The New Cold War Pits a U.S. General Against His Longtime Russian Nemesis
A quarter-century after the Cold War ended, U.S. and Russian tank formations are once again squaring off.
This spring, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization moved armored forces to the Russian border, where they are conducting daily drills from Poland to Estonia. Less than 100 miles away, Moscow’s forces are preparing for large-scale maneuvers in the autumn, a demonstration of the country’s revitalized might, including new equipment and improved tactics meant to keep the West guessing in the event of a clash.
Facing off behind these front lines and shaping each side’s grand strategy are two of this generation’s most influential officers in Washington and Moscow: U.S. Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov.
The two men’s lives have evolved in parallel. Both began their careers as junior armor officers at the height of the Cold War. Both were tested in irregular warfare against separatists and militant groups. Both have coped with the rise of disruptive battlefield technologies including drones, precision bombs and sophisticated new forms of propaganda.
They haven’t ever met. But each—like Patton and Rommell or John Le Carré’s fictional Smiley and Karla—has made a career of studying his opponent’s moves.
Their dynamic sheds light on the evolving military competition between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers at a time of rising diplomatic tension. Moscow has narrowed a yawning gap in the quality of its conventional forces, but the U.S. remains far more powerful in that category. It is this imbalance that has shaped the strategic thinking of the two generals. It’s American force and resolve against Russian cunning and diversion.
Gen. McMaster, now President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, has emphasized that America’s true strength lies not in shadowy commando raids or pinprick drone strikes, but in well-equipped land, air and naval forces working together to clearly demonstrate overwhelming superiority.
Military officers who know Gen. McMaster said they believe he will help shape the Trump administration strategy and influence the Pentagon’s spending. Already the administration, which has been critical of allied defense budgets, has proposed a 40% increase in U.S. military spending in Europe, money that will pay for additional forces—from Army helicopters to Navy sub-hunters—to deploy there.
Gen. McMaster was a hero of the first Gulf War’s most important tank battle. He later honed his reputation in Iraq, implementing one of the first counterinsurgency campaigns in the city of Tal Afar, which later became a model for the 2007 troop surge. More recently Gen. McMaster has overseen two critical Army initiatives to prepare America for wars of the future and counter Russia’s military advances.
Gen. Gerasimov, by contrast, has always looked for American weaknesses and how Russian prowess can overcome American power. The chief of Russia’s General Staff, he has been the most articulate proponent of Russia’s emerging vision of conflict, something Western observers dub “hybrid warfare.” In conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, he has pioneered new approaches to hybrid war by combining traditional military weaponry with powerful nonlethal tools such as cyberwarfare, fake news and elaborate deception.
Both men obtained outsize reputations as military thinkers, lauded for their studies of the other side’s strategy and tactics. Each was assigned by his military to predict the contours of future conflict. Perhaps more than anyone else on either side, the two men have delineated the strategy now playing out in Europe.
Gen. McMaster, who declined to speak for this article, in essence rejected prevailing wisdom that viewed the Taliban’s toppling in Afghanistan by U.S. special-operation forces as the future of warfare. Instead he focused on the Cold War, when conflict was avoided by ensuring adversaries understood America’s conventional might. That means honing force-on-force war-fighting skills that had been neglected at the Army’s main training ranges.
“This is one officer who has done his homework over the years,” said retired Army Gen. B.B Bell, a former senior military commander in Europe and Korea. “H.R. spent the last couple years pointing the path forward for the Army to put it on a strong path to relearn the capacities it must have to defend the nation.”
Gen. McMaster is the author of a secret study compiling lessons of Russia’s strategies in Ukraine. The work, according to officials, drew on front-line reports by Ukrainian troops and U.S. officers, analyzing how Moscow used advanced jamming techniques, electronic surveillance and drones to make its artillery more lethal than ever. Army officials say the research is continuing and the report remains classified.
He has also influenced a generation of officers—including those serving on NATO front lines in the Baltics—with a talk on what he dubbed “Four Fallacies.” The lecture argues that technology alone cannot deliver quick, clean military victories; commando raids don’t amount to a military strategy; proxy forces aren’t enough to win a conflict; and deterring war by demonstrating the presence, strength and capability to defeat an enemy is vital.
His idea underpins NATO strategy in Europe: the move to eastern and central Europe of four battle groups led by the U.S. and its allies, plus America’s deployment of a 3,500-soldier heavy brigade.
NATO’s maneuvers are also a response to the Russian gambit devised by Gen. Gerasimov, who has overseen Russian military modernization and its innovative use of its armed forces in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
Line of Tension
As NATO builds up its military force in Poland in the Baltic States, Russia is bolstering its strength nearby. Both sides, and NATO partner Sweden, are planning military drills this summer and fall.
The Russian general’s most influential article—an often-quoted but little-understood 2013 essay in a military journal—reflects close study of U.S. regime-change operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and argues Russia must master similar methods.
Those ideas have been implemented in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and are now seen as textbook examples of Russian hybrid warfare. While the Russian strategy was designed specifically to beat Ukraine’s army, American officers studying the fight see Russian techniques that would also undermine U.S. military advantages, such as control of the skies and superior surveillance through drones and satellites.
Equally worrying for the U.S. and its allies is Russia’s mastery of what the Russians call “information war.” The genius of Gen. Gerasimov, according to NATO and U.S. officials, is that he has paired the technological advances in military hardware with new strategies of disinformation. His insight was that Moscow could practice deception operations not just on a battlefield but on a global scale.
Writing last year in a leading Russian defense journal, Gen. Gerasimov extolled the virtues of nonmilitary means to defeat or contain an adversary. “Indirect and asymmetric actions…allow you to deprive the opposing side of de facto sovereignty without seizing any territory,” he wrote in a review of the lessons learned from the Russian military’s combat role in Syria.
U.S. and other Western strategists scrutinize Gen. Gerasimov’s writings. “The important point is that while the West considers these nonmilitary measures as ways of avoiding war, Russia considers these measures as war,” wrote Charles Bartles, an analyst at the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Gen. Gerasimov, a 62-year-old native of Kazan, Russia, had a conventional military background. He trained at the Kazan Higher Tank Command school during the Cold War and rose through the ranks as an armor commander. For a time he was stationed in Eastern Europe, preparing for the clash of armor and infantry that both the Soviet and U.S. militaries long saw as a real possibility.
Gen. McMaster’s first overseas post was also to Europe, in the final years of the Cold War. In 1989 he was assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the same unit that recently sent a battle group to a NATO force to Poland.
The careers of Gens. Gerasimov and McMaster both took dramatic turns in 1991. Gen. McMaster’s first brush with fame was in the Gulf War, and he took part in the Battle of 73 Easting, the decisive tank clash that helped quickly win the war. In the battle, then-Capt. McMaster’s company destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes with no American casualties. Gulf War victory was a fillip for the U.S. military, showing its prowess against the forces of Saddam Hussein and shaking off humiliation that had lingered after the disastrous end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
For Gen. Gerasimov, 1991 was also life-changing. The U.S.S.R. collapsed and Moscow lost its global superpower status almost overnight.
Russia’s first post-Soviet decade was tumultuous. Russian troops found themselves fighting separatist insurgents during a brutal conflict in Russia’s predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya. Then military leaders such as Gen. Gerasimov watched as revolutions swept through former Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2004, further eroding Russian power in what it viewed as its rightful sphere of influence. Those upheavals, along with the social media-driven popular revolts of the Arab Spring, informed his concepts of hybrid warfare, according to military analysts.
An early test of those ideas came in 2008 during Russia’s brief conflict with Georgia, which provided an opportunity for experimentation in cyberwarfare. Before combat started, the Georgian government faced a concerted campaign to hack and disable websites, which it blamed on Moscow. Russia denies involvement in any hacking.
That experience presaged what analysts say is Russia’s relentless focus on information operations, which range from planting fake news stories to directly interfering in the elections in the U.S. and Europe through cyberattacks. Russia denies such meddling.
Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, a foreign-policy think tank in Prague, said Gen. Gerasimov saw the tools of hacking and disinformation as a way for Russia’s military to set the conditions on the conventional battlefield, sowing chaos behind the lines before the shooting started.
“The West doesn’t get that what Gerasimov has described—hybrid war—is how you prepare the ground before you send in the men with guns,” he said.
Moscow’s conventional military has closed the gap in quality in recent years. The Russian special operations and airborne units have proven themselves adept at a range of operations—from working with proxy forces to actual combat. Russian cruise missiles, used during the Syrian war primarily to demonstrate Moscow’s might, have earned the wary respect of American military planners. The latest Russian tanks, allied officials say, are likely more powerful and survivable than anything the West can field.
Gen. Gerasimov’s approach now emerges wherever the Russian military deploys, either overtly or covertly.
“Their drones work around the clock,” said Col. Vyacheslav Vlasenko, a Ukrainian battalion commander deployed recently in the country’s east, referring to forces opposing him. “They correct their artillery fire. They also started using precision weapons.”
Col. Vlasenko said the Russians have brought a formidable array of electronic-warfare systems to the battlefield that disrupt communication and command-and-control equipment. The new advances, U.S. military officers believe, could obviate American military superiority.
Gen. McMaster and other U.S. military officers have studied Ukraine closely, including sending officials on low-profile trips to the front lines to watch the Gerasimov strategy in action.
“What we learned from Ukraine is the importance of Russian [drones], Russian electronic warfare, precision fires, all those things together,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the top U.S. Army commander in Europe. “Unlike the last 15 years, we have to worry about what is above us.”
Like Gen. Gerasimov, Gen. McMaster burnished his reputation through his writing. His 1997 book, “Dereliction of Duty,” focused on the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security establishment to prevent strategic errors of the Vietnam War. The book, originally his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remains required reading at America’s war colleges.
In his role at the national security council, has also asserted his influence, driving forth proposals to strike government targets in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons and pushing for a troop buildup in Afghanistan.
U.S. allies now also implement Gen. McMaster’s approach. In Lituania, Germany leads a 1,022-soldier battle group. Last month they were reinforced by a company of American tanks, all blanketed in freshly cut evergreen boughs for camouflage. The real mission of their drills to hide from enemy forces was in fact the opposite: to be seen.
In Vilseck, Germany, Col. Patrick Ellis, the commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, recently gathered soldiers from his unit who were going to form the heart of NATO’s Battle Group Poland around a huge map of Eastern Europe, showing the alliance’s border with Russia—the land his troops were to defend.
Col. Ellis had heard Gen. McMaster’s Four Fallacies talk twice. The lesson Col. Ellis drew is that successful deterrence requires that the U.S. military demonstrate it is powerful enough to win a war.
“Your enemy has to believe you have the means to do what you absolutely say you are going to do,” Col. Ellis said after his talk to the troops. “You train to that and you demonstrate that by conducting these exercises.”