Russian “Principles of Victory in Combat” and MCDP-1 Warfighting
Russian Studies Series 02/2022
by Clint Reach and Anthony Atler1
V. V. Gerasimov, S. F. Rudskoi, V. V. Trushin, and S. P. Belokon’, Osnovy pobedy v boiu,
General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Moscow, 2018, 23pp.
In 2018, Russia’s most senior military officers published a short manual entitled, The Principles of Victory in Combat (Osnovy pobedy v boiu).2 The manual offered guidance to battlefield commanders on the key ideas that should shape their thinking and actions in combat. The authors – the Chief of the General Staff, the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, and the head of the expert-analytic department of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff – discuss more than a dozen principles that are critical for achieving tactical and operational success in modern warfare. The impetus for this manual arose from lessons learned in the Syrian conflict, which, if applied appropriately, could remedy the fact that “[Russian] exercises conducted in the military districts revealed a number of problematic issues in the training of commanders and staffs at the tactical level”. In the manual, Russia’s top generals were concerned that many Russian commanders rely on classical templates ignoring situational factors, take actions that are straightforward and predictable, are too slow and passive for modern enemies, and avoid risk in decision making.
The Principles of Victory in Combat was written for Russian military officers and cadets to “help them develop skills in firm and decisive command and control” required to succeed in modern combat. Some principles, according to the authors, are well known in history and simply revalidated in recent conflicts, while others, they contend, are more novel. The examples most referenced for success are from Russia’s recent combat experience in Syria, which the authors emphasized would continue to have important implications in other theaters of operations.
Many of the principles would also be quite familiar to Western military leaders – most notably in the foundational US Marine Corps’ concepts and values of maneuver warfare enshrined in the seminal Marine Corps Doctrine Publication-1 (MCDP-1), Warfighting.3 Like MCDP-1, for instance, The Principles of Victory in Combat also has much to say about considering enemy forces and terrain in situational assessments, risk taking, morale of troops, command and control, and the use of combined arms among others. This short review of the Principles of Victory draws attention to similarities between the two documents to introduce readers, in familiar terms, to current points of emphasis among senior Russian military officers. In so doing, it will help to improve our understanding of how the Russian military leadership understands warfighting.
Focus on the enemy
The first and most important principle for achieving victory is the fidelity of the situational assessment and forecast of enemy actions. Gerasimov and his colleagues state that the competent commander who intuitively understands his adversary and the situation “can anticipate the occurrence of critical points in the battle, take timely preemptive measures to counter the attack from a superior enemy and strike at vulnerable areas”. A Russian commander must “put himself in the enemy’s shoes, determine enemy strengths and weaknesses”, “understand the intentions of the opposing commander”, and predict their future actions. MCDP-1 also dedicates a section to orienting on the enemy, which is fundamental to maneuver warfare. It states that “we should try to ‘‘get inside” the enemy’s thought processes and see the enemy as they see themselves so that we can set them up for defeat”. Decisions must account for the “enemy’s anticipated reactions and counteractions” and not be made on “mechanical habit”.
As an example, the Russian manual calls attention to the actions of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, the commander of the Tiger Forces, a Syrian militia that was later folded under the Syrian Arab Army while closely advised and equipped by Russian forces.4 al-Hassan, described by the authors as “one of the best commanders of the Syrian army”, reportedly led two operations to “capture settlements” on seemingly similar enemy positions, but applied very different approaches. In one case, he preceded the attack with three days of preparatory fires. In the second, anticipating that the enemy expected preliminary fires before an assault, he conducted a direct attack without pausing for preparatory fires, surprised the ill-prepared enemy and quickly seized the settlement.
Creativity and surprise
Throughout The Principles of Victory in Combat, Gerasimov and his colleagues repeatedly return to the importance of creativity and flexibility in command. Based on their observation of tactical exercises, they encourage officers to break out of standard courses of actions that will be easy for an informed adversary to predict and counter. They emphasize that many tactical Russian commanders “do not have the courage to move away from the template and make a nonstandard decision, although the situation demands it”. While Russian combat manuals equip officers with “basic provisions for organizing combat operations and commanding units in combat … The provisions of our manuals are not dogmatic”. The complexity and variety of modern combat requires creative approaches. Creative and novel decisions are said to be indicative of “an officer’s tactical maturity” while reliance on simple templates is “the result of a superficial, shallow analysis of the current situation”. A commander’s inventiveness and creativity should be the main part of their “tactical suitcase”.
A closely related concept discussed at length in the Russian manual is surprise. It describes an unexpected attack on an enemy as one that will, “catch him by surprise and force him to engage in combat in unfavorable conditions for, at a time when the enemy is not ready or cannot counter effectively”. The authors discuss numerous methods for achieving surprise including outpacing the enemy’s decision making, concealment and secrecy, deception, applying unexpected tactics, and attacking the most vulnerable parts of an enemy’s forces, among others. The inventiveness and creativity of the commander is essential as each case may require originality. This will be very familiar to Western readers: creativity and surprise are also key tenets of maneuver warfare. MCDP-1 encourages creative strategies and tactics, which must be developed as practical solutions to unique military situations. “To appear unpredictable, we must avoid set rules and patterns, which inhibit imagination and initiative”. Surprise is achieved by “striking the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which the enemy is unprepared”.
Again, The Principles of Victory in Combat provides examples from Russia’s Syria experiences to exemplify creativity and surprise. The manual states that in nearly every successful operation in Syria some degree of surprise was present: “in one case, the secrecy and concealment of the actions of government troops had a decisive influence on the battle’s outcome; in another – the fire engagement was unexpected for the enemy; in the third, the speed and swiftness of the attack or the use of some new operating procedures, etc. [were decisive]”. To further the argument, the Russian manual cites three cases of “liberating” Syrian cities. According to the authors, pro-Assad troops and Russian Aerospace Forces “unblocked” Deir ez-Zor through direct, decisive strikes “on the main grouping of the enemy, breaking its defense”. Success in Palmyra, however, came from an “indirect action” strategy of first capturing key terrain and controlling approaches to the city before it could be captured. Alternatively, they claim that during the mission in Aleppo, “it was necessary to negotiate with the enemy, bargain with the leaders of the militants about exiting entire regions…a way of conducting modern combat operations under special conditions”. As the document emphasizes: “non-standard solutions lead to victory; this formula should become a guiding rule for every tactical commander”.
Seize and maintain the initiative
When a Russian commander fails to understand the opponent and is “reduced to parrying unexpected attacks of the enemy” this “leads to the loss of initiative, and, consequently, to defeat in battle”. According to Principles,one of the most salient lessons from modern military operations is that “activeness and continuous maintenance of the initiativeare necessary for success in combat”. The authors note that decisions on the battlefield not only need to be relevant to the situation and display creativity but also be “expedient” in the face of a “complex and rapidly changing environment”. Officers are encouraged to act quickly and swiftly, to get ahead of the enemy, and not allow passivity to drain time lest the enemy seizes the initiative. Such “activeness” is said to “make it possible to dictate our will on the enemy, to preempt his actions”. Time has become of “utmost importance” in modern combat, something commanders must make work to their advantage.
Here we were again struck by the overlap with the philosophy of MCDP-1. By taking the initiative, one can “dictate the terms of the conflict” and “ultimately impose our will on the enemy”. Tempo is the ability consistently to operate quickly, and maneuver warfare seeks to “generate a faster operating tempo than the enemy to gain a temporal advantage”. If the enemy cannot maintain the established pace they will eventually be overcome by events. Speed, relative to the enemy, is considered a weapon, can provide security, and is necessary to achieve surprise and concentrate strength in a decisive manner. Time is often the most important factor in decision making, whoever consistently implements decisions faster “gains tremendous, often decisive advantage”. Boldness and a bias for action are imperative.
The main example of speed and initiative provided in the Principles was how Russian General Alexander V. Suvorov regularly used rapidity and quick decision making to achieve success on the battlefield. The 1789 battle of Rymnik, part of the Russo-Turkish War of 1787 – 1792, demonstrated Suvorov’s ability to establish an operational tempo that “flummoxed opponents”. The Russian manual recounts the unprecedented pace at which Suvorov moved towards the approaching Turkish army, conducted reconnaissance, made a decision, developed a plan, issued orders, and prepared his troops. The result reportedly “allowed him to preempt enemy actions and retain the initiative”. Additionally, the manual notes that Suheil al-Hassan also acts in “Suvorov style” in Syria by preparing rapidly, making quick decisions, and “constantly forces the enemy to lag behind in actions”.
Independent decision making
Gerasimov and his co-authors recognize that to operate fast enough to gain and maintain the initiative Russian commanders must be capable of independently making decisions and remain proactive “without prompting and reminders from the senior commander”. An officer’s display of personal initiative is said to be essential in modern combat. Given how dynamic the modern battlefield is, “it would be impractical, and sometimes even harmful, to carry out an order that was received earlier, but already became outdated”. Principles declares that commanders must clearly understand the purpose of an operation and “be oriented one or two steps higher in relation to combat missions”. This is necessary so they can make independent decisions “within the framework of the senior commander’s plan”, informing seniors of the decision while aggressively acting on it. The authors note that those taking personal initiative must feel confident that their senior commanders will approve of such enterprising and provide the necessary support – “Those commanders who strive to solve problems creatively should be encouraged in every possible way”.
Adherents of MCDP-1 may recognize this as mission tactics, which “relies on a subordinate’s exercise of initiative framed by proper guidance and understanding”. Only when subordinates are free to “adapt their actions to the changing situation”, informing their commander but without waiting for permission, can high tempo operations be achieved. Only when a subordinate is “conscious of a senior’s intent” will their decisions be aligned with the original purpose of the mission. As such, “they should understand the intent of the commander at least two levels up”. Encouraging initiative is essential and errors from overboldness are directed to be dealt with leniently without stifling initiative “through the threat of punishment”. Recent battlefield examples of independent decision making on the part of Russian military officers, or their proxies, are notably absent in Principles.
This short review is not a declaration of the current state of Russian combat leadership in terms of maneuver warfare as described in MCDP-1. Rather, the similarities we highlighted should be of interest to those seeking a better understanding of the direction in which Russia’s most senior generals are trying to take their tactical leaders.5
Moreover, many of the same principles from the Russian tactical-level manual are readily apparent in Russian operational discourse in thinking about future war with NATO. Russia has consistently forecast NATO operations that begin with a massed aerospace attack to disable forward Russian defenses and critical rear infrastructure to gain air superiority and disable Russia’s ability to sustain the war. The Russians think they know the broad strokes of how the adversary will function operationally – what NATO tendencies, priorities, and vulnerabilities are – and they are developing operational concepts to, in crisis, preemptively counter forecasted actions and exploit perceived weaknesses. Gerasimov’s speech on military strategy to the Academy of Military Sciences in 2019 time and again emphasized preemption and asymmetric measures against expected NATO courses of action.6 Indeed, General-Colonel Andrei Kartapolov, at the time the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, had promoted these same principles in 2015.7
There has been recent discussion in US military circles about the need to be operationally unpredictable.8 What we see in Principles and other Russian sources reinforces the urgency of that call.
1 (back) Clint Reach and Anthony Atler are analysts at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation.
2 (back) V. V. Gerasimov, S. F. Rudskoi, V. V. Trushin, and S. P. Belokon’, Osnovy pobedy v boiu, General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, 2018, 23 pages.
3 (back) MCDP-1, Warfighting was published in 1989, fundamentally shifting the service’s philosophy of warfare. The philosophy of MCDP-1 was born of some of the Marine Corps best thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s who contemplated the “attritionist” mistakes of the Vietnam and Korean Wars, observed what made other forces effective, and studied thousands of years of military theory and history. The document has also had wide impact far beyond the US Marine Corps and military vocation. See, Warfighting, Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Washington, D.C., 04 April 2018.
4 (back) Towards the beginning of the Syrian War, Suheil al-Hassan formed the Tiger Forces militia under the command of the Syrian Mukhabarat’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate. The unit became one of Russia’s favorite Syrian fighting forces, received Russian special forces-like training, and was administratively attached to Syria’s 5th Assault Corps directed by Russian advisors. Al-Hassan was personally addressed by President Putin in 2017 at the Khmeimim Air Base and has been decorated with Russian medals, and presented with an iconic sword by Gerasimov.
5 (back) While NATO militaries and the Russian armed forces potentially may be engrained with more similar principles than often assumed, they consist of different forces and means intended to achieve victory in different ways based on the unique national and geographic characteristics of each side.
6 (back) V. Gerasimov, “Vektory v razvitii voennoi strategii”, Krasnaia zvezda, 4 March 2019.
7 (back) A. V. Kartapolov, “Uroki voennykh konfliktov, perspektivy razvitiia sredstv i sposobov ikh vedeniia. Priamye i nepriamye deistviya v sovremennykh mezhdunarodnyh konfliktakh”, Vestnik Akademii voennykh nauk, No.2, Iss. 51, 2015.
8 (back) M. Priebe, A. O’Mahony, B. Frederick, A. Demus, B. Lin, M. Grisé, D. Eaton, A. Doll, Operational unpredictability and deterrence: evaluating options for complicating adversary decision making, Santa Monica, California, RAND Corporation, RR-A448-1, 2021.