Helsinki Countering Hybrid Threats

By Robbin Laird

© 2018 FrontLine Defence (Vol 15, No 3)

During my trip to Helsinki in February 2018, I had a special interest to visit the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats and to discuss the focus of attention and the importance of its efforts. Although the term is new, the efforts at hybrid influencing are not. The means have changed, liberal democracies are evolving, and the challenges have mutated.

The work of the Centre is a key vortex for liberal democracies, namely their evolution within a rapidly evolving information society, and with non-liberal actors seeking to utilize these new instruments to the detriment of 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.

In other words, it is not about warfare per se, it is about the expanded tool sets with which adversaries seek to influence the culture, actions and decisions of liberal democracies. Both Communist China and revanchist Russia are part of Western economies and societies, unlike the Soviet Union which became, over time, more of onlooker than an integral internal player.

But now, as investors in the West, with legitimate interests and representatives but at the same time clearly committed to information war, both Russia and China are spearheading significant change in the context of hybrid warfare in an information age.

I had a chance to discuss the challenges and focus of the new Centre of Excellence with Päivi Tampere, Head of Communications, and 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 a rather small secretariat in Helsinki, whose role is to coordinate and ask the right questions, and organize the work. We currently have 13 member states. NATO allies or EU member states can be members of our Centre.”

Three core networks have been established to address key areas of interest. The first is hybrid influencing, led by the UK. The second, headed by a Finn, addresses vulnerabilities and resiliencies. This group is looking at a broad set of issues, such as legal resilience, maritime security, energy questions. The strategy by adversaries of buying property next to Western military bases is an example of the wide variety of activities that comprise effective in hybrid influencing. The third community of interest, strategy and defence, is being 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 to contribute to public outreach to improve awareness of the hybrid challenge.”

Juha Mustonen, who came from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to his current position, had this to say about 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 peacetime influencing and wartime influencing on a target country is at the core of the hybrid threats challenge. A state can 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 key in shaping a response to hybrid threats.”

It is clear that adversaries can amplify vulnerabilities by buying land, doing investments, and fostering economic interdependencies. As Mustonen underscored, “they can be in dialogue with our citizens or groups of our citizens, for example, to foster 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 groups have become quite close to some adversaries’ narratives.”

In fact, modern adversaries are adept at using many and varied instruments of power. By identifying and demonstrating vulnerabilities within its targeted nation, the adversary can “trial” the resulting psychological affect within Western societies to shape policies more favorable to their interests. For example, if an adversary who “lasers” U.S. pilots from Djibouti receives no blowback or consequence, that creates a long-term impact that far outweighs the actual act itself.

Mustonen highlighted the challenges of dealing with the threshold of intervention. “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 a comprehensive approach.”

He went on to explain that “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?”

A key opportunity for the center is to shape a narrative around core questions that Western societies need to address, especially with the conflict within our societies over fake news and the perceived trustworthiness of political leaders.

Mustonen agreed that shaping a credible narrative and framing the right questions is a core challenge, but says it is one the Centre hopes 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 those threats.”