Adversarial powers like Russia view “active measures” in the West as integral to their military doctrine.

The current state of affairs between the U.S.-led West and Russia increasingly seems like a second “Cold war.” However, this is a misstatement. Western institutions and social discourse have been caught almost entirely off-guard by the Kremlin’s strategic exploitation of our rigid military taxonomy. Russia has been unilaterally engaged in a nuanced war of contradictions and weaponized information. In short, Russia and the U.S.  maintain fundamentally different definitions of the very concept of war.

The U.S. military has been undergoing restructuring based on its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq—against what it perceives as nonstate actors, insurgents. Meanwhile, a newly emboldened Russia flexes its’ military power. How did this happen?

Failure to redefine conflict through nonlinear warfare tactics is a dangerous long-term strategy.

First and foremost, U.S. (and Western allies) must restructure both civilian and military elements of the national security apparatus. Accordingly, the core ideas of national security and warfare as legal, practical, and existential concepts that have been maintained by the West are no longer applicable. We must regard combat in an entirely new light—in the legal sense, in the definition of an “Act” of war, and in our understanding of civic responsibility in the digital age. Last, there exists the necessity to positively and inclusively engage the Russian youth.

The West must restructure its societal self-perception, which is far too vulnerable in its current state. Our failure to perceive cyber and traditional warfare as distinct entities is a prime example of a necessary shift. Failure to accurately conceptualize war is a danger to national security and risks destabilizing or utterly abolishing the rules-based, international order established in the wake of the USSR collapse.

Russian military planners recognize that, despite the considerable strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal, they have no effective means of waging a successful war or at least reaching some degree of conventional force parity with the U.S. and its Western allies.  Conversely, U.S. leaders have struggled to conceptualize asymmetric measures of influence-projection,  like Russia’s concept of nonlinear warfare. 

Like an “agile” startup, with a perpetual “innovation-cycle:” Russian nonlinear tactics greatly benefit from the cycle of hypothesis establishment, experimentation, analysis, and iterative review to discern the most efficient way to producing disorder. Such chaos makes it difficult for dissenters both outside and inside the country to resist.

Western military strategists over-rely on a rigid structure of categories or taxonomies in their effort to build a useful model for various types of conflict. Cyber operations have been treated as a distinct domain—a domain of lower strategic importance than warfare in the traditional sense.

In contrast—to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests—adversarial powers rely on a nuanced mixture of conventional arms, cyber warfare, and the dissemination of strategic communications through traditional and digital media outlets to deliberately sow confusion and dissent within a target territory or state.

Non-Linear War is the New Form of Warfare

Termed by some “the Gerasimov doctrine”—following the publication of an essay by Chief of the Russian General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov—this is a misnomer. The concept of “nonlinear” warfare has also been somewhat incorrectly referred to as “asymmetric” or “hybrid warfare.” The latter two originated following the NATO invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq and the ensuing insurgency that arose.

Before the 2001 and 2003 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. had limited experience in counter-insurgency and long-term combatant with non-state actors. The term “hybrid” or “asymmetric” warfare was used to define this new paradigm.

However, the system of classification has, yet again, proved to be the U.S.’s Achilles heel. Without a doubt, the United States possesses insurmountable conventional military strength and continues to pose an undoubtedly credible threat of mutually assured destruction through its strategic nuclear arsenal.

Both Russia and China realized early on that technological advancements in the fields of information technology and population (commonly termed market) research and analysis could be effectively weaponized and integrated into a multichannel offensive military strategy that would have far-reaching advantages when it came to confrontations with the less-agile, current policies pursued by U.S. military planners.

Moscow’s success stems from their “total” or “all-in” conception of war. A Sparta for the modern era, the Putin regime has been heavily investing in modernizing its outdated soviet-equipped military. This model depends on the blurring of lines between state and non-state actors, alliances and adversaries; even war and peace.

Starting in 2008, Russian special forces, financial tools, political subversion, information warfare, and other active measures launched a simultaneous and complementary assault on Georgian infrastructure. The Georgian state was paralyzed as a result and was unable to act, resulting in the de-facto secession of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

2 Russian special operatives in crimea

Russian special forces in Crimea. Also called “little green men,” they were one of the offensive “columns” that resulted in their annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

A similar scenario occurred in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, with their incredibly executed apparatus of plausible deniability using information warfare, insurgent funding, and economic warfare to utilize proxy “local actors” to achieve individual goals. Somewhat like an “agile” startup, with a perpetual “innovation-cycle:” Russian nonlinear tactics are strikingly similar to those employed by the marketing departments of silicon valley tech start-ups.

Somewhat like an “agile” startup, with a perpetual “innovation-cycle:” Russian nonlinear tactics are strikingly similar to those employed by the marketing departments of silicon valley tech start-ups.

The iterative cycle of hypothesis establishment, experimentation (a/b testing), analysis, and iterative review, repeated endlessly, has been the most efficient way of creating disorder. Such chaos makes it difficult for dissenters both outside and inside the country to effectively mobilize their compatriots, overloading social media and data streams with information and traffic from botnets and trolls.

Such chaos makes it difficult for dissenters both outside and inside the country to effectively mobilize their compatriots, overloading social media and data streams with information and traffic from botnets and trolls.

21st Century Military Planning Requires Nonlinear Thought

Linear thinking has long-dominated military planning. This concept depends on reliance on a state’s self-interest above-all-else. In a linear thought model, one lays out a strategy through detailed planning, and established processes, step by step detail management tips, and customer service expectations.

Linear thinking has dominated Western military strategy until the end of the 20th century—only now are we beginning to realize the unprecedented threat we’ve been unknowingly facing. To combat Russian “active measures” like those currently being inflicted upon the democratic institutions and society of the United States, both civilian and government sectors at all levels can begin working on strategic plans for information security and compliance.

The ability to project force through a multitude of traditional and “nonlinear” mediums is tantamount to U.S. national security interests—particularly if they are utilized by a foreign adversary for subversionary tactics against the interests of the United States. Continued relativity when it comes to warfare is not an option in the 21st century. Western powers must recognize this new paradigm of war and adjust military doctrine accordingly.

Get the Global Security Brief

Insider access to Geopolitical Forecasts & Global Security Reports

We respect your privacy.