The Russian Way of War

As Obama and the Democrats try to pin the blame on Putin for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss, and given the proclivities and visuals of the mainstream media, it is all too easy to fixate on the personalities and short-term interactions. Focusing on these distractions however threatens to obscure the longer-term pattern of Russia’s strategic behavior, which is harder to determine and identify.

The details and procedures of twenty-first century warfare have their roots in the 1990s and America’s overwhelming victory of the first Gulf War. Other countries noted the precision weapons that made short-work of the Iraqi army, then the fourth largest army in the world. The concluded that confronting the United States directly was a losing proposition, so they decided that in order to confront the US successfully required doing so indirectly. This thesis was written up by two Chinese officers, Liang Qiao and Xiangsui Wangin, in Unrestricted Warfare, which was originally translated in 1999 and makes the case that there are many other kinds of warfare besides force-on-force warfare.

The Russians also noted that confronting the Americans directly would not work out well, and yet they still continue to achieve the benefit of warfare without entailing the costs of doing so—that is, Russia seeks, “the bonus without the onus.” The Russians implemented their own version of the Chinese strategy of indirect confrontation, which was noted in the report, “New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Latvian Defense Policy.” The Latvians have a special interest in understanding Russian expansionism as they have been experiencing it in various forms since 1710. As Latvia and the other Balkan nations, Estonia and Lithuania, are experience a period of independence from Russia, they have a great incentive to understand their ways of influence and control.

Russia has traditionally sought to secure their security through depth, having significant distance between Moscow and potential European adversaries. The three Baltic nations are in NATO and the Ukraine is being courted by NATO, which works against Russian depth.  It also works against Russia’s sense of self and its perceived place in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin realizes that he doesn’t have the capability to challenge the US militarily, but that doesn’t mean he can’t challenge the US.

First, the Russians seek to, “eemphasize direct influence over their enemy as opposed to their direct destruction.” In the days of the Soviet Union, NATO used to worry about a Russian tank column coming through Germany’s Fulda Gap, an explicit invasion that would be clear and decisive. Why not, the Russian leadership wonders, simply influence a region indirectly rather than invade it? NATO according to treaty agreements would have to respond if Russia were to invade, but what if Russian’s merely make suggestions that a small country felt compelled to perform? Would NATO respond then? What would its responsibility be? Since NATO countries are pacific by nature with small militaries, their strong preference would be to look the other way, which invites a certain adventurism by an aggressive and aggrieved leader like Putin. 

Second, the Russians seek, “instead of annihilating the target, encourage its inner decay.” Putin has used unattributable special operations forces (SOF) to commit assassinations and attack infrastructure in the Ukraine as well as sow dissent among the ethnic Russian populations especially in eastern Ukraine. It is inherently easier to destroy than build, and the resulting discord makes it difficult to respond coherently or effectively. Moreover, the interventions are never significant or clearly attributable enough to justify NATO response and the inevitable costs that would entail. 

Third, the Russians seek, “to de-emphasize the use of kinetic weapons in favor of cultural war relying heavily on propaganda and subversion.” The role of propaganda has always been significant, but in the era of ubiquitous internet and the twenty-four hour news cycle, information operations are taking on an entirely new and more important role. In the Ukraine, the information operations were treated co-equally and coordinated with SOF actions as they impact the population in a way that limited numbers of forces cannot. So important is Russia’s propaganda effort that they have an entire network, Russia Today (RT), devoted to spreading news in English with its particularly Russian perspective. This commitment to influencing populations extends to social media, which is replete with Russian robots (“bots”) that seek to influence populations while the US maintains its distance from such questionable endeavors. DARPA Program Manager Dr. Rand Waltzman, “Our adversaries are using our own technology against us—while we’re not allowed to use it to defend ourselves.” Waltzman maintains that for the US to remain competitive in conflict in the twenty-first century in conflicts that fall short of outright warfare but combine SOF commandos and information operations, the US must be more realistic about propaganda and deception and if the US is not willing to engage in it, it must at least understand how best to counter the actions of others.

Finally, let us recount and review these three rules of modern Russian warfare:

  • Emphasize direct influence over your enemy as opposed to their direct destruction; 
  • Instead of annihilation of the target encourage inner decay; 
  • De-emphasize the use of kinetic weapons in favor of cultural war relying heavily on propaganda and subversion.

In doing so, it is important to understand three things. First, this is a significant change from the type of war that preceded it. Previously, armies in uniforms would fight each other in a kind of great-power competition. The type of competition described here is decidedly asymmetric because such actions are only undertaken when it has been decided that a nation-state is sufficiently weak that it cannot compete in a conventional sense. Second such activities are not limited to warfare per se but have considerable applicability to politics because, as Clausewitz said, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Putin with his new Russian way of war may be saying, “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” Third, these activities may not strictly be performed in the context of one state influencing another; they might also be performed from within as without. In considering this perspective, it is worth recalling and giving the words of Cicero:

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

So not only would such actions prove just as effective from within as without, but performing them from within would give them far greater power.


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