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Russia’s ‘New Way of War’? Asymmetric warfare and the Ukraine Crisis

By Bettina Renz

As I argued in my previous blog entry, ‘Russia Resurgent?’, conclusions about Russia’s conventional military capabilities drawn from operations in Crimea and the subsequent armed conflict in East Ukraine should not be exaggerated. In terms of manpower, training and equipment Russia is likely to trail far behind NATO and advanced Western militaries for a long time to come. However, Russian military performance particularly in Crimea has also raised concerns in the West about its growing abilities to wage asymmetric warfare. A NATO Defence Committee Report entitled “Towards the Next Defence and Security Review: Part Two – NATO” and published in July 2014 concluded that Russia had developed ‘new and less conventional military techniques’ and asserted that its use of ‘these asymmetric tactics (sometimes described as unconventional, ambiguous or non-linear warfare)…represents the most immediate threat to its NATO neighbours and other NATO Member States’. In the same report, former Chief of Staff of the British Armed Forces, Lord Richards, cautioned that whilst NATO had significant military capabilities ‘there was every chance it could be defeated by asymmetric tactics’. The report recommended that NATO, in response to this challenge ‘create an Alliance doctrine for “ambiguous warfare” and make the case for investment in an Alliance asymmetric or “ambiguous warfare” capability’.

The idea of creating a doctrine for asymmetric warfare is problematic. Asymmetric warfare is a broad and generic concept with a wide spectrum of interpretations. It gained increasing prominence in Western doctrinal documents and also in scholarly work over the past two decades, essentially in response to the need to challenge deep-seated views about the utility of conventional military power in the post-Cold war security environment. However, asymmetry cannot be understood as a specific mode of warfare. At the end of the day, the whole point is that asymmetric warfare is based on unpredictability and surprise, which is not easy to reconcile with doctrine. Rod Thornton explained the essence of asymmetric warfare as the ‘use [of] methods outside the “norms” of warfare, methods that are radically different’. In his view, ‘it was the difference – the surprise factor – that contributed so much to the shock of September 11. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, US Air Force General Richard Myers, said of the September 11 attack, “You hate to admit it, but we hadn’t thought about this”.’

Whilst Russia’s way of war in Crimea was radically different in comparison to the more traditional tactics used in Chechnya and Georgia, it is unlikely that the same ‘asymmetric’ approach would work in a future conflict, not least because the element of surprise would be absent and opponents now ‘will have thought about it’. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that Russia’s unorthodox tactics in Crimea were successful not because a new war-winning formula had been found, but because the achievement of strategic goals in this instance was enabled by a set of conducive circumstances that would not be guaranteed in a different scenario. First of all, Russia already had a considerable amount of military personnel and equipment stationed on Crimea in relation to its Black Sea Fleet installations. This made the movement of special forces onto the peninsula less conspicuous than it would otherwise have been. Second, the use of diversions, such as unmarked soldiers posing as ‘concerned civilians’, meant that the West and the Ukrainian authorities were left guessing what was going on and reactions to Russia’s actions were slow. Given the international limelight cast on Russian military movements in the aftermath of Crimea, such hesitation is unlikely to be repeated, particularly if similar developments were to be observed in an EU or NATO member state. Third, the Russian military could rely on the large Russian speaking and pro-Russian civilian contingent in Crimea for support. Clearly, this factor is of concern to other countries with large Russian ethnic minorities, but strong popular resistance would be very likely in countries where this is not the case. Fourth, it is hard to disagree with Maksym Bugriy, who wrote that the Crimea operation ‘was only possible due to the lack of resistance by the Ukrainian forces – predicated specifically by the government’s weakness and tenuous political control over the Crimean peninsula’. From this point of view, a show-of-force approach without actually having to put war-fighting skills through the test was sufficient to achieve the goal of annexing the area – a scenario which did not work in East Ukraine and is not conceivable in many other situations.

Last, but not least, subsequent developments in East Ukraine demonstrated the difficulty of anticipating or preparing doctrinally against a presumed Russian formula for asymmetric war. Whilst in the words of Mark Galeotti ‘the seizure of Crimea was in many ways a textbook example’ of asymmetric warfare, the conflict in Donbass was a different story altogether. Although it is very possible that long-term destabilisation of the region was part of Russia’s strategic plan, rather than an unintended consequence, the performance of the proxy forces there has been far from stellar. There was no longer evidence of the restraint that characterised the performance of the ‘Little Green Men’ in Crimea and by January 2015 the fighting had incurred more than 4800 casualties, many of them civilians. Fairly quickly observers started doubting that Moscow, even if it ever fully was in control, still had the ability to steer the course of events in East Ukraine and, ‘having unleashed the war…now has a Frankenstein to reign in’.

Russia’s effective use of asymmetric approaches in Crimea took the West by surprise, but the consequences for European and NATO’s defence requirements are not straightforward. On the one hand, Russian advancements in the development of particular tactics, such as cyber attacks and information campaigns, are clearly of concern to defence establishments in the West. Inevitably, these will be studied closely in order to increase capabilities to detect and defend against them in any potential future conflict. On the other hand, the temptation of oversimplifying the meaning of the Crimea operations with unhelpful neologisms describing a new mode of asymmetric or ‘ambiguous’ warfare mastered by Russia should be avoided. At the end of the day, psychological and information operations, as well as the disruption of an opponent’s critical infrastructure (including in cyberspace), are nothing new and have also been part of the tactical lexicon of Western militaries for many years. Moreover, indirect approaches, surprise, deception and secrecy, which were important ingredients for success in Crimea, are age-old themes and fundamentals of military strategy. Perhaps decision makers would do well to bear in mind the following words of caution by Douglas Lovelace, Director of the US Strategic Studies Institute: ‘In an era of broad and perhaps profound change, new theories and concepts are to be welcomed rather than shunned. However, before they are fully embraced, they need to be tested rigorously, for the cost of implementing a false theory and developing operational and strategic concepts around it can be greater than remaining wedded to an older, but sounder one’.

It was a favourable strategic context that enabled Russia’s annexation of Crimea, rather than the discovery of a new mode of ‘ambiguous warfare’ that can simply be transferred to different circumstances and defended against with an asymmetric or ‘ambiguous warfare’ doctrine. From this point of view the most effective deterrence against the potential future success of Russian asymmetric tactics might not lie in a new NATO asymmetric warfare doctrine, but in the realm of politics, that is, in concerted efforts made to avoid the convergence of favourable factors that enabled success in Crimea in the first place. It is unlikely that Russia unleashed the conflict in Ukraine because it thought it could now rival the West or NATO conventionally or asymmetrically. It is much more likely that it acted on the assumption that it was unlikely that NATO would get involved. As David Galbreath has also argued, if ‘NATO isn’t ready to take on Russia…the problem is political and not military’.

Dr Bettina Renz is a lecturer in International Security and has published widely on Russian security and defence policy in the post-Cold war era.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inConflict & SecurityEuropean securityInternational Relationsinternational securityRussia

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