What is Russian Irregular Warfare and why does it matter for Central and Eastern European security?
October 24, 2023

What is Russian Irregular Warfare and why does it matter for Central and Eastern European security?

Author: Nazar Syvak, YEA in Ukraine

The Russian annexation of Crimea, proxies in the East of Ukraine, intervention in European and American elections, and disinformation campaigns, all these Russian actions have led researchers and policymakers to conceptualise a new way in which political competition and war as its extension can be conducted. It differs from the traditional idea of war, where professional armies clash over control of territory, and utilises unconventional methods that are not necessarily viewed as hostile actions or acts of war. It is referred to as hybrid, non-linear, or grey-zone warfare. However, irregular warfare (IW) is the term that is frequently used to define Russian actions. So, what is IW? What methods and tactics does Russia use to conduct its IW? And why is it important for the security of Central and Eastern Europe?

One of the most influential US definitions, going back to 2006, states that IW is a form of warfare that has as its objective the credibility and/or legitimacy of the relevant political authority, with the goal of undermining or supporting that authority. Irregular Warfare  favours indirect approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities to seek asymmetric approaches in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will. This means that IW aims to influence a population of an opposing state, create chaos, and spread distrust in the central government, demobilising the country and restricting its ability to resist military intervention. 

This concept was examined and brought into the Russian strategic military thinking by General Valery Gerasimov and military strategists Chekinov and Bogdanov. They outlined the importance of indirect methods, information operations, and exploitation of the protest potential of the population to gain control over territories rapidly and with limited use of lethal force. These ideas, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, became conceptualised by Western researchers as the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’. 

The Russian IW strategy is typically divided into three stages. The first preparatory stage is characterised by the use of non-military asymmetric measures that are employed to set up favourable conditions for an invasion and annexation of territories. Russia uses a variety of methods to achieve that. The main tactics include information and political warfare, military intimidation (conducting threatening military exercises and breaching borders with aircrafts/missiles), economic coercion, and deceptive diplomacy.  

Once the society of a target country is destabilised, the strategy moves to the offensive stage. Russia exploits social tensions to cause civil unrest and disrupt government authorities and military command. Under this pretext, Russian proxies and special force units infiltrate the territory of the target country. Disguised as ‘local rebels’, the Russian military overtakes administrative buildings and military bases. The immobilisation of state apparatus allows Russia to rapidly and without significant resistance gain political and administrative control over the region. 

The final ‘legitimising’ stage focuses on gaining international recognition for the annexation or ‘independence’ of occupied territories. This is done by organising fake referendums, celebration rallies of the local population, and establishing puppet authorities. The occupied territory is then illegally incorporated into the Russian Federation or established as an ‘independent’ puppet state.  

After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Central and Eastern European  region became the main target of Russian IW. Russia still views this region as its sphere of influence and is exercising its IW capabilities to undermine the sovereignty of countries in the region. This is especially threatening for Baltic states bordering Russia and Belarus and with a major Russian-speaking minority in their population. The signs of the first Russian IW stage are evident. Russian state-affiliated media and social media troll farms continuously spread disinformation and propaganda with the aim of undermining the credibility of government authorities of states in Central and Eastern Europe, creating uncertainty and anxiety in societies and stimulating chaos in informational and media fields. The successful preparatory phase may lead to direct military intervention by Russian proxy groups or private military companies.

The Putin regime still considers invading Central and Eastern European countries and designs plans for aggressive military operations, despite the threat of a full-scale war between NATO and Russia. A recent analysis by Latvian special services claimed that Russia is preparing for a full-scale conflict with NATO and is actively gathering intelligence on Latvian defence capabilities. This is why the study of Russian IW and potential countermeasures to it is so crucial for policymakers and military leaders in Central and Eastern Europe. Russian unlawful and aggressive actions should be stopped before they escalate to a direct military confrontation. Starting from diminishing Russian informational influence, to reducing cultural and economic cooperation with the Russian Federation, the CEE countries should develop preemptive actions designed to counter Russian Irregular Warfare. 

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