Democracy: Between fights for freedom and against hybrid warfare

Democracy: Between fights for freedom and against hybrid warfare

Non-conventional warfare poses one of the biggest threats to democratic countries in the 21st century. Despite having an undeniable economic – as well as technological superiority – democratic states often fail to find effective remedies to deal with the many threats posed by hybrid warfare. This article undertakes a brief assessment of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) responses, with their respective shortcomings and makes a handful of essential recommendations.

Given the limited readiness of democratic international institutions such as the EU and NATO in facing the hybrid warfare, by some considered the most crucial security threats of the digital age, a dramatic reevaluation of the current democratic approach to hybrid warfare is paramount. This article first briefly describes the concept of non-military warfare, and defines the four key tools employed in contemporary influence operations (an essential part of the first). Consequently, I will summarize the various structural obstacles that the EU and NATO encounter, given the democratic, yet largely non-binding nature of these institutions. Finally, I propose several achievable policy recommendations for stakeholders in both institutions, which, if followed, would help create a sustainable base for efficient democratic capacity-building and an efficient remedy to tackle various means of hybrid warfare.

Defining Hybrid Warfare

Hybrid warfare has emerged as the preeminent security threat of the 21st century. Contrary to conventional warfare, hybrid forms do not refer to instances of active, declaratory, or open conflict. Instead, they denote the ongoing, evolving and complex aspects of modern warfare, in which both state and non-state actors leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life, in order to sow seeds of discord and erode shared realities. Conflict is no longer thought of in geographical or infrastructural terms – and populations are no longer the obvious combatants in such conflicts. They are, instead, the territory.

Even though there are no clearly defined (and universally accepted) boundaries of hybrid warfare, among the integral measures employed, the following can be listed: the spreading of disinformation and hostile propaganda (often with an intention to influence democratic processes), espionage, cyber-attacks, and the funding of non-state actors who are willing to promote the aggressors’ interests (Marovic 2019). Though such methods are, in one form or another, akin to those used over centuries, and their conscious development into a complex toolkit of below-the-threshold conflict and comprehensive undertaking meant to ‘defeat’ the adversary before it even acknowledges it is under attack, it is the speed, technological complexity and transborder nature of such tools today which challenge the very bedrock of our democratic civilisation. Indeed, there are numerous, well documented cases, evidencing that all of these tools have been utilised recently by autocratic states such as Russia and China, against both NATO and EU institutions and their (mostly) democratic members (Tait 2019).

Challenges to democracies’ capacity building efforts

NATO, primarily an alliance of the willing, does not have any uncontested fail-safe mechanism, ensuring that its member states take critical action, or implement necessary specific security measures. It can be argued that the NATO commitments such as Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty are binding. However, such commitments are defined sufficiently loosely to become a subject of interpretation which gives the member countries freedom to undertake a real response only if they desire to (NATO 1949).

Likewise, the EU, with its complex institutional system, and a primarily intergovernmental foreign and security policy where in many cases unanimous consensus of all member states is required, may on paper also lack the means to deal effectively with hybrid warfare. Both however, are uniquely well placed to deal with hybrid threats, given their geographical reach, technological and economical superiority and other, in particular, soft-power tools.

a) Challenges and Opportunities for NATO

NATO’s current strategy towards hybrid threats is premised on the principles of Prepare, Deter and Defend. In terms of Preparation, building further resilience across NATO members is key. This has to involve countries who are most vulnerable to attacks, but should also include those historically more incubated from, or sceptical of, the threats posed by hybrid warfare. More support should be given to countries such as the Czech Republic for instance, who are building and training forces specially equipped to deal with hybrid threats (Daniel, Eberle 2018). NATO should also position itself at the forefront of analysing hybrid threats and disseminating this knowledge throughout its membership. Regarding Deterrence and Defence, NATO must ensure that its posturing and promptness are not asymmetrical to the now often fast-moving, digital, and online nature of the threat posed.

b) Challenges and Opportunities for the EU

In terms of the EU, its approach to hybrid warfare is enshrined in the principles of Awareness, Resilience and Response. Regarding Awareness, the EU must seek to garner key data and intelligence, and also step up efforts in undergoing regular exercises, learning lessons from internal and external actors subject to hybrid warfare in the past.  With respect to Resilience, with societal trust at an all-time low, the EU must focus its efforts more specifically on disinformation. This may take the form of improving media literacy through education and training, and bringing in private companies from the cold through regulatory benchmarks and encouraging greater transparency. Finally, in terms of Response, it is clear that the EU would benefit greatly from the development and implementation of an overarching strategic response towards hybrid warfare, one that pulls together the different competencies of its member states, through joined-up institutions, intelligence-sharing, and greater political will and judgement. A crucial role in the EU capacity building should be the East Stratcom Task Force, which budget as well as competencies need to be strengthened in order for it to grow from an underfinanced (1,1 million euros in 2019 (Jozwiak 2019)) and purely consultative body, into an efficient and effective counter to hybrid threats (Gotev 2018).

Even though a certain progress in addressing the above mentioned challenges has been made, most of the measures have been implemented on the level of the national states. The EU has indeed undertaken very limited efforts to tackle non-military threats and relies heavily on the support of NATO. One of the successful results of such a collaboration is the establishment of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, located in Helsinki (European Parliament 2017). However, the purely European joint initiative to address non-military threats remains very limited.

Final Policy Recommendations

Ultimately, NATO and the EU must work more efficiently and effectively together. Improving information sharing and early warning, along with establishing new channels fostering more cooperation in dealing with cyber supply chains, and coping together with the ever-changing nature of technology, are good first steps. But given the rapidly evolving and nebulous nature of the threat at hand, there is neither time for hesitation nor mistakes.

NATO needs to provide support for its members that have accepted the reality of open hybrid conflicts and that are currently working on increasing the resilience of their countries. NATO should coordinate more cyber security training such as the Estonian international competition ‘Lockshield’. Overall, cooperation and competence-sharing and specifically addressing the debunking of disinformation must be strengthened. NATO should also help establish communication channels among more vulnerable member states and its more experienced ones.

The alliance with the EU needs to intensify and to broaden its activities in addressing hybrid threats. Both of the leading institutions, the Secretary General and the European Commission, should encourage member states to engage more readily in joint forces initiatives such as the Centers of Excellence or the EU PESCO projects. Funding for research bodies focusing on non-military threats needs to be noticeably increased. Leaders of both institutions should take every opportunity to communicate the seriousness of the situation through media and social media. NATO and EU officials should use their scope for public impact to influence not only the wider European political debate on the topic, but also that of hesitant countries. Activities of NGOs, think thanks and University departments interested in tackling non-military threats need to be supported by more training and fellowship opportunities for their employees, as well as by opening and supporting more grant opportunities for projects targeting hybrid threats in member states.


Daniel, Jan. Eberle, Jakub. 2018. Hybrid Warriors: Transforming Czech Security through the ‘Russian Hybrid Warfare’ Assemblage.’Russian_Hybrid_Warfare’_Assemblage. Accessed: 7 February 2020

European Parliament. 2017. Countering hybrid threats: EU-NATO cooperation. Accessed: 7 February 2020

Gotev, Gorgi. 2018. Experts lament underfunding of EU task force countering Russian disinformation. Accessed: 7 February 2020

Jozwiak, Rikard. 2019. European Parliament Presses For More Money To Fight Russian Disinformation. Accessed: 7 February 2020

Marovic, Jovana. 2019. Wars of Ideas: Hybrid Warfare, Political Interference, and Disinformation. Accessed: 7 February 2020

NATO. 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty. Accessed: 7 February 2020

Tait, Scott. 2019. Hybrid warfare: the new face of global competition. Accessed: 7 February 2020


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.


Adéla Klečková specializes in strategic communications and practices countering hybrid warfare, including spread of disinformation in cyberspace. She studied journalism and international relations at Masaryk University in Brno and media communications at Freie University in Berlin and graduated from the Academy for Young Diplomats in Warsaw.