Russia: Understanding Russia’s concept for total war in Europe

By Martin N Murphy, PhD/ Heritage

Russia perceives itself as surrounded by enemies, and that the strategic depth that has been its principal security must be restored. In this sense, no territory is more significant than Ukraine. Russian leadership also worries about the erosion of a zone around Russia’s borders where politically dangerous ideas can be stifled before they undermine the regime’s hold on power.

Russia’s leadership believes it can stem this erosion and achieve its objectives by combining organized military violence with economic, political, and diplomatic activity, a combination called new generation warfare (NGW). NGW is a concept for fighting total war in Europe, across all fronts—political, economic, informational, cyber—simultaneously through fear and intimidation without launching a large-scale attack. If fighting is required, it is highly networked and multi-directional. The stakes can be raised rapidly, possibly without limit.

President Vladimir Putin is confident in this approach because he sees US hesitation as opportunity and believes the US is overly dependent on military responses. Thus, NGW is designed to avoid giving the US and other adversaries a reason to respond using military force. The U.S. needs to broaden its response portfolio to include political, diplomatic, economic, financial, cyber, covert, and other means coordinated into a comprehensive approach to counter the NGW strategy. Russia has brought total war back to Europe—in a hidden, undeclared, and ambiguous form. Failure to confront Russian opportunism will validate Putin’s approach.

In the night of February 26 to 27, 2014, small groups of armed men, who later acquired the labels “little green men,” and even “polite green men” (which were anything but), appeared across Crimea. They corralled Ukrainian forces in their bases, making it plain that any attempt to leave would be met with violence; they took over communications masts and studios, ensuring that the only messages accessible to the Crimean population were those they sent out; they took over government offices, ensuring that no decisions other than those they approved could be made; and eventually, at the point of a gun, ensured that the Crimean assembly voted to approve a plebiscite, which would eventually return a near-Soviet-era approval rating of 93 percent for the (re)-unification of Crimea with Mother Russia. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, later admitted the denials made at the time about Russian involvement were untrue, and that the entire operation had been planned and conducted by Russia’s armed forces. Shorn of its disguise it was a Russian invasion and occupation pure and simple.

Crimea is a peninsula extension of Ukraine that, while incorporated into Russia in Tsarist times, had been part of Ukraine since 1954. It remained so when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine emerged as an independent state. The transfer was reaffirmed in a further treaty in 2003. Russia’s invasion was an act of war in contravention of the United Nations Charter and international law. Moreover, when Russia subsequently absorbed Crimea, it was the first forced transfer of territory in Europe since 1945. Russia’s claims that it has acted legally in response to appeals by the ousted Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, and the region’s majority Russian-speaking population, were manifestly bogus.

This illegal act, and the subsequent Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, has sparked shamefully little international outrage. The belief appears widespread that, while the West seeks a negotiated settlement to the eastern Ukraine invasion, it will acquiesce to the seizure of Crimea. The principal Western response has been economic: the imposition of a very limited range of sanctions on Russian individuals and corporations which, although they have inflicted quite possibly greater economic pain than is realized or yet apparent, has not made Russia’s leadership re-think its aggression or restore the status quo ante. No attempt has been made to supply Ukraine with the arms it needs to expel the Russian-backed forces from its territory. This reluctant response, not least by the Obama Administration, makes a broad-based understanding of what appears to be a new Russian politico-military doctrine essential. The same goes for the steps the United States and its allies need to take to counter it successfully in the future.

How Russia views the West

Russia perceives itself as a country surrounded by enemies. This has been a persistent theme throughout its history. It was an important driver of its westward territorial expansion into Central Europe, south across the Black Sea and into the Caucasus, and east all the way to the Pacific, in search of strategic depth. It began under the tsars, took a pause during the early days in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, but continued in 1945 under the rule of Stalin. With the fall of the Soviet Union, significant portions of that depth were lost, most significantly in Europe.

Russians also ascribe cultural and military significance to territory; it is difficult for outsiders to understand how important it is to Russians’ sense of national identity. In this sense, no territory is more significant than Ukraine, in which is located much of the original Russian heartland known as the Rus, and Crimea which, when transferred to Ukraine by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, occasioned considerable resentment even at the time. Equally, it seems that many Russians are unable to appreciate how seminal personal and political freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are to the self-identity of people living in Western Europe and North America, and to the peoples of Central Europe that retain a clear recollection of Soviet oppression.

The sense of encirclement featured prominently in the 2003 Russian Defense White Paper, which essentially dismissed the concept of a “common European home” that had been proposed by the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, along with its commitment to non-aggression. Suspicion of Western good faith, and the belief that NATO and the European Union had abrogated agreements arrived at following the fall of the Berlin Wall, compounded Russia’s belief in its own isolation and vulnerability. In particular NATO was accused of expanding into former Warsaw Pact states in defiance of understandings. Yet in 1993, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, in speeches in both Warsaw and Prague, conceded that Russia could not stand in the way if former Warsaw Pact states wished to join NATO or the European Union, and that such moves did not compromise Russian interests. Although Russian officials quickly repudiated their leader’s public statements, the U.S. and NATO’s European members made it clear that in the light of Yeltsin’s admission they would welcome the accession of Central European states.

The crucial point, however, was that it was the facts on the ground that counted. NATO enlarged because it could. Russia, now no longer the Soviet Union, was weak. Because Russian weakness continued, Western European governments subsequently felt able to shrink their own defense establishments radically, while successive U.S. Administrations felt free to withdraw forces back to bases in America. Even as Vladimir Putin’s antagonistic rhetoric and Russian investment in its military capability increased, fed by high energy prices, neither was met with a commensurate response from the West. The upshot is that NATO is relatively weaker militarily, and less cohesive politically, than it was. Russia is aggressive now because it can be.

Putin stated that Crimea was annexed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. While there was a remote possibility that Ukraine may have been admitted to the EU, its chances of joining NATO in the near future and sheltering under Article 5 collective defense guarantees were close to zero. Putin’s statement was political: The message to his domestic audience was that Russia was strong again and would remain so under his leadership; to NATO and Western leaders it was a signal that Russia had the means and the will not just to stop NATO coming to Ukraine’s aid (as it had done to a limited extent with Georgia in 2008) but to take back what had been taken from it during its own period of weakness.

This defiance, however, is not born of strength, but of the recognition that, while the gap has narrowed considerably, its inferiority to the West continues. Russia believes it is under attack. It believes that the strategic depth, which has always been its principal security, must be restored, and for that to happen it needs to gain the strategic initiative. The narrative that the West has defaulted on, or even broken, post–Cold War agreements is useful as a justification for aggressive diplomacy and covert measures even though it takes no account of Western Europe’s de-militarization and the fact NATO made no attempt to advance its front line hundreds of miles eastward. In 1994, Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov even stated that he had “become convinced NATO is not a threat to Russia, but I have millions to convince in Russia who are still worried that it is a threat.”[8]

Under Putin, no effort was made to correct this impression, arguably because no substantial authoritarian state has survived without external enemies. Consequently, it now demands, in effect, that the West acquiesce in suppressing (or at best refusing to support) Ukrainian democracy, personal and press freedom, rule of law, and economic ties to European and world markets. It wants the countries in what it refers to as its “near abroad” to remain locked into its sphere of influence without any prospect of release. While Putin talks about the need for a military buffer zone between Russia and the West, what worries him and his lieutenants more is the erosion of a political dead zone around Russia’s borders where politically dangerous ideas can be stifled before they infect the homeland and undermine his position. A Ukraine—or even Belarus—that escaped Russian control sufficiently to hold free and fair elections, defeat corruption, guarantee judicial independence, and succeed in building a diversified market economy free of state-run enterprises would stand as a powerful rebuke to the faux democratic, corrupt, and energy-dependent home of oligarchic-capitalism that is Russia today. Unfortunately, too many Western countries are prepared to appease Russia—at least to a point—in hopes of a quiet life. Under President Obama, the United States appears to be one of them.


To be continued…