Modern Operational Art

A Critique of Stephen R. Covington's “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare”

War in the 21st Century, as it always has been in wars since the beginning of civilization, will be one a dominant military force bringing to bear submissiveness from the other waring party. In the art of war, nothing but the annihilation of the enemy will complete the process of waging war against one’s enemy. A war of attrition only puts off, indeed only exasperates the situation, and only brings more disorder and destruction among the nation-states and their allies, when also a truce only puts off what is certain and that a complete war to the death is the general outcome and not the exception. One only has to remember the Peace of Nicas, that fifty years of peace which was always a troubled peace between Athens and Sparta and their various allies, and which ended in 414 B.C., when the final onslaught begin again with the Peloponnesian War, and which resulted in a victorious victory for Sparta and her allies.

They, the Spartans and their Syracuse allies, put to the sword the Athenian navy and her best infantry which were destroyed in the Sicilian Expedition in 415-413 BC. No quarter was given in the end, so bitter was the war against Imperialist Athens. The Spartan Generals knew, like those who would come after them – the Macedonians, Philip II and his son, Alexander, and then the various famous Roman Generals – that only the force of unconditional surrender will bring about a peace between war parties or nation-states, for such is the true nature of the culmination of the friction of war in the final analysis. In mentioning this historical past, one can understand the current modern conflict between that of Russia and its military strategic culture in opposing American hegemony along with NATO military encroachment on the Russian borders. The peace will come only after the end of this long ensuing war, which is both diplomatic and violent, between these modern adversaries. This analytical paper is about the study of one army, that being the Russian army and its other military forces, in its contentious and sometimes ambiguous conflict with Western Europe and the United States. The concentration will be of a theoretical nature regarding certain fundaments of how and why the Russian military strategic culture wages war in a different way than they previous did in other past wars.

The art of war is a continual dialectical process of art and science throughout history, and the people will always need military theorists and military science to create new forms of warfare, and as the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, wrote “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… 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 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”.i As an American military historian who is also a military theorist, I must acknowledge that my country does not have the galaxy of genius military theorists on the art of war with the likes of Frunze, Triandafillov, Sevchin, Georgii Isserson and the chief of Staff, Boris Shaposhnikov, who served at the discretion of Stalin. However, that does not mean that even these brilliant, if not at times eccentric theorists, cannot be challenged in the process towards greater art in the art of war.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, it is a fact as both General Gerasimov and the American military historian, Covington, have asserted and that there is no longer wars of long duration in the symmetry form of war like that of the Great Patriotic War (World War II as it is known in the West), and that for the Americans one can say, that the Persian Gulf War was their ‘last romance’ with a standing divisions in the field. However, before we write off or send to the grave the deployment of great armies into the field in these times, we should study more thoroughly how the situation due to the possible false thinking that asymmetry war may end a war, not realizing that such a war or so-called hybrid wars may result in continuous warfare.

Asymmetry Warfare can only result in the end an attrition of war by various means of technological and cyber warfare and will not complete the mission of totally subduing an adversary and forcing them to accept the peace as dictated by their utter defeat.

It is the profound urban struggle in Aleppo, Syria that is the main example of the kind of conflicts and wars of complete destruction to expect in this modern century due to asymmetry warfare, not excluding the historical revolutions both unexpected and expected that will take place from north and south, east and west across the world’s hemisphere. The irony is that it is the modern classical divisions of the Syrian Arab Army, along with Russian fighter jets and bombers, including allies from Iran and Iraq that will complete the mission in Aleppo of totally destroying the fanatical Daesh brigades (acronym derived from the phrase “al Dawlah al-Islameyah fi Iraq wal-Sham”) or Isis forces. Carnage in modern cities will become the way of incomplete wars. Perhaps a truce, or a peace will come about between the American imperialist and their nominal allies against revolutionary counties, nationalistic nation-states, or against oligarchy states, but it will actually be a pause of friction and nothing else, and that will only increase the suffering of the civilian population and bring despair to the various small armies in the field, who are fighting such a war. After reading Mr. Stephen R. Covington’s astute, but not what I would deem a thorough analysis of modern Russian Art of War, I would like to write a further perspective of his essay “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare”.

In one of the key paragraphs of the essay by the military historian, Covington, he states unequivocally that:

As the Soviet military held, Russia’s military today holds that war is not only a competition between respectiveweapon’s capabilities and forces, but is a clash between military systems. How a nation organizes itself for war constitutes a single system that competes head on with the system of its opponent, and victory goes to the superior military system.ii

However, is the “superior military system” enough to win or be victorious in a war, regardless of its dimensions? Is there not an underlying system at work that contributes to the consolation of victory on the battlefield, and is not that issue one of the political system? Among the main issues, the most profound issue within the galaxy of warfare is not acknowledged in depth, and only sparingly by Covington, obviously for diplomatic reasons and even because of his personal political alliances. But this issue of the political system, which I will say is the main stay of a competent military armed forces, or a military system that is feared and admired as well, is not only the center of gravity of a nation-state, but is part of any nation-state’s strategic military policy as well, whether that political ideology by advanced, backwards or deeply reactionary in nature. As the early Soviet military science thinker, Georgii Samoilovich Isserson wrote so boldly and emphatically, and which still holds true in relationship to modern warfare “As the highest manifestation of class contradictions within two competing social systems … war will assume the nature of a decisive nature, this war between nations and classes will reach the very limits of intensity. History clearly shows that wars grow in intensity in accordance with changes in their political character”. iii In other words, regardless of the extolling or emphasizing the “pillars of Russian strategic culture: Strategic uniqueness” as Covington conveys to the reader, there has to be understood that the military readiness or preparation for war is only as great or less as the political shield that welds the sword. And here the complexity begins in relationship of the Russian Government and its army, not excluding its navy and aerospace forces. Because of the dissolvent of the former Soviet Union, that does not mean that the spiritual character of the Soviet Army is gone from the main proletariat forces that are part of the main core of the Russian armed forces. That does not mean that they have forgotten their historical class roots.

The Russian soldiers reason for fighting and sacrificing their lives is not for the welfare and accumulation of wealth of the oligarchy class that has encroached itself upon the Russian working class and its other more progressive citizens.

Therefore, I will state that the process by which the Russian army and its nominal allies on the battlefield can be victorious over their enemies, and their enemies being both NATO and American imperialism, is to forge deeply a continuous political dialogue and ideological engagement with its Russian citizens whose historical backbone is that of a Soviet history of socialism. Should they Russian Government or its Russian General Staff strategic culture not understand the deepest sensitivity of the Russian people, then its modern military advancements will come to nothing and rust like so much discarded war material on an empty and desolate battlefield.

In his essay on Russian military strategic culture and reform, Covington makes much of “asymmetric means of warfare”, for in the early twenty-first century the Russian Government has used such a means of combat in Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, and will in future engagements continue to develop such a means of warfare to the best of their ability. Russian political leadership in Moscow, as well as their allies, the Chief of Staff and Defense minister, have with an audacious and credible audacity to combine disinformation, cyber warfare in convert ways, as well as using Special Forces from the various armed forces to implement a new paradigm of war in the regional areas near their natural borders. The Russian way of demonstrating a capacity for developing a surprise political and military scenario against adversaries has caught both NATO and its American armed forces ally off guard, and they have basically been militarily speaking unresponsive, except by throwing up proxy forces like ‘moderate rebels’ in the field as in the case of the Syrian Civil War. They have also enforced economic sanctions and have eroded the Russian economy in various sectors. Unless the Russian Government can find a way to be continually self-sufficient and maintain good-will among the Russian people, this will affect the perception among Russian military officers and NCOs and enlisted men alike as to the undertaking of so-called “small wars” or asymmetry war that can only lead to economic hardship across All Russia. Tough restrictions for access to Western European and American financial apparatus, including their advanced technology tools, fresh produce and agriculture trade, and tourist venues has hurt the Russian economy. The Russian Chief of Staff and its strategic vision of implementing “asymmetrical warfare” must understand and one could say does understand that such kinds of warfare, if not understood for its incomplete mission can and will affect the Russian economy, and can have dangerous repercussions that eventually erodes the optimism of the civilian population no matter how deep their nationalist sympathies. Asymmetrical warfare is a warfare of immediacy, while symmetrical warfare is for a war of duration until the enemy is annihilated. Therefore the Russian military strategic culture or any revolutionary military army must understand that the dictates of social history should be paid attention to in detail and that any adventurous military forays can and will bring about self-destruction.

Although, in this essay concentrates I concentrate in general on the military thought regarding the perceptions of the military historian, Covington and his interpretation of early 21st century Russian military art of war, I would also like to give an analysis on Covington’s view regarding Russian military thought on offensive and defensive warfare. In his broad and general essay, Covington wrote this on the above subject:

The pillars of Russian strategic thought make it virtually Impossible for a Russian strategic planner to be defensive, reactive, and use force in a restricted way, as would their Western counterparts in this modern era. The body of military Academic work on more Western approaches to defense is missing in Russian writings because it missing from their strategic culture. In fact, Russian military thought emphasizes exactly the opposite.iv

Mr. Covington’s understanding here about modern Russian warfare and defensive strategy is actually inaccurate, as one of the most dynamic, if not also eccentric personality, Aleksandr A. Svechin has played a historical role in Russian military thinking that has influenced even current modern Russian military in the high command centers, although Svechin’ work on defensive warfare was incomplete and not always well thought out. However relationship to the current Russian strategic view on defensive war, it is worth noting what Svechin wrote:

In general, the pursuit of negative goals, that is, fighting for the complete or partial maintenance of the status quo, requires less expenditure of forces or resources than the pursuit of positive goals, namely fighting for conquest and forward movement.v

And then Svechin admits about a disadvantage that could take place in a defensive war, although he does not state it overtly as such, by stating:

Defensive operations ordinarily involve certain territorial losses. They tend to put off decisions to the last possible moment. Consequently, for a defense to be successful we must have expendable territory and time must operate to our

For the Soviet Chief of Staff and those officers below who were in the field and had endured a viscous civil war encounter, where No Quarter was given. Svechin’s view of defensive warfare over the immediate offensive attack, when only initial surprise or going on the offensive attack was the only way of not being annihilated, his outlook of defensive positional war or even a war of attrition against an enemy was not accepted. From reading about the bitter disputes between the various military Soviet thinkers of the inter war period, one could sense a fear of vacillation among the Soviet officers in their debates about whether the defensive or offensive attack was the better route for achieving military ascendency over an opponent, and we should also remember that all of serious debates took place prior to the Great Patriotic War, when the service and patriotism to the Soviet motherland was still in its infancy.

It was the loss of millions of Soviet soldiers that closed the door for the time being regarding Svechin’s more conservative approach to warfare and which had its roots in military imperialist German thought. However, Covington does rightly point out how there is a subtle aspect to Russian military strategy, when he writes “Traditional Russian strategic culture would hold that the Russian approach to war avoidance is based on decisive, dominant superiority in preparations and posturing of forces at the outset of a crises for strategic operations - not necessarily their employment - to reduce the number of options for an opponent to wage war against Russia.i I would deem such an operation strategy as performed by contemporary Russian military thought as a form of Maskirovka, which is deception, which I would add in military terms as Defensive Maskirovka when one speaks of the “posturing of forces”, as opposed to Offensive Maskirovka. Offensive Maskirovka which would be the implementation of disinformation to prepare for a political or military attack of the highest order.

Even though Russia is no longer the Soviet State, it does retain much of its great character in the usage of deception whether it be of a political or military deception. I will now quote in length from my Master thesis on how the Soviet Army created and utilized Maskirovka, and how even now it can be seen in various forms which should be studied at great length. As I wrote about Maskirovka and its substance:

The Soviets knew from the beginning of their rise to power that what is implied is not always implied, what is information is not always information in the strictest sense. The Soviet use of Maskirovka was to preserve the Soviet State.

In truth, Maskirovka in the political and military sense is and always has been the art of deception. Political and military deception is the element of surprise and ultimately control over one’s enemy. Maskirovka is the creative art of all forms of theoretical and practical methods to influence the enemy’s political, social, economic, and cultural acts, including diplomatic and military agendas. In all inter-war periods, it is this kind of deception, i.e., Maskirovka that is the first and final weapon used to buy time to prepare for political and military victory over one’s adversary. Soviet diplomats and officers are not concerned with bourgeois moral values regarding the art of war or the achievements of creating peace. It is the practical achievements or methods in letting the enemy think you are going in one direction, when in reality you are going in another direction that is the fundamental achievement in the dialectical process toward the desirable end. The ultimate goal is victory in the field or at the diplomatic conference table, all of which lead to Democratic Socialism that is the justifiable ethical standards of Marxism-Leninism.ii

Although the Russian Government nor the core of its high military echelon are no longer convinced Marxist Leninists or members of the Russian Communist Party, they have in their history, which is derived from the great Soviet military past, a common sense and practical approach to intelligence gathering which is first and foremost the competent awareness of military preparedness in a time of peace and war.

As I have previously remarked I do not have the opportunity in this essay to contemplate or critique the full expose of the military historian, Covington’s article “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare”. However, although the American military historian wrote in general terms about the Russian military approach to modern warfare in the 21sth century, there were areas in his work when he should have been more specific, more detailed in his overall observations. However, there is one statement by Covington that is worth quoting in full, and which I would like to comment on in my final analysis on the overall theme of his article or paper. The statement as written by the military historian, Covington, is as follows:

Moscow’s strategic recoupling of its military to core geo-strategic Interests also suggests the window has closed for now on internal Russian military reforms that would create tactical balance, strategic equilibrium, and symmetric approaches. Russia has altered security policies, changed military strategies, and is rearming in accordance with the most narrow of internal political objectives and extremely ambitious external security objectives. General Staff-led internal military reforms do not appear to be a likely catalyst for reducing or altering Russian military thinking, particularly in the midst of a multi-year military modernization program and destabilization campaign against the European security system.iii

What Covington did not admit to the reader, because of his own obvious political interests and alliances, is that Russia’s military leadership, along with its rank and file military men and women, have fought and finally retain their dignity since the destructive leadership of both Gorbachev and Yelstin eras. What can also be said is that there is a very serious possibility in their zeal to become modernized with asymmetrical war – that is a quick, multi-mix of technological warfare with conventional war means which also includes tactical and even strategic nuclear weapons – they, the Russian General Staff, run the risk of overplaying their chess moves in modern warfare by not applying some of the more classical and tried form and content of war in terms of symmetrical war. What we must also remember is that total war, like insurrection, is mathematics played out in a life and death struggle of the most voracious and violent of identities, and that the values of friction in war change constantly, in which well-thought out military operations can be disrupted by spontaneous creative human energy at any given moment on a battlefield. This means there is always infinite ways to explore the methodology of warfare as a science and an art. However, what must also be always understood that in waging war, there are those who seek peace and who do not submit to the bestiality of fascism in all its modern forms, whether it comes out of such places as American imperialism or Isis with its fantastical and barbaric approach to war. In my interpolation of creating a new art and science to warfare, let us remember these words from Frederick Engels:

Militarism dominates and is swallowing Europe. But this militarism also bears within itself the seed of its own destruction. Competition among the individual states forces them, on the one hand, to spend more money each year on the army and navy, artillery, etc, thus more and more hastening their financial collapse; and, on the other hand, to resort to universal compulsory military service more and more extensively, thus in the long run making the whole people familiar with the use of arms, and therefore enabling them at a given moment to make their will prevail against the warlords in command. And this moment will arrive as soon as the mass of the people - town and country workers and peasants -will have a will. iv

In creating a more refine and less adventurous or rapturous form of warfare, the Russian modern military theorists, like any military students of any nation-state that uphold the deeper values of military science, should have in their minds the constant idea of not allowing oneself to wallow in narrow-minded thinking and to be open to self-criticism on the implementation of waging war. Military science is not only an art but a profound responsibility which affects the human race.

The 21st century of the Russian military experience should be open to the balance of asymmetry and symmetry warfare that other epics in history understood and developed.

Such military thinkers like Sun Tzu, the moderns military strategists like Mao Zedong, General Võ Nguyên Giáp and even the military conceptions of Fidel Castro Ruz, should be investigated, developed more thoroughly and applied in the unexpected form of warfare that comes out of the fog of war across a battlefield on any given day. There is great promise of creative output in the Russian military art of war for it animates from one the most progressive nation-states, and the Russian military theorists must embrace their historical past, welding it to the here and now.


ii Luis Lázaro Tijerina, In The Fields of Honor, Master of Arts, Norwich University, Vermont College, Montpelier, VT, 2000, p. 33.

iv F Engels, Anti-Dühring part II, ch III, in K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, op cit, vol XXV, p158.

iii Brigade Commander Geogrii Samoilovich Isserson, The Evolution Of Operational Art, Ft. Leavonworth, Kansas, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013,p. 39.

v Aleksandr A. Svechin, Strategy, Minneapolis, MINN, East View Publications, 1999, p. 250.

vi Ibid, p. 251.