The New Generation of Russian Warfare

Russia’s actions in Ukraine surprised the West. Although they were based on known strategies, the scale and the simultaneous operationalization of asymmetric methods was something new.

Russians call it “New Generation Warfare.” It is based on Sun Tzu’s idea that “supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

In practice, after blocking Ukrainian troops in their bases in Crimea, the Russians started the second operational phase, consisting of psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and internet/media propaganda to undermine resistance, thus avoiding the use of firepower. The operation was also characterized by great discipline of the Russian troops, display of new personnel equipment, body armor, and light wheeled armored vehicles. The result was a clear military victory on the battlefield by the operationalization of a well-orchestrated campaign of strategic communication, using clear political, psychological, and information strategies, the full operationalization of New Generation Russian Warfare. A similar strategy was used in Eastern Ukraine, although this time it was necessary to employ military power. However, Russia still denies that it occupied Crimea militarily or that Russian troops are in Ukrainian territory.

Figure 1: Changes in the Character of Armed Conflict According to General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff

Traditional Military Methods New Military Methods
Military action starts after strategic deployment (Declaration of War).

Frontal clashes between large units consisting mostly of ground units.

Defeat of manpower, firepower, taking control of regions and borders to gain territorial control.

Destruction of economic power and territorial annexation.

Combat operations on land, air and sea.

Management of troops by rigid hierarchy and governance.

Military action starts by groups of troops during peacetime (war is not declared at all).

Non-contact clashes between highly maneuverable interspecific fighting groups.

Annihilation of the enemy’s military and economic power by precise short-time strikes in strategic military and civilian infrastructure.

Massive use of high-precision weapons and special operations, robotics, and weapons that use new physical principles (direct-energy weapons—lasers, shortwave radiation, etc).

Use of armed civilians (4 civilians to 1 military).

Simultaneous strike on the enemy’s units and facilities in all of the territory.

Simultaneous battle on land, air, sea, and in the informational space.

Use of asymmetric and indirect methods.

Management of troops in a unified informational sphere.

It follows that the main difference between regular and New Generation Warfare moves:

  1. From direct destruction to direct influence;
  2. From direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay;
  3. From a war with weapons and technology to a culture war;
  4. From a war with conventional forces to specially prepared forces and commercial irregular groupings;
  5. From the traditional (3D) battleground to information/psychological warfare and war of perceptions;
  6. From direct clash to contactless war;
  7. From a superficial and compartmented war to a total war, including the enemy’s internal side and base;
  8. From war in the physical environment to a war in the human consciousness and in cyberspace;
  9. From symmetric to asymmetric warfare by a combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns;
  10. From war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.

Therefore, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind. As a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population. The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power. Instead, the objective is to make the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country. It is also interesting to note the notion of permanent war. It denotes a permanent enemy. In the current geopolitical structure, the clear enemy is the Western civilization, its values, culture, political system, and ideology.

The phases of new-generation war can be schematized as:

First Phase: 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).

Second Phase: Special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

Third Phase: Intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.

Fourth Phase: Destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

Fifth Phase: Establishment of 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.

Sixth Phase: Commencement of military action, immediately preceded by large-scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. All types, forms, methods, and forces are deployed, including special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, and secret service intelligence, and industrial espionage.

Seventh Phase: Combination of targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, continuous air force harassment, combined with the use of high-precision weapons launched from various platforms (longrange artillery and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons).

Eighth Phase: Rolling over the remaining points of resistance and destroying surviving enemy units by special operations conducted by reconnaissance units to spot which enemy units have survived and transmit their coordinates to the attacker’s missile and artillery units; firing barrages to annihilate the defender’s resisting army units by effective advanced weapons; airdrop operations to surround points of resistance; and territory mopping-up operations by ground troops.

In operational terms, the first phase is pure asymmetric warfare. It encompasses information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures. The objective is to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup on the ground for the next phase. This includes creating discontent with national institutions among the population, using the question of Russian as an official language, matters of citizenship, the poor level of social and economic development in border regions and high level of corruption, just to name a few. In Eastern Europe and the Baltics the fundamental instrument in the first phase is the Russian media controlled by the Kremlin.

The second phase is a direct complement to the first. It is mostly based on deception measures. It includes leaking false plans to the enemy’s intelligence, simulating military exercises or calculated escalating conflicts in other regions. It includes manipulating international organizations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, and NGO’s. The objective is dual. On the one hand, it diverts the international community’s attention from the main objective; on the other, it misleads the opponent regarding the real operational objectives.

The third phase’s objective is to make the opponent’s legitimate political and military leaders support measures against their own country. A recent example was part of the Ukrainian military joining the Russian Armed Forces. The fourth and fifth phases are the ones where green men start to act. It is the beginning of the military part of the attack. A fundamental aspect is to avoid admitting by all means that it is a disguised military operation. The strategic objective is to evade the opponent armed forces’ intervention. Since—officially—the men in green are only local protesters, the police has to take responsibility. A country’s police forces are rarely ready to deal with special operations troops. Together with the imposition of blockades and the extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with the local armed opposition units, the opponent is unable to properly defend its territory as a result. The sixth phase is the start of direct military operations. These are based on the idea of minimally deploying troops and using high-precision weapons.

In other words, the Russians have placed the idea of influence at the very center of their operational planning and used all possible levers to achieve this: skillful internal communications; deception operations; psychological operations and well-constructed external communications. In Ukraine, they have demonstrated an innate understanding of the three key target audiences and their probable behavior: the Russian speaking majority in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine; the Ukrainian government; and the international community, specifically NATO and the EU. Armed with this information they knew what to do, and when and what the outcomes were likely to be. They demonstrated that the ancient Soviet art of reflexive control is alive and well in the Kremlin.

This is very relevant to understanding its strategic significance, since it is the operationalization of a new form of warfare that cannot be characterized as a military campaign in the classic sense of the term. The invisible military occupation cannot be considered an “occupation,” by definition. Not only were the troops already on Crimean territory stationed at Russian naval bases, but they were also officially part of the local civilian militia. The deception operations occurred inside Russian territory as military exercises, including those in Kaliningrad in order to increase the insecurity of the Baltic States and Poland. At the same time, the Crimean parliament officially (although not legally according to the Ukrainian Constitution) asked to join the Russian Federation. Ukrainian media was jammed. As a result, Russian channels of communication propagating the Kremlin’s version of facts were able to establish a parallel reality, legitimizing the Russian actions in the realm of ideas.

To achieve this objective, it will most probably not go beyond the fifth phase of new-generation warfare. The first phase, the one of 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 for the next phase is already happening in many countries of the post-Soviet space. This includes creating discontent among the local population with national institutions. The question of Russian as an official language, matters of citizenship and the poor level of social and economic development in border regions are some examples.

The biggest challenge for a country’s security and defense is its unpreparedness to deal with such a scenario. Usually, it is the result of the simplification of strategy by many people outside the defense and security sector to 3rd generation military deterrence. There should be no doubt that the defense ministry and the armed forces should be ready to act in any scenario. However, national security requires a multilevel approach. Nations need to develop multilayered and comprehensive defense plans.

Since Russia’s strategy is opportunistic, reflecting the notion that any campaign is to be pursued only in the case of certain victory, it will not initiate the second, third, and fourth phase unless favorable conditions are met. Ensuring that such conditions do not take place is entirely a country’s own responsibility. As this is a non-traditional form of combat, just recently being operationalized on such a scale, a fair question arises whether NATO’s own legal framework and instruments are ready to deal with it. Moreover, it leaves open the possibility for doubt. Supposing a Crimea-like situation occurs in Narva, Estonia, for example. Can Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty be invoked if there is no armed attack, but instead there happens what Russia would call a “democratic right of self-determination of the same nature as Kosovo and Crimea”? How should this issue be managed: militarily or politically? If the Washington Treaty remains as it is, Europe faces the risk of NATO’s military forces being willing to fight, but being prevented from doing so by politicians.

Janis Berzinš

Managing Director, Center for Security and Strategic Research, National Defense Academy of Latvia

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