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The Problems of the Applied Theory of War

  • Last updated: 16 May. 2022 16:26

Russian Studies Series 04/2022


by Dr Nazrin Mehdiyeva1

Review of:

“The Problems of the Applied Theory of War”

Voprosy Prikladnoi Teorii Voiny

A. A. Kokoshin

Moscow, Izdatel’skii Dom Vysshei Shkoly Ekonomiki, 2018

Andrei Kokoshin’s important book, The Problems of the Applied Theory of War, illuminates many questions on how the Russian leadership regards the subject of war. The book is ambitious in scope, exploring what war actually means in the modern world, how political and military objectives interact in times of war, what comprises victory and defeat, and how crises could escalate from an “ordinary war” to a strategic nuclear exchange. Although the author theorises about all contemporary wars, drawing on a wide range of international examples and presenting a methodology for the study of wars as a political and social phenomenon, the book’s main contribution is how it illuminates the key elements of war in Russian military thought. Indeed, published in 2018, the book’s conclusions are highly relevant, helping to understand what the war in Ukraine really means to Moscow, and to what extent the Kremlin might be willing to escalate the conflict and what outcomes it might consider acceptable.

Kokoshin is one of Russia’s leading thinkers about strategy, military science and war, and his work (including this book) is reviewed and referred to widely in the Russian discussion of these themes. A former senior policymaker (he served as First Deputy Defence Minister, Secretary of the Defence Council and Secretary of the Russian National Security Council), he is now a distinguished scholar of national security policy, having authored over 160 academic papers and books on strategic stability, the modern system of international relations, and Russia’s military and political strategy. With an engineering degree from the Bauman Technical Institute and as an academician at the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences and Russian Academy of Sciences, Kokoshin weaves into his analysis assessments of the technical strengths and weaknesses of nuclear weapons and high-precision munitions, and their role within the context of strategic nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence. His expertise on the pre-nuclear phase (doyadernyi etap) of military conflicts and non-nuclear strategic deterrence leads him to illuminate how new technologies, including hypersonic weapons, lasers and directed energy weapons, might contribute to Russia’s strategic deterrence by enhancing its nuclear potential and survivability.2

A feature of Kokoshin’s work is his multidisciplinary approach to the subject of war, incorporating history, philosophy, political and military sciences, drawing on a wide variety of sources, from classical texts by Greek, Roman and Chinese military theorists to more modern works by US, Israeli and Imperial Russian and Soviet strategists. The cornerstone of his writing, however, is the work of Carl von Clausewitz, to which he refers frequently throughout the book. In line with Clausewitz, for instance, Kokoshin argues that politics determines fundamental military questions such as the start of war, the intensity and scope of fighting (at least in the early stages of war), the level of resources that are to be spent on a military campaign and the relative weight assigned to the principles of destruction and extermination”.3 While many Russian military thinkers lean heavily on Clausewitz’s key tenets, Kokoshin goes further, lamenting the insufficient attention to Clausewitz’s early historical-military works (outlined in detail in the book), and referring to his most famous work “On War” as the greatest piece of the type the humankind “has not known before or since”.4

The Problems of the Applied Theory of War is an important addition to the growing body of literature detailing how Russian military strategists think about modern warfare and conflict escalation. It outlines five components of war:

  • War as the extension of policy;
  • War as a state of society;
  • War as a confrontation of two or more state structures and war machines;
  • War as a sphere of the unknown; and
  • War as an administrative task for the leadership.

These components are discussed in individual chapters but they are also woven into the fabric of the main argument.

Throughout the book, Kokoshin highlights the growing use of force in international affairs despite the continued role of the nuclear deterrent which, at least in theory, could limit the use of military force.5 For Kokoshin, “the attitude towards war as a last resort is not dominant in the contemporary system of world politics. We see that from the example of the actions of the USA and its allies with regards to Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya”.6 He concedes that in each case the alliances led by the United States were dealing with a significantly weaker adversary and points to the absence of a powerful and influential opponent, such as the former Soviet Union, which was capable of providing a counterbalance.

Kokoshin also highlights the role that armed forces have traditionally played in wars and insists that, despite the emergence and evolution of other forms of warfare, the centrality of the military preparedness of the state’s armed forces for its ability to wage a successful war has not changed (this is in stark contrast to the assessment of many in the Euro-Atlantic community who had concluded that Moscow emphasised non-military methods in modern warfare7). Specifically, in the chapter entitled “War as the extension of policy”, Kokoshin reiterates Clausewitz when he argues that an armed confrontation (boi) is at the heart of any war. He also stipulates that military confrontation comprises “the true military activity; everything else is but its enablers.” He concludes that the result of any armed confrontation should be the destruction of the armed forces of the opponent.8 In this vein, Kokoshin reflects on the use of military means by turning to the works of Genrich Leer, a 19th century pioneer of Russian military policy and strategic thought. Leer believed a war to be “a rather natural occurrence in the life of the nations”, which despite its “evil side”, represented “ultimately, and if used with common sense, one of the fastest and most powerful civilisators of humanity”.9

While Kokoshin does discuss hybrid war (Chapter 4), he casts doubt both on its “newness” (novizna) and the “revolutionary meaning” frequently assigned to it. Kokoshin uses historical examples to demonstrate the use of non-traditional methods in past wars, including reconnaissance-diversionary operations, special forces operations, psychological warfare and disinformation campaigns. He does concede, though, that cyber operations represent a significant new addition to the arsenal of hybrid warfare, which has evolved to become more multidimensional and complex.  

The opening lines of Chapter 5, entitled “War as the extension of policy”, quote Clausewitz, setting the tone for the subsequent discussion. In this chapter, Kokoshin highlights the dominance of politics over military decision-making, the paramount task of continuously reassessing the political objectives during military campaigns and the difficulties in the political management of the war machine. These themes continue through into Chapter 8, in which Kokoshin reflects on the concepts of the “fog of war” and “friction”, introduced by Clausewitz but, he says, too rarely factored in by modern Russian military strategists.10 The former refers to the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations, while the latter describes the “force that makes the apparently easy so difficult”.11

Kokoshin refers again to Clausewitz when he states that three quarters of military action in war is shrouded by the unknown and represents the interplay of chance and action, caused by a host of factors related to enemy and friendly forces, as well as to the environment. The consequence for political decision-making is that, despite the apparent simplicity of the war machine, managing it becomes extremely difficult because none of its parts are made from a single segment and are instead constructed from individuals who experience “friction from all directions”. Danger, stress, psychological and physical exhaustion are among the elements of friction, which can turn military actions into a poorly controlled or even uncontrollable process. Different types of friction interact with each other, leading to mistakes and producing compounded effect which outweighs the sum of its individual components.

This discussion paves the way to Chapter 9, which addresses the problem of control. Kokoshin observes that skilful management of war comprises the ability to prevent a sudden escalation of military action which could lead to irreversible consequences. He considers a policy dilemma often discussed by US military specialists: that of retaining control in a scenario where the opponent raises stakes, making backtracking difficult for the fear of “losing face”, and escalation dangerous due to the situation spiralling out of control, possibly leading to a nuclear catastrophe. Preserving reliable communication channels is critical to escalation management but doing so effectively remains highly challenging in warfare.

Russian strategists face similar predicaments, but Kokoshin highlights the question of internal command and control as being more topical for the Russian forces. Attempts by Russian political leaders to contain a military conflict within a rigid framework of control to ensure that military actions do not exceed the specified political and military confines could stifle initiative among the officers at the tactical and operational levels, he suggests. According to Russian military observers, the fear of the superiors and the resultant loss of initiative are particularly pertinent in “real life Russian conditions given all our traditions in the military sphere and in management overall”.12 Failure by officers on the ground to anticipate and respond to friction could have dire consequences in war, reducing, in the words of a prominent Russian and Soviet military strategist, Alexander Svechin, “all achievements, leaving the person far behind the set objectives”.13

Kokoshin’s scepticism that wars could have ethic or legal foundations is noteworthy. He draws on a wealth of works – from Hugo Grotius to Karl Marx and Mikhail Tukhachevsky – to conclude that, in addition to economic motives for waging wars, leadership personality traits, irrational factors and even “absurd accidents” (nelepye sluchainosti) could play a part in or interfere with decision-making. Yet ethic and legal motives are frequently used as pretexts to initiate a war. Kokoshin warns against the danger of escalation, particularly where a threat of nuclear weapons deployment exists.

The final pages of The Problems of the Applied Theory of War focus on the escalation of crises, originally drawn from Herman Kahn’s “escalation ladder”. Defined in the 1960s, the ladder initially consisted of 44 rungs but Kokoshin reduces it to ten.14 Kokoshin’s ladder denotes the situation of a “nuclear conflict”, which starts at Rung 7, as one in which one or more nuclear powers use their nuclear capacity as a political-military instrument to pressure verbally the international community. No nuclear weapons are used during this phase.

The testing of Russia’s new Sarmat inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) amid the announcement of a new phase in the war on Ukraine is remarkable in this regard. Commenting on the ICBM’s successful testing on 20 April, Putin stated that Sarmat represented a “unique weapon” capable of overcoming “all modern means of anti-missile defence”. He emphasised that the missile “has no analogues in the world and will not have any for a long time to come”, which would guarantee Russia’s security from external threats and “provide food for thought to those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country”.15

The next rung in the ladder envisions a demonstrative limited use of nuclear weapons in a deserted area, without targeting people or military objects. This, however, is succeeded in Rung 9 by destructive acts focused, at least initially, on non-strategic nuclear weapons targeting military facilities. The primary goal of modern political management of warfare is to deter a mutually destructive war that would result from a strategic nuclear strike, which concludes the ladder at Rung 10. Kokoshin believes that Russia’s new strategic weapons, such as unmanned oceanic multi-purpose system Poseidon (in the book, referred to by its old codename Status-6), will expand the Kremlin’s strategic deterrence options thanks to their flexible and multivariate use in the pre-nuclear and nuclear phases of war.

Russian policymakers and military officials have systematically converged on the view that armed conflicts are becoming more frequent in international affairs. In this sense, Kokoshin’s conclusions fit the mainstream of Russian strategic-military thinking, as he describes the intensification of geopolitical and geoeconomic competition in the 21st century, marred by armed conflicts. Similar to many Russian strategists and policymakers, he highlights the changing geography of future wars, in which Arctic is seen as an emerging new region. Technological developments, such as cyberweapons and AI, make war more multifaceted; nonetheless, hybrid methods should not detract from the view that “a war is not a war without the use of organised violence”.16

Kokoshin observes that although space warfare is not yet a reality, the “cosmic arms race” could start in earnest in the medium term, particularly given the lack of international legal agreements to regulate weapons in space.  In the immediate future, however, new non-nuclear weapons, such as hypersonic weapons, lasers and directed energy weapons, will contribute to strategic deterrence. Targeted against enemy satellites, these weapons can enable Russia’s strategic nuclear forces to inflict unacceptable damage during a retaliatory strike. While a nuclear strike is accepted as the most catastrophic outcome in any military conflict, strengthening Russia’s nuclear potential and survivability remains a key political and military task which will define Russia’s relative standing on the international arena.

Kokoshin’s work in general deserves to be much better and more widely known in the Euro-Atlantic discussion about Russian strategy, war and escalation. Given the current situation and Russia’s war with Ukraine, The Problems of the Applied Theory of War is essential reading. It provides considerable insight into how Moscow understands warfare – not only regarding what war is for and how escalation is understood, but also about problems that Russia often faces in warfighting.

1 (back)   Dr. Nazrin Mehdiyeva is a geopolitics and energy security specialist, working with governments, international institutions and energy majors. She is a co-author of Beyond blood oil: philosophy, policy, and the future, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, and the author of Power games in the Caucasus, I.B. Tauris, 2011.

2 (back)   A. A. Kokoshin, Voprosy Prikladnoi Teorii Voiny [The Problems of the Applied Theory of War], Moscow, Izdatel’skii Dom Vysshei Shkoly Ekonomiki, 2018, pp.178-182.

3 (back)   Ibid., p.128.

4 (back)   Ibid., p.115.

5 (back)   Ibid., p.143.

6 (back)   Ibid., p.134.

7 (back)   For instance, O. Jonsson, The Russian understanding of war: blurring the lines between war and peace, Washington, Georgetown University Press, 2019.

8 (back)   Kokoshin, pp.112-13.

9 (back)   Leer, G.A. Opyt kritiko-istoricheskogo issledovaniya zakonov iskusstva vedeniya voiny. Polozhitelnaya strategiya. SPb., 1869, p.2 quoted in Kokoshin, p.124.

10 (back)   This view is shared by a reviewer of the book, retired Major General Vladimir Zolotarev. V.A. Zolotarev, “Voina kak ob’ekt mezhdistsiplinarnogo analiza: Retsenziya na knigu akademika RAN A. A. Kokoshina “Voprosy prikladnoi teorii voiny”, Vestnik Moskovskogo Universiteta, Series 25(4). Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya i mirovaya politika, 2018, pp.138-146, p.143.

11 (back)   For the discussion of “friction” and “fog of war”, see Kokoshin, pp.186-193.

12 (back)   Ibid., p.219.

13 (back)   Cited in A. A. Kokoshin, Vydayuschiysa rossiiskii voennyi teoretik i voenachalnik Alexander Andreevich Svechin. O ego zhizni, ideyakh, trudakh i nasledii dlya nastoyaschego i buduschego, Moscow, Moscow University Press, 2013, p.364. Discussed and quoted in Kokoshin, The Problems of the Applied Theory of War, p.187.

14 (back)   Kokoshin recently returned to this subject, proposing 17 rungs. See Reach, C. “Escalation and de-escalation of crises, armed conflicts and wars”, NDC Russian Studies Series, No.3, March 2022.

15 (back)   “Putin: “Sarmat” zastavit zadumat’sa tekh ogoltelykh, kto pytaetsa ugrojat Rossiiskoi Federatsii”, TV Zvezda, 20 April 2022,, accessed 20 April 2022.

16 (back)   Kokoshin, p.225.

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