The US military understood this well before the 1991 Gulf War. Its AirLand Battle doctrine, adopted in 1982, called for rapid operations by ground forces supported by air forces using precision-guided munitions. The U.S. military had planned to fight such a conflict on the plains of Europe against the Red Army, but it proved to be perfectly suited to fight the Soviet-equipped Iraqi army in the deserts of Arabia. The result was one of the most lopsided conflicts in modern military history.
The Russian army did not perform as well against the Ukrainian army. In fact, the Russian war effort was a study in incompetence. There are many explanations for the poor combat performance of the Russians, including low morale and poor leadership, but part of their failure can be attributed to shortcomings in their military doctrine. Doctrine is even more important to Russians than to Western armies, because their army is so rigid in its operations and so dependent on orders from senior officers. The Russians are fighting “by the rules”. The problem is that they are using the wrong book.
Ironically, current Russian military doctrine is known as “active defense”, the same name as US Army doctrine prior to the adoption of AirLand Battle. A document prepared in 2021 by a think tank, the Naval Analysis Center (CNA), for the United States European Command shows how this doctrine left the Russian military woefully unprepared for the invasion of Ukraine. .
The premise of “active defense” is that the Russian military will fight a more technologically advanced adversary (read: NATO) that attacked Russia first. In response, Russian troops are supposed to rely on “maneuver defense”. This concept, write the CNA analysts, is “based on defeating and degrading an adversary while gaining time and preserving forces, at the expense of territory. Shots and strike systems attack adversary forces as they advance, forcing them to concentrate and redeploy before each attack, while conducting brief counterattacks. In this strategy, the outcome of the war is unlikely to be determined by seizing ground” – instead, it is vital to undermine “an adversary’s ability to sustain the fight or his will to keep fighting”.
It’s almost the reverse of the war in Ukraine, where Russian troops started out as the most forward force, where they went on the offensive and tried to take over the ground. The Ukrainians were the ones who used their own version of “maneuver defense” to stop the Russian onslaught.
How could the Russians have had a military doctrine so disconnected from political reality? After all, it has long been apparent that Russian President Vladimir Putin is far more likely to use his military for offensive rather than defensive operations. The risk of NATO invading Russia is close to zero.
In a sense, the Russian doctrine can be seen as a response to the deep-rooted Russian fear of foreign invasion from Napoleon to Hitler. But according to the NAC, current Russian doctrine dates back to the twilight years of the Cold War, when the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet Union gave up any ambitions of territorial conquest and decided to focus on defensive operations. The world has totally changed over the past 40 years, but Russian military thinking remains stuck in the past. “They’re not set up at all for the war they’ve been fighting,” Michael Kofman, lead author of the CNA study, told me.
The futility of Russian military doctrine might surprise those who imagine that Russian thinking is governed by the Gerasimov Doctrine, named after General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The Gerasimov Doctrine has been described as a sophisticated form of “hybrid warfare” that “merges hard power and soft power in many areas and transcends the boundaries between peacetime and wartime”. He has been credited with everything from Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, using forces with no insignia on their uniforms known as “little green men”, to Russia’s successful interference in the 2016 US elections.
There is only one small problem with the Gerasimov doctrine: it does not really exist. The term was coined by British analyst Mark Galeotti in response to a 2013 speech by Gerasimov in which the Russian general spoke about the importance of propaganda and subversion in modern conflicts. But Gerasimov was not talking about what the Russians were planning to do. He was talking about what he thought he was United States was allegedly orchestrating the Arab Spring and “color revolutions” from Georgia to Ukraine.
Galeotti has since expressed remorse for coining the popular but misleading slogan. As he noted in Foreign Policy in 2018: “It was not a ‘doctrine’ as the Russians understand it, for future adventures abroad: Gerasimov was trying to figure out how to fight, not promote, such uprisings at home.” In other words, once again the Russian military was thinking defensively – and that left it ill-prepared to operate offensively.
The aspect of Russian doctrine that is getting the most attention today, in the wake of Putin’s nuclear threats, concerns the use of nuclear weapons. (More recently, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine claimed that Ukraine would set off a “dirty bomb,” a ploy that many fear could be used to justify Russia’s use of nuclear weapons, and the New York Times reports that senior Russian military officials have discussed the use of tactical nuclear weapons.) Here, the CNA study has bad news: “Russian military analytical writings consider a series of stages in which Nuclear weapons are first deployed and used for signals, then are potentially employed incrementally at the regional level of the conflict and are finally used in full-scale war until the conflict reaches…total nuclear war.
But before you get too alarmed, it’s worth reading a separate analysis on the War on the Rocks website written by Kofman and fellow CNA analyst Anya Loukianova Fink. They note this while “the Russian military has a visibly different level of comfort with nuclear weapons than the United States…it does not write nuclear escalation in recklessly optimistic terms, ignoring the associated risks” . On the contrary, Russian military doctrine “makes heavy use of nuclear signalling, which gives the impression that the country is much looser in its thinking about nuclear use than it actually is.”
In other words, the Russians rely on nuclear saber slashes to bluff their enemies into submission. So far, Putin has given no indication that he is deploying nuclear weapons, despite his threats to do so; in a speech last week, he even denied any intention to use nuclear weapons.
In addition to using “nuclear signaling”, Putin uses another aspect of Russian military doctrine. Once the enemy’s advance has been blunted, the ANC notes, Russian forces are expected to “inflict costs on their military and economic infrastructure in such a way that they will seek to end the war on terms acceptable”. This is what Putin is doing with his aerial attacks on Ukrainian cities, targeting in particular electricity infrastructures to increase the suffering of civilians during the winter.
But Russia is hampered in the fight against this conflict because its generals have not prepared for a long war of attrition. They expected that, if Russia were to enter a protracted conflict, the Kremlin would order a general mobilization from the start. In peacetime, Russian military units were only 70-90% occupied, according to another War on the Rocks article by Kofman and Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. But general mobilization never took place, leaving the Russian army short-handed for the first months of the war in Ukraine. The army was particularly short of infantry, forcing Russian tanks to go into battle without the support of dismounted troops. As a result, the Ukrainians spent a day in the field taking out Russian tanks with portable Javelin and NLAW missiles.
Only seven months into the war, Putin finally ordered a partial mobilization, and so far this has resulted in more men fleeing the country than entering the army. Moreover, Russia has lost so many experienced officers and soldiers that it doesn’t enough personnel to train new conscripts.
It is not fair to lay all the blame on the Russian military for the way the war in Ukraine unfolded. The Ukrainians exceeded all expectations with their inspired combat performance, and they received far more Western weaponry than anyone expected. The Russian armed forces, for their part, have been hampered by political interference from above. The New York Times reported that Putin rejected advice from his generals to withdraw from Kherson, and CNN reported that he gave direct orders to the generals in the field.
But the Russian military has also done much worse than most analysts expected, in part because it was simply unprepared for the kind of war it is fighting. This is not uncommon in military history. Even so, the best armies adapt on the fly. That’s what the US Army and Marine Corps did during the Iraq War: they hadn’t trained to fight insurgents, but they learned hard lessons and, in 2006, produced a manual counter-insurgency field that contributed to the success of “the push” in 2007.
The Russian armed forces have not shown this kind of ability to improvise. They keep sticking to what doesn’t work. The Russian conduct of this war is not only a moral failure but also an intellectual failure.