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Russia’s military strategy and doctrine

[Glen E. Howard and Matthew Czekaj (Editors), Russia’s military strategy and doctrine. The Jamestown Foundation. Washington DC, 2019. 444 pages]

REVIEWAngel Martos Sáez

Russia’s military strategy and doctrine

This exemplar acts as an answer and a guide for Western policymakers to the quandary that 21st century Russia is posing in the international arena. Western leaders, after the annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014 and the subsequent invasion of Eastern Ukraine, are struggling to come up with a definition of the aggressive strategy that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is carrying out. Non-linear warfare, limited war, or “hybrid warfare” are some of the terms coined to give a name to Russia’s operations below the threshold of war.

The work is divided in three sections. The first one focuses on the “geographic vectors of Russia’s strategy”. The authors here study the six main geographical areas in which a clear pattern has been recognized along Russia’s operations: The Middle East, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arctic, the Far East and the Baltic Sea.

The chapter studying Russia’s strategy towards the Middle East is heavily focused on the Syrian Civil War. Russian post-USSR foreign-policymakers have realized how precious political stability in the Levant is for safeguarding their geostrategic interests. Access to warm waters of the Mediterranean or Black Sea through the Turkish straits are of key relevance, as well as securing the Tartus naval base, although to a lesser extent. A brilliant Russian military analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, famous for his predictions about how Russia would go to war against Georgia for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, takes us deep into the gist of Putin’s will to keep good relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Fighting at the same time Islamic terrorism and other Western-supported insurgent militias.

The Black and Mediterranean Seas areas are covered by a retired admiral of the Ukranian Navy, Ihor Kabanenko. These two regions are merged together in one chapter because gaining access to the Ocean through warm waters is the priority for Russian leaders, be it through their “internal lake” as they like to call the Black Sea, or the Mediterranean alone. The author focuses heavily on the planning that the Federation has followed, starting with the occupation of Crimea to the utilization of area denial weaponry (A2/AD) to restrict access to the areas.

The third chapter concerning the Russia’s guideline followed in the Arctic and the Far East is far more pessimistic than the formers. Pavel K. Baev stresses the crucial mistakes that the country has done in militarizing the Northern Sea Route region to monopolize the natural resource exploitation. This tool, however, has worked as a boomerang making it harder for Russia nowadays to make profit around this area. Regarding the Far East and its main threats (North Korea and China), Russia was expected a more mature stance towards these nuclear powers, other than trying to align its interests to theirs and loosing several opportunities of taking economical advantage of their projects.

Swedish defense ministry advisor Jörgen Elfving points out that the BSR (acronym for Baltic Sea Region) is of crucial relevance for Russia. The Federation’s strategy is mainly based on the prevention, through all the means possible, of Sweden and Finland joining the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). Putin has stressed out several times his mistrust on this organization, stating that Western policymakers haven’t kept the promise of not extending the Alliance further Eastwards than the former German Democratic Republic’s Western border. Although Russia has the military capabilities, another de facto invasion is not likely to be seen in the BSR, not even in the Baltic republics. Instead, public diplomacy campaigns towards shifting foreign public perception of Russia, the funding of Eurosceptic political parties, and most importantly taking advantage of the commercial ties (oil and natural gas) between Scandinavian countries, the Baltic republics and Russia is far more likely (and already happening).

The second section of this book continues with the task of defining precisely and enumerating the non-conventional elements that are used to carry out the strategy and doctrine followed by Russia. Jānis Bērziņš gives body to the “New Generation Warfare” doctrine, according to him a more exact term than “hybrid” warfare. The author stresses out the conscience that Russian leaders have of being the “weak party” in their war with NATO, and how they therefore work on aligning  “the minds of the peoples” (the public opinion) to their goals in order to overcome the handicap they have. An “asymmetric warfare” under the threshold of total war is always preferred by them.

Chapters six and seven go deep into the nuclear weaponry that Russia might possess, its history, and how it shapes the country’s policy, strategy, and doctrine. There is a reference to the turbulent years in which Gorbachev and Reagan signed several Non-Proliferation Treaties to avoid total destruction, influenced by the MAD doctrine of the time. It also studies the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (IMF) Treaty and how current leaders of both countries (Presidents Trump and Putin) are withdrawing from the treaty amid non-compliance of one another. Event that has sparked past strategic tensions between the two powers.

Russian researcher Sergey Sukhankin gives us an insight on the Federation’s use of information security, tracing the current customs and methods back to the Soviet times, since according to him not much has changed in Russian practices. Using data in an unscrupulously malevolent way doesn’t suppose a problem for Russian current policymakers, he says. So much so that it is usually hard for “the West” to predict what Russia is going to do next, or what cyberattack it is going to perpetrate.

To conclude, the third section covers the lessons learned and the domestic implications that have followed Russia’s adventures in foreign conflicts, such as the one in Ukraine (mainly in Donbas) and in Syria. The involvement in each one is different since the parties which the Kremlin supported are opposed in essence: Moscow fought for subversion in Eastern Ukraine but for governmental stability in Syria. Russian military expert Roger N. McDermott and analyst Dima Adamsky give us a brief synthesis of what experiences Russian policymakers have gained after these events in Chapters nine and eleven.

The last chapter wraps up all the research talking about the concept of mass mobilization and how it has returned to the Federation’s politics, both domestically and in the foreign arena. Although we don’t exactly know if the majority of the national people supports this stance, it is clear that this country is showing the world that it is ready for war in this 21st century.  And this manual is here to be a reference for US and NATO defense strategists, to help overcome the military and security challenges that the Russian Federation is posing to the international community.