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Putin has a 21st century digital battle plan, so why is he fighting like it’s 1939? | John Naughton


OWe know at least one thing about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: it is not going as planned. Ah, yes, you answer me, but what plan? Was it plan A, which simply said you muster enough conscripts and heavy artillery, drive into Ukraine, bomb a few buildings, walk across to kyiv, and hold a victory parade? It’s called the George W Bush model (except he did his victory parade in Iraq on the flight deck of an American aircraft carrier).

If that was plan A, then we know what plan B is. It’s to do to Ukraine what was done to the small Chechnya in 1999, i.e. bombard it until it is destroyed, regardless of civilian casualties. Besides its intrinsic inhumanity, trying to implement this plan in Ukraine comes up against practical difficulties: Ukraine is vast while Chechnya is small, and Ukraine has a serious army, a capacity for resistance feisty and a plentiful supply of serious weapons from her friends to the west. So if Putin wants a primer before embarking on the next stage of his imperial adventure, maybe he should download Charlie Wilson’s Waran instructive film about what happened to the USSR in Afghanistan all those years ago.

For those who follow these things professionally, the biggest puzzle is why Putin embarked on a campaign that resembles World War II in Technicolor, when his army actually had an ultra-sophisticated war plan in the digital age. It’s called the Gerasimov Doctrine and this was the creation in 2013 of Valery Gerasimova smart boy who is Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation.

At the heart of this doctrine is the concept of “non-linear warfare”, the aim of which is “to achieve the desired strategic and geopolitical results, using a wide toolbox of non-military methods and means: explicit and covert diplomacy , economic pressure, winning the sympathy of the local population, etc. “. Molly McKew, Information Warfare Specialist, describes it as “a new theory of modern warfare – a theory that is more like hacking into an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on”.

At one point, McKew quotes a passage from Gerasimov’s original article. “The ‘rules of war’ themselves have changed,” he writes. “The role of non-military means in achieving political and strategic objectives has increased, and in many cases they have surpassed the power of force of arms in their effectiveness… All of this is complemented by military means to concealed character.” Doctrine called for a 4:1 ratio of non-military actions to military actions.

Looking at what is happening in Ukraine, one wonders if Putin has ever read the Gerasimov newspaper. In any case, the ratio of information to kinetic warfare currently practiced there is more like 1:20. What is clear, however, is that Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his colleagues did read Gerasimov and prepared accordingly. As a result, they were relatively well prepared for the cyber attack that preceded the invasion.

Security experts, some of whom may have been seconded from friendly states, scoured critical systems for malware such as WhisperGate and HermeticWiper and delete them. It is unclear how effective these measures have been overall, but one of the critical results was that the systems controlling Ukrainian rail operations were decontaminated, meaning trains enabling millions of Ukrainians to s escape continued to circulate.

In recent decades, confidence in the West in Russia’s mastery of electronic warfare has reached near mythical levels. This inferiority complex may actually have its roots in democracies (stupidly) relying on the ability of private companies to pay serious attention to cybersecurity – and their governments know it. To a serious hacker, an advanced Western economy presents a broad and largely defenseless “attack surface,” as the jargon puts it.

But at the same time, a useful by-product of the invasion could be the deflating of the myth of Russian invincibility. It became clear early on that the invaders’ command and control systems were not working. Like a specialized site said: “Only three weeks after the start of hostilities, the Internet was already filled with photos of cheap Chinese civilian walkie-talkies that the Russian army was forced to use instead of professional equipment, interceptions of conversations of Russian officers who had to call each other on regular telephones and testimonies of prisoners who tell how they could not call for reinforcements or find the right way due to lack of communication with the outside world.

In the absence of working and secure military communications, many Russians succumbed to the temptation to use regular telephones. They would simply pull out Ukrainian SIM cards and call Russia, allowing the Ukrainian military to not only easily intercept conversations, but also determine the location of the caller. On March 16, US military sources were cited saying that many Russian generals talk on unsecured phones and radios and that in at least one case the Ukrainians had geolocated a caller and killed him in an attack on his location. Ironically, his name was Vitaly Gerasimov. It is not known if he was related to the author of the military doctrine that its president seems to have ignored.

what i read

Notes from the basement
Putin in his labyrinth: Alexander Gabuev on the view of Moscow is the transcription of a wonderful interview with a former diplomatic correspondent and deputy editor of the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

No platform
Noah Smith’s Insightful Essay It’s not Cancel culture, it’s Cancel technology examines what social media does to us.

smoking gun
In a world on fire, stop burning things is a fine New Yorker essay by Bill McKibben.