Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Key Concepts, Debates, and Players in Military Thought

CNA’s Russia Studies Program recently produced two reports that discuss in depth the main concepts comprising Russia’s strategy for escalation management or intrawar deterrence, their origins in military thought, and the current state of concept development. The first is titled Evolution of Key Concepts, covering essential deterrence concepts, current stratagems for escalation management, the role of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons, types of damage, views on targeting, etc. The second, key debates and the players within Russian military thought, provides an intellectual road map to the conversation among Russian military analysts, strategists, and the players involved. To better socialize the findings from these research products I’ve decided to post their respective abstracts here, though I suggest those interested download the reports from the CNA Research site.

The first report on evolution of key concepts assesses the evolution in Russian military strategy on the question of escalation management, or intra-war deterrence, across the conflict spectrum from peacetime to nuclear war. Russia’s overarching approach to deterrence, called “strategic deterrence,” represents a holistic concept for shaping adversary decision making by integrating military and non-military measures. Key concepts in Russian military thinking on deterrence include deterrence by fear inducement, deterrence through the limited use of military force, and deterrence by defense. These approaches integrate a mix of strategic nonnuclear and nuclear capabilities, depending on the context and conflict scope. In a conflict, Russian escalation management concepts can be roughly divided into periods of demonstration, adequate damage infliction, and retaliation. Russian strategic culture emphasizes cost imposition over denial for deterrence purposes, believing in forms of calibrated damage as a vehicle by which to manage escalation. This so-called deterrent damage is meant to be dosed, applied in an iterative manner, with associated targeting and damage levels. Despite acquiring nonnuclear means of deterrence, Russia continues to rely on nuclear weapons to deter and prosecute regional and large-scale conflicts, seeing these as complementary means within a comprehensive strategic deterrence system. The paper summarizes debates across authoritative Russian military-analytical literature beginning in 1991 and incorporates translated graphics and tables. The concluding section discusses implications for US and allied forces.

Russian Strategy for Escalation Management – Main Concepts

The second report on key debates and players offers an overview of the main debates in Russian military thought on deterrence and escalation management in the post-Cold War period, based on authoritative publications. It explores discussions by Russian military analysts and strategists on “regional nuclear deterrence,” namely the structure of a two-level deterrence system (regional and global); debates on “nonnuclear deterrence” and the role of strategic conventional weapons in escalation management; as well as writings on the evolution of damage concepts toward ones that reflect damage that is tailored to the adversary. Russian military thinking on damage informs the broader discourse on ways and means to shift an opponent’s calculus in an escalating conflict. The report concludes with summaries of recent articles that reflect ongoing discourse on the evolution of Russia’s strategic deterrence system and key trends in Russian military thought on escalation management.

Russian Strategy for Escalation Management – Key Debates and Players in Military Thought


The Ogarkov Reforms: The Soviet Inheritance Behind Russia’s Military Transformation

Reposting this article from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme latest Russia issue brief, just released this week. I encourage taking a look at the article compliation in these briefings, because CCW’s work typically includes some of the best analysis on Russian defense, strategy, economic or energy issues.

Since late 2008, the Russian military has undergone a period of sustained reform, and modernization to compensate for almost twenty years of divestment which took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much has changed during the initial reform period under the then combination of Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2012, and again subsequently under the new tandem of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov since 2013. Implementing reforms to previous reforms is a Russian tradition, but the vision being executed is born of a deeper intellectual pedigree. The modern Russian armed forces owe a great deal to the current generation of military leadership, which disbanded the remnants of the Soviet mass mobilization army. But, in truth, it owes far more to the intellectual heritage inherited from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Marshal Nikolai Vassilievich Ogarkov served as Chief of the Soviet General Staff.

The most recent decade of military transformation would be better known as the “Ogarkov reform inheritance”, since it represents the successful implementation of a vision he had for the Soviet armed forces in the early 1980s, which was only partly realized during his tenure. Looking across the changes implemented in the Russian armed forces, from the flattening of the command and control structure, to the execution of complex exercises with combined or inter-service groupings from different military districts, the deployment of recon-strike and reconfire loops, the integration of combat branches and arms around strategic operations in the theater of military operations, and the increasing emphasis on non-nuclear strategic deterrence, we can see that Ogarkov’s intellectual children have come home. This is not to dismiss the lasting influence of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Alexander Svechin or Georgii Isserson, whose writing is also used to underpin modern military thought. But none of those men lived through the Cold War, and many of the current ideas or concepts take their heritage from the Ogarkov period.

Ogarkov was a technologist at heart, arguing for a revolution in military affairs in 1982, to reshape the Soviet armed forces with a new generation of technology. Many of the latest weapon systems deployed in the Russian military date back to the 1980s in terms of design, and were conceived as answers to the capabilities then being deployed by NATO. More important, though, is the doctrinal thought that the Russian General Staff has visibly inherited from him, which drives the development of capabilities and concepts of operations for their employment, i.e. the Russian way of war. The goal is to establish a balanced force, consisting of general purpose forces for warfighting, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, a capable non-strategic nuclear force for escalation management, and a credible strategic nuclear deterrent.


It was Ogarkov’s vision to establish high readiness combat groupings of mixed forces, able to conduct defensive and offensive strategic operations in a theatre divided along strategic directions. This was the model for large-scale combat operations that has so heavily influenced latter day Russian planning for Joint Strategic Commands (OSK), combined arms armies as operational level headquarters, and the formation of high readiness combat groupings along said strategic vectors.

In his time, Ogarkov sought to reform how the military approached war at the operational and strategic level, unifying the work of the service headquarters and the general staff. His goal was to integrate services that they could create operational level groupings composed of combined arms units, which today is realized best at the level of the combined arms army. According to Makhmut Gareev, Deputy Chief of General Staff at that time, Ogarkov centered the General Staff as the ‘brains’ of the Soviet military. He sought the integration of air defense and the air force, seeing air power as decisive in the initial period of war, without which ground forces cannot effectively advance. Seeing the U.S. way of war as aerospace blitzkrieg, the Russian military has made air defense a strategic operation, unifying air defense, missile defense, and tactical aviation under the Aerospace Forces (VKS). In his own time, Ogarkov lost the fight internally to combine air defence and the air force as institutions, but, in the end, he served as progenitor for a reorganization of Russian air power and air defense around strategic operations to deflect U.S. aerospace attack (the Russian air force and aerospace defence forces were merged in 2015 to create the Aerospace forces).

It was Ogarkov who, together with other notable Soviet military leaders, such as Viktor Kulikov, Sergei Akhromeev, and Valentin Varennikov, restored operational-strategic and operational level training at the General Staff, with large scale command-staff exercises designed to explore operational art, and develop military strategy. Of particular note were Zapad-81, Vostok-84, Dozor-86, and Osen-88, testing concepts such as the Operational Manoeuvre Groups, reconnaissance at the tactical-operational level, destruction of enemy formations with fires and electronic attack through the depth of their lines.

Zapad 1981
Zapad 1981

Under recent Russian Chiefs of General Staff, including Yuri Baluevsky, Makarov, and Gerasimov, there has been a resurrection of the influence of annual strategic exercises, together with a robust annual training cycle, to work out questions of operational art, mobility, mobilization, service integration, and so on. Consequently, today the Russian armed forces, while not the largest they have ever been, are at their highest state of readiness in decades, beyond that of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

Ogarkov is equally notable for what he opposed. For example, he argued against the USSR’s habit of spending large sums of money on civil defence. In his view, the USSR was burying its money in the ground by arming civil defense units with vast quantities of obsolete equipment. Instead, he wanted to rearm the Soviet military with the next generation of conventional weapons, thus restoring its conventional military power after Khrushev had invested heavily in nuclear weapons in a bid to reach parity with the United States.

Like any good land force officer, Ogarkov was critical of the Soviet Navy’s megalomania, especially its desire to build a vast surface combatant force without the infrastructure to support operations. He singled out the Navy’s desire to waste money on aircraft carriers in an effort to match the United States. Although the Russian Navy may never be cured of such aspirations, in practice it is transitioning to a capable green water force with a more practical set of missions and a host of new capabilities to implement them. Still, if Ograkov had had his way, the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft cruiser, perhaps the unluckiest ship in the Russian Navy and notorious killer of naval aviation, would never have been built.

Perhaps most importantly, Ogarkov understood the chief problems of the Soviet military, which in the 1980s had fallen behind in communications, reconnaissance, battle space management, targeting, automated systems of command and control. These problems were demonstrated repeatedly in Chechnya, and finally in the RussiaGeorgia War of 2008. The modern Russian military has worked to solve the hereditary blindness of the Soviet Union, and is increasingly able to find, fix, and finish targets at tactical and operational depths, while implementing new systems of command and control across all echelons.

Ogarkov observing 1981.png

Although Russia retains its traditional military strengths in firepower, mass, and warfighting at the operational level, the Russian General Staff has now come a long way towards implementing Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fires and strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. From this, one can see the evolution of Russian combined arms maneuver enabled by noncontact strikes, fires, and a growing share of precision guided weapons added to the legacy heavy firepower mix.

Ogarkov’s view held that the military should not be employed to resolve cases that were principally political crises, demanding political solutions. He was publicly opposed to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This characteristic hesitancy to employ conventional military power has to some extent stayed in the Russian political and military leadership, typically exhausting other instruments of national power to achieve political objectives, and methods that fall short of war, prior to the introduction of high end conventional military power.

Nikolai Vassilievich was also one of the first senior Soviet leaders to conclude publicly that political victory in a nuclear war was impossible, instead seeking answers to what Soviet leadership at the time called the ‘independent conventional war option’. Under his leadership, the USSR began to develop concepts for a high intensity conventional war without depending on nuclear weapons, as a riposte to similar developments taking place in the U.S. establishment that culminated in the development of the AirLand Battle concept. As Ogarkov pursued this military transformation, however, his vision proved to be a costly strategy at a time when the USSR was in economic crisis instead seeking to reduce the unsustainable costs of military competition.

The present day Russian General Staff envisions a capable general purpose force, together with a non-nuclear deterrent that is able to deliver tailored or prescribed damage against critical objects of political, economic, or military significance. Rather than compete with NATO in long-range conventional weapons, an unwinnable contest not only for Ogarkov’s Soviet Union but also today’s Russia, the military has chosen an approach based more on reasonable sufficiency. Where Ogarkov had the right idea but wrong scope and execution plan, was in seeking to match U.S. technological might in a large-scale conventional war. It was overly symmetric, and economically ruinous. It also made less sense given that the USSR never believed that a war between nuclear powers could be kept conventional.

Given an asymmetry of interests at stake, in most crises the Russian military thinks it can meet the requirements of strategic operations with a much cheaper ‘strategic’ conventional deterrent, because its coercive impact would be greatly magnified by the presence of a capable non-strategic nuclear force. The latter can be employed as part of scalable nuclear operations in theatre, from demonstration employment to escalation management, or warfighting. This vision evolved from the early 1980s debates of Ogarkov’s General Staff, with an important caveat: while Ogarkov did not believe that nuclear weapons could be used as an instrument of policy in practice, it is unclear that the current Russian military leadership shares such views given the somewhat different nature of the stakes in the contest.

The Russian General Staff has made considerable progress in building a military to answer the technological advancements and the concepts of operations developed by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. what they perceive to be the modern character of war. It was largely Ogarkov’s answer – a military transformation envisioned by the USSR General Staff in the 1980s, even as the Soviet Union itself hurtled towards state collapse. Albeit fitful and perhaps incomplete, the restoration of Russian military power was decades in coming, and now it is here. Whether the United States will be able to successfully adapt to these developments, innovate, invent, and evolve where necessary, remains the open-ended question for our generation of analysts and strategists.

There’s a great deal more that could be said of Ogarkov’s influence, ideas and legacy, so this is an abridged exposition. Comments and feedback are always welcome.