Defence and Security

Inflection point: Russian military doctrine and the war in Ukraine

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Inflection point: Russian military doctrine and the war in Ukraine


The war in Ukraine is finely poised. As Russia contemplates the transition from a limited “Special Military Operation” to a protracted state on state conflict, so Ukraine is beginning to feel the benefits of sustained Western assistance. Indeed, it may now be that Ukraine is supported by a more well-oiled logistic system, supplying better quality weapons, than its larger but more ponderous Russian enemy. So, the war is at an inflection point which has been well reported by commentary across all forms of media. This article will simply add to that volume of opinion, but it will also attempt to interrogate Russian military performance through the device of military doctrine, using the same instrument that all military forces use to assess themselves.

Military doctrine can be complex and divisive, not unlike the role religious doctrine plays within the Catholic Church. But it need not be. Rather than the preserve of a small group of cognoscenti pondering abstruse debates, properly understood doctrine can provide a generalised intellectual basis for the conduct of war. Above all, and as Clausewitz made clear, it is neither didactic nor prescriptive; it is all about how to think, not what to think. So out go long lists of principles and densely argued theses and in comes a comprehensible set of ideas about the enduring nature of war.

Compared to the Germans, Americans and French, the British military is relatively new to doctrine. This is probably the legacy of small colonial wars that relied more on individual invention — what T E Lawrence, a prime exponent, described as the flash of the kingfisher — than a comprehensive set of Field Regulations.

But the British Army, in particular, has covered a lot of ground since the mid-1980s and the seminal British doctrinal tract is now the Joint Doctrine Publication 0-01 (5th Edition): UK Defence Doctrine. We need not be detained by its finer detail, but we will employ its useful concept of Fighting Power to make some observations about how Russia has fared so far.

The authorship is British but the principles are universal. With refreshing simplicity, Fighting Power defines the ability to fight and has three elements: the conceptual component (the process of thinking about war), the physical component (the means to fight) and the moral component (getting people to fight). Each component has co-equal significance and Fighting Power is the indivisible product of all three.

In what might have been an ironic nod to the Orthodox Christian tradition, The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation was published on 25 December 2014, and later revised in 2021. It needs to be read in conjunction with other policy statements and the physical evidence of the 2009 New Look military reforms, but it gives the best available insight into thinking about the conduct of war and so becomes the handbook for the Russian conceptual component.

Russian performance here has been a mixed bag. The tract clearly states that Russian forces are primarily postured for defence of the homeland, and we don’t simply need to take their word for it. The massive investment in air defence systems and the predilection for long range firepower is physical evidence of a force designed primarily to deny rather than gain access, for defence rather than attack.

But there is then an immediate inconsistency in the subsequent statement that Russia requires compliant buffer states if it is to trade time and space against the threat of a NATO attack. In turn, this leads to the rather tortured conclusion that the invasion of Ukraine was a necessary operational level intervention to secure the integrity of a strategic posture of defence. The Russians may have tied themselves up in a series of logical knots here, but the story is consistent and has been constantly restated since 2014; we simply weren’t listening.

The same is true of the Russian doctrinal position on nuclear weapons. Over the course of the last 15 years, Russian land forces have transitioned from a mobilisation-based force, with large, low readiness cadre formations, to smaller, permanent readiness-based forces, capable of massing relatively quickly to meet an external threat: exactly the force that has been deployed against Ukraine.

The problem with this approach is that it creates a one-shot weapon which is currently in the process of exhausting itself in the Donbas — hence the inflection point. The Russian Federation inherited a Soviet doctrine that the use of nuclear weapons was an inherent part of the continuum of escalation. Indeed, with considerably reduced conventional capability, the place of nuclear weapons in Russian doctrine is much more central as the ultimate guarantee of national security.

At this point, it’s well worth quoting at some length from the 2014 document: “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against her or her allies, and in a case of aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the very existence of the state.”

Which leads to a number of observations. First, if the very existence of the state is synonymous with the survival of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader is reserving nuclear use as a personal guarantee. Second, we may now be living through the most dangerous nuclear moment as the one-shot invasion fails and the available Russian courses of action then become the long war or nuclear release; on that basis, let’s hope for clear evidence of the mobilisation of reserves. Third, none of this is new and what we insist on characterising as nuclear sabre-rattling is no more than the re-statement of long established policy.

Then we have the curious case of the Gerasimov Doctrine. Valery Gerasimov is the chief of staff of the Russian army and author of the eponymous doctrine which the Rand Corporation characterises as: the use of indirect action strategies and asymmetric responses across multiple domains to mitigate perceived imbalance. The language is barely penetrable, but you get the point — terrorism, subversion, propaganda and all manner of non-attributable thuggery have a legitimate place in the increasingly subtle and nuanced Russian application of military force.

How does that square with the one-dimensional incompetence of the initial invasion and the simplistic brutality of the reduction of Mariupol? In fact, the Ukrainians have been far better practitioners of the Gerasimov doctrine than the Russians, something the reportedly wounded Gerasimov might have time to reflect on during his convalescence.

If the Russian conceptual component is a mixed bag, the physical component is an unmitigated disaster. The Russian army has a tradition of rapid, deep and decisive manoeuvre that can be traced back to the Brusilov offensive in 1916, through the salutary lesson handed out to the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol in 1939 and on to the Czechoslovak, Afghanistan and Crimean invasions. Indeed, the emphasis on coup de main operations has only increased as a result of the creation of the one-shot force combined with the progressive professionalisation of Russian forces. A bold stroke was always going to be the Russian opening move and the Ukrainians saw it coming a mile away.

Maskirovka is a second Russian military tradition that has turned out to have a pernicious legacy. During the titanic battles that followed on from Stalingrad to the end of World War II, Soviet forces had to deploy masses of men and equipment on the often featureless geography of the western USSR and eastern Europe. Physical concealment was impossible and so deception — maskirovka — became the particular operational level skill of the Red Army. Today’s inheritors of that legacy were not only inept in its application but completely failed to comprehend the transparency of the contemporary battlefield and the willingness of Western intelligence agencies to share their knowledge of Russian intentions with the Ukrainians.

Put those two factors together and you have a recipe for the catastrophic Russian attempt to seize Hostomel Airport, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Smaller and more professional armed forces have increased the premium placed on Russian elite formations. Spetsnaz Special Forces, the airborne Vozdushno-Desantnye Voiska (VDV) and, to a lesser extent, naval infantry units have borne a disproportionate share of the fight.

The Spetsnaz and VDV forces thrown at Hostomel were met by an in-place and fully-prepared Ukrainian response in what became a turkey shoot and a gratuitous waste of the best and irreplaceable forces available to Russia. Not only was the operation a tactical disaster, but the loss of the best would hardly have improved the apparently fragile morale of the forces following on.

Hostomel is emblematic of a catalogue of Russian tactical disasters which need little further elaboration. Part of the problem is the organic design of Russian armoured and mechanised units which, in contrast to their Western equivalents, favour firepower over manoeuvre, reflected in a preference for direct and indirect fire platforms over deployable infantry. When fighting on their own terms, Russian units can be devastating and accounts of Ukrainian forces fixed by Russian artillery and assaulted by infantry covered by close range 30mm cannon fire are not for the fainthearted. But the Russians rarely fight on their own terms; Ukrainian agility, Russian tactical incompetence and the failing power of the one-shot weapon means the Ukrainians more often than not dictate the terms of engagement.

If the Russian physical component is an unmitigated disaster, the moral component is shameful. Occasionally in history, terror has been used as a calculated military instrument: the Germans in the USSR and the Japanese in China during WWII serve as examples. On other occasions, the length and intensity of conflict has led to a moral degeneration that has affected combatants and civilians alike and the Thirty Years’ War is probably the definitive example.

It is, however, difficult to come up with an example where a coherent military force has — seemingly without a deliberate policy decision — stumbled into systematic atrocity virtually from the outset of conflict; in the Russian case against fellow Slavs and co-religionists. Not every anecdotal Ukrainian account will be accurate but there is sufficient verifiable evidence of war crimes to charge the Russian military with institutional moral failure.

Then there is the extraordinary list of senior officer casualties. General officers only get involved in the contact battle when junior officers and NCOs are not up to the job, and that seems to be a lot of the time. The corrosive effect of the failure of junior military management and the distraction of senior military management can only lead to a rudderless ship and further evidence of compromise of the moral component of Fighting Power.

No need to labour the Churchillian allusions, but this looks like the end of the beginning. Using universally applicable doctrinal criteria, the Russians’ performance so far has been conceptually ambivalent, physically incompetent and morally unconscionable. As they now contemplate their available courses of action, their central dilemma will be how to turn this around with little time and lower grade forces. It’s a tough ask and the danger is that compounded failure leads them in the apocalyptic direction — entirely permissible within their own doctrine — of considering nuclear release. We’ll see.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 91%
49 ratings - view all

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