Small Wars Journal

Framing the Operational Environment: Insights from the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Wed, 01/11/2023 - 4:59pm

Framing the Operational Environment: Insights from the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

By Daniel L. Dodds


            “Every problem has a solution, although it may not be the outcome that was originally hoped for or expected” (Hoffman, 2003, p. 162). According to the Department of the Army (DA) (2015), the Army design methodology (ADM) is a method for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe unfamiliar problems and develop approaches for solving them. Beyond just solving problems, ADM solves the right problem by focusing on the root cause rather than tending to minor symptoms. Commanders and staff apply systems thinking and operational variables to visualize and describe the operational environment (OE) (DA, 2015). As such, the staff supports the commander by framing the OE through examining the relations, actors, functions, and tensions that describe current conditions which shape the reality on the ground. During this process, the staff become aware of the current state, project how the OE trends, describe the future state, and envision and end state (DA, 2015). The purpose of this paper is to explain the ADM activity of framing the OE by describing the importance of key concepts, tools, techniques, and how a Sergeant Major (SGM) can facilitate this activity in future organizations.

Framing the Operational Environment

            An OE consists of conditions and circumstances that can influence the employment of systems and processes which affect the commander’s decision-making process (DA, 2014). To better grasp the OE, commanders and staff find facts about the area of interest and events within the area to gain a better perspective. According to Army Techniques Publication 5-0.1, the area of interest is the “area of concern to the commander, including the area of influence, areas adjacent thereto, and extending into enemy territory … [that] could jeopardize the accomplishment of the mission” (DA, 2015, p.75). Understanding how something and its surroundings relate to one another is necessary for setting context within the OE. This happens when the commander sets up a team to define what is going on, why it is going on, and how the OE should look in the future (DA, 2015). Answering these questions require the team to analyze the OE using operational variables to describe the current state.

Operational Variables

            According to DA (2015), there are eight operational variables—political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT)—whose elements can vary from one area to another and have an impact on operations. The staff transforms operationally relevant information into information that is pertinent to the mission and necessary for mission accomplishment. For Example, in Ukraine, Russia attacked critical water facilities and 12 energy facilities in eight regions which damaged key power stations and water supplies ahead of the upcoming winter, impacting most of the country (Schifrin & Aranda, 2022). According to DA (2022), the infrastructure variable depicts the essential installations, services, and facilities needed for a community or society to function effectively. In response to Russian hostilities, Ukraine’s government appointed Oleksandr Kubrakov as the Deputy Prime Minister for restoring Ukraine communities, territories, and infrastructure development to speed recovery of affected areas (State sites of Ukraine, n.d.). Operational variables build situational understanding that the staff can analyze using key concepts which leads to problem solving.

Key Concepts

            According to DA (2015), the key concepts of ADM are operational art, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and dialogue, systems thinking, framing, visual modeling, and narrative construction. Together, these concepts aid with the development of the operational approach for planning and solving complex problems within the OE. Through operational art, commanders and staff use knowledge, skills, creativity, and judgement to employ forces by integrating ends, ways, means, and risks (DA, 2022). When commanders envision the desired end state, they must nest key concepts of framing into their plan to increase the probability of success.


            Framing occurs when planners build conceptual models that depict the reality of the current environment and all the intricate details that influence that environment (DA, 2015). To better understand the circumstances, the planning team considers the opinions and worldviews of others, then apply critical thinking to develop further understanding of the OE and problems within the OE (DA, 2015). Once complete, the planning team can create practical solutions and act towards the desired end state (DA, 2015). For example, when Russia built their military power around Ukraine in preparation for their invasion, Ukraine was able to find that the attack would come from the east as Russia lacked troops on the northern and southern border regions for a full-scale invasion (Harding & Sabbagh, 2022). In response, Ukraine prioritized their defensive posture to the east where Ukrainian forces met Russia with a strong resistance due to Russia missing critical elements for a successful invasion (Winsor, 2022). Framing promotes shared understanding for key players and works best when accompanied by visual modeling and a narrative construction (DA, 2015).

Visual Modeling and Narrative Construction

            Framing relies on presenting an overview of the OE in both visual and narrative forms. Visual models enhance critical and creative thinking which creates shared understanding while the narrative story supplies deeper context that explain the OE, problem, and solution (DA, 2015). For example, While Russia views Ukraine as a historical part of Russian territory, Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (The Visual Journalism Team, 2022). Then, in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatist gained control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, also known as the Donbas (The Visual Journalism Team, 2022). In February 2022, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, declared the separatist control regions as independent states and ordered troops into the region, violating an earlier peace agreement, and serving as the precursor to the current crisis (The Visual Journalism Team, 2022). The depiction of this information using rich picture diagrams with symbols and sketches supplies a graphical representation of the complexity within the OE for the commander and staff. Meanwhile, the narrative story encapsulates the graphical representation and answers the questions of what happened, how or why did it happen, and what is missing (DA, 2015). Together, these key concepts enhance understanding so the commander and staff can use various tools and techniques to frame the OE and problem.

Tools and Techniques

            The methods that commanders and staff use to frame the OE and problem are brainstorming, researching, mind mapping, meta-questioning, questioning for assumptions, and using the four ways of seeing (DA, 2015). Meta-questioning and the four ways of seeing are crucial for navigating and framing the problem. Meta-questioning occurs when the planning team asks questions to obtain deeper understanding of the OE at the various levels (DA, 2015). While questioning at the tactical level may seem minor in scale, questioning at the operational, theater, and strategic level are more comprehensive. Through meta-questioning, the planning team explores ideas, finds problems, and generate assumptions within the OE (DA, 2015). Additionally, using the four ways of seeing enables the “planning team to examine the situation from the perspectives of other actors in the operational environment” (DA, 2015, p. 40). An example would be the staff trying to figure out how Russia views themselves, how Russia views Ukraine, how Ukraine views themselves, and how Ukraine views Russia.

            Using this concept, President Putin claims that Russia and Ukraine are one people and Ukraine did not exist as a separate state and had never been a nation (Knispel, 2022). Furthermore, Russia annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in 2022 show how Russia intends to reclaim what they believe as their rightful territory and restore the Russian empire (Ilyushina, 2022). However, Ukraine views themselves as a sovereign nation that gained independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Myre, 2022). Additionally, Ukraine views Russia as a kleptocracy who continue to invade Ukrainian territory in hopes of gaining natural resources and wealth (Pifer, 2017). For these tools and techniques to be successful, the sergeant major must supervise the operations process and guide the staff during framing activities due to the complexities that arise as framing occurs.

ADM and the Sergeant Major

            As an operations sergeant major, it is imperative to understand and guide the operations process. It is equally important to understand the operations of the higher headquarters, adjacent, and subordinate units. In this role, SGMs serve as an extension of the commander and aid with providing guidance and direction to subordinate units, steering the operations process among the staff, and ensuring compliance with directives, orders, and taskings. Additionally, advising the commander on relevant information to enhance the timeliness of decision making. SGMs must incorporate ADM by teaching the steps of developing the current state using the operational variables of PMESII-PT. Then, coaching the staff on the various key concepts and aiding in the development of the framing activity by using visual modeling and narrative construction. Next, SGMs must nest tools and techniques of ADM to ensure the staff accounts for pertinent information, enabling the commander to see the relations, actors, functions, and tension which affect the OE. Throughout this process, the SGM must institute timelines, conduct in-progress reviews, supply resources, and manage rehearsals for missions as they arise (DA, 2017).   


            The purpose of this paper was to explain the ADM activity of framing the OE by describing the importance of key concepts, tools, techniques, and how a SGM can facilitate this activity in future organizations. ADM is a method for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe unfamiliar problems and develop approaches for solving them (DA, 2015). The operational variables, PMESII-PT, aid with framing the OE by examining the factors that influence the current state and the ability to achieve the desired end state (DA, 2015). The key concepts of framing, visual modeling, and narrative construction guide the operational approach by finding problems and solutions within the OE (DA, 2015). Through meta-questioning and using the four ways of seeing, commanders and staff generate deeper understanding of the OE by looking at factors from various levels and figuring out the perspective of other relevant actors. The role of the operations sergeant major is critical during the operations process and essential for developing the environmental frame. Through proper planning and execution, the staff can use ADM to frame the OE as the current state changes to reach the desired end state.


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Department of the Army. (2017). Command posts organization and operations (ATP 6-0.5).

Department of the Army. (2022). Planning and orders production (FM 5-0).

Harding, L., & Sabbagh, D. (2022, January 26). Focused Russian attack on Ukraine seen as more likely than full-scale invasion. The Guardian.

Hoffman, A. (2003). Practical magic. Berkley.

Ilyushina, M. (2022, September 30). Putin illegally claims annexation of Ukrainian regions, escalating war. The Washington Post.

Knispel, S. (2022, March 3). Fact-checking Putin’s claims that Ukraine and Russia are ‘one people’. News Center.

Myre, G. (2022, December 16). A century and counting: Ukraine's ongoing fight to free itself from Russia. NPR News.

Pifer, S. (2017, October 18). How Ukraine views Russia and the west. Brookings.

Schifrin, N., & Aranda, T. [PBS NewsHour]. (2022, November 4). Russian attacks on energy infrastructure leaves Ukraine in dark as winter approaches [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved December 29, 2022, from

State sites of Ukraine. (n.d.). Cabinet of ministers of Ukraine. Retrieved December 29, 2022, from

The Visual Journalism Team. (2022, February 26). Ukraine conflict: Simple visual guide to the Russian invasion. BBC News.

Winsor, M. (2022, April 11). Ukraine is 'preparing' for attack in the east by Russian forces, Zelenskyy says. ABC News.

About the Author(s)

Master Sergeant Daniel L. Dodds is a Military Police Senior Noncommissioned Officer. He has served in every leadership position, from Patrolman to Antiterrorism/ Force Protection Supervisor. He currently attends the Sergeants Major Course (Resident) Class 73 at the US Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence. His civilian education includes an Associate Degree from Excelsior University, and he is pursuing his Bachelor of Arts in Leadership and Workforce Development from the Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC).