Despite a defense budget less than a tenth the size of the United States’, Russia has honed the application of hybrid war techniques to achieve its objectives.
For nearly 16 years, the United States has been engaged in a seemingly endless whole-of-government campaign to counter the spread of terrorism and eliminate safe havens for terrorist organizations. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in 2001 were the tipping point that transitioned U.S. thinking and strategy from the great power politics of the Cold War to a razor-sharp focus on counterterrorism and preventing another attack on the homeland. National defense spending soared in the years following the attacks, from more than $300 billion in 2001 to nearly twice that amount just six years later, as the United States sought to train, equip, and deploy its military in the global fight against violent extremist ideology.1 But even as U.S. troops remain on the front lines embattled in a war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Taliban, and al Qaeda-linked splinter cells in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, U.S. strategy and dollars are shifting once again back to the great-power competition paradigm.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), recently signed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, states that for the first time in more than a decade, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”2 With a
staggering $700 billion defense budget authorized for fiscal year 2018—a 15 percent increase over last year—Congress has provided the means for the Department of Defense (DoD) to invest billions in high-tech missile-defense capabilities and overhaul nuclear-deterrence programs once again to counter threats posed by strategic competitors, namely, China and Russia.
These peer competitors, however, may have a different approach to countering U.S. influence and power. Russia in particular has proved adept at employing innovative ways to gain legitimacy, destabilize the operating environment, and level the playing field against superior military and economic powers, such as the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. With a defense budget assessed at $42 billion in 2017—a mere 6 percent of the U.S. defense budget—Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly has opted to develop and employ low-cost and often ambiguous hybrid warfare tactics as a way to make up for a lack of funding to support his Strategic Armament Program (SAP).3 This method of influencing the operating environment is the new normal for Russia, as indicated by the military concepts and strategies developed and disseminated by Russian senior leaders within the past decade, and as demonstrated by Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Former Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov (right) is considered the author of Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine. AP Photo
Hybrid warfare, often employed in the gray area between traditional peace and war, is the synergetic fusion of asymmetric tactics, unconventional methods, and traditional instruments of power and influence applied across and within every warfighting domain—air, land, sea, space, cyberspace, and information—to pursue national and strategic interests. While DoD still lacks a universally accepted definition for hybrid warfare, a 2010 NATO military working group summarized it as the “threats posed by adversaries, with the ability to simultaneously employ conventional and nonconventional means adaptively in pursuit of their objectives.”4 As ambiguous as that definition may seem, it highlights the range of military and nonmilitary capabilities—from cyberattacks, use of proxies, and energy politics to economic manipulation and covert employment of special operations forces—that may be employed by both state and nonstate actors as they attempt to challenge the post–World War II international order, gain legitimacy, and project power.
The uniqueness of Russia’s application of hybrid warfare tactics is Putin’s emphasis on manipulating the information environment and swaying public opinion to win favor for his objectives and his ambivalence toward actions that may otherwise have caused international backlash and retribution. In the German magazine Der Spiegel, Melanie Amann and others argue that Russia’s strategy against Western democracy amounts to a “war without a formal declaration, rules or borders. The belligerent is anonymous, does not identify itself and often operates invisibly. Rather than weapons, fighting is done with words. The Internet is the most important battlefield.”5 As a low-cost and often ambiguous means to destabilize the unipolar post–World War II international order, Putin’s hybrid warfare approach relies heavily on information warfare to counter U.S. economic and military supremacy.
The proof of this transition within Russia’s doctrine and strategy can be found in a 2013 article published in the Russian military journal Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier (VPK) (Military-Industrial Courier). Written by General Valery Gerasimov, then-Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, the article outlines his perspective on the strategies of current and future warfare and prophesizes the actions that would later take place in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Often referred to as the Gerasimov Doctrine, the article highlights the evolution of Russian tactics to influence the operating environment, with an emphasis on attaining political and strategic goals by breeding chaos and dissent within a disenfranchised population. In her article “The Gerasimov Doctrine,” Molly McKew contends “Gerasimov took tactics developed by the Soviets, blended them with strategic military thinking about total war, and laid out a new theory of modern warfare—one that looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on.”6
Gerasimov’s philosophy emphasizes tactics that influence the operating environment while simultaneously avoiding the challenges of competing directly with the United States. With unfavorable projected gross domestic product growth limiting Russia’s defense spending over the next several years, Putin and his senior strategists clearly understand that deficiencies in Russia’s conventional military capabilities and inability to meet the objectives within the SAP require the development of cost-effective alternatives to shaping the strategic environment prior to, or instead of, large-scale, conventional military operations.
Cyber warfare is just one tool Russia wields as it applies hybrid warfare tactics to undercut U.S. influence.
Gerasimov asserts the evolution of Russian strategy and perspective as follows:
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. The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.7
Gerasimov contends that to be successful, hybrid warfare tactics, particularly nonmilitary measures, must be employed at the ratio of four-to-one to traditional military capabilities, further highlighting Russia’s commitment to applying all instruments of national power to ambiguously manipulate the operating environment just shy of traditional war contexts. Russia’s evolving doctrine and strategy intends to destabilize and delegitimize competitors such as the United States and its NATO allies to ensure conditions are favorable for attaining political and strategic objectives and ultimately generate a paradigm shift in the balance of power within the international order.
In his analysis of the strategy and tactics employed by the U.S. military and its NATO allies over the past century, Christopher Chivvis contends the Russians “seized upon the importance of an approach that seeks to influence the population of target countries through information operations, proxy groups, and other influence operations. Russia uses Hybrid Warfare to work within existing political and social frameworks to further Russian objectives.”8 The Gerasimov Doctrine, while not prescriptive in nature, suggests a broad range of tools that can be employed to achieve parity without resulting in the conventional application of military forces against superior powers. In addition to emphasizing the strategic importance of influencing the population, Russian hybrid warfare is characterized by the economic employment of conventional forces and the generation and application of persistent pressure and chaos across the spectrum of both traditional peace and war paradigms.
Putin successfully tested the Gerasimov Doctrine in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, exemplifying the complexity of unconventional and asymmetric hybrid warfare tactics that transcend traditional peace and war. Through the employment of political, economic, and cyber warfare, infiltration of covert special operations forces, and an aggressive information operations campaign mirroring reflexive control (RC) theory, Putin was able to manipulate perceptions and control the narrative to achieve support for the annexation of Crimea and further military actions in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.
Russian security issues expert Kier Giles states Russian political leaders were able to set the conditions for their actions through the “purchase of co-opt business and political elites to create loyal or at least compliant networks. Bribes and business opportunities combine with the appeal of a Russian business culture which embraces opacity and corruption to recruit agents of influence throughout target countries.”9 The result ensured complicit individuals and businesses were structured and aligned to support Russian narratives and propagate pro-Russian influence throughout Europe. In addition, Putin’s regime used coercion and manipulation of the energy markets to influence and threaten Ukrainian leadership. Authors Joseph R. Biden Jr. and
Michael Carpenter note that during the immediate aftermath of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russia made threats to cut off Ukrainian gas deliveries, “but thanks to intense diplomacy by the United States and the European Union, Kiev’s neighbors helped avert a crisis by ensuring an adequate supply.”10 Putin’s operatives also infiltrated Ukrainian computer systems as far back as 2010, targeting government officials and diplomats with a computer malware code known as “Snake”—software that provided Putin’s regime with access to classified Ukrainian policy and strategy documents.11 On the ground in Ukraine, Putin covertly employed his special operations forces, backed pro-Russian separatists in the region, and inspired protests to garner local and international support for his agenda and promote chaos and confusion—hallmarks of the Gerasimov Doctrine.
Some argue it was the Kremlin’s long-standing practice of RC and its integration into Putin’s aggressive information operations campaign that contributed most significantly to successes in the region. Analyst Timothy L. Thomas defines RC “as a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”12 Putin was able to manipulate the information framework, saturating Russian-language media outlets within former Soviet Union countries with targeted information and disinformation to influence public perception.
Despite advanced technological capabilities to find, fix, and target an adversary’s military system, the United States and NATO were unprepared to counter Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Relatively low-cost and ambiguous hybrid warfare tactics executed in the gray zone set the conditions for Russia to counter U.S. and NATO influence in the region and destabilize the Ukrainian government. These operations in Eastern Europe illustrate the challenges associated with hybrid warfare and an increasing need for the United States to develop a deeper understanding of the capabilities competitors may employ to gain advantage and legitimacy.
Despite the widespread belief that Gerasimov’s article was a clear articulation of Putin’s evolving military strategy and a foundation for Russian hybrid warfare tactics, others were quick to assert flaws in that reasoning. Russian linguist and analyst Charles K. Bartles argues that concepts outlined by the Chief of the Russian General Staff were meant to be an analysis of the current operating environment to provide foresight for the development of theory and doctrine for future warfare. According to Bartles, the indicator lies in Gerasimov’s use of the word foresight, which he states in the Russian military lexicon to mean “the process of cognition regarding possible changes in military affairs, the determination of the perspectives of its future development.”13 In addition, Bartles argues that Gerasimov’s discussion of hybrid warfare was misunderstood as an analysis of Russian strategy when likely the analysis was of the methods the United States executes against Russia and other competitors in which regime change is the ultimate objective. While the former may be an accurate assessment of the United States’ employment of all instruments of national power to achieve strategic objectives, Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are clear examples of Putin employing a calculated fusion of indirect, asymmetric, and nonlethal methods to achieve political and strategic objectives.
The United States continues to research, fund, and develop advanced technological weapons systems and capabilities across all domains of warfare. But instead of challenging the United States head-on in a technology-by-technology conventional military fight, peer adversaries increasingly will seek alternative methods to destabilize and delegitimize their biggest competitors to alter the international balance of power. Determined to dismantle what it perceives as a unipolar world in which the United States wields unchecked influence and power, Putin has focused his limited financial resources on developing and employing asymmetric tactics and unconventional methods to gain legitimacy and power in the global arena.
With the concepts espoused by Gerasimov as a guide, Putin successfully employed the fusion of hybrid warfare tactics—with a heavy emphasis on information warfare—in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to achieve Russia’s objectives. Gerasimov concluded that “no matter what forces the enemy has, no matter how well-developed his forces and means of armed conflict may be, forms and methods for overcoming them can be found. He will always have vulnerabilities, and that means that adequate means of opposing him exist.”14 The methods most likely to be employed by Russia include an arsenal of hybrid warfare tactics that, if not studied and challenged, have the potential to destabilize the international balance of power. With its focus on asymmetric and unconventional tactics, hybrid warfare seems to be the new normal in countering Western democracy and U.S. global influence, and the United States must adapt to this challenge.
1. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 1988-2016.
2. U.S. Department of Defense, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: 2018).
3. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations (Washington, DC, 2017).
4. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Capstone Concept, Hybrid Threats Description and Context, IMSM-0292-2010, 31 May 2010.
5. Melanie Amann et al., “The Hybrid War: Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Germany,” Der Spiegel, 5 February 2016.
6. Molly K. McKew, “The Gerasimov Doctrine,” POLITICO, September/October 2017.
7. Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: The New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” translated by Robert Coalson, Military-Industrial Kurier, 27 February 2013.
8. Christopher S. Chivvis, Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What to Do About It, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 22 March 2016).
9. Keir Giles, Russia’s “New” Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power, London: Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, March 2016.
10. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Michael Carpenter, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against its Enemies,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 1, (January/February 2017).
11. Sam Jones, “Ukraine: Russia’s New Art of War,” Financial Times, 28 August 2014.
12. Timothy L. Thomas, “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17 (2004): 237.
13. Charles K. Bartles, “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review 96, no. 1 (January 2016).
14. Gerasimov, “The Value of Science,” 28.
Major McGuire is currently the Marine Ground Task Force section head at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. She is a MAGTF intelligence officer and a recent graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
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