Hybrid Warfare and Canada’s response to Russia: A Case of Back to the Future?

An interview with Canada’s next Chief of Defence Staff, LGen Jonathan Vance

 By Murray Brewster

LGen Jonathan Vance, then a Brigadier General, delivers a speech while serving as Kandahar operation commander during Canada's participation in the Afghanistan conflict. (DND)

LGen Jonathan Vance, then a Brigadier General, delivers a speech while serving as Kandahar operation commander during Canada's participation in the Afghanistan conflict. (DND)

It may well be that 2014 is remembered as the year the West, including Canada, slipped into a new Cold War with its old adversary Russia. The slow-motion annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine could also be the precursor to a much more dangerous showdown, in the view of some experts. There are those who’ve suggested the face of warfare is changing with some of the covert tactics Russia employed. Is so-called hybrid warfare the new norm — or is it a case of back to the future? In a recent interview, LGen Jonathan Vance, prior to his appointment as chief of the defence staff, sat down with Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press to talk tactics, history and perspective. The interview has been edited for length and style.

Brewster: Did we see a change in the nature of warfare in 2014 with Russia’s use of the unmarked, so-called “little green men”?

LGen Vance: I think these will be questions for the ages, but at this stage I’ll give it to you from a practitioner’s perspective. The nature of warfare hasn’t changed. The nature of conflict hasn’t changed. The methods, the tactics, techniques and procedures that we are seeing, we have seen before in various conflicts in the past. So, there isn’t anything absolutely, fundamentally new. But what we’re seeing, in the case of Russia, and so-called hybrid warfare; hybrid warfare is another name for comprehensive approach, with certain emphasis placed on your ability to export power and influence. 

If you look at all of the instruments of national power that you can bring to bear on a problem, it is part of our doctrine. But we tend to do it in a restorative manner, as opposed to how Russia is doing it in an offensive manner. Nonetheless, the basic techniques of aligning military, political, economic, social, and informational power — weighting them appropriately and using it in a campaign designed to achieve your objectives — is not new doctrine.

Brewster: Have we entered a new Cold War — or is it something more dangerous that could trigger an Article 5 (NATO mutual defence clause) response?

LGen Vance: What we are seeing is a departure from the conventional state versus state standoff that existed. The NATO alliance versus the Warsaw Pact standoff that was the Cold War; based on convention posture and the nuclear levers around it.  What we’re seeing is that actor using operations that are basically short of war and operations that stay short of triggering an alliance response, such as what would occur under Article 5 and Article 4 consultation. They’re staying just short of that, trying to maintain plausible deniability, using their own propaganda in their own country to maintain popularity and so on.

Brewster: What do we do about such opaque tactics?

LGen Vance: The challenge for all of us as we think about this is: I think we understand what is going on and then deciding what you’re going to do about it. When you ask a guy like me, in uniform, what do you do about it in terms of the military? The military falls completely within the political response of the alliance and individual nations … But I’m confident we’re thinking clearly about it and looking at a variety of options, as to what one could do. But I always like to emphasize the fact that the military is but one of the elements of power available to governments and alliances.


Brewster: Some would argue the Saudis have done more — with the driving down of oil prices — to cripple Russia than any response NATO or the European Union has managed to organize. What do you say to that?

LGen Vance: It’s a little bit [out] of my lane in terms of global macro-economics. What I will tell you from a purist doctrinal perspective is that what you said proves my point. There are multiple instruments of power available to governments, to organizations, to alliances that fill a spectrum around which there kinetic actions — or forceful military operations. The longer I’m in uniform and the more operations I conduct, the more I respect and the more I need military operations to exist in a continuum. Military operations that help shape better things to follow, but that will ultimately lead to a conclusion. And all conclusions are political. And so to your point: having an impact on Russia through commerce, such as trade restrictions, embargoes and such things, all of these things accrue pressure.

Brewster: Are you concerned about the consequences of a destabilized Russia if its economy goes completely into the tank?

LGen Vance: I don’t think it’s a near-term or immediate concern. I think Russia probably has sufficient reserves to continue on its current path for some time. There’s no question about it though, we prefer a stable, global environment for commerce, prosperity. And I think what we’ve seen in the response by Canada and its NATO allies is a measured response to what Russia is doing, with very clear messaging, very clear indicators that we are not pleased with this — as a nation and as an alliance.  I think it is safe to say it is rarely useful to further destabilize a situation. Our doctrine, our approach, is generally to recover a situation and restore a situation. But [at the] same time … wider and worse destabilization is absolutely not in the best interest of anybody, least of all Canada.

Brewster: Are we interested in participating in NATO’s very high-readiness task force at some point?

LGen Vance: It is still being looked at. I think we have interest in the policy of NATO’s very high-readiness task force [but] we’re going to have to look at the practicality. It’s a high-readiness force that has to be ready in a timeframe that’s measured in hours. Where Canada sits, firmly within the alliance but very far away from where these forces would likely be deployed in a European-centric operation, we’ll have to see what the practicalities are of signing on to any parts of a very high-readiness task force.

Brewster: Are you concerned about (having to create permanent) basing?

LGen Vance: If you want to be that ready and you want to be there that fast, you need to be forward based. And, at this stage, it’s still early days in the development of this. The concept is developed, but how it’s going to be resourced, who is best suited to resource it in terms of timing response, basing and so on; we have yet to see. We’re looking at it, along with the rest of our allies, as to how best to source it so it can actually achieve its objectives.