Ukraine War - Tale of Two Doctrines

Ukraine War - Tale of Two Doctrines

Sat, 02/26/2022 - 14:54
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By Rohit Srivastava

The first two days of Russian operations in Ukraine has stunned the world. The inability of Ukraine to stop the Russian forces from crossing its borders will be analyzed threadbare in coming months. Ukraine is not a minion nation. It has one of the largest armed forces in Europe backed by a robust defence industrial complex. During the Soviet era, Ukraine hosted around 30 per cent of the defence manufacturing and research installations.

The pace and ease at which the Russian forces have trounced the Ukrainian defences confirmed their anticipation of employment of the new Russian military doctrine. Before the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war in 2014, Ukraine was among the top ten weapons exporter of the world. Thereafter, Ukraine prioritised its defence production for equipping its armed forces. Export reduced to half.

What makes the initial success of Russian forces so significant is that the armed forces of the two conflicting nations share weapons profiles and military history. The two warring forces are well aware of each other capabilities, limitations of weapon systems (to some extent) and also geography. It would not have been difficult for Ukrainian generals to speculate the best routes for invasion. Yet, the Russians blitzkrieged into Ukraine with ease.

All this happened while the US was predicting invasion and was sharing intelligence. There was complete battlefield transparency. How could Russia achieve this feat without the element of surprise and what is the geostrategic need?

Although, it is too early to predict the final outcome of the war and give the final analysis of the Russian strategy, but one can see the idea behind it. What the world is witnessing in Ukraine is the implementation of the Primakov doctrine through the Gerasimov doctrine, named after former Russian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov and current Russian Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.   


The ongoing operation in Ukraine is the culmination of the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war of 2014. The effectiveness with which Russia used its Special Forces and separatist elements of the Donbas region to achieve its objective is one of the best examples of hybrid warfare. American academics call it ‘Ambiguous warfare’.

Before moving forward to these two doctrines, let's know what Hybrid warfare is.

It is a new name for the concept of war proposed by Sun Tzu and Chanakya that has caught the fancy of military strategists in the last decade or so. It is defined as a form of warfare where the elements of conventional, sub-conventional warfare blend and use regular and irregular forces along with the coherent use of cyber, (dis)informational, political, diplomatic and economic might to win against an adversary.

In the last couple of decades, a variety of non-lethal, non-kinetic elements like social media, cyber, internet etc. are available to nations for employment against an adversary and blurs the line between peace and conflict. Any country can create a fluid situation between peace and war, creating confusion and dilemmas for the adversary. It would be an ambiguous situation between war and peace.

To understand Putin's action in Ukraine it is important to understand the geography of Russia. It has a coastline of over 37000 km on three oceans, yet if Russia is restricted from using the warm waters of the Black sea, for practical purposes it will be a landlocked country for a long period of the year.

Russia is a European country with the majority of its land in Asia. Given the historic hatred of Western Europe against the Russian empire and now bequeathed by Russia, it is imperative for it to have a defence line beyond its border. The vast European steppes do not provide Russia with any natural defence. The only option for Russia is to create a buffer zone for its security in Central Europe.

After the fall of the USSR, NATO was not supposed to expand towards the East into former Soviet Republics as part of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, 1990. The idea behind the treaty was to create a neutral buffer zone between the West and Russia.

But NATO did expand. Now, Ukraine wants to join NATO. Turkey is already a NATO member with whom Russia shares a chequered history. The geolocation of Ukraine is such that if it joins NATO, it would seal Russia from the south. Russia can’t afford that.

With the annexation of Crimea, first won by Peter the Great from the Ottoman in 1783, Russia extended territorial water and Exclusive Economic Zone in the Black Sea. Turkey, a NATO member, controls the Bosphorous which connects the black sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Ukraine has requested Turkey to block the entry of Russian naval vessels into the black sea. It has denied citing the terms of the agreement allows ships to return to mother base.

After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia was at the mercy of the West and its strategic space was up for grab. It required a new strategic doctrine to answer its new geopolitical challenges. In 1996, Primakov, then Foreign Minister, proposed the concept of ‘Multipolarity’ where Russia, China and India act as concerted power against the US imposed unipolarity. He also proposed opposition to NATO expansion and Russia should be a prime player in the space created by the end of the Soviet Union.

Russia is following this doctrine religiously. The creation of the Union State of Belarus and Russia (1999), Georgia War (2008), Annexation of Crimea (2014) and intervention in Syria (2015) are per the Primakov doctrine. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is another step in securing post-soviet Eastern Europe.

Learning the lessons from the Russo-Georgia war, a more refined hybrid war strategy was developed by the Russian military. In 2013, General Gerasimov proposed the doctrine of ‘whole of government warfare’ where soft and hard power work together maintaining the ambiguity of peace and war.

This strategy worked wonders for Russia in Ukraine (2014) and in Syria where Russia ensured the survival of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. During the Syrian campaign, Russia demonstrated a variety of new weapons and information, reconnaissance and surveillance system. It successfully battled the swarm of drone attacks on its military installation showcasing its preparedness for future conflicts. Russia was the first nation to face this kind of attack.

The success of the Gerasimov doctrine forced the United States to plan new strategies and weapons to fight this new kind of war.

Coming back to the present, When President Putin was engaging the world on Ukraine and everyone was anticipating an invasion, on February 21, Russia gave recognition to Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk as Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Russia also signed Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with both republics.

It created a legal framework to move its force to support them. Russia also signed a wide-ranging agreement with visiting Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

The world was anticipating war, and Russia was involved in the summit level diplomacy. Moreover, Russia was gearing to welcome the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, first in more than two decades.

He arrives in the late evening and the early next morning Putin address the nation to declare the launch of operations against Ukraine. Who can imagine hosting the Prime Minister of a nuclear power state for a summit meeting and launching military against its neighbour? The visit of Imran Khan was a perfect smokescreen, probably, the first of its kind in history. It is an excellent example of diplomacy to cover the military move.

One can take an anti-war stand using a variety of arguments, but, as a nation, Russia must ensure its long term security. After the fall of the USSR, the rationale for the existence of NATO does not make sense. The cold war era military coalitions like Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) were dissolved but not NATO. The reason is not very difficult to comprehend. Russia was the force behind USSR. If Russia is strong, it is a threat. This line of thinking creates a loop as long as NATO exists Russia will have to be a significant military power and vice versa.

Given the limitations as sole against combined NATO-US strength, Russia needed to develop a military doctrine that ensures its security. Today, the world is witnessing Russia achieving the objectives set by the Primakov doctrine through the Gerasimov doctrine.