Ukraine Crisis in Hybrid Warfare Context with a Historical Perspective

This paper was delivered at the International Conference on Military and Security Studies (ICMSS) 2016, organised by the Turkish Army College on 14-16 March 2016 by CCW Visiting Fellow Dr Andrew Monaghan.

Commandant, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It's a pleasure to be here. It's a pleasure to return to Turkey where I have always found the hospitality to be very generous and very warm. Again on this occasion, I would like to thank the college and our hosts for a superb welcome. At the same time I would like to add my voice to those who have spoken before me to express my sympathy for the tragedy that took place in Ankara at the weekend.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am, as the chair has just said, a Russianist by background. I'm not really a specialist on warfare. I'm not really, professionally speaking, a historian. But I will have some remarks to say about how the Russians go about conducting warfare. I'm going to adapt my remarks to what has already been said and build on some of the points that the chair mentioned about unpredictability. And rather than take a view about the historical perspective I will adopt more of what the line behind that says: “Adapting the Army for Future Security Environment.” My Russia focus will of course be on the understanding of what was called “the Gerasimov Doctrine”. But it will also be thinking about Russia today and how we might interpret and understand the so called Gerasimov Doctrine. As a result, my remarks towards the end will urge you to be in this sense of adapting for the future security environment and in the context of Russia urging you to step through the sense of hybrid warfare to begin to look to other terms and other ideas.

The three points that I would like to make are that first; increasingly there is a degree of abstraction in our thinking about Russia, and our thinking about Russia has become anchored to the developments of February 2014 and the seizure and occupation of Crimea. The second is that the hybrid aspects that were visible in this early element of the campaign in Ukraine are just one aspect of a bigger picture, and one that looks very different when seen from Russia. This is the part that I will focus on specifically. My third point is that for those of you who are dealing with Russia, both here in Turkey but also more broadly in NATO, it is not correct to think of Russia in terms of hybrid warfare. It is correct to be thinking of Russia in terms of state mobilization, and the preparation for war.

My first point about Ukraine and our thinking about Russia: In many ways, the Western political and military leadership had forgotten about Russia and its existence until February 2014. Therefore the seizure of Crimea and the subsequent actions throughout the summer in 2014 came as a surprise to many in NATO and the member states’ capitals. There were a series of hasty efforts to understand Russia which meant that we traced back through history to try to find an explanation. And we came up with some speeches by Mr. Putin and we came up with a previously unnoticed article by the Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov in which many people thought, with the benefit of hindsight, that Gerasimov had set out a new form of Russian warfare, one that conferred numerous advantages on Moscow, especially including ambiguity as an asymmetric tool to undercut Western conventional military advantages. Therefore, the idea of hybrid warfare emerged as a result of thinking that the Russians could not possibly win a conventional war against the West, because, naturally and obviously the West is militarily superior. There are some historical lessons that Rob, and the others on the panel might draw from, suggesting that such hubris is not a clever idea.

We therefore developed a sense of a zone between war and peace; a gray zone of economic manipulation such as Russia’s use of energy, information campaigns such as online trolls, the use of civil disobedience as we saw in eastern Ukraine and the use of proxies and surrogates as well as special operations forces. Thus, many drew on Mr. Gerasimov’s article to assert that the Russian leadership think that nonmilitary means exceed the power of the force of weapons, and one should now use internal opposition to create a permanently operational front throughout the entire territory of an enemy state. Hybrid warfare in the Russian context and in the context of the war in Ukraine – because we must be clear in our terms (as) this was not a crisis, this is a war – hybrid warfare is widely understood to mean hostile actions below the threshold of the clear use of armed force and measures short of war; as our chair mentioned, the so-called “little green men”. Why is this an abstraction? Surely this is roughly what was taking place?

Well first, many of the people who were writing about this made no attempt to use Russian language sources or attempt to work out how the view was seen from Moscow. Russian strategy was therefore assumed and indeed asserted. Russian grand strategy, it is often asserted, is being made in a vacuum without all the problems of strategy that everybody faces everywhere, even here in Ankara.

Indeed once you start to use the Russian sources you find that there is no Russian concept of hybrid warfare. The Russian term is the “Gibridnaya voina,” a transliteration of the Western term. Furthermore, if one steps into the position of our counterparts in Moscow, you see their view that Russia faces an arc of crisis, a looming twenty first century of instability, and interestingly, you see Russian officials at the very highest levels talking about the West conducting hybrid warfare against Russia. They talk of therefore economic sanctions against Russia. They talk of Western attempts to contain and isolate Russia. And they talk of warfare by color revolution, i.e. the use of soft power. So, in Moscow’s view, hybrid warfare is a Western concept, a Western invention, a Western practice.

Lieutenant General Bekiroğlu this morning said hybrid warfare was related to targeting a country's population. General Gerasimov agrees with you. Unfortunately, however, he takes the opposite point of view: that actually this is a tool being used by the West, including in Eurasia. And this is something that the Russian leadership and the military have to be aware of. Indeed, General Gerasimov’s article was a response to the so-called “Arab Spring”: Russia in fact is operating not in a “post 2014 environment” as the West is in its relations with Russia. It is operating in a “post 2011 environment”. So this is part of a longer-term evolution in Russian thinking.

Why is this important for now? This is important because the Russian armed forces since the war in Georgia in 2008 have undergone significant reform, significant change and significant reinvestment. So as we see it now and as we are learning now, the Russians are in a period of experimentation, learning and developing. If you choose as your intellectual target what the situation was in February 2014 and you hold to it, I'm afraid ladies and gentlemen, you will find yourselves outmaneuvered – and surprised. The so-called “little green men” – actually Russian special operations forces – of February 2014 of course are important, but I urge you to remember and to reflect on and to learn lessons from the battles at Debaltseve, Illovysk and the Donbass airport. Those of you who have looked at the photos of Donbass airport will recognize its transition from one of the most modern airports in Europe to a wreck. That does not happen through hybrid warfare. That happens through warfare.

Indeed we see high intensity combat, including the extensive use of armour, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems and electronic warfare. I urge you particularly in the military academy here to be thinking of the use of mass bombardments. Short but intense bombardments that can render battalion size units out of action within a few minutes with heavy casualties. That too is not hybrid warfare, ladies and gentlemen. That is warfare. Since then we have seen the situation in Syria, with use of large aerial formations and naval bombardment from both surface ships and submarine launched cruise missiles. This leads me to my second point: Hybrid aspects of one element of a bigger picture as seen from Russia. And this is the part I would like to emphasise: for the Russians, as stated and as demonstrated explicitly, scale and conventional firepower is very important. I quote the Russians when I mention “massive strikes”, “high intensity operations” and “powerful strikes across the territory of Syria.”

This is what Mr. Putin, Mr. Gerasimov, Mr. Shoigu, any of the leaders you wish to mention has called “the comprehensive application of force.” The investments in the armed forces (and defence industry) since 2010and 2011 are resulting in significant arms procurement, including more than four hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles, more than two thousand three hundred tanks and more than two thousand self-propelled guns. We are seeing strategic deployments of the Navy across the world to areas they have not been for many decades, even where they have not been at all. And we are seeing serious exercising on a large scale. And speaking as a Brit on this panel, some specific regional exercises have fielded more men and equipment than the whole British army. So by 2015, therefore, the Russians were preparing their own forces for a regional confrontation with a possible escalation to nuclear weapons for the last four years. The Russians are capable of launching large scale high intensity operations. And again to quote the Russians themselves: “big war fighting operations with big formations.”

Consequently, I think it's worth re-reading Mr. Gerasimov’s article, because I think it has been fundamentally misunderstood. As I read through the original document, it seems to me that almost all of Mr. Gerasimov’s points, the important ones, were missed. Many noticed his point that “the rules of war have changed”. But very few have noted the rest of the thought: “where a thriving state can be collapsed, and transformed into an arena of war and human catastrophe, hybrid war evolves and merges with other kinds of war to create interstate war.” Indeed almost all of the statements by Mr. Gerasimov alongside this article, and Mr. Putin and Mr. Patrushev, and Mr. Shoigu, all point to Russian concern about a strategic strike on Russia. This is partly in terms of war for resources, and partly in terms of competition for influence. And this reflects a leadership concern, reiterated on numerous occasions, about the possibility of the outbreak of a major war. Mr. Putin has said “The lessons of history suggest that changes in the world order – and we are seeing today events on that scale – have usually been accompanied, if not by global war, then by chains of intensive low level conflict.” He did not mention a third option of it all working out well.

The final point I would make about Mr. Gerasimov’s article is that he mentions, albeit briefly, the theme of mobilisation. This has not been mentioned at all in Western analysis. But it is central to understanding the thrust of the article. And it is central to understanding where the Russian state is now. This is a concern in Russia about the speed with which conflict erupts and evolves, and an emphasis on the need for readiness to meet such a challenge, the need to be ready for multiple eventualities from the possibility of a global strike on Russia led by the U.S. to the possibility of color revolution and regime change. The main concern in Moscow at the moment, it seems to me, is that the Russian authorities, who have read their Clausewitz, understand both that warfare is a test of society, and that this is a test for which the Russian state is not yet ready. Hence we should be talking in terms of understanding where they're going, in terms of the emergency measures that they are implementing to prepare the state.

The chair asked me to focus on the historical context. I've tended to focus more on the present and on my understanding of Russia. My concluding remarks are therefore threefold, that they look ahead. First, I'm often told when I go to NATO: “don't argue with the concept of hybrid warfare. That ship has sailed.” There are other versions of that including “that train has left the station.” But let's stay with “that ship has sailed.” Ladies and gentlemen, if that ship has sailed, I urge you in this environment, who are sailing this ship, please beware of icebergs and torpedoes. We’re in a very dangerous and flexible environment. Of course hybrid warfare has made a contribution to our thinking of Russia amongst other environments. But particularly with regards to Russia, it is very important that our thinking does not become inflexible, that we only focus on little green men, or that we anchor our thinking to the events of two years ago. The Russians are in a period of experimentation, learning and change. Therefore, this phrase “adapting the army for the future security environment” means coming to grips with what the Russians really are up to today, what they are thinking about and how. This means empathy. This means the attempt to put yourself in the shoes of your counterparts. Empathy, of course, does not mean sympathy. It does not mean we have to agree with them. On the contrary, we have many disagreements. But you will not understand why the Russians are operating as they do until you try to put yourself in your counterparts’ position and you understand the difficulties of coordinating power and how the world looks. If you do so and you conduct this empathy, we will immediately sidestep the problem of abstracting Russian thinking, or rather, as I would say, in inverted commas “so called Russian thinking.” You will also understand that they are only part of the way through their transition and preparation through their mobilization process.

We are already seeing some of the ramifications, it seems to me, with the situation in Syria. As far as I am aware, most Western observers were surprised by the Russian actions in Syria. They were surprised by the twenty five bomber raids. They were surprised by the surface launched cruise missiles. And they were surprised by the submarine launched cruise missiles. Please do not be surprised when the Russians try to deploy their aircraft carrier, as they have stated publicly that they will do, to the eastern Mediterranean. Please do not be surprised when the Russians, as they have also announced, deploy their strategic submarines and test launch their Bulava ballistic missiles. Because if you only focus on the hybrid aspects, you will miss the warning signs. Warfare is evolving very quickly. Like a virus, it evolves quicker than our efforts to try to deal with it. Therefore I urge you, ladies and gentlemen, and particularly those of you who are in the armed forces here in Turkey, to be focusing on where Russia is heading. Look at 2018, look at 2020. Do not look at February 2014. And I would ask you to ask yourself the question: “are you really sure that we would win a conventional war against Russia?” Because part of the problem of the situation where we are now, where we disagree between Moscow and Brussels, is that it is leading to a strong sense of competition. And if you're not very careful, competition can lead to much more serious consequences.