Russia’s Unconventional Warfare

By Walter Derzko


Most of the world now sees that Russia can’t play fair, even when it comes to warfare. Putin sent Russian troops and provocateurs into Krym (Crimea) without identifying insignia (against the Geneva Convention) and in Sloviansk, Russian separatists  are now using Ukrainian women and children as human shields (also against the Geneva Convention and scores of International Human Rights Treaties). On Monday May 5, the SBU arrested 9 Ukrainians and one Russian from the Russian Federation in Chernivtsi with 1.5 Kg of Uranium 235 smuggled via Moldova which they suspect was going to be used in a dirty bomb. Essentially, Russia has become a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

So, why was Russia so successful in capturing Krym (Crimea) and parts of two Oblasts in the East with so little resistance? Some are calling it “new-generation, asymmetric, hybrid warfare.”

Edward Lucas, Senior Editor, Economist Newspaper who was in Toronto on April 24th asks: “imagine if Ukraine had been a well-run country. Russia’s seizure of Crimea could never have happened. Government forces would have blocked airspace and road junctions, cut communications and power supplies to Russian bases, disabling and blunting the attack before it gained momentum. The local police and security agencies would have been loyal and effective, meaning that pro-Kremlin provocations met a united response from law-enforcement and civil society. Short of declaring all-out war, Russia’s land-grab would have failed. Instead, the 190 Ukrainian military bases in Crimea surrendered without offering more than symbolic resistance. Russia did not deploy heavy weapons or bring in significant numbers of troops from outside. It also all happened extremely quickly, with excellent planning (a contrast to the chaotic attack on Georgia in 2008).”

Here is a recount of events. Instead of relying on a mass deployment of tanks and artillery, the Crimean campaign deployed less than 10,000 assault troops – mostly naval infantry, already stationed in Crimea, backed by a few battalions of airborne troops and Spetsnaz commandos – against 16,000 Ukrainian military personnel.

Lucas cites Latvian defence analyst Janis Berzinš, who recently wrote a military paper outlining Russia’s approach to a “new-generation of warfare”, based on open materials in the Russian military press.

Berzinš argues that “the new frontline in this kind of conflict is mental, not physical. Russia used psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and propaganda (all examples of soft power) to undermine Ukrainian resistance to the point that firepower is not needed. If Ukrainian soldiers lack the plans, military supplies, fuel, training, leadership and orders to resist or counterattack, they will not – and cannot.”

Russia has rewritten the rule book of conventional warfare. The West is used to seeing the following conventional Russian war script : a buildup of ultimatums, a false flag operation as a pretext to aggression or to declare war (like Russia did in Georgia or Chechnya), a declaration of war with military invasion and strategic deployment of ground, sea or air troops, military counterattacks, fronts being reinforced or lost to gain territorial control, territorial annexation, destruction of economic power, a negotiated surrender, payment of reparations and a new territorial settlement and the employment of perpetual Russian peacekeepers in a frozen conflict zone. Russia has broken all the conventional war tactics and is not “following script”

Ukraine and NATO are lost. The West has become a mere spectator, reacting with lukewarm sanctions.

Russia has designed a new unconventional warfare, composed of eight step. Lucas summarises them as follows: “First is to prepare the ground – or rather, to tilt the playing field – by a mixture of economic, political, diplomatic and psychological pressure. (Ukraine has experienced total infiltration of all levels of government and security ministries by fifth column operatives and spies, ever since the Yanukovych regime came into power). Next come operations to confuse the already weakened political and military leadership, with leaks and disinformation to degrade their decision-making abilities. Third comes intimidation and bribery so that state officials do not carry out their orders and duties (in this case from the $32 billion that Yanukovych stole, disbursed and  the remainder trucked off to Russia). Fourth is destabilising tactics aimed at the population, using propaganda to whip up discontent among the population, and groups of trained provocateurs (who may be intelligence officers, private contractors, or political activists). Fifth come blockades, perhaps in the form of no-fly zones, or on the ground with the siege and occupation (by contractors and disguised special forces – the ‘men in green’ seen in Ukraine) of military bases and government buildings. Sixth are cyber-attacks, covert deployment of special forces, industrial sabotage, intense diplomatic pressure and propaganda aimed at the outside world. Only then does something close to old-style warfare break out, with (seventh) the use of precision munitions, but also those based on advanced technology (such as electro-magnetic radiation and non-lethal biological weapons). The eighth phase is to eliminate remaining points of resistance – identified by special forces and then attacked with advanced weapons and if necessary airborne assault.”

The West and NATO would only traditionally respond at step seven or eight, by which time it is far too late.

Berzinš concludes that the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battle space is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population. This is clearly seen in Ukraine today, which has become Russia’s testing ground for this new military doctrine. The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary, making the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country. It is interesting to note the notion of permanent war, since it denotes a permanent enemy. In the current geopolitical structure, the clear enemy is Western civilization, its values, culture, political system, and ideology.

This is why Russia may not need to cross the border with conventional  heavy military weapons in the early stages of aggression in Ukraine, unless we advance to step seven or eight.

Then Berzinš goes on to outline the guidelines for developing Russian military capabilities by 2020:

1)   From direct destruction to direct influence;

2)   From direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay;

3)   From a war with weapons and technology to a culture war;

4)   From a war with conventional forces to specially prepared forces and commercial irregular groupings (thugs, paramilitary and mercenaries-for-hire, ex-criminals, titushky);

5)   From the traditional (3D) battleground to information/psychological warfare and war of perceptions;

6)   From direct clash to contactless war;

7)   From a superficial and compartmented war to a total war, including the enemy’s internal, side and base;

8)   From a war in the physical environment to a war in the human consciousness and in cyberspace;

9)   From symmetric to asymmetric warfare by a combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns;

10)  From war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in a nation’s  life. (Or a permanent frozen conflict like we see in Moldova, Georgia, Chechnya and Nagorno Karabakh)

Now that the world, NATO, the EU and Ukraine is aware of this new approach, it needs to quickly develop counter tactics for each one of these new warfare steps. Incremental Western sanctions are not good enough.