Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Russia in Review: The Gerasimov Doctrine Is Here To Stay

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Special Topic Update: Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned in Syria and Ukraine

Authors: Mason Clark and Catherine Harris with Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The U.S. and NATO are preparing for the wrong type of war with Russia. The Russian Armed Forces has determined that hybrid warfare will characterize future conflict and is actively preparing for that future. NATO in turn remains excessively focused on the conventional threat. Russia is developing its military doctrine for hybrid warfare through discourse among high-ranking military officers in military journals based on their experience in conflicts abroad, namely Syria and Ukraine. The pattern of these discussions is similar to the discourse that shaped military thought and development in the Soviet Union. These doctrinal changes will shape and guide the Kremlin’s broader effort to modernize the Russian Armed Forces in support of its strategic objective to rebuild the global power of a revisionist Russia.

Russia is learning lessons for future wars from its combat experience in Syria and Ukraine. Russia has experienced both successes and failures in its invasion of Eastern Ukraine and its intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Its high-level military discourse seeks to understand these lessons. Russian military publications currently emphasize the need to apply lessons learned from both conflicts in order to adapt to the changing nature of future conflicts. Russian officers are specifically highlighting current gaps in modernization priorities and seeking to rewrite components of military doctrine accordingly. The lessons taken from their involvement in Ukraine include the importance of information campaigns and special operations actions as well as the effective use of poorly-equipped proxy forces.[1] The lessons derived from their campaign in Syria include the importance of coalition-building and management, the need to create a unified information space to streamline decision-making, the effective use of air and naval assets in support of proxy ground forces, and the refinement of tactics to combat militant groups.[2]

These lessons are not always rooted in reality. Some clearly come from the officers' perceptions of events on the ground while others simply reflect the authors' transposition of desired points onto the battlefields of Syria and Ukraine. ISW's Russia Team has not undertaken to verify the validity of these claimed experiences because perceptions are what matter in the shaping of military intellectual discourse. The Russian Armed Forces will likely alter its modernization, training, and deployment of forces in the future based on these perceptions and writings regardless of their accuracy or adherence to events on the ground. 

The Russian Armed Forces is working through significant doctrinal changes in high-level military publications based on its combat experiences abroad. Both Russia and the Soviet Union have historically worked through major doctrinal issues in military journals before implementing results at the institutional level. Current discourse in prominent military journals such as Voennaya Mysl’ and Voyenno-promyshlennyy Kur'yer (VPK) reflects the understanding that Russia should shift its modernization priorities to prepare for unconventional “hybrid” warfare. Russian officers note that “new forms and ways of achieving political and strategic goals have been found by initiating local wars [and] conflicts; political, economic, [and] information pressure; and subversive actions within the opposing state” and Russia must therefore develop the capabilities and structures to bolster these non-military operations.[3] 

Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov articulated this requirement in 2013 in an article entitled “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight” - referred to by some as the Gerasimov Doctrine.[4] The West’s preoccupation with the conventional military threat posed by Russia has led some to push back against the notion of a coherent Gerasimov Doctrine.[5] But Russian officers of all ranks do not doubt either its existence or its dominance. Russia’s operations in Ukraine and Syria put Gerasimov’s ideas into practice. Major Russian military journals are now incorporating insight from these conflicts in order to inform future planning for the unconventional and hybrid conflicts discussed by Gerasimov. These articles are part of a clear effort to drive the doctrine deep into the institutional thought of the Russian Armed Forces, which would likely shape its development for years to come. The Gerasimov Doctrine is here to stay.

Russia’s effort to reform its military doctrine is a key component of the Kremlin’s objective to modernize the Russian Armed Forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin has prioritized large-scale military reform after the exposure of significant shortcomings in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Russia has pushed forward structural and doctrinal changes in addition to hardware modernization as part of its strategic objective to expand and strengthen the Russian Armed Forces. Some of these changes emphasize the integration of military and non-military bodies to achieve political and strategic objectives. Other changes involve the development of new capabilities and doctrine to address the growing prominence of electronic and information warfare; new technological developments that increase pace of warfare; and the preeminence of long-range standoff systems such as cruise missiles.[6] 

The U.S. and NATO are preparing to fight and win the wrong type of war against Russia. The U.S. aims to modernize and expand its military capabilities in the event of a large-scale conventional conflict with Russia as stated by the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy. The lessons learned being debated by the Russian Armed Forces suggest that Russia does not intend to fight this type of war against the U.S. or NATO. Russia instead is attempting to offset - rather than match - the capabilities of the U.S. and NATO. The West should expect Russia to bring to bear significant non-military capabilities supported by conventional military force in future conflicts. The U.S. and NATO must reorient their modernization priorities to confront this developing form of unconventional warfare and counter a revisionist Russia that is actively attempting to fracture NATO. 

ISW will publish future products that analyze the specific lessons learned by Russia in Syria and Ukraine, and identify the consequent requirements moving forward for U.S. and NATO.

[1] [“Friction and Turbulence in Hybrid War,”] A.A. Bartosh, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2018,; [“Features of Tactical Intelligence in a Hybrid War,”] Yu. A. Popkov, Voennaya Mysl’, August 2017,; [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,
[2] [“To the Question of Domination in Aerospace,”] A. V. Rudenko, O. V. Milenin, and A. V. Bykadorov, Voennaya Mysl’, March 2017,; [“Features of Tactical Intelligence in a Hybrid War,”] Yu. A. Popkov, Voennaya Mysl’, August 2017,; [“Lessons from Coalition Wars in Interpreting Western Military Theory,”] S. L. Pechurov and A. N. Sidorin, Voennaya Mysl’, April 2017,; [“An Adaptive Approach to the Use of Forces and Means to Combat Terrorists from the Experience of Armed Conflicts Outside of Russia,”] A. V. Vdovin, Voennaya Mysl’, May 2018,
[3] [“Evolution of the Essence and Content of the Concept of "War" in the 21st Century,”] S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2017,
[4] [“The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,”] Valery Gerasimov, VPK, March 5, 2016, https://vpk-news(.)ru/sites/default/files/pdf/VPK_08_476.pdf.
[5] “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine,” Mark Galeotti, March 5, 2018, Foreign Policy,
[6] [“Evolution of the Essence and Content of the Concept of "War" in the 21st Century,”] S. G. Chekinov and S. A. Bogdanov, Voennaya Mysl’, January 2017,