Civilians don’t talk much about military doctrine, but military professionals know how important it is. This is the intellectual concept that governs the training and equipping of military forces. Get the doctrine right and troops have a major edge in battle. Get it wrong and they have a major, possibly insuperable disadvantage.
The U.S. Army got it very much right before the 1991 Gulf War. Its AirLand Battle doctrine, adopted in 1982, anticipated fast-moving operations by ground forces supported by air forces using precision-guided munitions. The U.S. Army had been planning to fight such a conflict on the plains of Europe against the Red Army, but it proved ideally suited for fighting the Soviet-equipped Iraqi Army in the deserts of Arabia. The result was one of the most lopsided conflicts in modern military history.
The Russian military hasn’t been faring nearly as well fighting the Ukrainian army. In fact, the Russian war effort has been a study in ineptitude. There are many explanations for the Russians’ dismal combat performance, including low morale and lousy leadership, but part of their failure can be ascribed to the shortcomings of their military doctrine. Doctrine is even more important to the Russians than to Western militaries, because their military is so rigid in its operations and so dependent on orders from senior officers. The Russians fight “by the book.” Trouble is, they’re using the wrong book.
Ironically, the current Russian military doctrine is known as “active defense,” the same name as the U.S. Army doctrine before the adoption of AirLand Battle. A paper prepared in 2021 by a think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), for the U.S. European Command shows how this doctrine left the Russian military woefully unprepared for the invasion of Ukraine.
The premise of “active defense” is that the Russian military is going to fight a more technologically advanced adversary (read: NATO) that has attacked Russia first. In response, Russian troops are supposed to rely on “maneuver defense.” This concept, the CNA analysts write, is “premised on defeating and degrading an opponent while buying time and preserving forces, at the expense of territory. Fires and strike systems attrit the opponent’s forces as they advance, forcing them to concentrate and redeploy ahead of each attack, while conducting brief counterattacks.” In this strategy, the outcome of the war “is unlikely to be determined by seizing terrain” — instead, it is vital to sap “an opponent’s ability to sustain the fight or will to continue fighting.”
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This is almost the inverse of the Ukraine war, where the Russian troops started off as the more advanced force, where they have been on the offensive and they have been trying to seize terrain. The Ukrainians are the ones who have used their own version of “maneuver defense” to stop the Russian onslaught.
How could the Russians have a military doctrine so disconnected from political reality? After all, it has long been obvious that Russian President Vladimir Putin is far more likely to use his military for offensive rather than defensive operations. The risk of NATO invading Russia is close to zero.
In a sense, the Russian doctrine can be seen as a response to the deeply ingrained Russian fear of foreign invasion from Napoleon to Hitler. But according to the CNA, the current Russian doctrine dates to the twilight years of the Cold War, when the Mikhail Gorbachev-era Soviet Union gave up any ambitions of territorial conquest and decided to focus on defensive operations. The world has totally changed in the past 40 years, but Russian military thinking remains stuck in the past. “They’re not configured for the war they took on at all,” Michael Kofman, the lead author of the CNA study, told me.
The futility of Russian military doctrine might come as a surprise to those who imagine that Russian thinking is governed by the Gerasimov Doctrine, named after Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces. The Gerasimov Doctrine has been described as a sophisticated form of “hybrid warfare” that “fuses hard and soft power across many domains and transcends boundaries between peace- and wartime.” It has been credited with everything from the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, using forces without any insignia on their uniforms known as “little green men,” to the successful Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
There’s only one small problem with the Gerasimov Doctrine: It doesn’t actually exist. The term was coined by the British analyst Mark Galeotti in response to a 2013 speech by Gerasimov in which the Russian general talked about the importance of propaganda and subversion in modern conflict. But Gerasimov wasn’t talking about what Russians planned to do. He was talking about what he thought the United States was doing by supposedly orchestrating the Arab Spring and “color revolutions” from Georgia to Ukraine.
Galeotti has since expressed remorse for coining this popular but misleading catchphrase. As he noted in Foreign Policy in 2018: “This wasn’t a ‘doctrine’ as the Russians understand it, for future adventures abroad: Gerasimov was trying to work out how to fight, not promote, such uprisings at home.” In other words, once again, the Russian military was thinking defensively — and that left it ill-prepared to operate offensively.
The aspect of Russian doctrine that is getting the most attention today, in the wake of Putin’s nuclear threats, concerns the use of nuclear weapons. (Most recently, the Kremlin propaganda machine has been claiming that Ukraine will set off a “dirty bomb,” a ploy that many fear could be used to justify Russia’s use of nuclear weapons, and the New York Times reports that senior Russian military leaders have discussed the use of tactical nukes.) Here, the CNA study has some bad news: “Russian military-analytical writings envision a series of steps in which nuclear weapons are first deployed and utilized for signaling, and are then potentially employed in a progressive fashion at the regional level of conflict and finally are used in a large-scale war until the conflict reaches … all-out nuclear war.”
But before you become too alarmed, it’s worth reading a separate analysis on the War on the Rocks website written by Kofman and another CNA analyst, Anya Loukianova Fink. They note that while “the Russian military has a visibly different comfort level with nuclear weapons than the United States … it does not write of nuclear escalation in recklessly optimistic terms, incognizant of the associated risks.” Rather, Russian military doctrine “makes heavy use of nuclear signaling, which serves to create the impression that the country is far looser with its thinking on nuclear use than is actually the case.”
In other words, the Russians rely on nuclear saber-rattling to bluff their enemies into submission. So far, Putin hasn’t given any indication that he is deploying nuclear weapons, despite his threats to do so; in a speech last week he even denied any intention of using nuclear weapons.
In addition to utilizing “nuclear signaling,” Putin is making use of another aspect of Russian military doctrine. Once the enemy’s advance has been blunted, the CNA notes, Russian forces are supposed to “inflict costs on their military and economic infrastructure such that they will seek war termination on acceptable terms.” That is what Putin is doing with his aerial attacks on Ukrainian cities, targeting, in particular, electrical infrastructure to increase the suffering of civilians during the winter.
But Russia is hobbled in fighting this conflict because its generals did not prepare for a protracted war of attrition. They expected that, if Russia was going to enter a lengthy conflict, the Kremlin would order a general mobilization from the start. In peacetime, Russian military units were manned at a level of only 70 percent to 90 percent, according to another War on the Rocks article by Kofman and Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. But the general mobilization never came, leaving the Russian military critically short of manpower during the initial months of the Ukraine war. The army was particularly short of infantrymen, forcing Russian tanks to blunder into battle unsupported by dismounted troops. As a result, the Ukrainians had a field day picking off Russian tanks with Javelin and NLAW handheld missiles.
Only seven months into the war did Putin finally order a partial mobilization, and so far it has resulted in more men fleeing the country than entering the army. Moreover, Russia has lost so many experienced officers and soldiers that it doesn’t have enough personnel to train the new conscripts.
It’s not fair to place all the blame on the Russian military for the way the Ukraine war has been going. The Ukrainians have exceeded all expectations with their inspired combat performance, and they have received far more Western weaponry than anyone expected. The Russian armed forces, for their part, have been hobbled by political interference from the top. The New York Times has reported that Putin rejected the advice of his generals to retreat from Kherson, and CNN reported he has been giving direct orders to generals in the field.
But the Russian military has also done far worse than most analysts expected in part because it was simply not prepared for the kind of war it is fighting. That’s not uncommon in military history. Even so, the best armies adapt on the fly. That’s what the U.S. Army and Marine Corps did during the Iraq War: They had not trained to fight insurgents, but they learned hard lessons and, in 2006, produced a counterinsurgency field manual that contributed to the success of “the surge” in 2007.
The Russian armed forces haven’t shown that kind of ability to improvise. They continue to stick with what isn’t working. The Russian conduct of this war is not only a moral failure but also an intellectual one.