The Russian Way of Warfare

The BM-30 Smerch, a Russian heavy multiple rocket launcher.

Russian electronic warfare equipment.

Russian MiG-35 multi-role combat jet.

Russian Armata T-14 tank.

By employing well known methods of warfare in innovative ways and with the help of new technologies, Russia’s strategy in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine took most of the West by surprise. The Russians refer to these methods collectively as New Generation Warfare (NGW). Almost Immediately, Western analysts started looking for definitions, mostly within the West’s own theoretical framework and ignoring the vast Russian theoretical debate about new ways of conducting warfare.

Initially, Western analysts referred to it as Fourth Generation Warfare, referring to William Lind’s idea of the state losing the monopoly of violence and fighting non-state adversaries. Another term, this time made popular by Mark Galeotti but coined by Putin’s close advisor Vladislav Surkov’s (under the pseudonym of Nathan Dubovitsky), was ‘Non-Linear Warfare.’ It appeared for the first time in an article describing the Fifth World War, in which all will fight against all.

The main rationale is that since traditional geo-political paradigms no longer hold, the Kremlin gambles with the idea that old alliances like the European Union and NATO are less valuable then the economic interests it has with Western companies. Besides, many Western countries welcome obscure financial flows from the post-Soviet space, as part of their own mode of economic regulation.

Therefore, the Kremlin bets that these interconnections mean that Russia can get away with aggression. More recently, Oscar Jonsson and Robert Seely used the term, ‘Russian Full-Spectrum Conflict’ to refer to New Generation Warfare. Today, the most widely accepted term for Russian New Generation Warfare is Hybrid Warfare. NATO itself has adopted it. The seminal work on Hybrid Warfare is Frank Hoffman’s, “Hybrid Warfare and Challenges.” He developed the idea that the main challenge results from state and non-state actors employing technologies and strategies that are more appropriate for their own field, in a multi-mode confrontation.

Hoffman’s concept is appealing, but like all approaches discussed above, Hybrid Warfare still presupposes the application of kinetic force in some way. Although Russia might resort in using military power, conceptually Russian New Generation Warfare does not require it. Besides, the Russian military uses the term Hybrid Warfare to refer to the strategy of Color Revolutions allegedly employed by the West in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Russian New Generation Warfare is not something new, or even an entirely novel creation of Russian military thinkers. Rather, it reflects how Russian military thinkers understand the evolution of military art, especially in the West. Although it is not correct to affirm that the Western way of conducting warfare determined how Russian military thinkers developed their own understanding on the subject, its influence is undeniable. Thus, to analyze the way Russia does warfare, it is necessary to think within the Russian framework.

The Russian strategy has five elements. The first and most important one is Asymmetric Warfare. It forms the main base defining the Russian way of conducting warfare. The second is the strategy of Low Intensity Conflict, as borrowed from the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which developed it in the 1980s. The third is Russia’s understanding and theoretical development of Network-Centric Warfare. The fourth element is General Vladimir Slipchenko’s Sixth Generation Warfare, which essentially reflects his understanding of the strategic implications of Operation Desert Storm and the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia. The final element is the strategic concept of Reflexive Control, which has a vital role in shaping how military and non-military means are combined. These means can be combined in different proportions accordingly to the strategic characteristics of each operation.

For example, in Ukraine the Russians used mostly Low Intensity Conflict while in Syria they have been resorting mostly to Sixth Generation Warfare.

The operational application of Russian New Generation Warfare follows eight phases. They are to be employed in a sequential way, although they are not rigid or mutually exclusive. The phases are:

  1. Non-military asymmetric warfare, encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup.
  2. Special operations, to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out through diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.
  3. Intimidation, deception, and bribery of government officials and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.
  4. Issuing destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants who engage in subversion.
  5. Establishing no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units.
  6. Conducting military action, immediately preceded by large- scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. This involves all types of military activity, including special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, intelligence, and industrial espionage.
  7. Combination of a targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, and continuous air force harassment, combined with the use of high-precision weapons launched from various platforms (long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, and non-lethal biological weapons).
  8. Crushing remaining points of resistance and destroying surviving enemy units. This is accomplished using special operations forces to spot which enemy units have survived; artillery and missile units to fire barrages at the remaining enemy units; airborne units to surround points of resistance; and regular infantry to conduct mop-up operations.

The first four phases are basically non- kinetic, using strategies of Low Intensity Conflict as understood by the Russians. The fifth phase is when military action really starts, by setting the theater for a kinetic operation. It is important to stress the role of private military companies (PMCs). The United States has extensively used them in Iraq and Afghanistan from operating mess halls to providing security and, sometimes, performing military duties. For the Russians, PMCs must be understood as mercenaries in the worst sense of the word. The objective is to have an active military force that cannot be linked to the Russian Armed Forces. These mercenaries can act as if they were locals, part of the enemy’s Armed Forces, police, or whatever necessary. They will often engage in sabotage, blackmailing, subversive activities, terrorism, kidnapping, or any other activity that is not considered regular warfare. Russia can and will deny any connection with its mercenaries, publicly accusing them of being part of the enemy’s forces. The last three phases are a combination of Network Centric Warfare, Sixth Generation Warfare, and Reflexive Control.

Throughout all of these phases, because Russia considers itself weaker in comparison to the United States and NATO, its actions are going to be asymmetric. This a symmetry will occur not only in terms of operations and capabilities but also in terms of what is and what is not acceptable in warfare. Russia is ready to go much farther than what might be acceptable to the West. At this moment, NATO’s and Europe’s greatest challenge is to establish a feasible strategy to cope with this, without jeopardizing Western values.