Russian policy on nuclear deterrence (quick take)

This is my quick take on the recently released Russian policy on nuclear deterrence. Others like N. Sokov or O. Oliker had good posts that I would recommend.

This policy clarifies some points, but I found it misleading at the same time. The document is self-contradictory in places, and inconsistent with other authoritative writing on this subject, with more uncertainties than clarifications. I see the military doctrines as more useful. The policy on nuclear deterrence they released is best read as the foundations for Russian thinking in the context of strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear war (not local, regional, large-scale war or non-strategic nuclear weapons). This policy offers clarity on Russia’s strategic nuclear force posture, which was not particularly controversial, but in my view is intentionally ambiguous or uncertain on the more interesting questions. It will not settle any debates.

This document speaks about ‘sderzhivanye’ (containment, typically translated as deterrence), and steps gingerly around views on the role of nuclear weapons in silovoye sderzhivanye (forceful deterrence), ‘ustrashenie’ (fear inducement) and ‘prinuzhdenie’ (compellence). This is a less nuanced version of language in other documents, and what is commonly found in authoritative military sources/writings. According to colleagues, this seems to be a redacted and simplified version of the 2010 policy which was never publicly released.  I recommend the exec summary of CNA’s escalation management study for those who want to get an accurate and fairly comprehensive picture of Russian military thinking on this subject.

Declaratory policies offer some useful information, but they need to be taken in the context of other doctrines/policies, military concepts guiding escalation, force structure, posture, exercises, etc. Those who do not have access to those other sources of information are going to base more of their thinking on what is in a declaratory policy which is at best a half-truth, meant for signaling, with normative language disguising the nature of the conversation taking place inside buildings without windows. They are ambiguously worded, intended to cover the range of nuclear employment scenarios, and for that reason different communities can interpret this document to support what they already believed to be true.

Also, policy documents like this are not actionable military plans (even if it claims to be a planning document), and nobody is going to say in a conflict “quick get us the 2020 state policy on nuclear deterrence, we need to read what we wrote there to make sure we are intellectually consistent with the fundamentals of that document.” Although people spend a great deal of time word-smithing what is in these documents, defense establishments often don’t believe what is in them because they have access to a panoply of other sources of information that are likely to be more convincing.

Some brief points:

Paragraph 4. states that the policy bears a defensive character, nuclear potential must be at a level sufficient to guarantee sovereignty, territorial integrity, deter direct aggression against Russia or allies, and in the event of aggression preclude escalation + cease the conflict under acceptable conditions. This reads as the MoD’s standard formulation, much of it imported from 2014 Military Doctrine, intended to cover the spectrum of nuclear deterrence applications in escalation management and war termination stratagems. I suspect the Russian MFA did not want to include those last sentences because those familiar with Russian escalation management strategy know what they mean. Notably, the standard formulation of cease hostilities on terms favorable to Russia (or Russian interests), was changed to ‘conditions acceptable’ to Russia & allies, which is a more fair reading of the escalation management strategy (often misconstrued as just escalate to win, or attain capitulation, which it is not).

Paragraph 5. states that Russia sees nuclear weapons exclusively as means of deterrence, that they are to be used in extreme circumstances and as a forced measure. I don’t think that is a very honest portrayal of how nuclear weapons are viewed by the Russian military, but the purpose of this document is to position Russian views as defensive only via normative language, and to counter the claims of those who say Russia has an escalate to de-escalate strategy. To me this bit was misleading, and that is one of the reasons why I find many of these declaratory documents meaningless. Yes nuclear weapons are seen as instrument to be used in exigent circumstances, not to attain offensive measures with wanton nuclear escalation, but they feature prominently in Russian thinking on escalation management, and in nuclear warfighting roles at the level of regional war (NSNW), or large-scale war (NSNW+SNF).

Paragraph 10 on unacceptable damage is a simplification. It should be “up to and including” unacceptable damage, which is the thinking on the damage assigned to be inflicted by strategic nuclear forces in a retaliatory strike. That is not the story for other forms of nuclear employment, especially with non-strategic nuclear weapons. The bulk of what is known in Russian mil debates/discourse on damage levels focuses on deterrent damage, ranging from reversible effects to unacceptable damage. Most Russian military thought is currently debating tailored and limited, or calibrated, forms of damage – not unacceptable damage. Note Paragraph 15 does a better job discussing this than p.10 in points В and Г by stating that nuclear deterrence is adaptable to military threats, will be uncertain for the adversary in terms of scale, time, and place of use. Sounds very flexible and scalable, not quite the absolute predetermined threshold of unacceptable damage.

Paragraph 11 claims that sderzhivanye takes place continuously in peacetime, during a threatened period of aggression, and in war time up until nuclear weapons are used. That’s true, but not true. Sderzhivanye yes, but intra-war deterrence continues once nuclear weapons are used as ustrashenie or prinuzhdenie. That is because when nuclear weapons are used demonstratively, or threatened, it is ustrashenie (fear inducement), and when they are used to compel an adversary either in a limited fashion via single or grouped strikes, or for war fighting purposes, it is prinuzhdenie.

Paragraph 17 on conditions for use of nuclear weapons. The phrasing pegs nuclear use to when nuclear weapons are used against Russia and its allies, or conventional weapons in the event ‘when the very existence of the state is under threat.’ That of course is an ambiguous trigger open to Russian political leadership’s interpretation, but it is a restatement of the long established formulation in military doctrine. Comments on sub-sections for paragraph 19, which lists conditions under which nuclear use is possible:

  1. Point а speaks to launch on warning, which codifies what Putin has been saying for some years now. This is one of the supposed reveals of this document. Nothing exciting here, and also, there’s is not commitment to this posture since it discusses the possibility of nuclear use without any confirmation that this is indeed how Russia will respond if it has confirmation of launch. 
  2. Point б  speaks about retaliation in the event nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction are used – unclear how weapons of mass destruction are defined, some Russian military writing posits conventional capabilities as having strategic effects similar to nuclear weapons. Would this include, or not include, a massed cruise missile strike against critical economic and military infrastructure? What about weapons based on ‘new physical principles’ which are mentioned in the military doctrine as having effects similar to those of nuclear weapons? Likely the formulation under p.17 speaks to this – ‘when the very existence of the state is under threat.’
  3. Point в is an attempt to deter cyber attacks on NC3. It mentions adversary actions affecting critically important infrastructure, state and military, which if disabled could disrupt retaliation by Russian nuclear forces.. The challenge is that it does not say strategic nuclear forces, so when picturing the panoply of units and critical infrastructure related to Russia’s strategic and non-strategic nuclear arsenal which could be attacked or destroyed in the course of combat operations this raises big questions. Hopefully that is just lazy language, which is commonplace throughout this document.

In general I found this to be an over simplified and poorly written document. This policy does clarify some useful points, the ones that were least in question that is, but it is full of holes and brings the information together incompletely. Specific attention paid to the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons, which are mentioned in the foundations of state policy in the field of naval operations until 2030, are missing here. My favorite is paragraph 23 which states that the national security council formulates the ‘military policy in the area of nuclear deterrence’, undoubtedly that is a series of documents that will not be published anytime soon.

In conclusion, I did not discover anything especially revelatory in this text.

Here are some Russian definitions, especially from the encyclopedia of RVSN, that analysts should explore in studying this subject matter.


Сдерживание ядерное
Согласованная система действий ядерных сил, направленная на недопущение агрессии, либо, в случае её развязывания, на предотвращение (недопущение, прекращение) эскалации военного конфликта или войны; одна из мер силового характера сдерживания стратегического, основанная на уникальных свойствах ядерного оружия.

С.я. осуществляется в мирное и в военное время на всех этапах подготовки и ведения военных действий вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупно-масштабной войне. Осуществление С.я. основывается на принципах либо «недопущения победы», либо «обесценивания победы» («неотвратимости возмездия»).

С.я. осуществляется в рамках известных форм применения ядерных сил различными способами и их сочетанием. В основу любого из способов положено поддержание боевой готовности ядерных сил, обеспечивающее их применение в любых условиях обстановки в соответствии с планами. К основным способам применения ядерных сил при осуществлении С.я. относят: демонстрационные действия, демонстрационно-ударные и ударно-демонстрационные действия.

Сдерживание стратегическое
Согласованная система мер несилового и силового характера, предпринимаемых последовательно или одновременно одной стороной (субъектом, коалицией сторон) в отношении другой стороны (объекта, коалиции сторон) с целью удержания последней (последнего, последней) от каких-либо силовых действий, наносящих или могущих нанести ущерб стратегического масштаба первой (первому, первой). К числу таких силовых действий относятся: силовое давление или стремление к силовому давлению объекта на субъект, агрессия объекта или её подготовка в отношении субъекта, эскалация объектом военного конфликта. Осуществление С.с. основывается, как правило, на принципе «недопущения победы». При определённых условиях С.с. может основываться на принципе «обесценивания победы». С.с. направлено на стаби-лизацию военно-политической обстановки. В качестве объектов воздействия в ходе осуществления С.с. могут выступать военно-политическое руководство и общественность государства (коалиции государств) потенциального противника (агрессора).

В отличие от мер сдерживания военно-политического, предпринимаемых государством (коалицией государств) для предотвращения агрессии, угрозы мирному развитию или жизненно важным интересам, меры С.с. предпринимаются субъектом постоянно, как в мирное, так и в военное время, и не только для предотвращения каких-либо силовых действий, наносящих или могущих нанести ущерб стратегического масштаба субъекту, но и для удержания объекта в определённых рамках, а также для деэскалации воен-ного конфликта.

К мерам несилового характера относятся: политические, дипломатические, правовые, экономические, идеологические, научно-технические и другие. Они проводятся постоянно федеральными органами исполнительной власти РФ в тесном взаимодействии с международными организациями, усиливаются на этапе зарождения, развития и в ходе разрешения различных конфликтов (военных, боевых действий – вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупномасштабной войне). Эти меры осуществляются с целью достижения успеха субъекта при ведении (обеспечении) переговоров с субъектом по дипломатическим каналам; выполнении мероприятий по укреплению межгосударственных связей; выходе из международных договорных обязательств или их разрыве и др.

К мерам силового характера относятся: разведывательно-информационные действия; демонстрация военного присутствия и военной силы; действия по обеспечению безопасности экономической деятельности государства; миротворческие действия; действия по ПВО, охране и защите государственной границы в воздушном пространстве, на суше и на море; военное присутствие; демонстрационный перевод войск (сил) с мирного на военное время (приведение их в высшие степени боевой готовности); существенное наращивание (развертывание) группировок войск (сил); демонстрационная подготовка выделенных сил и средств (в том числе оснащенных ядерным оружием) для нанесения ударов; нанесение или угроза нанесения одиночных ударов (в том числе ядерных) и др. Они осуществляются Вооружёнными Силами РФ и другими войсками на всех этапах подготовки и ведения военных действий: в мирное время – в целях предотвращения угроз и недопущения агрессии; в военное – в целях предотвращения (недопущения) эскалации, или деэскалации, или скорейшего прекращения военного конфликта на выгодных для России условиях, вплоть до массированного применения ядерного и других видов оружия массового поражения в крупномасштабной войне.

В мирное время С.с. осуществляется в интересах предотвращения угроз и недопущения агрессии (каких-либо наносящих ущерб стратегического масштаба действий) в отношении субъекта, в военное – в интересах предотвращения (недопущения, прекращения) эскалации (или в интересах деэскалации) военного конфликта или в интересах его как можно более раннего прекращения на выгодных для субъекта условиях.

В нынешних условиях и на ближнесрочную перспективу Россия вынуждена при принятии мер силового характера С.с. опираться в основном на ядерные силы в целом и на РВСН как их важнейшей составной части – в частности.

В условиях зарождения, развития и разрешения межгосударственных (межкоалиционных, одно- и многосторонних) конфликтов различного характера С.с. осуществляется, как правило, сочетанием несиловых и силовых мер в разных сферах деятельности государства: политической, экономической, правовой, дипломатической, идеологической, военной и др., а в условиях военного конфликта – с опорой (превалированием) на военную силу, с обязательным соблюдением двух основных принципов: адекватности реакции и непровоцирования угроз или агрессии.

С.с. осуществляется по замыслу и под управлением высшего военно-политического руководства государства (непосредственным руководством Верховного главного командования) как в мирное, так и в во-енное время.

Сдерживающие действия Ракетных войск стратегического назначения
Специфическая форма применения Ракетных войск стратегического назначения в условиях мирного времени и войны с применением обычных средств поражения; организованное действие военных формирований РВСН и группировки РВСН в целом для решения задач сдерживания противника (см. Сдерживание военно-политическое, Сдерживание стратегическое). Включает: боевое дежурство, демонстрационные действия, демонстрационно-ударные действия и др. Основным содержанием боевого дежурства является поддержание постоянной готовности частей и соединений РВСН к немедленному проведению пусков ракет в соответствии с приказами (сигналами) Верховного Главнокомандующего. Основное содержание демонстрационных действий заключается в демонстрации противнику элементов изменения состояния войск (сил), определяющих их готовность выполнять боевые задачи. Основным содержанием демонстрационно-ударных действий является преднамеренная демонстрация противнику непосредственной подготовки войск (сил) к нанесению и нанесение ракетно-огневых и ракетно-ядерных ударов. Специфическая особенность С.д. заключается в преднамеренном открытом характере (при соответствующих условиях военно-политической обстановки) заблаговременно объявленных противнику мероприятий по их подготовке и осуществлению.

С.д. РВСН начали практически осуществляться в конце 50-х гг. прошлого столетия с постановкой на боевое дежурство первых ракетных полков. Ярким примером С.д. РВСН явилась операция «Анадырь», осуществленная ВС СССР в 1962. Наиболее интенсивно теория С.д. РВСН начала разрабатываться в 90-х гг. прошлого столетия в рамках теории сдерживания стратегического и сдерживания ядерного.

Сдерживание военно-политическое
Система мер военно-политического характера, предпринимаемых государством (их коалицией) с целью предотвращения угрозы агрессии или ее эскалации, а также угрозы жизненно важным интересам на основе косвенного, опосредованного использования военной силы в качестве политического средства убеждения противника отказаться от агрессии под угрозой неприемлемых для него последствий в ответных действиях, приводящих к срыву планируемых военно-политических целей. Главным средством С.в.-п. является военная мощь государства. Меры сдерживания политического характера опираются на военную силу как на свою материальную основу, а военная сила имеет политическую направленность. Единство материально-силовой и политической составляющих является базисом С.в.-п. Первая составляющая определяется способностью ВС нанести противнику неприемлемый ущерб в любых условиях. Вторая составляющая обусловлена твердой, решительной позицией политического руководства государства в выборе адекватной меры вооруженного возмездия в случае развязывания агрессии.

Особую роль с середины XX века в межгосударственных отношениях играет сдерживание ядерное, которое провозглашено (ноябрь 1995) основой военной политики России в ядерной сфере. Ядерное сдерживание является формой С.в.-п, средством которого выступает угроза применения ядерного оружия (угроза ядерного возмездия). Система мер, направленных на предотвращение реализации угрозы агрессии, а также ее эскалации путем убеждения противника (агрессора) в том, что на его агрессивную акцию будут осуществлены ответные действия с использованием ядерного оружия, приводящие к неприемлемым для противника последствиям.

По масштабу угрозы, реализацию которой прихо¬дится сдерживать, выделяют сдерживание стратеги-ческое. Цель стратегического сдерживания – недопу¬щение силового давления и агрессии против РФ и ее союзников – в мирное время, а также деэскалация аг¬рессии и прекращение военных действий на приемле-мых для РФ условиях в военное время. Основу страте¬гического сдерживания составляет способность стратегических сил сдерживания в ответных действиях нанести ущерб, размеры которого поставили бы под сомнение достижение целей возможной агрессии (неприемлемый или сдерживающий ущерб, т.е. ущерб, обладающий сдерживающим эффектом).

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


Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood

There were several articles in 2019 attempting to address the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) problem set, in my view an unfortunate term that got transported from the China watcher community and slapped onto Russia, even though it has preciously little application in Russian military strategy or doctrinal thought. In a late 2019 WOTR article, which proved quite long, I sought to tackle the operational level thinking in the Russian military for how different capabilities listed under the A2/AD umbrella are likely to be used, illustrating that no A2/AD defensive doctrine or strategy exists. Russian forces are organized around offensive/defensive strategic operations which do not suggest the intention to sit back in a defensive bubble and get eaten by a U.S. led aerosopace attack.

However, this post is about the tactical side of things, and a series of claims made by colleagues about Russian A2/AD capabilities being overrated that I think need addressing. Technology fetishism and threat inflationism seems to be giving way to a dismissive attitude in some circles which is equally problematic. In my view these capabilities are misunderstood. I will briefly tackle air defense and a couple items I think it’s useful to consider on this subject. Just to be frank, this is going to be fairly rudimentary because I’m not an engineer and math is not my preferred language – on the other hand readership dramatically declines with each math formula or table you include in a post.

The first challenge with Russian air defense is the almost wanton confusion between Aerospace Forces (VKS) fielded systems, ground forces fielded air defense systems (PVO-SV), and the Russian air force within the VKS, which is often missing from this picture. Basically, much of the writing presumes that Western forces can fight the S-400 on its own, and you have a number of reports from well meaning countries that attempt to simulate the battle of NATO versus Kaliningrad, as though Kaliningrad was a country and not a tiny grouping of Russian forces relative to the whole. Given Russian framing of any conflict with a coalition of states as a regional war, we need to think about how Russian forces organize for large-scale warfare in the TVD (theater of military operations), and in a geographical span running roughly from Norway to Turkey rather than some contrived pinky fight in the Baltics.

IADS belonging to VKS

Integrated air defense systems under VKS include the S-300 line of S-300PMU1/2, S-400, S-350 and point defense systems like Pantsir-S1. These systems are used to defend Russian critical infrastructure and ‘strategic deterrent forces’ assigned to execute strategic operations. They may cover Russian ground forces, but are not necessarily vested in defending them since the army has its own air defense component. While the S-400 may be ‘overrated,’ the echelonment of these systems creates layers of defenses at different ranges, but most importantly with different types of missile seekers. These systems provide overlapping coverage for maximum attrition, but what they really do is defend critical civilian and military objects at operational or strategic depths.

The 200km 48N6E2 and the 250km 48N6E3 is semi-active, but the much shorter range 9M96 series (60-120km) is active radar homing. The extended range 40N6 400km missile appears to have achieved initial operating capability, and also comes with an active radar seeker, although I’ve never seen the container for it. These systems excel at medium-high altitude, while the active radar homing missiles pose a challenge for pop-up attacks, low-flying aircraft, or helicopters. We will touch on low altitude penetration a bit later.

Although there have been claims that you can simply take out one engagement radar and thereby neutralize an entire battery of 6-8 TELs, it’s not clear that this is remotely true. That would somewhat defy the concept of integrated air defense and it’s probably not quite that simple given the proliferation of automated systems of command and control at all echelons of the Russian armed forces. It would be safer to assume the Russian VKS thought of that and there’s a Plan B + Plan C to ensure redundancy.  This assumes that TEL #1 can only talk to fire control radar A, but cannot communicate with fire control radar B assigned to TEL #9, even though there are dedicated C3 vehicles deployed with them to enable high bandwidth communication.

Typically these systems are co-located with Pantsir-S1 batteries which provide defense against cruise missiles, and missiles intended to take out the S-400. There will also be plenty of EW systems to make life more complicated and effect disorganization on the incoming aerospace strike.


The main problem for Russian air defense is stealth and saturation. The former can offer considerable standoff relative to the effective engagement range, and the latter can simply overwhelm with munitions, decoys and drones. Low observation characteristics substantially reduce the effective range of fire control radars, which means that most of the range rings shown as ‘angry circles of death’ are meaningless. This is part of the reason why there is no Russian strategy based around bubble defense, because it’s not really possible against 5th gen, and even less so against cruise missiles. Hence there is no area denial, and not necessarily anti-access either – think more attrition, disorganization, and deflection.

However, statements about the advantage of low observation aircraft should come with caveats. Stealth does not mean invulnerability. The proliferation of increasingly mobile low-frequency Russian radars, like Nebo-M, which operate in the L-band, VHF, and UHF, means that stealth aircraft can be seen, just not necessarily engaged. These radar systems used to be quite large and clunky due to the antenna aperture required, but are now far more portable with shorter setup times. That said, any air defense network starts to develop gaps once you take down enough radars.

Most of the arguments about a Russian A2/AD strategy based on zonal defense amount to defense intellectual gobbledygook attempting to portray Russia as 1973 Egypt (limited offense followed by area defense). Here is a good example of how Russian writing depicts the problem of deflecting and attriting an aerospace attack. Note the emphasis is on the stack of threats in the aerospace domain, from low-altitude to space based assets, and the ability of Russian air defense to defense critical infrastructure/strategic deterrent forces.

Arsenal Otechestva Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika
Arsenal Otechestva – Effektivnaya Razvedka Protivnika

Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna
Militarizatsia Kosmosa Neisbezhna

Reading Russian military thought articles on the problem of U.S. massed aerospace assault, and the damage that numerous long range precision guided munitions could inflict, one gets the impression that they understand where things stand perfectly well – and they don’t like it.

That leads us to the second problem, the air force component of the Aerospace Forces, which is probably somewhere in the range of ~800 tactical aircraft. The majority of these have been modernized or replaced with new variants 2011-2019. These fighters are an integral part of the Russian air defense network, and will be looking to engage any aircraft penetrating it, which will be seen on low frequency search radars whether they are 5th gen or 4th gen.

A fair bit of writing presumes that one can perform a SEAD or DEAD mission, tackling VKS owned IADS separately, while the entire Russian air force sits parked and waits for its turn to fight, which is unlikely. Russian fighters will naturally fill the corridors or gaps between Russian air defenses, and will be guided by radar systems that can see low observation aircraft. The Su-57 seems well suited for that role. The limited availability of AWACS aircraft (A-50U) in the Russian air force is an enduring issue, but Russian fighters are primarily guided to intercept via ground control stations utilizing ground based radar. The air defense system as a strategic network is really a combination of radars, integrated air defense, tactical aviation, and missile defense.

Here is a list of aircraft deliveries I pulled from BMPD’s recent update.

Aircraft deliveries

My sense is that the 5th gen versus modern IADS + air force is the sort of thing that will either go really well, or quite poorly, without a lot of in between. Either way the Russian air force is likely to preemptively conduct its own aerospace assault, as part of the strategic aerospace operation, and together with long range aviation wipe out as many air assets as possible on the ground (covered in the WOTR article). Cruise missiles don’t really care if you have 4th gen or 5th gen on the runway. Remove air refueling and AWACS from the picture, things start to get less rosy.

What about Low-Altitude?

It has been asserted that one could simply negate the range of many of these systems with low altitude penetration, going in old school to negate the advantage of long range radar air defense systems. One can understand the visual appeal, complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone playing in the background. There are a few problems with this theory. The first is that 5th gen aircraft are optimized for the medium-high altitude penetration mission – stealth loses a lot of its value if you can literally see the plane and shoot it down with almost any type of short range system (SACLOS/IR/SPAAG/bow and arrow).

It’s not clear to what extent any Western air force, with the exception of Israel, spends much time training for low-altitude penetration, and while the aircraft can do it, many pilots probably cannot. Without training, nap-of-the-earth flight is likely to result in disaster before Russian air defense can even have a chance to shoot something down.

The second problem is that it’s not a cure-all given many Russian radars are found raised on masts, plus most Russian systems carry a shorter range active radar seeking missile variant. As the S-350 proliferates in the VKS, and the Buk-M3 in PVO-SV, this will become even more of a problem. Naturally the earth’s curvature dramatically affects radar range against a low flying target, but there is a great deal of complexity that goes into assessing a radar’s effective targeting range over the horizon – especially since atmospheric conditions and terrain play an important role. I’m an expert on none of these things, but Russian search and fire control radars frequently come mounted on 24 or 40 meter masts. We should ask why.


Some basic calculators I found online show that all things being equal against a target flying at 100 meters your targeting range from a 5 meter height is only 27km, but from a 24 meter height you get 62km and from a 40 meter height 67km (hopefully I got those right). I’m not a radar expert, but the Russian military likes to put them on telescopic masts for a reason. If you can see the air defense radar in a 4th gen aircraft then it can probably see you. This problem might be solvable by pop-up attacks when dealing with semi-active radar missiles, but then you have a batch of 9M96 active seeking missiles to deal with because the radar only needs to see you for a brief amount of time and the missile seeker will figure out the rest of the problem.


It is also worth mentioning that the proliferation of Russian over the horizon radar systems pose a challenge for launching an aerospace attack undetected at any altitude. The relatively short range Podsolnukh-E, which uses the ocean as a conducting surface can see 450km out and being deployed with every Russian fleet. Strategic OTH systems like Container are located deep inside Russia and can see most of Europe’s airspace at ~3000km range. This simply means that Russian VKS will see an aerospace attack coming whether it is high, medium, or low altitude and without that element of surprise you get more attrition.

The last problem is that by avoiding VKS IADS an aircraft may quickly become best friends with Russia’s PVO-SV.

The PVO-SV problem for low or medium altitude

Air defense units belonging to the Russian land forces (PVO-SV) do not need VKS IADS, because they carry a thicket of their own air defense systems to cover the maneuver formations. These include Tor-M1, Buk-M2, various radar assisted gun systems, and MANPADS. The problem with attempting low altitude penetration or close air support against Russian ground forces is that they have a very high density of short range air defense systems able to reach to medium altitude.

Newer systems add to the challenge. Buk-M3 is much more capable than its predecessors, with active radar homing missiles (70km on 9R31M), a separate radar that can be raised on a retractable mast, and a containerized missile for quick reloads. These more capable systems are to be found in air defense brigades include S-300V4 and Buk-M3, while M2 is probably going to stick around in air defense regiments/brigade. Almost anything in the PVO-SV arsenal can shoot down cruise missiles, although that’s not their primary mission.


Meanwhile S-300V4 is really the mobile missile defense system for the Russian ground forces, designed to provide standoff capability against high value aerial assets like AWACS, or jammer aircraft. In terms of capability this has always been a more interesting system than the S-400, because of its ability to engage ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and maneuverable aerodynamic targets. This system was deployed to Syria, and largely unnoticed given the fixation on the S-400. Antey fielded a 400km missile against low maneuverability targets, 9M82 ‘Giant’, well before the 40N6 went into development for the S-400. The 9M83 ‘Gladiator’ missile is comparable to the 48N6 line, and the system components are tracked which makes them quite mobile. S-300V4s are due for an upgrade, and will be bought in increasing numbers for Russian air defense units assigned to fleets. I would watch this space – PVO-SV is going to get a lot more capable in the coming years.


Wrapping up

So Russian A2/AD is overrated in large part because of our own technology fetishism and terrible understanding of how Russian forces are actually organized. It does not exist as a doctrine, or a military strategy, but we should not over simplify the discussion in attempts to debunk the tactical capabilities of Russian military technology. All you have to do to achieve air dominance is eliminate the VKS radars, the low-frequency radars, and the Russian air force – then you’re largely ok right after dealing with the countless PVO-SV air defense systems. Assuming you don’t run out of munitions early on into this process, or aircraft, and all the high value enabling platforms do not get attrited, then it’s a manageable problem.

In some respects Russian IADS are a sort of McGuffin plot vehicle. As long as time and munitions are spent on them, Russian critical objects are safe, and one way or another the IADS end up executing their mission – which is not to defend themselves but to defend that which is strategically significant for the success of operations in the TVD.

In my view the balance of aerospace assault vs air defense remains offense dominant (I understand offense/defense dominance is not a thing because Keir Lieber says so), but  that is probably not enough to offer confidence in the initial period of war. The problem is that Russia’s military has always seen defense to be cost prohibitive, and there for focused on an offensive damage limitation strategy + functional defeat of the adversary. So whether you think Russian A2/AD systems are amazing, or overrated, just remember – there is no such doctrine or term in the Russian military and the conversation misses the plot on how Russian forces actually organize at the operational-strategic level.

For a better, but longer explanation on operational level organization in the TVD, and Russia mil strategy check here.

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.

Drivers of Russian Grand Strategy

I’ve been traveling too much lately. Back for a while, with pen in hand. As part of a discussion last week in Stockholm, I composed this brief on main drivers of Russian grand strategy for the Stockholm Free World Forum. The paper is meant to be concise and readable, rather than a comprehensive exposition. It lays out many, though perhaps not all, of my views on what drives Russian strategy. You can download the original PDF here.


Russia is seemingly resurgent in international politics, entrenched in an escalating confrontation with the United States, while posing an increasingly global challenge for a state that was only recently regarded by the former U.S. President as a regional power in decline. Politics are often a matter of perception. In Western conception Russia typically exists in one of two analytical states, decline or resurgence. Such depictions are often paired with another dichotomy, a Russia that is tactical and opportunistic, or one driven by a coherent centrally organizing strategy. These conceptions are not especially useful. Opportunism should be assessed within the framework of a Russian leadership with a vision, and relative consensus on the country’s desired role in international affairs, i.e. tactical decisions made in pursuit of a desired end state. Decline and resurgence are relative terms, based more on perception, than useful metrics of economic and military power.

Moscow has been tethered to historical cycles of resurgence, following periods of decline, with stagnation often following mobilization. Yet stepping back from this pattern, one can readily see that over centuries Russia has been, and remains today, an enduring great power. Rus­sia is best characterized as a relatively weak great power, habitually backward in technology and socio-economic development compared to contemporaries. Hence Mos­cow’s strategic outlook has always been shaped as much by perceptions of vulnerability, threats foreign and domestic, as it has by ambition and a drive for recognition.

The Soviet Union was by far the weaker of the two super powers, despite having proven a capable adversary to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Similarly the Russian empire, despite moments of geopolitical strength, found itself contending with more capable and technologically superior adversaries in its own time, and centrifugal forces from within. Russian decision making, strategy, and military thought remains deeply influenced by the country’s history, a shared vision among the ruling elite of Russia’s rightful place in the international system, and a strong belief in the efficacy of the military as an instrument of national power.

Past it not necessarily prologue, but history has a profound influence on Russian strategy, the state’s theory of how to attain security for itself and expand influence in international politics. While lacking the economic dynamism of present day competitors, the Russian state has a demonstrated propensity to take on stronger powers, that is compete effectively in international politics well above its relative power, or to put it more simply, bench above its weight. At the same time, Russia has suffered from periods of stagnation, internal instability, and occasional state collapse, often engaging in cycles of rebuilding rather than building.

The Russian strategy for great power competition begins with a decision to establish credible conventional and nuclear deterrence, positively shaping the military balance, which paradoxically grants Moscow confidence to engage in indirect competition against the United States. This is a strategy of cost imposition and erosion, an indirect approach which could be considered a form of raiding. As long as conventional and nuclear deterrence holds, it makes various form of competition below the threshold of war not only viable, but highly attractive. Moscow hopes to become a major strategic thorn in America’s side, engaging in geopolitical arbitrage, establishing itself as a power broker on the cheap, and effectively weakening those institutions that empower Western collective action. Ultimately, Russia seeks a deal, not based on the actual balance of power in the international system, but tied to its performance in the competition. That deal can best be likened to a form of detente, status recognition, and attendant privileges or understandings, which have profound geopolitical ramifications for politics in Europe.

The Russian challenge

Related image

Russia measures itself first and foremost against the United States, and when seeking recognition, attention, or pursuing a deal, it is Moscow’s desire to parlay with Washington more so than any other power. Moscow sees NATO as America’s Warsaw Pact, not a collective defense alliance where the policies or views of the individual states matter. The Russian challenge, and consequently the inputs into Russian strategy, can be narrowly defined as a contest born of conflicting visions for the security architecture of Europe, Russia’s drive to restore a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and a fundamental difference in normative outlooks on the conduct of international relations, that is how states should behave in international politics and therefore what the character of the international order should be.

Russian leaders seek a revision of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, having concluded that they have no stake in the current security architecture of Europe. Moscow sees the post-Cold War period as one akin to the treaty at Versailles, an order imposed at a time of Russian weakness. Russian borders today most closely mirror the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed by Bolsheviks with the Central Powers of World War I, and while Russia may not be principally expansionist, it has always sought geographic depth against the stronger powers of Europe. Having no stake in the current European security framework, Russia’s leadership has instead pursued a traditional strategy for attaining security via establishment of buffer states against political-economic or military blocks. This is a strategy of extended defense, borne of vulnerability, and a consensus that emerged after Operation Barbarossa 1941 in Russian strategic circles that Russia must never again be placed in the position of fighting an industrial scale conflict on its own territory.

Buffer states are not neutral by design, but represent a zero-sum calculus, in that they are either Russia’s buffers against NATO, or conversely NATO’s buffers against Russia. Moscow believes it must impose limited sovereignty on its neighbors, so as to control their strategic orientation. Russian leaders have come to see neighbors as liabilities, who will often side with opposing great powers. This process has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by using force to impose its will, Moscow inspires the apprehension and hedging behavior among its neighbors which drives them to balance and contain Russia in the first place. Though Moscow always seeks to redress these trends through non-forceful instruments to retain its influence, when faced with loss or geopolitical defeat, it invariably resorts to use of force, casting itself as the revisionist threat to its neighbors.

Beyond chasing security, Russia seeks to restore a privileged sphere of influence, believing itself to be the rightful hegemon in its own region, and reintegrate the former Soviet space to the extent possible around its own leadership. However, Moscow lacks the economic means, or an attractive model of development for other states, still witnessing a steady fragmentation of influence over its ‘near abroad.’ There are other forces at play. A century ago Russia found itself between two dynamic rising powers, Germany and Japan. Today it is sandwiched between two expansionist economic powers, China and the European Union, both more attractive to neighboring states.

Russian long term thinking is driven by a vision of Moscow at the center of its own sphere of influence, but in practice Russian policy is defined by loss aversion, trying to check the slow unraveling of Russian influence in what once constituted the former Soviet empire. Not unlike other powers, Russian strategy is deliberate, but also the product of reactions to crises, and partly emergent in practice. Moscow sees the United States as instrumental behind this geopolitical entropy, and while Russian elites do not see their country in decline, they are nonetheless vexed by the gravitational pull of more dynamic states, versus their own lackluster economic stagnation.

Beyond extended defense, and restoring itself as a dominant regional hegemon within its own region, Russian strategic culture has not shed itself of the perception that the country is a providential great power. Moscow views this status as de facto hereditary. Russia has a special role in the world because it is Russia, and Moscow believes it has a mission. Born of its Soviet inheritance, today Russia sees itself as being responsible for international security, in large part because of its strategic nuclear arsenal and substantial military power, and equally because it can play the role of a conservative counterweight to American ideological revisionism. Whether in Syria, or Venezuela, Russia considers itself a defender of the international status quo, and of the nation state system, while seeing the United States as a radical force revising international affairs.

The Russian outlook is hardly dissimilar from other classical great powers, most of whom practiced a form of great power exceptionalism and hypocrisy. Yet Moscow’s vision lends intellectual coherence to the baser drives of its foreign policy, beyond mere pursuit of security at the expense of the sovereignty of others, or simply more power. Russia is a cynical power, but Russian elites do have a vision, and a story they tell themselves about the ‘why’ in Russian foreign policy. The current Russian conception of their role in international affairs is inextricably linked to the United States, which is why Moscow is on a perpetual quest for recognition, and a deal with Washington.

A clash of visions

Image result for moscow at yalta

Less recognized is the fundamental clash in outlooks on international politics, and the conduct of affairs among states. Moscow wants to sit on all the institutions governing the current international order, and be engaged in contact groups or forums of discussion for various international issues, that is to advance its interests and be seen as a system determining power in international affairs. This is not unusual, nor is it the source of the conflict with Washington. The problem is that Russia retains a view of the international system that sees only great powers as having true sovereignty, and the ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. Small states inherently have limited sovereignty from this perspective. More importantly, the purpose of international politics is to ensure stability or ’predictability’ of relations among the great powers, avoiding a great power war. Therefore, in Russian conception, not only are nuclear powers first among equals, but the interests of other states are subordinate to this pursuit. Moscow thinks that a world stabilized by spheres of influence (Yalta 1945), and arbitration among a concert of powers (1815 Concert of Europe), is the more stable system and one where it has the greatest chance of pursuing its own interests.

Notably, this vision places primacy on military strength and status as a nuclear power, over the economic performance. Russian leaders have also come to believe that because the West places emphasis on individual sovereignty, and human rights, over the power of the state, it inherently does not see authoritarian regimes as being legitimate or having legitimate interests. Thus emerges a mutually exclu­sive outlook on international politics, where Russia feels it is on one side of the argument with China, promoting a conservative international order with preference towards the interests of great powers, and on the other an ideo­logical vision that promotes the independence of smaller states and the liberty of individuals within their respective political systems.

The U.S. may see Moscow’s agenda as fundamentally retrograde, but the visible ideological core at the center of Washington’s foreign policy consensus has convinced Russia’s leadership that the United States will always seek regime change in Russia, and will never recognize Vladi­mir Putin’s authoritarian regime as having legitimate inte­rests. Moscow’s interpretation of U.S. intent tends towards the paranoid, indulging in unfounded narratives of U.S. organized political subversion on Russia’s periphery. Yet at the same time Washington’s vision for Russia’s integration with the West always had an unstated regime change com­ponent, presuming it would encourage Moscow to make a democratic transition. Moscow correctly perceives a missi­onary impulse at the core of U.S. foreign policy.

The ways of Russian strategy

Shoigu studying geography

Russia has always been better at leveraging military and diplomatic instruments of national power as opposed to its economy. Moscow invested heavily in the restoration of conventional military power, building a balanced military that includes a general purpose force for local conflicts, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, and a capable nuclear arsenal for theater nuclear warfare. This allows Moscow to impose its will on neighbors via limited conventional operations, but more importantly engage in coercive bar­gaining and manipulation of risk against the United States and NATO. Inherent in Russian strategy is the presump­tion that interests at stake favor Moscow in these contests, allowing Russia to threaten long range conventional stri­kes in crises where adversaries may well back down. Sca­lable nuclear escalation is always on the table – something to think about. As a consequence the challenge for the West is not simply a capability gap, but a cognitive gap in understanding what matters in the modern character of war between great powers.

Russian military strategy is heavily influenced by outlooks on the current and emerging character of war, seeing it as one based on blitzkrieg with long range precision guided weapons, and a contest for information superiority. The Russian General Staff sees warfare as systemic or ’nodal’ in nature, whereby a military system has critical nodes which can destroy its ability to fight, and similarly a political sys­tem has elements essential to its political will or resolve in a crisis. Russian operational concepts are geared towards shaping the environment during a threatened period of war, and achieving success in a contest of systems during the initial period of war. There is little notion in Russian military thought of a conventional-only war with NATO, or that beyond a decisive initial period of war, there are likely to be other sustained phases, i.e. one side will be pro­ven successful in the early weeks of the contest. From the outset, Moscow is resolved to the prospect of employing non-strategic nuclear weapons should it find itself on the losing side of the war.

In contests Russia has used military power on the basis of reasonable sufficiency, not seeking overmatch so much as coercive power to achieve desired political ends. Recent wars have demonstrated some efficacy in pairing indirect warfare with conventional military power, but it is ultima­tely hard military power that has achieved desired outcomes in local contests. The Russian General Staff values the utility of political warfare, and believes that a conflict will start with organized political subversion, information warfare and the like. However, they see this sub-conven­tional challenge as the leading edge of a spear, where the true coercive power comes from Western technological military power and awesome arsenal of precision guided weapons. Moscow sees non-contact warfare, and aero­space blitzkrieg, as the defining elements of the Western way of war. These are paired with political subversion to create color revolutions within the Russian self-ascribed sphere of influence. Conventional elements are therefore the finishing stroke of an undeclared war which begins with non-militay means.

Buttressed by a growing conventional and nuclear deter­rent, Moscow is more confident in pursuing indirect com­petition via hacking, political warfare, and other forms of coercion against the United States, in the hope of impo­sing costs over time. This is both a form of retaliation for Western sanctions, and a more ’medieval’ approach to great power contests, leveraging the ability to reach in and directly affect political cohesion among Westerns states. It is more effective when considering Western efforts to reduce the role of the nation state, and establish interde­pendent economies based on the freedom of movement of goods and labor. Russia pairs cost imposition against the United States with a series of gambits on the global stage to establish an arbitrage role, or become a power broker, in contests, conflicts, or issues that the West cares about. The end goal is to create transaction costs for U.S. foreign policy, force the West to deal with Moscow, with the even­tual desire of compelling a negotiation on core Russian interests described above.

A third effort is centered on key powers in Europe, crea­ting asymmetric dependencies via energy pipelines, trade, or other deals with their respective elites. Russia is more powerful than any European state, but much weaker than the European Union. Moscow’s problem in the rela­tive balance of power is self-evident, hence Russia seeks to weaken European ability for collective action, and the role of institutions that limits its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. Russia is less interested in NATO cohesion, and more concerned with the attractiveness and economic expansionism of the EU. NATO in Russian conception is simply a platsdarm for the projection of U.S. military power.

The EU is not simply a European project, but also an out­growth of U.S. grand strategy. That is, Europe does not enjoy strategic autonomy from Washington. Russia refuses to accept a European theater of military operations where the U.S. enjoys military dominance, while its ally the EU has economic and political primacy. Therefore, to the extent possible, Russia will work actively to encourage centrifugal forces on the continent, hoping they will restore the poli­tical primacy of the nation-state, and the reemergence of a concert-like system of powers over that of political or mili­tary blocks. Russian political influence, information ope­rations, and similar efforts are bound by this overall vision not for geographic revisionism, but for the restoration of Russia’s relative power in European affairs.


Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine

RAND Corporation has published a report for which I was the lead author and principal investigator back in the summer of 2015. The project included contributions from several other researchers. This work has spent a long time in the making since much of the research was done in 2015.  I hope the report will expand existing knowledge on what happened in early months of the conflict in Ukraine, both during the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of conflict in the Donbas. You can find the full report on RAND’s website here.

Abstract and Key Findings from the report’s cover page below

This report assesses the annexation of Crimea by Russia (February–March 2014) and the early phases of political mobilization and combat operations in Eastern Ukraine (late February–late May 2014). It examines Russia’s approach, draws inferences from Moscow’s intentions, and evaluates the likelihood of such methods being used again elsewhere.

These two distinct campaigns overlap somewhat but offer different lessons for participants and observers. The report finds that Russia’s operation to annex Crimea represented a decisive and competent use of military force in pursuit of political ends. Russia’s operations in Crimea benefited from highly favorable circumstances — political, historical, geographical, and military — that limit their generalizability. Analysis of the operation underscores that there are many remaining unknowns about Russia’s military capabilities, especially in the aftermath of its military reforms and modernization program. The report also finds that the campaign in Eastern Ukraine was an ineffectually implemented — and perhaps ill-conceived — effort to achieve political fragmentation of Ukraine via federalization and retain Russian influence. Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.

This study thus questions the desirability for Moscow to replicate a course of events similar to the campaign in Eastern Ukraine. Conversely, the operation to annex Crimea was a highly successful employment of select elements within Russia’s armed forces, making it an attractive use of military power, but the structural and operation factors contributing to its success raise doubts whether it can be repeated elsewhere.

Key Findings

Russia’s Operation to Annex Crimea Represented Decisive and Competent Use of Military Force in Pursuit of Political Ends

  • Russia was able to seize the territory of a neighboring state with speed and mobility.
  • The political maneuvering on the peninsula during the invasion suggests that it may have been launched without a predetermined political outcome in mind.
  • Russia likely sought to seize Crimea, and then evaluated its political options depending in part on how the intervention was received at home and abroad.

Russia’s Operations in Crimea Benefited from a Series of Highly Favorable Circumstances That Makes It Difficult to Replicate

  • These included political, historical, geographical, linguistic, and military advantages in the region that have only partial analogues elsewhere in the former Soviet republics.
  • The confined geography of the peninsula, the proximity of Crimea to Russia, and its existence as a separate political unit within Ukraine gave Russia leverage.
  • Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was nearby, with legitimate transit routes that could be leveraged for a covert operation.

Russian Leaders Are Likely to Consider Eastern Ukraine to Be a Strategic Success but an Unsuccessful Operation

  • Russia’s efforts in Eastern Ukraine proved to be a series of improvisations in response to resistance and friction when the initial political warfare effort foundered.
  • The lessons of Eastern Ukraine are rather mixed, demonstrating the limits of low-cost asymmetrical approaches even against a relatively weak and vulnerable state.
  • Russia achieved its primary objectives but at a much higher cost than desired and through a fitful cycle of adaptation.


My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.


In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.