Russian tanks, armour and troops are lined up in battle formation facing west in the forests and fields of Belarus. Warships in the Baltic Sea are conducting combat manoeuvres. Aircraft loaded with paratroopers are primed for take-off. The enemy? The belligerent state of Veishnoria, infiltrated by western-funded terrorists seeking to destabilise Russia and intrude upon its sphere of influence.
Veishnoria is a fictional republic, and Russia’s war games on the eastern border of the EU are just exercises. But nervous Nato leaders say the show of force reflects the military vision of General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, whose doctrine of “hybrid war” has made Russia more of a threat than at any point since the cold war.
As the week-long Zapad exercises unfold, Nato is beefing up its deployment in the Baltic states and the US Air Force has taken control of the countries’ air space, while across Europe governments attempt to defend against disinformation campaigns, fake news and cyber attacks.
A man of few words who appears in public infrequently, Mr Gerasimov is a general’s general, described by Sergei Shoigu, Russian defence minister, as “a military man to the roots of [his] hair”.
Mr Shoigu, a politician-turned-general, is said to lean on the former tank commander for military advice. “If Shoigu is an excellent air guitarist, then it’s Gerasimov playing in the background,” according to one anecdote.
It is Mr Gerasimov’s articulation of the science of war that has marked out his tenure as operational head of Russia’s armed forces. “In the 21st century we have seen a tendency towards blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template,” Mr Gerasimov argued in a 2,000-word essay in February 2013 in the weekly Russian defence newspaper Military-Industrial Courier.
“Among such actions are the use of special-operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected,” he wrote.
Transcribed from a speech made three months after his appointment as chief of the general staff, this depiction of a hybrid battleground involving “political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures” appeared prophetic a year later. Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms popped up in Crimea to launch what became the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, following demonstrations against a pro-western government orchestrated by Russian agents.
Western observers were quick to treat his essay as the blueprint for a future Russian hybrid attack against the west. From the proliferation of pro-Russian news media and financial support for anti-establishment politicians in the EU, to allegations of Russian hackers targeting western political campaigns and elections, all of it led back to the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine.
“Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals,” he wrote in the article, which US Marine Corps head Robert Neller says he has read three times. “All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special-operations forces.”
Mr Gerasimov, who is married and has a son, was born in 1955 to a working-class family in Kazan, a city on the banks of the river Volga some 800km east of Moscow, where he studied at the Higher Tank Command School.
Rising quickly through the ranks of the Red Army’s armoured divisions in postings across the Soviet Union, he served as commander of the 58th Army in the North Caucasus, fighting in the war in Chechnya. After serving as head of the armed forces in Russia’s far east, and the military districts encompassing St Petersburg and Moscow, Mr Gerasimov entered the general staff as deputy chief. Relieved of his duties after falling out with his superior, he returned to replace him five months later.
“I believe that all the activities of the General Staff should be aimed at achieving one main goal: maintaining the combat capability of the armed forces,” he told Vladimir Putin on his appointment. But some dispute the existence of the Gerasimov Doctrine as an overarching strategy.
“As far as I read it, [Mr] Gerasimov was seeking to explain how the west acts against Russia, and not a statement of how Russia should be acting,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “Some in the west seek to inflate him as a strategic visionary. But the truth is that he is a purely military man.”
Mr Gerasimov met Petr Pavel, the head of Nato’s military committee, last week to assure him that the Zapad exercises were defensive and posed no threat to other countries. But in Poland and the Baltic States, unnerved by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, many fear that Mr Gerasimov might use the war games to plan similar provocations.
“We must not copy foreign experience and chase after leading countries,” he wrote in his 2013 treatise. “But we must outstrip them and occupy leading positions ourselves.”
The writer is the FT’s correspondent in Moscow
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