By Keagan Ingersoll
In April, Russia mobilized 80,000 troops to the Ukraine border as tensions rose between the two nations. While analysts remain unsure of the Kremlin’s intentions, the move raises critical questions about the challenge of identifying Russian posturing as opposed to a real threat. In an era of great power competition and nuclear weapons, failing to recognize the difference between force posturing or preparation for future invasion is a fatal mistake. But due to an imbalance of conventional forces between Russia and the West, the Kremlin is forced to take advantage of emerging crises and asymmetric means of conflict in order to achieve their national objectives. In recent years, the Kremlin has coupled its two of its most unique assets, Vladimir Putin and the Gerasimov Doctrine, with great strategic effect across numerous operational theaters in order to generate instability and advance Russia’s national interests.
Putin the Strategic Opportunist
Since Putin’s rise to power, he has confounded American analysts and presidents. Putin publicly states his support for and dedication to the existing international system, yet his actions suggest otherwise. For example, he worked with Obama on the Defeat ISIS coalition in 2015 but used this cooperation to simultaneously further his support of Assad and launch strikes against Syrian rebels. Though nominally cooperating with Washington, Putin was able to counter US influence in the Middle East while also solidifying Russia’s relationship with Syria and a permanent base in the Eastern Mediterranean. Fundamentally, Putin is a realist who has been willing to work alongside Western states to advance mutual interests, but when these diverge even slightly, Putin has shown no hesitation in abandoning international cooperation in favor of his own endgame.
In this manner, Putin is a strategic opportunist who can easily adapt to changes on the international stage in order to benefit Russian interests. After Turkey shot down a Russian attack aircraft in November 2015, Ankara-Moscow relations reached a new low while already strained due to Russia’s previous violations of Turkish airspace and targeting of Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. Putin was able to use this incident as a means to apply political and economic pressure on Ankara to force cooperation in other realms. By cutting agricultural imports, limiting Russian tourism, and waging an elaborate disinformation campaign, Moscow coerced Turkey into withdrawing its demand that Assad step down from power, and later that year pressured Ankara into supporting the Moscow-led peace talks for a ceasefire in Syria. Through these actions, Putin was able to use the political and security crisis to promote his strategic interests.
Russia’s Gerasimov Doctrine
While Putin’s application of realist opportunism is dangerous, Russia’s use of its force structure and doctrine to generate and exaggerate crisis opportunities represents a different kind of danger. After the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the Russian military underwent significant reforms and modernization. One of the most important was the development of the Gerasimov Doctrine as a means to counter the asymmetry of power between Russia and the West. Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, General Gerasimov, described it as “a version of whole-of-government warfare that transcends boundaries between peace- and wartime, best described as a fusion of various elements of soft and hard power across various domains.” In the West, this term has been coined as “hybrid warfare” as it merges all domains of warfighting into a centralized effort.
In recent years, Russia has used this doctrine of hybrid warfare frequently. One example of this is Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Russia was able to facilitate its actions in Syria by minimizing the risk to its active personnel and deploying private military contractors who operate at a lower political overhead and who are supported through kinetic means such as airstrikes. Beyond hard power measures, the Kremlin also employs other elements to influence the conflict and international involvement. For example, Russia has been waging an extensive cyber and disinformation campaign against Syrian rebel groups and refugees as a means to directly disrupt their efforts or delegitimize them on the international stage.
Kindling and Spark
While the Gerasimov doctrine and an opportunistic Putin are both individually challenging to the West, the combination of the two and how these factors enable each other is the true threat. The most evident example of this is the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. In the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine was rife with civil uncertainty and rising tensions caused by ethnic divisions. The Ukrainian Parliament revoked Russian as an official language and isolated Russian speakers. The next day, in response to threats made by far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups, Crimea mobilized its riot police who were then disbanded by Kiev. In response, Putin ordered a snap exercise of 150,000 troops in the region and began a disinformation campaign over the legitimacy of Kiev’s change of government. Putin took advantage of the unstable situation to harness the political and situational momentum for the outright annexation of Crimea.
Interestingly, the additional 150,000 troops Putin ordered into the region were not used in the immediate annexation. Rather, it was the naval and light infantry forces already stationed in Sevastopol and nearby areas that were invaluable in rapidly entering Crimea and forcing an annexation through the Crimean parliament. Their efforts were supplemented by Russian cyber and information warfare that disrupted any rapid responses from Ukraine or the West by attacking communication channels and spreading rumors of unmarked ‘little green men’ that enabled Moscow to alter the situation on the ground while maintaining plausible deniability of their meddling. While the annexation was likely approved by an opportunistic Putin, it was the implementation of the Gerasimov Doctrine that enabled and was critical to the operational success of the mission. In this example, Putin was able to successfully leverage and take control over a crisis situation that could then be exploited by his military staff in order to achieve Russia’s strategic objectives.
When Putin again ordered snap exercises near the border of Ukraine in April of this year, analysts questioned if this was the lead up to a future invasion of Ukraine. Unlike the circumstances in 2014, there is not currently a major political or situational crisis to exploit. Even as tensions rise and minor skirmishes resume in the contested region, they are nowhere near the same levels of uncertainty and chaos as existed in 2014. Putin’s decision to rapidly mobilize forces in the region was merely a means of posturing to signal the Kremlin’s intent to Kiev and the West. That is not to say another crisis on this scale is unlikely. For instance, the Suwalki Gap is a land corridor at the border of Lithuania and Poland and represents a strategic chokepoint for NATO forces. NATO planners view this corridor as a highly vulnerable area that, if attacked, could cut the Baltic states off from the rest of the alliance. If ethnic or political crises were to break out in Lithuania, the Kremlin could use its hybrid warfare doctrine and ethnic ties in the region to escalate the crisis, take advantage of the situation, and close the Suwalki Gap.
The Gerasimov Doctrine and the military school of thought it promotes act as kindling, needing only a spark to ignite. Putin, through his use of strategic opportunism, can generate that spark by exploiting emerging crises. Understanding these challenges and the unique situational environment these systems operate in will be critical in overcoming them and deterring Russia. Western leaders should be proactive in mitigating crises as they occur and should be flexible enough to rapidly respond to changing environments so as to not allow the Kremlin’s sparks to grow and catch the whole world aflame.
Keagan Ingersoll is the 2021 YPFP Security & Defense Fellow. He is a producer at the Center for International and Maritime Security and edits the Sea Control Podcast involving all things maritime. He is a graduate from Seton Hall University where he received a BS in International Relations and a BS in Economics. His academic focus centered on gray zone conflict and force posturing.