The Russian military’s view on the utility of force: the adoption of a strategy of non-violent asymmetric warfare

By Dr. Rod Thornton

Russian military thinking seems to have reached the point now where the idea of using force intentionally in conflicts with peer-state adversaries has been almost completely ruled out. This seems a radical move. But there has been a clear recognition within this military that better strategic outcomes for Russia will result from the use of non-violent ‘asymmetric warfare’ activities rather than those which will or can involve the use of force – such as conventional war or hybrid warfare.

Asymmetric warfare, of course, and in a nutshell, is a method of warfare employed by the weak against the strong where the former seeks to level the battlefield with the latter. The weaker party, using its own relative advantages, attempts to turn the strengths of its opponent into vulnerabilities, which can then be exploited. The means used are ones which, in essence, cannot be used in return – reciprocated – by the target (‘asymmetrical’ means that which cannot be mirror-imaged). Fundamentally, asymmetric warfare is all about activity that, rather than bludgeoning a target into strategic, operational and tactical defeats, actually manipulates it into them. And it is all done, ideally, with no use of force. As Sun Tzu, the ‘father’ of asymmetric thinking, told us, the acme of skill in the conduct of warfare is to defeat the adversary without the use of any force. See, for instance my book titled Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century.

It was President Vladimir Putin who back in 2008 first pointed his military in the direction of asymmetric warfare. In suggesting ways to counter what was accepted as western military superiority, Putin advised that the armed forces ‘should not chase after quantitative indicators … our responses will have to be based on intellectual superiority. They will be asymmetrical, less costly’. Putin understood that efforts to try and match NATO’s military power, especially in terms of technology, would be unavailing and prove ruinous for the Russian economy. The ‘cost’ also of engaging in open warfare was unsupportable. In essence, the Russian military would have to become more subtle – it would have to employ ‘intellect’ in attempts to create strategic effect and do so, ideally, without the use of force. For what Russia needs to avoid, of course, is the use of any military violence in situations that might cause NATO to invoke Article 5 and thereby set in train the costly conventional war.

Surprisingly, in many ways, the Russian military has readily adopted asymmetric thinking. Russian military journals have come to be suffused over the last few years with articles lauding the qualities of ‘asymmetric warfare’ (asymmetricheskie voina). Among the senior officers pushing for the tenets of asymmetric warfare to be adopted throughout the armed forces is Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, the current Deputy Chief of the General Staff (and aged only 53). It is significant that such a high-flyer (he previously held the prestigious post of commander of the Western Military District) is among those urging the capture of asymmetric warfare techniques in doctrine and for its methods to be taught in military academies ‘down’, he says, ‘to a very low level’. Such methods, he goes on, will ‘enable the levelling of the technological superiority of the enemy’. In his ‘principles of asymmetric operations’, Kartapolov talks of the ‘concentration of efforts against the enemy’s most vulnerable locations (targets) [and the] search for and exposure of the enemy’s weak points’. The specific emphasis, he points out, will be on ‘non-violent’ (nenasil’stvennoe) methods of asymmetric warfare.

Other articles present similar arguments for the use of asymmetric warfare by the Russian military. The overall message for this military, and as the influential military newspaper Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda) summed up last year, is that when it comes to the conduct of warfare in the current era, ‘The main emphasis must be placed on asymmetrical means and methods’.

The principal aim of Russian asymmetric warfare is to create degrees of destabilisation (destabilizatsiya) within targeted states and within collectives of targeted states (e.g. NATO, EU). A target that is destabilised (in whatever sense) is one that, in Russian military thinking, is more susceptible to Russian leverage, i.e. it can be manipulated more easily. The range of methods used to engineer such outcomes are mostly based on the use of information (for more on this, see my paper in the RUSI Journal  titled ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’). Information warfare targets the strengths of NATO states – the fact, for instance, that they are democracies and have free media – and turns them into vulnerabilities: elections can be manipulated; opinions can be altered to Moscow’s advantage; agent provocateurs can operate with impunity; journalists and academics can be paid to present a certain line, etc. The West’s use, moreover, of high-tech information systems in all forms of social, financial, economic and industrial life, again, while providing great strengths, will also be presenting vulnerabilities to Russia cyber operations – in both the cyber-psychological (most important in Russian thinking) and the cyber-technical realms. Perhaps, however, the greatest degree of Russian leverage/manipulation will be generated by the targeting of individuals – decision-makers, political and military leaders, etc. These can often be co-opted or blackmailed if the right incrimination information – kompromat – is available.

And all this plays to the Russian military’s own strengths – its ‘own relative advantages’. While it might lack ‘quantitative indicators’ – the tanks, aircraft and ships – it does have a massive capacity to gather information, to disseminate (mis)information and to employ considerable cyber abilities. There is also, and importantly, a history and a culture in both the Russian and Soviet militaries of emphasising and employing to good effect non-violent military means. Perhaps the key term here is maskirovka, one which covers considerably more than just the use of ‘camouflage’.

Conventional military assets are still needed, of course. But these days they may be seen to be acting in a supporting role for the asymmetric warfare campaign against NATO interests. Their outwardly sabre-rattling movements, deployments and activities are seen as means of creating ‘indirect leverage’ that can, in turn, manipulate western actors into making counter moves that actually suit Moscow’s purposes.

The Russian military is now also employing asymmetric warfare methods that these western actors find very difficult to retaliate against on a like-for-like basis – reciprocity is largely denied. Russian democracy has become very much a ‘managed’ one and this closes down many avenues of retaliation. Russia is also not open to cyber attack in the same way that western states are and defences in the country are more pronounced.

The Russian military can and is using non-violent asymmetric means to considerable strategic advantage against NATO. They are, wherever one looks, destabilising and manipulating to good effect. Given this continuing situation and the strategic results that are patently being produced in NATO countries, why would the Russian military need to consider the conventional use of force? What utility does it have?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “The Russian military’s view on the utility of force: the adoption of a strategy of non-violent asymmetric warfare

  1. The United States Congress needs this concept to be taught to them. Our elected talking heads play right into this type of aggression.


  2. Well this article was from five years ago, and today in 2022, it is clear that Russia has thoroughly revised their thinking . Their new asymmetric warfare doctrine in Ukraine can best be described as “We try to kill the enemy’s civilians, while enemy’s military forces kill us.”


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