Modern hybrid war, by Russia’s rules

The emerging Gerasimov doctrine provides Russia’s war blueprints

Russian Army

Sam Jones, Defense and Security Editor for the Financial Times, indicated in a column in late August, just before the recent NATO summit in Wales, that the hybrid war techniques used by Russia in Ukraine were a surprise not only to the Ukrainian military, but to NATO’s leading generals as well. In his article, Jones went beyond highlighting the enormity of the violation of international law that Russia’s newly-adopted tactics amounted to, by suggesting that Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine was more than just a simple “opportunistic ploy.”

“In its scale, the covert war in Crimea, and the Lugansk and Donetsk regions has set a high watermark in the art,” he wrote. “It has laid bare the weakness in NATO’s ossified military deterrent – the centerpiece of international security order that was supposed to be hardening, not weakening. And it has become a lightning rod for a debate about the future of conflict.”

Jones defined the term “hybrid war,” as coined by NATO, as a broad range of hostile actions “of which military force is only a small part.” He referred to the writing of Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, who telegraphed the strategy he is apparently using today in the February 2013 edition of the Russian defense journal VPK (“Military Industrial Courier” ).

“Methods of conflict change,” Gerasimov asserted. The general described his thoughts on effective application of war as inclusive of “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures,” such as inspiring the local population to serve as a “fifth column,” and deploying “concealed” armed forces like the so-called “Russian tourists” that plagued Ukraine through early summer, and which occasionally still show up as captured “saboteurs” in Twitter and other social media reports from the country today. When all these are performed in concert as part of a flexible strategy, the long-term damage can be significant.

Everything planned in advance
Jones’ presentation of Gen. Gerasimov’s military doctrine provided an interesting introduction to the processes that appear to be taking place not only in Ukraine, but also in the entirety of Eastern Europe, even countries bordering Belarus. According to Russia’s chief military officer, the trend of 21st century warfare, as he sees it, features an increasingly blurred boundary between war and peace. Recent conflicts demonstrate that quite prosperous states can in a matter of months or even days be transformed into the desolation of bitter armed struggle, becoming a victim of foreign intervention that plunges its people into the abyss of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war. The present war in Ukraine is not far removed in scale to these other conflicts in terms of death and destruction, as well as catastrophic social, economic, and political implications.

Gerasimov’s doctrine changes the rules and methods of warfare as it was practiced at the end of the Cold War, and may have global implications, according to Jones. Granted, the covert tactics are “far from new,” according to US national security analyst Anthony Cordesman, former director of intelligence at the Pentagon and present Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the most globally-respected Washington, DC, foreign policy think tanks. However, they have been modernized by Gerasimov, as Cordesman suggests from the performance of Russia’s tactics in the field.

One of the most dramatic ways in which Russia has improved upon the “total war” doctrine has been to employ, and despite the implied weakness of doing so, depend on a disinformation campaign that is so extensive in both offense and defense that security officials and analysts have regarded it as “staggering.” The intention appears to be to reduce the combat potential of the enemy. However, at times, the rhetoric coming from Russian media, which in the past few years has been brought under increasing control, has been almost as alarming as that used by North Korea. This is particularly disconcerting when considering Russia’s shared capacity to destroy, in concert with the United States, all of human civilization, if not the human race as a whole, in a global thermonuclear war.

Under Gerasimov’s doctrine, the open use of force should come only in the later stages of the conflict, such as under the guise of a peacekeeping force employed for the purpose of crisis management. The goal of such a force would be to seal the success of the hybrid war’s objectives. Russia, of course, continues to try to advance the conflict in Ukraine to this stage, but has been denied success by Ukrainian and Western leadership, both of which declared that any imposition of Russian troops as “peacekeepers” in eastern Ukraine would be treated as an invasion, thereby removing a significant protection from counter-attack that the “peacekeeping” label had been intended to convey.

The intention in these tactics is to avoid the large-scale collision of troops along a front, and remove the importance of strategy and operations of this type in warfare. Whether this is because of a loss of confidence in the performance of Russian forces against their NATO counterparts is not really elaborated upon. However, the use of so-called “asymmetric action,” or the application of special operations to stir up anti-state elements across the territory of the opposing country, is a major feature of Russia’s newly adopted doctrine.

Gerasimov credits Soviet military analyst Georgii Isserson as the inspiration for his doctrine. Isserson’s most important works included his 1933 work “Fundamentals of Deep Operation,” which became a functional part of Soviet military strategy only after the Nazi German army had begun to fall back following the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943. The real testing ground for his theory was right here in Belarus, during its rapid liberation a year later.

Among Isserson’s points that Gerasimov considered most important was the concept of mobilization, which the Soviet strategist noted does not occur after war is declared, but is carried out “unnoticed,” and “long before that.” Indeed, it can be argued that both in the 2008 Georgia conflict and in the Crimea conflict earlier this year, this element of Isserson’s military theory was quite effectively employed by Russia. Jones noted, however, that beyond readying rapid deployment plans, Russian mobilization had included a variety of modern “deep strategy” tactics such as the deployment of computer malware on Ukrainian government computers. One infection, called “Snake,” may have been responsible for much of Russia’s early successes in intelligence gathering in its conflict with the fledgling post-Yanukovich provisional government.

Applying partisan know-how
That the Gerasimov doctrine, as Western observers can best guess at its nature, is well beyond the abstract theory stage of development can be demonstrated in an article written on Sept. 3 within VPK magazine by Colonel General Anatoly Zaitsev, who holds a doctorate of military science. He took a look at some of the features of future low- and medium-intensity warfare, and analyzed local and regional armed conflicts that erupted in the first decade of the millennium, as well as the current conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Zaitsev compared Russia’s application of sabotage and guerilla actions both before and during offensive operations were actually developed by NATO, and used extensively by such countries as the United States.

Indeed, the author of this article suggested that sabotage and guerilla warfare might already be the primary means by which conflict is carried out. He notes that the Russian army can no longer conduct offensive operations the way it had done even in the Chechen War in the early 1990s. In this day of satellite monitoring and rapid transmission of information through social media, it is virtually impossible to carry out a covert deployment of large concentration of troops, not to mention keep secret the location of reserve forces.

From the first days of the deployment of the Russian Army near Ukraine’s border in the Donbas in March, NATO intelligence was able to keep exhaustive data on the number of guns, tanks, and armored personnel carriers positioned near the frontier. It could track the movement in real time of aircraft and accurately estimate manpower, if not to the platoon level (30-40 soldiers), then certainly to the company level (100-200 soldiers). It could establish the condition of the deployed units, determine which large military groupings include enhanced divisions, and identify the direction in which units were moving. Diversionary attacks were no longer possible, and movement of units through hostile territory became difficult, particularly after NATO began sharing intelligence with Ukraine. The only way in which military units could cross the border undetected was to do so in small groups, reorganizing as regular military units on the other side of the heavily monitored frontier.

The era of the “little green men”
It is highly instructive in terms of planning responses to hybrid war offensives to look at certain aspects of the deployment of military forces in Crimea. The Russians systematically isolated all pockets of possible resistance by the enemy, using units that were the same size as those carrying out sabotage and reconnaissance elsewhere in Ukraine. In general, these were medium and small-sized groups. The ultimate goal of these deployed units was to destroy the enemy’s critical assets, and disrupt or destroy its systems that secure its troops.

Carrying out sabotage and guerilla operations, again, is a major component of operation in wars of low- and medium-intensity. For evaluating the effectiveness of this type of warfare, it is useful to see how this has been carried out in the Donbas. Along with creating passive and active defenses, separatist forces there made wide use of hit-and-run tactics. That was their characteristic feature, high maneuverability through deployment of smaller groups.

The Ukrainian forces taking part in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), on the other hand, appeared to rely on long-range artillery fire to attack defensive positions where separatists were holding out. However, if accurate intelligence of the location of enemy forces is lacking, aircraft and artillery become ineffective. Law enforcement officers, if deployed against saboteurs and guerilla warriors, hardly have fire superiority, being limited only to wearable weapons. They suffer further disadvantages as guerilla units are generally highly maneuverable, and can use stealth and surprise to their advantage. After a fleeting barrage, the attackers can retreat along a pre-planned route to waiting light vehicles.

Artillery, aircraft, or even grad multiple rocket launchers are generally ineffective in fighting guerilla groups. To make matters worse, the deployment of 2- or 3-person manpads will effectively protect these difficult-to-catch groups from low-flying aircraft.

And the bear jumped
Many experts suggest that Russia has already been using these tactics for several months, holding down Ukrainian troops, many of which were not ready for war, in order to gather strength for a decisive blow against Kyiv’s army. At long last, Russian President Vladimir Putin has come to the point where a trickle of Russian troops and equipment seeping into Ukraine has expanded into a powerful stream.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reminds that Russia’s attack on eastern Ukraine began not as a full-scale military offensive, but as a “creeping, below-the-radar offensive.” Dutch Brigadier General Nico Tak, Director of the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center for the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), asserted that Russia’s ultimate goal at this stage is “to mitigate the pressure on the separatist fighters and freeze the conflict.” As a result, large parts of eastern Ukraine would remain under control of pro-Russian separatists, including both the big cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Kyiv will be forced to abide by a ceasefire and negotiate with Moscow for years to come. This would effectively deprive Ukraine of its ability to successfully negotiate NATO membership, achieving for Putin one of his main goals in the conflict.

From its success, Russia’s hybrid warfare is seen by more and more observers as an effective tactic, which may result in it being used by an increasing number of potential aggressors around the world. As one European military intelligence analyst suggested, “If I was Singapore, if I was Australia, if I was Vietnam, I would be studying all of this very carefully,” suggesting that the tactic could easily find its adoption by common rivals such as China. As Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House international affairs think tank, suggested, “We need to start thinking about security in a much more sophisticated way, and in a much more comprehensive way… we need to find new forms of deterrence.”

Unfortunately, outside of the slow creeping damage imposed by economic sanctions, the hunt for effective deterrence measures so far has been without significant success.


About Yuri Drazdow (79 Articles)
Yuri Drazdow is the founder and owner of The Minsk Herald. He is also a journalist specialising in area of business and politics. He has degrees in Journalism and Software Engineering and has been working on media and IT projects in Minsk and London.
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