By Michael Peck
Whether the enemy was Napoleon, Hitler or NATO, Russia would flatten them with a huge steamroller of troops, tanks, artillery and nuclear weapons.
Those days have ended. Modern Russia’s way of war is much more about finesse and technology. It’s also much closer to the Western way of war as practiced by the Germans and today’s Americans.
“Although clearly influenced by their Soviet ancestry, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have evolved considerably to reflect new realities facing Russia’s defense leadership. Russia no longer has massive manpower advantages over its potential adversaries, nor can it trade space for time in light of the speed, range, and hitting power of modern aerial-delivered munitions,” says a new study  by the RAND Corporation. “Facing a future in which their traditional strengths are absent or less useful, Russia’s military leaders have adapted in ways designed to enable an effective defense of their homeland and, if required, to permit limited offensive operations around their periphery.”
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Given that analysis of Russian strategy and intentions often seems to vary with the ideology of the analyst, the RAND study begins with a clear assumption: “Russia’s forces are primarily postured to defend their homeland, particularly key population centers and industry. There is no indication that Russia is seeking a large-scale conflict with a near-peer or peer competitor, and indeed it appears Russian leaders understand the disadvantages Russia faces in the event of a prolonged conflict with an adversary like NATO.”
From there, the authors go on to list ten key characteristics of the current Russian way of war:
- “Russia’s military is postured to defend its homeland and vital industrial and population centers, using layered, integrated air defenses and a limited number of defensive bulwarks and buffer states to buy space and time to react to potential strikes or invasion.” Buffer states and border defenses would take advantage of the traditional Russian practice of buying time and space, which would give Russia breathing space to mobilize. They would also supplement nuclear weapons as a guarantee of Russia’s territorial integrity.
• “Russia hopes to defend its territory and avoid decisive engagement with a peer or near-peer competitor by fielding defensive systems and strike weapons with extended ranges. These extended ranges would also provide operational advantages to Russian forces conducting offensive operations near its borders.” Russia aims to disrupt any threats on its border that could target the Russian heartland, such as aircraft carriers, ships capable of attacking land targets or providing missile defense, foreign bases and some types of aircraft. Russia has built a variety of land-, sea- and air-launched missiles to accomplish this. While Russia will use a joint strategy of using air, land, sea and irregular forces, “Russian strategists believe aerospace will be the primary domain in modern warfare,” the study notes.
- “Given Russia’s conventional weaknesses in a protracted war with a peer or near-peer adversary, it will attempt to use indirect action strategies and asymmetric responses across multiple domains to mitigate perceived imbalances.”
- “The ultimate insurance for Russian escalation management is its arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons; Russia may threaten to employ or employ its weapons in response to a conventional attack that would undermine the regime’s control of the state or threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent.” Though Russia has invested heavily in modernizing its conventional warfare capabilities, “Russia is likely to consider nuclear responses to nonnuclear attacks that it believes present a grave threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty; continuity of government; and the viability of its strategic nuclear deterrent,” the study concludes. An attack on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on German territory annexed after World War II, would be considered an existential threat to Russia.
- “Several Russian and Soviet operations have involved a rapid, coordinated coup de main attempting to achieve campaign objectives in a very short period of time; this emphasis is likely to remain, especially in preplanned operations.” Russia will also utilize deception (maskirovka) to camouflage preparations for their operations.
- “Recent reforms have made a substantially larger percentage of the land components of the Russian Armed Forces available at higher readiness for short-notice contingencies, while reducing the total number of units; units can deploy by rail to quickly build ground combat power within Russia in response to a crisis.”
- “Conventional and unconventional warfare approaches will likely be mixed in many potential conflict scenarios; special operations forces, paramilitaries, and sympathetic civilians may provide targeting, situational awareness, and some harassment capabilities throughout the battlespace.”
- “At the operational and tactical levels, Russia will likely focus on disrupting, degrading, or destroying adversary command and control and enemy power projection capabilities through the use of kinetic fires, cyber/electronic warfare, and direct action by maneuver forces.”
- “Russia has a limited number of long-range conventional precision strike capabilities that could be used against key operational and strategic targets, especially those at fixed, known locations.”
- On the ground, Russian tactics will likely reflect a heavy emphasis on massed indirect fires (particularly long-range fires), with the effects of these fires exploited by highly mobile vehicles with substantial direct fire capability.” Rather than slugging it out with enemy troops, Russian forces will attempt to use maneuver to locate and fix enemy forces, and then destroy them with massed artillery.
However, the RAND study also asks how well the Russian military can implement this new approach to war. While some forces, such as airborne troops, have performed well in conflicts like Syria, “other units are equipped with older weapons and have a higher percentage of conscripts serving 12-month terms; not surprisingly, they may struggle to achieve the same level of performance. The extent to which the Russian military as a whole can scale up the capabilities seen in recent conflicts is an open question.”