Small Wars Journal

A Primer on Understanding the Threat - Russian, Iranian, and Chinese Political Warfare

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 10:34pm

A Primer on Understanding the Threat - Russian, Iranian, and Chinese Political Warfare

Douglas A. Livermore

“Political warfare” is a form of strategy that leverages all of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic capabilities at a nation's disposal to achieve its strategic objectives. Best described in a 1948 State Department memorandum by US Ambassador George Kennan, political warfare involved:

“The employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives[...] They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and 'white' propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, 'black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”[i]

The three most proficient executors of political warfare today, namely Russia, Iran, and the People's Republic of China, each possess their own doctrines that describe their unique approaches to political warfare. Only by understanding how our adversaries execute their own political warfare strategies can we better understand the proper role of the national policymakers, the Department of Defense, and Special Operations Command in countering threats to our interests and global stability. Armed with this greater understanding, policymakers can then better apply both military and non-military elements of national power to comprehensively counter adversary challenges and protect the interests of the United States.

Russia - Russian political warfare, which is termed "New Generation Warfare" in its defense doctrine, is best described in Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov's landmark 2013 article entitled "The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying Out Combat Operations".[ii] Often imprecisely referred to as "the Gerasimov Doctrine" (many less-senior Russian military theorists had previously written on the topic before Gerasimov), this New Generation Warfare outlines six distinct operational stages for achieving strategic objectives with a minimal reliance on military force.[iii] Russia applied variations of this strategy in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and appears to be currently applying the initial stages in the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).[iv] The majority of unconventional warfare operations conducted in support of Russian New Generation Warfare are spearheaded by military Spetsnaz units (a Russian acronym for “Special Purpose Military Units”), who are similar to U.S. Special Operations Forces.[v]

The first stage of Russian political warfare, known as “covert origins”, is often the most protracted phase of the Russian campaign as it can begin years before the actual onset of hostilities. In this stage, Russia undertakes a comprehensive campaign to influence the political environment in a targeted country through overt and covert propaganda while its intelligence and military agents spot, assess, develop, and recruit key adversary government and military personnel. If tensions continue to rise, Russia undertakes the second stage of “escalations” which continue to leverage all elements of its national power against the targeted country, applying predominantly diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and intensifying propaganda both to undermine the target government and encourage discontent among susceptible populations for use as future proxies. The third stage, referred to as the “start of conflict activities”, consists of escalating military and non-military activities designed to further incite discontent among Russian-aligned opposition groups, achieve limited gains through these groups to support subsequent operations, and create violent instability to rationalize later large-scale Russian intervention.[vi]

This escalating chaos is used in the fourth “crisis” stage to justify a general invasion by Russian military forces, which are supported by further diplomatic, propaganda, and economic sanctions. Once Russian strategic objectives are achieved, the fifth “resolution” stage of the operation commences as Russian forces seek to reset the political, military, economic, and social reality in the region in such a way as to facilitate a return to peace, order, and the resumption of routine relations to Russia’s advantage. The final sixth stage, or the “restoration of peace”, is designed to “lock in” the Russian gains by legitimizing local pro-Russian governments and inextricably linking the conquered territory to Russia through diplomatic, cultural, and economic ties.[vii] This last stage can also be rather protracted, as Russia wages persistent propaganda, economic, and diplomatic campaigns to force international acquiescence to the situation it created on the ground. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a perfect example of this last stage, as Russia seeks to solidify its influence and facilitate the establishment of semi-autonomous states controlled by ethnic Russians in the country’s east.

Iran - The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is responsible for conducting Iran’s form of political warfare against its adversaries, employing General Mohammad Ali Jafari’s “Mosaic Doctrine” to undermine numerically and/or technologically superior opponents through asymmetric approaches.[viii] The “Mosaic” concept of political warfare is based on three core principles: employ a minimum of Iranian force and only leave a “light footprint”, conduct unconventional warfare through indigenous proxies to achieve strategic objectives, and create non-sectarian coalitions in order to better legitimize destabilizing Iranian activities. Because of a myriad of historical, religious, and geopolitical drivers outside the scope of this article, Iran sees itself as being in persistent conflict with the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other states both in the Middle East and further afield. Iran’s “Mosaic” form of political warfare directly reflects the country’s appreciation for its relative weakness in relation to its many adversaries. Several respected experts have described Iran’s approach to political warfare as a virtual global threat network.[ix]

We have seen the IRGC-QF provide training, guidance, and other support to terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Jihad group responsible for the 1983 Beirut U.S. Marine barracks bombing, the Hezbollah in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, Hamas' terrorist activities in Israel, and current ongoing support to “Popular Mobilization Forces” in both Syria and Iraq.[x] The IRGC-QF also provides high-tech military equipment such as drone suicide boats and even ballistic missiles to the ethnic Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have used those weapons to good effect to attack Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia.[xi] Less obvious in Iranian political warfare are the other diplomatic, informational, and economic elements of national power. However, Iran continues to push diplomatically for recognition of the Palestinian state to buttress its refusal to acknowledge the state of Israel's right to exist.[xii] In Iraq, persistent Iranian-funded propaganda and political pressure seek to undermine the already tenuous relationship between Baghdad and the U.S. by trying to cause the expulsion of American forces following the predicted defeat of the so-called “Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham”.[xiii] Finally, Iranian economic and humanitarian support to the Lebanese Hezbollah has created a powerful political and military ally that Iran often uses to threaten Israel and further advance Iranian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Iran continues to advance its wide-ranging political warfare strategy through an ever-expanding and adapting global network with ties throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.[xiv]

China - China’s “Three Warfares” variation of political warfare completely deemphasizes traditional military force and relies on non-military elements of national power to achieve durable strategic gains. Rather than tanks, jets, or cruisers, China’s “Three Warfares” relies upon psychological, legal, and media warfare to try to outmaneuver potential adversaries. Unlike Russian or Iranian political warfare, China’s version depends heavily upon the existing rules-based liberal world order, as it seeks to bend international opinion and laws to achieve its own ends. This variation of political warfare indicates a clear Chinese desire to resort to military activities only when all other options have been expended.[xv] The Central Military Commission and Chinese Communist Party codified the “Three Warfares” in 2003, and many China experts have pointed to several subsequent disputes in which the Chinese have applied these approaches with varying degrees of success.[xvi] In most of these cases, the aggrieved countries have struggled mightily to decide how best to respond to China’s “Three Warfares” given the ambiguity this approach creates from an international perspective.

In the ongoing disputes over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (referred to as the “Diaoyu Islands” by the Chinese) and Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea, the Chinese government has sought to leverage legal, psychological, and media warfare to advance its interests. In both cases, Beijing has raised legal objections to support its fuzzy historical claims to these territories, though the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China in the case of the South China Sea in July of 2016.[xvii] Undeterred, China has waged psychological warfare by fielding a sizable “naval militia” comprised of small fishing and other ambiguously affiliated support vessels that it has used to regularly violate the maritime boundaries of its neighbors.[xviii] The psychological impact of these violations are intended to, over time, reduce opposition to such outrages. Additionally, China has defied the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling by creating fortress-like islands in the South China Sea that similarly violate the territorial integrity of several claimants.[xix] China’s most powerful tool across the “Three Warfares” spectrum is media warfare, as Beijing leverages its state-run media systems to spread its preferred narratives that reinforce both its psychological and legal warfare efforts. Beijing state media issues a nearly constant stream of stories that portray China as the wounded party in these ongoing disputes, and the prevalence of that message is beginning to sway the opinions of some international audiences.[xx]

End Notes

[i] George Kennan, "The inauguration of organized political warfare," The Wilson Center Digital Archive, April 30, 1948, accessed online June 23, 2017, document/114320.

[ii] Valery Gerasimov, "The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying Out Combat Operations," translated in Military Review January-February 2016, 23-29.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] David A. Shlapak, "Deterring Russian Aggression in the Baltic States," Rand Corporation, March 1, 2017, accessed August 13, 2017, testimonies/ CT400/CT467/RAND_CT467.pdf.

[v] Mike Ryan, Chris Mann, and Alexander Stilwell, The Encyclopedia of the World's Special Forces, (Amber Books Ltd., London, U.K., 2011).

[vi] “Little Green Men: A Primer on Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014,” U.S. Army Special Operations Command, accessed August 14, 2017, nsa/papers/ARIS_LittleGreenMen.pdf.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Muhammed Sahimi, “A Hardliner's Hardliner: General Mohammad Ali Jafari,” PBS Tehran Bureau, January 21, 2010, accessed August 14, 2017, frontline/tehranbureau/2010/01/a-hardliners-hardliner.html.

[ix] Daniel Byman, "State Sponsor of Terror: The Global Threat of Iran," U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, February 11, 2015, accessed August 14, 2017,

[x] David Daoud, "PMF deputy commander Muhandis details Hezbollah ops in Iraq," The Long War Journal, January 9, 2017, accessed August 14, 2017, 01/pmf-deputy-commander-muhandis-details-hezbollah-ops-in-iraq.php.

[xi] Jonathan Saul, "Exclusive - Iran Revolutionary Guards find new route to arm Yemen rebels," Reuters, August 1, 2017, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xii] "Iran slams UN for yielding to Israel, Saudi pressures," Mehr News Agency, August 3, 2016, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xiii] Ahmad Majidyar, “Iran-Backed Militiamen Playing Leading Role in Western Mosul, Spreading anti-U.S. Propaganda," Middle East Institute, February 22, 2017,


[xv] Todd Beamon, "Pentagon: China's 'Three Warfares' Seek to Drive US From Asia," Newsmax, March 26, 2014, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xvi] Peter Navarro, "China’s Non-Kinetic 'Three Warfares' Against America," The National Interest, January 5, 2016, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xvii] Jeremy Page, "Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims to South China Sea," The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2016, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xviii] James Kraska, "China’s Maritime Militia Upends Rules on Naval Warfare," The Diplomat, August 10, 2015, accessed August 14, 2017,

[xix] Mira Rapp-Hooper, "Why China's island-building is raising eyebrows," Cable News Network, May 21, 2015, accessed August 14, 2017, 

[xx] Anne-Marie Brady, "China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine," Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, October 26, 2015, accessed August 14, 2017,


Categories: Russia - political warfare - Iran - China

About the Author(s)

Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to ASD SO/LIC while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Doug served for a decade on active duty as first an Infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Military History from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Course. Doug is the National Director for External Communications for the Special Forces Association and the National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020-21 Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.


A short article that broadly attempts to summarize the political warfare strategies of three countries will have leave out elements of the strategy, so overall a good summary. However, it is incorrect to state China completely deemphasizes its traditional military as part of its strategy. China's military strength enables its political warfare strategy. Without its impressive military strength its political warfare strategy would be ineffective.