US and allies gird against Russia's hybrid warfare

Nato positions soldiers in three Baltic states and Poland, among other measures

ORZYSZ (Poland) • Soon after a US Army convoy crossed Poland's border into Lithuania during a major military exercise this month, two very strange things happened.

First, four Army Stryker armoured vehicles collided, sending 15 soldiers to the hospital with minor injuries. Then, hours later, an anti-US blog claimed a child was killed and posted a photo of the accident.

Lithuanian media quickly denounced the blog post as a fake, designed to turn public opinion against the Americans and their Baltic ally.

The bloggers had borrowed a page from the playbook of Russia's so-called hybrid warfare, which US officials say increasingly combines the ability to manipulate events using a mix of subterfuge, cyber attacks and information warfare with conventional military might.

The exercise, which involved 18,000 US and allied troops, offers a window into how Army commanders are countering not just Russian troops and tanks, but also twisted truths.

It occurred as US President Donald Trump is sidling up to Moscow by bad-mouthing Nato, calling for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven industrialised nations, and planning a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month.

"The Russians are actively seeking to divide our alliance, and we must not allow that to happen," Mr Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, warned in a speech in France the day after the June 7 accident in Lithuania.

Over the past year, the United States and its Nato allies completed positioning about 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic States and Poland, and have stationed several thousand other armoured troops mostly in Eastern Europe as a deterrent to Russian aggression.

In Brussels, allied defence ministers met recently in advance of a Nato summit meeting in July. They approved a plan to ensure that, by 2020, at least 30,000 troops, plus additional attack planes and warships, can respond to aggressions within 30 days.

The doctored photo of the Army accident in Lithuania was just the latest reminder of what US officials called Russia's increasing reliance on cyberattacks and information warfare to keep its rivals off balance.

Last year, for instance, Lithuanian prosecutors investigated a claim of rape against German soldiers who were stationed in Lithuania as part of a Nato mission to deter Russia. Ultimately, the report turned out to be false.

Moscow denied being involved in any disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting troops, but the incident was seen as an attempt to sow divisions among the allies.

Russia is flexing its conventional might, too, sending military forces for its own exercises along its western border with Europe and also to Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Additionally, Russia is building up its nuclear arsenal and cyberwarfare prowess.

In response, the Pentagon has stepped up training rotations and exercises on the territory of newer Nato allies in the east, including along a narrow 97km-wide stretch of rolling Polish farmland near the Lithuanian border north-east of what people here called the Suwalki Gap.

The corridor is sandwiched between the heavily militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Moscow's ally, Belarus, and is considered Nato's weak spot on its eastern flank.

In the unlikely event of a land war, US and allied officers say, the region is where Russia or its proxies could cut off the Baltic States from the rest of Europe.

Since Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, Eastern Europe has felt increasingly vulnerable.

"Putin is a bird of prey," said Mr Piotr Lukasiewicz, a retired Polish army colonel and former Polish ambassador to Afghanistan. "He preys on weak states."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2018, with the headline 'US and allies gird against Russia's hybrid warfare'. Subscribe