What is New Generation Warfare?

Introduction

New generation warfare (Russian: Война нового поколения) is a Russian theory of unconventional warfare which prioritises the psychological and people-centred aspects over traditional military concerns, and emphasizes a phased approach of non-military influence such that armed conflict, if it arises, is much less costly in human or economic terms for the aggressor than it otherwise would be.

Numerous analysts cite the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas as specific examples that followed the guidelines of new generation warfare.

According to one analyst, “the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, … morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population. The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary.”

Refer to Generations of Warfare, Fourth-Generation Warfare, and Fifth-Generation Warfare.

Terminology

The term new generation warfare was first introduced in Russian (Война нового поколения) in 2013, to the terms grey zone and hybrid warfare, and is related to the Gerasimov doctrine. These are all terms that refer to modern military theories of warfare that go beyond conventional warfare. The terms began to spread and take on various meanings, and were not always used with clarity. Some analysts use them more or less interchangeably, while others identify differences among them.

In his 2009 paper, Frank Hoffman noted the rising use of the term hybrid threat, and analyzed the multiple meanings of the term. Hoffman pointed out that there had been resistance among some analysts for the new term, who preferred older concepts of “conventional” and “irregular” warfare, while Hoffman believed that the older terms were insufficient to describe conflicts in the modern world. He defined hybrid threat as an adversary that “simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior in the battle space to obtain their political objectives”.

Since being introduced, the term hybrid warfare has become trendy and is used often in debates on modern warfare. The term has gone through various stages of evolution of its meaning, and has been criticised for being overused. The term is used in official doctrines of nations, and permeates academic and policy discussions. The meaning has been extended to non-state actors, and shifted to be synonymous with “malign Russian activities” under Vladimir Putin. At first, the term was not used in Russia, but has recently been adopted and undergone its own shifting usage: before the Ukraine war it tended to refer to trends in American military thinking, but after 2014 Russia views hybrid warfare as entirely emanating from the West, in that every conflict anywhere in the world, from hot wars to sports to vaccination to the Eurovision song contest are all aspects of “hybrid warfare” waged against them by the West. The West on the other hand views it more as a way of preventing subversion and interference from Russia, including cyberwarfare.

Russia created the concept of new generation warfare, but has also absorbed the hybrid warfare term. According to Suchkov (2021), the difference for Russian analysts is that new generation warfare is outward-facing, i.e. it is about “how to pro-actively engage with foreign adversaries”, whereas hybrid warfare is about how to defend against interference from the West.

Background

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc, which began following the end of World War II and lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A period of openness under the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the first post-Soviet one Boris Yeltsin ended with the 1999 accession to power of Vladimir Putin, who took a harder line and sought to re-establish Russia as a world power with a sphere of influence including the former Soviet republics.

Cold War

The Soviet Union was one of the Allied powers of World War II fighting on the same side as the United States to defeat the Nazis. After victory over Hitler in 1945, the Allies disagreed on what the map of Europe should look like and where the borders would be drawn. The Soviets effectively occupied Central and Eastern Europe, while US and Western allied forces remained in Western Europe. The Soviet Union sought to establish a sphere of influence and dominate the internal affairs of countries in its border regions. Soviet-style regimes arose in the Eastern Bloc.

The US government pursued an increasingly hard line against the Soviets, and prime minister Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri and called for an Anglo-American alliance against the Soviets. Stalin dismissed the accusation that the USSR was exerting increasing control over the countries in its sphere. He argued that there was nothing surprising in “the fact that the Soviet Union, anxious for its future safety, [was] trying to see to it that governments loyal in their attitude to the Soviet Union should exist in these countries”.

Forty years of simmering tensions, rearmament, and proxy wars followed between the two nuclear-armed nations, and their allies. The western bloc created NATO to protect western Europe and contain the Soviets, and the Soviets created the Warsaw Pact in response, uniting eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain. Direct armed conflict between the two nuclear-armed superpowers was avoided (sometimes only barely), such as during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the 1960s, the United States became bogged down in the “quagmire” of Vietnam in an attempt to contain Communism; twenty years later the Russians were bogged down in Afghanistan; each superpower left an Asian war without a victory. Conflicts multiplied in Third World nations, including in Latin America, Indonesia, Israel, South Asia, and Africa. After a period of détente in the 1970s, tensions were reawakened in the 1980s and US president Ronald Reagan “went all out to fight the second cold war”. Pope John Paul II provided a moral focus for anti-communism; a visit to his native Poland in 1979 stimulated a religious and nationalist resurgence centred on the Solidarity movement that galvanised the opposition, which was met by a harsh crackdown in 1981.

Thaw and End of the Cold War

Massive spending in the Soviet Union on the arms race exacerbated already deep-seated structural problems in the Soviet system, In response to the massive build-up on the Soviet side, US presidents Carter and Reagan built up the US military, culminating with the Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”), which the Soviets were not able to respond to. By 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary, the Soviet economy was stagnant. Gorbachev announced economic reforms called perestroika, or restructuring. and glasnost (“openness”) which increased freedom of the press and the transparency of state institutions. This contributed to the accelerating détente between the two nations, resulting in agreements which led to a scaling-back of the arms race. Tensions subsided; the START I arms control treaty was signed, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

On 03 December 1989, Gorbachev and Bush declared the Cold War over at the Malta Summit. By 1990, Gorbachev consented to German reunification, and later that year the two former rivals were partners in the Gulf War against Iraq.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

In 1989, the Soviet alliance system was on the brink of collapse and communist leaders of the Warsaw Pact states were losing power. The Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 in Hungary became a test of how far the Soviet leader Gorbachev was willing to go with glasnost. Thousands of holiday-makers exited Hungary at the border with Austria without interference by Hungarian border guards, and the Soviet Union did nothing to stop it. The dam broke, and tens of thousands of East Germans crossed into Austria. The Hungarian borders were opened on 11 September, and the Berlin Wall fell on 09 November. The 1989 revolutionary wave swept across Central and Eastern Europe and peacefully overthrew all of the Soviet-style east-European states; Romania was the only Eastern-bloc country to topple its communist regime violently. The Warsaw Pact disintegrated in 1991.

Greater political and social freedoms in the Soviet Union instituted by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev created an atmosphere of open criticism. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of a failed coup that had attempted to topple reform-minded Gorbachev. The Baltic States seceded, and Ukraine and Belarus were recognised as independent on 08 December. The Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time on 25 December 1991, replaced by the Russian tricolour. The successor state was headed by Yeltsin until 1999.

Putin Era

Since 1999 Vladimir Putin has headed Russia either as president or Prime Minister. The economy has improved, but he has also been widely accused of corruption, authoritarian leadership, and widespread human rights abuses.

Precursors

Phillip Karber at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency identified 1999 when former KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia as a “pivotal turning point in European security”. Putin has stated that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Ever since, Putin has laboured to re-establish Russia as a world power and dominance in Eastern Europe, and pushed to restructure the armed forces, and introduced new tactics in the 2000 Second Chechen War.

The Russian Army General Staff redesigned the Russian Army for decentralised operations including the possibility of unconventional operations, conventional weapons, and tactical nuclear environments, in order to face different kinds of threats from the high-tech West, massed armies in the east, and unconventional threats from the south. This was used in 2008 in the Georgian conflict, and practiced in field simulations against NATO, through 2013.

It was also in 2013 that publications by Russian military writers about “new generation warfare” became available, and Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov called for “rethinking on the forms and methods of warfare.” Many analysts consider the Gerasimov doctrine the best description of Russia’s modern strategy of total warfare, which uses politics as well as war, and attacks on multiple fronts at once including hackers, business, media, disinformation, as well as military means. The internet has made available the possibility of new tools and approaches to destabilise or influence foreign actors, and the Gerasimov doctrine describes a framework for using them, and says that they are not just adjuncts of military force, but are in fact, the primary or preferred means to victory. The strategy is to foment chaos within an enemy state, and develop permanent unrest and conflict there. West Point analyst John Chambers uses the terms Gerasimov doctrine and new generation warfare synonymously. Chambers views the Gerasimov/new generation warfare doctrine as having been formulated specifically to exploit the weaknesses of large enemy bureaucracies such as the United States.

The Gerasimov doctrine is a foreign policy doctrine named after a February 2013 publication of an article by Valery Gerasimov, Russian chief of the General Staff, which laid out a new theory of modern warfare combining old Soviet tactics and strategic military thinking about total war which was based more on societal aspects than traditional military ones. Gerasimov wrote:

The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. … All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.

The prime example of the use of the Gerasimov doctrine in the field, is the 2014 unrest in Ukraine, where Russia supported extremists on both sides to exacerbate tensions and create unrest, and then used the unrest as a pretext to take over Crimea.

Key Aspects

Previous military strategies focused on traditional military concerns such as supplies, logistics, strength and location of enemy forces, and so on, the new battleground is the mind of the public. Russian warfare analyst Janis Berzins wrote:

Thus, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population.”

Characterizing this emphasis on the mind, Berzins describes the theory as prioritising “influence over destruction; inner decay over annihilation; and culture over weapons or technology”, and is a “total war battlespace” that includes “political, economic, informational, technological, and ecological” aspects. The goal is to implement the theory via eight phases, starting long before there is any military conflict. “Phase Zero” is about preparing the terrain by implementing psychological, informational, and other measures that prevent conflict.

Chambers views New generation warfare as designed to use grey-zone hybrid threats, and “is focused on using non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals as well as military means ‘of concealed character’ to include the open use of forces ‘often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation’ to accomplish objectives. These tactics and techniques are particularly effective against the United States in the gray zone due to laws and regulations affecting our ability to act in Phase 0.”

Strategic Communication

In new generation warfare, communications and the media are used to uphold a narrative aimed both at the international community as well as at a domestic audience, using the language of law to evade the usual deterrence and whip up support at home for operations they characterise as legal uses of force to support “protection and self-defense of Russian nationals” living in Donbas and Crimea, and an invitation for intervention by local leaders there who have been the object of years of softening up by the Russians in the preparatory phases. On the surface, Russia appears or claims to be acting in support of self-defence and sovereignty, as supported by Article 51 of the UN Charter, and supported by acts of the Russian parliament. New generation warfare seeks to take the acts themselves out of the realm of military action, such that it’s unclear if an armed attack has, in fact, occurred, confusing their enemy’s ability to define the response as a military attack and respond to it as one.

Elements

Defence and national security expert on Ukraine Dr. Phillip Karber identified five elements of New generation warfare:

ElementOutline
Political SubversionIntelligence agents; agit-prop operations using mass media to exploit internal differences; corruption, bribery and intimidation of local officials; kidnapping, assassination and terrorism; creating local opposition cells from discontented elements.
Proxy SanctuarySeizing local government centres of power, airports and military depots; arming and training insurgents; creating checkpoints; destroying ingress transportation infrastructure; cyberattacks; phony referendums; establishment of a “People’s Republic” under Russian domination.
InterventionDeploying Russian forces to the border with large-scale exercises involving ground, naval, and air force troops; clandestine introduction of heavy weapons to insurgents; creation of training and logistics camps adjacent to the border; integrating proxy troops into Russian equipped and led formations.
Coercive DeterrenceSecret strategic force alerts; deployment of tactical nuclear delivery systems; theatre and intercontinental manoeuvres; aggressive air patrolling of adjacent areas to limit their freedom of movement.
Negotiated ManipulationUse and abuse of Western negotiated ceasefires to regroup and rearm their proxies; using violations as a tactic, while inhibiting other states from helping due to fear of escalation; split the Western alliance by using oil or economic incentives; selective and repetitive phone negotiations that go nowhere.


Chambers compared Russian New generation warfare planning processes with American ones, and identified an eight-phases construct on the Russian side, and six phases on the American side. They do not line up well, and the first four phases of NGW all fall within Phase 0 of US planning, the latter requiring a lot of interagency planning and communication, slowing it down, while the Russian process is designed to be nimble and work within the US phases. As Chambers puts it:

“The fundamental problem with countering operations in the gray zone takes place when the United States cannot clearly identify gray-zone actors and actions (ambiguity) nor develop a clear common operating picture of actions taking place. In this case, the United States will be constrained by a bureaucracy that will likely not authorize operations until there is a clear threat. At this point, it is too late and the adversary has already used gray-zone operations to shape the battlefield and achieve its strategic objectives.”

In Practice

The New generation warfare theory became used in practice in Crimea and Donbas in 2014, in Russia’s proxy war with Ukraine. Karber stated that “As practiced in Ukraine, Russia’s new generation warfare is manifested in five component elements: political subversion, proxy sanctuary, intervention, coercive deterrence, and negotiated manipulation.”

The invasion of Crimea was carried out quietly using the excuse of humanitarian intervention. In just three weeks and with less than 10,000 troops, Russia managed to dislodge Crimea from Ukraine and annex it, without a shot being fired, and the surrender of 190 Ukrainian bases to the Russians. The ground was prepared for this long before, via a multi-pronged “soft” approach including bribing local officials, paying off oligarchs, providing local separatists with intelligence information, investing heavily in local Ukrainian energy and industrial businesses, and the continual emission of pro-Russian propaganda through networks owned or funded by Russia, and a process of deception known as “maskirovka” (“camouflage” in Russian) to hide its operations. It does the same thing domestically, with its vast control of local print media, but especially via television reporting, which is very dominant news source for most of the population of the country.

The strong governmental control over the media gives it a direct pipeline to influence public opinion in the country. Public support of the media is very high, with 88% believing that Europe and the United States are involved in an “information war” to manipulate Russian media, while the Russian government merely reports the facts.

Accompanying Russian aggression on the ground in Ukraine in 2014, Russia made direct nuclear threats against Ukraine, who had earlier given up their nuclear weapons under the 1994 Budapest Agreement in exchange for an explicit guarantees of its sovereignty from Moscow. Russia has continued to push the limits, operating close to NATO borders with dangerous over-flights, demonstrations of nuclear force, and hostile wargame exercises, causing anxiety among border NATO member countries as well as neutral countries.

Compared to Other Theories

Russia’s new generation warfare differs from hybrid warfare in that it combines both low-end, clandestine operations with high-end direct superpower involvement.

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