The so-called “Arab Spring” and subsequent mass-protest-driven developments in the Middle East as well as across the post-Soviet space have alarmed Russian military strategists. In Moscow, the notion of “hybrid warfare”—which, in the Russian reading, represents a combination of coordinated military and non-military measures (Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, February 26, 2013; March 7, 2016)—came to be associated with forceful regime change via externally sponsored public discontent in the form of “color revolutions” or even civil war. Reflecting on lessons of regional conflicts in the Middle East, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, emphasized the need to maintain permanent control over territory (including critical infrastructure and means of communication) as an antidote against destabilization and anarchy.
In 2017, these ideas were further developed by the prominent Russian military expert and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Missile and Artillery Sciences (RARAN), Konstantin Sivkov, who argued that “the current structure of Russia’s Armed Forces does not answer the needs of hybrid wars.” The military, he continued, needs to integrate the means of irregular warfare to “effectively withstand a hybrid aggression” (Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, April 10, 2017). Analyzing the past two decades of warfare, Sivkov concluded that “irregular units of the partisan type (guerrillas) have acquired a paramount role in a war of the new type” and will increasingly continue to play a pivotal role in terms of both defensive and offensive operations.
Consequently, he proposed classifying two separate key branches of these “irregular” forces:
- Irregular Forces of Defense (IFD)—tasked with operative functions on Russian territory and essentially taking the form of “territorial defense units.” Their functions would boil down to the following:
– neutralizing popular uprisings;
– fighting against terrorist groups and illegal (para)military formations (including airborne forces);
– imposing and maintaining various special legal/security regimes (including a state of emergency);
– protecting important objects and infrastructure; and
– participating in containing industrial disasters.
IFDs would be composed of a broad range of forces or formations, ranging from military-patriotic groups—including those integrated in the Volunteer Society for Cooperation With the Army, Aviation and Fleet (DOSAAF)—to various Cossack organizations. In the end, those multifaceted forces would become something akin to “new Cossacks,” residing in so-called “military-industrial settlements.”
- Active Irregular Forces (AIF)—capable of performing missions abroad and structured and organized as “specialized non-governmental organizations.” Effectively, this description covers the Russian Private Military Companies (PMC) acting in Ukraine, Syria and arguably beyond (see Jamestown.org, July 13).
Incidentally, Sivkov’s description of IFDs clearly references Russia’s pre-1918 experience, when Cossacks and some other non-Russian nationalities within the Empire were tasked with carrying out defensive functions and maintaining control over the territory where they resided (Adjudant.ru, accessed July 12). In this regard, Sivkov argues, in order to maintain a high level of military preparedness, Russia should be divided up along the territorial-militia principle. This envisages the creation of “military-industrial settlements” (each responsible for a pre-allocated territorial area) where local (para)military formations could conduct regular military exercises and breed a new generation of young people with strong a military identity and ardent patriotism. The functioning of such settlements should be controlled by local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Armed Forces, the Russian expert suggests. And the government should provide minimum financial assistance, including subsidies in the form of non-taxed farmsteads and loan preferences.
Sivkov claims that various types of small and heavy arms, lightly armored military equipment, and off-road vehicles would ensure a sufficient level of military-technical capabilities for Russian IFDs. In terms of personnel, the author makes an interesting distinction between the “lower” and “upper” tiers of such organizations. The former should include 100,000–150,000 combat-ready personnel per each military district; whereas, the latter (“the highest tactical unit”) ought to consist of a 2,000–3,000-strong taskforce, consisting of several mobile groups specifically charged with eradicating terrorists and/or mobile contingents of enemy forces operating on Russian soil. According to Sivkov, the integration of IFDs into the regular Armed Forces could help guard against a civil war breaking out in Russia thanks to more effective control over specifically allocated territories. As he notes, irregular defense forces would play a military (war against foreign PMCs and special services acting in the rear) and a non-military (countering an information war waged by a “fifth column”) role in resisting the threat posed by adverse forces seeking to dislodge the sitting Russian government via “color revolutions” (Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, September 11, 2017).
The exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia’s westernmost militarized fortress, represents perhaps the clearest example of a Russian region where Sivkov’s ideas have begun to be put into practice, particularly as of 2014–2015. Illustratively, several years ago, Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill declared, “Cossacks, like in previous periods of Russian history, have to form the vanguard of those who defend the country” (Newkaliningrad.ru, October 14, 2015). That call has since resulted in the oblast’s government setting aside $237,000 (in 2018) for local Cossacks to involve them in guarding against illegal logging (Newkaliningrad.ru, January 30, 2018). Moreover, the government has been promoting measures to popularize the movement, resulting in a quantitative increase in the number of Cossacks (24 units) residing in this Baltic exclave (Newkaliningrad.ru, December 22, 2016).
Within four years, these measures have turned Cossacks into one of the most formidable forces ensuring the “stability” in Kaliningrad. Tellingly, in November 2017, the first Cossack “territorial defense” platoon was officially unveiled in the port city of Baltiysk (Kazak39.com, November 27, 2017); supposedly, this unit had earlier taken part in Russia’s massive strategic-level military exercise Zapad 2017. Powers granted to the local Cossacks actually go beyond the original list proposed by Sivkov. Also in 2017, authorities in Kaliningrad announced the formation of the first “Cossack cyber squad” (“kiber druzhina”), consisting of “highly qualified volunteers” from the oblast’s Cossack Institute of Technology and Design. Reportedly, the squad will deal with “dangerous information content” on the Runet (Russian-language section of the Internet) (Newkaliningrad.ru, March 17, 2017).
Fears of Western-backed “color revolutions” and “hybrid war” have highlighted the lack of modern-day ideas among the Russian elite for how to effectively deal with these perceived threats. Ideas elaborated by Sivkov and being implemented in Kaliningrad are not new and harken back to the Russian experience in 1810–1857, when Cossack military settlements brought neither social tranquility, nor military victories. The result of the government’s experimentation with reliance on irregular defense forces then was disastrous: hatred for the regime skyrocketed while both the Russian economy and military capabilities deteriorated. It is difficult to see how this time will be any different.