Brittany Henderson's Blog

A Review of The Atlantic Council’s “Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge: A Comprehensive Strategic Framework”

September 11, 2017

The Atlantic Council’s publication, “Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge: A Comprehensive Strategic Framework,” addresses the issues that the transatlantic community faces in the wake of an evolved Russian grand strategy. This new strategy embraces the deliberate adoption of practices such as the low-level usage of force, cyber attacks, the coercion and subversion of sociopolitical and economic endeavors across the globe, and the implementation of information warfare within the international framework. [1] As the world has become increasingly globalized, the Russian Federation has felt the strain caused by an ever-increasing Western influence in the cultures and practices of potential partner states and allies that lay within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Realizing that traditional methods of power projection and interest protection are not necessarily effective in a globalizing world, the Russian Federation has adopted these hybrid strategies as a new and concrete measure in preventing a loss of power.

The international community realizes that this new methodology poses serious domestic and international security and stability risks. A continuation of these actions may serve to undermine the democratic and liberal order that much of the west has cemented into the perceived status quo. Due to Russia’s undeniable power and influence, affected states realize that there is a need for coordinated action; presenting a multilateral front will prove to be more effective than handling the individual threats that stem from the main problem of Russian aggression. The Atlantic Council’s analysts who authored this report have reaffirmed that the most effective course of combatting these threats is through a concerted effort between the European Union and NATO to create a bulwark that would prevent these threats from drastically altering the status quo. Combining critical infrastructures and resources that each of the member states can offer, in the authors’ opinion, will effectively check Russian hybrid aggression.

However ideal and rational the multilateralist solution may be, the principle that multilateralism will only succeed if the combined power of the group exceeds the power of the adversary must be taken into account. In order for the proposed coordinated action between international bodies to succeed, there must be enough power to break the threshold that the Russian Federation has established. In this case, to match and exceed the power of one superpower, a coalition of states must also recruit another superpower to their cause. Seeing as NATO cooperation is repeatedly mentioned in the report, it must then be assumed that the authors would expect that the United States would play an integral role in these operations. However, the posture that U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have taken in regards to multilateralism and international institutions is unenthusiastic at best. At its worst, there is the opinion that these efforts are a depletion of American funds that does not actually benefit the interests of the state. Consequently, there is an opinion present that would advocate for the dissolution of such bodies. By not taking the stances of the current administration into account, the Atlantic Council’s report does not address the legitimate issues at hand in establishing such a cooperation. Though a transatlantic body that monitors and responds to Russian hybrid aggression would be prudent moving forward into the twenty-first century, it cannot be ignored that this approach lacks definitive plans for implementation and does not take into account the reality of the situation: that without the United States’ backing and approval, such a plan will never take hold under current conditions.

The Council’s report initially identifies five categories of “functional and structural recommendations designed to enhance…resilience…in the face of Russian hybrid threats.”[2] As previously mentioned, four of these points deal with cybersecurity, the preservation of sovereignty in terms of states’ political and economic endeavors, low-level usage of force, and the use of information warfare. The fifth element presented calls for the creation of a transatlantic coordinating council, which would serve to facilitate cooperative operations concerted between NATO and the European Union. This supranational body would have the authority to make decisions that would subsequently impact policy-making and decisions implemented by either party. The authors stress that the organization would have its foundations in international law and the treaties of both the European Union and NATO, so as to bolster a sense of solidarity and cooperation of policy. [2] The expectation that a new, overarching international body will gain traction in the present political climate is extremely idealistic. States, threatened or not, will always place sovereignty and the ability to independently make important foreign policy decisions at the forefront of their interests. Therefore, introducing a new transatlantic body has the potential to make states averse to cooperating, even if such a body would objectively serve their interests in the long run. Furthermore, states could additionally view the broad strategies proposed by the Atlantic Council as too ambiguous. Though policies that are too narrowed in scope are not desirable, policies that leave too many aspects open too interpretation are equally problematic. The Atlantic Council’s proposed courses of action do not include a definitive scope of power; there is no way for states deciding whether or not to engage in transatlantic multilateralism to ensure that they will not be caught in a loophole at a later date that seriously infringes on their state’s interests.

Therefore, the proposition that it would be prudent to form a transatlantic entity that oversaw the cooperative action between the member states of the European Union and NATO is wildly unrealistic. States do not favor actions and policies that undermine their ability to act independently and autonomously. By introducing yet another supranational body into the sphere of international decision-making, this plan would ultimately result in more inefficiency than is already present. Naturally, a hierarchy of power would emerge within the body, with the most powerful states involved ultimately deciding how NATO and the European Union responds to threats posed by Russian and other external aggression. It would then be reasonable to predict that the power disparities would create tensions with the remaining member states that lack the same amount of influence. The council would subsequently be busy dealing with the internal problems of the organization while also attempting to reshape and refine coordinated policy-making to adequately answer the threats present.

Perhaps the largest flaw present in the coordinated strategy proposed by the Atlantic Council is the assumption that formidable ally states, namely the United States, will actively participate in the formation of yet another international institution. While this idea at its roots is mutually beneficial to all that subscribe to it, states might feel as though they are constricted by the new doctrines that take some level of autonomy out of international decision-making. The new Trump administration in the United States has repeated expressed its position in relation to international institutions. The American president has asserted that the United States is not given fair treatment within these alliance organizations because it ends up paying the most out of any of the members for the organizations’ operations. While it is true that the United States does pay a disproportionate amount in relation to its counterparts in the United Nations and NATO, it must be taken into consideration that the other states are spending less on large-scale, traditional defense systems, such as nuclear weaponry, and are opting to spend less in order to concentrate on forming joint solutions for smaller, more relevant issues at hand. [2] Thus, unless the United States takes on a revisionist attitude and decreases its tendency to only focus on traditional and expensive means of defense on an international scale, the same problems will persist in yet another attempt to coordinate action. President Trump also plans to cut its State Department by 28%, and additionally plans to cut its investments into UN programs even more so. Without the financial support and the image of power that the United States provides to the organizations, they will not serve as a legitimate barrier to the continuation of any Russian aggression, whether it is through hybrid aggression or traditional aggression.

Ironically, the Russian worldviews that NATO and the European Union view as critical threats to international security and the preservation of sovereignty are exacerbated by the action taken by the current American administration. It is no secret that the Russian Federation seeks to reshape the world order so as to promote its desire for a shift to a multipolar system, as opposed to the current unipolar order cemented into place by the United States. The report states that the Russian Federation’s inability to compromise with the Western agenda and its “zero-sum-focused international orientation” [1] have made it a volatile threat to international security. Additionally, the report states that Russian aggression is characterized by the need to exert “reflexive control,” which is defined as the need to coerce adversaries in such a way that persuades them to voluntarily select policies and make decisions that prove advantageous to the Russian agenda. It must be noted that these techniques outlined within the report are not necessarily false. The Russian Federation has been accused of interference within democratic elections across Europe, and in the United States as well. It has additionally engaged in cyber warfare that greatly damages the technological security structures of the targeted states. These manipulations of soft power capabilities are accompanied by lower-level exhibitions of power and force. This is most transparent in the case of the annexation of Crimea. The report is sound in that it correctly identifies the threats that hybrid aggression poses to the West. What it lacks is the recognition that current American policies may indeed be serving to make the issues at hand even more severe for itself and the rest of the member states of the European Union and NATO. President Trump appears to be reintroducing a military-industrial complex into the American government, promoting military personnel to elevated positions of power. Additionally, it cannot be forgotten that the United States spends nine times more than the Russian Federation does on its defense budget. [2] It is ludicrous to not include these facts in this report, seeing as this is most definitely a factor that can motivate the Russian Federation to further engage in acts of hybrid aggression. So long as the United States engages in this behavior, it is unrealistic to believe that Russian aggression and goals of reshaping the world order will diminish in the face of supranational, transatlantic body.

In sum, the Atlantic Council’s report offers a solution to combatting the legitimate threats to international security and the interests of NATO and the European Union that is rather idealistic. Though many would agree that handling these threats through cooperative and largely peaceful action is a preferable approach, there is no actual plan to implement the policies described. The report lacks to take into consideration that no international body could ever hope to combat a superpower without the presence of another state of the same or higher status of power. It is merely assumed in this report that the United States will fill this obligatory role. However, the actions taken by the current administration, and the personal opinions expressed by President Donald Trump himself, lend to the contrary. The United States has embraced increased defense spending, and has expressed its desire to cut back on State Department funding, and funding to international institutions and alliances such as the UN and NATO. This withdrawn support would eliminate the possibility that a new transatlantic cooperation could actually be successful. Until the United States alters its posture on these issues, its actions will continue to exacerbate Russia’s relations with the rest of the West, and a legitimately effective international cooperation between NATO and the European Union will be unrealistic. Power politics cannot be ignored, even in the name of cooperation.


1. Franklin D. Kramer and Lauren M. Speranza. "Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge." Atlantic Council. May 2017.

2. Hartung, William D. "The Military Budget and the Costs of War: The Coming Trump Storm." Center for International Policy. April 12, 2017. Accessed August 04, 2017.

3. "Russian National Security Strategy, December 2015." December 2017. Accessed July 2017.

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