Understanding Russia’s Concept for Total War in Europe

This great article is well worth your time reading in full at the source. The only thing it’s missing out of the entire piece is that a ‘resurgent’ Russia is not resurgent. It has always been there biding its time.

To further explain, it had purposely laid low since it’s engineered fall, otherwise known as the Perestroika Deception, allowing for America to overplay its hand in many ways and allow for the Russians to hang it with the rope the Americans sold them. The third world war, the Cold War, never went away. It went into a new deception phase which is nearing its end now. It’s goal is to supplant the American global hegemon.

How did this happen? It’s rather simple: For decades America was fed Red Cocaine, consequently became dumbed down as a result, and easily sold New Lies for Old.


Russia perceives itself as surrounded by enemies, and that the strategic depth that has been its principal security must be restored. In this sense, no territory is more significant than Ukraine. Russian leadership also worries about the erosion of a zone around Russia’s borders where politically dangerous ideas can be stifled before they undermine the regime’s hold on power.

Russia’s leadership believes it can stem this erosion and achieve its objectives by combining organized military violence with economic, political, and diplomatic activity, a combination called new generation warfare (NGW). NGW is a concept for fighting total war in Europe, across all fronts—political, economic, informational, cyber—simultaneously through fear and intimidation without launching a large-scale attack. If fighting is required, it is highly networked and multi-directional. The stakes can be raised rapidly, possibly without limit.

President Vladimir Putin is confident in this approach because he sees U.S. hesitation as opportunity and believes the U.S. is overly dependent on military responses. Thus, NGW is designed to avoid giving the U.S. and other adversaries a reason to respond using military force. The U.S. needs to broaden its response portfolio to include political, diplomatic, economic, financial, cyber, covert, and other means coordinated into a comprehensive approach to counter the NGW strategy. Russia has brought total war back to Europe—in a hidden, undeclared, and ambiguous form. Failure to confront Russian opportunism will validate Putin’s approach.

This illegal act, and the subsequent Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, has sparked shamefully little international outrage. The belief appears widespread that, while the West seeks a negotiated settlement to the eastern Ukraine invasion, it will acquiesce to the seizure of Crimea. The principal Western response has been economic: the imposition of a very limited range of sanctions on Russian individuals and corporations which, although they have inflicted quite possibly greater economic pain than is realized or yet apparent, has not made Russia’s leadership re-think its aggression or restore the status quo ante.[5] No attempt has been made to supply Ukraine with the arms it needs to expel the Russian-backed forces from its territory. This reluctant response, not least by the Obama Administration, makes a broad-based understanding of what appears to be a new Russian politico-military doctrine essential. The same goes for the steps the United States and its allies need to take to counter it successfully in the future.

How Russia Views the West

Russia perceives itself as a country surrounded by enemies. This has been a persistent theme throughout its history. It was an important driver of its westward territorial expansion into Central Europe, south across the Black Sea and into the Caucasus, and east all the way to the Pacific, in search of strategic depth. It began under the tsars, took a pause during the early days in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, but continued in 1945 under the rule of Stalin. With the fall of the Soviet Union, significant portions of that depth were lost, most significantly in Europe.

Russians also ascribe cultural and military significance to territory; it is difficult for outsiders to understand how important it is to Russians’ sense of national identity. In this sense, no territory is more significant than Ukraine, in which is located much of the original Russian heartland known as the Rus, and Crimea which, when transferred to Ukraine by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, occasioned considerable resentment even at the time. Equally, it seems that many Russians are unable to appreciate how seminal personal and political freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are to the self-identity of people living in Western Europe and North America, and to the peoples of Central Europe that retain a clear recollection of Soviet oppression.

The sense of encirclement featured prominently in the 2003 Russian Defense White Paper, which essentially dismissed the concept of a “common European home” that had been proposed by the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, along with its commitment to non-aggression.[6] Suspicion of Western good faith, and the belief that NATO and the European Union had abrogated agreements arrived at following the fall of the Berlin Wall, compounded Russia’s belief in its own isolation and vulnerability. In particular NATO was accused of expanding into former Warsaw Pact states in defiance of understandings. Yet in 1993, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, in speeches in both Warsaw and Prague, conceded that Russia could not stand in the way if former Warsaw Pact states wished to join NATO or the European Union, and that such moves did not compromise Russian interests. Although Russian officials quickly repudiated their leader’s public statements, the U.S. and NATO’s European members made it clear that in the light of Yeltsin’s admission they would welcome the accession of Central European states.

Putin stated that Crimea was annexed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.[7] While there was a remote possibility that Ukraine may have been admitted to the EU, its chances of joining NATO in the near future and sheltering under Article 5 collective defense guarantees were close to zero. Putin’s statement was political: The message to his domestic audience was that Russia was strong again and would remain so under his leadership; to NATO and Western leaders it was a signal that Russia had the means and the will not just to stop NATO coming to Ukraine’s aid (as it had done to a limited extent with Georgia in 2008) but to take back what had been taken from it during its own period of weakness.

Russia’s Tactics, Ability, and Hostility

Russia’s tactics, its ability to carry them out, and its hostility toward the West have come as a shock to Western observers. In each case this shock is misplaced. Each is underpinned by a coherent strategy, but the policy that drives the strategy is mired in a sour mixture of anti-Western resentment, conspiracy theories, clericism, and nationalism.

During the Cold War the Soviet Army reportedly laid elaborate plans to infiltrate Western Europe with small groups drawn from the Main Intelligence Agency (GRU) and the Spetznaz, its special operations forces (SOF), to carry out intelligence, surveillance, sabotage, terror, and assassination missions. These groups would have worn civilian clothing, arrived in the target countries using civilian transport, and once there would have teamed up with Soviet spy networks, sleeper agents, and sympathetic locals before drawing their weapons and explosives from pre-positioned stashes.[12] Finally, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was led by 700 Spetznaz troops wearing Afghan uniforms. [13]

The chief of staff of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov, writing in the journal Voenno-promishlenniy kurier in 2013 argued, with reference to the events of the “Arab Spring,” that the rules of warfare had changed, making open warfare both harder to realize and in many cases unnecessary.[15] The objectives that had previously been viewed as attainable by direct military action alone could now be achieved by combining organized military violence with a greater emphasis on economic, political, and diplomatic activity, a combination he called new generation warfare (NGW), and which observers in the West have labelled the Gerasimov Doctrine.[16]

In Gerasimov’s view, non-military methods could be superior to direct military action in reaching political and strategic goals, and this needed to be reflected in a new and diversified order of battle. He makes the point that in recent conflicts non-military measures occurred at a rate of four to one over military operations.[17] Consequently, when laying out his argument, Gerasimov emphasized the importance of controlling the information space and the real-time coordination of all aspects of a campaign, in addition to the use of targeted strikes deep in enemy territory and the destruction of critical civilian as well as military infrastructure. The ground force element, he continued, which should be concealed as long as possible, needed to consist of paramilitary and civilian insurgents backed by large numbers of SOF and supported by robotic weapons, such as drones. Regular units “should be put into action only in the late phases of the conflict, often under the disguise of peacekeeper or crisis-management forces.”[18]

New generation warfare is a live topic among Russian strategic thinkers. Russian presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov has written about “non-linear” war, describing it as one that involves everybody and everything while remaining elusive in its main contours.[19] Two other writers, Sergei Chekinov and Sergei Bogdanov, elaborated Gerasimov’s thesis. They argued that the Gulf War was the first NGW conflict in history and illustrated the importance of neutralizing the enemy’s military superiority through the combined use of political, economic, technological, ecological, and information campaigns, and optimizing the effectiveness of all these tools by integrating them into a single, shared system of command and control.[20]

Finally, the authors emphasized the combat importance of electronic warfare. In their view NGW would be dominated increasingly by psychological and information warfare aimed at crushing the morale of enemy troops and the population, thus breaking their will to resist.[23]

New Generation Warfare in Action

András Rácz, summing up Chekinov and Bogdanov’s thesis, writes that there is a “striking similarity between the new generation war theoretically described by [them] in 2013 and the events that took place in Ukraine in 2014, particularly prior to and during the Russian operation in Crimea.”[24] The salient features of NGW as they describe it, and the facts on the ground in Crimea and later in Eastern Ukraine, are important, but must be viewed as part of an evolving concept not an example of settled doctrine.

Phase One: Weakening the Target and Preparing the Battlespace. Aggressive war is about the exploitation of weakness for political purposes. It is distinguished from other political acts through its extensive—in the classical sense, predominant—use of organized violence. In NGW, organized violence is an ever-present threat, wielded mainly by organized civilian demonstrators, agitators, and SOF but only in the later stages—if necessary—by conventional forces:

  • During Phase One of a NGW campaign, Russia would deploy all arms of Russian power to identify political, economic, and military vulnerabilities, and weaknesses in government administration and the police.
  • In the information domain, Russia would seek to establish or buy media assets it could control (such as the RT network, which has built an increasing presence across Europe and North America headlined by Russia Today); establish or suborn NGOs to support Russian policies directly or indirectly; and establish diplomatic and media narratives that, when the time comes, can be used to justify and defend the actions of those who oppose the target government on the one hand, and on the other to cheerlead Russian support for opposition or secessionist interests. These actions are very similar to the agitprop tactics and influence operations deployed during the Soviet era. They have been upgraded significantly in terms of sophistication and reach for superficial similarity with Western news organizations.[25] These Russian outlets do not, however, harbor any doubts about which side they are on.
  • Beyond the information war, Russia would use political, diplomatic, media, and covert means to encourage dissatisfaction with central authority; encourage local separatist movements; inflame ethnic, religious, and social divisions; recruit politicians, officials, and members of the target country’s military; make common cause with organized crime groups; and, by establishing close economic ties with the target country or specific companies, make it dependent on Russian markets or supplies, thus creating a vested interest in maintaining good relations even in the face of Russian military or political provocations. When the time for action arrives, the established networks will be activated, or the level of their activities stepped up, while Russian regular forces will be massed on the border under the pretext of military exercises.

Countering these moves is difficult because almost nothing illegal has occurred, no violent incidents have taken place, dislocations of food and energy supplies can be presented as commercial disagreements, and much of what is circulated in the media can be regarded as legitimate comment. If the target government overreacts, that can play to Russia’s advantage, enabling it to protest its innocence, establish a narrative of non-intervention, and even condemn the government’s actions if they prejudice the rights and interests of Russian minorities. As Rácz comments, sowing “self-doubt and fear constitute important parts” of Moscow’s subversive ambition.[26]

Phase Two: Attack. During this phase, Russia would exploit the tensions it has created to bring down the legitimate government and establish its own substitute regime.

  • The first moves would be to launch mass protests and riots in key population centers in an attempt to render them ungovernable (and if the target government uses disproportionate force in an attempt to suppress them, so much the better); infiltrate SOF disguised as civilians to sabotage infrastructure and take over administrative centers; mount attacks and commit acts of sabotage to inculcate fear and chaos by stretching thin the government’s resources while using intense media attacks to exaggerate the sense of un-governability. Attempts by the targeted government to respond using its own police and armed forces would be deterred by the massed presence of Russian regular forces threatening a conventional military attack from across the border, and neutralized by blockading them in their barracks, bribing their officers, cutting their communications, and using disinformation to break their morale.
  • Attempts by the international community to intervene would be confused and deterred by sustained international media and diplomatic campaigns—and economic disruption—designed to isolate the target country. Uncertainty would be increased by a relentless campaign denying that Russian forces were involved. Previously unheard of political groupings would emerge, which by seizing administrative control, would shroud the Russian-sponsored alternative power centers in quasi-legitimacy.

Phase Three: Consolidating Power. The proponents of NGW recognize that occupation is insufficient for achieving a fait accompli; an alternative government must be installed, however manufactured its legitimacy may be.

  • This legitimacy hinges on a referendum on secession or independence taking place quickly with strong Russian backing and media support. Once the correct answer has been obtained, Russia is able either to provide larger quantities of support openly or establish a military presence that fights, openly or covertly, alongside the “resistance” to the original government as it defends the newly established state. “A sub-variant,” as Rácz puts it, “is an open invasion under the pretext of ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘crisis management.’”
  • The original state would be confronted by two enormous problems: First, the loss of territory would mean economic and political dislocation, currency devaluation, loss of taxation income, and thus a significant weakening in its international economic standing—problems that may be made worse by fleeing refugees and a humanitarian crisis.[32]
  • The Crimean vote was superficially successful with reportedly 97 percent of the population voting to secede on an 80 percent turnout. Putin used these results to publicly justify Russian intervention in his March 2015 broadcast. In fact, as the Russian Human Rights Council inadvertently admitted later, turnout was only 30 percent, half of whom voted against independence, meaning that Russia gained the support of only 15 percent of the population.

Russia could have withdrawn its support at this point. It chose, instead, to launch an invasion and initiate a conventional, if limited, inter-state war. For the second time in two years Russia abrogated the Budapest Memorandum it signed in 1994 committing it to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”[33] For the second time in two years the other signatories to the treaty, the United States and the United Kingdom, while under no treaty obligation to do so, nonetheless failed to provide Ukraine with the political, economic, and large-scale military assistance it needed to prevent its dismemberment.

What War Are We Fighting?

Clausewitz exhorts political leaders and military commanders to understand clearly the enemy and the war upon which they are engaged.[34] The current confusion over terminology invites practitioners to both overestimate and underestimate Russia’s ability to fight NGW, and run the risk of being ill-prepared for similar campaigns in the future.

Hoffman came to hybrid war by studying Hezbollah in its 1992 war with Israel. His conclusion was that hybrid threats

incorporate a full range of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder…[and] are generally operationally and tactically directed and coordinated within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of the conflict.[39]

For Nemeth and McCuen, hybrid warfare was practiced by non-state actors; for Hoffman, it could be practiced by states as well.[40] The Soviet Union was the first state to practice hybrid warfare (against Estonia and Finland), establishing a pattern that Nazi Germany followed against Czechoslovakia and Austria, and to which Russia is now returning. In Hoffman’s view, hybrid warfare does not signal the end of conventional warfare, but adds a further layer of complexity to the way violent actors fight to win.[41]

A third American, Russell Glenn, added additional dimensions to hybridized warfare when he argued that any definition that focused predominantly on the use of force and violence and underplayed the use of political, diplomatic, and economic tools was turning a blind eye to critical aspects of this new form of war.[42] Grasping this is essential to understanding what Russia is doing. For Glenn, hybrid warfare involves state and non-state actors, singly or in combination, that “simultaneously and adaptively employ some combination of (1) political, military, economic, social, and information means, and (2) conventional, irregular, catastrophic, terrorism, and disruptive/criminal warfare methods.”[43] This definition accords strikingly with the observed actions of Russian forces and the Russian government during the takeover of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.[44]

But Nemeth made another salient comment about hybrid warfare: Its nature, he wrote, is “total.”[46] It blurs the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The Chechens had no compunction in using terrorism, massacres, criminal methods, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Glenn similarly saw potentially no theoretical limit preventing the use of every weapon up to and including acts of catastrophic terrorism that could include the destruction of dams and nuclear power plants.[47]

Continuing to refer to NGW as hybrid war may, therefore, blur understanding of its true nature. It may circumscribe the West’s response by encouraging the belief that what the West is facing is a sub-set of conventional war, a variation that might be best viewed as a complication, when in fact it is total war that can be escalated without limit. NGW is a concept for fighting total war in Europe that borrows many of its features from what the Russians encountered—and learnt from—during the brutal fighting in Chechnya.[48] It envisages achieving effect across all fronts—political, economic, informational, and cyber—simultaneously. It aims to achieve its objectives through fear and intimidation without launching a large-scale attack. If conventional fighting is required, however, it is highly networked and multidirectional; the stakes, moreover, can be raised rapidly and possibly without limit. Russia has brought total war back to Europe—in a hidden, undeclared, and ambiguous form.

Contextualizing and Defeating NGW

Why It All Matters to the United States

President Obama made no immediate response when Russia absorbed Crimea—the first unilateral change in European political geography since 1945. When he spoke about it on March 24, 2014, nearly one month later, his judgment was that Russia was no more than a “regional power,” one that was lashing out “not in strength but in weakness,” could only threaten its near neighbors, and presented no existential threat to the U.S. President Obama was saying, in effect, that it was a matter of little consequence.[52] He was correct as far as he went. In fact, on April 7, when armed men in civilian clothes occupied government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, his assessment was confirmed: The action was regional, demonstrated weakness because five months later Russia needed to rescue its irregular action with a limited conventional invasion, took place on the territory of the same near neighbor, and proffered no direct military threat to the United States.[53]

NGW is designed to exploit the West’s current, limited interpretation of what constitutes conflict and the dangerously unbalanced American and European preference for conflict prevention and conflict resolution over conflict engagement and deterrence. Suggestions, therefore, that the U.S. should engage in risk-reduction and renewed confidence-building measures with Russia are wide of the mark; theorists of NGW view “peace treaties and other initiatives” as a way of hamstringing the opponent and limiting its freedom of action.[56] Russia has all the confidence it needs because it sees U.S. hesitation as its opportunity. Failure to confront Russian opportunism will validate Putin’s approach. Russia is a canny opponent. It will learn from the successes and failures of its recent campaigns and the West’s response, as it did from its war with Georgia, and is likely to continue to use and refine NGW to accomplish its objectives.

The United States needs to recognize that its own organizational, institutional, and intellectual approach to war is precisely what is enabling Russia to succeed. The U.S. is overly dependent on military responses. The Russian approach is designed specifically to avoid giving the U.S. and other outside powers a reason to respond using military force. The U.S. consequently needs to broaden its response portfolio to include political, diplomatic, economic, financial, cyber, covert, and other means coordinated into a “whole of government” approach that is able to counter rapid moves by an adversary across the whole spectrum of potential conflict. America has the means and resources to counter this hidden, undeclared, and ambiguous form of warfare, but will only be able to deploy them if it is able to become more flexible and less predictable in its responses. In particular, the 1947 National Security Act, which has served this country well for over half a century, needs to be revised or replaced to facilitate a more comprehensive approach. Deterrence thinking, which is associated too often with nuclear issues, also needs to be revised and reinvigorated to counter moves by adversaries that are intended to operate below the level that the U.S. would regard as war.

The risk to America’s position as the world’s only global superpower is not confined to Europe. Other states, China and Iran particularly but also non-state actors such as Hezbollah and ISIS, will have learned from what Russia has achieved and will use these lessons to diminish U.S. power and harm Western interests.[57] China’s actions in the South China Sea have many similarities with Russia’s in Crimea.[58] Unless the United States recognizes that its enemies are willing to engage in a war that is total but hidden, undeclared and ambiguous, is prepared to show the American people what this truly entails, and coordinates all elements of national power to confront this challenge, U.S. global power will erode, as hostile regional powers arise to take its place.

Full article: Understanding Russia’s Concept for Total War in Europe (The Heritage Foundation)

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