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Bespredel and the Conduct of Russian “Hybrid Operations”
Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria have frustrated Western analysts’ efforts to identify the tactical and strategic bases of a new form of “hybrid warfare” utilizing non-military assets in conjunction with conventional and nonconventional military operations.[i] Various commentators have expressed dissatisfaction with this description, however, asserting that recent Russian military activity does not reflect widely accepted definitions of hybrid warfare relating to irregular conflicts involving both state and sub-state actors such as the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.[ii] Some analyses have questioned whether or not the current Russian model is even a new form of warfare at all, proposing that it more accurately reflects operational concepts of Soviet origin.[iii] This uncertainty has led to a proliferation of new definitions for these Russian “hybrid” operations, including such terms as ambiguous warfare, grey warfare, non-conventional warfare, political warfare, and new warfare.[iv] Such is the confusion surrounding these Russian interventions that one leading analyst has expressed his preference for the term “non-linear warfare” on the grounds that it means almost nothing at all.[v] It is generally agreed, however, that some sort of comprehensive description encompassing recent Russian military operations needs to be established, as the nature of a threat must be identified and understood before any effective response to it may be formulated.[vi] This paper therefore proposes an alternative definition of Russian “hybrid” activities that is derived from the Russian concept bespredel, commonly translated as “[the] absence of limits.” The use of this expression will redress the most significant criticisms of the current theoretical language concerning these operations while also demonstrating the efficacy of the term as applied to this context. By conceptualizing Russian “hybrid” activities in terms of bespredel, a more nuanced understanding of the myriad threats and capabilities associated with these operations will be realized, not least of which is an appreciation of the ruthlessness inherent to this system of warfare.
A principal criticism of the current language regarding Russian “hybrid” activities is that this terminology is faddish, lacking substance and analytical depth.[vii] Bespredel, however, is a relatively venerable term that first emerged from the lexicon of Russian criminality during the 1990s. Originally referring to various practices considered to be violations of the old Soviet underworld’s unwritten rules of conduct, the expression has subsequently entered common parlance in Russia as a means of describing any extreme and/or unprincipled behavior. In recent years the concept has been described as exercising “a growing hegemony over the culture at large. [viii] Indeed, a case has been made that bespredel is the quintessential expression of the Putin regime’s domestic and international policies.[ix]
As the concept is wholly Russian in origin, bespredel places contemporary Russian warfighting within its own culture alongside such 20th century doctrines of non-conventional warfare as Maskirovka and Active Measures.[x] In doing so, the concept answers another criticism of the current theoretical lexicon: that these analytical descriptions are guilty of mirroring Russian activities, i.e., “projecting our own assumptions and criteria onto decision-makers in Moscow.”[xi] Yet if any nation has indulged in mirroring in this respect, it is the Russian Federation, given that in March 1999, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev described the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia as an act of bespredel.[xii] This accusation also demonstrates the early militarization of the concept, additional evidence of which can found in the conduct of various Russian forces during the Second Chechen War which committed a wide range of war crimes, including but not limited to murder, rape, torture, robbery and extortion.[xiii] The military personnel responsible for these acts recognized their activities as bespredel, and actually used the term to describe their behavior. That Russian forces would react to sustained insurgency operations in this manner makes sense in light of cultural antecedents tending toward the belief that “every war is a total war… [wherein] there is not feeling for the fact that there can be limits and should be limits [as to] how this war is conducted.”[xiv] Bespredel was not universal in Chechnya, but it remained sufficiently widespread to provide a formative template demonstrating that the Army was among the first Russian state institutions to utilize limitless war as an operational model, albeit at the tactical level. Here, it is worth observing that if “military doctrines provide guidance for the military logic of operational practice,” then surely the inverse is true, and operational practice provides evidence of military logic and the doctrine on which it based.[xv] This conclusion requires additional explication since one criticism of the analytical language used to describe recent Russian military operations has been a tendency to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy.
It is no accident that Russian “hybrid” activities defy easy categorization at the strategic level. Apart from determined efforts to conceal the nature of their activities, the scope of Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria are wide-ranging and complex. According to one analysis, at least forty separate tools have been used by the Russians in their most recent interventions.[xvi] The same analysis observed that the breadth of such activities requires a “proper structure” to be understood. Such a structure is elusive, however, and requires caution since recent Russian interventions have encompassed “all elements of warfare across the spectrum… [and] to define hybrid warfare risks omitting key and unforeseen elements.”[xvii] Others have argued that the Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria are fundamentally different, and that their divergent goals as well as the means used to attain them cannot be replicated from one theater to another, which in turn precludes the existence of any particular doctrine that could be comprehensively defined.[xviii] Bespredel has assumed the characteristics of an organizing principle, however, and can be applied to any of the myriad instruments currently employed by Russian war planners in Syria or Ukraine. The specific nature of these tools, whether or not they are civil or military, hard or soft power, is ultimately irrelevant. What binds them together as a coherent system is the willingness of the Russian Federation to implement them without any constraints. In fact, a textual precedent already exists for war without limits that not only encapsulates the extremes to which the Russian armed forces will go for the sake of achieving operational success, but also their willingness to employ the utmost range of tools in order to do so.
In 1999, two PLA (People’s Liberation Army) officers, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, proposed a system of military operations named “unrestricted warfare” by which small nations could overcome the armed forces of larger and more technologically advanced opponents.[xix] At its core, “unrestricted warfare” is virtually indistinguishable from bespredel. Thus, “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”[xx] Although a detailed examination of the Chinese model of “unrestricted warfare” is beyond the scope of this paper, at least one of the theory’s foundations requires closer attention: the supra-means, which, according to Qiao and Wang, represents the combination of all available means (both military and non-military) at one’s disposal in the conduct of an operation. Supra-means combinations bundle military operations with diplomatic, economic, financial, technological, cultural, and other legal and illegal means in order to achieve military victory.[xxi] For the purpose of the present work it is particularly illuminating that the Qiao and Wang illustrated the supra-means with direct reference to the activities of the Russian mafia.[xxii]
What emerges from the “unrestricted warfare” theory is a bipartite concept of operations in which war is waged without restraint –using every possible device that may convey advantage– across every possible facet of contact, both military and non-military. Therefore, when regarded in terms of unrestricted warfare and bespredel, the bewildering number of tools used by the Russians in Syria and Ukraine cease to be a hindrance to understanding the totality of these operations, becoming instead a metric by which their inherent nature may be identified.
While Qiao and Wang did not believe that powerful nations would wage “unrestricted warfare” against weaker opponents since “strong nations make the rules while rising ones break them and exploit loopholes,” contemporary Russian political rhetoric maintains that the Russian Federation is not a threat to NATO but is in fact threatened by NATO.[xxiii] In such a model, the Russian armed forces assume the role of the weaker, global opponent irrespective of their actual strength in relation to adversaries in the Post-Soviet space and beyond. Recent modernization programs aside, the Russian military continues to suffer from substantial deficits in comparison with its peer and near-peer rivals.[xxiv] With this in mind, the Russian motivation to adopt traditionally asymmetric systems of warfare such as terrorism, computer hacking, and information operations becomes more understandable. Criticism of “unrestricted warfare” insists the model is untenable for large state actors given that “future war will still have its limitations,” the implication being that adherence to the rules of law would disqualify terrorism, assassination, drug smuggling, and other illegal activities.[xxv] Quite simply, such an assumption ignores the fundamental characteristic of bespredel: its inherent criminality.
The criminal nature of bespredel operations manifests itself in various ways. Whenever possible, the Russian armed forces have cooperated with indigenous organized crime networks during the interventions in Chechnya, Crimea, and the Ukraine, using these groups as auxiliaries and terror cells.[xxvi] Notes Galeotti, “What is new is that what was seen as a disagreeable ad-hoc tactic is becoming the way the Russians are approaching full-spectrum warfare... The boundaries between organized crime, intelligence operations, [and] state-operations have become increasingly unclear.”[xxvii] Apart from overt criminal enterprise, bespredel reveals itself through the violation of international law, the laws of armed conflict, bilateral and multilateral treaty obligations. In these instances, it must be understood that bespredel assumes a legal structure in order to operate, since it must by its very nature do so outside of some form of established order. Thus, international laws governing armed conflict, and diplomatic activity in general provide a primary venue for non-compliance. Yet bespredel does not mandate blind violation of law, for within the context of a war outside of limits, both adherence to and violation of jurisprudence provides a vehicle for tactical and strategic advantage. On the one hand, Russian war planners will uphold international laws in so much as they restrain or embarrass their adversaries. On the other hand, they will violate or suborn international laws whenever it is to their advantage, activities that have been called “guerilla geopolitics.”[xxviii] When challenged over violations of law, the Russians will lie, issuing denials in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary, and may even go so far as to condemn those actors who had the temerity to confront them in the first place.[xxix] This diplomatic malfeasance is complemented by Russian information operations, specifically the dissemination of misinformation and propaganda directed at Western audiences.[xxx] These denials, obfuscations, and denunciations have been described as an “assault on Aristotelian truth.”[xxxi] They are, in fact, manifestations of a war fought without limits in which the information space is another front to be contested.
In conclusion, so long as they are not challenged by the international community, Russian war planners will continue to demonstrate indifference to accepted norms of behavior including but not limited to duplicity in diplomacy, disinformation and propaganda, a willingness to commit and excuse war crimes, terroristic acts, and cooperation with criminal elements. Former EU Ambassador to Russia, Michael Emerson, has spoken of “the moral depravity of the Russian regime,” which remark led to the observation that until European leaders are able to understand this amorality they will not be able to confront Russia’s departure from normative international principles, nor will they be able to defend themselves against the challenges posed by “those for whom such principles have no intrinsic value.”[xxxii] It is therefore imperative that the theoretical language used to describe Russian warfighting reflect the underlying ethos of these activities. Bespredel provides precisely such a vehicle. The concept is applicable to the multi-modal conduct of recent (and future) Russian interventions, while removing any doubt as to their inherent character and the threat that these military activities constitute to international stability. The identification of bespredel as the underlying strategy and tactical model behind recent Russian interventions does more than provide Western analysts with a working definition of contemporary Russian military operations; it actually contests the very information space surrounding those operations, defining them in a manner that reveals the actions of the Putin regime for what they are: opportunistic, criminal, ruthless, and without regard for international law.
[i] Considerable attention has been paid to a 2013 article by General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, in which he discusses the future of military operations with particular reference to “non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals.” Many commentators have seized on this article as prima facie evidence of a new “hybrid” military doctrine, it represents first and foremost the author’s interpretation of 21st century warfare. Indeed, the very definition of “hybrid warfare” (irrespective of the Russian form) is contested, as shown by multiple explanations of the term. Among the most widely accepted definitions of hybrid warfare is that proposed by Frank Hoffman: “Hybrid wars incorporate a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder.” Hoffman, Frank G. Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars, Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (2007), 14. Cf., Galeotti, Mark. “The Gerasimov Doctrine and Russian Non-Linear War,” July 6, 2014, www.inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com; Bartles, Charles K. “Getting Gerasimov Right,” Military Review, Vol. 96, No. 1 (January-February 2016), 30-38.
[ii] Kofman, Michael, & Matthew Rojansky. “A Closer Look at Russia’s ‘Hybrid War,’” Kennan Cable, no. 7 (March 2015), www.wilsoncenter.org; Piotrowski, Marcin A. “Hezbollah: The Model a Hybrid Threat,” Bulletin: The Polish Institute of International Affairs, No. 24 (March 2, 2015), www.pism.pl.
[iv] Connell, Mary Ellen, & Ryan Evans. Russia’s “Ambiguous Warfare” and Implications for the U.S. Marine Corps (May 2015), www.cna.org; Haines, John R. “Putin’s ‘New Warfare’” (May 2014), www.fpri.org; Hoffman, Frank. “On Not-So-New Warfare: Political Warfare Vs. Hybrid Threats” (August 28, 2014), www.warontherocks.com.
[vi] Davis, John R., Jr., Major, USA. “Continued Evolution of Hybrid Threats: The Russian Hybrid Threat Construct and the Need for Innovation,” The Three Swords: Magazine of the Joint Warfare Center, Vol. 10, No. 28 (2015), 20; Galeotti, Mark. “The Gerasimov Doctrine and Russian Non-Linear War;” Seely, Op. Cit.
[vii] Kofman & Rojansky, Op. Cit.
[viii] Dawisha, Karen. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Simon & Schuster (2014), 3; Volkov, Vadim. Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (2002), 82; Borenstein, Eliot. Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (2008), 200; Cf., Kartsev, Vladimir, with Todd Bludeau. !Zhirinovsky!, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1995).
[ix] Prozorov, Sergei. “From Katechon to Intrigant: The Breakdown of the Post-Soviet Nomos,” in Astrov, Alexander, ed. The Great Power (mis)Management – The Russian-Georgian War and its Implications for Global Political Order, Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. (2011), 36-37.
[x]Seely, Op. Cit., for a detailed discussion of the tactics, techniques and practices of Maskirovka and Active Measures, as well as their relationship with recent Russian military interventions.
[xii] It is worth noting that then Acting President Vladimir Putin invoked bespredel in a televised speech given on February 3, 2000. Volkov, Vadim. Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (2002), 82.
[xiii] LeVine, Steve. Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, New York: Random House (2008), xv-xvi; Peterson, Scott. “Heavy Civilian Toll in Chechnya’s ‘Unlimited Violence,’” Christian Science Monitor (December 11, 2000), www.csmonitor.com; Reynolds, Maura. “War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Fighting in Chechnya,” Los Angeles Times (September 17, 2000), www.articles.latimes.com.
[xiv] Van Herpen, Marcel H. Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (2014), 188; quoting Dr. Jacob Kipp, who explicitly links Russian traditions of total war with bespredel.
[xv] Bachmann, Sascha-Dominik, & Håkan Guneeriusson. “Hybrid Wars: The 21st Century’s New Threats to Global Peace and Security,” Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2015), 84.
[xvi] Seely, Robert. Op. Cit.
[xvii] Anon. “On the Concept of Hybrid Warfare,” Finnish Defence Research Agency, Research Bulletin 01-2015 (February 2015).
[xviii] Kofman & Rojansky. Op. Cit.
[xix] Davis, Op. Cit., 21.
[xx] Qiao Liang & Wang Xiangsui. Unrestricted Warfare, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House (1999), 2.
[xxi] Van Messel, Major John A., USMC. Unrestricted Warfare: A Chinese Doctrine for Future Warfare? (Unpublished Master’s Thesis), Quantico, VA: School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University (2005), 18.
[xxii] Qiao & Wang, Op. Cit., 193-194.
[xxiii] Qiao & Wang, Op. Cit., 2; Seipel, Hubert. “Vladimir Putin Interview: US-NATO’s Global Military Design, Russia’s Sovereignty is Threatened,” November 18, 2014, www.globalresearch.ca; Chastain, Mary, “Vladimir Putin: U.S. Missile Defense System Threatens Russia,” October 22, 2015; www.breitbart.com.
[xxiv] Galeotti, Mark. “Don’t buy the hype: Russia’s military is much weaker than Putin wants us to think” (February 26, 2016), www.vox.com.
[xxv] Van Messel, Op. Cit., 15; Wong-Diaz, Francisco. Retooling for the Future, Joint Special Operations University Report 13-2 (May 2013), 22, for further criticism of Van Hessel’s commentary on globalization and unrestricted warfare.
[xxvi] Davis, Op. Cit., 21.
[xxvii] Manea, Op. Cit.
[xxviii] Anon. “On the Concept of Hybrid Warfare,” Finnish Defence Research Agency, Research Bulletin 01-2015 (February 2015); Manea, Op. Cit.
[xxx] Snegovaya, Maria. Putin’s Information War in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare, “Russia Report 1” (September 2015); www.understandingwar.org, for a detailed assessment of Russian information operations and propaganda.
[xxxi] Snyder, Tim. “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options,” Russia-Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (October 14, 2014).