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Title: Assessing Military Thought in Post-Soviet Russia
Date Originally Written: January 21, 2019.
Date Originally Published: February 4, 2019.
Summary: While the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century is characteristically different than it was during the time of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russia’s underlying political interests remain largely unchanged. As such, rather than any abeyance to the previously popular strategies of the USSR, Russia’s activities in the information sphere and on the battlefield are no more than the continuation, and refinement, of Soviet-era tactics and operational concepts.
Text: Predominantly following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the assumption that Russian tactics have drastically changed may be chiefly explained by the growing popularity of the terms “hybrid warfare” and the “Gerasimov Doctrine.” The former, a potentially applicable military concept to modern day examples of war has yet to find an agreed upon definition. Despite lacking agreement, hybrid war is, unfortunately, used as a for label nearly every example of Russian strategy. The latter, however, is neither a real doctrine, nor fully Gerasimov’s idea. The term originates from an article written by Dr. Mark Galeotti. In it, Galeotti provides his commentary on a 2013 piece written in the Military-Industrial Kurier by Russian General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. Galeotti’s article included a disclaimer that the term “Gerasimov Doctrine” was merely used for its value as a title, however that did little good as many began to quote the term without reading the article, or likely even knowing where it came from.
Gerasimov’s article, “The Value of Science in Prediction,” was his response to the then-recent Arab Springs, and how the face of warfare is evolving. Gerasimov’s most widely cited statement, “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness,” has interestingly been used by some to form their conclusion that Russian military thought has undergone a transformation. However, rather than anything new, Gerasimov’s writing – largely building on the work of his predecessor, Nikolai Makarov – repeatedly cites Soviet military strategists such as Aleksandr Svechin who wrote, “Each war represents a partial case, requiring the establishment of its own peculiar logic, and not the application of some sort of model.”
Svechin’s quote provides evidence that he was invariably familiar with the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, who similarly posited that “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Taken from On War, written between 1816 and 1830, Russia’s current General Staff not only anchors its strategy in Soviet-era thought – it is founded upon the principles Clausewitz first presented in the early nineteenth century. For analysts and defense planners today, understanding that they are currently facing Soviet adaptations is critical. The notion that history repeats itself is alive and well in the Russian General Staff.
A perennial component in the Kremlin’s toolbox has been its disinformation campaign. This concept finds its roots in spetspropaganda, or special propaganda. First taught as a subject at the Russian Military Institute of Foreign Languages in 1942, it was removed from the curriculum in the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, it was reinstated by Putin, a former Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) officer, in 2000.
Specific tactics within Russia’s strategy of information warfare are based upon the idea of “reflexive control.” Developed during the Soviet Union, the theory of reflexive control states that, “control can be established through reflexive, unconscious responses from a target group. This group is systematically supplied with (dis)information designed to provoke reactions that are predictable and, to Russia, politically and strategically desirable.” Allowing the Kremlin to exploit preconceptions and differences in opinion amongst its enemies, this tactic which was prolific during the Soviet Union is once again being used against Ukraine and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries.
All of these so-called nonmilitary tactics, as the current Russian General Staff defines them, are no more than “active measures” which date back to the 1920s. Once used by Cheka (the Soviet secret police organization), the OGPU (Unified State Political Administration), the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), and the KGB during the Soviet Union, the practice is being continued by the Federal Security Service (FSB), Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU), and other government agencies. Founded in Leninist-thinking, these subversive activities may be used within or without the framework of a larger kinetic operation. Detailed by former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, they were designed to “weaken the West,” and, “to drive wedges in the Western community alliances.”
These concepts, alluded to by Gerasimov, more narrowly focus on the non-kinetic components of the Kremlin’s strategy. However, official Russian documents, while echoing similar language, combine them with more traditional military means of executing operational plans. The 2010 Russian Military Doctrine highlighted the importance of integrating nonmilitary resources with military forces. This was further detailed in 2014 to include, “participation of irregular armed force elements,” and, “use of indirect and asymmetric methods of operations.
Illustrating this in practice, the best example of Russia’s use of irregular armed forces would be – in post-annexation parlance – its “little green men.” This tactic of sending Russian Spetsnaz without insignia into a foreign country to destabilize its political environment and assume control has been discussed as somewhat of a novel concept. However, going back to December 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began with around 700 Spetsnaz, many of them Soviet Muslims, in Afghan uniforms taking Afghanistan President Amin’s palace by storm, along with several key military, media, and government installations.
With many other useful parallels to draw upon, the idea here is not to deny change has occurred in the nearly three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thanks to emerging technologies and progressive military thinking, tactical choice in Post-Soviet Russia has certainly advanced. But in many ways these advancements are no more than superficial – fitting in with the argument that the characteristics of war may change, but its nature may not.
The ideas Russia has presented in both word and deed surely deserve detailed analysis. That analysis, however, should be conducted with an understanding that the concepts under review are the continuation of Soviet thinking, rather than a departure. Moving forward, the Kremlin will continue to design, perfect, and implement new strategies. In looking to respond, history remains our greatest tool in discerning the practical applications of Russian military thinking. As Gerasimov would likely agree, the theoretical underpinnings of the Soviet Union provide us with a more perceptive lens of inspection than any new model of warfare ever could.
 Galeotti, M. (2014). The “Gerasimov doctrine” and Russian non-linear war. Moscow’s Shadows, 6(7), 2014. https://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/the-gerasimov-doctrine-and-russian-non-linear-war/
 Gerasimov, V. (2013). Tsennost Nauki V Predvidenii. Military-Industrial Kurier. https://vpk-news.ru/sites/default/files/pdf/VPK_08_476.pdf
 Howard, M., & Paret, P. (1976). On War (Vol. 117), pg. 593. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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 Popescu, N. (2015). Hybrid tactics: neither new nor only Russian. EUISS Issue Alert, 4. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/187819/Alert_4_hybrid_warfare.pdf
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