The Russian Army and Irregular Warfare

The Russian Army's long-standing experience of counter-insurgency operations is too often overlooked in existing analyses. Following well documented difficulties during the Afghanistan and the First Chechen conflicts, however, the Russian Army has now re-discovered earlier, but highly effective, doctrinal approaches to counter-insurgency fighting.

By Dr Alex Marshall for

The Russian Army today, contemplating the creation of a joint regional rapid-reaction force for dealing with crises and terrorist threats, and also itself still individually engaged in low-intensity fighting in the North Caucasus, is the intellectual and doctrinal inheritor of over 200 years of rich experience in low-intensity and counter-insurgency conflict. The Caucasus itself however also remains the single most significant formative experience for Russian views on combating Islamic insurgency. From there, during the nineteenth-century, were inculcated techniques and practices which Russian commanders translated to Central Asia and Afghanistan, before then being forced to re-contemplate the original challenge upon the outbreak of the First and Second Chechen wars in the 1990s.

'The Strategy of the Axe' - Development of a counter-insurgency doctrine

Tsarist expansion in the Caucasus had begun in earnest in 1801, when Tsar Alexander I made the Christian kingdom of Georgia, for decades previous the victim of attacks from its Persian and Ottoman neighbours, part of the Russian Empire. The defence of Georgia itself, however, depended upon preservation of the Georgian Military Road connecting Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, and consequently upon the subjugation of the increasingly Islamicised mountaineer tribes (the Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis and Circassians) who lived on either side of that road. Pacification campaigns there involved much stubborn fighting against well-armed and highly motivated opponents in difficult mountainous conditions.

Tsarist policy at the time veered dramatically between slow encroachment, via the building of roads and fortresses, and attempts at 'lightning campaigns' against their main enemies in the region, of whom the most significant was the Imam Shamil (reigned 1832-59). Shamil established a theocratic proto-state, or Imamate, in the North Caucasus, enjoying tax gathering powers and even employing a small artillery park, assets which enabled him to combine irregular raiding activities with regular sieges of forward based Russian positions (as the Taliban, employing white phosphorus shells, recently attempted against American forces in Afghanistan). Whenever faced with a major Russian offensive himself however, Shamil invariably responded by dispersing his forces rather than risking formal battle, before then ambushing Tsarist forces when they inevitably eventually came to retreat.

Shamil's policy brought him dramatic success during Russian Viceroy Vorontsov's Dargo expedition of 1842, when retiring Russian forces were repeatedly ambushed, cumulatively losing 984 men killed, 2,753 wounded, three guns and all their baggage. Russian policy in the aftermath of this disaster however then shifted decisively away from attempting lightning 'knockout' campaigns towards an attrition-based strategy of steady territorial encroachment - the so-called 'Strategy of the Axe'. Territory once seized would now be held and policed permanently, and victory would be achieved by the steady demoralisation of Russia's opponents rather than dazzling feats of arms. By felling the huge forests where Shamil's fighters found refuge, and also steadily contracting the territory of Shamil's Imamate via road building and fortifications, the Russians both increasingly constrained Shamil's freedom of movement, and squeezed his tax base. In the wake of the Crimean War (1853-56) when much-anticipated Ottoman intervention on the mountaineer side never came, the morale of Shamil's fighters collapsed, and Shamil himself surrendered in 1859, though fighting in the North-West Caucasus against the neo-pagan Adygei continued until 1864. Though they eventually settled upon the correct strategy, the main lesson from the Russian campaign in the Caucasus was the need for strategic patience - the fighting lasted nearly six decades and cost some 90,072 Russian battlefield casualties. Victory came about through the correct application of 'hard power' and 'soft power' in combination - Viceroy Vorontsov co-opted local nobility, whilst one of his successors, Prince Bariatinskii, became a passionate advocate of the role of trade and commerce in subjugating and debellicising the mountaineers - but it was the Russian government's overall strategic willingness to endure losses and reverses in order to secure vital long-term geopolitical and strategic interests which perhaps ultimately proved decisive.

Central Asia 1920s-30s 

Russian expansion in Central Asia faced far fewer territorial and spiritual obstacles than in the Caucasus: the population was concentrated in easily-captured towns around a few major oases, and amongst them were no spiritual leaders with the military-political organisational skills of Imam Shamil. The Soviet Union nonetheless faced a serious challenge to their rule there during the early 1920s from roaming bands dubbed basmachi (bandits), of whom the most significant between 1921 and 1931 was Ibrahim Bek, the Lokai leader based in modern-day Tajikistan. The basmachi were predominantly mounted soldiers equipped with little more than swords, rifles and hand grenades; Ibrahim Bek rallied around 5,000 fighters behind him. However they enjoyed the enormous advantage, shared by the Taliban much further to the south today, of being able to slip across a porous international border with Afghanistan, and thereby escape annihilation, rest, regroup, and re-train for further raids. They also enjoyed intermittent financial sponsorship from the dethroned Emir of Bukhara, and were for a while also regarded as a useful tool of influence by both the British administration in India and the Afghan government.

To defeat them, the Soviet Union pursued a tougher border control regime, but also adopted the same policy of strategic encroachment, exploiting internal schisms, and cultural negotiation that had earlier proven effective in the Caucasus. In 1923-4 mosques were reopened, reformist clergy were politically co-opted, new schools and health care clinics were built, amnesties were offered to basmachi fighters, and desperately needed agricultural assistance in the form of free seed was sent out to accompany Soviet propaganda tours into the Central Asian countryside. At the same time the establishment of rapid-reaction light cavalry units, in co-operation with a spreading web of Soviet fixed infrastructure (fortresses connected by heliograph) enabled the Red Army to increasingly constrain basmachi freedom of action and cut them off from the valley floors. Ibrahim Bek's last campaign in 1926 before leaving for a prolonged period of enforced exile in Afghanistan was brought to an abrupt end not so much by a military clash, as by the Soviet capture of the large livestock herd upon which his band were by now dependent for their sustenance. Basmachi activity would briefly revive in 1928-9, in connection with the culturally disruptive Soviet political campaign to both unveil and emancipate Central Asian women, but Ibrahim Bek himself, after again briefly crossing the border, was captured, tried and executed in 1931.

Afghanistan - forgotten lessons

The Soviet campaign in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 was seen by some Soviet strategic thinkers at the time as a replay of the anti-basmachi campaigns of the 1920s, with KGB head and later General Secretary (1982-84) Yurii Andropov counselling strategic patience for this very reason. The challenges of operating in what was essentially a sovereign foreign country however led to this campaign unfolding considerably less harmoniously. The conciliatory gestures made by the Soviet-backed Afghan leader Babrak Karmal in 1980-81 - releasing political prisoners, offering amnesties to regime opponents, and publicly re-embracing Islam - proved insufficient to remove the taint of illegitimacy generated by the 1979 invasion which had first installed him in power. The Soviet armed forces also demonstrated a painfully slow tactical learning curve, having to essentially re-learn many of the lessons of earlier Russian campaigns in both the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The Soviet army by this time was largely trained and equipped to fight on the North European or Manchurian plains, and found the constraints upon using tracked armour and wheeled vehicles created by Afghanistan's primitive road infrastructure exceptionally challenging. Firepower was often used indiscriminately in the campaign's early stages, a vice compounded by the proclivity of some of the Soviet's Afghan allies for directing in airstrikes for personal score-settling. The fact that the Soviets could also not count on secure roads due to the preponderance of mines and ambush sites, (a problem still experienced by NATO forces in southern Afghanistan today), also forced them to fall back on airlift assets, leading to the employment of a substantial helicopter fleet of some 500-650 machines. The Afghan mujahidin's use of man-portable anti-aircraft defence systems (MANPADS) significantly threatened this capability however, particularly after 1986, when American Stinger missiles became available. By then however, the Soviet decision to withdraw had already been made.

It was the inability to find a consistently reliable and effective partner on the Afghan side, and the subsequent breakdown of the state-building effort which, more than any other single factor, undermined the Soviet effort in Afghanistan. Their strategic host-nation partner in Afghanistan, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was riddled by corruption and infighting, significantly hampering all Soviet attempts to push forward a unified political-military effort. The PDPA's own extreme programme of socialist transformation had triggered the rural rebellion that forced Soviet intervention in the first place, whilst PDPA representatives thereafter still rarely ventured out into the Afghan countryside, generating a fatal degree of perceptual disconnect between the Kabul government and the peasantry. The Afghan army, the Soviet military's major ally and client, was also crippled by desertion and low morale, a situation that the Soviet government was only able to begin to master after 1986, a full six years after the initial intervention. Most damningly of all, the Soviets ultimately found that only the pressure generated by their own withdrawal timetable could push the PDPA into adopting the type of national reconciliation measures which Soviet policy-makers themselves saw as the only viable longer-term political solution for ending the conflict.

Re-visiting the Caucasus doctrine

The Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 represented perhaps the most decisive setback experienced by Russian doctrines for handling irregular conflict in 200 years. The traditional challenge, already experienced with the basmachi, of managing a porous border, combined with the relatively novel difficulty of essentially undertaking nation-building in a failed state scenario, had combined in crippling fashion. The Soviet Union was also diplomatically isolated, and the United States led a Saudi-Pakistani-Chinese coalition to funnel huge quantities of arms to the mujahidin. Though the war in Afghanistan was therefore not responsible, as is sometimes claimed, for the collapse of the Soviet Union, it nonetheless did have a substantially demoralising impact on what after 1991 again became the Russian armed forces, as became apparent during the First Chechen conflict of 1994-96. By 1999 the Russian General Staff had nonetheless had a chance to intellectually re-visit past campaigns and attempt a campaign that was doctrinally more coherent (though with substantially the same set of technology available in 1994-96). The major Russian military-historical journal that year printed an article on 'the lessons of the Caucasus wars', referencing the nineteenth century, and advocating a modern day replica of the 'slow siege' strategy practiced in that era. Russian forces in 1999-2000 accordingly never advanced any faster than the precept that all territory gained also had to be permanently held and secured would allow. Tactical formations were also rethought, and Russian forces also employed firepower asymmetrically to keep their Chechen opponents beyond close-quarter engagement ranges. The Russian Way of Irregular War was back.

Dr Alex Marshall is Lecturer in History and War Studies at the University of Glasgow

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



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