It’s Russia’s new chaos theory of political warfare. And it’s probably being used on you.
Lately, Russia appears to be coming at the United States from all kinds of contradictory angles. Russian bots amplified Donald Trump during the campaign, but in office, Kremlin-backed media portray him as weak. Vladimir Putin is expelling U.S. diplomats from Russia, limiting options for warmer relations with the administration he wanted in place. As Congress pushes a harder line against Russia, plenty of headlines declare that Putin’s gamble on Trump has failed.
Confused? Only if you don’t understand the Gerasimov Doctrine.
In February 2013, General Valery Gerasimov—Russia’s chief of the General Staff, comparable to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—published a 2,000-word article, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” in the weekly Russian trade paper Military-Industrial Kurier. Gerasimov took tactics developed by the Soviets, blended them with strategic military thinking about total war, and laid out a new theory of modern warfare—one that looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on. He wrote: “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. … All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.”
The article is considered by many to be the most useful articulation of Russia’s modern strategy, a vision of total warfare that places politics and war within the same spectrum of activities—philosophically, but also logistically. The approach is guerrilla, and waged on all fronts with a range of actors and tools—for example, hackers, media, businessmen, leaks and, yes, fake news, as well as conventional and asymmetric military means. Thanks to the internet and social media, the kinds of operations Soviet psy-ops teams once could only fantasize about—upending the domestic affairs of nations with information alone—are now plausible. The Gerasimov Doctrine builds a framework for these new tools, and declares that non-military tactics are not auxiliary to the use of force but the preferred way to win. That they are, in fact, the actual war. Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.
Does it work? Former captive nations Georgia, Estonia and Lithuania all sounded the alarm in recent years about Russian attempts to influence their domestic politics and security, as the Obama administration downplayed concerns over a new Cold War. But all three countries now have parties with Russian financial connections leading their governments, which softly advocate for a more open approach to Moscow.
In Ukraine, Russia has been deploying the Gerasimov Doctrine for the past several years. During the 2014 protests there, the Kremlin supported extremists on both sides of the fight—pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists—fueling conflict that the Kremlin used as a pretext to seize Crimea and launch the war in eastern Ukraine. Add a heavy dose of information warfare, and this confusing environment—in which no one is sure of anybody’s motives, and pretty much no one is a hero—is one in which the Kremlin can readily exert control. This is the Gerasimov Doctrine in the field.
The United States is the latest target. The Russian security state defines America as the primary adversary. The Russians know they can’t compete head-to-head with us—economically, militarily, technologically—so they create new battlefields. They are not aiming to become stronger than us, but to weaken us until we are equivalent.
Russia might not have hacked American voting machines, but by selectively amplifying targeted disinformation and misinformation on social media—sometimes using materials acquired by hacking—and forging de facto information alliances with certain groups in the United States, it arguably won a significant battle without most Americans realizing it ever took place. The U.S. electoral system is the heart of the world’s most powerful democracy, and now—thanks to Russian actions—we’re locked in a national argument over its legitimacy. We’re at war with ourselves, and the enemy never fired a physical shot. “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy,” Gerasimov writes. (He also writes of using “internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”)
Not all Russia-watchers agree on the Gerasimov Doctrine’s importance. Some say this is simply a new and well-articulated version of what Russians have always done, or that Putin is inflated as an all-powerful boogeyman, or that competition among the various oligarchic factions within the Kremlin means there is no central strategic purpose to their activities. But there’s no question that Russian intervention is systematic and multi-layered. This structure challenges us, because we don’t necessarily understand how it has been put into practice; like all guerrilla doctrine, it prioritizes conservation of resources and decentralization, which makes it harder to detect and follow. And strategically, its goals aren’t the ones we’re used to talking about. The Kremlin isn’t picking a winner; it’s weakening the enemy and building an environment in which anyone but the Kremlin loses.
Herein lies the real power of the Gerasimov-style shadow war: It’s hard to muster resistance to an enemy you can’t see, or aren’t even sure is there. But it’s not an all-powerful approach; the shadowy puppeteering at the heart of the Gerasimov Doctrine also makes it inherently fragile. Its tactics begin to fail when light is thrown onto how they work and what they aim to achieve. This requires leadership and clarity about the threat—which we saw briefly in France, when the government rallied to warn voters about Russian info ops in advance of the presidential election. For now, though, America is still in the dark—not even on defense, let alone offense.
Molly K. McKew, an expert on information warfare, advises governments and political parties on foreign policy and strategic communications. She advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009-13, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15.