BERLIN – If you’re wondering what Russia is doing in Ukraine and beyond, a January 2013 speech by the head of Russia’s General Staff provides a good explanation. It’s fighting a multi-modal war against the West because Russia’s leadership is convinced the West is also waging one against Russia.
Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who distinguished himself in Moscow’s second war against Chechen separatists and who has headed the General Staff since 2012, delivered the speech to a general meeting of the Academy of Military Sciences — the biggest gathering of Russian military strategists and historians. “In the 21st century there is a tendency to erase the differences between the states of war and peace,” he said. “Wars are no longer declared, and once they start, they do not follow the customary mold.” Then he elaborated:
The emphasis in the confrontation methods employed is shifting toward the broad use of political, economic, information, humanitarian and other nonmilitary measures, taken along with the use of the population’s protest potential. All that is supplemented with covert military measures, such as information warfare activities and the actions of special operations forces. The open use of force, often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis resolution, only occurs at a certain stage, mainly to achieve ultimate success in a conflict.
Asymmetrical actions, which allow a side to level out the adversary’s fighting advantage, are becoming widespread. They include the use of special operations personnel and internal opposition to create a permanently open front throughout the territory of the adversary state, as well as influence through information, whose forms and methods are continuously perfected.
Note that in early 2013, there were no hints of a crisis in Ukraine, and Gerasimov was describing his understanding of Western, not Russian, strategies and tactics. His examples included the Arab Spring rebellions and the Libyan civil war, in which private military contractors fought alongside local rebels. The General Staff chief suggested Russia was only a student of hybrid warfare. “While we understand the essence of traditional warfare conducted by regular armed forces, our knowledge of asymmetrical forms and methods is superficial,” he complained, adding that Russia needed to develop hybrid strategies of its own.
It’s a time-honored tradition for military scientists to describe their ideas in terms of what the adversary is doing rather than what their own side should do. U.S. theorists also talk of hybrid, or asymmetrical, war as a challenge requiring a response rather than an attack strategy. “Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular or terrorist), we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously,” Frank Hoffman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies wrote in an influential 2007 article.
This arm’s length approach to describing hybrid warfare fits perfectly with Gerasimov’s Orwellian picture of a world in which war is peace, and undeclared wars are ongoing and omnipresent. Like Orwell’s Oceania, Russia is constantly at war, albeit waged by nonmilitary means.
Within this worldview, protests against unfair elections in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 were attacks on Russia by external enemies, their suppression a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The more successful protests in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014 demanded a Russian response employing every means at its disposal — a powerful propaganda machine, diplomatic maneuvers, economic pressure, special forces, local opposition in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The increasing use of regular Russian troops in recent weeks could be the precursor to a wide-scale invasion to achieve the “ultimate success” Gerasimov talked about, but even that doesn’t have to be declared: What’s the point if the war is everywhere and everyone knows about it, anyway?
To someone who sees the world as a permanent war theater, everything that happens is part of the action. Western sanctions? Check. Western media describing the Ukraine conflict as part of a Russian neo-imperialist push? Check. Russian opposition journalists hunting for the graves of Russian servicemen killed in Ukraine? Check. This column? Sure, all part of the war.
It doesn’t matter to military strategists why the adversary is the adversary. Only winning is important.
Russia’s and Ukraine’s general staffs are now talking about bringing some order to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. To Gen. Gerasimov and his commander-in-chief, Putin, however, that’s just tactics. Even if Ukraine is defeated militarily, that’s just one small battle won in an eternal war.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.