If there’s on plus side of a 9+ hour flight, it’s that you get a lot of reading done. While I spent most of the time reading about the CIA’s wacky hijinks in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, I did manage to get around to reading Timothy Thomas’ paper Thinking Like a Russian Officer. The paper summarizes a collection of articles on military science by a number of key Russian generals and officers, one of them being the Western think tank’s flavor of the week- Valery Gerasimov. It strikes me that when you read a paper like this, as well as Gerasimov’s actual work, you only become even more infuriated at the hype Gerasimov gets thanks to lobbyists and journalists without the proper background. Indeed, if Gerasimov has been made aware of all the buzz he’s got in the West lately, he is no doubt converting it into a ton of currency to gain favor with Putin).
First it’s noteworthy to point out that as I alluded to above, all the talk about “hybrid war” and “indirect operations” does not spring from the allegedly fertile mind of Valery Gerasimov. Thomas’ paper shows how these terms, themes, ideas, and concepts can be found throughout a variety of articles and papers by Russian officers, which display on one hand commonality but which also differ in definitions and emphasis. The reader (the reader who is not a grifter lobbyist, that is) may note that many of the trends the authors describe could be seen decades ago, and did not start in Ukraine in 2014. For example, one common concept is the idea that wars are rarely declared these days, and in the future they are unlikely to be declared as well. Is that really new? The US never declared war in Vietnam, after all. And while we’re on the topic of Vietnam, we could point out all the massive non-military operations which surrounded that conflict as an example of indirect approaches and operations short of war. Hell, Vietnam was very indirect when you consider how the US was running ops on Laos and Cambodia while waging war on North Vietnam and the insurgents in the South.
But what is even more important from my point of view is that when you read this Russian “doctrine” a number of flaws or at least potential flaws emerge. The most striking example is how the Russian officers understand protests and civil society both in and out of Russia. For them, demonstrations and the groups that organize them are basically nothing but hybrid warfare directed by other countries. It’s almost as if these generals can’t imagine the existence of internal politics in a country- others or even their own. Ordinarily people just do what their authorities tell them, regardless of what those authorities do to the country or its economy, and if they protest it must be because they are either paid by some nefarious group or foreign government which is trying to destabilize the country. I think this is particularly interesting because if you are trying to develop at theory of war or doctrine that deals with political destabilization, it’s kind of important to understand how politics work.
We can see how this failed Russia during Maidan and their aggressive actions after the fact. As is typical for the Kremlin, they assumed that Maidan was nothing more than a plot of the West. All the protesters were paid, none of them actually believed in anything, nor did they have any legitimate grievance against then-president Yanukovych. This was the classic Kremlin a priori justification to do exactly what they accuse the West of doing- paying people to organize protests in support of their own goals. Of course for Russia, money wasn’t enough to deliver the Crimea and Donbas, thus they had to send in troops. If Russia’s military and top leadership had a better understanding of politics and civil society, they might have been able to kindle an actual ideologically-driven insurgent movement in Ukraine, one which would exert far more influence on Kyiv while giving Russia a lot more plausible deniability. But the robot-like thinking of Russia’s military geniuses apparently failed here.
Also, as others have pointed out in response to claims that Ukraine was a clear demonstration of some kind of new Russian doctrine, Russia’s prosecution of that war has been painfully conventional, casting doubt on the idea that they have developed some radical new form of warfare. They couldn’t get popular support for their goals with carrots, so they were forced to resort to the sticks of Little Green Men. When they were challenged in the Donbas, they couldn’t rely on popular support for a guerrilla movement, so they sent in their conventional forces and fought set piece battles, aided by cross-border heavy artillery support. Throughout this whole war, Russia has made rash decisions but at the same time has been extremely cautious at the tactical level, both in Crimea and Donbas. In the former they moved cautiously to isolate and blockade Ukrainian military assets before moving ahead with the annexation (an account of this can be read in the book Brothers Armed), whereas in the Donbas the Russian command relied on local proxies and mercenaries as much as possible, feeding in regular armed forces only when absolutely necessary to stave off total defeat. The inability to wage proper, ideologically-driven unconventional warfare is also made evident by the behavior of the population in formerly occupied territories after they were liberated by the Ukrainian army. No organized insurgency has broken out in these territories, and much of the population showed appreciation to the Ukrainian armed forces upon their arrival, regardless of their feelings toward the government in Kyiv.
Obviously this is all based on cursory observation and deeper analysis by people far more qualified than me is needed to unravel the flaws in Russian military doctrine, but here we see the problem with all these Chicken Littles in the media warning us about the big bad “Gerasimov Doctrine.” They’re so busy playing up this non-doctrine as something frightening and threatening that they can’t even be bothered to look for its vulnerabilities and flaws. I have rarely seen any proposed solutions to this threat, and those I have read are awful. This is a tragedy because there are serious flaws in the Russian military’s understanding of the world (ditto for the Kremlin leadership), and those could be exploited to set fire to the Russian paper tiger. But of course actually offering solutions doesn’t lend itself to an easy job of lecturing and writing articles that scare the crap out of politicians who hold the purse strings.
In reality, Ukraine doesn’t prove the existence of a frightening new unconventional warfare doctrine from Russia. Quite the opposite- it proves that Russia’s leadership has a profound misunderstanding of the world, leading them to make rash strategic decisions that turn disastrous. It shows that for all the resources Russia has spent on military modernization, it has still failed to produce the desired results. Russia attacked Ukraine because it was the opportunistic thing to do, or in other words, because it thought it could do so with few consequences. They turned out to be wrong, even about that. Wherever they have had a measure of success, like in Syria, it has largely been a case of capitalizing on the failures of Western foreign policy rather than superior strategy, tactics, and alternative policies. With this dismal record for the non-existent “doctrine,” why should we by hyperventilating about it?