I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’

I was the first to write about Russia’s infamous high-tech military strategy. One small problem: it doesn’t exist.

Everywhere, you’ll find scholars, pundits, and policymakers talking about the threat the “Gerasimov doctrine” — named after Russia’s chief of the general staff — poses to the West. It’s a new way of war, “an expanded theory of modern warfare,” or even “a vision of total warfare.”

There’s one small problem. It doesn’t exist. And the longer we pretend it does, the longer we misunderstand the — real, but different — challenge Russia poses.

I feel I can say that because, to my immense chagrin, I created this term, which has since acquired a destructive life of its own, lumbering clumsily into the world to spread fear and loathing in its wake. Back in February 2013, the Russian newspaper Military-Industrial Courier — as exciting and widely read as it sounds — reprinted a speech by Gen. Valery Gerasimov. It talks of how in the modern world, the use of propaganda and subversion means that “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”

It largely passed unnoticed, but Robert Coalson of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S. government-funded TV and radio service broadcasting to Russia and other unfree countries, picked up on it and translated it. He sent it to me and, with his permission, I published the translation on my blog, with my own comments.

A blog is as much as anything else a vanity site; obviously I want people to read it. So for a snappy title, I coined the term “Gerasimov doctrine,” though even then I noted in the text that this term was nothing more than “a placeholder,” and “it certainly isn’t a doctrine.” I didn’t think people would genuinely believe either that he came up with it (Gerasimov is a tough and effective chief of the general staff, but no theoretician), less yet than it was a “programmatic” blueprint for war on the West.

But then came the annexation of Crimea, when “little green men” — commandos without insignia — seized the peninsula with scarcely a shot fired. This was followed by the Donbass war, fought initially by a motley collection of local thugs, separatists, Russian adventurers, and special forces, accompanied by a barrage of lurid Russian propaganda.

Suddenly, it seemed that Gerasimov had indeed been describing what was to come, had we but realized it. Prone, as ever, to overcompensation, Western mainstream opinion swung from ignoring Gerasimov’s pronouncements to enshrining them as some kind of bleeding-edge blueprint for a new way of war

Western mainstream opinion swung from ignoring Gerasimov’s pronouncements to enshrining them as some kind of bleeding-edge blueprint for a new way of war


The problems with this formulation are numerous, though. Gerasimov was actually talking about how the Kremlin understands what happened in the “Arab Spring” uprisings, the “color revolutions” against pro-Moscow regimes in Russia’s neighborhood, and in due course Ukraine’s “Maidan” revolt. The Russians honestly — however wrongly — believe that these were not genuine protests against brutal and corrupt governments, but regime changes orchestrated in Washington, or rather, Langley. This wasn’t a “doctrine” as the Russians understand it, for future adventures abroad: Gerasimov was trying to work out how to fight, not promote, such uprisings at home.

But is this just a case of a pedantic scholar splitting hairs? There is no denying that the West is facing a multivectored, multi-agency campaign of subversion, division, and covert political “active measures” by Russia. Does it matter what we call it? Isn’t that “placeholder” term as good as anything else?

But words have weight; they frame our understanding of that campaign, of how it works, and what it does. Without being aware of it, clinging to this inaccurate moniker also limits and misdirects us in our attempt to grasp and thus combat it.