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The Russian ‘Colour Counterrevolution’ Model for Containing Geopolitical Expansion by the West

Ieva Bērziņa

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Dr Ieva Bērziņa is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security and Strategic Studies at the National Academy of Defence of the Republic of Latvia
Bērziņa, Ieva, “‘The Russian ‘Colour Counterrevolution’ Model for Containing Geopolitical Expansion by the West”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Spring 2015, pages 23-26.

By Vitaly V. Kuzmin, via Wikimedia Commons


‘Colour revolution’ was the term coined to describe the mass protests against the political elite that broke out in the post-Soviet region, a decade after the breakdown of the USSR. One’s perspective on ‘colour revolutions’ and choice of corresponding discourse depends on the observer’s value system. The key to the interpretation of ‘colour revolutions’ is whether they are viewed through the prism of democratization, or not. For instance, one could call it a ‘public uprising against an anti-democratic political elite’ or ‘the ‘creation of controlled chaos’; a ‘fight for democracy’ or ‘the destabilization of a country’. Each way of describing events will construct different realities. In the Russian view of ‘colour revolutions’ the democratic perspective is cast aside, resulting in a narrative that is radically opposite to Western interpretations.

General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, defines ‘colour revolutions’ as a ‘form of non-violent change of power in a country by outside manipulation of the protest potential of the population in conjunction with political, economic, humanitarian and other non-military means’.[i] Russian academics and experts believe that ‘colour revolutions’ give the West, particularly the U.S., the ability to manipulate other countries. In their view, an effective mechanism of interference in the domestic politics of foreign countries has been created. It is a network of NGOs, charities, foundations, national and religious movements, and other elements that can be activated to destabilize the domestic policy situation if the local political elite do not pursue the interests of global leaders.[ii] Put simply, the Russian understanding of ‘colour revolutions’ is a ‘coup d’ état’ supported by the West. As such, it is defined as one of the most important dangers to Russian national security.

The new edition of the Russian military doctrine, like the previous one, defines one of the main external military dangers to Russia as ‘an attempt to destabilize the situation in various states and regions and undermine strategic stability’.[iii] Although the danger is not specifically named as a ‘colour revolution’, its formulation refers to the way in which ‘colour revolutions’ are carried out. According to the Russian perspective, the destabilization of domestic policy may lead to a change of government in the interests of more influential geopolitical players. Alternatively it can get stuck in a phase of social and political chaos if the government in power does not concede. In the latter case, it may lead to civil war, as in Libya and Syria.

The new military doctrine reinforces the problem of ‘colour revolutions’, because it contains two new issues relating to this phenomenon. The list of main external military dangers has an addition: the ‘establishment of regimes, including the overthrow of the legitimate governments, whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation, in the states contiguous with the Russian Federation’[iv]. This is primarily a reference to the Euromaidan events in Ukraine, because the change of the political elite without democratic elections is one of the reasons why Russia considers the post-Euromaidan government in Ukraine illegitimate. This argument goes hand in hand with the belief that the illegitimate change of government took place with the support, and in the interests, of the West.

There is also a new characteristic and feature of modern military conflicts that were not in the previous edition of the military doctrine. The new doctrine says that ‘integrated use of military force, political, economic, informational, and other non-military measures are being implemented with a wide use of the protest potential of the population, and special operation forces’[v]. ‘Protest potential of the population’ is a direct reference to the essence of ‘colour revolutions’. However in the Russian interpretation it is used in the context of military operations. It is an element in the integrated application of military and non-military means of achieving politico-military goals in foreign countries. This is what makes Russian perspective on ‘colour revolutions’ fundamentally different from the original concept, as it was developed in the context of democracy promotion.

From Strategic Non-Violence to Colour Revolution Warfare

‘Strategic non-violence’ is the basic principle of ‘colour revolution’ movements. According to The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies’ (CANVAS) guide to non-violent struggle, it is crucial to maintain non-violent discipline for three main reasons:

(1) Non-violent resistance is sympathetic to many people and increases the likelihood large numbers of people will join the movement;

(2) It will destroy the credibility and legitimacy of the government in power if it attempts to suppress a protest movement violently;

(3) The non-violence of protesters helps to co-opt representatives from power structures such as the military and police[vi].

If representatives from the opposition movement perform acts of violence, it gives an opponent a legitimate excuse to crack down on the movement[vii]. Therefore, for the successful outcome of a ‘colour revolution’, it is important that it does not escalate into violence. Of course, the opposite is true as well: if you want to counter a ‘colour revolution’, it is necessary to escalate violence. It is a simple, but fundamental principle. It explains why Russian military experts define a ‘colour revolution’ as a type of warfare. The destabilizing results of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in the Middle East and North Africa, especially the civil wars in Libya and Syria, give rise to Russian arguments that a ‘colour revolution’ is an adaptive approach to the use of military force.

According to V. Gerasimov, for influential geopolitical forces, achieving politico-military goals in foreign countries in the form of a ‘colour revolution’ is beneficial. It allows for the maintenance of a positive image in the international community; avoids the substantial costs of military operations; and prevents large-scale casualties. If a ‘colour revolution’ is successful in terms of a change of government, then the goals are reached even without the application of military force. But if the non-violent change of government fails, there is then a search for a pretext for a military operation. For instance, protection of civilians and foreign citizens, or accusing a party of using weapons of mass destruction.[viii] In the Western understanding it would be the application of the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’. Conversely, in the Russian understanding, the commitment of the international community to save civilians from suffering serious harm is being discredited as a manipulation for the purpose of pursuing geopolitical interests.

As it is defined by V. Gerasimov, the military involvement of influential geopolitical players in ‘colour revolution’ warfare is concealed. It takes place in the form of:

(1) Military training of rebels by foreign instructors;

(2) The supply of weapons and resources to anti-government forces;

(3) The use of mercenaries and private military companies;

(4) Reinforcement of opposition units with foreign fighters.[ix]

Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, mentions five features that characterize the differences between colour revolution warfare and traditional war:

(1) The boundaries between defence and attack, the strategy and tactics that are characteristic for traditional war, are being erased. There is no front and rear;

(2) Military operations are conducted mainly in urban areas and settlements. Groups of mercenaries and gangs deliberately use civilians as human shields, which leads to heavy losses among the civilian population not involved in the conflict;

(3) Military actions go beyond international law and take on the character of a war without rules. ‘Colour revolutions’ create the conditions for non-compliance with international law regulating the conduct of war. This is due to the fact that the armed groups of the opposition and mercenaries are entities which are outside that legal framework and therefore take no responsibility for violations of international law;

(4) Colour revolution warfare actively involves criminal structures. Impunity and permissiveness leads to the fact that military actions are carried out by bandits and terrorist methods. Terror becomes common;

(5) The extensive use of private military forces and special operations forces, because there is a need for military practices which hide the explicit intervention of one state in the affairs of another. Private military companies are also widely involved in the recruitment of mercenaries.

V. Zarudnitsky sums it all up by concluding that ‘wars initiated within the ‘colour revolutions’ are carried out in the most miserable ways. From the point of view of international law and morality, they are more consistent with the Middle Ages than the twenty-first century’.[x] In fact the ‘colour revolution warfare’ concept, as defined by Russia, outlines new rules of the game in international relations. It significantly reduces the possibility to use the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’, because the internal conflicts of third parties are being framed as the struggle for influence of larger geopolitical powers. Russia, and to some extent its BRICs partners, is challenging the unipolar international system dominated by the West. Therefore there is no longer a coherent international community that considers human rights to be of the highest value. Instead there is a harsh struggle for geopolitical influence, in which the suffering of a civilian population is used as an integral part of the war.

Although Russian experts present the concept of ‘colour revolution’ warfare as a critique of the activities of the West, it can be read as prescription for Russia’s own activities in the international arena. In the case of the crisis in Ukraine in 2013/2014, pro-Russian unrest can be defined as an ‘anti-governmental force’. Therefore the Russian interpretation of ‘colour revolution’ warfare may be mirrored back as Russia’s own strategy of countering increasing Western influence in Ukraine and elsewhere. Escalating and maintaining violent conflicts by supporting (or even creating) one of the parties to the internal conflicts of foreign countries, without direct military intervention, is one of the strategies which Russia uses to counter the geopolitical expansion of the West.

The Non-Violent Dimension of Colour Revolution Warfare

By its very nature, a ‘colour revolution’ is a soft tool for achieving political ends in the sense that the change of government must happen without violence. Therefore, to be able to counter the West effectively, Russia also uses non-military elements that are present in pro-Western ‘colour revolutions’. It can be said that the pursuit of interests in foreign countries can be undertaken more effectively in a hidden manner, by concealing the pursuit beneath an ideology that morally justifies interference (Figure 1). An ideology that is based on globally recognized and accepted values serves as a tool for justifying interventions internationally. It also turns part of the population of a target state into voluntary supporters of larger geopolitical players that promote this ideology. In this way the compliance of a country with the interests of larger geopolitical players can be achieved even without applying military force.

Figure 1. Conceptual Model of Hidden Foreign Interference

The Western concept of ‘colour revolutions’ uses the ideology of democracy promotion. In Russian ‘colour counterrevolution’ it is substituted by a different set of ideas. Russia’s involvement and interest in internal affairs of foreign countries is justified by protection of the rights of Russians outside its borders, antifascism, multiculturalism, historical interpretations, and other arguments. In practice, Russia has not yet formulated a consistent and globally appealing ideology that could be equal to the democracy-promotion concept of the West.

At an instrumental level, Russia is also developing tools to limit and discredit the protest potential of opposition movements. Pro-democracy protests and rallies are being neutralized with pro-government or pro-Russian rallies. Such methods had been used within Russia and in the case of the Crimea annexation in 2014. Anti-rallies make the situation more complicated, because there is ‘a crowd against a crowd’; not ‘the people against the government’. Pro-government and pro-Russian protests also challenge the pattern of ‘colour revolutions’ by raising a question: how many protesters are enough to force the government in power to resign legitimately?

The activities of foreign NGOs which promote democracy have been considerably limited in Russia since the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine in 2004 and the anti-Putin protests in 2012. At the same time, being aware of the operational efficiency of such organizations in the implementation of interests abroad, Russia has itself begun to set up and use transnational organizations. Examples include the Russkiy Mir Foundation (founded in 2007), Rossotrudnichestvo (founded in 2008), the Gorchakov Foundation (founded in 2010), World without Nazism (founded in 2010), and the Russian International Affairs Council (founded in 2010). The main goals of these organizations are: to build and maintain relationships with Russian compatriots abroad; to promote the Russian language and culture; to create a positive modern image of Russia; to strengthen Russia’s view on history; to attract young people from abroad; and others.

The global promotion of these interests requires funding. On April 15, 2014 the ‘Foreign Policy Activities’ State Programme of the Russian Federation was approved.[xi] According to this document the funding of Russian foreign policy activities will gradually increase from around 65 billion RUB in 2013 up to 80 billion RUB in 2020, which is around 2 billion USD. In comparison, the U.S. state operations and foreign assistance request for the 2015 fiscal year is around 50 billion USD[xii]. From these numbers it is obvious that Russia understands the importance of foreign funding in the achievement of its foreign policy goals, but in terms of its financial capacity and scale, is significantly behind the U.S.

Since Russian media are dependent on state power, they can effectively be used as a propaganda instrument in the interests of the ruling political elite. The context of the globalization of the information space allows Russia to target not only domestic audiences, but also people living outside the borders of Russia. In 2005, the Russia Today TV channel was launched; it now broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic, and has 22 offices in 19 countries, with a global reach of over 644 million people in more than 100 countries.[xiii] In 2014 another Russian international media brand, Sputnik, was launched. In this way Russia has channels for spreading its point of view on a global scale as well. Of course, Russia is using not just traditional media, but also social media, to construct its preferred ‘reality’.

Sophisticated political campaigning methods, know-how and tools are very important prerequisites in the struggle for power in contemporary media-influenced politics at the domestic and international level. The US is a global leader in terms of the development of political campaigning techniques, but Russia also has its own body of knowledge and approach to communicating politics. The Russian school of political consultancy is labelled as ‘political technologies’. The specific nature of Russian ‘political technologies’ can be identified by the heavy use of administrative resources, state control of the media, low civic activity, and legal nihilism.

Table 1. The Model of Russian ‘Colour Counterrevolution’

Youth are an important segment in catalyzing mass protests. Therefore, one of the steps that Russia took for the protection of its interests after the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine in 2004, was the establishment of the Nashi (Ours) anti-fascist youth movement in 2005. However the youth movement also created problems in Russia’s relations with the West, because of its activities abroad. For example, the actions of Nashi in Estonia, during the unrest regarding the transfer of the ‘Bronze Soldier’ in 2007, were perceived as a threat to the national security of a foreign country. Today the Nashi movement has lost its importance. There is an ongoing debate about its reorganization or transformation into a party. However, its history is still evidence of Russia’s deliberate steps in countering the influence of the West, by mirroring the tools used by pro-democracy movements.

The main elements that constitute the model of Russian ‘colour counterrevolution’ are summed up in Table 1. A brief overview of the main elements of the soft and hard ‘colour counterrevolution’ methods gives evidence that Russia, over the last ten years, has deliberately developed various ways to act as a counterweight to the geopolitical expansion of the West. The annexation of Crimea was a fast and successful application of the ‘colour counterrevolution’ model for defending Russia’s interests in Ukraine.


In authoritarian Russia, ‘colour revolutions’ are acknowledged as one of the most important threats to its national interests and security. Undeniable foreign involvement in post-Soviet ‘colour revolutions’ give rise to Russian arguments that they are a hidden tool of Western influence. By framing anti-government mass protests as a foreign destabilisation strategy, authoritarian regimes such as Russia can legitimize the crushing of pro-democracy initiatives as being directed against the independence of a country.

To prevent the ‘colour revolution’ threat domestically, Russia considerably limits the operations of foreign democracy promotion initiatives, uses the judiciary and police against the leaders of protest movements, and discredits opposition protests by organizing pro-government rallies and organizations. Russia also provides diplomatic, economic and military support to governments outside its borders in cases where a geopolitical shift of those countries towards the West could endanger Russia’s strategic interests. Ukraine and Syria are two recent examples.

Non-violence is at the core of the Western concept of ‘colour revolutions’. Escalation of violence is one of the ways to counter ‘colour revolutions’, because if protests become violent, it gives a legitimate excuse for the regime in power to oppress opposition movement. In international public discourse it opens the way for a blame game, because the West accuses regimes in power and their supporters of being responsible for the violence, whereas the opposite side, especially Russia, blames the West for destabilizing the prior public order.

Russians discredit democracy promotion initiatives by defining ‘colour revolutions’ as a type of warfare. The use of the term ‘colour revolutions’ is a reference to the pro-Western concept, but by putting it in the frame of warfare, Russians clearly say that it is a tool for the implementation of the interests of great powers. Civil wars in Syria and Libya, which began as a result of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, are used by Russia as evidence that ‘colour revolutions’ can develop into long-term hostilities.

To promote its interests internationally, Russia adapts and uses in its own way the Western ‘colour revolution’ model, but Russian-type ‘colour revolutions’ are not as effective as their Western original. First of all, the presence of Russian armed forces in the case of the annexation of the Crimea, albeit unidentified, is quite obvious. It discredits the ‘democratic’ procedures used as being pseudo-democratic and exercised under military pressure. Secondly, Russia currently cannot provide globally-appealing ideologies and values such as those – democracy, freedom, and human rights – that are supported by the West. Accordingly Russia’s execution of ‘colour revolutions’ is regional, rough and rather brutal.


[i] Gerasimov, V. (2014, May 28). Presentation at the Third Moscow Conference on International Security. In Cordesman, A. H., Russia and the “Color Revolution”: A Russian Military View of a World Destabilized by the US and the West (Full Report). Center for Strategic & International Studies. Retrieved from:
[ii] Minasjan, G., Voskanjan, A. (2013) Zarubezhnije NPO – mehanizm vlijanija na vnutrennuy politiku SNG (Foreign NGOs – mechanism of influence on internal politics of CIS), Obozrevatel [Observer], 3, Retrieved from:
[iii] Kremlin. (2014, December 26). Voyennaya doktrina Rossiyskoi Federacii (Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation). Retrieved from
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] CANVAS. (2007). CANVAS Core Curriculum: a Guide to Effective Non-violent Struggle. Retrieved from, pp.88-89.
[vii] Ibid., pp.164-165.
[viii] Gerasimov, V. (2014, May 28). Presentation at the Third Moscow Conference on International Security. In Cordesman, A. H., Russia and the “Color Revolution”: A Russian Military View of a World Destabilized by the US and the West (Full Report). Center for Strategic & International Studies.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Zarudnitsky, V. (2014, May 23). Moskovskaya konferenciya po mezhdunarodnoi bezopasnosti (Moscow Conference on International Security). Retrieved from:
[xi] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. (2014, April 15). Gosudartsvennaya programma Rossiyskoy Federacii ‘Vneshnepoliticheskaya deyatelnost’ (State programme of the Russian Federation ‘Foreign Policy Activities’). Retrieved from:
[xii] U.S. Department of State. (2014, March 4). Congressional Budget Justification, Fiscal Year 2015. Retrieved from:
[xiii] Russia Today. General info. Retrieved from