Grading Gerasimov

Evaluating Russian Nonlinear Warfare through Modern Chinese Doctrine

The following post was penned by Victor R. Morris, a civilian contractor and instructor at the U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Germany. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of JMRC, United States Army Europe, United States European Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, the United States Government, or Booz Allen Hamilton.

Wars are not declared, and having begun, proceed to an unfamiliar template,” stated General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, during a closed speech at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences. The primary topic of this speech was “The Role of the General Staff in the Organization of the Defense of the Country in Correspondence with the New Statute about the General Staff Confirmed by the President of the Russian Federation.”

This speech, given in late 2013, was crucial because it enumerated and elucidated the strategies that would develop Russian nonlinear military doctrine in 2014, known as the “Gerasimov Doctrine”. Russian Foreign Policy Reviews, State Security Strategies, and the “Gerasimov Doctrine” combined with Russian political views to codify nonlinear war as the emergence of a new kind of warfare. Nonlinear warfare is facilitated by 21st century technologies and multiple actors employing combinations of conventional and unconventional instruments. In short, “the very rules of war have been fundamentally changed” and, according to General Gerasimov, non-military means have surpassed the use of force to achieve strategic and political goals. The current situation in Ukraine and, to some extent, in neighboring former soviet republics (primarily Baltic States) highlight the application of nonlinear war.

Is it working?

To adequately assess current and future threats to European security and the methods to counter such threats, this article intends to “grade”, or evaluate, specific applications of nonlinear war in Ukraine based on Chinese military doctrine, geopolitical strategies, and conflicts in Europe.

Russia’s Road to nonlinear war: Cold War, 1979-Present

“Unrestricted war is a war that surpasses all boundaries and restrictions. It takes nonmilitary forms and military forms and creates a war on many fronts. It is the war of the future.” — Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted War, Beijing, 1998.

The “Gerasimov Doctrine” contains particular similarities to the Chinese doctrine outlined in Unrestricted Warfare, published in 1999, and historical roots in previous Russian doctrine. Both strategies involve using proxies or surrogates to not only exploit vulnerabilities in low intensity conflict, but to also prepare for future operations that may involve high intensity conflict. Other strategies involve applying both low- and high-tech asymmetrical means, and also engaging in several forms of warfare. For example, Unrestricted Warfare describes 13 forms of “total war”1 and methods to consciously mix “cocktails” on the battlefield, or to employ combinations of forms of warfare to find innovative and effective approaches. In Ukraine, the notion of consciously “mixing cocktails” to produce effective nonlinear strategies highlights the unpredictable effects that these approaches may have on the organs of government. Regardless of the particular nonlinear strategies applied, destabilization and exploitation of vulnerabilities are the result. Therefore, the assessment tool for this article is the effective application of warfare combinations in four categories to reach specific long-term political outcomes.

In continuing to approach this assessment within an academic metaphor, this article imagines Russia as a student. Russia has studied nonlinear war (called active measures) throughout the Cold War and in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and continued these studies with interventions in Moldova and Lithuania in the early 1990s. Furthermore, from 1994 to 2009, Russia “double-majored” in nonlinear war during the First and Second Chechen Wars. While completing undergraduate coursework, Russia entered the workforce by engaging Georgia with espionage in 2006, conducting cyber attacks against Estonia in 2007, and completing counterterrorism campaigns in Chechnya in 2009. The Russo-Georgian War in 2008, however, is an exemplary case of (1) the evolution of nonlinear or hybrid capabilities; (2) the application of indirect instruments in order to destabilize a country; and (3) the volatile effects of such tactics that persist today. Moreover, during and after this conflict, Russian tactics also combined cyber warfare with both informational and conventional means. Currently, through the lens of this article’s academic metaphor, Russia is perfecting its nonlinear war practices by pursuing a Master’s Degree in Ukraine. This program involves subjects such as gaining and maintaining popular support, mobilizing military forces, refining nonlinear approaches to war, and preparing for future unconventional conflicts.

21st Century Warfare

“What we see in Russia now in this hybrid approach to war, is the use of all the tools that they have to reach into a nation and cause instability.” — General Philip M. Breedlove, Munich Security Report 2015.

“New generation, ambiguous, hybrid, nonlinear, unrestricted, irregular, unconventional and asymmetric” are all terms associated with 21st century warfare. Warfare is typically defined in two general forms: Traditional and Irregular. Traditional Warfare can be summarized as peer-to-peer or peer-to-near peer competitors fighting for the destruction of the other. This competition also involves seizing territory or resources. Irregular Warfare is defined as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations2. Irregular Warfare favors indirect approaches, asymmetric means and employs hybrid threat strategies to reach mutually benefitting effects. A central component of Irregular Warfare is unconventional warfare, which employs “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerilla force in a denied area”3. Another definition of Irregular Warfare outlines the achievement of “strategic objectives by avoiding an adversary’s conventional military strength while eroding an adversary’s power and will, primarily through the use of indirect, non-traditional aspects of warfare.”4 The former application of unconventional warfare relies on external parties aiding indigenous actors against governments. Some examples of aid involve training, equipping, advising and employing kinetic action to seize terrain or increase the advantage of irregular forces. The term “irregular forces” refers to state and non-state military or paramilitary forces. Nonlinear warfare directly or indirectly employs non-military and military instruments through the following means: diplomats, intelligence agencies, professional soldiers, special operations forces, insurgents, guerillas, extremist groups, mercenaries, and criminals.

Contemporary hybrid warfare, hybrid threat and hybrid aggression have all been used to describe potent and complex variations of warfare in the 21st century. Although this type of warfare is not new, contemporary threat actors are redefining the application by employing 21st century technologies and combinations of diplomatic, intelligence, militaristic, economic, and humanitarian means, and in various domains that are overlapped by cyberspace. What further complicates this form of warfare is the persistent fluctuation and manipulation of political, informational, and ideological conflict — key aspects of hybrid warfare which extend past traditional coercive diplomacy and unconventional war. This article utilizes the term “nonlinear war” in the same context as defined by Russian military doctrine: as a means to reach desired strategic orientation and geopolitical outcomes, primarily through non-military approaches.

Making the Grade

“Today’s wars will affect the price of gasoline in pipelines, the price of food in supermarkets, and the price of securities on the stock exchange. They will also disrupt the ecological balance and push their way into every one of our homes by way of the television screen” — Alvin Toffler

As previously outlined, the grading process considers the effectiveness of warfare combinations and their ability to reach their intended outcomes. In the case of Ukraine, probable intended outcomes are summarized first as destabilizing both the region specifically and the European Union as a whole; second as preventing NATO military infrastructure near Russian borders; and third as preventing NATO membership expansion. Political ideology involving Eurasianism and dividing the west are also possible objectives. The following assessments are based on how well the Russian Federation conducts various operations in conflicts with regard to four combination categories containing varying forms of warfare as outlined in Chinese unrestricted warfare doctrine: supra-national, supra-domain, supra-means, and supra-tier.

Supra-national combinations are a synthesis of national, international and non-state organizations. In the 21st century, global powers must borrow multinational and non-state powers in order to expand their own influence. One of the most recent examples of this combination involves the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and its competition with Ukrainian-European integration, which eventually led to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. This union operates through supra-national and intergovernmental institutions which include a mutual defense alliance. Possible Russian objectives for the EEU involve growth into a powerful, supra-national union of sovereign states analogous to the European Union in order to form a unilaterally beneficial bridge between Europe and Asia. Intermediate competitive objectives may involve enlarging the Customs Union to post-Soviet states, which could eventually involve breakaway regions of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine whose parent countries have already signed association agreements with the European Union. Ukraine is strategically important because it has the second largest economy of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union5. The EEU is the probable mechanism for waging current and future non-military forms of warfare with regard to international law, finance, economics, and resources. This fact is made evident by the recruitment efforts of the EEU on one side and the imposition of sanctions, northwestern European defense cooperation, and oil production by Middle Eastern states on the other.

Another example of the concise application of supra-national combinations is the perceived manipulation of the world’s largest intergovernmental security organization, known as the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This organization is responsible for monitoring ceasefires in Ukraine, including the Minsk Protocol which collapsed in early 2015, and the ceasefire currently in effect. Historically, the Russian Federation has accused the OSCE of being a tool for Western states to advance their specific economic and political interests. Recently, allegations have surfaced that the OSCE has a pro-Russian bias, which explains the organization’s failure to monitor the Minsk Protocol, as well as the subsequent ceasefire and subversive combat operations. This view is consistent with the fact that international warfare’s objectives are to subvert and sabotage the rule of law.

Grade: D

Supra-domain combinations involve employing or merging combinations beyond the domains of the traditional battlefield. Russia’s ability to overlap all domains to include activities in cyberspace to create political and military effects offers a prime example. The combinations that Russia has employed under this model involve: media and fabrication, cultural warfare (defending compatriot Diasporas abroad and leveraging historical memory), psychological warfare, and network warfare (dominating or subverting media). Additionally, Russia has emphasized influence operations in the informational dimension (part of the information environment). The objective is to reduce the requirement for military forces, which is exercised through subversion, disinformation campaigns and false narrative control; English and Russian language propaganda; protests; and disruptive “trolling” and Twitter activities online. Although disinformation campaigns erode over time, employing a whole of government approach using information operations and attacks in cyberspace support the overall nonlinear, destabilizing efforts in Ukraine as a key component of this type of new warfare.

Grade: A

Supra-means combinations unite aspects of military and non-military means to reach desired objectives. This category can be directly applied to the initial destabilization of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The Crimea operation was a decisive application of nonlinear warfare for a variety of reasons. It illustrates nonlinear warfare phases involving initial destabilization, deception, information operations, and limited military intervention, all with local population support. Supra-means combinations are also visible in the current conflict in eastern and southeastern Ukraine involving pro-Russian conventional, irregular, and special operations forces that employ blended tactics supported by a malicious information campaign.

This initial assessment alone, however, does not adequately address the applications and compounding effects of the more complex combinations in this category. Combinations of technological, resource, and economic aid warfare must also be assessed. The technological assessment focuses on having an advantage that involves superior conventional military equipment and weapons of mass destruction; Russia currently has both. Conversely, pro-Russian separatists do not presently possess full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, or Sea of Azov access. Therefore, it is clear that this group is not completely successful in combining militaristic, cultural, resource, and economic aid warfare at that level. In turn, this particular lack of success affects the same combinations on the supra-national level, but with a different degree of intensity. These intermediate objectives involving territorial control may be further met through cease-fire agreements giving concession to separatists, or overt deployment of military forces into the Donbas region if recognized as a Russian State.

Conversely, the result may be a sustained de-centralized insurgency or “frozen conflict” with ineffective mission command from Russian military and political actors further destabilizing both countries economically. International military aid and assistance to Ukrainian security forces and internally displaced persons are also possible long-term outcomes creating further instability in the region. Operating through the entire depth of the enemy territory is one of the specified objectives included in the “Gerasimov Doctrine”, which ultimately results in territorial defense-related political objectives.

Grade: C

Lastly, Supra-tier combinations meld all levels of conflict in each campaign. For instance, Russia’s Ukraine campaign blends the tactical, strategic and operational levels of war in the region. This category’s assessment is based on “beyond-limits” war in unrestricted warfare, where both decentralized and man-machine combinations perform multiple functions. These functions span regional ground tactics to international political level effects. Conventional and unconventional operations involving naval fleets, commercial airliners, armed civilians, tanks, air defense and artillery weapons employment, drone operations, abductions, assassinations and electronic warfare are all examples of how, in Eastern Europe, tactics from this category continue to blur the traditional lines of war.

Grade: B

Report Card Conclusion

The above grades are a snapshot in time or “academic term”, and undoubtedly fluctuate based on measures taken by domestic and international partners to counter nonlinear war in both Ukraine and in neighboring countries. This assessment is designed to highlight the approaches and combinations employed during nonlinear war, and more importantly, how these tactics are evolving to become more innovative and effective. By no means, does the article downplay the severity of the conflict in Ukraine and loss of life as a result. If Russian doctrine and military modernization programs continue to evolve based on nonlinear war experience and limitation assessments, international actors will be presented with an increasingly unconventional threat in future conflicts. In order to counter nonlinear and unconventional approaches to war, and identify vulnerabilities, one must first understand and assess these approaches to preempt crippling and irreversible political effects.


1. The 13 forms of war enumerated in Unrestricted Warfare are: financial, smuggling, cultural, drug, media and fabrication, technological, resource, psychological, network, international law, environmental, economic aid and urban terror.

2. Joint Publication 3–26 Counterterrorism 2009 defines Irregular Warfare in concise terms on page viii.

3. The Counter Unconventional War White Paper (USASOC) 26 September 2014 defines unconventional warfare in joint doctrinal terms and lists it as a central operation or activity in Irregular Warfare.

4. Hybrid War: Is the US Army Ready for the Face of 21st Century Warfare by Major Larry R. Jordan Jr. 2008, defines Irregular War the same way as the US Special Operations Command and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and low intensity combat in 2005.

5. A Wikipedia Eurasian Economic Union lists Ukrainian economic statistics when compared to the previous Soviet States.

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