General Gerasimov on the Vectors of the Development of Military Strategy
by Dave Johnson
Russian Studies Series 04/2019
Review of Speech by General Gerasimov at the Russian Academy of Military Science, Moscow, 2 March 2019
General Gerasimov on 2 March 2019 delivered to the Russian Academy of Military Science his thoughts on the evolving demands of modern war and the adaptation of Russia’s military strategy, which addresses “questions of the preparation for war and the conduct of war, primarily by the Armed Forces”. In doing so, he was carrying on the longstanding tradition for the Chief of the General Staff to address the opening general assembly of the Academy’s annual conference. General Gerasimov and his predecessors have used the conference as an opportunity to outline for domestic and, increasingly, for foreign audiences the Russian General Staff’s evolving threat assessment, evolving military concepts, and the main thrusts of Russian military development and reform.
The annual remarks by the Chief of the General Staff can provide useful insights on current Russian military thinking when assessed in the full context of: other authoritative statements by Russia’s political and military leaders; the development of Russia’s military capabilities, forces, and posture; military training and exercises; and the conduct of military operations. On the other hand, Russia’s political and military leadership are increasingly effective in using such events to manipulate domestic and foreign perceptions. This has contributed to a tendency for the more sensationalistic elements of the Russian messages to be focused upon, sometimes distorted, and often reported in isolation – and then treated as received wisdom. This, in turn, often results in incorrect perceptions that remarks at such events have revealed significant new concepts, initiatives, and turning points in the development of the Russian Armed Forces.
In fact, remarks by Russia’s senior political and military leaders at events such as the general assembly of the Academy of Military Science, meetings of the Ministry of Defence Collegium, or the president’s annual address to the Federal Assembly tend to provide updates on already emerging concepts and on ongoing military programmes. Sometimes they indicate a new stage in the rationalization and actualization of emerging concepts and related developing capabilities. As such, the remarks can be useful vector checks for outside observers on Russian military thinking and capability and force development. This paper aims to describe the main elements of General Gerasimov’s most recent remarks to the conference of the Academy of Military Science in that vein and to assess them in their broader context.1
Overview of General Gerasimov’s Remarks
General Gerasimov asserted that the variety of potential wars (using a range of asymmetric or “classic” means) and of potential participants (sovereign states, illegal formations, private companies, and quasi-states) is increasing. Additionally, the threat of war is growing. This is because, in his view (and presumably of the Russian General Staff), the United States continues to encroach close to Russian territory with military infrastructure, and to undermine strategic stability, including by withdrawing from the INF Treaty and by its possible future refusal to extend the New START Treaty. Further, the United States and its allies have set an aggressive external policy supported by offensive military measures (global strike, cross-domain coercion, color revolutions, and soft power), with the aim of liquidating objectionable states. According to General Gerasimov, Russia’s geopolitical competitors “do not plan to achieve their political aims only through regional conflicts” but are “preparing to conduct war against a ‘high-technology adversary’ [Author: i.e. Russia] using precision weapons from the air, sea, and space, with active information confrontation”. He claimed that the US approach is to combine the destabilizing effects of the “protest potential of a fifth column” with precision strikes on key targets in a “Trojan Horse” strategy.
According to General Gerasimov, current circumstances require Russia to continue to develop the forms and means of use of the Armed Force for strategic deterrence and for the defence of the state. General Gerasimov said that Russia’s response to current and foreseen threats is a “strategy of active defence” entirely in line with the defensive character of Russia’s military doctrine. The strategy comprises “integrated means for the pre-emptive neutralization of threats to the security of the state” and is guided by principles for:
- prevention of war – strategic foresight to enable timely response to emerging threats;
- preparation for war – includes maintaining constant high combat readiness and readiness for mobilization of the armed forces and creation of strategic reserves and stockpiles;
- the conduct of war – on the basis of coordinated employment of military and non-military means acting on the basis of surprise, decisiveness, and continuity of strategic action.
General Gerasimov went on to say, “acting quickly, we should preempt the enemy with our preventive measures, promptly identify his vulnerabilities and create threats of unacceptable damage to him. This ensures the capture and retention of the strategic initiative”.
General Gerasimov clarified the shift in the relative weight and supported versus supporting roles of non-military and military means as conflict shifts from non-military to direct military conflict. According to him, modern conflicts [Author: below the level of direct military confrontation] are “conducted by the integrated employment of political, economic, informational, and other non-military means, all implemented with reliance on military force”. However, when it comes to the preparation for and conduct of war, “non-military means, which influence the course and outcome of wars, provide and create the conditions for the effective use of military force”. War is conducted “on the basis of coordinated employment of military and non-military means with the decisive role of the Armed Forces”. (emphasis added)
The Chief of the General Staff revisited Russia’s concept of strategic deterrence, including nuclear and non-nuclear elements. He reviewed the status of the new strategic- and theatre-range nuclear, dual-capable, and laser-based weapon systems that gained notoriety due to President’s Putin’s highlighting of them in his 2018 and 2019 addresses to the Federal Assembly. These include the AVANGARD hypersonic weapon system, the SARMAT ICBM, the PERESVET laser system, KHINZHAL air-launched ballistic missile, POSEIDON intercontinental nuclear-powered nuclear torpedo, the BUREVESTNIK intercontinental nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, and TSIRKON submarine-launched cruise missile. He repeated President Putin’s declaration that plans would be made for use of the new weapons against the decision centers and launch sites that support cruise missile strikes against targets on Russian territory – “to answer a threat by creating a threat”. He added that military scientists would also need to seek means to counter possible military actions in and from space by the likely adversary.
General Gerasimov reported that experience gained in operations in Syria have provided the basis for a “strategy of limited actions” for the defence and advancement of national interests beyond the territory of Russia. This strategy, which is to be developed further, would center on creation of an independent group of forces based predominately on whichever service was best suited to the circumstances (in Syria that was the Aerospace Forces). The strategy of limited actions would emphasize information dominance, rely upon hidden deployment of the group of forces, and aim for creation of an integrated system of intelligence, strike means, and command and control to enable location, targeting, and selective strike of critically important targets in near-real time by strategic and operational-tactical non-nuclear weapons. General Gerasimov also expects Russian forces to need to employ and to counter digital technology, robotics, drones, and means of radio-electronic combat in scenarios beyond Russian territory. Russian forces gained experience in conducting combined military and non-military operations with international partners in Syria including, according to General Gerasimov, their first experience of humanitarian operations.
General Gerasimov said that modern military conflict is characterized by enemy efforts to destabilize the internal security of the state. In response Russia has undertaken development of a system of territorial defence comprising coordinated activity of ministries and agencies to provide for integrated security in “a period of escalating military threat and emergence of crisis situations”. He noted, in particular, the necessity of a system of integrated defence of critically important state infrastructure against adversary operations in all domains aimed at creating “an atmosphere of chaos and loss of control”.
The Chief of the General Staff noted that the recent conflicts have demonstrated the growing importance of the information domain, in addition to the traditional land, air and sea military operational domains. He said, “the information domain, not having a clearly defined international border, provides the possibility for long-range, hidden action upon not only critically important information infrastructure, but also upon the population of a country, directly influencing the condition of national security of a state”. He continued, “for this very reason work on the questions of preparation and conduct of actions of information character is the most important task of military science”.
Remarking upon the connection between military strategy and the preparation of the economy to support defence aims, General Gerasimov said that strategy must address three questions on preparing the economy (and seemingly industry) for war:
- Toward what kind of potential war and in what direction should the economy be prepared?
- How to provide for the survivability and resilience of the economy?
- How best to locate economic facilities in consideration of their defence?
In support, military science must predict what kind of weapons would best meet the requirements of future wars, with the complexity of modern weapons precluding their rapid production at the outset of war and requiring their production in sufficient numbers in time of peace. General Gerasimov claimed that the Ministry of Defence and defence industrial complex have developed an effective system of cooperation that feeds operational experience into new weapon design from concept to testing.
General Gerasimov identified the question of increasing the combat power of the Armed Forces as a priority, with the answer having quantitative and qualitative components. In connection with this, he provided a review of aims for increasing the number of contract servicemen and reducing reliance on conscripts, progress in fulfilling the State Armaments Plan, and the ongoing military modernization. He noted again that surprise (snap) exercises had increased the ability of the services and forces to deploy units operationally over great distances in order to reinforce groups of forces in strategic directions. He also noted that military-political work to ensure the ideological and moral-psychological resilience of the population, including in the first place, military servicemen.
Continuity, Refinement and Bumper Stickers
General Gerasimov’s remarks were in line with the main trends in Russian military thought and the overall development of the Russian Armed Forces over the last decade. He made no surprising announcements or startling revelations, instead touching upon now familiar themes, lending more or less emphasis to them in line with Moscow’s current preoccupations and intended messaging emphases. His overarching themes were the rising threat of conflict, the increasing complexity but enduring nature of war, and the ongoing adaptation of Russia’s responses to the evolving security environment. The main themes, concepts, and priorities that General Gerasimov talked about have all appeared in the 2014 Russian Military Doctrine and to various degrees in previous versions of the military doctrine. They have also featured in the official statements and published military analyses that are all part of the iterative process that feeds into Russian military strategy, doctrine, and force and capability development.
Some of General Gerasimov’s remarks expanded upon, refined, or clarified existing ideas and concepts. For example, his remarks reflected a sharpening of Moscow’s publicly-pronounced assessment of the US and its allies as the source of declining stability, increasing threat to Russia, and growing risk of war. This more direct and negative assessment goes a bit further than the 2014 Military Doctrine and more closely reflects the more recent 2015 Russian National Security Strategy. The current 2014 Military Doctrine characterizes NATO activity as an external danger to Russia. This is a small semantic nuance but one of which Russian interlocutors remind anyone who incorrectly references it. If current trends continue, whenever a new revision of the Military Doctrine document is published it will likely include a clearer designation of the United States and NATO as threats to Russia. This would bring the Military Doctrine document in line with the 2015 National Security Strategy, which states, “the strengthening of Russia takes place in the context of new threats to national security of a complex, interconnected character. The Russian Federation’s conduct of independent external and internal policies elicits counteraction by the United States and its allies, striving to maintain their domination in world affairs”.2
Similarly, General Gerasimov’s characterization of Russia’s response to the evolving security environment enumerated well-known approaches and principles. However, the “strategy of active defence” that he outlined signaled growing preparedness for more proactive use of military means “for the pre-emptive neutralization of threats”. The “strategy of active defence” label for existing Russian practices also appears to be a rhetorical and propaganda tool to characterize Russia’s long-term multi-domain campaign to undermine the existing global order as a defensive reaction to what Moscow claims is a Western hybrid campaign against Russia. It aligns well with Russian leaders’ claims that Russia is encircled and under attack and that everything that Russia does is defensive. As such, it is another among the terms in the Russian lexicon used to describe what has been called in the West “hybrid warfare” since 2014 (when that term was adapted from its original usage to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to describe Russia’s multi-domain approach to conflict below the threshold of direct military conflict). Russian analysts and leaders reject both the notion that Russia is acting aggressively, and the term “hybrid war” as applicable to Russia’s actions. Russian analysts and leaders have developed their own set of terms that they apply to the perceived aggression against Russia (controlled chaos, strategy of attrition and destruction, technology of colour revolutions, hybrid warfare) and, from their perspective, Russia’s defensive responses (new forms of armed conflict and now strategy of active defence).3
Additionally, General Gerasimov’s remarks on the primacy in war of military means over non-military means helps clarify:
- the role of threatened military force in support of asymmetric (non-military) means in conflicts below the level of direct military conflict;
- the role of asymmetric (non-military) means, both before and during direct military conflict, in creating favorable conditions for the successful employment of military force;
- the leading role of military force once direct military conflict is underway, with asymmetric (non-military) means in a supporting role.
This highlighted the role of Russia’s non-military aggression against the existing global order in shaping the strategic environment in Russia’s favor, including for potential military aggression. It also reminds that the military element of Russian aggression is present at all levels of conflict. Finally, it indicates that the utility of asymmetric (non-military) responses to Russian aggression will decline as non-military conflict transitions to direct military conflict.
General Gerasimov applied new labels to some familiar concepts and their bumper sticker-ready nature subsequently provided for some attention-grabbing media headlines. This included his labeling of the tandem threat perceived by Moscow of colour revolution and precision strike as a US “Trojan horse strategy”, which was picked up in Russian and Western media as something new. As is well-known, Moscow has perceived colour revolutions as a western-inspired and directed threat to the current regime since the early 2000s.4 Conventional precision strike has been perceived by Moscow as a growing threat to Russian security since 1990-1991 when the United States first demonstrated it as an operational capability during the Persian Gulf War. Russia’s political and military leaders and military analysts began to conflate colour revolutions and precision strike into a perceived western operational approach after the 2011 Operation Unified Protector in Libya. The closely related perceived threats of externally-driven destabilization campaigns, information operations to influence the populations, and requirements for territorial defence have featured prominently in the 2010 and 2014 Russian Military Doctrine documents and been regularly addressed in Russian military discourse and military exercises.
General Gerasimov’s newly coined “strategy of limited actions” for the defence and advancement of national interests beyond Russian territory also is a re-labeling of long-standing policy and practice and has also caught media attention. The potential use of military formations beyond Russian territory in defence of Russian interests (and citizens) is explicitly mentioned in the 2014, 2010, and 2000 versions of the Military Doctrine document. The 1993 Military Doctrine uses the Soviet era term “military assistance to other states”.5 Furthermore, operations in Angola, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Ukraine show that the use of military forces by Moscow outside of Soviet or Russian territory is not a new concept.
However, General Gerasimov’s remarks focus on Russia’s successful operations in Syria as a basis for further development of the strategy of limited actions and its implementation when necessary. This aligns with public remarks by Russian political and military leaders which have emphasized the value of the experience gained in Syria for development of military operational concepts. It also suggests that Russian political and military leaders draw a distinction between operations in countries adjacent to Russia and operations beyond. This distinction may have both political and military components. Moscow’s political leadership clearly categorizes nations on Russia’s periphery differently than those farther abroad, contesting their sovereignty and viewing them as within a perceived geographic sphere of Russian interest. The distinction drawn by the military leadership likely has a more practical and pragmatic basis in the very different and more demanding requirements for out-of-area expeditionary operations as compared with operations on adjacent territory. In this respect, Russia’s successful operations to seize and illegally annex Crimea and to de facto separate the Donbas region from Ukraine, while legally “beyond the territory of Russia”, represent a different level of challenge than Syria. Additionally, Russia’s political and military leaders are unlikely to acknowledge publicly the value of the operational experiences gained in Ukraine for as long as they maintain their posture of “implausible deniability” on Russian involvement in Crimea and the Donbas.
The concept of operations beyond Russian territory, which in the past appeared almost as an afterthought in the Russian Military Doctrine, will also likely be more developed in future revisions. However, it was evident before General Gerasimov’s most recent speech to the Academy of Military Science, as Dmitriy Adamsky noted, that “the Syrian experience may leave a major imprint on Russian Strategic thought and operational art” and the contours of the imprint that the General described have already been observed.6
General Gerasimov’s latest speech to the Russian Academy of Military Science delivers several messages. First, there should be no expectation of a change in the course of Russian policy, actions or military posture. Russia will continue its campaign to undermine the existing global order and reshape it to its liking, including by military means. Second, success in Syria has justified the risk that Moscow took, and validated the approach it used. Consequently, Russia will prepare its Armed Forces to conduct more expeditionary operations in strategically important regions should the need arise. Third, in this context, Russia’s political and military leaders take the risk of large-scale war seriously and are preparing the Armed Forces, the government, industry, and the population for that possibility. These trends point toward solidification of a new era of geopolitical competition with a peer competitor and the related requirement for NATO to be prepared to operate in a contested security environment, in contested operational domains, and in contested zones of operations for years to come.
1(back) V. Gerasimov, Vektory Razvitiya Voennoi Strategii, Krasnaya Zvezda, 4 March 2019, http://redstar.ru/vektory-razvitiya-voennoj-strategii/
2(back) Ukaz Prezidenta Rossiickoi Federatsii ot 31 December 2015, N. 683 “O Strategii Natsional’noi Bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii” (2015 National Security Strategy), para. 12, Rossiiskaya Gazeta website, https://rg.ru/2015/12/31/nac-bezopasnost-sit.dok.html
3(back)President Putin used the term “controlled chaos” in his published manifesto on future defence policy just prior to the 2012 presidential elections in V. Putin, Byt’ Sil’nymi. “Controlled chaos” is now in wide use among Russia’s military leadership and analysts as in A. N. Belskii and O. V. Klimenko, Politicheskiie Tekhnologii “Tsvetnykh Revolutsii”: Puti i Sredsvta Protivodeistviia, Voennaya Mysl’, No. 9, September 2014, pp. 3-11. An extended analysis of the related, and somewhat interchangeable term “strategy of attrition and destruction” is in V. I. Vorob’ev and V. A. Kitselev, Strategii Sokrusheniia i Izmora v Novom Oblike, Voennaya Mysl’, No. 3, March 2014, pp. 45-57. While generally using these terms, Russian analysts recognise the western use of “hybrid” to identify similar phenomena. Russian experts tend to use “controlled chaos” and “technology of colour revolutions” to label actions directed against Russia or governments friendly to Russia, and refer to the same means and methods as part of “new forms of armed conflict” when discussing modifications to Russia’s approach to conflict/war.
4(back)A color revolution is a political upheaval leading to regime change. The best-known examples of such revolutions, with popular demonstrations against authoritarian governments, have been Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004). Moscow places the Libyan and Syrian popular uprisings in the same category and regards all these revolutions as the products of Western intervention rather than spontaneous public sentiment.
5(back) Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2014, para. 31, 24 Dec. 2014, http://Kremlin.ru/media/events/files/41d527556bec8deb3530.pdf; Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2010, para. 26, 5 February 2010, http://kremlin.ru/supplement/461; Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2000, Section II, para. 20, 21 April 2000, http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/15386; 1993 Russian Military Doctrine, Art. 26, 2 Nov. 1993, http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/4747
6(back)For example, in D. Adamsky, “Moscow’s Syria Campaign: Russian Lessons for the Art of Strategy”, Russie.Nei.Visons, No. 109, IFRI, July 2018.