Russian Military Theorists Consider Future War: Bridging the NATO-Russia Gap

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 165

(Source: TASS)

Russian military theorists have a long-developed reputation for paying close attention to the possible contours of future wars. And now—in the context of Moscow’s military modernization, its involvement in armed conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its continued strained relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—Russian theorists are again actively assessing trends in modern warfare and what they will mean for the future of the country’s Armed Forces. A range of real-world actions implemented by Moscow in recent months, ranging from strengthening air defense for the deployed forces in Syria, changes to Ground Forces’ structures, or reportedly moving the conventional and nuclear-capable strike system Iskander-M (without nuclear warheads) into Kaliningrad, connect intrinsically with how the top brass and leading military thinkers view future warfare (see EDM, October 6, 12, 13; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 7; Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October 4).

It is in this context that one of the most significant works in recent years to examine Russian perspectives on future warfare was recently published. Voyna budushchego: kontseptual’nyye osnovy i prakticheskiye vyvody. Ocherki strategicheskoy mysli, (The War of the Future: A Conceptual Framework and Practical Conclusions. Sketches of Strategic Thought, Moscow 2016, 832 pp), co-authored by Colonel (ret.) Igor Popov and Colonel (ret.) Musa Khamzatov, is a culmination of three years’ work, involving roundtables and extensive discussion. The roundtables, presented as an appendix, delved into the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, war as controlled chaos, threats in cyberspace, and the development of military robotics, among other topical issues. According to the book preface, this is not an academic textbook or a traditional military-theoretical work. In fact, the co-authored study aims to explore the problems and perspectives on future warfare by unifying practical and theoretical approaches. Although the book targets career General Staff officers, its overall style seems to range beyond the narrow field of such work for military specialists (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 30).

The authors examine the essence, content and typology of war as part of the ongoing debate as to whether the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is out of date in a nuclear and high-technology warfare era. They remind their readers, for example, that according to Sun Tzu, war is a way of deception. However, drawing upon the top brass’s interest in network-centric warfare, or in adopting command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities for the modern battlefield, Popov and Khamzatov extend this to a slightly nuanced variant of the concept. Their interpretation may better fit what the Russian military is currently pursuing, namely a sistemno-setevoy voyny (system-network war), which allows the authors to consider a range of issues connected to tying territorial defense to modern conditions. Moreover, they both contend that although the experience of the Great Patriotic War will continue to be relevant for Russian officers, the wars of the future must implement fundamentally different approaches with appropriate new technologies in warfare (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 30).

While advocating new concepts or approaches to warfare, including the sistemno-setevoy voyny, the authors avoid dwelling too much on military theory in their book. Popov and Khamzatov also consider what system-network war will mean for a military’s force structure, arguing that further changes in the Armed Forces are inevitable. However, rather than tinkering and experimentation, the basis for these structural changes must be rooted in pursuing principles of flexibility, modularity and versatility—in itself hardly new, but tied to potential “conventional deterrence” and possible new types of warfare. Moreover, as the authors examine the likely contour of Russia’s future wars and its meaning for force development, they argue that, currently, the state can withstand three types of potential adversary: high-technology armed forces from advanced economies, traditional types of military based on 20th century principles, and irregular armed groups operational at international or domestic levels. Nevertheless, the authors also acknowledge they cannot resolve the problem of the science of prediction; instead in this complex and changing environment, they offer some thoughts and views on how warfare might further evolve (Igor Popov and Musa Khamzatov, Voyna budushchego: kontseptual’nyye osnovy i prakticheskiye vyvody. Ocherki strategicheskoy mysli, Moscow 2016).

Interestingly, in categorizing the types of wars or opponents that the Russian state can counter, Popov and Khamzatov ignore the potential future risk of direct confrontation between network-centric adversaries. It is touched upon or implied, but never directly considered in any detail. But their thinking on sistemno-setevoy voyny makes a distinction between Russia possessing a network-enabled capability and actually conducting networked operations. On the latter their thinking merely acknowledges that the wars of the future will use high-technology assets in an operational environment where the human terrain constitutes a key battleground. Other Russian military specialists argue that information warfare has been subsumed by network-centric approaches, again seeing the former in a much wider context. That is not to suggest Russia will no longer use IW, but that it forms part of a bigger picture (, accessed October 12).

One of the strengths in this collection of essays lies in its avoidance of becoming bogged down in the minutia of terms and various categories or sub-categories of warfare. Other Russian writers try to address these issues in such a manner, but clearly there was some dispute about definition among the participants in the numerous roundtables in Moscow. Voyna budushchego also provides evidence that the top brass are interested in assessing these complex issues about future warfare with real vested interests rather than purely academically (, March 5).

Such views are also shaped and influenced by a number of recent developments in the strategic environment and how Moscow understands these events. Chief among them are Russian perspectives on the dangers of color revolution. Russian analysts perceive such activities in a network-enabled environment. By using various opposition groups and covertly funding them, the United States can exert control (or influence) over a territory without the use of military force, they assert. In this sense, some Russian experts argue that network war consists of transactions of varying degrees of duration and scope: strategic, operational and tactical. For a particular state these might be internal or external (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 30).

Western governments would be mistaken if they dismiss such analysis and discussions in Moscow as obscure or only theoretical, as the top brass and the state appear not only interested, but are implanting such approaches to modern warfare. Network-centric capability remains at the cutting edge of future Russian military capability, and it demands deeper understanding.