An image from a Russian Ministry of Defense video shows an unmanned Russian S-70 Okhotnik combat drone flying with a fifth-generation Su-57 fighter on Sept. 27, 2019. Image from Russian Ministry of Defense video
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Strategy & Policy: The Russian Way of War

Oct. 7, 2021

Russia can’t beat NATO in a toe-to-toe, all-conventional war; it’s outgunned and its technology, in many cases, is not up to par. Rather, it has an all-domain, hybrid approach to an armed European conflict. It would combine its nuclear deterrent with cyber attacks, an intense, short-term campaign of disruptional, time-buying tactics, and a willingness to hit critical enemy civilian infrastructure. The idea is to convince the adversary quickly that it’s just not worth it to keep fighting.

Before the shooting even starts, though, Russia’’s method is to undermine the cohesion of its enemies by dividing them politically and internally, making it harder for them to respond with unity to a Russian provocation, and harder to hang together when Russia starts inflicting serious economic pain. 

Even if the outcome is a draw, Russia would count it as a win because NATO—which Russia sees as its greatest threat—would be so politically disrupted and destabilized by the war’s economic damage that it would cease to be a threat. Indeed, it might fall apart as an alliance, potentially leaving Russia as the hegemon on the European continent.

In “Russian Military Strategy: Core Tenets and Operational Concepts,” the authors of a new Center for Naval Anayses [CNA] assessment of Russian strategy, released in August—Michael Kofman, director of CNA’s Russia Studies Program, and Anya Fink, research analyst in the program—see Russia’s strategy as long term, and implemented across the spectrum of domains. They based their conclusions on study of Russian strategy and doctrine documents, public speeches and comments by political and military leaders, Russia’s conduct of military incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, and its military exercises.

The fight is already underway, as Russia mounts a heavy effort to sow political discord among its opponents, interfering in their elections and destroying public confidence in their governments.  

In outright war, Russia would not hesitate to strike at “economic potential, not seizing territory,” hitting enemy critical infrastructure using missile and cyber attacks and special forces, the authors assert. It would also use “preemptive use of limited force” to neutralize “imminent threats.” The Russian armed forces doctrine is to merge “defensive and offensive constructs without clear distinction,” they said. 

Shaping the political battlefield is meant to convince the enemy that “the costs of aggression would exceed desired benefits.” The overarching idea is to use “undeclared warfare, containment, and coercion” to achieve Russia’s military goals.   

In conventional terms, Russia sees the future battlefield as “fragmented, or noncontinguous, without fixed battle lines, where radio-electronic means integrate with traditional fires and strikes to execute a ‘complex defeat’ of an opponent’s military effort,” the authors wrote. Russian ground forces would maneuver rapidly to “sap an opponent’s strength,” degrade enemy forces, and preserve their own.  Russia would trade territory “to attrit an opponent until a firmer positional defense and counteroffensive can be mounted.” 

Russia “envisions warfighting defined by fire, strike, and maneuver, where tactical formations engage each other at distances, and recon-strike contours enable warfare at standoff ranges,” the authors said. The “operative thesis” is that the enemy can be slowed and degraded, “parrying their offensive ground operation and deflecting an initial massed aerospace attack.”

With cruise missiles and drones, Russia would target its enemy’s economic centers of gravity and “economic potential, not seizing territory.” Russia sees the first weeks of war as critical, aiming to deny its enemy a decisive outcome and force “high levels of attrition.” With the economic damage and inconclusive engagements, Russia hopes the opponent will back down, seek “war termination on acceptable terms,” and be too politically disrupted by the “ensuing internal instability” to pose further threat.

All this depends on highly coordinated action in many domains—a mirror to the Pentagon’s joint all-domain command and control—acting on a unified strategic plan, and employing an all-of-government approach. 

Moscow sees the opening round of a shooting war as “an integrated massed airstrike” by NATO against key centers of economic and political gravity in Russian territory. The Russians view NATO as having “strategic conventional capabilities” and high technology systems. Its primary fear is that of being hobbled and decapitated by U.S./NATO air forces, as happened “in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.” Russia’s fears of such a crippling attack are “only compounded” by the U.S. crash program in hypersonics development, improvements in weapon accuracy, and “U.S. prompt global strike.” Russia is most concerned about a surprise attack from the air and space, conducted with high speed, over “several minutes to several days,” led by low-altitude, stealthy aircraft and missiles. If not stopped, Russia sees this phase as enabling the enemy to achieve its objectives “in a matter of days.” Consequently, much of its military force structure is built around blunting these attacks.

In a diagram from a 2020 military paper, Russian authors quoted by CNA describe an anticipated NATO attack led by hypersonic missiles, followed in quick succession by cruise and tactical missile strikes here—a strike led by Air Force unmanned aircraft, and finally by manned aircraft teamed with unmanned aircraft. This string of attacks as seen as taking place with as little as five minutes warning time, with the full thrust brought to bear in under an hour.

All of this would happen against a backdrop of what Russia calls a “self-forming adaptive network” of sensors and communications; broad area electronic warfare and employment of decoy systems.

The Russian counter-move would be partially preemptive, aimed to hit airfields and support infrastructure before the massive NATO volley can begin, as well as a heavy counterattack on command posts, electronic warfare systems, and air defenses. The authors quote a Russian defense paper as saying that “the experience of many wars shows that only active defense can guarantee success.”

Russia’s “aerospace defensive system” looks a lot like the U.S. multi-domain operations scheme. In a diagram from a 2009 Russian military paper, it blends sensor and jamming satellites with fighters launching anti-satellite attacks, low-level bombers attacking airfields and air/missile defense systems, and even using helicopters to shoot down incoming NATO cruise missiles. A high-flying spaceplane-like system could also defend against hypersonic missiles while Russia’s own hypersonic glide vehicles could strike rear areas of NATO. Russia’s S-400 air defense system is also shown launching missiles at ground targets. 

In 2006, the Russian government published a document directing a merger of the air and space domains for the purposes of a new combined offensive/defensive organization to manage strategic aerospace operations, saying this would be in force beyond 2016. 

In 2011, the new Aerospace Defense Forces of Russia absorbed the Space Forces, and in 2015, it absorbed the Air Force, as well as aviation forces, antiaircraft missile forces, “radio-technical” forces, special forces and space forces. All of this is seen as necessary to cooperatively blunt a NATO air attack.

“The Russian military has long grappled with what they see as the principal U.S. way of war: massed aerospace offensive, destruction of critically important objects, and so-called ‘shock and awe’, which may visit paralyzing levels of destruction on an opponent,” the authors said.  While Russia sees this threat as the biggest one it faces, the authors say it is now viewed as “within the concept of multi-domain operations.”

For planning purposes, “this is what Russia sees as the decisive initial battle with a technologically superior aerospace power.”

Ground forces, meanwhile, “shift to assault only when the opponent has been sufficiently degraded via fires, strikes, and means of functional defeat.”

Russia’s scheme for war occurs in six stages, beginning before the war actually begins. At the low end—in peacetime and under military threat—Russia will conduct nonkinetic warfare (cyber and psychological operations) against enemies while publicly demonstrating new nuclear weapons, raising overall readiness and alert levels, and deploying weapons for potential use. In a “local war,” Russian strategy calls for “grouped use” of precision strike conventional weapons to inflict damage on enemy territory, strikes on conventional military targets, and threatening to use nuclear weapons. 

Under “regional war”—war with NATO or China—Russia would employ “massed use” of precision weapons on enemy forces, adding “single or grouped use” of tactical nuclear weapons, possibly to demonstrate that Russia is willing to use them. 

In “large-scale war,” Russia would make “large-scale use” of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and conduct both strategic and nonstrategic nuclear strikes on enemy economic targets. Finally, under “nuclear war,” Russia would unleash “mass use” of its nuclear triad against military and nonmilitary targets.  

The precursor stage to war—setting a favorable atmosphere for Russia to prevail—employs “nonmilitary means,” which broadly include “political, information (both psychological and technical), diplomatic, economic, legal, spiritual/moral, and humanitarian measures,” according to a 2011 Russian defense paper. Overt tactics in this stage include “implementing economic sanctions, imposing economic blockades, forming coalitions and unions, breaking off diplomatic relations, and conducting information warfare,” it said. Prevailing political conditions will determine when and to what extent these means are used, and they must be constantly adapted to the fluid situation, the authors note.

Nonmilitary means of war are a “force multiplier,” Russian doctrine holds, which “serve to weaken and reduce an opponent’s forces and capabilities, and even completely eliminating a military threat.” Coordination between military and nonmilitary means are a must. In fact, a 2013 defense article by Russian Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, head of the military forces, contends that “in a number of cases,” nonmilitary means of coercion “significantly surpassed the power of weapons in their effectiveness.” Gerasimov said the ratio of nonmilitary to military methods of warfare is 4-to-1.

In 2019, Gerasimov said he sees the military as coordinating (rather than directing) all-of-government, non-wartime approaches to conflict, while using military capability to back up all the others. 

“Russian thinkers view information warfare as capable of disorganizing an opponent’s command and control, deceiving an adversary, sowing instability within an enemy’s borders, and demoralizing an opposing population or military to the point that they even lose the will to resist,” CNA said.

Since the 1990s, Russia has been referring to this approach as “sixth generation” or “new-type warfare.” Russia has employed these approaches in its blockade of oil exports to Western Europe, in its campaigns in George and Ukraine, and in its interference in NATO member and U.S. elections. 

“Unlike 20th century conflicts,” the authors observed, nonmilitary forces and methods “are not deployed in the initial period of war, but during peacetime, resulting in offensives and strategic operations beginning with already-prepositioned forces.” During this period, true military forces are moved into position to either threaten action or be ready to move into contested areas unopposed, or too quickly for an enemy to block.

“Operations are characterized as highly maneuverable, non-contact, with mass employment of high-precision weaponry, large scale use of special operations forces, robotic systems, weapons based on new physical principles, and the participation of a strong civil-military component.” The goal is to strike enemy formations across a wide front, simultaneously, borrowing a page from U.S. strategy known as “parallel warfare.”

The authors note that there’s no term like “anti-access/area denial” in Russian military doctrine. Russia puts “little faith” in fixed defenses or anti-access capabilities when there is such a profusion of penetrating, precision-guided munitions.

Russian doctrine “accepts that Russia is the weaker party” in a conflict with NATO, with fewer troops and generally inferior technology, the authors conclude—but it’s still working to redress that technological gap in selected areas, and still sees the value of mass in some applications. But its approach is decidedly asymmetric, as it aims to “shape the outcomes” of war “without presuming the likelihood of victory in a sustained conflict.”