Russia and Europe are facing a civilizational divorce


The West has to understand the way of Russian military thinking in order to be able to respond to the Kremlin’s moves. Russia is unlikely to invade the Baltic states, however it will be worth it to pay attention to Belarus this year. Our interview with Jānis Bērziņš, the director of the Center for Security and Strategic Research in Riga.


Although “hybrid warfare” is the most commonly used term for referring to Russian activities in Ukraine, there is no agreed definition of the terms related to it. In your recent study, you stated that “hybrid is wrong” and New Generation Warfare should be used instead. What is your argumentation?

The term “Hybrid” was used to characterize warfare in the beginning of the 1990s in a master thesis written in the US War College, but it became famous after Frank Hoffman used it to describe Hezbollah’s tactics during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in the 2000s. The problem with this definition is that it does not entirely reflect the whole spectrum of Russian strategy, although it can be part of it. The attractiveness of the term is probably that the word “hybrid” can mean anything. It became a buzzword after General Skip Davis used it during a briefing at NATO, but he personally told me that he never wanted “Hybrid” to become a buzzword.

After reading more than 25 years of Russian military literature in the archives, it’s clear that the Russians themselves refer to their strategy as “New Generation Warfare.” In short, the basis of it is asymmetric warfare and its main elements are Low Intensity Conflict, Sixth Generation Warfare, and Network Centric Warfare, having Reflexive Control (the art of making your opponent do what you want it to without the opponent realizing it) as an auxiliary instrument. For example, Sixth Generation Warfare is about non-contact warfare using high-precision artillery, which is what happened during operation Desert Storm. Network Centric Warfare envisages using smaller military units sharing the same information space. This isn’t Hybrid Warfare in any way.

If there is no expert consensus on this, how is it possible for experts at NATO, for example, to measure the threat the military alliance face every single say?

The problem is that the experts don’t read Russian professional literature. They try to fit the Russian strategy into Western concepts, ending up with some reductionism or simplification. They need to learn to think as Russian officers. The most important thing is to go beyond that. It is to accept that the Russians think differently, they have a different military culture which is the result of centuries of their own historical development. Besides, it’s very much necessary to understand that Russia doesn’t see itself as part of the West, but rather as a Eurasian county. As such, although the West is an important partner, in many cases there are different strategic interests. Besides, the Russians see our actions from another perspective. For them, for example, the United States is to blame for DAESH and the global spread of terrorism, although this is a simplistic understanding of the roots of terrorism. The result is that in many cases they are convinced that our actions jeopardize their security. In short, it is necessary to develop critical thinking. To use an American saying I heard from a Hungarian military officer, you don’t need to think outside the box, you need to think without the box.

You wrote that in Ukraine, New Generation Warfare was mostly based on asymmetric warfare and Low Intensity Conflict. What is your opinion about the counter-measures taken by Kiev?

In the beginning, the Ukrainians were very badly prepared, but it’s amazing how they were able to organize themselves. They learned very quickly what had to be done, but it’s clear they lacked capabilities, both in training and hardware. Low Intensity Conflict is a form of asymmetric warfare. Thus, the way to deal with it has to be asymmetric too. This means that the Ukrainians should have developed such capabilities to be stronger than their opponents within the same tactics. This means that the Ukrainians must use the same tactics to utilize the same skills to become stronger than their opponents.

According to General Gerasimov’s opinion, every conflict has its set of rules and therefore requires unique ways and means. Taking this into account, how hard it is to predict the Kremlin’s strategy? How does the Ukrainian conflict differ from the Georgian War for example?

We should pay attention to this idea. Russia’s strategy is very Clausewitzian with some influence from Sun Tzu. It’s about achieving strategic political objectives using the minimum effort. Therefore, warfare is more than a simple armed conflict, it’s rather the combination of military and non-military means, the result of which is that for each specific tactical objectives and war theater a different strategy is needed. For example, the tactical base for Ukraine is Low Intensity Conflict, while in Georgia it was more like conventional linear tactics.

Let’s talk about the  nature of all-out information warfare, which is of equal importance to land, sea and air warfare in Russian terminology. The main aim is to confuse, not to convince. Can Europe defeat the disinformation war? What would be the best strategy against this warfare and what would your advice be for Central and Eastern European countries?

This sort of information warfare can only work if the seeds for its success are already there. For example, to what extent were the alleged Russian operations aimed to influence the American people and help Trump win the election really decisive? I’m convinced that with or without the Russian operations Trump would have won the election. Was Brexit the result of Russian operations? Of course not. In fact, both are the results of common people being tired of politicians and civil servants making policies which benefit either the financial system or the very rich, hoping that the result will be greater employment or wages. Reality is far from that. The point is that Western politicians and civil servants need to practice deep self-criticism to understand why there’s a huge dissatisfaction with the current Western political system and its policies. This is the base on which Russia can operate, aiming to delegitimize Western democracy as a credible system. More precisely it is necessary to:

  • Monitor the information environment and resilience: the concept „resilience to information warfare” must be operationalized by setting measurable criteria for monitoring it on a regular basis. For example, the audit of information-related processes at a technological level and measuring the willingness to defend a given country, trust in state institutions and other indicators at a cognitive level.
  • A comprehensive system of monitoring and analysis of hostile activities in the information environment should be implemented, including such domains as the internet, media, social media.
  • Enhancing resilience at a cognitive level: this is the most complex part. It is necessary to explain adversaries’ strategic goals and the tools of their implementation. Also, implementing national-level strategic communication programs for winning the hearts and minds of our own societies. The main task is to decrease the gap between governments and societies, which is the main vulnerability that can be used as a leverage by adversaries. Enhancing the critical thinking skills of our own societies. This is the best way to provide information environment security, while not giving up democratic freedoms. Enhancing high-quality journalism, because media business logic and the mediatization of politics are two main drivers of the post-truth phenomenon. And last but not least: it is important to look for ways how governments and societies could interact directly, without the media, because this way politicians and state officials can explain their policies and also get direct feedback from society.

How do you see the relevance of the EU-sanctions against Russia? The prime minister of Hungary argued that non-economic problems cannot be solved by economic means. Contrary to this, Edgars Rinkēvičs Latvian MFA said that the sanctions had served their purpose.  In your opinion is there any other tool for the West to use to pressure the Kremlin?

The sanctions have been successful as punishment, but not in forcing Russia to get out of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. As Sergey Kagaranov, the honorary head of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy of the Russian Federation recently said, Russia and Europe are facing a civilizational divorce. Russia and Europe’s strategic interests are increasingly different and it’s clear that Russia is willing to use military power to achieve them. One way is dialogue from a position of strength after understanding which are Russia’s strategic objectives. Another is to construct mutual interests, making the Kremlin believe that it’s more advantageous to cooperate. In reality, it’s quite difficult.

In Riga, 40 percent of the Latvian population speak Russian. How does the Kremlin use them as a tool to increase Russian influence within the country?

With very limited success. The Russian-speaking population is not uniform and I would say this division is too reductionist. I don’t believe they are a fifth column or something like that. In any case, there is solid research showing that they don’t want to live in Russia or under Russian occupied territories. For example, they’re emigrating to other EU countries and not to Russia or any of the CIS. Nevertheless, Russia tries to influence them to support the political agenda of some specific political parties.

Sir Richard Schirreff, a former general of NATO has wrote a book about an upcoming war between the NATO and Russia. In his military fiction, the Baltics end up being invaded by Russia. What is your opinion about his prophecy, is there any rea chance for this scenario?

All scenarios must be taken into consideration for military planning, including Russia invading the Baltics. Although I expect the Russian General Staff has plans which include such scenario, I don’t think the Baltics are Russia’s first priority for preoccupation due to the fact that we’re NATO members and the deployment of allied troops and hardware in our territory. Even though these are insufficient to engage in an offensive against Russia, they are strong enough to work as deterrence. Therefore, I would rather look to the CIS, which are neither NATO or EU countries. Many are saying that the 2017 ZAPAD exercise in September might result in problems to Belarus, but this is only speculation.