European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

By Robbin Laird

With the all the focus on the Russian intervention in the last US presidential elections, it is useful to take a broader view of the challenge focused by the new technologies and approaches.

During my recent visit to Helsinki,  a visit the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats provided such an overview.

Although the term is new, the efforts at hybrid influencing are not.

The means have changed, the liberal democracies are evolving and the challenges have mutated. 

The work of the Centre is at the vortex of a key vector for liberal democracies, namely the evolution of these democracies under the influence of a 21st century information society and with non-liberal actors seeking to use the new instruments to influence the evolution of the democratic societies.

The underlying dynamic is change within the liberal democracies themselves.

Conflict has deepened, and the internet and associated means of communication have enhanced conflict rather than consensus within the liberal democracies.

President Trump has spoken frequently of “fake news” and although his critics condemn this phrase, we all know it exists and is a core challenge facing the liberal democracies.

It is the change associated with the new means of communication along with the evolution of a more differentiate and disaggregated society which provides the entry point for adversaries to conduct hybrid warfare in the information domain.

In other words, it is not about warfare per se; it is about the evolution of liberal democracies and the expanded tool sets which non-liberal actors have to seek to influence the culture, actions and decisions of the liberal democracies. 

This has been predictable.

When I participated in a Spanish government sponsored forum on the information society in 1996 held in Madrid, I highlighted what I saw as a number of challenges along with the promise of a new information society.

I highlighted what I saw as three major challenges and one of those was as follows:

“The risk that special interest groups in the information elite can gain inordinate influence and even undermine democracy by competing with elected representatives.”

1996 Information Society Conference

This certainly has happened and now ill liberal powers are one of those interest groups.

Both Communist China and revanchist Russia are part of Western economies and societies, unlike the Soviet Union which became over time more of onlooker to the West than an integral internal player, although the initial response to the Russian revolution certainly brought supporters of the Soviet Union in key positions to influence public parties and opinion.

But now as investors in the West, with legitimate interests and representatives but at the same time clearly committed to information war both the Russians and Chinese are spearheading significant change in the hybrid war aspect of information society.

And a key challenge which the liberal democracies face is clearly that we are on the defensive; it is difficult for us to counter offensive hybrid influencing efforts, although that will almost certainly be generated in the years ahead.

I had a chance to discuss the challenges and the focus of the new Centre with Päivi Tampere, Head of Communications for the Centre, and with Juha Mustonen, Director of International Relations.

The Centre is based on a 21st century model whereby a small staff operates a focal point to organize working groups, activities and networks among the member governments and flows through that activity to publications and white papers for the working groups.

As Tampere put it: “The approach has been to establish in Helsinki to have a rather small secretariat whose role is to coordinate and ask the right questions, and organize the work.

“We have 13 member states currently. EU member states or NATO allies can be members of our Centre.”

“We have established three core networks to address three key areas of interest.

“The first is hybrid-influencing led by UK;

“The second community of interest headed by a Finn which is addressing “vulnerabilities and resiliencies.”

“And we are looking at a broad set of issues, such as the ability of adversaries to buy property next to Western military bases, issues such as legal resilience, maritime security, energy questions and a wide variety of activities which allow adversaries to more effectively compete in hybrid influencing.”

“The third COI called Strategy and Defense is led by Germany.

“In each network, we have experts who are working the challenges practically and we are tapping these networks to share best practices what has worked and what hasn’t worked in countering hybrid threats.

“The Centre also organizes targeted trainings and exercises to practitioners.

“All the activities aim at building participating states’ capacity to counter hybrid threats.

“The aim of the Centre’s research pool is to share insight to hybrid threats and make our public outreach publications to improve awareness of the hybrid challenge.”

With Juha Mustonen, who came from the Finnish Minsitry of Foreign Affairs to his current position, we discussed the challenges and the way ahead for the Centre.

“Influencing has always been a continuum first with peaceful means and then if needed with military means.

“Blurring the line between peace time influencing and war time influencing on a target country is at core of the hybrid threats challenge.

“A state can even cross the threshold of warfare but if it does not cross the threshold of attribution, there will be no military response at least if action is not attributed to that particular state.

“Indeed, the detection and attribution issue is a key one in shaping a response to hybrid threat.”

Laird: And with the kind of non-liberal states we are talking about, and with their expanded presence in our societies, they gain significant understanding and influence within our societies so they are working within our systems almost like interest groups, but with a focus on information war as well.

Mustonen: Adversaries can amplify vulnerabilities by buying land, doing investments, making these kinds of economic interdependencies.

“They can be in dialogue with our citizens or groups of our citizens, for example, to fostering anti-immigrant sentiments and exploiting them to have greater access to certain groups inside the European societies.

“For example, the narratives of some European far right groupings have become quite close to some adversaries’ narratives.”

Question: But your focus is not only on the use of domestic influence but mixing this with kinetic power as well to shape Western positions and opinion as well, isn’t it?

Mustonen: Adversaries are using many instruments of power. One may identify a demonstration affect from the limited use of military power and then by demonstrating our vulnerabilities a trial of a psychological affect within Western societies to shape policies more favorable to their interests.

“If you are using many instruments of power, below the threshold of warfare, their synergetic effect can cause your bigger gain in your target societies, and this is the dark side of comprehensive approach.”

“The challenge is to understand the thresholds of influence and the approaches.

“What is legitimate and what is not?

“And how do we counter punch against the use of hybrid influencing by Non-Western adversaries?

“How can we prevent our adversaries from exploiting democratic fractures and vulnerabilities, to enhance their own power positions?

“How do we do so without losing our credibility as governments in front of our own people?”

Laird: A key opportunity for the center is to shape a narrative and core questions which Western societies need to address, especially with all the conflict within our societies over fake news and the like.

Mustonen: Shaping a credible narrative and framing the right questions is a core challenge but one which the Centre will hope to achieve in the period ahead.

“We are putting these issues in front of our participants and aim at improving our understanding of hybrid threats and the ways we can comprehensively response to the threats.”

This article was updated on March 19, 2018.

The featured photo shows the event inaugurating the Centre. (Ffrom left): President of the Republic of Finland Mr Sauli Niinistö, The NATO Secretary General Mr Jens Stoltenberg, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission Ms Federica Mogherini and Prime Minister of Finland Mr Juha Sipilä. Credit: European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats