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Russians continue to use age-old military concepts

Russian military concepts developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries still exist and have not lost their strategic relevance. The Russians used them to annex Crimea and are now applying them in the war in Ukraine. Although the concepts have been around for a long time, it does not mean they are always successful.

External PhD candidate Engin Yüksel researched Russian military thought between 1856 and 2010 and its continuity at the Institute for History. Less data is available after that period.

Why did you start researching this?

‘After the Crimean intervention in 2014, Western scholars struggled to explain Russian military thought. They tended to conclude that the Russian military was doing something very new: a sort of hybrid warfare (in a hybrid war, a country uses political, military, paramilitary, economic, criminal, and terrorist means and (dis)information to achieve its goal, ed.). Russia took control of Crimea without much military force. I wanted to explore whether Russia’s approach to contemporary warfare really is a new phenomenon or whether there is a historical continuity in its military thought.’

‘The Russian army deploys combat-ready troops without any mobilisation.’

Is there continuity in Russian military concepts?

‘There are five fundamental military concepts in the Russian military that we keep seeing between 1856 and 2010. One is the initial period of war, which relates to the first phase of war. This means that the Russian military always tries to win the war in the initial phase. If a war becomes a war of attrition, Russia is technologically and logistically behind the West. The concept of the initial period of war cannot be fully understood without another concept that is also still used today: combat readiness or the ability to provide desired security in peacetime and in times of war. This means that the Russian army deploys combat-ready troops to win the war in its opening phase without any mobilisation. This allows them to make use of the element of surprise.

‘Another concept the Russians use is forecasting future wars. In publications after 2000 in particular, you see that the Russian high command predicts that Russia will have to prepare for local wars with permanently combat-ready troops: take Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, for example. They also predicted the growing significance of non-military means, such as the use of (dis)information or economic measures to weaken the enemy before the start of military operations.’

‘The idea was that if generals applied the principles and concepts, success would be guaranteed.’ 

Is Russia still using these old concepts?

‘Yes, it is. This is because Russians used to define military matters as military science and this has been shaped over the 20th century by military principles and their underlying concepts. Many Russian articles and books have been written about these concepts and how they were institutionalised in military thought. These publications were based on the notion that Soviet military concepts were superior to those of the West because socialism was superior to capitalism.

‘The idea was that if generals applied the principles and concepts, success would be guaranteed. The concepts became more and more institutionalised, especially in the 1950s. That is why they are still used today, despite not always being successful. This is because Russian military science has overlooked operational art, the significance of judgement and the conditions of war.’

Engin Yüksel will defend his PhD thesis ‘The continuity and discontinuity of fundamental military concepts in Russian military thought between 1856 and 2010’ on 24 January.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: Steve Harvey via Unsplash

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