The Russian Understanding of War

March 24, 2020
Story Stream
recent articles

The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace. Oscar Jonsson. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2019.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the coercive annexation of the Crimea, and the ongoing support of proxy groups in Eastern Ukraine have induced seizures in western military thought, especially in the United States. Knee-jerk reactions hit upon slick-sounding diagnoses like the gray zone, the Gerasimov Doctrine, and even prescriptions based on new rules that reject historical continuity itself.

These ideas are more the products of panic than informed reflection. Fortunately Oscar Jonsson’s new book, The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace is not. Jonsson, the Director of the Stockholm Free World Forum,has packed this slim volume with a potent antidote. Based on his field research in Moscow, he takes the all-too-novel approach of examining what Russians themselves think, say, and write about war in the 21st century.

Jonssan’s thesis is that the Russian government and armed forces believe there has been a change in the nature of war with the advent of the information revolution. Specifically, information warfare is now so potent that it can achieve political goals commensurate with war without recourse to military means. The resulting book offers an efficient overview of trends in Russian military thought since the collapse of the Soviet Union paired with detailed examinations of the two major subjects that have defined those trends: information warfare and color revolutions.

Blurring the Lines Between the Soviet Union and Russia

Jonsson traces Russian military thought from Lenin to the present, focusing on official government documents, speeches, and scholarly articles written by civilian and military defense officials. Then he provides two topical deep dives on information warfare and color revolutions. The content is organized on two tracks: the views of political leadership and the views of military leadership. This keeps the chapters organized, with Jonsson using callbacks and highlighting connections to prevent too much bifurcation.

The survey demonstrates how Russians see war and peace not as a binary but as a spectrum. The extensive use of subversive information and propaganda, or what some call political warfare, is also not new. A. A. Svechin, in his 1926 book Strategy, explicitly stated the value of these means: “This political goal, namely splitting a hostile state into individual political fragments, involves a study of the domestic situation.”[1] Such methods fall in line with the Marxist-Leninist ideas of Svechin’s time, of course; this revolutionary Russian tradition of offensive political warfare, as Svechin labeled it, has not died out. But Svechin saw such means as suited for infecting the opponent with disunity in preparation for eventual defeat by Russian military forces. Modern Russian thinkers, by contrast, see a vastly expanded role for these methods.

Jonsson finds plenty of evidence for this thesis, as the Russian documents he uses explicitly discuss whether or not there has been a change in the nature or—more commonly in these sources—the “essence” of war. Most of them, at some point, agree there has been such a change. Moreover, many of the writers who pioneered thinking on information warfare in the 1990s (a trend that triggered similar examinations in the U.S. military) are still active and discussing current events like Euromaidan and the war in Ukraine. By presenting these thinkers and their ideas in chronological order, Jonsson makes it easy to follow their evolution.

To evaluate whether or not the nature of war has changed, Russian thinkers lean heavily on Clausewitz’s definition of war, which is unsurprising since Lenin also adopted it. The debate in Russia regarding his definition revolves around whether or not it needs to be updated to reflect that non-military means can be used alongside—or in lieu of—military means. That debate is a result of a conflation of the word violence with organized, military force. The Russians see the classical definition of war as meaning the open use of organized, uniformed military forces. Clausewitz’s definition requires the use of organized violence, but leaves open questions about the particular organizations that can employ it.

Jonsson expertly leavens the presentation of documents and articles examined after the collapse of the Soviet Union with connections to major milestones in the Russian Federation’s foreign policy—the Chechen Wars, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the Russian parliamentary elections of 2011—that they believe were corrupted by interference from the United States, and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However, the presentation of article excerpts and concepts in a chronological manner makes for dry reading, even with Jonsson’s analysis woven in. This is, in my opinion, a necessary evil; medicine does not exist to taste good. Readers who are only casually interested in the details of Russian military thought or unused to academic prose, though, may be left wishing for a spoonful of sugar.

Russian military vehicles on their way to South Ossetia, August 9, 2008. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

The book reveals that Russian officials—both political and military—have engaged in a lively and complex debate about what war is, its nature and its role in international politics. These are not the staid, anodyne, article-shaped press releases penned by the staffs of most U.S. officials and then published under their names. They are deep, philosophical discussions of meaning that reflect real engagement with the subject matter.

Controlled Chaos and The Management of Savagery

One important concept from Russian thinking is the idea of controlled chaos, a phrase used throughout Russian writings on war. It refers to the sowing of disorder and dissension in a target country through information, intelligence, diplomatic, or other means, including violence. Russian thinkers believe such controlled chaos is in most cases preparation for further action such as invasions that then achieve political goals. Others think controlled chaos can achieve policy goals without any further action.

This idea has parallels in Sunni jihad strategic theory, specifically The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji, which greatly influenced the Islamic State. For Naji, the sowing of controlled chaos does not just create an opportunity but also encourages capitulation and support to the entity strong enough to impose order and stability. The case of the Islamic State demonstrates this strategic logic as it attempted to be both agent of and solution to chaos in Syria and Iraq.[2]

This is not to say that Russia and the Islamic State are the same, or even that they have similar motivations for the sowing of chaos and disorder. But the fact that they both see chaos as a means and an opportunity rather than a problem is notable. Where Russia does see chaos as a problem is when it is imposed by someone else. Russian writers take it as a fact that any event in any country that does not conform to Russian interests is a clever American conspiracy to manipulate events.

Jonsson also illuminates how the Russian conception of information warfare consists of two parts: information-technical and information-psychological.[3] The former maps roughly to information-related capabilities that revolve around technology: electronic warfare, cyber warfare, signals intelligence, etc. The latter involves the influence of people through deception, disinformation, psychological warfare, and other means of changing minds. There is no such division in U.S. doctrine, where all of these capabilities and more are jumbled together under the titles “information warfare,” “information operations,” or “operations in the information environment” depending on time and service.

Fear and Loathing in Moscow

It is important to remember, however, that Russia’s focus on information warfare reflects not only its belief in its potential, but also its fear of its power. The outsized role of information in Russian military thought is a symptom of deep-seated nervousness that with free information comes domestic political revolution. It is not just that Russian writers worry a domestic political revolution would occur, but also that it would succeed. This Russian fear of western values goes back at least as far as Peter the Great, whose reforms drew conservative ire from the Russian nobility and at least one aborted coup attempt.

The United States is not the only one guilty of misunderstanding others. The U.S. and other western countries tend to see instability and chaos as inherently bad and as a problem to be solved. The Russians see it as an opportunity, and they think the United States thinks the same way.[4] This leads them to see American conspiracies in every global crisis and respond in kind to these hallucinated attacks.

The United States, for example, views funding for pro-democracy groups as benign, while Russian leaders see it as malign. Conversely, some things the U.S. see as an attack the Russians see as a response. For example, Americans view Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election as an attack. Russian leaders, however, view it as a response to American interference in the Russian parliamentary elections of 2011 and subsequent protests that lasted into 2012, which they believe then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally directed and orchestrated.[5] The fact that neither of those things is true is less important than the fact that Russian leaders believe them to be true.

The American Embassy in Moscow. (Mladen Antonov/AFP)


Jonsson’s thesis is convincing: the Russians clearly believe the nature of war has changed. There is a strong consensus that war can now be made without recourse to organized military means and that policy goals can now be achieved by offensive political warfare. The Russians themselves, though, fail to make the case. They uniformly interpret Clausewitz’s definition of war as resting on the use of military forces for political goals. However, Clausewitz’s definition does not require formal military force, just violence. The writers covered in this book have a habit of conflating the definitions of violence, organized violence, and military force all as one and the same when in fact they mean different things This is ironic, since Russia does not shy away from employing violence in peace or in war, whether it be through proxies in a high-intensity conflict like Ukraine or through assassinations in countries like the United Kingdom. The subtitle of the book is therefore well-chosen. Clausewitz defines war as the pursuit of political goals with the addition of violent means. There have always been other means of achieving political goals, and those means are used in peace and in war. War, though, features the use of violence alongside those other means, and that violence can take many forms, not just the military one.

They are right, however, that those other means—especially informational means, including information-technical and information-psychological—have more potential and are therefore more potent than they have been in the past. Information warfare has evolved beyond a susceptibility to antibodies like censorship; such means of state control of information will only work for so long. This offers strategic actors both opportunities and threats and Russia, perhaps more so than the United States, intends to seize the former and forestall the latter. Jonsson’s book should be at the top of the reading list to understand Russia’s view of them.

Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst, an officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge. He is the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Trans. Kokoshin, Andrei A. Ed. Kent D. Lee. Svechin, A. A. Strategy. Minneapolis: Eastview Information Services, 1992, Page 94.

[2] For more on Sunni jihad strategic logic see “Mujahideen: The Strategic Tradition of Sunni Jihadism,” Small Wars Journal:

[3] Jonsson, 20.

[4] Jonsson, 141.

[5] Jonsson, 132.

Show comments Hide Comments