Prof. Bradley Thayer on Estonia, NATO, and Hybrid Threats


Why Estonia Should Join the EU-NATO Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats


Bradley A. Thayer
Visiting Fellow, Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and Professor at Tallinn University School of Governance, Law and Society.

The unwillingness of the Estonian government to join the recently established EU-NATO European Center for Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki is a strategic misstep. To understand why, it is important to comprehend the scope of hybrid warfare and its significance. Hybrid warfare is conflict involving a combination of conventional military forces, as well as irregulars, guerrillas, insurgents, terrorists, and cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining a state. Hybrid warfare does not change the nature of war as identified by the great Prussian theorist of war, Karl von Clausewitz: wars are conducted for political purposes. However, hybrid warfare alters the scope and ways forces engage in warfare—regular and irregular forces are engaged, and it includes the use of civilian, particularly minority, populations as participants in the conflict.

Hybrid conflict is not new, and dates back to the ancient Greeks. But the successful use of hybrid warfare by Russia in Ukraine has rekindled interest in this form of attack. In Ukraine, the world witnessed a classic hybrid warfare attack. It involved the simultaneous attack by special and cyber forces, and also the undermining of the Ukrainian government domestically, through political pressure advanced by the use of disinformation campaigns and protest by the Russian minority population.

This is an important issue for Estonian and NATO security. First, hybrid warfare is a growing and global threat. It is the foremost security challenge for states on the periphery of Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. Second, deterring hybrid warfare is a central security concern for Europe as emboldened Russia seeks to challenge the status quo in Eastern Europe. If successful, a hybrid challenge could undermine NATO and non-NATO states, such as the Baltic States, Finland, Moldova, Poland, and Romania, which would be a disaster for the EU, NATO, and stability in Europe. Of particular concern is the fact that Russia might be tempted to execute a hybrid attack against Estonia with the expectation that, due to mixed nature of the assault and use of members of the Russian minority population, as in Ukraine, NATO's Article V guarantee will not come into effect. Third, the interests of the transatlantic and global communities are concerned as hybrid warfare generates significant humanitarian challenges and introduces the possibility of wider conflict, including "frozen" conflicts, as well as the likelihood of destabilizing regions.

Estonia should act with dispatch and join this organization for major three reasons. The Center will build understanding of the causes and conduct of hybrid attacks. As Estonia faces the threat of a hybrid attack, the Center is an excellent opportunity for Estonian officials to benefit from this research, to share knowledge and pool resources, and to interact with professional colleagues from EU and NATO states who face the same problem. Second, based on its understanding of the causes and conduct of hybrid attacks, the Center will develop expertise for deterring or defeating them. Again, this has immediate and direct implications for Estonian security and provides an opportunity for Estonia media and public to be better informed about the issue. Third, by joining, Estonia conveys that is a willing and leading participant in important security institutions; and, as with the NATO Cyber Center, it works with its EU and NATO partners to develop knowledge and solutions to the major security problems faced by the Baltic states.