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No matter how far we look into the past, almost all humanity has been accompanied by fighting and war. However, at the end of XX. century in Europe, we enjoyed a relatively peaceful period, but in the absence of conventional conflict, our vigilance was dormant. Unfortunately, the times of relative peace in Europe are over.

Current battles on the frontline are not only conducted with conventional methods and heavy weapons, another threat is playing a more prominent role – the hybrid one.

Along with technological developments, the spectrum of threats for countries and societies to protect against has increased. War in the XXI. century includes a gamut of techniques and is not only based on the use of classical weapons. Aggressors use hybrid actions, combining military and non-military methods to tackle an enemy. Additionally, the lines between ‘war-like’ interference and actual war are blurred.

The roles of spies, intelligence services and propaganda have been significant in former conflicts and tensions between nations. Yet, the rise of a digital world and interconnected societies exacerbates the challenges. We weren’t prepared for the wave of additional threats a modern nation face. However, European countries are working together to build resilience against hybrid threats, and one of the actions taken is the EU-HYBNET project.

Examples of hybrid threats are not far to seek. In recent years, we have witnessed, among other things, the Russian invasion of Ukraine based on military action proceeded by and now entwining disinformation and propaganda activities. Influences in the US presidential elections, interference fuelling tensions and divides in Brexit and even the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

Raising awareness about hybrid threats is necessary to improve security. While there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for modern interference, cooperation, especially at the information level, is a step towards building resilience.

The Polish Platform for Homeland Security is one of the EU-HYBNET partners, which is why we decided to write about the changes in the way of exerting political pressure and the problems resulting from the development of advanced technologies. In the article, we explain, among other things, what constitutes a hybrid threat, who is vulnerable to them and how to increase defensive capabilities.

Threat Recognition

The basic feature of hybrid threats is their diverse nature. It is a wide catalogue of hidden and covert activities below the threshold of war in its classical sense, combining both armed attacks and non-military pressure.

The main purpose of hybrid attacks is to destabilise the structure of the state, erode public trust in civil society and the foundations of democracy, as well as weaken the opponent at the local, regional, state or institutional level through interference by political and non-state actors.

It is almost impossible to present all examples of hybrid threats, because their range is constantly expanding. A division into categories was introduced, including diplomatic, informational, psychological, cybernetic, technological, energy and military threats remaining below the threshold of war. Activities specific to different categories are carried out in parallel, often for a long time.

Vulnerability to potential attacks

Hybrid actions are aimed at the most sensitive points of the attacked state. Unstable countries, torn by internal conflicts and divisions, often resulting from weakening governments, are much more vulnerable. In addition, insufficient media literacy and spreading disinformation intensify public distrust towards civil society. Weakness in the area of cybercrime and energy dependence or economic pressures also increase vulnerability.

One of the most effective methods of building resilience is joint development of universal methods of dealing with hybrid attacks. Despite cooperation in various European projects, hybrid operations continue to pose a threat to EU and NATO member states. The case of Russian pressure using the position of economic and energy power can be indicated as a good example of exploiting the “weak point” of the attacked. To implement its policy, Russia has used a number of cyber and disinformation activities related to raising concerns about economic and energy stability. In some countries of the Alliance (Germany, Turkey, Poland, Great Britain, the United States and Ukraine), complex cyberattacks were detected, which were indirectly intended to interrupt natural gas supplies. More information can be found on NATO’s website.

Ukraine was and is the hardest hit by the Russian attacks. The neighbour country of the aggressor experienced interruptions in the supply of natural material and cyberattacks on power plants, which led to power outages. There was also the illegal annexation of Crimea, not to mention the current situation – hybrid war in the full sense of the term.

In some countries of the Alliance (Germany, Turkey, Poland, Great Britain, the United States and Ukraine), complex cyberattacks were detected, which were indirectly intended to interrupt natural gas supplies.
A range of threats

The individual categories mentioned earlier can be assigned to the so-called “kinetic” or “non-kinetic” operations. As examples of kinetic attacks, we can mention the seizure of territory by unmarked soldiers, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure (e.g. interruption of GSM communication) or the organisation of a coup. Non-kinetic activities, in turn, are various disinformation and propaganda activities, sponsoring radical political movements, applying economic pressure or covert activities aimed at contributing to the growing political crisis in other countries.

The issue of psychological and informational threats should be given special attention. A highly significant role in destabilising the internal situation is causing unrest and clear social divisions. Nowadays, with the rise of the social media age, information manipulation and propaganda activities are easy to carry out both for political and ruling groups, as well as for non-state actors.

As you can see in the diagram below, information-level threats take many forms. This is a wide range of actions taken to weaken trust and increase social conflicts from the bottom up. In a democratic system where citizens have an indirect influence on political decisions, a polarised society is not conducive to building a secure and resilient system. It can be concluded that spreading fake news and interfering with the information space are among the most frequently used methods of destabilising the structure of the state.

Diagram 1. Types of manipulation of information space (adaptation from original work)                                                                                                        Source: K. Kumalski, „Sztuczna inteligencja jako instrument intensyfikacji zagrożeń hybrydowych w domenie informacyjnej”.

Development of Artificial Intelligence – Asset or Flaw

Despite the growing awareness of hybrid activities and the ever-widened range of methods of dealing with them, the threats are still increasing – so there is no ability to be prepared for all possible scenarios. An important change in the way political pressure is exerted is the intensification of threats in the information domain with the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The use of artificial intelligence in hybrid activities is primarily to automate the spread of disinformation. The dynamic development and the increasing availability of AI are not conducive to building resistance to information attacks. Artificial intelligence uses many possibilities, from introducing erroneous messages into the media stream, to advanced methods of creating fake news using deep-fake technology (see: Diagram 1.).

Another aspect of the dangers arising from the development of AI are the issues of costs. These tools are available to corporations and non-state actors with the funds needed to access and maintain the technology. This poses a threat to countries with less financial potential, which may experience not only information attacks, but also economic pressure. The diagram of threats resulting from the availability of AI is presented in Diagram 2.

Diagram 2. Transnational corporations as potential source of hybrid threats (adaptation from original work)                                                                        Source: K. Kumalski, „Sztuczna inteligencja jako instrument intensyfikacji zagrożeń hybrydowych w domenie informacyjnej”.

It is possible that authoritarian states will use access to AI to undermine the foundations of democracy: free elections or access to independent media (through, for example, attempts to subvert sources of reliable information). On the other hand, countries with a democratic system, being aware of this threat, can take preventive and defensive measures also using AI. The technology itself still needs to be refined, but even with its limitations, its availability both increases resilience to hybrid threats and the dangers that result from them.

Increasing immunity

One of the most important factors influencing the level of resilience is international cooperation. Both NATO and EU member states strive to jointly develop methods of defence against hybrid threats. One of the initiatives aimed at combining the capabilities of many institutions is EU-HYBNET. The partners of the project include both non-governmental organisations, representatives of state services and scientific institutions.

While protection against economic, energy or military pressures remains in the hands of state and EU institutions, the fight against disinformation and building psychological resilience can also be a part of local activities. This 5-year project promotes countering hybrid threats at various levels. Some examples of workshops in Poland include:

EU-HYBNET’s goal is to develop a Pan-European network of security practitioners, stakeholders, academics, industry players, and SME actors across Europe – all collaborating with each other in ever-increasing numbers to counter hybrid threats.

EU-HYBNET focuses on four thematic areas:

  • Directions of development of hybrid threats.
  • Technologies of the future in cyberspace.
  • Resilient civilians, local level and national administration.
  • Strategic information and communication.

It is important to emphasise that in the course of the project, trainings and meetings are held to enable discussions on the most up-to-date solutions and data. It is crucial that the acquired knowledge can be used by both local communities and organisations operating at the national and international level. Due to the dynamic changes in the area of hybrid threats, it is necessary to constantly expand and update knowledge on the possibilities of combating them. Hence, we focus on presenting innovative methods of preventing and counteracting threats.

Upcoming events

As part of fulfilling the expectations of the project, it is worth highlighting upcoming events. The first of them is a two-hour webinar scheduled for October 26th, addressed to law enforcement agencies, discussing their role in combating hybrid threats. This will be followed by a meeting in Valencia on the 7th and 8th November, during which presentations and practical exercises will take place. The planned workshops will focus on critical infrastructure protection and information manipulation. Detailed information on upcoming events can be found on the project website.

The project is coordinated by the Laurea University of Applied Sciences, one of Finland’s leading civil security education institutions. The EU-HYBNET consortium consists of twenty-three organisations representing sixteen European countries. The involvement of Polish organisations should not be overlooked. Practitioners include: the Polish Financial Supervision Authority, the National Police Headquarters, the Government Centre for Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland and Polish Internal Security Agency. The scientific community is represented by the Academic Centre for Strategic Communication. Polish organisations such as Demagog, the Kosciuszko Institute, Polish Association for National Security and the Polish Platform for Homeland Security also cooperate in the project and its network.

To stay updated, we encourage you to visit the EU-HYBNET website and check the activities on LinkedIn and Twitter!

Karolina Łapińska

Junior Communication Specialist
Polish Platform for Homeland Security