Slavdom’s First Hybrid War: Poland’s Hybrid War and Russia’s ‘Time of Troubles’

by Gordon M. Hahn

Russia’s overhyped, calibrated and and largely clandestine intervention or ‘ambiguous’ and ‘hybrid warfare’ in Donbass is not Russia’s first experience with hybrid warfare. Nor is ‘Russia’s hybrid war’ in Donbass the first time that Ukraine has seen hybrid warfare. Firsts for both of these came neither in Donbass in the 21st century nor in Ukraine at the end of World War II. Rather, it came in the early 17th century, with Russia the targeted, not the targeting state. Indeed, just as the West’s support for democracy- and opposition-promotion in Ukraine and elsewhere is now typically considered by Western, Russian and other military thinkers to be part and parcel of hybrid warfare, so too should be the Vatican-inspired and Polish-Lithuanian-executed hybrid war that targeted Russia in 1604-1618. This period, known as the ‘Smuta‘ and ‘smutnoe  vremya‘ or ”The Time of Troubles’ was perhaps the Russian state’s and people’s worst catastrophe and served as the  background, even formative experience of the modern Russian state, establishing the West as Russia’s ‘significant Other’ — one to be both modeled after and be wary of — and defining on of the elite’s core cultural values emphasizing national security from domestic and external enemies.

A recent article in the Marine Corps University Journal discussing Russia’s hybrid warfare conceptualization and practice defined “ambiguous warfare” as “situations in which a state or nonstate belligerent actor deploys troops and proxies in a deceptive and confusing manner with the intent of achieving political and military effects while obscuring the belligerent’s direct participation” (Mary Ellen Connell and Ryan Evans, “Russia’s Ambiguous Warfare and Implications for the U.S. Marine Corps,” MCU Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 30-45). Western (and Russian) military manuals and analyses attribute the following traits to hybrid warfare: clandestine organization, origin and deployment; use of native cadres to mask foreign involvement; indirect funding; distancing of, and deniability maintenance of the foreign targeting state’s leadership; the broad use of propaganda and disinformation; and holding the option in the case that surrogate proxy forces fail of turning to more standard forms of military intervention with the use of regular troops if necessary to save operation’s viability. Let us compare recent and ancient history on these points.

Smuta: Clandestine Origin, Organization, and Deployment at the Metropole and the Frontlines

In the case of Poland’s sponsoring of the ‘False Dmitrii’, the operation was organized clandestinely with the top leadership’s approval but stipulation that deniability of its involvement be maintained. Thus, the Polish king, Sigismund III, outsourced the organization and training  of False Dmitrii’s invasion force to the ‘Starosta’ or mayor-prince of Sambor and governor of Sandmiez, Yezi Mniszech. Mniszech had already begun implementing in league with some other Polish lords a plan to place a Polish-controlled pretender on the Russian throne. Mniszech supported various Catholic causes financially and politically in Sambor and Sandomir, including both Franciscan and Dominican {Paul Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom (Moscow: Lehand, 2016) [first published as P.O. Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Stat’i i zametki (St. Petersburg: A.S. Suvorin Publications, 1902)], pp. 40-1.}. He might have been motivated not simply by his Catholic faith and/or Polish nationalism, but by financial problems and the commercial prospects of an adventure with Dmitrii as well (Dunning, Russias First Civil War, pp. 134-5).

In 1603, a man claiming to be tsarevich Dmitry and having been saved from an assassination attempt initiated by Godunov revealed himself first to the Orthodox Polish Prince Adam Vishnevetsky, a powerful Ukrainian magnate with strong ties to Ukrainian Cossack clans and a promoter of Orthodox Christianity in Poland-Lithuania. Vishnevetskii was at odds over borderlands with Tsar Boris Godunov, whose forces had recently torched several of his towns in the borderlands of Seversk, so Dmitrii’s claim naturally intrigued him. Vishnevetskii introduced Dmitrii to Mniszech, and the pretender settled in his castle at Sambor. Vishnevetskii sent a report on Dmitrii to the Vatican on 8 November 1603 (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, p. 251). Dmitrii then resided there from December 1603 to February 1604 and convinced his host to help him regain his heritage – the Russian throne (Dunning, Russias First Civil War, pp. 134-5). It remains a major scholarly dispute as to whether this Dmitrii was really the thought-dead tsarevich or an impostor, a ‘lzhedmitrii’ or False Dmitrii, the infamous Grigorii Otrep’ev. It is certainly possible that the Polish ‘pretender’ was the real tsarevich Dmitrii, who somehow escaped from the supposed Moscow murder plot that ostensibly killed Ivan the Terrible’s son, tsarevich Dmitrii.

Like the color revolutions of today, the goal of the False Dmitrii operation was the full ideological transformation of the target country, Russia, and its subordination to Western interests–in this case those of the Catholic Church and its hopes for uniting the entire Christian world for battle against Islam and its hold on the Holy Land. The Vatican and Poland had long been endeavoring to Catholicize Eastern Orthodox nations and Russia fit into those plans. Poland’s Sigismund III was a leading supporter of the Catholic expansion goal and carried on a campaign of repression against both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant subjects of his realm. Sigismund established as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s chief foreign policy goal the subordination of Protestant and Orthodox Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican approved, was kept well-informed and occasionally consulted with Warsaw on the details and vicissitudes of Sigismund’s expansionist policy towards Russia, including the developing plot to place a Polish puppet on the Moscow throne in the person of a self-proclaimed tsarevich Dmitrii Ivanovich in supposed forced exile. (The Vatican’s archive contains a considerable number of documents pertaining to the case of the first False Dmitrii. See the collection of articles and notes from various researchers and documents compiled in Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 3, 14, 29, 35, 51, 96-9, 102, 187, 217, 238, 240, 242 and 246).

Sigismund’s foreign strategy was to create unions with non-Catholic neighbors by placing himself or one of his sons on the throne. The main targets of this strategy were Russia and Sweden. Hoping to form a Polish-Russian union by placing his son on the Moscow throne, he sought to challenge Sweden and place himself on its throne. With the False Dmitrii’s appearance in Poland, Sigismund was presented with an alternative strategy to achieve his goal. He would fight wars with Charles IX both before and after Poland’s gambit in Russia’s Time of Troubles had failed. Warsaw was acting as the spearhead of the Vatican’s ‘Uniate’ policy in the east, using the soft power of manipulating internal dissension and the hard power of military force. A meeting between the Polish king and would-be Russian sovereign finally took place on 15 February 1604. Four days later Dmitrii met with the Papal nuncio Rongoni, who was the Vatican’s main emissary to the plot. In a 14 June 1604 letter Mniszech informed King Sigismund that he was secretly preparing an invasion of Russia led by the supposed tsarevich; the Polish king would do nothing to dissuade or block Mniszech’s project (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, p. 178).

Use of Native Leaders to Provide Deniability of Involvement to the Metropole

This needs little elaboration in the Smuta case; False Dmitrii was deployed by Rome and Warsaw in the belief that he was the deposed tsarevich and sought to place him on the throne to expand Catholicism eastward, not to restore justice by putting the rightful heir on the Russian throne. While in Poland, mostly Sambor, Dmitrii converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and promptly sent a letter to the Vatican declaring his conversion and opening relations with the Vatican. Dmitrii developed close relations with the Vatican and the radical Jesuit Order. He dealt mostly with Papal nuncio to Poland, Claudio Rongoni, but worked with other Italian and Polish Jesuit priests. Rongoni won the favor of Sigismund, with whom he had close relations, when the favor supported his marriage to Constance, the sister of his late wife (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 73-4). Although he was instructed by the Vatican to help develop good relations between Poland and Russia, there is no detail about the details of this instruction. Upon meeting the self-proclaimed tsarevich, Rongoni appears to have believed him to be Ivan Groznyi’s son, and probably understood the potential of the true heir to the Russian throne beseeching Poland to help him assume his rightful place. This could achieve two goals at once: consolidate Russian-Polish relations perhaps in a union and achieve the Vatican’s goal of the Orthodoxy’s unification with Rome (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 76-7, citing the Archive of the Vatican). A Polish Jesuit priest, one Father Savitskii, is said to have been responsible for the supposed tsarevich’s conversion to Catholicism [Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 34-5 (citing the Archive of the Vatican) and 44]. In a 25 May 1604 letter from Sambor, Dmitrii declared his intention that “the entire State of Muscovy come under one, the Roman, faith” and often stated this verbally to Poles in Warsaw, Cracow, Sambor, as well as in Russia during his march on Moscow (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 47 and 136-7).

Dmitrii contacted the Vatican directly thrice himself, first in a 24 April 1604 letter to Pope Clement VIII professing his conversion to Catholicism and commitment to Catholicization of Russia, which was co-written by Roman nuncio Rongoni and Father Savitskii (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 16-17). The Vatican Archive reveals that Rome’s Inquisition devoted serious attention to Dmitrii’s Russian venture and missives, examining them no less than thrice between 1604 and 1606. In 1604 the Inquisition examined Dmitrii’s April 1604 letter to Pope Clement VIII and took Dmitrii’s conversion seriously and his proselytization promises at face value. In 1605, Dmitrii appealed to Rome for the right to at least initially hide his Catholic faith from his Russian subjects, since he would be required by Muscovite custom to participate in various religious and quasi-religious ceremonies. The Inquisition refused to rule on this sensitive issue and left it to Dmitrii to decide on how to deal with it. In 1606 the Inquisition met in full plenary session – including Pope Paul V, the cardinals, and papal advisors participating – to address Dmitrii’s request that during the coronation ceremony of his Polish Catholic wife and would-be Russian tsaritsa, she be allowed to observe Russian Orthodox rituals fasting traditions, receive Orthodox communion, visit Orthodox churches and in general follow all Orthodox rituals (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 96-8).

In a 14 June 1604 letter Mniszech, who also was in contact with the Rongoni and the Vatican, informed King Sigismund that he was secretly preparing an invasion of Russia led by the supposed tsarevich (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, p. 92). Although King Sigismund was forced “to retreat from any official recognition of the pretender” and “at least ‘officially’ tried to stop Mniszech and Dmitrii from raising a private army” (my emphases), he would “work behind the scenes, secretly encouraging Mniszech, the Vishnevetskiis, and others to pursue the pretender affair as a private venture while the king publicly remained silent” [Chester S. L. Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War (University Park, Penn.: The Penn State University Press, 2001), pp. 134-6]. The Vatican acted similarly, keeping its distance officially but expressing its “sympathy for the unhappy tsarevich,” thus essentially blessing the Polish plan [S. F. Platonov, Lektsii po russkoi istorii (Moscow: Vysshaya shkola), p. 274 (first published in 1917 by Petergof’s Senatskaya tipografiya publisher)]. With the wink of Sigismund’s eye, Mniszech dutifully proceeded to complete the organization of the force of some 4,000, consisting of Polish Gentry and Cossacks, that the False Dmitrii would lead into Russia in October 1605.

Local, Irregular Proxy Forces for Deniability of Affiliation with Targeter(s)

The Vatican-Polish gambit clearly deployed local, irregular and proxy forces for purposes of maintaining their deniability of any affiliation.  In April 1604, Dmitrii, Mniszech, and several thousand fighters left Sambor. They were soon joined by other troops and on October 23rd they crossed the border into Russia. The political strategy of the operation rested on whipping up Cossack rebellion inside Russia as the forces entered Russia’s Cossack territories in the hope that that it would then spread to the general peasantry.One contribution of Polish King Sigismund to the clandestine effort was to release Don Cossack ataman Korela and his comrades from prison, so they could join Dmitrii’s invasion force (Dunning, Russias First Civil War, pp. 134-6). The recruitment of Cossack ataman Korela and some 500 Cossack forces before the invasion was a way to attract Cossacks to the cause and help mask the largely Polish schlachty nature of the force. This helped obscure the Vatican-Polish nature of the operation beyond the use of the ‘Russian banner’ — False Dmitrii. Once entering Russian territory, it was hoped and turned out that Dmitrii was able to rally additional strength from among disgruntled Cossack and Russian peasant elements, allowing him to march on Moscow, occupy it, and ensconce himself in power.The Cossack borderlands straddling Russia and Poland-Lithuania east of Kiev churned with discontent, a passion for adventure, battle, independence, and an anarchic concept of freedom. Furthermore, in many Cossack settlements or stanitsas and Polish-oriented areas there was broad discontent over Tsar Boris’s land and peasant policies. Dmitrii’s force of some 4,000 fighters included already some 500 Cossacks when it crossed the border. Therefore, as the pretender’s army marched through the Cossack south it gathered strength. Thus, Dmitrii’s forces were able to raise Cossack support almost immediately upon crossing the border into Russia, raising the entire Cossack-dominated region of Seversk or Severiya in revolt. From there, the ‘revolt’ acquired Russian peasant recruits  and volunteers as Dmitrii’s force marched north, indeed took Moscow and placed Dmitrii on the Russian throne in the Kremlin in June 1605. If the Polish plot was the spark that set off the tinderbox of Russian revolt that raged during the Smuta, then Russia’s southern Cossack lands were the first tinder set alight.

But neither Cossack solidarity nor Boris’s peasant policies were the main attractions to the cause. One must adopt the worldview of the medieval man in order to grasp that the real driver was a sincere belief in Dmitrii’s claim to the Russian throne, perhaps mixed in with wishful thinking inspired by discontent with Boris’s policies. In no way, was the Smuta a purely domestic social revolution from below driven by class conflict, so much as a struggle for the definition and preservation of Russian national identity sparked by the sudden appearance of Dmitrii. Indeed, it is hard not to draw an overall parallel between the revolt sparked by the invasion force with both today’s color revolutions supported and often sparked by the West as well as Russia’s imitation of such color revolution strategies in supporting the counter-revolts in Crimea and Donbass in 2014.

Indirect Funding

The Vatican persistently refused Sigismund’s repeated requests for subsidies for his Russia project, even when briefly Vladislav held the Muscovite throne and Smolensk fell to the Poles. However, it may have given the wink and a nod to some of the funding that did come from Catholic institutions in the form of local parish collections, which arrived rather late in the process. It is known, for example, that in 1613, the Bishop of Zhitomir (in today’s Ukraine) Pavel Volutskii, for example, organized church service collections, which took in 40,000 chernovtsy, which were sent to Sigismund. The same year Bishop Volutskii travelled to Rome, but it is unclear whether he received the approval or even discussed with Vatican officials or Pope Paul his collection of funds for Sigismund’s army (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni, pp. 243-7 and 258). However, it is extremely unlikely that the Vatican was unaware of these contributions and very likely it approved of them, if it did not pre-approve their collection. Thus, though refraining from providing direct financial or other support to the Poles–as Vatican, Italian, and European archives demonstrate, the Vatican provided moral support and allowed, if not encouraged parishes to make donations to the cause.

After boyar Vasilii Shuiskii’s overthrow of False Dmitrii, Sigismund III attempted to rehabilitate his reputation in the Vatican’s eyes by renouncing to Papal envoy Alviz Foskarini his earlier claim to the Vatican that Dmitrii appeared to be the real Russian tsarevich. In this way, the Polish sovereign might have been hoping to divert the entire blame for the policy fiasco on Mniszech and other Polish nobles (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni, pp. 28-9 (citing the Archive of the Vatican), 105-6, and 202-3). In this way, he could undertake a new Russian venture himself and perhaps garner greater Vatican assistance in the bargain. Turning to the Vatican for funding, he told Papal nuncio Francesco Simonetta that Russians were dissatisfied with Vasilii Shuiskii’s rule and wanted either himself or his son to be tsar (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni, p. 29, citing the Archive of the Vatican). Although several European monarchs supported Sigismund’s request, Pope Paul V decided to limit the Vatican’s support to “plutonic” or moral support, approving Sigismund’s plans, promising prayers to bless the mission, but withholding financial support because of insufficient funds in the Vatican’s coffers resulting from the need to defend Italy and Europe from the Ottomans (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni, pp. 203-4, 236, 238 and 240). Sigismund’s request for Vatican funding demonstrates the scale of his plans to use Polish regular army forces to lay siege to Smolensk and coerce weakened Moscow into accepting his son as Russia’s sovereign.


Poland at the time was a strategic communications leader, a “pioneer in the use of pictures for propaganda,” which clashed sharply with Russian Orthodoxy’s antipathy towards the use of painting (and music) for impious purposes (Billington, The Icon and the Axe, p. 104). Jesuit priests, who functioned as chaplains for False Dmitrii and his troops, were to be the spearhead of the Vatican’s hoped for theo-ideological Catholicization process in Russia once Dmitrii seized Moscow. The initial invasion force included ideological commissars and propaganda organs. During his march into Russia, Dmitrii retained two Jesuits as chaplains for his Polish soldiers, Andrei Lavitskii and Nikolai Chizhovskii. The assignment of the Jesuit chaplains, who arrived in Sambor in August 1604, was co-authorized by the Papal nuncio Rongoni, Sigismund and his spiritual advisor, Father Barch. Six or seven Dominican priests accompanied future tsarevna Marina to Moscow. Other priests accompanied other fellow crusaders (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 44-6, 100 and 112-14).

Utilizing the now influential printing press, Papal diplomat Antonio Possevino, who spent a career promoting the idea of a Vatican union with, and dominion over over Moscow, began publishing pamphlets across Europe propagandizing Dmitrii’s cause, and pictures of Dmitrii were printed and disseminated (Billington, The Icon and the Axe, p. 105). An influential Venetian Jesuit, Possevino had been the Vatican’s representative in Moscow under Ivan Groznyi and in Severiya during Dmitrii’s initial invasion, delivered a report to the Vatican on Dmitrii in 1606, wrote a book about Dmitrii under a pseudonym, and sent holy books to Dmitrii with a message in which he advised the new Tsar to adopt close relations with Poland’s Sigismund, join in a union with Poland, diminish Sweden’s Charles, march on the Turks, and enlighten Russia “through the Mother of God” (Pirling, Iz Smutnogo vremeni: Lzhedmitrii I i ego svyazi s papskim prestolom, pp. 213-14). In addition to Possevino’s propaganda operation targeting Europe, during the months prior to his invasion, Dmitrii himself sent messages to Russia’s Cossack stanitsas and frontier towns appealing for support and whipping up discontent with Tsar Boris (Dunning, Russias First Civil War, p. 138).

Propaganda also played a pivotal role at a crucial moment in the crisis sparked by the invasion. Tsar Boris’s and the Dmitrii’s forces fought indecisive battles for several months. It is unlikely that Dmitrii would have seen Moscow had it not been for Boris’s untimely death on 13 April 1605. Rumors of suicide and poisoning flew about Moscow, and historians can only tentatively conclude that Boris “probably” died of natural causes having been gravely ill prior to his death (Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War, p. 181). Boris’s death suggested among the superstitious Russian common folk that the Pretender Dmitrii was Ivan Grozny’s legitimate heir. Boris was succeeded by his 16-year old son, Fyodor Godunov. However, a boyar uprising overthrew Fyodor II, and he and his mother were killed in June. Dmitrii and the Poles capitalized on these fortuitous events by carrying out a propaganda campaign in Moscow and offering bribes and amnesty to boyars and commanders (Dunning, Russias First Civil War, p. 181). This allowed them to split the resistance, defeat the remaining defense forces, and occupy Moscow in June. The False Dmitrii was crowned Tsar of Russia in July with an elaborate ceremony.

From Ambiguous/Hybrid Warfare to Regular Warfare

Over several months, Dmitrii’s Polish entourage would alienate many Russians, sparking a coup, his overthrow and murder in May 1606, ushering in the widespread chaos and violence of the Smuta. Foreign and native Cossack troops, armies of bandits, and Poles and Swedes armies wrought havoc and hell over the country for much of the next decade. With the False Dmitrii project finished, other impostors to the throne emerged. By 1609 Sigismund endeavored and almost succeeded in putting his son Vladislav on the Russian throne by laying siege to Smolensk prompting negotiations with elements from Moscow. When Sigismund’s ‘Vladislav project’ collapsed, he ordered a full-fledged invasion of Polish regular forces into Russia in a final attempt to seize Moscow by direct military means. By 1610-11 the Polish invasion sparked a countrywide national insurgency.

After the failure of a first national insurgency, the Russians were eventually able to drive the Poles out and rout the Cossack and bandit marauders. A second insurgent army set out for Yaroslavl in the north in March 1612 from Nizhnii Novgorod. Arriving in April, they remained in camp in Yaroslavl until August for training and equipping the army and securing its rear by clearing the north of Cossacks and negotiating the assistance of the Swedes. Around 20 August 2012, the insurgent army moved out and in October 22nd it took Kitai Gorod, after which the Polish garrison and allied boyars in the Kremlin surrendered. Sigismund III now tried, thrice, to march on Moscow, but was thrown back each time by pro-Moscow, Cossack-dominated forces having gotten as close as 50 miles from the Kremlin. The insurgent leader, Prince Dmitrii Pozharskii, sent out an appeal to 50 Russian cities for each to send 10 representatives to elect a new tsar. Arriving in January 1613, 700 electors took part in the zemskii sobor held in the Kremlin’s Uspenskii Cathedral. After some intricate politicking it elected Mikhail I, the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty that reign until February 1917 Russian Revolution. One of the Poles’ last acts in the drama of the Smuta, was a failed attempt to snatch tsar-elect Mikhail, an operation foiled by one of his trusted aides, Ivan Susanin, who misled the Poles around the forest, allowing Mikhail to escape [Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War, pp. 429-40; Platonov, Lektsii po russkoi istorii, pp. 313-20; and V. O. Klyuchevskii, O russkoi istorii (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1993, first published in 1904 by Moscow’s ‘Sinodal’naya tipografiya’ publisher), pp. 312-5)].

However, the neither the Poles nor the Cossacks were done quite yet. The Poles’ last gasp occurred in November 1612 when Sigismund sent advance forces to Moscow, including among them Russian emissaries who supported his ascendancy to the throne and were to make contact with Muscovites and convince them to accept Valdislav as tsar. But the emissaries’ message was not conveyed or was completely ignored. Battle ensued, with the Poles capturing a Smolensk boyar’s son Ivan Filosofov. His interrogation convinced Sigismund that the game was up; he enjoyed virtually no support in Moscow now, all Russia despised both he and his son. Sigismund and Vladislav returned to Warsaw; the Catholic project to convert Russia at the hand of the Poles was abandoned for the time being (Platonov, Lektsii po russkoi istorii, pp. 320-5). The Smuta still did not end with Sigismund III’s retreat back to Poland. Residual chaos, scattered roaming bands of Cossacks and thieves, and Polish crusader raids amounting to “a large-scale border war” persisted until the end of 1618. A final Cossack attempt to seize Moscow and place the son of the Vor and Marina Mniszeck failed (Platonov, Lektsii po russkoi istorii, p. 325). In 1615 a final Polish crusader undertook a daring raid deep into Russia, details of which archeologists clarified a decade ago. Its leader, Alexander Yuzef Lisovskii, was born in 1580 into a Polish noble (schlachta) family from Vilno (Vilnius). He fought against the Swedes in 1604, was involved in several revolts in Poland, and from 1606 was involved in the Polish interventions into Russia, fighting under the first False Dmitrii and later under King Sigismund (A.V. Zorin, “Velikii reid Aleksandra Lisovskogo (Mart-Dekabr’ 1615 g.),” Ruskii sbornik, Vypusk 4, 2008, pp. 224-32,, at p. 224). In February 1615, backed by Polish hetman Jan Karol Khodkevich, Lisovskii invaded Russia with 600 troops that included not just Poles but also Germans, Cossacks and Crimean Tatars and grew to 3,000. Covering an enormous territory, he completed a full circle around Moscow through what are now the regions of Smolensk, Moscow, Kaluga, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, and Nizhnii Novgorod partially defeated Dmitrii Pozharskii’s forces at Oryol and Fyodor Sheretmetev’s forces at Rzhev. He and his raiding force eventually ran out of resources and arrived back in Smolensk on 27 February 1616, which remained under Polish control until the 1630s. Cossack remnants of his several-thousand-man force continued to pillage in Russia for a while. The entire episode convinced the Swedes of the Russians’ continued weakness and led them to run a hard bargain in peace talks. Lisovskii’s terrorized numerous towns across central Russia, including Bryansk, Karachev, Belyov, Likhvin, Rzhev, Danilovskaya sloboda, Murom in Suzdal province, After Rzhev, he headed north past Tver’, Kashin and Uglich rumored to be heading to the northern Arctic Sea. Lisovskii also hit Romanov and headed south moving between Yaroslavl and Kostroma, moved on to Nizhnii Novgorod before heading to Tula and back to Liikhvin, west to Mstislavl’ then to Oryol (Zorin, “Velikii reid Aleksandra Lisovskogo (Mart-Dekabr’ 1615 g.),” pp. 225-32). In 1616 Vladislav IV (Sigismund III’s son and would-be ‘Tsar Vladislav’) mounted another invasion of Russia. Hoping to piggyback on Lisovskii’s raid and march on Moscow, Vladislav’s final attempt to capitalize on Russia’s vulnerability and place a Pole its throne ended in failure, leading to the 1618 Treaty of Duelino (Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War, pp. 456-7).

The Comparative Present: The New Cold War’s Ambiguous/Hybrid Warfare

Much of the West’s menu of strategies and tactics (not to mention goals) which formed Russia’s 17th century Smuta — clandestine organization, origin, deployment of forces, leadership deniability, proxy forces, stealth financing, and propaganda/disinformation — mirrors both recent Russian and American ambiguous/hybrid operations abroad in Crimea, Donbass, Libya, and Syria in the ‘new cold war.’ It should be noted that the ‘innovation’ that such ambiguous/hybrid approaches to warfare supposedly represent received new notoriety in military circles not from the attention devoted to it by the Russian General Staff but by the American, as I noted in a previous piece (

In Syria, MB leaders were given refuge in NATO member Turkey for decades prior to the outbreak of the civil war. When protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad emerged, clandestine organization, origins, and deployment kicked in. Rebel forces composed of MB and others were secretly trained in Turkey and clandestinely armed and financed by US Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The United States then secretly sponsored Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Syrian exiles and then rebel forces, wittingly and unwittingly, including Al Qaida-affiliated groups (such as Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State (ISIS), respectively, in its effort to escalate civilian protests and overthrow the Assad regime, leading to civil war. This included the secret supply of weapons and equipment and secret funding to Syrian rebels. Weapons and equipment supplies were organized by the US through the Libyan port of Benghazi, and other supplies were funneled through US Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Barack Obama’a and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s ruse that the murder in Benghazi of the US ambassador to Libya and three CIA operatives was the result of riots in response to a video insulting the Prophet Mohammed was an effort to keep the weapons’ supplies to Syria secret and maintain the US leadership’s deniability of involvement. Moreover, the Obama administration had ignored US intelligence’s warnings that the supply of weapons to MB could not be controlled and would likely lead to the empowerment of the Islamists and jihadists and facilitate ISIS’s expansion across eastern Syria and western Iraq. When this worst-case scenario came to fruition, the civil war escalated. (On all the above, see;;; and

Western and Arab propaganda efforts focused on: denying their involvement in supplying the rebels ineffectively and thereby empowering the jihadists and escalating the civil war’s level of violence; painting the Syrian uprising and rebel forces as pro-democratic and virtually devoid of Islamist and jihadist elements; and distorting the goals and strategies of Russia’s later intervention into the civil war. Regarding the latter, Western propaganda asserted that Russia’s intervention: was solely intended to keep Assad in power in an effort to counter Western influence in the Middle East; had nothing to do with targeting jihadists, especially ISIS and Caucasus Emirate jihadists who went to Syria; was not targeting ISIS targets at all or insignificantly; and was the cause of a flood of Syrian refugees into Europe. In addition, the West ascribed all chemical weapons attacks in the civil war to the Assad regime, despite the fact that it was known that the rebels had acquired chemical means and some international organizations concluded that the rebels may have carried out some of the chemical attacks. Some of these practices were utilized in Libya in 1010-2011. Russia’s own later intervention in the Syrian civil war included some stealth elements: deployments of special operations forces’ and the semi-private Wagner Company fighters. In terms of propaganda, Russia denied that Syria carried out any chemical attacks and portrayed Syrian elections as democratic.

Russia’s operation in Crimea is perhaps the stealthiest such operation ever carried out. It produced only a single fatality, no combat, and achieved its goal: the holding of a referendum on whether or not the people on the peninsula preferred to remain under Ukrainian rule or move to Russian rule. In stealth fashion it morally, politically, and to some extent financially supported ethnic Russian pro-autonomy and pro-independence groups in Crimea for years. In the wake of the illegal overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev in February 2014 (seeded and retroactively supported by the Barak Obama administration), Moscow backed pro-Russian elements in Crimea, who sought independence from the new western Ukrainian-dominated, nationalist, and anti-Russian Maidan regime and protection from Moscow by becoming a member of the Russian Federation (actually two members – Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea). Russia’s resulting annexation was undertaken with supreme stealth: a velvet occupation of the peninsula by Russian special forces’ ‘polite green men’ in uniforms without state or military markings and a native-led, but Moscow-backed referendum and secession process. The special forces that composed the bulk of the Russian forces deployed across the peninsula were brought in under the cover of supply convoys to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol naval base located in Crimea. Russian propaganda included denials, including by Putin himself, that the ‘polite little green men’ who suddenly appeared on the peninsula’s streets were not Russian servicemen.

In Donbass, Russian operations also had some things in common with the 17th century Vatican/Polish venture. Although initial Russian support for the Donbass rebels opposed to the Maidan regime in Kiev came largely from Russian civil society in support of embattled co-ethnics across the border, the Russian state gradually got involved. Although at least publicly it did not support the Donbass referendum votes for reunification with Russia, once Kiev started the civil war by declaring a ‘counter-terrorist operation against the Donbass, Moscow did provide military  advisers, weapons, financing and allowed volunteers to flood across the border and join the Donbass rebel forces. Moscow also began playing a secondary role in the recruitment of volunteers and gathering support funds for the rebels that involved Orthodox Christian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, such as steel magnate Aleksei Mordashov, in some ways Moscow’s modern-day Mniszech ( Similarly, Putin’s cook, Yevgenii Prigozhin, is also said to have been supporting the clandestine supply of contract soldiers fight alongside the Donbass rebels. The allegations landed him and his two acknowledged companies on the December 2016 US Treasury Department sanctions list ( Russia reinforced these first waves of  local and volunteer rebels first with Russian volunteers, then Russian soldiers on leave, and then a small force of regular troops when things went south for the Donbass rebel forces.

In terms of secret funding, Moscow-based Orthodox oligarchs such as Mordashov were alleged to be funneling funds to separatists through various church-related channels ( Ukrainian oligarchs were simultaneously funding the ultranationalist/neofascist volunteer battalions, whose war crimes were less easily blamed on Kiev, since these battalions were not part of the regular army (though they were ostensibly subordinated to the Internal Affairs Ministry). Russian propaganda denied that any Russian soldiers or intelligence operatives were in either Crimea or Donbass and attempted to portray the revolt in Kiev as entirely a Western plot and the new Maidan regime as entirely neofascist. Western and Kievan propaganda were no less fantastic.

Going Public

Another attribute or by-product of such ambiguous/hybrid warfare is the need sometimes to ‘go public’ to save the operation in which so much has been invested in terms of lives, national prestige, national treasure, and officials’ reputations and career futures. In the event the masked force of local insurgents fails to perform, the metropole may deploy a limited contingent of regular troops to reinforce, back up, and carry out special operations in the former’s support. As noted in the case of the 17th century Vatican-Polish venture into Russia, after False Dmitrii was overthrown, Polish King Sigismund III used Polish troops first to put his son on the throne, and when that failed used them again in a last ditch attempt to seize Moscow directly. Going ‘public’ or open occurred in somewhat similar fashion in both the US operation in Syria and the Russian intervention in Donbass. With the failure of the Syrian rebels to seize power — thanks largely to Russia’s and Iran’s intervention — the US began to deploy its own troops into Syria first clandestinely and then officially. President Trump reneged on a statement he would end the involvement and the deployment persists with very little publicity as to its nature.When the rebels found themselves twice on the verge of encirclement by Ukrainian army forces and ultra-nationalist irregulars in 2014 and 2015, Moscow sent in several thousand troops (not 40,000 as claimed by Washington and Brussels) and special forces and provided artillery support, saving the Donbass rebel army each time (;;; and


As much as we would like to believe to the contrary, as far as human military-political behavior is concerned there is not much new under the sun. The technology may be different and more powerful today, but the those wielding it are engaged in the same military and political goals, strategies, and tactics as their forebears. Nor are the results of their actions very far if at all removed from outcomes in earlier epochs. For example, the Poles’ use of the Cossack ‘ethnic factor’ reflects what US analysts argue is a contemporary Russian practice. In what they call the second or “emergence phase” of Russian hybrid war ops, such analysts argue: “Russia uses ethnic and pro-Russian populations in the target state to foment protests and resistance to the country’s government” (Connell and Evans, “Russia’s Ambiguous Warfare and Implications for the U.S. Marine Corps,” pp. 33). However, we should note that in Syria the US backed anti-Alawite as well as Sunni anti-Shia sentiment elements in attempting to remove President Bashar al-Assad and supported Ukrainian nationalist elements in Ukraine’s 2004-05 Orange and 2013-14 Maidan Revolutions. Not coincidentally, the Poles’ 17th century gamble, the West’s 2004-2014 gamble in Kiev, Moscow’s response to the latter in Crimea and Donbass, as well as the American play in Syria all brought the same sorts of consequences: war, revolution, social dislocation, state collapse, and untold and, what is more, unnecessary violence and death.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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