Gerasimov on the characteristics of modern warfare

Valery Gerasimov
General Valery Gerasimov, image from Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Chief of the Russian general staff Valery Gerasimov held a speech at the Military Academy in Moscow during a March 22-23 conference. Here he reflected on the trends of modern warfare and the general geopolitical situation that faces Russia.1

I thought it would be interesting to look at his messages, especially in the light of Putin’s March 1st speech to the Federal Assembly where he showcased a range of new strategic nuclear weapons.

A complete transcript of Gerasimov’s speech has not been published. However, Krasnaya Zvezda has a fairly comprehensive account of the speech with many direct quotes. It seems good enough to get the idea.2

I often find Gerasimov’s statements informative when trying to understand how the Russian military establishment sees itself and the world. Putin and defense minister Shoigu have a different agenda in their public appearances where the intended audience is either the Russian public or foreign states. Gerasimov, however, addresses the military personnel, so his goal is more to make sense and direction than to impress or instill fear.

Overall, I’d say that this speech is much in line with Gerasimov’s earlier messages. So where Putin’s speech was interpreted by some analysts as a forewarning of a new and more aggressive military posture, Gerasimov’s speech gives more credit to the notion of continuity.

On the geopolitical situation

Gerasimov starts out with some considerations about the geopolitical situation. The primary driver of instability is identified as the attempts by the United States to maintain a unipolar world and undisputed global leadership in all aspects of life. Many states including Russia refuse to take dictates from USA, so they are standing up for a more just world order.

This has led to intensified confrontations between the governments. Mostly they play out with non-military means within the political, economical, and informational spheres. In fact, it has turned into an almost total confrontation where all aspects of society are utilized to achieve geopolitical goals including diplomacy, science, sports, and culture.

History has shown that the West uses military means to augment the effectiveness of non-military measures against undesirable governments. This takes place either through direct application of military force or more indirectly as an underlying threat of military intervention. USA and its allies show little regard for international law in their application of military power. Either they disregard the established norms of international behavior altogether, or they apply some creative interpretations to achieve their goals under the pretense of protecting democracy.

Syria is an example of modern warfare in action

Gerasimov mentions Syria as an example of the geopolitical dynamics and the characteristics of modern warfare. Before Russia entered the conflict, Syria had been under attack for more than four years and fought an undeclared war on the right to exist at all.

At first, it was difficult to get a comprehensive understanding of the situation because officially no foreign country had declared war on Syria. However, all the illegal rebel groups were armed, financed, and controlled by foreign powers. Slowly the conflict intensified, and it mobilized not only regular troops but also the protest potential of the population and the forces of extremist terrorism.

So instead of engaging directly in armed conflict, the enemies of Syria (i.e. the West) attack through nontransparent actions. In that sense it serves as a good example of modern warfare. The soul of warfare has changed, and although all conflicts are different, it is possible to identify some traits of this new kind of war. The environmental span of the battlefield is growing, and the conflicts are getting more tense and dynamic. On the other hand, there is less time available for both planning and execution of operations.

Modern warfare requires an agile doctrine

So according to Gerasimov we are leaving a doctrine of consecutive and concentrated actions for an approach with uninterrupted and distributed attacks in all sectors and theaters of conflict.

This requires agile forces with high levels of mobility and an ability to integrate different weapons and troops into a single system of coordinated action.

The role of electronic warfare is growing as well as different kinds of information operations within both the technical and psychological spheres. High-precision weapons permit accurate and timely engagement of carefully selected targets. The ability to strike far beyond the frontline is supported by the development of drone technology.

With more different kinds of targets and more effective weapons the battlefield has grown. Targets may have military or economical significance even though they are physically located far from the zone of direct military actions. The first targets in a conflict will likely be a country’s economy or the ability of the government to coordinate effectively. This will not only take place with traditional kinetic weapons but also through cyber operations or in space. For example it is possible to attack an opponent’s systems of communication, intelligence, or navigation.

Independent joint battle groups are the key

Then Gerasimov moves on to talking about the practical implications for the Russian military. To be prepared for the wars of the future, Russia will continue to integrate forces of all branches into independent joint battle formations. This allows the military districts to act effectively in scenarios ranging from peace to war. Therefore we will continue to see a balanced technical modernization of all branches of the military.

The ambition for the military districts to conduct strategic operations independently requires an increased focus on reserves and airborne quick reaction forces. Also, there will be electronic warfare units and UAVs in all force formations. It is a strategic priority to have more air and naval bases so there is a better geographic distribution, including in the Arctic.

Long-range high-precision missiles are now an integral part of Russia’s military doctrine. There are different versions which are launched from land, sea, or aircraft, and together they ensure that Russia has this capability in all directions from the country. The development and refinement of these weapons will continue.

The same goes for the C3 systems which allow the effective use of high-precision weapons. There is a great focus on improving the command networks to allow for faster and more precise application of long-range weapon systems. This includes the integration of UAVs as both intelligence sources and weapon delivery platforms.

Finally, there is a focus on developing effective countermeasures against the enemy’s use of these same measures. Electronic warfare is a growing field, but equally important is the development of new air defense systems that effectively protects against enemy UAVs and high-precision weapons.

Unchanged nuclear strategy

Gerasimov mentions the new nuclear weapons that Putin revealed in his March 1st speech. He explains that the idea is to ensure that Russia will maintain a strategic nuclear deterrent in an age when the enemy has a ballistic missile defense. Then he goes on to explaining that the overall direction still is to raise the nuclear threshold, because the development of high-precision missiles creates a conventional alternative to nuclear deterrence.3

Given how much Putin talked about nuclear weapons in his speech, it is noteworthy how lightly Gerasimov touches on the subject. Clearly the focus in his speech is on conventional forces.

  1. A similar speech to the Military Academy in 2013 gave root to the much debated term “The Gerasimov Doctrine” (which doesn’t exist). 
  2. Krasnaya Zvezda is the Defense Ministry’s own newspaper. 
  3. I still believe that Russia’s nuclear strategy is a source of many misunderstandings in the West. I recently wrote the pieces “U.S. Nuclear Posture Review misses the point on Russia” and “Russia’s new nuclear weapons are about missile defense”, and they seem in line with Gerasimov’s message. 




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