Isserson

[Pictured: Georgy Isserson, a Soviet strategist eulogized by Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov]

In a 2013 article in the Russian journal  Military Thought which has attracted close attention among scholars and strategists in the west, authors Chekinov & Bogdanov (“C&B”) remark on a recent boom in published studies of “the kind of future warfare they call a new-generation war.”  The “standout among them all,” C&B go on, is an article in  Military-Industrial Courier by Russian Armed Forces General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov,  “Prevision Is What Science is Valued for” (an English translation by Rob Coalson [who translates the title more idiomatically as “The Value of Science in Prediction”] is available here, at the In Moscow’s Shadows blog, with an incisive running gloss by blog author Mark Galeotti.  Galeotti also credits Coalson for initially noting and circulating Gerasimov’s piece).

This present post summarizes Gerasimov’s article.  A later post will discuss its implications and the insights of others who have considered it.

Gerasimov’s article is short but dense—and intense.  The line between war and peace has blurred, he warns, and hostilities, all too real though usually undeclared, seem to follow “an unfamiliar template.”   As if at one stroke, in a matter of months or days, “a perfectly thriving state” can “sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.”  Most immediately, Gerasimov has in mind the experience of the so-called Arab Spring:  the series of mass political earthquakes, beginning in 2011, that toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and almost destroyed the regime of Russia’s ally Syria (which was already long locked in a brutal civil war at the time Gerasimov wrote in early 2013). Gerasimov rejects the argument that the largely peaceful “Arab Spring” demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt which led to regime change are “not war,” but rather a democratic expression of popular will.  He retorts, “But maybe the opposite is true—that precisely these events are typical of warfare in the 21st century.”

Indeed, Gerasimov entertains the paradox that war today, and even more so in the future, will be waged by “non-military means”:  “The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”   The “protest potential of the population” is just another instrument of war, which the aggressor will combine in coordination with “the broad uses of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures” in order to achieve essentially military objectives.  As for military means themselves, they may initially play only a supplemental role “of a concealed character, including…informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.”  Open deployment of massed military units will occur only at a late stage of the conflict, “often under the guise of peacekeeping…primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.”

Gerasimov then steps back to ask some bigger questions:  “What is modern war?  What should the army be prepared for?”  He advocates a greater emphasis on nonstandard approaches, “dynamic, active and fruitful” military actions, and aggressive exploitation of new information technologies.  The old paradigm of large armies facing off in frontal engagements must be discarded as “a thing of the past.”  On the new battlefield, the distinction between strategy and tactics, and even between offensive and defensive operations, has been obliterated.  These are no longer doctrinal novelties, he explains:  “These ongoing changes are reflected in the doctrinal views of the world’s leading states [i.e., above all the U. S.] and are being used in military conflicts.”  At one end of the spectrum, Desert Storm is cited (“global sweep, global power”; but see B&G, for a more detailed evaluation of the path-breaking strategic significance of the Gulf War [and cf. the unofficial, but highly influential, 1999 Chinese military treatise Unrestricted War]); at the other, “the operation in Libya, where a no-fly zone was created, a sea blockade imposed,” and, he alleges, “private military contractors” were deployed.

The article then takes an interesting turn:  Gerasimov surveys the current state of Russian military-strategic thinking and seems quite dissatisfied.  He portrays the period leading up to the “Great Patriotic War” as a golden age of bold strategic thought, in contrast to what he sees as a timid and unimaginative atmosphere prevalent in strategic circles in Russia today:  “[O]n the eve of World War II…There were extraordinary personalities with brilliant ideas.  I would call them fanatics in the best sense of the word.  Maybe we just don’t have enough people like that today.”  In a passage rather elegiac for a General Staff Chief’s article in Military-Industrial Courier, Gerasimov commemorates the contributions of Georgy Isserson (citing his maxim, “War is not declared.  It simply begins”…) and darkly concludes, “the fate of this ‘prophet of the Fatherland’ unfolded tragically.” (Isserson fell victim to the Stalin purges in 1941 and was interned for many years).   For failing to listen to an innovative military thinker, Gerasimov reflects, “our country paid in great quantities of blood.”

Isserson Operational Art

Gerasimov lashes out at traditionalists who affect “a scornful attitude toward new ideas, to nonstandard approaches.”  To maintain this attitude is “unacceptable” for academicians, and even more so for the officer corps.  The polemical tone of the article at this point is remarkable.  Gerasimov is probably not tilting at windmills here, and when he adds, “We must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries, but we must outstrip them…” he presumably aims to parry charges of tailism and of succumbing to the influence of western ideology.

While conceding that “each war does present itself as a unique case, ”  Gerasimov nevertheless insists that military science must strive to forecast the character of the next war in order to prepare for it.  This echoes a theme of Isserson’s military thought.  Gerasimov thus concludes his article on the theme announced by his title:  “Prevision is what science is valued for.”

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