The events surrounding Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea have given prominence to a term that until then was only known in specialist circles: hybrid warfare. By overtly and covertly employing military and paramilitary forces, supplying separatist groups, staging cyber attacks and waging a massive propaganda campaign, Russia provided a textbook example of how non-traditional warfare can be effectively employed to achieve political objectives. Against this background, the references in Russia’s new military doctrine to the “integrated use” of military and non-military measures are more than a mere description of the characteristics of modern warfare: they accurately describe Russia’s actions.
Predictably, the discussion focused on the most outrageous aspects of Russia's hybrid approach, such as the appearance of "little green men", i.e. soldiers without national insignia, as well as Russian troops allegedly "vacationing" in Eastern Ukraine. By contrast, energy was not seen as part of the hybrid warfare narrative. While the struggle between Kiev and Moscow over the gas price became a matter of international concern, it appeared like just another chapter in the never ending story of Russian-Ukrainian energy disputes.
A closer look, however, reveals that energy was - and continues to be - a far more important factor in hybrid warfare than is commonly acknowledged. Russia occupied Ukraine's gas fields in and around Crimea by traditional military means. It exerted economic pressure on Ukraine, including by gas cut-offs, while trying to deter other European countries from assisting Ukraine with reverse gas supply. Russia also pushed a narrative about her irreplaceable role in Europe's energy security, and about the risks Europe was creating for itself should it support Ukraine. Each of these three steps deserve closer examination.
Military action: Occupation of Crimea's gas fields
Before Russia's annexation, Crimea received almost all of its energy from mainland Ukraine. In order to establish effective political control of the region, Russia “nationalized” the Ukrainian company operating in Crimea – Chornomornaftogaz – together with all its energy assets, including those offshore. Given the vast asymmetry in the military forces of both countries, Ukraine stood no chance to prevent this. This move allowed Russia not only to ensure a stable supply of energy to the region but also to make it independent from mainland Ukraine. Since these offshore gas installations – four natural gas fields with drilling rigs – extend from the Crimean coast all the way to the maritime border with Romania, their nationalization by Russia also significantly extended that country's geographical dominance in the Black Sea area off the Western coast of Crimea. Hence, in addition to previously Ukraine-owned energy infrastructure and the Chornomornaftogaz company, estimated to be worth around USD 1.2 billion, and over two billion cubic metres of natural gas storage in Crimea, Russia has acquired a massively extended maritime zone with the claim to underwater resources potentially worth trillions of dollars. Russian interlocutors have pointed out that Russia's enormous energy reserves make their newly acquired options around Crimea not especially relevant. For Ukraine, however, the loss of its opportunities to exploit what may amount to the best deep oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea is a massive setback to its future economic prospects and its hopes of achieving energy independence.
Economic pressure and deterrence: Ukraine energy cut-off and gas supply reductions in Europe
Ukraine’s high energy inefficiency and dependence on Russian gas imports have made energy a tempting tool for Russia to exert pressure. The Ukraine crisis, however, brought this pressure to a new level. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea also "returned" the important Sevastopol naval base to Russia, Moscow no longer felt obliged to grant Ukraine a lower gas price and to pay Kiev over $600 million annually for use of the base and the right to use Ukrainian waters. As a result, Ukraine was faced with a loss of revenues coupled with increased energy costs. When Ukraine refused to pay the increased price, Russia turned off the gas. Even with respect to coal, where Ukraine used to be self-sufficient, the crisis provided Russia with additional leverage. The fighting in Eastern Ukraine affected both the coal mines in that region as well as the railway lines needed to transport coal to the power plants. In late November 2014 Ukraine, which used coal to generate about 40 percent of its electricity, had to declare a state of emergency in its electricity market. Russian pressure on Ukraine was accompanied by attempts to deter other European countries from supporting Ukraine. Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe were warned not to allow the reverse flow of Russian gas to Ukraine. The reduced pressure in certain pipelines, which led to a reduction of supplies, was also widely believed to constitute a warning to some of Russia's customers not to interfere with Moscow's Ukraine policy.
Strategic Communications: a story about the West shooting itself in the foot
Propaganda is a key ingredient of the hybrid approach. From the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow made a tremendous effort to promulgate her own version of ongoing events. The clumsiness of Russia's attempts to persuade Western public opinion often backfired: many of the stories carried by media outlets such as "Russia Today" were far too outrageous to be convincing. As far as the energy dimension was concerned, however, Moscow's narrative stood on firmer ground. By focusing on an objective fact - Russia's indispensable role as an energy supplier for Europe - that narrative implied that by supporting Ukraine the European countries, pushed by the United States, were acting against their own long-term interests. While Russia took great care not to undermine its image as a reliable supplier vis-à-vis some European customers, the message of the West shooting itself in the foot by helping Ukraine came across: many European observers repeated the message, thus reinforcing its credibility. Finally, Russia also used its gas deal with China to demonstrate to the West that it now had an alternative customer, while Europe remained dependent on Russian gas. As one “Russia Today” Op-Ed pointed out, “Russia’s pivot to the growing markets of the east is in full swing. The West may yet rue the day it sent its politicians to address the crowds of the Maidan.” (http://rt.com/op-edge/160212-russia-china-gas-deal-east)
In sum, the Russia-Ukraine crisis demonstrated the effectiveness of hybrid war, including its energy dimension. While Ukraine's unique geographical position as well as its energy dependence allowed Russia a degree of influence that it may not enjoy vis-à-vis many other countries, there are nevertheless reasons for Western concern: as a single state, Russia controls the whole array of tools (economic, military, strategic communications, etc.) to achieve its goals, while the West has to negotiate a common position not only among many states but also among different institutions. This asymmetry will always work to the initial advantage of the offender. Whether it will still work in the longer run is less clear, however. In the end, the West was neither deterred from assisting Ukraine nor from imposing sanctions on Russia. Moreover, the low oil price has emerged as a major challenge for Russia's economy while the crisis has given Europe an additional incentive to diversify its energy sources and distribution networks. In short, while hybrid war can achieve a lot, it cannot overcome what Clausewitz had aptly labeled "the fog of war": after you have made the first move, events tend to evolve in unforeseen ways.
Dr. Michael Rühle (Head) & Julijus Grubliauskas are members of the Energy Security Section of the NATO Emerging Security Challenges Division, Brussels
- The authors express solely their personal views -