In today's interconnected and rapidly changing world, the South Caucasus region grapples with a new breed of geopolitical challenges: hybrid threats. These encompass a range of tactics that blend conventional and unconventional methods to achieve strategic objectives. Hybrid warfare can be defined as the use of asymmetrical tactics to probe for and exploit weaknesses via non-military means (such as political, informational, economic intimidation, manipulation, etc.) that are backed by the threat of conventional and unconventional military means. In NATO’s context, “hybrid warfare” entails a campaign against an Ally or the Alliance by means that are not expected to trigger Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which enshrines the principle of collective defense. From the Western perspective, hybrid warfare is a coordinated and synchronized action that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions' systemic vulnerabilities, through a wide range of means.
The term “hybrid warfare” has been in use since at least 2005. It was subsequently used in reference to the strategy adopted by Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. The term “Hybrid warfare” became a buzzword in the international political discourse following Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, Western policymakers, the expert community, and media refer to “hybrid” as the most appropriate term to describe the variety of methods employed by Russia during that campaign and subsequent support to rebel militant groups in eastern Ukraine. Russian techniques included the traditional combination of conventional and irregular combat operations, but also the sponsorship of political protests, economic coercion, cyber operations and, in particular, an intense disinformation campaign. Hybrid warfare is by its very nature asymmetrical.
The use of hybrid warfare seeks to blur the lines between truth and falsehood and create an alternative reality. It exploits existing societal vulnerabilities in target states, attempts to weaken state institutions and undermine the perceived legitimacy of governments. Furthermore, it may include computer hacking and viruses, subversion of the banking system, market and currency manipulation, urban terrorism and media disinformation, media manipulation, as well as covert actions to gain psychological and physical advantages utilizing non-kinetic means.
In the South Caucasus, disinformation campaigns, fake news, and propaganda have emerged as potent tools used by foreign state and non-state actors to manipulate narratives and sow discord. This article delves into the intricacies of these hybrid threats in the South Caucasus, focusing on Armenia's strategies and responses to counter them.
Armenia, like its South Caucasus neighbours, has not been immune to disinformation campaigns and propaganda. These efforts often exploit historical grievances, ethnic tensions, and unresolved conflicts in the region. Armenian society has been exposed to a barrage of false narratives aimed at undermining trust in institutions, stoking unrest, and distorting perceptions of reality.
Understanding the vulnerabilities that make Armenia susceptible to hybrid threats is essential. These include economic disparities, political polarization, and a fragmented media landscape. However, Armenia has also demonstrated resilience in the face of such challenges. Civil society organizations, independent media outlets and the presence of democratic institutions have played a crucial role in fact-checking and debunking false information, bolstering the nation's capacity to resist the effects of disinformation campaigns.
To effectively counter hybrid threats, Armenia has adopted a multifaceted approach, and Armenia's response to hybrid threats encompasses not only defensive measures but also proactive strategies. Recognizing the importance of public awareness, the Armenian government has initiated nationwide campaigns to educate citizens on recognizing and countering disinformation. These campaigns have engaged schools, universities, and community organizations, fostering a culture of critical thinking and media literacy.
Armenia recognizes the transnational nature of hybrid threats and the need for international cooperation, which is another pillar of Armenia's approach to countering hybrid threats. The interconnected nature of modern information warfare means that disinformation can cross borders effortlessly.
Armenia actively collaborates with regional and international partners to share insights, best practices, threat intelligence and collaborate on countering disinformation campaigns. This cooperative effort helps to identify and counter those campaigns originating from both state and non-state actors from abroad, but gaining some traction domestically. Armenia has sought support from a number of EU institutions in addressing these challenges, and is committed to actively participate in forums and conferences dedicated to sharing best practices and building a global network of countries committed to addressing disinformation and propaganda. By fostering international cooperation, Armenia seeks to create a united front against the global spread of hybrid threats.
Civil society organizations and independent media outlets in Armenia have played a pivotal role in exposing disinformation campaigns. These entities serve as watchdogs, holding those spreading false information accountable. Supporting their efforts is vital in maintaining a robust information environment.
While addressing external sources of disinformation is vital, Armenia also acknowledges the importance of internal cohesion. National unity and social resilience are key components of the country's strategy. The government encourages open dialogues and constructive debates among various segments of society to build resilience against attempts to sow discord.
Armenia's experience with hybrid threats serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges faced by nations in the South Caucasus and beyond. The tactics employed by actors seeking to disrupt stability and influence narratives are ever-evolving, requiring constant vigilance and adaptability in response.
One of the critical aspects of hybrid threats is the weaponization of information and narratives. Armenia has witnessed how false information, when strategically disseminated, can have a destabilizing impact on society.
In addition to enhancing media literacy, Armenia has taken steps to bolster its cybersecurity infrastructure. As cyberattacks become increasingly common tools of hybrid warfare, safeguarding critical digital infrastructure is paramount. By strengthening its cyber defenses, Armenia aims to protect its institutions, critical infrastructure, and the data of its citizens.
Armenia's experience demonstrates the multifaceted nature of hybrid threats and the need for comprehensive responses. As technology continues to evolve, so do the tactics employed by those seeking to undermine stability. Armenia remains vigilant, adapting its strategies and leveraging international partnerships to safeguard its information environment and protect its national security.
In conclusion, current and future developments in artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive sciences, and neurotechnology lead to the emergence of new types of hybrid warfare, such as cognitive warfare, which aims at controlling what and how an adversary thinks. More research and expertise are needed to delve into emerging threats and effectively counter them.
Armenia's proactive approach in countering these threats through media literacy, critical thinking, cybersecurity, and international cooperation may serve as a model for other nations facing similar challenges. As technology, including the artificial intelligence, continues to advance and the tactics of hybrid warfare evolve, the resilience and adaptability of nations like Armenia will be crucial in maintaining stability and safeguarding the truth in an age of hybrid warfare. It is imperative for countries like Armenia to invest in establishing Strategic Communications Centers of Excellence following NATO’s example, and joining forces both on regional and global scale, recognizing that the battle against hybrid threats is one that transcends borders and necessitates collective efforts.
In that context, hybrid threats pose a complex and evolving challenge for all nations around the globe, including the nations of the South Caucasus, which being in the grip of unresolved conflicts, economic stagnation, and geopolitical uncertainties, need to be more cautious, and in particular abstain from using pernicious tactics of hybrid warfare against one another.