Paper #3. Defeating Authoritarian Warfare: The Case of Russia

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Eurasia, Leadership, Security, Strategy
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While teaching sense-making in the information environment, I began to apply previous work on complex warfare strategy in East Asia to other regions. Russia is a critical case — a declining nuclear power using combinations of effects to regain a perceived loss of prestige.

It may come as a shock to some that democratic political-economic systems do not automatically produce superior security strategies. Perhaps it’s the hubris of self-regard. If so, we need to focus more other security cultures rather than our own cozy notions of exceptionalism.

Russian security culture values raw power more than democratic values. Using that mindset as a working assumption, this paper captures the strategy being used by Russian elites to punch above their weight, at least from an economic (GDP growth or income equality), social (what values does Russia offer the world?), and political (who wants to copy the Russian system?) comparative perspective.

Authoritarian Tracker Data

By using the Authoritarian Interference Tracker on the Alliance for Securing Democracy website I’ll apply combined effects strategy to make sense of Russia-related activities on a global scale and in local contexts.

From a combined-effects perspective of complex warfare, Russian effects are often simultaneously: preventive — causative; psychological — physical; cooperative — confrontational. The cooperative effects are blends along two spectra (psychological and physical, respectively) whose endpoints are Dissuade—Persuade, and Secure—Induce, while the confrontational effects are blends along two spectra of Deter—Compel, and Defend—Coerce. Just as we use a spectrum of conflict and a range of military operations, these spectra help us visualize complex reality with a simpler model of effects. And the effects are “dimes”-wide: diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social. 

The Authoritarian Tracker categorizes over 400 Russian activities into five types: 1. information operations; 2. malign finance; 3. political and social subversion; 4. cyberattacks; 5.  strategic economic coercion. 

Inferring Combined Effects – Five Categorical Cases

How to make sense of this? By inferring Russia’s combined effects for one of the Tracker’s examples in each of the above five categories. Here we go.

Information Operations

In November – December 2018 Russian officials and media repeatedly lied about Russian attacks on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, denying these violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and international law and falsely accusing Ukraine of planning to destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge. Russia illegally constructed the bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula. I interpret these events as an example of using information (i) to enhance Coercion (Cr) of Ukraine and to Deter (Dt) NATO interference at the same time. The combined effect is coded: i Cr Dt. 

Malign Finance

In September 2018, the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service announced that ING Bank had reached a settlement regarding money laundering. The instances included bribes made to Gulnara Karimova (daughter of the President of Uzbekistan at the time) by Dutch telecom VEON, owned by Russia’s Alfa Group. For this example, I attribute the following intent: Russian telecoms want to gain influence in Uzbekistan to counter China’s One Belt One Road strategy in Central Asia. This combined effect of economic (e) Inducement (I) and Persuasion (P) is: e I P

Political and Social Subversion

In June 2018 the Russian government-supported “night wolves” motorcycle gang set up headquarters in Slovakia, with a Russian official in attendance. The group purportedly supports Russian activities to coerce anti-separatists and deter Ukrainian effectiveness in eastern Ukraine. This HQ propaganda function is one of informational Coercion and Deterrence: i Cr Dt.


In July 2018 the Russian state-supported hacker group Sandworm hacked the Swiss lab that analyzed the nerve agent used in the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Great Britain. Because the lab also services and assists arms control and non-proliferation agreements, I infer that the desired effect of this attack was to coercively deter the lab from supporting a wide range of activities against Russian government actions: i Cr Dt. 

Strategic Economic Coercion

In May 2018 the European Commission imposed obligations on Russian state-controlled Gazprom for illegally trying to partition gas markets along national borders in several European Union states. This attempt to economically compel Baltic and other states to pay higher prices for Russian gas would increase susceptibility to Russian military and para-military presence and social-political pressure.  I coded this as market-oriented economic (e) Compellence (Cp), e Cp, compellence in being more psychological than coercion, which I define to be more physical. 

What do these combined effects suggest as key strategic questions to answer so we can design an effective counterstrategy?

Combined Effects Cases & Strategic Questions

Informational Coercion of Ukraine; Deterrence of NATO

Russian Coercion and Deterrence can reinforce one another as long as reversing what is being coerced (ousting Ukrainian naval presence) and reversing what is being deterred (NATO interference) present a dilemma of undesirable alternatives. For instance, what it would take for Ukraine and NATO to prevent Russian forces from firing upon and boarding another Ukrainian vessel in the Kerch Strait?

Economic Inducement & Persuasion in Uzbekistan

Russian Inducements and Persuasion compete with Chinese economic incentives, as well as US offers to provide Uzbekistan ways to balance against Russian and Chinese influence. A key two-part question: are US inducements and persuasion taking advantage of sanctions against Russia to strengthen US-Uzbek relationships; and are US terms better than China’s “debt trap” approach to small countries?

Informational Coercion & Deterrence of Ukraine

Coercion of anti-separatists and neutrals has to be compatible with Deterring Ukrainian (and NATO) support.  A key question: is NATO’s comprehensive assistance package of advisors, trust funds and defense modernization sufficient to enable effective Ukrainian support of anti-separatists and neutrals? 

Informational Coercion & Deterrence of Baltic States

This case uses Coercion to Deter behavior of the same target, rather than coercion that targets one group and deterrence that targets a different one. The narrower focus is on a laboratory, but one that has complex linkages with other actors. A key question: what message is the Russian government sending to connected actors and how can those relationships be used to protect the lab’s independence? 


Our next step should be to produce combined effects to counter Russian combined effects. This effort requires focusing on effects with a whole of government-plus approach that can confront and cooperate at the same time. Speaking the same language about desired effects is a good start.

I’ve been assured by tired Washington bureaucrats that we can’t muster such a feat.

Many insiders recognize the challenge of public permissions and authorities, and private contractual incentives, that complicate making and implementing a superior strategy.

Leadership can overcome this vulnerability, and wage complex warfare within our Constitutional restraints.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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