The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy


The scandal over Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election is only the latest in a series of geopolitical contests with Russia in which Moscow has often gotten the better of the United States. The “new Cold War” isn’t going all that well for anyone besides Vladimir Putin. Washington certainly has the least to show for it. Following public outcry, the Obama administration released intelligence on the Russian hacking operation, but the clumsily written disclosures only made Vladimir Putin look bigger and badder. Meanwhile President Obama’s ambiguous threats to respond at a “time and place of our choosing” obscured what costs, if any, Russia paid for such chicanery. One suspects that there was little pressure beyond what is publicly known. If anything, this exchange of accusations only highlighted America’s vulnerabilities while encouraging Russia and other states to try harder next time around.

The Russians earned yet another political victory with audiences at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Washington is in the midst of self-immolation. When the next peer adversary comes knocking, the United States must be better prepared. The United States can’t return to the past, but it can certainly learn from it.

As Mark Twain once said, “good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.” After Ukraine, Syria, and this latest episode, America has been on the receiving end of some good experience. Step one in learning is admitting that Vladimir Putin has been on a winning streak, arguably as far back as March 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Based on observing Moscow’s interaction with our policy establishment, I expect the Kremlin to continue “winning” this year, whether or not U.S. foreign policy changes dramatically in the coming months.

Any analysis of what happens next has to begin with a keen understanding of the main pillars of Russian strategy and America’s own shortcomings in this geopolitical confrontation. This is not about the sources of Russian conduct, but the conduct itself. It’s become cliché to say that Russia has played a much weaker hand well. In international politics, weak hands become competitive when the other side’s strategy is worse or it chooses not to show up at all. Whether Washington is able to change its relationship with Moscow or not, America must come to terms with its failing approach to strategy, particularly over the past two years.

In Syria and Ukraine, Russia has shown itself a capable adversary, able to shape the environment in a manner that deters an American challenge.  Moscow has become adept at shaping Washington’s decision-making cycle, and continues to dominate the strategic heights at the psychological level in this geopolitical confrontation.  Russia projects escalation dominance, offers easy political paths to inaction, and conditions the United States to see intervention as an unrealistic option.  At times it is, but we are being habituated to accept inaction. Russia has made its gains largely on the cheap.

The ABCs of Russian Doctrinal Thinking

Unfortunately, to get to an analysis of the strategic level competition, we have to briefly clear up the confusing  terminology used to describe Russian doctrine and strategy, from the Gerasimov doctrine and non-linear warfare to hybrid warfare, new generation warfare, and cross-domain coercion.

There is a straightforward way to think about these terms. Valeriy Gerasimov’s famous February 2013 article on non-linear warfare, titled “The Value of Science in Foresight,” lays out the inputs into Russian strategic thinking. It is politically attuned, describing how Russia’s national security establishment sees the modern operating environment, the threat from the West, and the changing nature of warfare. “New generation warfare,” a Russian term, is the output of Russian strategic thinking — the military community’s response to the problem set Gerasimov lays out. Gerasimov himself does not have a doctrine, nor was he postulating one, though he is no doubt thankful that Russian military analysis is now focused like a laser on his personal brand.

Hybrid warfare” is the preferred term in the West to describe some elements of new generation warfare. It focuses on the information domain and political subversion, but it’s basically the parts of new generation warfare that made it into Western PowerPoint presentations and proved politically salient. “Cross-domain coercion” is rather buzzwordy and reeks of Pentagonese, but conceptually it’s probably the best way to understand new generation warfare, particularly at the strategic level. It loses the least in translation from Russian to English and is not abused, as “hybrid warfare” is, to the point of being rendered meaningless — at least not yet.

Janis Berzins, a military analyst at Latvia’s National Defence Academy, spotlighted Russia’s new generation warfare in April 2014, after the annexation of Crimea. New generation warfare is best described by Dima Adamsky, who lays out how Russia’s present day understanding of the changing nature of warfare “matured into a corpus of ideas” with its conceptual core “an amalgamation of hard and soft power across various domains, through skillful application of coordinated military, diplomatic and economic tools.” His text on the current art of Russian strategy is still the best out there. Shamefully, its long length virtually ensures it will rarely be read in Washington.

In terms of doctrinal thinking, new generation warfare presents a shopping list from high-end conventional capability to information warfare and subversion. It is a messy concept combining long-running strains in Russian military thought together with defense trends observed in the West. New generation warfare betrays a reimagining of the phases of war in recognition of the fact that conflict outcomes are increasingly decided in peacetime and that military forces can be used under various guises without public acknowledgment of hostilities.

New generation warfare’s most salient points are on the employment of non-military instruments of national power in confrontation, asymmetric and indirect methods, and the de facto search for competitive advantages against much stronger adversaries. It moves the needle more toward the population as the center of gravity and away from direct force-on-force contests centered upon large military forces and firepower. Moscow seeks to win conflicts on the cheap without overly committing in expensive forms of warfare.

While much of new generation warfare is not new, they’re actually implementing some of its ideas, unlike in many other Russian doctrinal ruminations. Three areas of Russian focus come out in sharp relief from speeches and doctrinal documents. Moscow uses long-range guided weapons and information operations to establish “non-nuclear deterrence” against potential adversaries. It then uses various types of indirect warfare –  be it state sponsored insurgency, covert operations, and other forms of political mobilization – a to advance its interests.  Non-nuclear deterrence is predicated on non-contact, standoff weapons, but not just conventional ones.  Russia includes cyber, electronic warfare, and information warfare in this bin.

Non-contact weapons deter the West in conflict, while various asymmetric means are how Russia prefers to actually make gains at low cost. There is also an emerging understanding that pervasive domains like cyber and information tinge even local conflicts with an element of total war fought throughout the depth of the adversary’s lines.  This is why a confrontation over Ukraine and Syria would not leave Washington unscathed for long.

These focus areas are well-suited to Russia’s limitations in hard economic and military power, leveraging indirect warfare, and its first-mover advantages as the initiator of confrontation. Still, new generation warfare betrays a lust for high-tech conventional warfare — having lots of missiles sticking out of your pocket to make the United States think twice about conflict. The implication for NATO planners in all of this is that new generation warfare reflects Russian thinking on how to make strategic gains with asymmetric means, not expensive pushes for real estate and large force-on-force contests. This may help explain why Moscow has never been keen on the supposedly tantalizing Baltic “fait accompli.”

New generation warfare is half the puzzle. It’s useful for understanding Russian predilections, but military academics are not in charge of Moscow. Even if they were, as readers of War on the Rocks no doubt know, there is a large gap between what retired colonels say we should do in terse doctrinal texts and military magazines and what commanders implement.

New generation warfare is not a playbook. Russian thinking continues to evolve based on the experiences of the last two years. If you’re a senior leader in the U.S. military, your question should be: What does Russia actually do well versus what does Russia wish it did well? Our confrontation is strategic, playing across several conflicts, and we should compare notes on how effectively Russia is using this toolkit — or not — to advance its interests.

Emergent Strategy: Tactics, Strategy, or Just Business

Much ink was spilled in recent years on whether Russian leadership does strategy well, is strategically incompetent, or is simply engaged in tactics. It’s none of the above. Russia’s leadership is pursuing an emergent strategy common to business practice and the preferred path of startups, but not appreciated in the field of security studies. The hallmarks of this approach are fail fast, fail cheap, and adjust. It is principally Darwinian, prizing adaptation over a structured strategy.

That may sound like a tactical approach, but it’s not. Moscow knows its desired ends and available means, but retains flexibility. In many cases, Moscow eschews a deliberate strategy because it might prove to be confining and difficult to adjust. This is confusing to follow when Russia’s goals are set, and yet operational objectives change as they run through cycles of adaptation. It is also a method whereby success begets success and failure is indecisive, simply spawning a new approach. It’s clearly working in practice, but the Western strategy community is stuck wondering whether it will work in theory.

In an article last year, I laid out the four escalations in eastern Ukraine from February to August 2014. Russia’s strategy was improvised and implemented in a hurry, adapting as each approach failed. To briefly recap them here, the conflict began with classical political warfare (subversion, mobilization of the population, incitement to protest) in February and early March of 2014 in the Eastern regions. It then escalated to irregular warfare by April (armed violence by paramilitary groups, state-sponsored insurgency, employment of special forces), followed by a mixing in of conventional capabilities (provision of armor, air defense, artillery) over the summer. These cycles ended with a conventional invasion by regular Russian units by the end of summer. Note the speed of evolution from political mobilization of the local populace in March to Russian battalions entering in Ukraine by August.

Another example can be found in Russia’s threats to recreate “Novorossiya” — the Russian empire’s historical region across eastern and southern Ukraine — to make Kiev negotiate on federalization. This was a slipshod ploy that had remarkable resonance in the West but proved a dud in Kiev, its intended target. The Kremlin tried it from mid-April 2014, quickly judged it ineffective, and abandoned the scheme by early summer.  Separatists still cling on to it, but Moscow saw it as a non-starter. As a political strategy, it materialized out of thin air and disappeared into the ether within a few months. The case has been no different with this latest hacking saga. Everything about it suggests an emergent strategy. It evolved as the Kremlin gauged the impact and adjusted based how the American body politic responded to the information leaks.

This strategy is lean and iterative. It’s about feeling the terrain beneath your feet to figure out the next best step toward your goal. Politically and economically Russia is often a laggard compared to western Europe, but it is a worthy competitor in international politics with an intuition for seizing advantages. Moscow can fail and try again comfortably within a single U.S. decision-making cycle. The god of Western military thought, Clausewitz, would remind us here that it is “better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.”

The American establishment’s answer to these approaches has typically begun with denial and concluded with embarrassing indignation. As difficult as it may be to admit, in terms of great power competition at the leadership level, the United States is IBM, and Russia is Apple.

Moscow’s advantage is partially structural. De-institutionalized decision-making, no allied interests to constrain action, and no shortage of imagination on what is possible. They can be lean, while Washington needs to have meetings and consensus-building group therapy sessions with allies every time there is a new move to respond to. Russia may make many mistakes, but I’ve watched them get the job done for two years now while listening to U.S. officials wax prophetic that Moscow has poor competitive strategies for geopolitical competition.

Deception: Why Things Got Ambiguous

Of the many “warfares” that experts came up with to characterize Russia’s military doctrine, the one that demonstrated the problem in analysis was “ambiguous warfare.” This is not because it actually describes Russian warfare, the term is relatively meaningless from a doctrinal sense. Rather, the importance of ambiguous warfare is that it signaled we were struggling to interpret Russian actions. Usage of ”hybrid warfare” is the biggest symptom of this problem, the canary in the coal mine of strategic failure.

Russia was doing things we did not understand, and we called them ambiguous as a reflection of our own inability to calculate the consequences for our interests of their actions and discern the right response. They penetrated the U.S. decision-making cycle and stayed there while the United States spent its time coming up with new catchy ways to describe Russian warfare. Vladimir Putin said long ago, “the weak get beaten.” The strong get beaten, too, when they’re being dumb.

When the other side obscures what you stand to lose, they stall out your decision-making and buy themselves time to succeed. If an adversary is pursuing an emergent strategy, they need time to blast through false starts and hit upon a winning approach. It doesn’t hurt when the U.S. policy establishment is busy scratching its head.

When Russia’s naval infantry and special forces took their unit patches off in Crimea, Washington offered a diplomatic off-ramp, thinking that Moscow wanted to negotiate on some sort of special autonomy or settle for a frozen conflict. There was nothing to stop Moscow from annexing the place anyway, but the part we should replay is the moment Washington thought Russia was looking for “face-saving measures” to back down. Little was learned from the experience. The United States repeated this affair multiple times in Syria, thinking that Moscow wanted to get out through negotiations and could deliver a genuine ceasefire from Syria and Iran. It turned out they were just stalling to make gains until Aleppo finally fell and any viable alternative to Assad was swept from the battlefield.

The United States is largely a status quo power (except when nation-building abroad).  Its bid for Russia’s near abroad since the end of the Cold War has traditionally been half-hearted, the personal hobby of individual officials rather than a national policy imperative. In Ukraine’s case, there was no real U.S. bid at all.  In all of these conflicts, Russian interests were genuinely much stronger, as was its ability to escalate quickly to pursue those interests. When it comes to Ukraine and Syria, they have a higher stake in the game, while the United States is perpetually looking for reasons to justify inaction. Moscow’s strategy is to make the superpower a no-show in the contest. That’s all about what the U.S. Department of Defense calls “phase zero” operations. Shape the environment so that the U.S. policy establishment will choose not to contest it, and by the time they can properly run the risk calculus to U.S. interests, the facts on the ground will have already rendered intervention unrealistic.

At the outset of Russia’s intervention in Syria, White House officials began convincing themselves that Russian forces would end up in a quagmire, absolving the United States of any need to rethink policy beyond sitting back and watching Moscow fail. U.S. officialdom was engaging in self-deception to justify its own policy predilections in the conflict. American hubris is eminently pliable. As long the United States thinks you can’t win, there’s a window of opportunity. Frankly, Russia does not need to feign inferiority to be convincing, as American elites rarely require encouragement to display arrogance.

The balance in coercive credibility — the sum of capability and resolve — has not been in Washington’s favor in most of these showdowns. Russian leaders don’t need face-saving measures and off-ramps. When the president lectures them about being a weak regional power in decline, that arrogance comes with a pair of strategic blinders. Russian pride will recover, but the American position in the international system might not. Note the heavy breathing in the press over the hacking scandal is little different than the panic which followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea over two years ago. In a case of Groundhog’s Day the president once again assures us that Russia is weak, in decline, doesn’t manufacture anything of worth, and so on.

Escalation Dominance: How Adversaries Manage Up

On paper, Russia is a much weaker power than the United States, but the physical matchup varies significantly by context and geographical location. U.S. power dwindles in proximity to Russian borders. Moscow’s goal in every challenge is to force a simple binary choice on the United States: accept the risk of escalation or fall back and punish Russian behavior in the international system, hoping to deter a repeat offense. There are different ways of managing U.S. decision-making in this scenario, but the key to all of them is escalation dominance.

Ambiguity works to make political losses seem low and inaction superbly attractive relative to the prospect of escalation. Another approach is coercion through large-scale deployment of force to intimidate with rapid escalation, as Russia did when it deployed around 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders through May of 2014. In truth, the Crimea operation benefited from both a lack of clarity about Russia’s desired end state and a very compelling threat of conventional invasion.

Policy establishments typically prepare to fight the last war. This is especially true in Washington, where people think the Russians are doing again whatever it is they did last. Thus, many assumed that Eastern Ukraine would be a recreation of the Crimea episode, but as we have long recognized, these two operations were quite different.

Russia’s best strategy has been habituating the United States to a certain set of responses to arrive at formulaic interactions. Starting with Ukraine, Moscow has successfully convinced U.S. policymakers that they should be more afraid of escalation than Moscow is of U.S. retaliation. That has held true in Syria, where their cards were not nearly as strong, and is even visible in President Obama’s reluctance to take meaningful action against Russia over its cyber campaign against the U.S. electoral process. Granted Obama had already measured the drapes for Hillary Clinton and probably expected her to take action in the next administration, but he also made clear that “our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody is acting responsibly.”

This is all in the service of instilling a belief that U.S. interests are best served by staying out and instead punishing Russia through sanctions, political isolation, and leveraging its position in the international system. That scenario seemingly works for both sides, as it keeps U.S. power from contesting Russia on issues about which it cares the most and avoids escalation dynamics objectively unfavorable to the United States.

Unfortunately, this is not a strategy America has chosen willingly, but one chosen for America by Moscow. There is no problem here for the national interest as long as you don’t mind Russia winning on the object in contest, but it’s important to understand that once the United States establishes this sort of relationship as normal, the Russians may get greedy. There is nothing to say that it won’t play out similarly over something the United States truly cares about, such as an election. Picking fights over things you don’t care about is not smart, but neither is letting every great power secure their interests at your expense.

Strategic Ignorance With Plenty of Company

Although it’s easy to beat up on the Obama administration’s handling of Russia in recent years, it is perhaps unfair to Monday morning quarterback all the tough choices they were faced with. And they did not get everything wrong. For one, the Obama administration actually took Russia to the cleaners during the “reset,” getting much of what they wanted in terms of U.S. interests (the New START Treaty, the northern distribution network feeding NATO supplies into Afghanistan, a U.N. sanctions regime on Iran, delaying the  S-300 sale to Iran, abstention on the Libya resolution in the UN. Security Council, counterterrorism cooperation, etc.) and giving Moscow fairly little in return. This “resurgent” Russia is a recent development after decades of incompetence, laziness, and consistent U.S. foreign policy victories over Moscow.

Unfortunately, the United States has struggled to recognize that the post-Cold War geopolitical gravy train is over.  Nineteenth century geopolitics is back, and it’s angry. The problem is not just that Moscow is rebelling against the international order. The international order as we know it, with the United States in charge and this wonderful unipolar moment of American hegemony, is ending.  If you don’t believe this yet then wait, China will explain it to you. Moscow is an active driver of this transition, but it is also a symptom of increased disorder and emerging multi-polarity. The United States can adapt to maintain primacy or it can be dragged into a less favorable international dispensation kicking and screaming. The latter is clearly in progress.

The United States should be smarter moving forward in a world wherein its ability to dictate events has visibly eroded. The greatest handicap the U.S. policy community has is a series of cognitive biases about Russia and the actual strength of America’s hand in these conflicts. The Obama administration focused its response to Russia on defending U.S. vital national interests and its network of allies, but it refused to play what it judged to be a weak hand in Ukraine and Syria.  Yet that judgment was made on the assumption that Russia would wear itself out, fail, and return to the fold once properly scolded.

Washington has been unable to get past a way of looking at Russia and the world that proved disabling.  There is a large rhetoric to strategy gap. The United States is in the midst of an ostrich strategy.  It didn’t get the Russia it wants, and ever since 2012 has stuck its head in the sand hoping that Putin’s Russia will fail and be replaced by that old cooperative Russia .  Russia hawks are even more delusional, thinking that if the president yelled at Moscow and beat his chest red that Putin and his followers would scatter in fear.

There are no easy options here.  The only thing harder than negotiating with Moscow is ignoring it.  The Trump administration would do well to understand the biases which led the policy community to get outplayed by Russia in recent years and start formulating its own Russia strategy with those failures in mind.  It’s back to the drawing board.


Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.  Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University.  The views expressed here are his own.