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Russian thoughts on hybrid war and colour revolutions

  • Last updated: 16 Jan. 2020 11:00

Russian Studies Series 1/20


by Gudrun Persson 1

Russian thoughts on hybrid war and colour revolutions

Review of:

A. Bartosh: Konflikty XXI veka: gibridnaia voina i tsvetnaia revoliutsiia. Moscow: Goriachaia liniia – Telekom, 2018, 281 pp;
A. Bartosh: Tuman gibridnoi voiny: neopredelennosti i riski konfliktov XXI veka. Moscow: Goriachaia liniia – Telekom, 2019, 322 pp. ;
A. O Naumov “Miagkaia sila” i “tsvetnye revoliutsii” i tekhnologii smeny politicheskikh rezhimov v nachale XXI veka. Moscow: Agramak-Media, 2017, 274 pp.

The Russian military operation in Syria has been going on for almost five years, and it has become an important reference point for the development of Moscow’s military strategy. In the military theoretical debate, lessons are being drawn from it about the changing character of war and how the adversary uses a combination of means in addition to the traditional military campaign. In this context, there is much reflection on what Valeriy Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, in an article reflecting on Russia’s experience in Syria has called the “hybrid character of war”.2 This in itself reflects an evolution in the debate in Russia: the initial surprise in Russia regarding the so-called “hybrid war” label in 2014 and 20153 has disappeared, and now it has become an established topic examined and elaborated in an increasing number of articles and books. When Russian military theorists write about hybrid war, they treat it as a foreign capability, or, more precisely, as a Western model used against Russia to undermine Russian national security.

This review will illuminate this debate by examining three of the most prominent Russian books about hybrid warfare, and placing them in their broader context of the strategic and military debate in Russia. Aleksandr Bartosh, a corresponding member of the Academy of Military Science, is a prolific writer on “colour revolutions” and “controlled chaos”, and now writes about the need to develop “a counterstrategy for hybrid war”. Alongside numerous articles, he has written two books on this theme: Konflikty XXI veka: gibridnaia voina i tsvetnaia revoliutsiia and Tuman gibridnoi voiny: neopredelennosti i riski konfliktov XXI veka.4 The third book, by Aleksandr Naumov, is a new textbook on colour revolutions and soft power, entitled “Miagkaia sila” i “tsvetnye revoliutsii” i tekhnologii smeny politicheskikh rezhimov v nachale XXI veka. The books broadly try to lay out a “scientific basis” for the current Russian policies.

Examining this theme is important because the idea that Russia is waging some new kind of warfare against the West is flawed. It implies that Russia has a developed military strategy and doctrines for current warfare. But this is far from being the case, since the development of such strategies and doctrines is very much an ongoing process. A more thorough examination of the Russian interpretation of hybrid war is necessary, therefore, partly to avoid future surprises, but more importantly because it can tell us something about the current, on-going development of Russian military strategy. Furthermore, it sheds light on how the threats are seen from Moscow’s horizon and what the Russian policy community thinks should be done about them.

First, the threat perception in all the three books needs some attention. It is clear that domestic and external threats are seen to be merging. Russia is described in the books as being under threat of a hostile West in general and, more particularly, the United States of America. This is nothing new, and dovetails well with the current political leadership’s view. The West, according to this line of thought, is currently attacking Russia by ways of hybrid war. The instruments used are techniques such as “controlled chaos”, and “colour revolutions”, and hybrid threats.

Such terms are not especially new. They fit in a broader context of thinking that was taking place among analysts before the eruption of war in Ukraine in 2014.5 But they also reflect official language. Vladimir Putin defined “colour revolutions” in 2012 as “instruments and methods to achieve foreign policy objectives without the use of weapons – namely information and other levers of influence,”6 and the term “colour revolution” was included in the National Security Strategy for the first time in 2015, where it is described as a threat to Russia’s state security. Bartosh and Naumov reinforce their arguments about the alleged Western attack by quoting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in UN in 2014 and President Vladimir Putin in the UN General Assembly in 2015. Their books are the results of Russian efforts to study these phenomena in a more structured way.

The two books by Bartosh complement each other, as he elaborates his thoughts from the first book to the second. He treats the terms “controlled chaos” and “hybrid war” as parts of the same phenomenon. Consequently, in the book Konflikty he elaborates on a “matrix for the systematic components of a controlled chaos model”, which is almost identical to the matrix for the systematic components of a “hybrid war model” in the second book, Tuman.

Although Bartosh argues that there is no common and generally agreed upon definition of hybrid war, he notes that such conflicts do exist and thus need to be studied. He states that there are a number of characteristics of hybrid war. These will be familiar to a Euro-Atlantic audience. First, there is the non-linearity and inclusion of the entire territory of a state where there are no front or rear flanks. Second, asymmetrical means are used, partly replacing classic military means. And third, hybrid wars are not declared which makes it hard to detect the beginning of destructive actions. He notes that the threats of hybrid wars are not necessarily new. But in view of the speed, scale, and intensity of today’s conflicts, the character of war is fundamentally changing.

Indeed, history takes an important place in Bartosh’s arguments about hybrid war. He claims that the West has been conducting hybrid wars against Russia for a long time, and quotes Igor Panarin, also a member of the Academy of Military Science, who argues that the beginning of hybrid wars can be traced to 1815. According to Panarin, whose work is sometimes coloured by conspiracy theories, a secret anti-Russian agreement between France, Austria, and Great Britain created a network of freemasons in Russia with the aim of organizing a coup d’état.7 Bartosh notes that it is an exaggeration to trace hybrid wars against Russia too far into the past. Nevertheless, he still claims that the uprisings in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the fall of the Soviet Union are examples of this Western hybrid war.

This conspiratorial line of thinking can be hard to digest, not least because it is often illogical and lacks coherence. For instance, when writing about the “leading centres of controlled chaos”, Bartosh lists Chatham House and the RAND Corporation. At the same time, he frequently uses reports by RAND and treats them as serious sources, without the conspiracy thinking. This school of thought taps deeply into Russian intellectual thinking of the Slavophiles in the 19th century, and some of the more nationalistic trends have gained influence in parts of Russia’s political life during the past 30 years.

As examples of current Western hybrid wars, Bartosh consistently lists Iraq, Libya, Syria, Eastern Europe, the Arctic, Ukraine, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Regarding Syria, he notes that the Russian “non-linear strategy” has been particularly successful in countering hybrid war (a point also made by Gerasimov in his speeches and articles, though Bartosh does not refer to the general), and has managed to turn the military-political situation to Russia’s benefit.

Indicative also are the views of the so-called colour revolutions, including the use of “soft power”, which are the focus of Aleksandr Naumov’s book. Naumov is an associate professor at Moscow State University. He has specialised in international history, and although young (born in 1979) he has been writing on “colour revolutions” and “soft power” for the past ten years. His book consists of two parts. The first is a theoretical outline of “soft power” and how it has been used by the US. The second part consists of six chapters where all the “colour revolutions” over the past twenty years are outlined, covering the “bulldozer revolution” in Serbia, the Rose revolution in Georgia, the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the Tulip revolution in Kirgizstan, the Arab Spring (Tunis and Egypt), and Euromaidan in Ukraine.8 This is a useful reminder to Euro-Atlantic readers that many in the Russian policy community see the post-Cold War chronology in rather different terms, and that “colour revolutions” have been a prominent feature of their policy debate since the early 2000s.

Naumov distinguishes between two kinds of soft power. On one hand, he depicts “passive soft power” which he sees as something positive, associated with increasing the attraction of a country. But on the other, there is “active soft power” which is destructive and entails efforts to destroy the constitutional order of other states. As “clear examples of how the US has used soft power” he then examines the “coloured revolutions” mentioned above.

A basic assumption in all three of the books is that these phenomena have nothing to do with revolutions in the traditional sense, and that they do not occur as a result of popular opinion. Naumov, for instance, argues that the purpose of the classic revolutionary examples of the 18th – 20th centuries “was to create higher values and meaning” for mankind. The colour revolutions of today, however, are the results of Western meddling in other countries. According to Bartosh, the ultimate goal of a “colour revolution” is a coup d’état. This is accomplished by manipulating interior and external forces, and successfully disguising these forces as a public protest movement (narodnyi bunt). The political situation is artificially destabilized by manipulated street demonstrations (mostly young people). In other words, public demonstrations are seen with suspicion by Russian authorities (and these academics) as being instigated by the West. A colour revolution is mainly non-violent, whereas hybrid wars can contain military operations.

So who, more specifically, are starting colour revolutions? In all three books, the West is generally seen as one entity under the leadership of the US, which does not provide a sound basis for analysis. Naumov argues that “Washington uses digital diplomacy, mainly by using social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and others”. Furthermore, he lists The National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Open Society Foundation, and the German Marshall Fund, as major actors. All of these organizations have been declared “unwanted foreign and international NGOs” in Russia.

For Bartosh, the domestic and external threats are always initiated by the West. More specifically, these threats are several: efforts to force Russia to use a Western economic model unsuitable for Russian conditions, attempts to compel Russia to keep its reliance on raw material exports and its undeveloped manufacturing industry, and to maintain the situation of being a “slave” country in the cultural-civilizational development. He argues that at the very basis of a colour revolution lies the technology of “controlled chaos”. “Controlled chaos” is an instrument to “de-sovereignise” a country. He traces the concept of “controlled chaos” to the US, and claims that it was this approach that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He also links the use of the nuclear bombs against Japan in 1945 as an early example of an operation to “accelerate the war”, to the use of colour revolutions in today’s hybrid wars – all built on “controlled chaos”. And although he consistently blames the US as the coordinating power behind this, he suddenly notes that Lev Trotskii was a leading thinker who recognized the destructive force of chaos.

In view of these threats and Western hybrid wars, what needs to be done? The counterstrategy developed by Bartosh contains several measures. First, Russia needs to create a Eurasia with a common security space, where Russia is the “consolidating civilization”. The information war against Russia needs to be met by improving access to reliable information, prognosis and strategic planning. To counter “soft power” Russia needs to strengthen the inner cohesion of the society, and to increase its economic, political, military, and spiritual potential. “The historical memory of the people and its self-awareness needs to be strengthened”, he writes. Countermeasures need to be taken in the cyber sphere and public opinion, and, most importantly, ideological countermeasures are needed in the cultural sphere.

To achieve these goals, Bartosh lists a number of necessary steps. He argues for international agreements in the UN, OSCE, and CSTO to counter hybrid war. Other measures in Russia include strengthening the cooperation between the state organs, NGOs and mass media, and between political parties, religious organizations and cultural groups to secure the stability of information within the country. Scientific institutions should become an important part of securing the information environment within Russia, and a factor in implementing the external scientific-technological and cultural policies. Indicating that much work still remains in developing doctrines for future war, he argues that a special military scientific department within the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences should be created. The role for this new department would be to “use modern technologies to model wars as a social phenomenon”. This is, perhaps, intended to bring the military science community closer to the civilian academic community.

And what is the role of the Russian Armed Forces in countering these threats? Perhaps surprisingly, and disappointingly, this question is not addressed directly in any of the books. It nevertheless deserves to be raised here, since the General Staff appears to be thinking carefully about it. In 2018, Aleksandr Fomin, Deputy Minister of Defence stated that “… it is clear that behind the term “soft power” hides activities such as meddling in domestic affairs by organizing colour revolutions which in turn leads to a violation of the balance of power with catastrophic consequences for regions and the entire world”.9 This reflects a militarized view where soft power is seen as an instrument of statecraft. Furthermore, it indicates that the General Staff is paying close attention to “colour revolutions” and that in recent years it has been thinking about developing a concept to counteract “hybrid” wars against Russia and her allies.10 Since 2017, a new course has been introduced at the General Staff Academy entitled “Army and Society”. According to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the purposes of the course is to study countermeasures for “colour revolutions”. Among the subjects studied are information war, information security, and cultural policy, not least to counteract the “falsification of history”.11

Gerasimov also mentions the “Western techniques of colour revolutions and soft power”.12 To meet these threats, he claims, Russia is using the “strategy of active defence”. During his speech, he encouraged the Academy of Military Sciences to develop this strategy further. Both military and non-military means are to be used, and, according to the Russian General Staff, the notion of non-military means encompasses science, sports, and culture.13 Both open and covert measures are utilised, not least to create doubts about the character of a conflict. Gerasimov encourages the Academy to develop plans and operations within this field, indicating that Russian military thinkers still have to do their homework in this area. Many western observers have noted that in his 2013 article, Gerasimov considered the ratio of non-military to military means to be four to one. But six years on, Gerasimov still emphasizes the importance of military means and the coordinating role of the Armed Forces, indicating that military force is still very much a part of contemporary and future wars.

To sum up, it could be tempting to dismiss some of the thoughts laid out in these books as either conspiracy theories, or sounding like a pipe dream to resurrect the Soviet Union. This would be a mistake. Much of the thinking is in line with the current political leadership’s view of the world, and these books clearly illustrate the widespread thesis in Russian military thinking that Russia is facing a growing existential threat from the West. Instead of dismissing these thoughts as absurd as they might seem, they should be taken seriously in order to be able to respond properly and to work out appropriate counter strategies against Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria. The development of a coherent Russian military strategy is continuing, and these books make a contribution to our understanding of what to expect in the future.

1 (back) Dr Gudrun Persson is director of the Russian Studies Programme at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, and associate professor at the Department of Slavic Studies, Stockholm University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NATO Defense College or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

2 (back)   V. Gerasimov, “Po opytu Sirii”, Voenno-promyshlennyi kurer, 9 March 2016.

3 (back) R. Pukhov, “Mif o ‘gibridnoi voine’”, Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 29 May 2015.

4 (back) For more by Bartosh, see R. Finch’s review of his book “NATO in Modern World Politics”, NDC Russian Studies, 6/19, December 2019.

5 (back) See, for instance, V. V. Karyakin, Geopolitika tretei volny: transformatsiay mira v epokhu Postmoderna. Moscow, Granitsa, 2013. Karyakin, associated researcher at Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, reflected on “controlled chaos”, “colour revolutions”, “strategies of indirect action” and “soft power”, drawing on a wide range of sources in both Russian and English languages, from Aleksandr Dugin and Igor Panarin to Sergei Karaganov and Aleksei Malashenko, from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Carl Schmitt, Paul Kennedy and Joseph Nye.

6 (back) V. Putin, “Byt silnymi: garantii natsionalnoi bezopasnosti dlia Rossii”, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 20 February 2012.

7 (back) I. N. Panarin, Gibridnaya voina protiv Rossii, 1816-2016 gg, Moscow, Goriachaya Liniia – Telekom, 2017. Panarin has written extensively on information warfare for many years.

8 (back) The chapters on Ukraine are co-authored with historian Anastasiia Naumova, who in 2011 wrote a thesis about the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine.

9 (back) “Podvedenie itogov MCIS 2018 general-polkovnikom Aleksandrom Fominym”, (video)

10 (back) V. Gerasimov, “Sovremennye voiny i aktualnye voprosy oborony strany”, Vestnik Akademii voennykh nauk, 2 (59), 2017, p.13. Of course, there are also practical measures being implemented, both in terms of legal legislation about public meetings and the establishment of the National Guard/Rosgvardia, one of the tasks of which is civil disobedience management, and which exercises with the military to address Maidan-style events.

11 (back) “Minoborony RF nachalo kurs lektsii ‘Armiia i obsjchestvo’”, TASS, 12 January 2017, 

12 (back) V. Gerasimov, “Vektory razvitiia voennoi strategii”, Krasnaia zvezda, 4 March 2019.

13 (back) V. Gerasimov, “Voennaia nauka smotrit v budushchee”, Krasnaia zvezda, 26 March 2018.