The United States has special operators in close proximity to Russian forces on three continents. In many cases, the Russian forces on the ground are either actively countering or preparing to counter irregular threats in the event of a Russian military operation. A fixation on Russian irregular warfare and political warfare threats has obscured Russia’s other significant capability: counter-irregular warfare. Russia’s military lineage is steeped in successful counter-irregular campaigns, with Afghanistan and the First Chechen War as the exceptions proving the rule. Though the new model bears familiar trappings, with it the Russian military has adapted its force structure to counter irregular threats abroad with a robust suite of expeditionary forces. If the United States intends to seriously compete with and challenge Russia abroad, then it is time to understand the emerging capabilities of Russian counter-irregular forces. Armed with an understanding of Russian counter-irregular warfare, commanders at the tactical and operational level can better exploit Russian weaknesses and manage risk.
What Is Counter-Irregular Warfare?
What do we even mean by “counter-irregular warfare”? We use this term to capture three types of military operations — counter-insurgency, foreign internal defense, counter-terrorism — executed by Russian forces. The Russian tradition of counter-insurgency diverges starkly from doctrinal Western concepts, with implications for Department of Defense strategists and their allies. Whereas Western counter-insurgency responses focus on bolstering governance, Russian approaches are focused on targeting and destroying guerilla forces. Counter-irregular warfare is not intended to replace counter-insurgency in the Western lexicon, but to more accurately describe Russian approaches and methodology.
In short, Russian counter-irregular warfare encapsulates how the Russian military would seek to counter a U.S.-led unconventional warfare campaign in a third country, secure vulnerable rear areas, and how it may increasingly compete for influence at the tactical and operational level.
Ministry of Defence Reform Trickle-Down Effects
By pivoting away from a force reliant upon mass conscription and short terms of service, the Russian military has opened the door to increased readiness, specialization, and technical proficiency within its ranks. As of 2020, the majority of the Russian army was composed of volunteers, and a ban on service abroad for conscripts has forced recent counter-irregular warfare efforts to be executed exclusively by contract soldiers. This is not to say that Russian conscripts receive less initial-entry training, nor are they necessarily less “professional” than their contracted counterparts. They do, however, have less than 12 months of service as compared to longer-term kontraktniki. When personnel accrue experience consistently, units are more cohesive and proficient in advanced technologies at the tactical level, such as digital command and control systems or drones. Although not directly targeted at creating effective counter-irregular formations, the increase of kontraktniki in the Russian military has contributed to a marked increase in expeditionary capability and retained experience — which trickles down to counter-irregular operations.
The Shift to an Agile and Interoperable Force
Russian counter-irregular forces prior to 2015 struggled to coalesce into effective formations. Current Russian operations, such as those in Syria and Libya, demonstrate increased interoperability within the Russian defense enterprise. While Syria and Libya remain two distinctly different types of military operation, Moscow can now adeptly employ combinations of forces from across its military, intelligence and domestic security services, and the private (or, more accurately, semi-state) sector. These custom-built task forces in Syria and Libya have not yielded the egregious failures in communication and coordination seen prior to 2015. Private military contractors provide plausibly deniable maneuver elements, combat trainers, close air support (in the case of Libya), and a whole suite of specialty logistic and support services depending on the operational environment.
Russian Special Operations Command: An Eastern Facsimile
In 2013, after a four-year study of similar institutions across the globe, the Russian Ministry of Defence created the Kommadovaniye sil Spetsialnykh Operatsiy — Special Operations Forces Command. This organization represented both a capitalization of late-adopter advantage on the part of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and a shift in Russian perspective on the role of special operations forces. Historically, Russian special assignment forces (spetsnaz) functioned exclusively as light infantry augmenting regular army formations. While spetsnaz units absolutely still exist, Russian special operations forces (many recruited from spetsnaz and military intelligence directorate formations) have expanded outside of their traditional roles of direct action and special reconnaissance. Though gaining notoriety as the “polite people” of Crimean fame, Russian special operations forces in Syria demonstrated a broader mission set. Rather than carrying out unilateral missions, Russian special operations forces augmented Syrian partners and bolstered local operations by coordinating with Russian air assets. The use of indigenous forces in counter-irregular campaigns is by no means new (reference the Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, or the use of the kadirovtsi in Chechnya). However, the use of special operations forces as connective tissue and force multipliers to indigenous formations highlights a marked shift in Russian military organization. This is a technique — enshrined as a special operations role in NATO doctrine — that Russia has now adopted for use in counter-irregular operations abroad.
Drone Warfare as a Core Component
Drones, which rose to prominence within counter-insurgency operations led by the United States, now form a core component of the Russian counter-irregular approach. This capability is improving quickly due to significant investment and emphasis from the Kremlin. Even with unarmed drones (e.g., during the siege of Aleppo in 2016 and 2017), Russian forces successfully integrated these platforms to provide timely intelligence and enable maneuver. As of 2021, Russian forces training domestically had integrated unarmed and armed unmanned platforms with a ground maneuver force — synchronizing strikes using a Strelets-enabled command post. The Russian kill chain is getting shorter and more precise with the syncing of digital command and control and drones, an important improvement for future campaigns.
Likewise, Russian experiences in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and (by proxy) Nagorno-Karabakh, have kept the Russian military at the forefront of technologies to counter drones. As a result of these experiences, each Russian military district now has a dedicated element to counter enemy drone attacks and routinely drill against mass drone attacks in unit training scenarios. Russian counter-drone tactics rely predominately upon layered electronic warfare defenses to defeat the threat drone’s navigation and communication system. But they also include techniques for physically destroying adversarial drones with standard weapon systems. While these methods do not provide a total defense against enemy unmanned systems, they have proven effective against even U.S. and Operation for Security Cooperation in Europe drones in Syria and Ukraine, respectively.
Beyond the Traditional Military
Another significant change in force structure was the 2016 creation of the Rosgvardia, or the “National Guard” (bearing no resemblance to the Western concept). The Rosgvardia combines internal affairs forces, law enforcement capabilities, and paramilitary units (such as existing Cossack formations) with the stated purpose of countering domestic security threats both independently and in support of the armed forces. Although theoretically focused on domestic territorial defense, National Guard special designation units have demonstrated the ability to effectively integrate with regular forces, deployed to Syria, and would likely be used to secure vulnerable rear areas and target resistance forces in the event of Russian incursions into Ukraine or other neighboring states.
In addition to military forces and the Rosgvardia, Russian intelligence services such as the Foreign Intelligence Service (specifically Zaslon) and Federal Security Service provide yet another capability to any campaign against insurgents or rebel groups. Russia has opaque and limited restrictions on employing these elements abroad, as evidenced by activities in Syria and Venezuela. Each of Russia’s intelligence services brings networks and finishing forces that can be used to target resistance movements. While the scale and purpose of the intelligence services’ role in recent counter-irregular campaigns remains unclear, the integration of military, Rosgvardia, and intelligence assets provides Moscow with layered options for targeting irregular threats.
Today, Russian expeditionary counter-irregular packages draw from professional volunteer brigades and battalions, including force multipliers such as special operations forces, drone forces, military police, and private military contractors. When integrated with air power, these force packages allow Moscow to conduct sustained operations abroad with a relatively small and scalable footprint on the ground. This ability to tailor force composition to create expeditionary counter-irregular task forces is new in the Russian experience, and represents a watershed in expeditionary mobility and command organization. The Russian kill chain is now shorter, its forces are more specialized and capable, and it retains the ability to rapidly scale Moscow’s investment abroad in a way new to Russia’s historical experience as a continental power.
Developing countries now have a Russian option to provide them with foreign internal defense, security force assistance, or counter-terrorism capabilities against irregular threats. Such a choice is especially appealing to authoritarian or corrupt regimes who want a military answer to an irregular threat but have limited interest in the oversight and pressure to reform that comes from Western support. This is especially relevant in Africa, where Russia continues to increase its military involvement while the United States has begun to scale down. Although training engagements and combined exercises are nothing new, the spread of Russian forces into Mozambique, Central African Republic, and the recent request for Russian mercenary support in Mali are indicative of this shift. For the past 20 years, many of these countries’ options for importing military support and security expertise consisted of the United States and U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom or France. The United States and its allies will increasingly need to assess which relationships (and therefore military access), they desire to maintain and which they are comfortable ceding to Russia, which is eager to assert its influence further abroad.
Additionally, with increased Russian counter-irregular deployments abroad come increased opportunities to apply pressure against Moscow in multiple regions, and with combinations of hard and soft power. The consistent violation of human rights by both the military, with its indiscriminate use of fires, and unaccountable private military contractors opens the regime to scrutiny in the information space. The web of private and state actors enabling the expanding Russian footprint abroad also provides potential vulnerabilities for exploitation via cyber or economic levers. Any direct involvement of uniformed Russian military personnel in small wars abroad presents a significant risk to the Kremlin, with its well-documented aversion to Russian casualties. Exploitation of these potential vulnerabilities requires a coherent international strategy between the United States and its allies. The more expansive the Russian efforts abroad, the more pressure points become available to U.S. policymakers seeking to influence behavior in Moscow.
Maj. Benjamin Arbitter and Maj. Kurt Carlson are Army Special Forces officers with operational and combat experience in the European Command and Central Command areas of responsibility. Both are from 10th Special Forces Group and have recently completed master’s degrees in defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. These views do not represent those of the 10th Special Forces Group, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence