The Russian Understanding of War Cover

The Russian Understanding of War

Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson

Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C., 2019, 208 pages

Book Review published on: January 31, 2020

This is an exceptionally well-researched book that covers Russia’s understanding of war and the ways war has evolved over the past two decades, most importantly as a result of the impact of information warfare. In the book The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace, author Oscar Jonsson summarizes a host of contemporary Russian and Western sources in support of his research. One of his major conclusions is that there has been a shift “with a larger focus to the political goal of war rather than its means (armed violence).” On numerous occasions, Jonsson references Russian military officers who underscore the use of nonmilitary warfare means against Russia that have blurred the lines between war and peace.

Some of the nonmilitary forms of warfare he discusses include information warfare, nongovernmental organizations, youth organizations, the security services, and color revolutions. Gen. Sergey Shoigu, Russian minister of defence, noted that the latter (so named because various colors have been associated with uprisings in countries in the region) involves a two-step Western process. First, nonmilitary forms of action are used (as they were used in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan), and if these action forms fail to cause change, military intervention follows (as it did in Serbia, Libya, and Syria). Former General Staff chief Gen. Yuri N. Baluyevsky offered a somewhat different three-state approach for color revolutions: an internal crisis is created in the victim state, the country is turned into a failed state, and a rescue operation is conducted, ending with offers of loans and other incentives to support regime change. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that nonmilitary means are used for regime change in states not in line with U.S. policy. Washington’s strategy, he stated, consists of economic and information pressure along with the use of proxies and ideological pressure generated through externally financed nongovernmental organizations.

The book is not simply a reference for such contemporary Russian issues of focus. Jonsson begins his analysis with an overview of Marxism-Leninism and its description of the root causes of war. He then delves into the nature of war and its use as an instrument of politics, offering a separate section on the work of Imperial Army officer Evgeny Messner, who focused on the psychological dimension of war. Messner argued that “the use of traditional weapons is associated with such danger and sacrifice to which the modern self-centered person is not inclined.” Interestingly, Messner added that in future wars, economic, political, and social factors will be important, and that war will not have just land, sea, and air dimensions, but will add a fourth, which is the psyche of the belligerent populations.

Jonsson then correctly breaks Russian information warfare into its two most common divisions: information-technical and information-psychological. The former is associated with information technologies supporting weaponry and the latter with methods of influence and manipulation. There are times when the two are integrated, such as when a cyber operation uses technology to disinform an opponent. Jonsson notes that information has now become a weapon in the opinion of many officers and concludes that Russia’s leadership “sees information warfare and color revolutions as the West’s main approach to the use of force today.” The author opines that these two issues have become the biggest threats “to the survival of Vladimir Putin’s regime.” Jonsson notes that the information-technical parameter of warfare (C4ISR, precision weaponry, etc.) improves the application of force but does not address the changing nature of war. In contrast, the information-psychological parameter addresses the changing nature of war, he notes, and key innovation lies in this address. Vladimir Kvachkov, a fellow at the Center for Military-Strategic Studies, noted in 2004 that simply destroying an enemy had too narrow a focus. He stated that “a new type of war has emerged, in which armed warfare has given up its decisive place in the achievement of military and political objectives of war to another kind of warfare—information warfare.” He proposed that war could be achieved solely by nonmilitary means.

Jonsson ends his book noting that while the West tries to expand democracy and the rule of law, Russia perceives such maneuvers as motivating popular revolts in the name of Western values; these uprisings result in threats to a state’s stability. This conclusion stems from the Kremlin’s belief that its legitimacy rests on the absence of both democracy and law. Such a situation only heightens Russia’s continued sense of insecurity and paranoia. Jonsson writes that the Kremlin believes the West uses more nonmilitary than military means, and in turn, is causing President Putin to take more risks and be more proactive toward the West. This sense of Russian concern inspires Jonsson to end his book stating that “the nature of war is changing in the Russian mind.”

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Timothy Thomas, U.S. Army, Retired, McLean, Virginia