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Commentary | 15 December 2014

The Bear went under the mountain: is Russia’s style of warfare really new?

Jacob W Kipp |Adjunct Professor at the University of Kansas

Roger McDermott |Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies

Defence Military Doctrine NATO Russia Security Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

Since the Revolution in Kyiv in February and Moscow’s controversial step of militarily intervening and then formally annexing Crimea in March 2014, much public commentary has centred upon the concept of “hybrid warfare” as a way of partly explaining Russia’s use of its Armed Force in the crisis. The term “hybrid warfare” came from U.S. national security literature devoted to “hybrid transnational threats.” Western analysis of events in Crimea sought to find a Russian theoretical source for “hybrid warfare” to describe those events. Those subscribing to this interpretation of the evolution of Russian military doctrine point to ideas developed in an article which appeared in February 2013, entitled “The Value of Science in Foresight,” [Tsennost’ nauki v predvidenii] Voenno-promyshlennyi kurier, (27 February 2013) which appeared under the name of the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valeriy Gerasimov. The problem with such analyses is fourfold: it takes the article out of context, implies “pre-planning” (motive, rather than contingency), mistranslates predvidenii as “prediction” or “anticipation,” fails to grasp the inherent limit on foresight in military affairs as a “labour of Sisyphus” and fails to take account of the specific circumstances which led the Kremlin to choose to act in February against the revolutionary government in Kyiv.

The article was a representation of a speech by Russia’s top general to an audience in which he followed the line of his predecessor in calling for higher standards in the study of “military science,” or what Western military analysts refer to as military art. His observations about the changing face of modern warfare, linked to observations about the use of military power by mainly Western countries, have long been known. The Russian general staff for several years was aware that the methods and means of modern warfare have fundamentally changed from a tank-centric platform-based approach to 21st century “network-centric” approaches.

The article, most likely written for Gerasimov’s speech that year to the Academy of Military Sciences certainly portended no doom for neighbouring territory, but appeared to outline approaches to warfare which bore remarkable similarity to the operations in Crimea and in eastern and south eastern Ukraine.

Of course, when President Putin authorized the operation to annex Crimea, there were clear differences from traditional overt military intervention. But this was rooted in the operational-tactical levels and force mix; the “polite people” or “little green men” (the latter being a Western media term) were identifiable as an experimental force mix relying heavily on rapidly deployable units and Special Forces.

However, in the media hype that followed, the concept of Russian “hybrid warfare” quickly emerged, without very much empirical evidence, while overlooking the fact that the operation in Crimea never resulted in actual combat. In other words, the “hybrid” bubble bursts when the enemy opens fire. What did Moscow rely upon in the event that Ukrainian military forces had opened fire in February 2014? The truth seems to be that Moscow had a very good read on the chaos within Kyiv’s revolutionary government and its utter inability to marshal military forces to resist, which suggests an intelligence coup of significant proportions in late February and early March.

Throughout the months that followed the Russian military build-up in border areas was based on regular combined-arms units, and in this sense the answer to the question lies in this area: Moscow’s main “punch” throughout the crisis was the threat of regular combined-arms force groupings, relying on its reading of the Ukrainian military as weak, and maintaining low combat readiness and capabilities.

The “hybrid” interpretation is fiercely supported by its advocates in Western analyses by reference to “plausible deniability,” meaning that Moscow persistently denied any official involvement even if the evidence on the ground was palpably otherwise. Yet, modern states sometimes engage in military operations without openly admitting it; Desert One (Operation Eagle Claw) against Iran in April 1980 is one US example. Why should Russia be different? The days are long gone when states “declared war” on an adversary.

Like the speculation and analysis that emerged after the Russia-Georgia War in August 2008, many sought signs that the Kremlin had “pre-planned” its action to annex Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. Nonetheless, Russia’s strategic-operational military exercises in recent years including “Zapad-2013” in its Western strategic direction (jointly with Belarus) showed no sign that operations were envisaged in Ukraine. War plans there might have been, but states keep war plans that are never executed because there is no reason to do so. Among the U.S. Rainbow plans of the 1920s and 1930s, War Plan Red was prepared in case of war against Great Britain and Canada, a remote prospect at best.

The next issue is clearly the motive. Why did Putin decide to use military force in Ukraine? A number of Moscow-based writers including influential economist Igor Yurgens and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, have highlighted the fact that the operation in Crimea was not “pre-planned.” Yurgens, for example said that none of the leading economists in Moscow had been consulted prior to the crisis as to the possible impact on the economy of the inevitable sanctions regime. Pavlovsky also characterizes the Kremlin’s response to the Euro-Maidan protests as reactionary and lacking an overall strategy.

Putin acted on the basis of a Russian security reading of the Maidan “revolution,” which runs counter to Western views of these events. The Kremlin saw the revolution as a Western-backed plot, not representing the will of the majority of the people and sweeping the legitimate president from power, much like earlier “colour revolutions”. In this context Moscow also saw Ukraine as too strategically important to ignore, fearing that such a colour revolution may pose a direct threat to Russian national security.

Putin chose in that context to act, while the West disagreed with his chosen course. Nevertheless, since the crisis unfolded Russia’s use of military power has been relatively small-scale compared with earlier crises and Putin has sought to control conflict escalation. He has calculated that Ukraine, without foreign military assistance, would continually face the risk of Russian escalation-domination in a conflict that was, indeed, diplomatic, political, economic and informational, with conventional military and special operations as one of its aspects.

Of course, due to Ukrainian military and security weaknesses, and the fragility of the interim government in Kyiv, the Russian operation in Crimea in late February-March 2014 looked unusually slick. However, this so-called hybrid attack depended on a number of fortunate factors, which could not simply be pre-ordered. These include, the presence of the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea, from which forces could spread out over the peninsula and act as a staging post for additional forces and assets; the high readiness on military forces in southern Russia due to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games; and a Russian speaking and potentially “friendly” local population.

Naturally, following these events and subsequent Russian involvement in fuelling the insurgency in eastern Ukraine and sending additional regular forces to support “rebels”, much of the focus has been on Moscow using “hybrid” warfare strategies. In reality, the Russian approach to warfare may have changed in tone but not fundamentally in content.

NATO is now tasked with reassurance and deterrence in the Baltic region and eastern Europe. But what is the nature of the threat? And how certain are NATO governments that the threat is real? If indeed there are new or evolving approaches to operational and tactical Russian military operations, this must be seen in its context: Russia has acted, whether we like it or not, in its own national security interests. That is a very different proposition to suggesting that any Russian president would authorize an attack on a NATO member state.

More analysis and deeper understanding of Russian strategic thinking and military power is needed before policy is made in response to hypothetical threats to European security.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.