The Russian military’s main job has always been to defeat a large land invasion of the Russian heartland, such as those of Hitler, Napoleon, and Charles XII. But after the experience of Syria and Ukraine, Russian generals are adjusting their military doctrine to defeat a wider array of possible attacks, which, although less dangerous than all-out invasion, are more likely to occur.
This move is a response to US behavior. Over the past few decades, the US has involved itself in countless, never-ending, low-risk conflicts. Americans seem to have forgotten Clausewitzian purpose of war: to destroy your enemy in a decisive engagement in order to achieve your political ends. Instead, they have allowed their foreign policy to be shaped by the careerist ambitions of military officers, private contractors, and Beltway pseudo-intellectuals, whose resumes depend on a steady supply of easy-to-win, fake wars. For them, war has become an end in itself.
Russia no longer needs to face down a lion, but only stave off the jackals.
The term “Gerasimov Doctrine”, apparently wholly made up Mark Galeotti who, to his credit, owned up to his mistake, has been used by the Western media to the point of obscuring the real work on developing national security doctrines for Russia’s 21st century needs. In this work, General Valeriy Gerasimov, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, has played a major role.
During a recent conference at the Academy of Military Sciences, where Gerasimov delivered the keynote speech, he outlined the national security priorities facing the Russian Federation. This included areas where further theoretical research is necessary to inform the future dimensions of armed forces development.
While Gerasimov’s address dedicated considerable attention to the problem of nuclear deterrence, it also made clear that, in terms of meeting challenges posed by the threat of rapid evolution and expansion of the United States’ strategic nuclear potential, Russia’s symmetrical and asymmetrical responses will ensure the viability of its nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. The emphasis appears to be on diversification, and not only of launch platforms but also of delivery vehicles.
The problem with the existing force of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bomber-launched ALCMs is that they represent a relatively well-known potential to counter. This means that should the US decide to invest heavily in anti-missile and anti-air defenses, it could defeat Russia’s nuclear deterrent in an all-out war. Moreover, the existence of widespread anti-air and anti-missile networks means that limited escalation using small numbers of offensive weapons might be stopped, forcing Russia to make an “all or nothing” choice-either no escalation at all, or an all-out nuclear strike.
Gerasimov’s discussion of a genuinely strategic system such as the Avangard hypersonic glider, Burevestnik global-range cruise missile, and Poseidon underwater unmanned vehicle together with operational-level systems such as the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile and Kinzhal aeroballistic missile, indicates the desire to constitute Russia’s nuclear deterrent on the basis of an array of mutually complementary systems carried by an expanded range of carrier vehicles, including fighter aircraft such as the MiG-31 and attack submarines. Russia’s leadership would thus be able to hold at risk a wide range of leadership and value targets using both conventional and nuclear systems against which it would be extremely difficult to construct a defensive barrier that would be viable in the minds of US decision makers.
Remarkably, the traditional strong suit of the Russian military, namely large-scale land warfare, received relatively little attention in Gerasimov’s speech. Regarding that, he only touched upon the existing reorganization of army-brigade structure into army-division-regiments which are better suited for high-intensity operations. He also discussed the continued equipment modernization and expansion of the volunteer components of the armed forces. There were no indications that the mission of the Land Forces was about to shift from the emphasis on fighting a limited land battle on one of Russia’s many frontiers against a conventional incursion launched with little warning.
However, Gerasimov’s concept of defensive action also includes the “strategy of limited actions” in order to safeguard not only Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but also its interests abroad, including in far-flung theaters of operations such as Syria and possibly even Venezuela. Here, depending on the situation, the strategy calls for the establishment of a forces group led by one of the main branches of forces such as the Land Forces, Aerospace Forces, Airborne Assault Forces, or the Navy, in order to deploy to a remote destination and conduct operations in support of a regional ally. The unveiling of the concept of “strategy of limited actions” indicates that the Syria operation was to a large extent an improvisation, a test-bed for not only weapons but also, and perhaps especially, operational concepts including inter-service cooperation.
While a successful improvisation, the Syria campaign did reveal a number of gaps in Russia’s military capabilities, including the use of unmanned platforms where it clearly lags behind the United States, and also the ability to assess and strike emerging targets in near-real time. The repeated drone swarm attacks on the Hmeimim airbase are a case where Russian forces, while able to defeat the swarms themselves, did not appear able to quickly locate and destroy the source of these swarms. Gerasimov’s address recognized the need for theoretical and practical solutions to these problems, as well as the importance of political and humanitarian factors in the ultimate settlement of the conflict which definitely proved to be the case in Syria, where the adroitness of Russia’s diplomacy and Moscow’s ability to use political and economic levers of influence considerably changed the political landscape of not only Syria, but of the entire Middle East.
The final aspect of Gerasimov’s address that is worthy of attention is the recognition that Russia has less to fear from NATO’s conventional or even nuclear warfare than from unconventional “hybrid” attacks, including information and cyber-warfare, and even direct subversion using a domestic “fifth column”. It is here that Gerasimov made the most extensive request for theoretical research, acknowledging that dealing with such a threat would require close coordination of military, paramilitary, and purely civilian government agencies. What Gerasimov described is essentially the Venezuela scenario. The dispatch of a delegation of some 100 Russian military personnel appears to be intended to provide both a show of support and tangible assistance in the form of advice to the beleaguered Venezuelan government. However, in view of Gerasimov’s emphasis on theoretical research into dealing with unconventional threats, Venezuela also offers an opportunity to study US methods being used in this undeclared “hybrid” war. There the United States is, in effect, conducting an experiment in “non-kinetic” warfare using chiefly economic pressure, information operations, and cyberwarfare, in conjunction with what appears to be a rather weak “fifth column”. The apparent lack of use of even proxy armed forces may yet change should the current US strategy fail.
All in all, even though the Russian Federation was able to successfully weather the military and political challenges of the past several years, including the undoubted success in Syria that has considerably enhanced Russia’s prestige not only in the Middle East but all over the world, there was no evidence of complacency in Gerasimov’s address. Instead there was a sense of awareness that this is a crisis which will not be quickly resolved and which will require the ability to rapidly develop and deploy counters to whatever new methods of confrontation Western powers will adopt.