actions, such as terrorism, migration, piracy, corruption, ethnic conflict… What is new, however, is the possibility of NATO facing the adaptive and systematic use of such means singularly and in combination by adversaries in pursuit of long-term political objectives, as opposed to their more random occurrence, driven by coincidental factors. (Quoted by Bachmann and Gunneriusson 2015)

This comprehensive definition of hybrid threats enables researchers to grasp the term’s multi-faceted nature, while also presenting examples of hybrid threats such as terrorism and migration. The same report underlines that “hybrid threats are not exclusively a tool of asymmetric or non-state actors, but can be applied by state and non-state actors alike. Their principal attraction from the point of view of a state actor is that they can be largely non-attributable, and therefore applied in situations where more overt action is ruled out for any number of reasons” (Quoted by Bachmann and Gunneriusson 2015). Most of the time, when states are indeed involved, the actual fighting is carried out by various proxy groups to limit military casualties and political risks of further escalation. In return, proxies find a state-sponsor for armaments, logistics, air-strikes, and international clout, when necessary. Consequently, Ukraine and Syria have emerged as recent examples of how these complex give-and-take mechanisms were able to create and sustain sufficient level of attraction for both state and non-state actors to keep prolonged hybrid wars ongoing… Some analysts make this analogy by claiming that waging hybrid war is like playing a piano: to have good music you need to press various buttons in a synchronized fashion. So, what are those buttons we have seen so far in Ukraine, Syria?


Ukraine and Unfolding Hybrid Wars

Hybrid war encompasses a set of hostile actions whereby, instead of a classical large-scale military invasion, an attacking power seeks to undermine its opponent through a variety of acts including subversive intelligence operations, sabotage, hacking, and the empowering of proxy insurgent groups. It may also spread disinformation (in target and third countries), exert economic pressure, and threaten energy supplies (Popoescu 2015). In view of the above definition, hybrid war necessitates an orchestrating state actor, which can weave state capabilities such as military and intelligence operations in support of proxy insurgent groups. Most recent examples of such operations can be observed in Russian maneuvers in Ukraine and Syria, involving both conventional military assets, such as fighter jets and air defenses, along with local insurgent groups acting as proxy land-forces. Although important, hybrid war is only part of the story when the Allies are faced with ever-growing hybrid threats ranging from refugees to terrorism. NATO’s Bi-Strategic Command Capstone Concept describes these hybrid threats as “those posed by conventional and non-conventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives” (NATO 2011). The same concept also includes “low intensity asymmetric conflict scenarios, global terrorism, piracy, transnational organized crime, demographic challenges, resources security, which have also been identified by NATO as so-called hybrid threats.” Similar to the earlier hybrid threat definition, this one also includes terrorism and demographic challenges, growing out of a combination of state and non-state actors via conventional and non-conventional means.

As argued by Maria Raquel Freire:

European security has been injured at its very core, with the war in Ukraine representing the most visible example of the inability of preventive mechanisms to recognize and address signs of tension. … The challenges are many, but the lessons from Ukraine show how relevant are proactive measures to avoid massive violence which is destructive physically and psychologically, having implications which cross borders. (Freire 2017)

The divisions in Russia-EU/west relations are extreme, and the war in Ukraine keeps feeding distance. The lack of agreement regarding the stabilization of the situation in eastern Ukraine and a political rewind in terms of how far the Donbass area has gone from the central authorities in Kiev, keep the situation in a protracted mood regarding attempts at signing and implementing a political deal. The hybrid nature of threats and war in the country only contributes to further complexity in terms of who is involved, who is responsible, and who is effectively capable of pushing forward towards a political settlement. In this context, what does Ukraine mean for European security, and for relations between the west and Russia?


Syria: Refugees, Proxies, Terrorists, and More…

Using proxies and terrorist attacks have become among the common tactics in hybrid war. Ongoing clashes in Syria demonstrated how these hybrid strategies can be violently pushed to the limits and pave the way for a number of unintended consequences. For example, “all factions are benefiting from material support from external actors, besides the plundering of pre-existent Syrian army depots. As relations between the factions are fluid, weapons often do not end up in the hands of the users for which they were intended” (Angelovski et al. 2017). Another less pronounced side-effect, was the growing hybrid-capacity of terrorist organizations such as AQ, IS, PKK and their regional variants. When it comes to Euro-Atlantic strategies to deal with these unintended consequences, “as it stands counter-terrorism has a fairly low profile in NATO policy papers on hybrid war, and hybrid war as a concept does not appear in NATO strategy on counter-terrorism” (Mumford 2016).

Actions speak louder than words in international politics. Therefore, the EU must lead by example inside and outside. Internally, this emerges as a challenge of successful integration of these refugees to modern European societies, and the forthcoming troubles in this process pave the way to the rise of extreme right-wing populists. Internationally, if the EU still has any motive of becoming an effective international actor, it must practice what it preaches, when it comes to human rights. Otherwise, the EU risks strategic irrelevance internationally, and narrow-minded populism domestically as starters. Furthermore, if these trends continue – as most of the signs indicate – European incapability to act on Ukraine and Syria can be heralding the decline of the EU, while the next level for populists can well be the rise of right-wing extremism and terrorism.


When Walls Cannot Protect Europe

Nowadays, from a geopolitical point of view, the EU appears vulnerable to demographic challenges such as mass refugee influx and growing risk of terrorism from the south, and seems threatened by an increasingly assertive Russia to the east. Furthermore, European countries’ vulnerability to hybrid threats from the violent political instability in the Middle East and North Africa is likely to remain, and may grow. This is why the EU must take responsibility – military, political, and economic – in maintaining European security.

Massing refugees in Turkey and EU countries are presenting a fertile ground for radicalization and terrorist recruitment. The terrorist attacks at Istanbul and Brussels airports are among the most recent shocking reminders that geography, walls, and populist discourses cannot keep Europe safe nowadays. Following the challenges of Ukraine, these hybrid threats around Europe have gathered more momentum upon the direct engagement of Russia in the Syrian war. In this regard, there is an evident need for a change in mind-set, which is a necessary but not sufficient step towards effective countermeasures against hybrid threats. There is a need to support this mind-set transformation with commensurate changes in European capabilities, and therefore with the EU that acts upon human rights. Preaching louder is not a form of action, but rather the demonstration of incapability.


Hybrid Threats and EU in the Age of Trump, Growing Populism and Global Terrorism

The EU has been enduring trials with hybrid threats, which have been constantly testing European security and the Europeans’ commitment to their proclaimed values. Under these pressing circumstances, Europe has been constructed and reconstructed via hybrid trials from within and abroad.

If European policy-makers are to realize that these hybrid threats are unlikely to be solved by xenophobia, extremism, Islamophobia, and shades of nationalist populisms, then the EU may be able to take a sober fresh initiative towards effective measures against these threats. In this regard, forms of cooperation within the EU and outside the EU on its frontiers remain essential components of any effective European foreign policy. Such cooperation demands more than lip-service. Perceived or real inactivity on the part of the EU seriously risks European credibility as a global actor. The longer European policy-makers insist on turning a blind-eye to this need for effective policy, the more likely it is that their self-inflicted damage to the European dream may become irreparable.

Hybrid threats have been brewing globally from Afghanistan to ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. Until the recent Syrian mass refugee influx, many Europeans thought that these threats, however grave and transnational, could be kept at the borders’ edge of the European Union (EU). Fortress Europe was the epitome of this Eurocentric mentality. From Ukraine to Syria, from Libya to Afghanistan growing number of crises proved painfully that this was wrong! Moreover, all of these ongoing developments revealed that in light of growing hybrid threats on global scale, the EU can neither simply maintain its security by raising high-walls on it borders nor by raising the voice of its screaming populists.

When it comes to demographic challenges from MENA countries, once again the EU alone is far from being capable. In this regard, the EU continues to need Turkey. Considering Turkey’s decades-long journey for EU accession, the EU has never needed a credible enlargement policy more than today, as EU leverage is declining. In light of growing hybrid threats, this decline can signal the demise of the EU as a global actor, and it is likely to pave the way to its own strategic irrelevance. In conclusion, short-sighted EU policies are likely to exacerbate the hybrid threats of refugees and terrorism which will further isolate the EU and increase the vulnerability of Europeans and their partners.

Hybrid threats have been of critical importance for the EU. These threats are likely to remain, if not increase, against the interests of Europeans in the foreseeable future. This commentary rings the bells for the growing importance of hybrid threats and for the need for timely and effective international cooperation within the EU and with other partners. Accordingly, hybrid threats of such complexity require further research, as their masterminds seek to transform their adaptability to strategic advantage. Further research on hybrid threats needs to move beyond post-hoc analysis and start building venues for strategic learning.

Recent developments for having Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) at the EU-level, joint EU-NATO Hybrid Center of Excellence in Helsinki, and NATO-Joint Forces Command Hub South in Naples can all be interpreted as incremental steps to act together against these ongoing transnational hybrid threats. At the same time they collectively remind us that EU still needs NATO beyond nuclear deterrence, but to deal effectively with its ongoing real time security challenges. Among non-EU NATO members the United States and Turkey are of particular importance for European security and this is likely to remain, if not increase, in the coming years of Brexit-debates, resurgent Russia, and growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa.  Therefore, our needs should guide our policies. Despite the rising populists voices from Trump to Orban on both sides of the Atlantic there is a need for down to earth strategic approach to those threats. The last thing European security needs is another crack in the Euro-Atlantic structures. Should that happen, which may not be unlikely, and then we need to look to the ones who caused it before having another rush to blame Russia.


Dr. Giray Sadik is Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, and partner of Heart of Anatolia Jean Monnet European Center of Excellence, ANAMER at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University. This article is based on the expanded findings of his recent book on Europe’s Hybrid Threats (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, 2017).



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Bachmann, Sascha-Dominik and Hakan Gunneriusson (2015). “Hybrid Wars: The 21st Century’s New Threats to Global Peace and Security,” Scientia Militia, South African Journal of Military Studies, Vol. 43, No.1.

Freire, Maria Raquel, (2017) “War in Ukraine and European Security: Reset, Reverse or Revoke?” in Europe’s Hybrid Threats:  What Kinds of Power Does the EU Need in the 21st Century? Edited by Giray Sadik, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, 11-29.

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Published on November 2, 2018.


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