October 2022 Handgrenade

John T Kuehn's picture

October 2022 Handgrenade

A Russian Way of War in Crisis?


John T. Kuehn

In addition to my many other self-imposed tasks (like this monthly screed),  I try to post a quotation of the day (QOD) and it usually has to do with something related to military history, foreign policy, or war and society.   After listening to the second part in series podcast over at War on the Rocks (WOTR) with Michael Kofman of the Center of Naval Analysis  (CNA),  Professor Lawrence Freedman sometime of Kings College London (KCL), and WOTR high mufti Ryan Evans (as moderator) I picked up on something Kofman said to use as my QOD as he discussed Russian trends.  Kofman said, ““…the Gerosimov doctrine was a clever turn of phrase and disavowed for good reason; it’s a bit like the story of Frankenstein…a creature that escaped from the laboratory and then began consuming the field of Russian military analysis” [1]

            The Kofman-Freedman podcasts (it is a two part series) bring up the issue of the Russian way of war being in crisis.  Kofman’s insight on the Gerasimov doctrine captures two truths.  The first involves attempts by (mostly Western) analysts to understand what passes for strategic decision-making in Russia these days.  Here at the US Army Command and General Staff College we use an article on this reputed doctrine as one means to examine if there is a “Russian Way of War.”[2]  In some sense the so-called doctrine, a means to explain apparent Russian successes in reforms and operational execution, reflects a larger phenomenon, the apparent impotence of a standard Russian way of war that has come up fatally short (repeatedly in recent years according to Kofman et al.) in the current Russo-Ukrainian War of the 21st Century.  Kofman additionally identifies procrastination and dithering by Putin, not bold action, as contributing to Russia's problematic operational performances.

Perhaps returning to the older works, especially Chris Duffy’s Russia’s Military Way to the West, or the anthology published by Combat Studies Institute Press several years on Operational Art (the Russian chapters) might prove useful (subjunctive intentional).   These help us form something of a baseline without too much extra study.[3]   The Russians have always, as Duffy points out, had a love-hate relationship with the West.  The Russian system is heavily dependent on the geo-political economy of Russia/USSR/Russia.  In other words, vast spaces confer power, e.g. the 1812 retreat east of Moscow by Russia’s main army.  It also relies heavily on firepower, despite its supposed wealth of manpower (not a feature of the current conflict).  Too, Russian staff structures, often ignored by western observers absolutely should be studied—a Prusso-German Partnership with the Russians existed since at least the time of Frederick the Great and two of the more important staff officers in history, Baron Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz served in the Russian Army, Jomini essentially for the bulk of his professional life.  The degradation-improvement-degradation of the military reform trend line in Russian-Soviet history is a fascinating non-linear curve.   Too, when there is autocracy at the top it struggles to frame and shape military reform policy.  But when has Russia NOT had autocracy at the top? The fires-heavy approach, witnessed by Napoleon at Borodino and again at Leipzig, has worked more often than it has failed.   One saw its lack (due to a shortage of artillery shells) in the First World War, and then its heavy use in World War II and, of course, today in places like Chechnya, Syria, and now Ukraine.

 Certainly as historians we cannot yet make a judgment about the collapse or transformation of an existing Russian Way of War just yet.  If it does collapse in ruins, though, it is a sure thing that a synthesis of some form or another will follow.  What says the H-WAR (and beyond) readership?

NOTE: this Handgrenade in honor of the recently passed Dr. Jake Kipp, a scholar of Russia and the USSR who served long and faithfully at Fort Leavenworth in both the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) and at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS).  Jake passed last year in Lawrence Kansas.



[2] Gerosimov, Valery. “The Value of Science is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” Military Review. January-February 2016.


Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20160228_art008.pdf PRIMARY

[3] Christopher Duffy, Russia’s Military Way to the West (London: Routledge, Kegan, & Paul, 1981); Michael D. Krause and R. Cody Philips, eds. Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2005).

Russia (pre-Putin) did have a military establishment that encouraged analysis and innovations in warfighting, going back to the early Soviet era. We in the intelligence community back in the late Cold War period studied their theoretical writings and saw how they were implemented (theoretically) in CPXs.

During the Great Patriotic War they did prioritize firepower and also attempted, with some success and some failure, to implement their "deep battle" theories. Stalingrad and the 1944 Belorussian offensive that crushed the Wehrmacht Army Group Center are examples of their successes.

It does seem like the contemporary Russian army has gone downhill. How much of this is due to rampant corruption -- misuse of funding for procurement, maintenance, and training -- is a good question. I also think Putin doesn't play the patriotism card as well as Stalin did.

Thank you for notifying us of the passing of Jake Kipp. He was a fine scholar and will be missed. I recall with pleasure visiting Leavenworth back in the 80s, to discuss Russia's Afghanistan War with him and his colleagues at SASO (now something else).

Russia's way of war has long been a pursuit of the Rand corporation, particularly since WW II.

Prof. Kuehn raises the question of space, as distance being a source to Russian power in warfare. While land mass remains something of a constant, one of the major differences with pre 20th Century History and post 20th Century History has been shortening of distances with modern warfare; especially as now realized in missile warfare as opposed to movements of masses of forces over long distances.

This singular change in practice needs be taken into account. Of course, the other most important change has been post-1945, the introduction of change in kind and quality of weapons technology indicated by nuclear abilities remains front and center. How these changes affect political and military dictatorship as the ruling practices of both militaries and countries must be included.

Russian capacity for insurrection and overthrow has become a major point in attempts to undermine and subvert non-Russian countries and militaries, thereby attempting to avoid the consequences of knowing what happens with resort to nuclear warfare directly. Indirect war remains a major issue. However, the resort to open war in Ukraine raises matters to another level, similar in some ways to past histories and experiences.

I had been wondering if a revisit to the earlier history and pattern noted on H-War on Russia;s border zones might now be worthwhile given, differences in Ukraine from those other experiences and results. Ukraine is not like Syria nor other satraps of Russia expansions. Its importance to the European countries and US are one of those as well. Other than nuclear abilities, Russia might well be considered a second rate power.