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Simone Rinaldi
Jul 4 2024

The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has sparked renewed interest in hybrid warfare. The ambiguity and flexibility of hybrid warfare allow actors to operate in the grey zones of international law. The combined use of these tactics at a strategic level, rather than just a tactical one may represent a change of paradigm in contemporary warfare. In the case of Crimea in 2014, Russia employed a range of hybrid tactics, including the use of irregular forces, which included PMC Wagner members. The use of private military companies (PMCs) in hybrid warfare contexts highlights the risks of increasing ambiguity in warfare.



 “Hybrid Warfare in a nutshell” 

Generally speaking, hybrid warfare mixes the use of unconventional tactics and methods with tactics, and concepts that are appropriate to conventional warfare. Hybrid warfare thus combines the use of irregular armed groups, information warfare, cyber warfare, economic warfare, asymmetric and guerilla warfare, along with the classic operations carried out by a conventional army.

The combination of mixed tactics and methods makes possible a high degree of flexibility of action, the ability to circumscribe conflict to only certain domains, and most importantly, to act in the grey zones of international law by exploiting the ambiguity of each unconventional tactic.

The hybrid conflict approach makes ambiguity one of its greatest strengths. Hybrid warfare actions are carried out in a grey area.  For example, an act of war attributable to a state is more complex to distinguish from a criminal act carried out by a non-state actor. Moreover, the extensive use of information warfare elements tends to distort the perception of reality through propaganda and the exploitation of digital media, complicating the reading of conflict phenomena for both those directly involved and for the international system itself.

It is primarily in this sense that the hybrid conflict differs from other unconventional warfare, such as guerrilla warfare. In themselves, the individual components that characterise hybrid warfare do not represent a substantial novelty in war studies; what is new is their combined use at the strategic level and with a long-term perspective, and not just a tactical one. Overall methods observed in hybrid conflicts create a complex picture and consistent threats to security.

By its very nature, hybrid conflict has been included within asymmetric warfare, with non-state actors capable of carrying out offensive strategies characterised using mixed tactics. Although the debate over which state and non-state actors make use of such methods at the strategic level, the example of the annexation of Crimea sheds light to possibilities for this type of warfighting to be employed by a state actor.

“Crimea as the first full scale hybrid campaign”

In 2014, the Russian Federation began an aggressive campaign against Ukraine, making extensive use of mixed tactics that were focused and deployed mostly in the eastern regions of the country and Crimea. In particular, these tactics included the extensive use of information warfare and propaganda designed to delegitimise the Kyiv government in favour of pro-Russian separatist minorities, cyber-attacks perpetuated by independent but Kremlin-assimilated groups, and the use of irregular forces and militias characterised by the absence of insignia.  Although the use of unconventional armed groups exists (i.e., militias and groups that do not officially belong to the state), it does not imply, however, that state actors are not directly involved.  In this complex scenario, the use of this type of irregular forces has been crucial to the achievement of Russian objectives in Ukraine. In this regard, the case of the “Little Green Men” is significant. This case illustrates initially unidentified militias that played a key military role in the Crimea, Luhans’k, and Donec’k regions. In 2014, reports of the sightings of these alleged paramilitary personnel with covered faces and no distinctive markings on their uniforms intensified. These personnel “in green” carried out operations to occupy and capture strategic Ukrainian facilities such as airports and military bases, and their intervention was instrumental in the outcome of the Russian campaign of aggression. The Kremlin initially denied any direct involvement with the “Little Green Men,” claiming that they were local militia. As time passed, reports became increasingly detailed, and several analysts identified the personnel as most likely belonging to Russian airborne troops. Later confirmation suggested they were working in collaboration with the Special Forces and PMC Wagner personnel.

The use of a private military company in the Ukrainian context of 2014 (and the Open War of 2022) is in line with the professional peculiarities of contractor companies. A PMC can perform a broad spectrum of operations in support of a state actor in a conflict context, such as logistical support operations, intelligence gathering, force protection, and purely operational tasks. PMCs can be deployed for the provision of services that lighten the load on the logistics chain of regular armed forces and can be pivotal in the protection of critical infrastructure, ease the operational burden on conventional forces, and can also intervene in the protection of convoys and base management. Another task that PMCs can perform is the training of local forces, which has already occurred in several scenarios in Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, they can tap into the local population to recruit new personnel for deployment in theatres of operation. Larger private military companies could also operate in intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, along with a variety of operational tasks, including more combat-oriented ones.

These activities mirror those carried out by Wagner in Ukraine in both 2014 and 2022.  When Russian forces intervened and annexed Crimea in 2014, they did so without displaying any identifying insignia or banners, creating an ambiguous environment and blurring the lines between the forces’ affiliation with the Russian Federation. Even if temporary, doubt represents one of the effects that hybrid operations are intended to achieve. In this sense, making use of PMCs for a state actor would be a significant advantage, reducing the impact of its involvement, and being able to have a military component free of the political constraints that distinguish a country’s conventional forces. This approach brings with it the advantage of flexibility at the operational level and in managing relationships within the international system, taking advantage of the ambiguity of hybrid conflict and the fog of war in the grey zone and under international law.

The Ukrainian crisis of 2014 has unleashed the concept of hybrid warfare and rekindled the spotlight on its use, which has shifted from an application on the tactical-operational level to a real large-scale and strategic-level application that has led to the outcomes we know, namely, the annexation of Crimea and the rising tensions in the eastern regions of the country, until the invasion of Russian forces in 2022. The continued denial of Russia’s direct involvement in Crimea before the annexation, enabled by the use of these irregular forces and partially composed of a private military company, has ensured that plausible deniability can be availed in the international system. Nonetheless, this ambiguity, not intended to last, was sufficient in softening and slowing the Western response to the events in Crimea, with repercussions that are visible even today in the current conflict.

Russia has a more than 10-years long history of using PMCs to protect its interests and as a foreign policy tool. The use of Russian PMC increased constantly in the last decade, with a spike in recent years. The Western world has also extensively used PMSCs in conflict zones. Iraq and Afghanistan are clear examples but with a completely different focus and connotations. In fact, in the two theatres just mentioned, PMCs have been used often and in different contexts to relieve conventional armed forces of the duties of second-line logistical tasks not directly related to combat phases.

Another extensive use of PMCs by the Western world is related to the protection of sensitive infrastructure, such as mining or energy facilities, linked to the economic interests of large companies. The protection of extractive facilities, which are of strategic importance to a state, has often been entrusted to private military companies. The moment a state actor equates a PMC to the level of conventional armed forces and uses the private company as an irregular militia to which it entrusts tasks of strategic importance or equal level (in combat activities) to regular forces, the subject changes.

“PMCs in Hybrid Warfare: a growing strategic concern”

There are hardly any examples similar to that of the Wagner Group in intensity and large-scale application, overlapping regular forces with many different outcomes. The use of PMCs “Western-style” has thus far been limited, to tasks and assignments. The use of a PMC as part of a broader hybrid conflict strategy opens up disturbing scenarios that are difficult to grasp, especially in theatres of operations that appear to be contested today.

An irregular force, or in Russia’s case, a PMC such as Wagner, can be used as a force projection tool within the strategic framework of a conflict conducted using hybrid techniques. In 2014, hybrid techniques moved from the tactical-operational level to the strategic view of the conduct of a conflict. PMCs have become an important and versatile strategic tool that can be used by state actors to pursue foreign policy or economic ambitions directly. This aspect, , allows the state actor to free itself from the direct burdens of responsibility that it would have by using conventional armed forces. Although the Wagner Group’s involvement in Ukraine in 2014 and the 2022 invasion is in the public eye, the use of PMCs by a state actor in other scenarios to conduct foreign policy related operations could represent the possibility of acting without direct official involvement. This would allow the state actor to carry out destabilization operations while partially shielding itself from exposure to the repercussions of its own actions.

In the logic of hybrid warfare, PMCs can be used by a state actor not only for the projection of power or as unconventional forces on the ground. Furthermore, their application can be expanded to encompass information warfare and disinformation campaigns. In the case of Ukraine, PMC-run media entities such as the Prigozhin-owned Kharkiv News Agency have waged aggressive disinformation campaigns[2]. Their goals include fomenting discontent, promoting pro-Russian narratives, and indoctrinating young Ukrainians. On a major scale, the PMC can be connected to disinformation campaigns in different hotspots worldwide, especially by providing logistic support or filling a political void.  Following the French withdrawal from Mali in June 2022, Russian PMCs, such as the Wagner Group, were poised to fill the void. These PMCs have been involved in influence operations in West Africa, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. The consequences of these actions on regional stability, security, and public opinion are substantial and warrant careful consideration.

Although Wagner was at the centre of a strong retrenchment process following the rebellion led by Evgenij Prigožin in June 2023, which ended with his death a few months later, the issue of PMCs as an active tool in a hybrid strategy remains central. In facts related to the dynamics of the dual conflict in Ukraine, the use of PMCs as a strategic component of the conduct of the new conflicts of the contemporary era nevertheless turns out to be a successful experiment in the use of hybrid tactics. These tactics, which have proven effective thus far, pose a risk because of the possible long-term consequences for the stability of the international system. In addition to that, more countries, other than Russia, may be increasingly taking the path of using hybrid techniques, related to the use of PMCs. For example, China has used private military companies to protect its infrastructure in Africa and may be following in Russia’s footsteps in operations to support or destabilize regimes in African countries, although nowadays, China is maintaining a less aggressive posture than Russia. The extensive use of the Wagner Group and its branches, including in the form of the Russian Afrika Korps in Africa is certainly related to strategic decisions of the Kremlin extending its sphere of influence in countries on the African continent. Although Russia’s pressure on African countries has not resulted yet in a major conflict as in the case of Ukraine, it certainly represents the use hybrid components for Moscow’s overall strategy. The underlying ambiguity that hybrid warfare simultaneously generates, and exploits could open the door to an increasing number of phantom conflicts characterised by irregular forces, massive disinformation, and outcomes that are uncertain and difficult to predict.


[1] Mattis, J. & Hoffman, F.G. (2005) Future warfare: the rise of hybrid wars. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute. Proceedings 131

[2] Brian Katz, Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Nicholas Harrington, Moskow’s Mercenary Wars The Expansion of Russian Private Military Companies, CSIS,