Current Russian and Chinese ways of warfare: the end (?) of military violence in peer-state conflict


When it comes to the winning of wars, it might be thought that military organisations today, just as they have always done, would be concentrating their efforts on how best to use kinetic force. Military violence is, after all, what militaries do. But not, it seems, any more – or at least not in regard to peer-state warfare as conducted by the Russian and Chinese militaries. Today, both are making the case that armed forces using actual armed force to win major wars is a little passé. As Timothy Thomas of the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office puts it, when it comes to the winning of wars against its state rivals, Russia now – and remarkably – has a ‘General Staff [with a] reliance on non-military methods of thought’. Such a reliance by such a body would appear to be unique in the annals of modern warfare.

As both the Russian and Chinese militaries have realised, peer-state warfare has moved on. Strategic thinking in this realm has undergone a quiet revolution over the last decade or so. New opportunities are now presenting themselves for militaries to ‘win’ wars against their peer-state adversaries in ways that would have been unthinkable until quite recently. In ‘modern conflicts’, as General Andrei Kartapolov, the current commander of Russia’s Western Military District (and former Deputy Head of the General Staff) expressed it, the ‘goal is not the physical destruction of the opponent or state infrastructure but rather the full subordination of its leadership and elites to [the attacker’s] will’. It is this full subordination of will that now equates, in the eyes of the Russian military, to the winning of wars.

Karl von Clausewitz himself was of the same opinion. The goal of warfare, he noted, was indeed to impose your will on the enemy. His logic, however, was that this could only be achieved by first overpowering the enemy’s armed forces in the field. This, by extension, would then lead to the imposition of will on that enemy’s ‘leadership and elites’. Nowadays, though, and given the information warfare and other non-violent means available, the military of one state can totally miss out the intervening variable of an adversary’s armed forces and simply, in terms of imposing its will, move straight on to controlling the adversary’s ‘leadership and elites’. In current logic, military violence – the ability to visit ‘physical destruction’ on a peer-state adversary – and however counter-intuitive it may seem, need no longer play a part in the ‘winning’ of major wars. This is clearly the view expressed by Kartapolov and also by a host of other writers in Russian military journals.

The Chinese military takes the same approach. This was framed back in 1999 by the ‘Two Colonels’ from the PLA in their seminal book, Unrestricted Warfare. They were of the opinion that in warfare ‘the best way to achieve victory is to control, not to kill’. It is this philosophy that underpins the current Chinese ‘Three Warfares’ idea (i.e. media, psychological and legal), which sees Beijing’s ‘wars’ being won without any actual fighting. Indeed, the use of any ‘kinetic engagement’ in such wars is seen as ‘irrational’ because it is simply not needed.

The basic reason behind both of these militaries’ move towards a ‘reliance on non-military methods of thought’ is, of course, weakness. There is, within both the Russian and Chinese armed forces, a sense of inferiority when compared with Western counterparts and, in particular, with the forces of the United States. It is certainly being made clear in Russian military writings that, for the foreseeable future, overt conflict with Western peer-state adversaries has to be avoided. It is being admitted that in such a conflict Russian forces would face inevitable defeat.

The problem, though, for both Russian and Chinese generals, is that despite this position of relative weakness, their militaries still have to be able to create strategic effect against Western adversaries. Their countries see themselves as being involved in long-term competition with such adversaries. From the Kremlin’s point of view, for instance, the Russian military has two primary tasks in regard to NATO and they are both deterrence-related. The first is to prevent any possibility of a NATO act of ‘aggression’ against the homeland (however unlikely this might seem from a Western perspective) and the second is to prevent any interference by NATO wherever Russian forces might intervene abroad (such as currently in Ukraine and Syria). The most efficient way for the Russian military to fulfill both tasks is to make sure that no high-level decisions are ever taken by NATO states to use military force against Russia itself or use it to counter Russian military activities on the international stage (see my recent article here).

The weaknesses perceived by both Russian and Chinese militaries has forced them to think more about the concept of warfighting rather than about how best to deliver kinetic effect. As Russian President Vladimir Putin himself once put it, his military had to use its ‘intellect’ more.

This intellectual effort has led, in the Russian case, to a form of warfare today that is deeply asymmetric and ‘indirect’ in tone. It is summed up in the noun/verb currently being much employed in Russian military circles: ‘neutralisation/neutralise’ (neitralizatsiya/neitralizovat’). As one article in a Russian military journal puts it, ‘the indirect action strategy [against Western adversaries] will draw on, above all, a great variety of forms and methods of non-military techniques and non-military measures, including information warfare to neutralise adversary actions without resorting to weapons’. The word also appears in Russian military doctrine itself: the threat, this document notes, from Russia’s NATO adversaries has to be ‘neutralised’. Indeed, last month Putin also used the same word, saying that the role of the Russian military had to ‘effectively neutralise’ threats to the country.

This neutralisation is designed to be achieved basically through the use of these ‘non-military techniques and non-military measures’ to engender the aforementioned ‘full subordination of leadership and elites to [Russian] will’. In essence, the leadership and elites of adversary states  would be intimidated, persuaded, manipulated or inveigled into making decisions that run in Moscow’s favour. This would be done via a host of actions applied by the Russian military in coordination with other organs of state power and employed over a long time-period and working to create both top-down and bottom-up pressures. While the ideal is stated to be – as with the Chinese aspiration – to gain actual ‘control’ [kontrol’] over an opponent’s decision-making, a lesser but still substantial goal is to engender a degree of disunity within an opponent’s ‘leadership and elites’. This is done so that decisions are either never agreed upon or are made too slowly to effectively counter, for instance, Russian or Chinese aggressive military actions.

In the Russian case, while principally targeting those individual states with views distinctly antithetical to Russian interests, a prime outcome is to create a disunity in regard to decision-making vis-à-vis Russia within NATO ranks. Such a disunity would undermine the Alliance’s capacity to threaten/coerce/deter Russia and, in particular, to challenge Russian military activities abroad (including in Ukraine). For of course, if no decision is ever made by NATO to use force against the Russian military then it does not matter how weak that military is in relation to those of the NATO powers. A Russian military left unchallenged is one free to achieve its objectives – to ‘win’ its wars.

There is, however, a paradox here; a paradox of modern strategy. There is a certain understanding in these moves by both the Russian and Chinese militaries away from the use of military violence as a provider of strategic effect and more towards the use of non-military modes of warfare. This understanding is that the effectiveness of such means actually relies for optimal effect on the possession of significant military strength. The non-violent modes of warfare designed to shape and hinder adversary states’ decision-making has to be backed up by an impression of both threat and resolve. Threat and resolve act to produce their own psychological pressure that can influence such decision-making. Both Russia and China are working hard to create proficient, capable and well-equipped military organisations that, while they would still be found wanting against US/NATO military technologies in open warfare, can still be seen to represent a threat. This threat is then magnified by planned displays of resolve through sabre-rattling: the likes of provocative military exercises, intimidatory troop deployments and threats of nuclear weapon first-use. Within any adversary’s leadership and elites dovish elements will be cowed by such activity while the more hawkish will demand action. An incapacitating disunity – both within targeted states within their alliances – is the desired result. Thus military proficiency allied to aggressive signalling can and will reinforce the ability of ‘other means’ to influence or slow down the decision-making of a rival state’s leadership elements.

Thus it appears to be the case that both Russian and China are developing military organisations that will be used – at least in regard to peer-state warfare – more for their bark than their bite. There will be a ‘reliance on non-military modes of thought’. Indeed, they do not need the bite. Both recognise that in warfare today, as Kartopolov put it, ‘the goal is not the physical destruction of the opponent’. Using violence is deemed unnecessary, ‘irrational’. The goal is simply to either ‘neutralise’ or, more ideally, to gain ‘control’ of that opponent’s decision-making processes in order to achieve desired strategic effects. This perhaps represents what passes for ‘victory’ in peer-state warfare today.

Image: Vladimir Putin and President of China Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Russia-China Naval Interaction 2014 joint exercises at the Usun naval military base, via

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