General Gerasimov and Modern War
When I think of General Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov (B. 1955- ), I also think of the great Soviet military theorist Georgii Samoilovich Isserson (1898 – 1976), who wrote the timeless masterpiece, THE EVOLUTION OF OPERATIONAL ART. However, the profound difference between these two creative military men is this: Gerasimov is not the prolific writer Isserson was during the early-to-middle Soviet period before World War II. Instead, Gerasimov is a modern Russian military man who applies Isserson's theoretical schematics in effectively creating separate focused tactical operations to manifest an offensive strategy employing lateral warfare combined with distribution of a series of pinpoint attacks – for instance, the Russian Chief of the General Staff actually implemented such a combination of military/cyber/information warfare and diplomatic “political warfare” in Syria.
To assert the existence of such a thing as a “Gerasimov doctrine,” the showy way American generals are so fond of saying it, is not giving genuine credit to the more subtle aspects of Gerasimov’s military thinking which is not one of military theory, so much as a pragmatic application of military options on the battlefield.
Gerasimov, who was born in Kazan, capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, has a rich heritage of Tatar military history which surely he must have been aware of in his youth. He also comes from a formal, traditional military background as a former tank commander. I signal this last piece of information to convey the idea that General Gerasimov is not the revolutionary military theorist many Western military theorists or American generals portray him as, but actually a general who thinks of war in the most modern terms. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, he may be a transitional military Chief of Staff as Russia continues through her perilous but historic role in the 21st century.
According to a Sputnik International online article entitled rather brazenly, “Gerasimov Doctrine, or How a Russian General Became the West’s Biggest Boogieman,” Gerasimov makes this telling statement:
"In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template….The role of nonmilitary 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 focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population."
Where Gerasimov is correct in his prediction of contemporary modern warfare is that there is no peace, there is no war of demarcation in the traditional sense of terms of war and peace. One only has to look at the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine to understand the methodology Gerasimov has observed about the human condition in our times, and therefore how he has manifested his own fluidity in combat operations in such conflict regions which are more complex than for instance the asymmetrical and symmetrical warfare the Syrian Army conducted in Palmyra and Aleppo.
However, my disagreement with Gerasimov's point that in some cases of “nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals” exceeding the “force of weapons”: I would say this is only applicable for a particular time and space, such as oppressed peoples struggling for emancipation from oligarchic oppression or fascist tyranny like those Ukrainians who suffer under dictates from Kiev, eventually take up a deepening political struggle and evolve into an armed struggle of resistance, something even Clausewitz and Gneisenau were aware in their involvement in the Wars of Liberations. I see such kind of a conflict in the Donbass region, where the citizens of The Luhansk People's Republic are fighting their own War of Liberation. Such a war cannot be totally controlled by the Russian Chief of Staff, even though the Russian Army may add the Donbass peoples to its ranks in various military and non-military ways.
Nevertheless, Gerasimov continues professionally, as he should, writing or thinking meticulously about what the West calls “hybrid war”, which he elaborates upon in the case of his article entitled “World on the Brink of War,” published in March of 2017. Although I have not yet been able to review that essay in an English translation, I will remark on an earlier interview by Gerasimov published in February 27, 2013's journal “Military-Industrial Courier” – deeply telling of Gerasimov’s germane thinking about modern warfare in general.
While the Russian Chief of Staff would go on to mention in later years “nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals,” back in 2013 he had mused, “Of course, it would be easiest of all to say the events of the 'Arab Spring' are not war and so there are no lessons for us – military men – to learn. But maybe the opposite is true – that precisely these events are typical of warfare in the 21st century."
Considering the scale of the casualties and destruction, the catastrophic social, economic, and political consequences, such new-type conflicts are comparable with the consequences of any real war. The very "rules of war" have changed. The role of nonmilitary 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 focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures – deployed in coordination with the protest potential of the population”.
So, essentially, Gerasimov has moved from the traditional predictor of warfare to a more evolutionary understanding of warfare which he sees as achieved by any means possible in terms of political acumen infused with various forms of covert methodologies. In this sense, he attempts to break new ground in terms of predictability of what may take place on the battlefield – no different than what Isserson achieved in his pioneering military thought.
Gerasimov even goes deeper into the subject of defining how to understand modern warfare in the 21st century, by stating, “From this proceed logical questions: What is modern war? What should the army be prepared for? How should it be armed? Only after answering these questions can we determine the directions of the construction and development of the armed forces over the long term. To do this, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the forms and methods of the use of the application of force”.
The key phrase we should bear in mind is “application of force” – for that is the kernel of Gerasimov’s energy as applied to modern warfare. In other words, Gerasimov is a pragmatic military leader, not a studious military thinker. From my perspective, he is humble before those military thinkers who preceded him. As he once wrote so poignantly, “The state of Russian military science today cannot be compared with the flowering of military-theoretical thought in our country on the eve of World War II. Of course, there are objective and subjective reasons for this and it is not possible to blame anyone in particular for it. I am not the one who said it is not possible to generate ideas on command. I agree with that, but I also must acknowledge something else: at that time, there were no people with higher degrees and there were no academic schools or departments. 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”.
Unlike American generals who supposedly see the “Boogieman” in the thinking and writings of Gerasimov, I would suggest they have a naïve tendency in their own military history to see generals as something mythic and untouchable – an erroneous perspective, which Fredrick Engels repudiated when he declared, “It is not the 'free creation of the mind' of generals of genius that have had a revolutionizing effect here, but the invention of better weapons and the change in the human material, the soldiers. At the very most, the part played by generals of genius is limited to adapting methods of fighting to the new weapons and combatants”.
With this worldly quote in mind by Engels, we should take heed of the moderns who advocate “As the mode of production, so the mode of combat”, because the oversimplification of such terms as “Hybrid Warfare” and even “nonmilitary measures” should be studied but not taken at face value in a schematic way, for war is more than predictability, more than a military diagram on a chalkboard.
In closing, I would like to quote, albeit ironically, from the current White House Chief of Staff, retired Marine General John F. Kelly, who – coming from a working class family like Gerasimov – is more pragmatic on how he views warfare, although not the deep thinker Gerasimov is in the creative sense. That being said, General Kelly wrote something keenly interesting and astute:
“I first read The General by C. S. Forester when I was a very, very young officer. In a way it changed my life. It’s a post–World War I novel about a man, Curzon, who started out in one of the elite British regiments. In this period in the British Army if you read books you were some kind of a geek. People avoided going to staff colleges or any professional military education; it was all spit and polish. Curzon goes through his career, kind of the perfect British officer, and World War I starts. He is a brave guy, a dedicated guy, a noble guy, but a guy who in the end has become a corps commander — a three-star general — and when presented with an overwhelming German attack couldn’t figure out how to deal with it because he’d never developed himself intellectually. He didn’t know the great lessons of the great master, if you will, and then he just decided one day to go down to his horse, grab his sword, and attack — with the intent of dying."
General Kelly concludes, quite insightfully:
"I’ve read this book every time I got promoted just to remind myself of the effect. I’ve noted where I was when I finished reading it the last time, then when I read it again I will try to remember what it meant to me as a major and, depending on as you get older and higher in rank, it’s a different book every time you read it. When a lieutenant reads that book it’s different from when a lieutenant general reads it. And I think the same is true for every book. So it’s just kind of a fun thing I’ve done over the years and with this book in particular just to remind me of the critical importance of thinking”.
Yes, the “critical importance of thinking” combined with the Russian предсказывать, which translates as to predict in a scientific manner about the ways and means of war, is the deep essence of military theory and strategy. General Valery Gerasimov is creative in his instincts to understanding these dual forces of critical thinking and the study of warfare in a scientific way which we can learn from but should not be copied from country to country. Each country has its own form of scientific material regarding the art of war.