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The scandal over Russian meddling in the U. 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.
One suspects that there was little pressure beyond what is publicly known. 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. Step one in learning is admitting that Vladimir Putin has been on a winning streak, arguably as far back as March when Russia annexed Crimea.
This is not about the sources of Russian conduct, but the conduct itself. 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.
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. There is a straightforward way to think about these terms. 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.
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.
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.
Three areas of Russian focus come out in sharp relief from speeches and doctrinal documents. 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.
This is why a confrontation over Ukraine and Syria would not leave Washington unscathed for long. 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. New generation warfare is half the puzzle. 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. 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. Much ink was spilled in recent years on whether Russian leadership does strategy wellis strategically incompetentor is simply engaged in tactics.
The hallmarks of this approach are fail fast, fail cheap, and adjust. It is principally Darwinian, prizing adaptation over a structured strategy. 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.
It is also a method whereby success begets success and failure is indecisive, simply spawning a new approach. In an article last yearI laid out the four escalations in eastern Ukraine from February to August 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 in the Eastern regions.
It then escalated to irregular warfare by April armed violence by paramilitary groups, state-sponsored insurgency, employment of special forcesfollowed 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.
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-Aprilquickly 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.
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. 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. 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. Rather, the importance of ambiguous warfare is that it signaled we were struggling to interpret Russian actions.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Shape the environment so that the U. American hubris is eminently pliable. Frankly, Russia does not need to feign inferiority to be convincing, as American elites rarely require encouragement to display arrogance. 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.
On paper, Russia is a much weaker power than the United States, but the physical matchup varies significantly by context and geographical location. There are different ways of managing U. Ambiguity works to make political losses seem low and inaction superbly attractive relative to the prospect of escalation.
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. Starting with Ukraine, Moscow has successfully convinced U.
This is all in the service of instilling a belief that U. That scenario seemingly works for both sides, as it keeps U. Unfortunately, this is not a strategy America has chosen willingly, but one chosen for America by Moscow.
And they did not get everything wrong. Security Council, counterterrorism cooperation, etc. Unfortunately, the United States has struggled to recognize that the post-Cold War geopolitical gravy train is over. 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. 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. The Obama administration focused its response to Russia on defending U. 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.