Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Defense Policy

Jānis Bērziņš

Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Defense Policy
To cite this article: BĒrziŅš, JĀnis, “Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine: Implications for Defense Policy”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2014, pages 4-7.

Russia considers Ukraine (and Belarus) as part of itself, something that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Henry Kissinger put it, ‘to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.’[i] Moreover it is considered, with Belarus, to be a guarantee of Russia’s territorial integrity. This is a very sensitive issue. Historically, one of Russia’s most important defense strategies is ‘depth’.[ii] This explains why it expanded its borders to the West as far as possible. For Russia, it was already difficult to accept that the Baltic States became NATO members in 2004. Moscow claims the West guaranteed that former Soviet republics and satellites would be left as a neutral buffer zone. True or not, the fact is that nowadays NATO’s border is approximately 160 km from St. Petersburg, instead of 1,600 km 30 years ago. In the hypothetical case of Ukraine joining NATO, the city of Belgorod that was deep inside the USSR would be on the border.

For Russia, Ukraine is supposed to be a close ally or, at best, neutral. Thus, it considers the involvement of the United States and the European Union in Ukrainian internal affairs to be a direct confrontation to its regional interests. Moscow is rightly convinced that the United States and the European Union were working to attract Ukraine to their sphere of influence, ignoring Russia’s natural right to the region. Russia’s goal has always been to make Ukraine a friendly and subordinate partner. After the West’s interference, this seems to be further out of reach than ever.

Still, notwithstanding the fact that the Russian government is convinced that the West has financed the Ukrainian opposition and organizations such as NGOs with the objective of destabilizing the Yanukovitch government, it signed an agreement led by the European Union and mediated by the foreign ministers of Poland, France and Germany, to end the protests on 21st February 2014. The deal included restoring the Ukrainian Constitution as it was between 2004 and 2010 until September, when constitutional reform was expected to be completed; early presidential elections no later than December 2014; an investigation of the government’s violence, to be conducted jointly by the opposition government and the Council of Europe; a veto on declaring a state of emergency; amnesty for protesters arrested since 17th February; surrendering of public buildings occupied by protesters; the confiscation of illegal weapons; new electoral laws to be passed and the establishment of a new Central Election Commission.[iii]

Although for Russia the agreement was not optimal, it considered that is was better to face a temporary loss than to face increasing instability. There would be time to establish more favorable conditions for winning the next presidential elections, substituting Yanukovitch with someone more competent. However, the opposition continued to push for Yanukovitch’s resignation. Speaking to the crowd from the stage on Maidan, Volodymir Parasiuk declared that if Yanukovitch did not resign by 10am on 22nd February an armed coup would occur.[iv] Police withdrew, leaving government buildings, including the President’s residence, unguarded. A new coalition was created in the Ukrainian parliament, with 28 members of its members leaving the pro-Russian Party of Regions’ faction.[v]

Snipers started shooting at both protesters and the police, with two versions emerging of what was happening. One, supported by Russia, was that the opposition (backed by Western countries) was behind the shootings. The other was that the snipers were from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the SBU, acting on Soviet-era plans with the objective of escalating the conflict, thus justifying an operation to end the protests.[vi] If this was true, the result was the opposite. It gave more power to the opposition, which was able to pass a bill in the parliament impeaching President Yanukovitch. He and other government officials left the country, and a new government was formed. This triggered Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

First, Russia considered Yanukovitch’s impeachment to be illegal. Therefore the new government was not legitimate. According to the Constitution of Ukraine, the procedure to impeach the President must observe the following procedure: a.) the President is formally charged with a crime; b.) the Constitutional Court reviews the charge; c.) the Parliament votes. The impeachment takes place only if there is a three-fourths majority. Second, Russia considers the new government to have been formed by extremists, who are jeopardizing the security not only of Russians in the Ukraine, but also of Ukrainians themselves. Therefore, Russia argues that it has a moral mission to protect Russians minorities in case their security and basic rights are violated. Third, Russia is convinced that the West betrayed the agreement signed on 21st February. As the opposition continued to push for Yanukovitch’s impeachment, the agreement was voided.

Ukraine always represented a red line for Russia. Thus, it decided to act to preserve its regional interests for several reasons. First, and most importantly, it acted to preserve its military interests. Crimea has been the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet for more than 250 years. An anti-Russian government could cancel the agreement permitting Russia to have military bases there. Second, it considers the fact that Crimea became a part of Ukraine in 1954 a mistake, since it has always been a part of Russia. Third, to give a clear message to the West that the Ukrainian issue is a real red line and it should remain in the Russian sphere of influence. Fourth, to show that Russia is to be respected and considered to be of a similar stature to the United States. It does not want to be integrated into the West, but to be an independent actor. Fifth, to divert public attention from Russia’s own internal social and economic problems. (However, this is only effective in the short-run. Although Putin’s popularity has been increasing since the occupation of Crimea, it is to be expected that Russia’s structural problems, combined with the economic sanctions, will make it decline again soon.) Sixth, to make clear that any attempt to split off from the Russian Federation will not be tolerated.

Russia’s Campaign in Ukraine as New-Generation Warfare

Russia’s military strategy can be divided into three interrelated levels. First, doctrinal unilateralism: the idea that the successful use of force results in legitimacy. The weak reaction of the United States and the European Union has indicated that the strategy is correct. Second, by strongly adhering to legalism. Without discussing the legal merit of Russian actions, they were all backed by some form of legal act. Putin asked the Russian parliament for authorization to use military power in the Ukraine if necessary. Naturally, it was granted. Russia uses this fact together with the argument that it never used military power in Crimea as a sign of its peaceful intentions. Third, Russia denies that it occupied Crimea militarily, since the troops there were local self-defense forces. In addition, although the number of troops stationed there increased, the total was still within the limits of the bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia obviously supported the referendum promoted by Crimean pro-Russian political forces, who were trying to legitimize Crimea’s incorporation. Russia argues that this is a case of self-determination similar to Kosovo. The West considers the referendum to be illegitimate. It violates the constitution of the Ukraine, and it was organized in such haste that there was no option in the ballot paper for voting for Crimea to remain part of the Ukraine. Russia considers this to be merely legal cynicism. It argues that the West considers events of the same character to be legitimate or illegitimate, according to whether it’s in its own interests or not. Russia has also been arguing that its actions are the result of its commitment to defend the Ukraine’s territorial integrity in accordance with the many international agreements signed during the 1990s.

The Crimean campaign has been an impressive demonstration of strategic communication, one which shares many similarities with their intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. At the same time it is essentially different, since it reflects the operational realization of new military guidelines to be implemented by 2020. Its success can be measured by the fact that in just three weeks, and without a shot being fired, the morale of the Ukrainian military was broken and all of their 190 bases had surrendered. Instead of relying on a mass deployment of tanks and artillery, the Crimean campaign deployed less than 10,000 assault troops – mostly naval infantry, already stationed in Crimea, backed by a few battalions of airborne troops and Spetsnaz commandos – against 16,000 Ukrainian military personnel. In addition, the heaviest vehicle used was the wheeled BTR-80 armored personal carrier.[vii]

After blockading Ukrainian troops in their bases, the Russians started the second operational phase, consisting of psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and internet/media propaganda to undermine resistance, thus avoiding the use of firepower. The operation was also characterized by the great discipline of the Russian troops, the display of new personnel equipment, body armor, and light wheeled armored vehicles. The result was a clear military victory on the battlefield by the operationalization of a well-orchestrated campaign of strategic communication, using clear political, psychological, and information strategies (Ripley & Jones, 2014), the fully operationalization of what Russian military thinkers call ‘New Generation Warfare’.

Figure 1- Source: Герасимов, 2013.


The main guidelines for developing Russian military capabilities by 2020 are therefore:[viii]

  1. From direct destruction to direct influence;
  2. from direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay;
  3. from a war with weapons and technology to a culture war;
  4. from a war with conventional forces to specially prepared forces and commercial irregular groupings;
  5. from the traditional (3D) battleground to information/psychological warfare and war of perceptions;
  6. from direct clash to contactless war;
  7. from a superficial and compartmented war to a total war, including the enemy’s internal side and base;
  8. from war in the physical environment to a war in the human consciousness and in cyberspace;
  9. from symmetric to asymmetric warfare by a combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns;
  10. from war in a defined period of time to a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.

The Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battle-space is the mind. 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. The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary. Instead, the objective is to make the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country. It is also interesting to note the notion of permanent war. It denotes a permanent enemy. In the current geopolitical structure, the clear enemy is the Western civilization, its values, culture, political system, and ideology.

The phases of new-generation war can be schematized as: (Tchekinov & Bogdanov, 2013, pp. 15-22)

First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).

Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

Third Phase: intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.

Fourth Phase: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

Fifth Phase: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units.

Sixth Phase: commencement of military action, immediately preceded by large-scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. All types, forms, methods, and forces, including special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, and secret service intelligence, and industrial espionage.

Seventh Phase: combination of targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, continuous air force harassment, combined with the use of high-precision weapons launched from various platforms (long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons).

Eighth Phase: roll over the remaining points of resistance and destroy surviving enemy units by special operations conducted by reconnaissance units to spot which enemy units have survived and transmit their coordinates to the attacker’s missile and artillery units; fire barrages to annihilate the defender’s resisting army units by effective advanced weapons; airdrop operations to surround points of resistance; and territory mopping-up operations by ground troops.

In other words, the Russians have placed the idea of influence at the very center of their operational planning and used all possible levers to achieve this: skillful internal communications; deception operations; psychological operations and well-constructed external communications. Crucially, they have demonstrated an innate understanding of the three key target audiences and their probable behavior: the Russian speaking majority in Crimea; the Ukrainian government; and the international community, specifically NATO and the EU. Armed with this information they knew what to do, when and what the outcomes were likely to be. They demonstrated that that the ancient Soviet art of reflexive control is alive and well in the Kremlin.[ix]

This is very relevant to understanding its strategic significance, since it is the operationalization of a new form of warfare that cannot be characterized as a military campaign in the classic sense of the term. The invisible military occupation cannot be considered an ‘occupation’, by definition. Not only were the troops already on Crimean territory stationed at Russian naval bases, but they were also officially part of the local civilian militia. The deception operations occurred inside Russian territory as military exercises, including those in Kaliningrad to increase the insecurity of the Baltic States and Poland. At the same time, the Crimean parliament officially (although not legally by the Ukrainian constitution) asked to join the Russian Federation. Ukrainian media was jammed. As a result, Russian channels of communication propagating the Kremlin’s version of facts were able to establish a parallel reality, legitimizing the Russian actions in the realm of ideas.

Final Remarks

The probability of a frontal direct military attack from Russia on a near neighbour is very small. Instead, a Russian attack would probably follow the first five phases described above. They do not give ground for invoking NATO’s Article 5. As a result, direct occupation following traditional warfare methods is not very probable. Rather, Russia would like to split the country and take part of its territory, in the same way as it is doing in Ukraine. To achieve this objective, it will most probably not go beyond the fifth phase of new-generation warfare. The first phase, the one of non-military asymmetric warfare encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures, as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup for the next phase is already happening in many countries of the post-Soviet space. This includes creating discontent among the local population with national institutions. The questions of Russian as an official language, citizenship, the poor level of social and economic development in border regions, are some examples.

The second phase is the initiation of a special operation to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions. The third phase is intimidation, deception, and bribing of government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their duties. The fourth phase is to increase instability among the population by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion in border regions. The next and final phase would evolve to the imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with local armed opposition units.

The biggest challenge for a country’s security and defense is its unpreparedness to deal with such a scenario. Usually, it is the result of the simplification of strategy by many outside the defense and security sector, to 3rd generation military deterrence. There should be no doubt that the defense ministry and the armed forces should be ready to act in such a scenario. However, national security requires a multilevel approach. Nations need to develop multilayered, comprehensive, defense plans.

Since Russia’s strategy is opportunistic, reflecting the notion that any campaign is to be pursued only in the case of certain victory, it will not initiate the second, third, and fourth phases unless favorable conditions are clear. Ensuring that it does not take place is entirely a country’s own responsibility. If it does, remedial action may be too late. As the popular saying goes, ‘it’s no use crying over spilt milk.’


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[i] Kissinger, H. (2014). How the Ukraine crisis ends. The Washington Post, March 6. Available on
[ii] The idea of “depth’ as military strategy means the distance between opponent forces and the main structural assets of a country (military frontlines, bases, or industrial and commercial hubs). In operational terms, the greater the distance to be traversed by enemy forces to reach these bases, the better are the chances of a successful defensive operation. Napoleon and Hitler’s invasions of Russia/Soviet Union are good examples of the significance of the “ depth’ for a country’s defense.
[iii] See the “Agreement on the Settlement of Crisis in Ukraine’, available at
[iv] See “Люди поставили ультиматум: отставка Януковича до утра’,
[v] See “28 MPs quit Party of Regions faction in Rada’, available at
[vi] See “Kiev snipers: Who was behind them?’, Available at
[vii] The BTR-80 is a Russian lightly armored amphibious vehicle with a collective chemical-biological-radiological (CBR) protective system, developed during the Soviet Union in the first half of the 1980s. It has a crew of three men, carrying a squad of seven troops.
[viii] Adapted from Peter Mattsson’s DSPC lecture in Riga “The Russian Armed Forces Adapted to New Operational Concepts in a Multipolar World?’, February 19, 2014.
[ix] Reflexive control can be defined as “(...) a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action’ (Thomas, 2004). For a comprehensive analysis of the Russian and Chinese achievements in this area, see Tatham, 2013.