Myatezh Voina: The Russian Grandfather of Western Hybrid Warfare
Colonel Evgeny Messner
More than two years after the Russian annexation of Crimea we’re arguably past the point of peak hype on the topic of “Russian hybrid warfare”. Some authors question the concept altogether, while others see it as a new way of waging war - one in which Moscow successfully applied in operations against Ukraine. Whereas a lot of ink has been spilled over this topic it’s somewhat surprising the works of Evgeny Messner and his flagship concept of myatezh voina has not received much more attention by Western analysts.
Evgeny Messner (1891-1974) served during First World War as an officer in the Tsarist Army. He later fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. After the Whites were defeated he immigrated to Yugoslavia. During the Second World War he cooperated with the Axis powers. Following the war he to immigrated to Argentina where he worked as an academic and writer.
Messner’s views were very much shaped by the trauma of defeat during the Russian Civil War where he experienced first-hand fighting against an enemy using irregular warfare, terror and propaganda on a massive scale. Later, during the Second World War, he saw from up-close intense guerrilla and anti-guerrilla warfare in the Balkan cauldron.
After immigrating to Latin America Messner focused on the peripheral and covert conflicts of the Cold War. He saw them as the primary arena of the confrontation between superpowers. Messner sought to understand the strategic logic behind various seemingly disparate events. He was convinced that they were elements of a grand design crafted and executed by the Communists.
Messner’s Views on the Evolution of Warfare
Messner based conceptualization of the new Communist way of war on several observations related to the evolution of warfare in general.
The peace–war dichotomy disappears. According to Messner thinking in binary terms of peace and war had become meaningless. The nature of hostilities between states increasingly did not conform to distinctive intervals defined by declarations of war and peace treaties. A de iure state of peace or war may no longer reflect the de facto nature of a relation between states. The peace-war dichotomy remain valid from a legalistic point of view but loses the relevance of its politico-military aspect.
Messner observed that Communists think about peace as a period during which no formal conventional war is being waged. Such definition of peace does not imply cessation of hostilities between countries. In other words the political objectives (and hostile intentions) remain unchanged but are being pursued by a different set of instruments and tactics.
A classic frontline does not exist. Messner noted that, just as there was no longer a clear dividing line between peace and war, there was no clear line demarcating where the majority of hostilities were taking place. The frontline disappears, making the entire territory of a state a potential battlefield. Soldiers of the new type of war; terrorists, guerrilla groups, or propagandists may be operating in various parts of the country they choose to attack. In their operations they’re much less bound by the conventional geometry of fronts and configuration of classic lines of supply. One of the key consequences of the disappearing frontline is that the civilian population is likely to be participating more in actual warfare than regular armed forces of the attacked state.
Center of gravity has shifted to the psychological domain due to increased vitality of a states’ physical domain. Another important aspect affecting the evolution of warfare is the shifting of a center of gravity in a conflict accompanied by an increasing vitality of a state. Messner observes that during WW2 inflicting heavy damage to enemy’s physical base did not lead to quick victory. Furthermore the occupation of enemy territory and destruction of its regular armed forces does not end the conflict - but merely moves it to the next phase where irregular and unconventional aspects will likely play a central role. The center of gravity shifts from the physical to the mental domain with victory no longer guaranteed by success on the battlefield - but instead requiring breaking the enemy’s fighting spirit.
Psychological factors take a central place in contemporary warfare. As was mentioned above the conflict is no longer about conquering territory but about “conquering souls”. Both the attacker and defender have to increasingly consider the psychological rather than physical impact of every major operation. Victories and defeats matter mostly from the point of view of their psychological impact. Orders are no longer divided into easy and difficult but into those popular and unpopular among troops.
Conduct of warfare is undergoing increasing vulgarization. Warfare is increasingly based on irregular and unconventional elements which, on average, represent a lower quality, lower ethical standards and lower morale. This makes the conduct of war less professional and more unpredictable. The “dirty-war” becomes a central rather than a lateral aspect of a conflict leading to its vulgarization and barbarization.
Politico-strategic complexity of a conflict become overwhelming. Complexity of warfare increases due to the growing number and diversity of parties involved in the fighting. Conflicts no longer stay local; instead they increasingly attract external actors. The result is a battlespace with a mosaic of participants operating in shifting configurations. In fact the process may lead to a situation where the politico-strategic dynamics of the conflict becomes unintelligible for outsiders.
Understanding the Concept of Myatezh Voina
Messner was convinced that the Communists had perfected a new type of unorthodox warfare which allowed them to challenge, and possibly defeat, the West without fear of provoking direct military confrontation. Based on his observations he gradually developed the concept of myatezh voina (MV).
Most of Messner’s thinking about MV can be found in; “The Face of Modern War” (Лик современной войны, 1959), “Mutiny – the Name of the Third World War” (Мятеж — имя третьей всемирной, 1960), “Mutiny-war” (Мятежевойна, 1971). Though the first position does not explicitly refer to MV it constituted an important integral element for understanding the concept.
Key Characteristics of Myatezh Voina
Unconventional and unorthodox. The tactical, operational and strategic art of MV focuses on unconventional methods and instruments, such as betrayal, terror, or disinformation. Classic conventional military plays a marginal role at best. The hallmark feature of MV is the widespread use of diverse acts of violence such as armed robberies, hostage taking, hijackings or piracy.
Strategic design remains highly ambiguous. To notice and understand MV one has to see the grand strategic design behind seemingly random and unconnected acts of violence. If MV is properly executed, the victim of the attack may not even realise, or at least reach sufficient political consensus, that it’s a target of a massive well-coordinated campaign waged by the enemy. One has to first see the strategic logic connecting, for instance, violent manifestations, labor strikes, series of hostage takings and guerrilla attacks.
Professionally planned and executed. Despite the seemingly chaotic and amorphous nature MV is waged in a systematic and thought-through fashion. It’s professionally planned, organised and executed by a dedicated strategic command center. Though individual events may seem spontaneous, even irrational, the role of emotions and improvisation on the strategic level is reduced to minimum.
Protracted and gradualist in nature. Unlike revolution, which is both rapid and radical, the MV is protracted and gradualist in nature. It avoids actions which, due to their severity and scale, could stiffen an enemy’s resolve and strengthen self-defence instincts. The escalation curve of MV is not too steep and aims for a gradual paralysis of the enemy while avoiding causing a sudden panic. The latter could cause a risk of fuelling rather than extinguishing a target’s willingness to fight. The cumulative level of violence exerted during a MV campaign consists of multiple smaller-scale attacks spread through space and time rather than few large acts of violence.
Guided by core tenets of warfare. Despite unorthodox (heretic) character, MV remains, at its core, subject to the basic principles of warfare. Messner explicitly underlines such factors as; the importance of surprising the enemy, the pivotal role of intelligence, striving to win at the lowest possible cost, and maintaining initiative. Thus MV does not represent a paradigm shift in warfare but rather a novel manifestation of the old principles of warfighting.
Based on nihilist principles. Though MV may be waged to advance a specific ideology, e.g. communism, its philosophical principles are grounded in nihilism. One of the key characteristics of the strategy is that it does not recognise values, laws or conventions, including those of the ideology it’s used to advance. The amoral and nihilist nature is one of the key characteristics making MV so dangerous. Though in principle the strategy can be applied by any sufficiently skilled and resourced strategic actor it’s naturally less well suited for Western liberal democracies.
Psychological domain is of utmost importance. Centrality of a psychological realm is the most important characteristic of MV. First, the ultimate objective of the strategy is to influence, in a favourable manner, the psyche of the enemy. Second, propaganda is an essential instrument of the strategy. Third, kinetic operations are planned and executed based on their psychological impact. Finally the intelligence effort is very much focused on researching key cultural, psychological or sociological vulnerabilities of the adversary.
Objectives of Myatezh Voina
MV is fought mainly in the psychological realm. Every action, tactical, operational or strategic, is considered primarily through its potential impact on enemy’s morale. As Messner puts it metaphorically; MV aims at “fission of an enemy’s psyche” and “occupation of the enemy’s soul”. In practical terms the main objective is to psychologically incapacitate the adversary. Whether it will be achieved through demoralization, intimidation or instilling doubt and confusion will be a function of circumstances. The key purpose of MV psychological operations is to render the enemy psychologically unable to resist.
Messner proposes, in order of importance, the following list of objectives to be pursued by an actor waging MV:
- Destruction of enemy’s morale
- Defeat of enemy’s most active groups; e.g. army, guerrilla, activists
- Capturing or destroying objects of high psychological value
- Capturing or destroying objects of high material value
- Affecting morale of enemy’s allies
Actors of Myatezh Voina
One of the main features of MV is the large variety of actors engaged in its conduct. They may consist of demonstrators, agitators, propagandists, criminals, saboteurs, terrorists, guerrillas, and irregular fighters. The opportunistic and eclectic nature of the strategy makes the list open-ended. Regular army units may also participate in MV but unlike in a classic conventional confrontation they will play only an auxiliary role. Messner classifies MV actors into four broad categories:
- Revolted masses (мятежные массы) – large groups of agitated civilians staging public protests and creating social unrest
- Crypto/Covert-forces (мятежные колонны) – groups and individuals acting covertly across a broad spectrum of violent activities ranging from sabotage to acts of terrorism
- Resistance movements (мятежное ополчение) – irregular units attacking the enemy using primarily guerrilla tactics
- Regular armed forces
Each category represents different levels of skills, reliability and violence. An actor may shift between different categories and respectively move up and down the spectrum of violence. For instance an individual may start as a demonstrator (i.e. revolted masses category), then start engaging in acts of sabotage (i.e. crypto-army category), and later join a guerrilla movement (i.e. resistance movement category). The process may also work in reverse.
How to Defend Against Myatezh Voina?
According to Messner, the foundation of a defensive effort against MV has to be based on acknowledging the threat actually exists, i.e.: the various violent events are connected and represent a strategic assault launched by a sophisticated adversary. This requires a fundamental change in the mental and conceptual framework used in the West to be able to identify and name a novel threat.
Philosophical underpinnings of a defensive strategy have to be based on the same principles as MV. To illustrate this point Messner uses a comparison with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary warfare. He points out that to be successful the counter-revolution has to be based on revolutionary not reactionary principles i.e.; it should take a form of “re-revolution”. According to Messner one of the key reasons why White forces were defeated during the Russian Civil War was the fact that they tried to fight the Reds through classic counter-revolutionary tactics. He also gives the example of General Francisco Franco, Spanish Civil War, who in turn used a different set of revolutionary principles (i.e. fascism) to defeat the Communist revolution in Spain.
Thus to counter MV one should not simply defend against it but rather wage a form of own MV aimed at the attacker. Such counter-myatezh strategy has to encompass all state domains to address a broad spectrum of potential attacks. This in turn may require a pan-national mobilization. This should not be confused with classic militarization of society based on putting citizens through military training and calling up reservists. Instead one should see it rather as “weaponization” of society itself, i.e. using society’s different functions as means for waging war.
One of the most important issues seen by Messner is the need for changing ethical standards to make counter-myatezh effective. He effectively proposes to apply war-time standards, for instance; potential hostages should not be rescued at any cost but rather seen as POWs and not rescued at any cost. Overall the ethics should be “limited to minimum”. The defender should actively reduce potential asymmetry in ethical standards to counter the nihilistic threat of MV. In his prescription Messner goes as far as to propose the creation of SMERSH-like organization, which would effectively fight terror with terror.
He also provides some practical advice on the “division of labor” amongst a defender’s security apparatus:
- Internal troops should target insurgents and guerrillas
- Counter-intelligence and secret police should target terrorists and saboteurs
- Propagandists should target propagandists
Though rudimentary in nature, the advice highlights an important issue of the need for the defender to develop sufficiently broad spectrum of instruments.
Messner’s works, despite being more than half a century old, certainly have not lost their relevance. On the contrary, many of his ideas remain central to contemporary discussions, especially those revolving around the “hybrid theme”, e.g.:
- Coordinated use of multiple unconventional and irregular actors to achieve strategic objectives
- Skilful application of ambiguity to provide the attacker with plausible deniability and obfuscating the very fact of the attack taking place
- Need for development of comprehensive defensive strategy based on whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach
- critical role of psychological and information factors in warfare
Given the breadth and depth of Messner’s insights, one would expect his works to claim a more prominent place in all analyses and discussions related to “Russian hybrid warfare”. This is especially true when compared with the hype surrounding (otherwise very interesting) a 2013 article by Russian General Valery Gerasimov concerning the tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace.
At the very least, Messner’s work should figure as a staple element in any “hybrid flavored” analyses, particularly those related to Russian views on the subject. At most his observations can provide a solid conceptual framework which can serve as an essential building block in thinking about the evolution of modern unconventional warfare.
 Messner reached a position of chief of staff in the Kornilov Division in the Wrangle Army
 Naturally questions of actual novelty and validity of Messner’s observations should be a subject of scholarly debate
 The literary English translation means “mutiny war”, one can also find it being translated as “rebel war”
 The three works can be found in: Е.Э. Месснер, Хочешь мира, победи мятежевойну!., Mockba 2005.
 SMERSH (1943-1946) was a Soviet umbrella organization unifying efforts of three military counter-intelligence agencies. It was notorious for its ruthless but effective modus operandi.