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Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya: Military Strategic Culture and the Paradoxes of Asymmetric Conflict

Authored by Major Robert M. Cassidy. | February 2003

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This study examines and compares the performance of the Soviet military in Afghanistan and the Russian military in Chechnya. It aims to discern continuity or change in methods and doctrine. Because of Russian military cultural preferences for a big-war paradigm that have been embedded over time, moreover, this work posits that continuity rather than change was much more probable, even though Russia?s great power position had diminished in an enormous way by 1994. However, continuity? manifested in the continued embrace of a conventional and predictably symmetric approach?was more probable, since cultural change usually requires up to 10 years.

Several paradoxes also inhere in asymmetric conflict? these are also very much related to the cultural baggage that accompanies great power status. In fact, the Russian military?s failures in both wars are attributable to the paradoxes of asymmetric conflict. These paradoxes come into play whenever a great power faces a pre-industrial and semi-feudal enemy who is intrinsically compelled to mitigate the great power?s numerous advantages with cunning and asymmetry. In other words, great powers often do poorly in small wars simply because they are great powers that must embrace a big-war paradigm by necessity. This study identifies and explains six paradoxes of asymmetric conflict. It also examines each paradox in the context of Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Ultimately, this monograph concludes with several implications for U.S. Army transformation. It shows how the continued and nearly exclusive espousal of a big-war paradigm can undermine effectiveness in the realm of asymmetry, how it can stifle innovation and adaptation, and how this can impede transformation. Both these conflicts and the paradoxes of asymmetric conflict are very germane to those thinking about change in the U.S. military.


The enemy?s objective is to have us concentrate our main forces for a decisive engagement. Our objective is exactly the opposite. We want to choose conditions favorable to us, concentrate superior forces and fight decisive campaigns and battles only when we are sure of victory, . . . we want to avoid decisive engagements under unfavorable conditions when we are not sure of victory. Mao Tse-Tung1

On Christmas Eve in 1979, Soviet forces conducted a conventional assault on Kabul and other key points in Afghanistan with the aim of implanting a stable Soviet-friendly government and of quelling an insurrection. Almost 10 years later, Soviet forces withdrew after suffering close to 14,000 killed, leaving behind a very precarious pro-Soviet government and an ongoing civil war. In December 1994, Russian forces invaded Chechnya, employing almost the same conventional template used in Afghanistan. On New Year?s Eve 1994, Russian forces launched their main assault on Grozny, initially suffering huge losses and meeting with failure. The goals in Chechnya were almost the same as the goals sought in Afghanistan 15 years earlier?to implant a pro-Russian government and to stabilize the Chechen republic. Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya almost 2 years later after suffering close to 6000 killed, having failed to meet their objectives. As a great power, the Soviet Union failed to win a small war in Afghanistan. As a former great power, Russia failed to win in Chechnya.

In both cases, Soviet/Russian forces possessed a technological advantage and a latent numerical advantagein forces. In both cases, Soviet/Russian forces fought conventionally against an adversary who fought unconventionally. In both conflicts, the Russians faced ideologically-driven indigenous movements fighting for independence. The significant differences between Afghanistan and Chechnya were: 1) the structure of the international system underwent an enormous change? from bipolar to unipolar; and 2) Russia ceased to be a great power. Notwithstanding these two enormous changes, this study postulates that one would observe continuity in Russian military-strategic cultural preferences in Chechnya because not enough time elapsed between the end of the Cold War and the conflict in Chechnya for a cultural change to occur?military cultural change normally takes 5-10 years. Thus, one would expect to observe continuity in Russian preferences for the use of force?these preferences should reflect a focus on the big war, or conventional, paradigm for war.


1. Mao Tse-Tung, On Protracted Warfare, Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967, p. 97.