A culture of warfare adopted by Russia that we don‘t even understand

Russian troops
Russian soldiers in Sevastopol, Crimea/ Ukraine. Reuters/Scanpix

A Prussian culture of warfare, which is entirely atypical for the West, is typical for Russia and so, we often fail to understand Moscow’s aims and modus operandi. This culture is naturally exclusively goal-oriented. If something emerges as an obstacle to pursuing the goal, this something must be removed. Independent analyst and reserve major Daivis Petraitis describes Russia’s military and political approach as such, Eglė Samoškaitė writes in tv3.lt.

Western military and political figures typically think in terms of a win-win perspective. This means aiming for both or several opposing parties to benefit from agreements. Russia thinks differently – this country’s politicians and military leaders prefer zero-sum games where one wins and the other loses. They do not think that everyone must be left satisfied and happy.

“Russia is likely one of the few countries to maintain the old, so-called Prussian culture of warfare. It is a culture that emerged during the Prussian era and is particular in that it views the world, warfighting and the place of troops and military organisation in society differently. The Versailles Agreement is the best demonstration of this being a different and, in a sense, dangerous culture. The agreement’s Article 160 Section 3 banned the restoration of the Prussian General Staff in any form because it is an incredibly effective military mechanism,” D. Petraitis states.

What are the particularities of the Prussian culture of warfare?

The Prussian culture of warfare reached Russia in the 18th century, during the reign of Paul I when the Russian imperial military was reformed as per the Prussian example.

Prussian culture led to German efficiency in fighting the two world wars. While the Germans lost both, loss and victory in warfare is not decided solely by military efficiency but also other aspects such as the number of opponents and allies, economic capabilities, the balance of power and many other factors.

The West found Prussian warfighting culture unacceptable and so, efforts were exerted to demolish it. After the two world wars, there were discussions on how to maintain peace and achieve conditions of development that would be acceptable to everyone. However, Prussian military culture persisted in Russia and is actively promoted there.

“The main difference is in that this culture is result-oriented. Meanwhile, the military culture we live under is process-oriented. The result, just as the goal, also remains, but we savour the process, we seek opportunities to ensure convenience for everyone. The Western principle is win-win. However, this is not the principle behind the Prussian military culture. The Prussian military culture is based on the principle of the zero-sum game,” D. Petraitis says.

It also defines hierarchy and the elite. It means that one can only become a part of the elite by passing through a certain school, acting on certain values, being figures coopted from certain parts of society. In other words, a person becomes a part of the elite if they conform, are similar, act on similar values and agree to act based on the rules.

“The notion that every soldier wants to be a general might appear acceptable to all cultures, but in Prussian culture, desire isn’t enough. You still need to be made a general. The general staff selects people itself; it trains them itself and accepts them itself. This means that people are put through the same preparatory cycle and essentially, regardless of the person’s nature, they exit it with the same list of values, the same code of behaviour and comply with all the requirements they must comply with,” the analyst states.

“Another matter is that, given how Prussian culture is result-oriented, this means that there are no such matters that could pose as obstacles to reaching results. There is a general understanding of how to work, a general understanding of how to organise everything, but if there exist other obstacles, which bar the way, they are simply ignored. There was a Brit, Morgan, who wrote a good study of the Prussian general staff at the start of the previous century. He worded it as follows – all international agreements, if they obstruct reaching the goal, are just a pile of papers and should be ignored. Or another example. Is it moral to fire at a city containing civilians? If looking from the standpoint of morals, it would seemingly be immoral. But if you need to take the city and if you shoot at the city, the civilians will panic and obstruct the defending forces from organising defence and this is fundamentally not bad,” D. Petraitis explains.

 As no obstacle is of importance when pursuing a goal, based on Prussian culture, everything must be planned in detail, actions must be synchronised and the greatest possible effectiveness and effect must be achieved.

“The goal is essentially such – smash the walnut with a massive hammer. The effect is massive, it leaves an impression on those around you and ensures the walnut is crushed. And depending on intent, will and opportunity, the hammer can weigh both 10 kilograms and 10 tonnes,” he observes.

Russian culture of warfare transferred into state management

Unlike the West, Russia not only didn’t abandon Prussian warfare culture, it nurtures it. This principle has even been sung about: нам нужна одна победа, одна на всех – мы за ценой не постоим.

“It stems from this culture. After all, there’s a sole objective – victory – and everything is calculated, arranged so as to achieve it. Everything that stands in the way of the goal must either be removed or circumvented,” D. Petraitis explains.

Another core aspect of Prussian military culture is its seeming clockwork mechanism, the synchronisation of action. Just that while during the golden age of Prussia, the effort was to coordinate infantry, cavalry and artillery, then in Russia, based on Valery Gerasimov’s doctrine, you must coordinate military action, foreign policy measures, the actions of NGOs that benefit Moscow and any other hybrid warfare measures.

For example, when the European Parliament passed a resolution that stated that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Hitler’s Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1939 became a core factor that led to the beginning of World War II, Russia immediately responded. “It was as if a trigger, inciting Russia’s anger and everyone sprang into action. Vladimir Putin suddenly became a historian and started lecturing, their intelligence chief suddenly began organising conferences, that’s not to even mention common journalists or experts. This shows that everything can be synchronised. You can synchronise artist performances, you can join everything together. What contributes to achieving results is what will be put into action,” the analyst states.

Since nowadays anything can become a tool for hybrid warfare, Russian is trying to transition the Prussian military culture into state governance. This aims for state governance to be effective, coordinated and for it to serve Moscow’s core goals.

“Interesting things are happening in Russia. Things that are hardly imaginable with us can be done in Russia. An example is whether a battalion leader can become the mayor of Vilnius all of a sudden, serve as the mayor for three years and return to serve in the military. Essentially, they can’t. It is a frequent occurrence in Russia when generals suddenly become the presidents of republics, governors; they serve their period, return and continue successfully serving. The latest example is the former president of Ingushetia Yunus-bek Yevkurov. He held the post of the president there for a decade after serving in the military. He held the presidency, returned and is now the deputy defence minister, continues to serve successfully. The impression emerges that being the president was a regular military posting for him. There are numerous such cases,” D. Petraitis explains.

This is done for several reasons. Firstly, servicemen appointed to political or administrative posts bring with them elements of Prussian military culture into civilian state life. More synchronised and coordinated action emerges the right hand knows what the left is doing, efficiency increases. Secondly, a hierarchy emerges that is easier to lead.

“Since there aren’t enough military capacities to train this many civilians, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration was created. It was formed a good decade ago and works by training civilians and making use of the same methods and principles, which are analogous for some general staff academy,” he stated.

According to D. Petraitis, the integration of Prussian military culture can be seen everywhere. For example, V. Putin initiated the project Russian Leaders. It is a countrywide project where anyone can register to participate.

“Hundreds of thousands register, their skills in teamwork, decision making are tested, regional finals are held and only a few hundred people are left in the end. But they are trained almost in a military manner. There are leadership courses there, they do mountain climbing, jumping into waterfalls, there is team forming, everyone receives a mentor from current officials and they become part of the governing personnel reserve afterwards,” the analyst says.

“This means that there are hundreds of people who think the same, who are prepared to work based on the same algorithms, who believe what they do, are result-oriented and, if need be, the president can call on them. Just look how many new governors and such emerge right now. This is how officials are formed. They use a new term of delavocracy, which is difficult to translate,” D. Petraitis says.

According to him, similar projects are also run for junior politicians. Young individuals who dream of entering politics in the future can also register for competitions, participate in training, receive someone like Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Gennady Zyuganov as their mentor and later choose any political party or establish their own political entity. In a controlled democracy, there is no difference as to what political party a young politician is a part of because they have gone through the same programme, just like the representatives of other parties, which means that they will think mostly the same.

“What we are seeing in Russia today is essentially the transitioning of the military system into the management of Russia,” D. Petraitis says.

Moscow seeks to draw the West into sharing zones of influence

By transferring military thinking into state governance, Russia seeks to become an especially effective country capable of fighting in contemporary fronts, but not necessarily military ones. It seeks to do so in order to exploit an opening window of opportunity when the power of the West is waning in the world and we are transitioning more to multipolarity. It means that several centres of power are emerging in the world and Russia wouldn’t be Russia if it didn’t seek to exploit the situation.

“Fundamentally, Russia once more seeks to propose a cooperation. But it is doing so in a typical Russian manner, light political blackmail. The best example is a statement on September 15 by Sergei Lavrov after a meeting of the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He directly stated that the West is forcing them to act based on rules, the Vienna Document, but they think that they don’t find this suitable because it is not in line with contemporary realities. The Russians are supposedly inclined to enter dialogue, but it is necessary to return to a time when blocs existed,” D. Petraitis spoke on S. Lavrov’s statement.

While answering a question on the military exercises Zapad 2021 and the accusations from the Baltic States and Poland against Belarus and Russia on hybrid attacks by using migrants, S. Lavrov ventured out on a lengthy excursion. He first accused NATO of supposedly violating an agreement with Russia to not deploy permanent military capabilities in the alliance’s new member states. Moscow views the rotational allied forces in the Baltics and Poland as being permanent capacities. They appeared sometime after Russia militarily annexed Crimea and attacked Ukraine in its East.

S. Lavrov then complained that the West is seeking to convince Russia to renew the Vienna Document on the openness and unpredictability of military operations. The document was last renewed in 2011. S. Lavrov said that when amending the Vienna Document, it is necessary to return to a balance of power on the European continent along the lines of the last decade of the twentieth century.

“If Russia’s declarations previously spoke about NATO attacking them, they now say they can handle NATO if need be and instead apply light political blackmail, supposedly seeking to come to terms and write new rules,” D. Petraitis says.

What was the purpose of the Zapad exercises?

One of the ways to demonstrate its capabilities to the West is military exercises. The Zapad 2021 exercises recently concluded near NATO’s borders. These exercises are held in Russia’s Western district and Belarus every four years, but this year, efforts were made to include other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, not just Belarus.

D. Petraitis believes that common military exercises are aimed at testing the readiness of military forces to fight and perform tasks in a coordinated, mistake-free manner. In 2017, a key element was to test an arranged defence/attack plan, but, according to him, it was rather dangerous because this partially reveals the plan to opponents.

According to D. Petraitis, this year’s exercises could serve in preparing a new state defence plan because the last one expired in 2020.

Also, the training saw experimentation on how future forces that integrate the newest technologies could look like.

According to him, while Sergey Shoygu has stated that the Russian military forces reform has concluded, but this isn’t entirely true because it has not entered the second stage.

“Upon looking more carefully at the old reform project, two stages were outlined in it. The first and the second, but the latter in the long term. If we are talking about all the Armatas, the new generation weapons and so on. It turned out that they never were able to perform the second stage, but the first was completed in full. Thus, they are now planning forward as to how to implement the second stage of reform, which is tied to new generation weaponry. Thus, these exercises were aimed at experimenting as to what future forces might look like,” the analyst stated.

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1 Comment

  1. It is hard to take analysis seriously when one sees simple historical mistakes. For example, Crimea had voted in a referendum in 1991 to be returned to Russia. You may recall that it had been part of Russia since Catherine the Great but a drunken Khrushchev, at his birthday party, decided to give it to Ukraine where he had started his party career (since they were all part of the USSR, then it made no difference ).But it was not accepted by the Kremlin. They voted again in 1994, same result. They had another opportunity in 2014 when they saw what the Ukranians were doing to Russians in Odessa, etc. when the US was actively toppling Yanukovich- a democratically elected president, as confirmed by the OSCE. This time the Kremlin agreed to the vote results that 96% of the population voted in. Not one shot was fired, not one person killed. What are the Ukies doing to the eastern part of Ukraine these days? Genocide.
    The analysts also do not mention US actions (whether out of ignorance or choice)on how the US forces acted in Germany during and after the war. Dresden had no military or strategic importance being a cultural city but 3 nights of unprecedented bombing by the US killed how many civilians?
    There are so many more areas that can be discussed, but when one finds even one inaccuracy, the whole comes into question.

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