Military Learning and the Future of War Project
The Institute for the Study of War is launching a series of papers that explores the ways the United States, its competitors including Russia and China, and these and other potential adversaries are learning from ongoing geopolitical competition and military engagements. The series explores the ways these evolutions in the operating environment provide opportunities for experimentation and testing of new technologies, capabilities, and approaches to war. The papers explore organizational adaptations to incorporate new capabilities, doctrinal changes to harness them, and the ability to institutionalize these changes in ways that will shape the future of war.
Read this essay from ISW's President and Founder Kimberly Kagan to learn more about the project.
Report by Mason Clark (September 2020)
America’s current strategy for responding to the Russian threat is based on a misunderstanding of the Russian approach to war and exposes the United States and its allies to a high risk of strategic defeats. The 2018 US National Defense Strategy gives primacy to deterring major conventional great power wars. Russia also seeks to avoid such wars even as it designs a different way of waging war to achieve its revisionist objectives. The US largely views this Russian approach, hybrid war, as a set of activities below the level of conventional conflict. But Russia includes significant conventional conflict in its conception and execution of hybrid war. If the US continues to focus on deterring the kind of war Russia does not intend to fight while underestimating the role military force can and must play in preventing Moscow from accomplishing its aims through hybrid war, then the US will likely suffer serious strategic defeats even as its defense strategy technically succeeds.
The Kremlin is even now waging a hybrid war against the United States. The Kremlin assesses that hybrid wars already dominate 21st century conflict and will continue to do so. The Kremlin believes it must adapt to win this struggle, profoundly shaping Russian military development and assessments of the future of war.
Russian hybrid wars include the use of significant conventional forces and conflict. The Russian military defines a “hybrid war” as a strategic-level effort to shape the governance and geostrategic orientation of a target state in which all actions, up to and including the use of conventional military forces in regional conflicts, are subordinate to an information campaign.
The Russians define hybrid war precisely and coherently as a type of war, rather than a set of means to conduct state policy. The U.S discussion of hybrid war overly focuses on the means short of conventional forces and conflict that the Russians have most famously used. The Russian soldiers without insignia (“little green men”) who helped seize Crimea in 2014, and the proxies Russia uses in eastern Ukraine, are most often the focus of Western assessments about how to respond to Russian hybrid war.
The Russian conception of hybrid war is much more expansive. It covers the entire “competition space,” including subversive, economic, information, and diplomatic means, as well as the use of military forces extending above the upper threshold of the “gray zone” concept that more accurately captures the Chinese approach to war.
Report by Nataliya Bugayova (September 2020)
The West has had some success in countering the Kremlin since Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has found ways to offset external pressures on Russia without relinquishing his gains and goals. Putin’s center of gravity is increasingly his ability to shape others’ perceptions and create the image of a powerful Russia based on limited real power.
Putin’s efforts since 2014 to offset the weaknesses of Russia’s position and advance his goals have focused on creating a Russia-favorable global information space; growing Russia’s military footprint in a targeted way that provides asymmetric opportunities to influence decision making; cocooning Russia in a network of coalitions and international organizations to amplify Russia’s limited power; diversifying the tools and means of Russia’s influence and subversion; expanding Russia’s influence in peripheral theaters; and consolidating power inside Russia.
Putin’s evolving approaches enable him to play a bad hand well, but his hand remains weak. Putin’s dependency on asymmetrical approaches will grow as the gap between his means and aims likely increases. This gap will not necessarily threaten the survival of Putin’s regime, but it will provide opportunities for the US to counter the Russian challenge.
The West should cut oxygen to two key amplifiers of Putin’s power — narratives and coalitions. The long-term solution versus Russia would be building collective immunity to the Russian challenge, including strategic intelligence capabilities in the US and its partners to recognize Putin’s slow tactical creep before it becomes his strategic advantage.