Russia’s armed forces under Gerasimov, the man without a doctrine

Reposting this Riddle piece that I hope some of you will find of interest, thanks to Riddle for getting it out so quickly – and no it was not an April fool’s article but the title worked.

Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, turns 65 this year and is likely to stay on as long as Sergei Shoigu remains minister of defense. Gerasimov looms large over the current era of Russian military reform and modernization, though both processes were initiated by his predecessor, Nikolai Makarov. During his tenure, the Russian military has also been bloodied in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, with the lessons learned subsequently integrated into exercises at home. Gerasimov is more the representative of Russian military officialdom than the author of any of its key doctrinal tenets, but under him the Russian armed forces have undergone noticeable improvements in capability, mobility, readiness, force structure, and combat experience.

Ironically, of the things Gerasimov has done to leave an imprint on the Russian armed forces, he is uniquely famous for something that he never authored, and which does not exist — namely, the “Gerasimov Doctrine.” In 2014 an erroneous belief of almost mythic proportions emerged in the Western press some Russia watchers; it centered on the notion that in February 2013, Gerasimov authored an article laying out the Russian military blueprint for actions in Ukraine and war with the West.

The “Gerasimov Doctrine” was a clever name coined by Mark Galeotti on his blog, though he never meant it to be taken literally that Gerasimov had a doctrine. In 2018 Galeotti published a mea culpa rebuffing any notion that Gerasimov had a doctrine, given the extent to which this term “acquired a destructive life of its own.” Unfortunately like a creature in a horror film it escaped, growing stronger, running amok in political and military circles, and forcing years of efforts among Russia analysts to beat it into submission. That effort proved a Sisyphean task;  entire theories subsequently emerged proclaiming a Russian “chaos theory” of political warfare against the West, based on the erroneous belief that the Chief of the Russian General Staff is in a position to dictate Russian political strategy in the first place.

Military strategy, and operational level planning in conflict, support the strategy set by political leadership, but they are not one and the same. Strategy in a particular conflict is quite different from political strategy writ large. The military is a stakeholder, offering inputs into Russian political strategy, but it does not determine it. The deciding votes sit in the Kremlin. Military writing is quite useful for reflections of the thinking amongst political leadership, but what the military plans to do doctrinally, or debates doing, is not necessarily representative of political designs. It is the job of a military to plan for all sorts of unlikely contingencies, and at the end of the day it is an expensive solution in a bureaucratic search for problems it might help solve.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 led to a scramble for information on the Russian armed forces, its military thought, and its doctrine. At first, this yielded faddish terms and malformed interpretations. Over the years the “Gerasimov Doctrine” has become somewhat a professional joke among Russian military analysts, who see it as a litmus test separating those with bona fide expertise from the ever-growing field of self-proclaimed experts on Russian information or political warfare.

Gerasimov's typical look
resting Gerasimov face

That infamous 2013 piece, titled the Value of Science in Prediction, was derived from Gerasimov’s annual speech at the Military Academy of Sciences, undoubtedly kluged together by a few officers into an article with a chart. Gerasimov laid out the general sentiments in Russian military thought on how the U.S. conducts political warfare via “color revolutions,” eventually backed by the employment of high precision weapons, with many of the observations derived from the Arab Spring.

That article represented the Russian military interpretation (or more correctly misinterpretation) of the U.S. approach to conducting regime change, combined with a bureaucratic argument designed to link the budget of the Russian armed forces, consuming trillions of rubles each year, to an external challenge defined largely as political.

In short, it was a kitchen sink of the salient inputs into Russian military thought at the time, summarizing the emerging trends in modern conflicts: wars are not acknowledged or declared when they start, asymmetric and non-military measures had grown relative to traditional military ones, the role of information warfare and irregular formations or proxies had grown in prominence, though high end conventional capabilities equally colored Russian military thinking, especially mass employment of precision guided weapons against a country’s critical infrastructure. Prior to Galeotti’s commentary, Gerasimov’s February 2013 article was completely ignored, and ironically, so were subsequent articles or speeches encapsulating further evolution in Russian military thought since 2013.

That line of thinking on the character of modern conflict has only further congealed under Gerasimov into what the Russian military has come to term “New Type Warfare.” This term represents the Russian view of how non-military instruments can affect a country’s information environment, internal political stability or economy, but are coordinated with conventional military capabilities that inflict strategic damage, such as long-range precision guided weapons and massed aerospace attack. Just last year Gerasimov restated this belief, alleging the U.S. has a ‘trojan horse’ strategy of sorts integrating political warfare and information warfare to mobilize the protest potential of the population, combined with precision strikes against critical infrastructure.

Given the almost complete absence of ‘deterrence by denial’ in Russian strategic thinking, doctrine has evolved around what Gerasimov has termed to be “active defense.” This is a set of preemptive nonmilitary and military measures, deterrence and escalation management approaches based on cost imposition. The Russian armed forces are geared towards being able to preemptively neutralize an emerging threat or deter by showing the ability and willingness to inflict unacceptable consequences on the potential adversary. As Gerasimov said, “acting quickly we must preempt our adversary with preventive measures, identify his vulnerabilities in a timely manner, and create the threat that unacceptable damage will be inflicted.” In practice this includes a range of calibrated damage, from single and grouped conventional strikes against economic or military infrastructure, to massed employment of precision guided weapons, followed by non-strategic nuclear weapons, and at the outer edges theater nuclear warfare.

Much hay has been made of Russian military thought on political or information warfare, but Gerasimov has always made clear that the thrust of military strategy is conventional and nuclear warfare. Use of military power remains decisive. Confrontation in other spheres, where non-military measures dominate, is handled by other ‘strategies’ and organizations with their own resources. The military sees itself as coordinating the two types of measures, as opposed to overseeing the various non-military lines of effort.

Gerasimov shooting things
Better reflection of military thought on preference between nonmilitary and military measures

The Russian military response can be seen in the creation of inter-service combat grouping in each strategic direction, with relatively high readiness, and their ability to move across the Russian landmass to the point of conflict as tested in the Vostok 2018 Strategic Maneuvers. Mobility, readiness, and the ability of different services to work together grew in emphasis under Gerasimov’s tenure, along with attempts to engender flexibility at the tactical level, or what Gerasimov has termed the ability of commanders to come up with “non-standard solutions.” The Russian armed forces have also begun to articulate concepts for future expeditionary operations, called “limited actions,” and institutionalizing the experience in Syria.

Russia’s military continues to invest in capabilities and operational concepts to conduct non-contact warfare, able to engage with standoff weaponry, based on real-time intelligence and reconnaissance. The latest State Armament Program 2018-2027 places emphasis on quality and quantity of precision guided weapons, plus enabling technologies for recon-strike and recon-fire loops. Too much has been made of the discourse on non-military means, when in practice the Russian military has bought a tremendous amount of hard conventional military power and spent considerably on nuclear modernization. Since 2011 one could count close to 500 tactical aircraft, over 600 helicopters, to more than 16 S-400 regiments along with countless air defense systems for the ground forces, 13 Iskander brigades, thousands of armored vehicles, ballistic missile and multipurpose nuclear powered submarines, i.e. the list is extensive. Indeed, roughly 50% of the sizable Russian defense budget is spent on weapons procurement, modernization and R&D.

Despite the advancements in the Russian armed forces, doctrinal deterrence by defense is still seen as cost prohibitive, unattractive compared to approaches that actively limit damage to the homeland or the armed forces. Hence key capabilities, such as long-range precision guided weapons, have been integrated into strategic operations in the initial period of war that are just as offensive as they are defensive in nature. Gerasimov has served during a critical time between the 2014 military doctrine, and a forthcoming one, where some of the more relevant doctrinal developments in Russian military strategy have been in the application of limited force for the purposes of escalation management and war termination.

8 thoughts on “Russia’s armed forces under Gerasimov, the man without a doctrine

  1. Michael, This is a fascinating and informative article. Thankyou. I am ex-RAF, a Joint Service Staff College graduate and, in my time, a specialist in Air Power Doctrine, hence my interest. The blog appears to articulate a pre-emptive or first reaction, approach to Russian defence strategy and I tend to agree. It is relevant to note that airpower is the only aspect of military force that is not restricted in use by the UN Charter (Article 51) – the West has used this occasionally, for example ‘no-fly’ zones (eg Libya) and ‘air supremacy’ actions in the Middle East – and for the Israeli’s this has always been their approach, as you know, and not simply for cost reasons (see ‘The utility of Airpower’ by AVM Andy Vallance). This was put into action in Crimea and Ukraine as a prelude to their interventions, and in Syria provides the basis for the Russian strategy. It could also now apply to Space, as you will be aware. It is likely that this supports the emphatic development of precision guided missiles and/or un-manned recon/electronic air capability in real time. Now that there is a NATO Allied Joint Doctrine (the subject of my Staff College paper in post-Cold War 1993), I believe that your essay highlights very well why that remains necessary and I do hope it receives wide readership, especially at NATO staff colleges (I have shared it with colleagues). Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike,

    A really good article. It is truly unfortunate that Galeotti’s blog got as much exposure as it did.

    I read Gerasimov’s presentation to the Military Science Academy as soon as it was published in Russian.

    Manfully trying to get the word out that it had been massively misinterpreted, I encountered very strong opposition in those who LOVED the misinterpretation because it played into both their paranoia and desire to bolster assets.

    If anything, the opposition to the truth may have been more entrenched than the spread of the misunderstanding.

    This was particularly true of the folks in EUCOM.

    They just could not/would not hear of a story that explained that Gerasimov was talking about his view of the U.S. “way of subversion and projection.”

    And, of course, the U.S. would never do what his presentation described.

    The fact that there have been more than ample examples of exactly what was described was beside the point

    Just like the reaction which I have encountered when pointing out the numerous times that the U.S. had very actively “meddled” in foreign elections and even outright supported coups (Heavens! Not us!).

    Even now, when Galeotti came out to say he got it wrong, the “damage” has been done. It is extremely difficult to change peoples’ preconceived ideas vis a vis Russia.

    I once ran across a quote attributed to Julius Caesar – though it’s so obvious, any number of people likely said it – “Men willingly believe what they wish (to believe).”

    The truth of the statement applies both to what occurred with the Gerasimov presentation/article and what is going on today within the politics of the U.S.

    Once folks believe what they prefer hearing, the actual facts are of little to no consequence.

    Bottom line: Russia is pursuing a program of active defense at the lowest possible cost.

    Lots of folks fail to realize, or don’t want to, that Russia does rather effective centralized defense planning with a lot of heavy thinking going into it.

    On our side, we have an entire stable of folks who doggedly pursue their personal, professional, service, and financial interests with no central clearing and coordination into what might be a unified understanding of challenges and a program to face them.

    In that regard, welcome to the very disjoined approach to U.S. handling of the current coronavirus which, unfortunately, continues to contribute to its spread with huge fatal consequences to life and the economy.

    Stay healthy,

    George F.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I doubt that the distinction between deterrence by denial and punishment exists in the Russian military thought, per se. The utterly catastrophic consequences of passive defense have been readily apparent since the fall of the Maginot line, re-shown by our most gracious German teachers in 1941, during the Kiev defensive operation. That lesson had been taken to heart by Stalingrad and Kursk defensive operations, and I doubt the idea of deterring aggression simply by imposing high costs on the invading forces themselves has ever been seriously considered in the Russian General Staff.

    The closest that the Russian military has come to “deterrence by denial” are the deployments in Kaliningrad and Crimea, but even then, those forces are supposed to hold the attackers off until the rest of the Armed Forces is brought to readiness and deployed to the theater for a decisive counterattack, not to incur unacceptable loses in and by themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The distinction does not exist because deterrence by denial as a term does not exist. Russian deterrence concepts cluster around cost imposition, limited force, and deterrence by fear inducement. Next, its important not to make notional essentialist arguments based on what happened at Kursk – its important but its not that important and if you’ve not done the readings/research in Russian military thought then you have no idea if that argument is remotely true. Suffice it to say in the countless documents I’ve had the pleasure to read the Maignot line, Kursk, and Stalingrad don’t come up particularly often. What happened in the war is common place for operational-tactical concept discussion, but its not especially relevant to deterrence literature because much of deterrence is based on post-war security concepts and nuclear weapons. Defense is thought of in terms of repelling the attack, not necessarily attritioning it, though in reality attrition is often a determinant. I think deterrence by defense has a poor track record but what happened in the war is not the main reason denial never really entered the conceptual lexicon.

      Deployments in Kaliningrad and Crimea are not deterrence by denial. Denial concepts do not exist writ large, with exception of ‘sea denial’ in the sense of protected maritime regions.


  4. “Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, turns 65 this year and is likely to stay on as long as Sergei Shoigu remains minister of defense. ”

    Why do you think so?
    I mean he is certainly part of the team, but If I am not mistaken, russian three- and “four-” stars should retire at 60 years, which can be prolonged to 65 if President decides so.
    He is already longest serving Chief in RuFed history, and all in all since Ogarkov (if wiki has the data correct).
    So I think he will be replaced in summer/autumn, there are several possible candidates.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard it both ways, that he might get replaced after turning 65 this year – in the fall, or alternatively that his time of service will be extended. Maybe by Surovikin, but either way it will be easy to tell later this year what they choose to do. I’m not sure any rules really apply here, and much depends on what they want to do. Makarov only quit because of Serdyukov’s downfall – who knows how long he might have served. I think so because I’ve heard for several years now about how Gerasimov is going to get replaced, and I’ve come to be disappointed in those predictions. It would be easier to replace Gerasimov and Shoigu together.


  5. Political warfare in the sense of paramilitaries has always been quite an important element of the Russian strategy, probably because of the role of the partisans in the WWII. I can see its comeback in the Yunarmiya, in addition to the overpublicized Wagner company. There were many positive lessons from cooperation with state(-like) actors in Afganistan and Syria. The Russians also saw limits of conventional military in Chechnya. I understand that Gerasimov’s shift to increased mobility and flexibility can account for part of this, but I still think that Russian military may prefer to leave guerilla or urban warfare to allied local militias (which have to be organised and financed somehow). Especially now when they are transforming into a small & high-tech force, that isn’t well suited for prolonged low-intensity atrition warfare (just like the Soviets, or, let’s face it, the US, isn’t).

    Liked by 1 person

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