Russian Strategy – WTF?

by Nathan Barrick on 10/30/2015 · 7 comments

Is Russian Strategy warlike – true or false?

Russia’s strategic deployment and bombing campaign in Syria appears to have surprised and shocked many observers, including Russia watchers.  It shouldn’t have.

The uproar is all about Russian aggression and expansionism.  Pundits decry Putin’s alleged attempt to re-create the Soviet Union.  The descriptors of Putin and Russia focus on hostility, aggressiveness, bellicosity, irrationality, lack of cooperation and while there is a lot of factual truth to most of the statements, there are some false presuppositions.  Assessments of Russian strategic intent focusing on Russia as a bad actor fall short of the accuracy needed to understand what Russia may do next.

Russia claims it is in Syria to save Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Is this true? 

Critics claim Russia is trying to establish a foothold to project power and influence throughout the Middle East.  Is this false?

The answers are both “No” and “Yes”.

Before explaining Russia’s strategic approach, a warning is in order.  The following paragraphs will include some ugly material.  Sensitivities about political correctness are going to be injured.  The terms and the concepts are extreme and simplified from the actual complexity (the sources will help elucidate the complexity).  However, these are valid characterizations of Russia’s reality.  These will not be the views the West-leaning, and pro-civil society and pro-democracy, Russian intelligentsia and/or emigres commonly express; and there might be concerns this version belittles the Russian soul too much.  I do not wish to be offensive, but the truth is the perspective held by Russians and others in the West is not the Russian perspective which rules and makes decisions in Moscow.  Perhaps too much of the views of the West-leaning Russians, and their Western associate champions of Russian democracy, influence U.S. policy with Russia today. 

After reading this article and investigating the claims – you decide.

To begin with, Russia is not strategically focused on conquest and expansion.  Instead, Russia is on the strategic defensive and is focused on survival.

Russia perceives a demographic crisis.  Some very good analysis attempts to diminish the ‘crisis’ characterization, but this analysis does not appear to differentiate between ethnic Russian and national Russian.  The ethnic Russian population is dying more than growing.  While there is contention about this demographic statistic, it has become an element of conventional concern in Russia and affects other deeply held perceptions.  Most importantly, this possible crisis feeds the ethnic Russian fear about the future of Russia’s Muslim population.

In contrast to the decline in Russia’s ethnic Russians and overall national populations, Russia’s Muslim population is growing and becoming a greater percentage of Russia’s population.  In 2000, in a discussion with Russian national security students in a St. Petersburg university, they identified a threat to Russia from the “south” as greater than the threat from NATO oft-expressed in Russian rhetoric.  This reflected the separatist concern about Chechnya and Dagestan, but also concerns about the threat of Islamic extremism globally and towards Russia specifically.  Prior to 9/11, new Russian President Putin called for a global coalition against terrorism in an address to India’s Parliament in October 2000.  The victimization of Central Asia’s migrant workers in Russia today is related to ethnic Russian concerns about visceral demographic and socio-cultural threat perceptions.  Not only is ethnic Russia dying, it is being overrun by Muslims.

This extreme simplification does not account for a great number of contributions to Russian culture from its Muslim populations.  However, while there has been and will continue to be much harmony experienced by most ethnic Russians and Russian Muslims, there are sizable elements of both cultures who will choose violence and coerciveness over cooperation.  

Compound these Russian perceptions with the long-term threat identified by Russia in China’s economic and military growth.  Since open conflict on the borders between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the early 1960s, the Stalin-Mao based cooperation (not exactly a story of heart-warming bonds of friendship itself) dissolved into rivalry and reluctant cooperation to counter perceptions about the United States’ global domination.  Russian fears about Chinese migrants to Siberia leading to eventual domination by the Chinese have been a real concern in Russia.  Some have identified 2035 as a crucial year in how Russian threat perceptions of China become critical, but over the years the specificity has been watered down to casual references.

Oversimplified, it is very possible the Russian leadership in Moscow is driven by fundamental fears about survival – demographically, culturally, and conquest (again a la Mongols!) from the East.  The strategic documents about Russian national security policy evolution from the late 1990s to the present reflect how these fears are translated into national security priorities.  Russia is on the strategic defensive.

The components of this strategic defensive strategy involve mitigating the threats from Muslims and the Chinese.  This strategy involves strengthening the state power structures, repressing where needed and making deals when required.  To buy time before a conflict with China, Russia has tried to shift the Chinese to more actively oppose the U.S.-dominated unipolar world and advocate a multi-polar world where the U.S. treats other powers (Russia, China, and the EU) as legitimate equals; India and Brazil have added their voices to this Russia-inspired effort.  But the real key to Russia’s defensive strategy is to attempt to eliminate the possibility the U.S. and NATO would side with China or Russia’s Muslims. 

Russia would prefer to have NATO as an ally against China and Islamic extremism.  If NATO will not be a partner respectful of Russia’s interests, then the NATO alliance will have to be defeated.  The only real strategic vulnerability of the NATO alliance is the willingness of the Western European NATO members to go to war to defend the Eastern European NATO members.  Eventually, Russia will apply pressure to this vulnerability as a last-ditch effort if nothing else works in regaining the desired level of respect in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

It was only in 2004 when the initial positive developments in U.S.-Russian relations for security cooperation soured.  Progress in military cooperation, treaties, and congeniality ended with the admission of the Baltic States as members in NATO.  This step elevated Russia’s concerns about NATO, but did not eliminate the space to talk about the growing rift between Russia’s and the United States’ ability to see eye to eye, or into each other’s souls.  The Russians viewed the expansion of NATO into former Soviet states as an affront to their stated interests.  Russia was not only struggling with economic, military, and infrastructure issues being less than a superpower, but with its expressed concerns being ignored, Russia began to feel treated like a second-rate, or even third world, nation. 

What kept the U.S.-Russia relationship from diverging completely was a Russian decision to continue engaging with NATO to determine NATO’s long-range intentions and to influence NATO to stop expanding to the East.  Additionally, a mutual interest in combatting Islamic extremism and global terrorism afforded the opportunity to cooperate on Afghanistan and related issues.  But the relationship continued to deteriorate based on U.S. policy choices to ignore Russian interests and Russian policy choices to “act out” against U.S. interests more broadly. 

In February 2008, Russia expressly stated a U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty would have negative consequences for peace and stability.  To anyone who had been listening to Russia seriously, the August 2008 conflict in Georgia should not have been a surprise.  The benefit to Russia of the Russia-Georgia conflict was it gained the attention and begrudging “respect” of the United States.  U.S. policy concerns about Russia were increased, especially given a U.S. Presidential Election year. The Obama administration entered office with the intent to “Reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship.  Russia was finally achieving its desired strategic ends of being treated by the United States as an important world actor.  The improvement in U.S. diplomatic attention, despite flagrant missteps, like the “Reset” translation fiasco, took a turn for the worse when Vladimir Putin began a third term as Russia’s President in March 2012, offending U.S. sensibilities about Presidents only serving two terms. 

 U.S. attention to Russia shifted to being sharply critical and deliberately provocative and condescending about Russia’s democratic progress, or rather lack thereof.  The appointment of Ambassador Michael McFaul as U.S. Ambassador to Russia exacerbated this shift due to his well-known advocacy for “better” Russian civil society and support for the political opposition in Russia.  By the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. was lambasting Russia about LGBT rights and repressive police tactics.  Russia complained about Americans abusing and killing adopted Russian children.  Russia’s willingness to tolerate American disrespect and criticism faded after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. 

The relevant aspect of the Ukraine crisis for this discussion is the U.S. refusal to recognize Russia did not want to possess Eastern Ukraine and the U.S. failure to interpret the Russian re-occupation of Crimea as an opportunity for Russia rather than a planned stratagem.  There was no Russian intent to occupy Crimea prior to the expansion of Ukraine’s political unrest to Crimea and local calls for Russian intervention.  Since March 2014, the U.S. and Russia have been alarmingly “messaging” back and forth with military exercises from Norway to the Black Sea, but the lack of real communication is glaringly stark. 

President Putin likely realized the strategic ends of gaining U.S. “respect” for treating Russia like the superpower the Soviet Union was treated was failing in Ukraine.  With the tensions getting close to war, Putin clearly did not believe a war with Ukraine would contribute towards Russia’s desired end-state with Ukraine.  Russia does not want to wage a war against Ukraine.  Russia wants ethnic Russians living in Ukraine to decisively influence Ukrainian politics towards a pro-Russia stance.  Russia’s strategic end-state with Ukraine is in jeopardy and cannot be “fixed” by invasion.  The only way Russia’s end-state can be met is for Eastern Ukraine to remain in Ukraine and for Ukraine to become disenchanted with Europe and the United States.  But I digress…

To get the United States’ attention, Russia identified Syria as a location to demonstrate peer competitor capabilities in global force projection (only a regional projection for Russia, but that’s not the way it plays out in the press) and the ability to conduct an extended, tactically-successful, but apparently ineffectual bombing campaign against a common enemy.  Russian strategic intent should not be misconstrued as being predicated on support to Syria’s President Assad.  Russia abandoned its basing in Syria when the civil war started and Russia pressured Assad to cooperate with the OPCW to remove chemical weapons.  Russia is in Syria to get the United States’ attention, all other possible strategic benefits which Russia may accrue are secondary and opportunistic.

If the United States does not start treating Russia like a superpower, Russia will be forced to demonstrate its superpower capabilities through war.  Russia possesses a large strategic arsenal in nuclear weapons, but Russia believes the U.S. has forgotten to take Russia’s formidable strategic strike capability into proper consideration.  U.S. generals pointing out Russia’s nuclear arsenal in Congressional testimony is a very positive step in Russia’s way of viewing the situation.  Russia expects the U.S. to recognize Russia’s ability to employ military force globally and contribute to international efforts as an equal in Syria.

If the U.S. refuses to adjust its view of Russia and continues to paint Russia as a bad actor, then Russia will be forced to go to war – because it perceives its survival is at stake.  Russia cannot feel secure unless its self-perceptions are bolstered by its neighbors respecting Russia’s strength.  If the U.S. does not respect Russia’s military power and interests, then Russia follows a slippery slope logic to believing no one of its neighbors will respect it.  In the Russian security sector’s perception, if the U.S. respects Russia’s strength, then all of Russia’s neighbors will have to do likewise.  This is how Russia operationalizes its strategic defense to ensure survival.  The U.S. treating Russia like it treated the Soviet Union is vital to Russia’s belief in cultural survival.

Russia is likely willing to lose a war with NATO to achieve its strategic objective of U.S. “respect”.  Russia correctly realizes the U.S. and NATO will probably not invade Russia.  Russia will be able to attack a NATO member state and ostensibly get away with it (if one can call losing a military conflict “getting away with it”).  The Russians will do so and believe they got away with it, because Russia will be intact and the U.S. will be keenly aware of what war with Russia might risk in terms of strategic nuclear exchange.  Russia will back down from the conflict and retreat to its own borders and allow the U.S. to think Russia has learned a lesson, but the Cold War redux is a very probably outcome of such a limited conflict. 

Russia may take this calculated risk because it feels its back is against the wall and Russia’s very survival at stake and the upside benefits are too promising.  If Russia attacks the “right” NATO member, the rest of NATO might not willingly honor Article 5 commitments to defend the invaded member without U.S. pressure.  Russia expects the U.S. will fight for an invaded NATO member, but Russia is not banking on a lack of American will.  Russia instead will take the risk to see whether the European members of NATO will consolidate through the collective defense of a member or whether the prospect of a more serious future confrontation with Russia diminishes NATO’s cohesiveness.  In Russia’s strategic estimation, survival and Cold War II are worth the risk of a re-energized NATO. 

Interestingly enough, all this talk of war and rumors of war would likely fade to the background if the U.S. openly ceded its unipolar seat of world domination and accepted the constraints imposed on U.S. behavior by a bipolar or multipolar world.  Is it really so hard for American leaders to recognize Russia possesses a huge nuclear arsenal and merits such consideration?  Even American city slickers are going to be wary of approaching a mobile home trailer in the deep woods of hillbilly/redneck territory when a sign says “No Trespassing” for fear of the shotgun-toting resident.  Why should Americans accord more respect to possible characters out of a “Deliverance” movie than to Russia?

Some will object to this overly deterministic interpretation of Russia’s strategic perspective.  Those same critics will over-value the West’s interpretation of how the world should be and they will misjudge Russia’s strategic perspective because the Western view is not what prevails in the Kremlin.

American policy makers should assess whether the likelihood of realizing a change in Russia’s society is more likely through realistic friendship or through another Cold War. By a few important measures, Russia merits treatment as a global equal.  Are the areas where Russia does not measure up to Western expectations worth the risk of a Cold War redux? 

War is not inevitable.  Avoiding war requires understanding the Russian leadership’s perspective.

Don’t like this viewpoint?  Free your mind.  The rest will follow.

If you don’t want to, then consider investing in the cement industry …

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This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan Barrick has consulted on Central Asia and national security issues with multiple organizations, government and corporate, including testimony before Congress. He is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer for Russia-Eurasia and has a Master's Degree from the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. His views as published are his own and do not represent any other organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Nates_Notes

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Roseanne October 31, 2015 at 2:56 am

How patronising! Russia does not seek either approval nor respect from the US. The US is the playground bully that everyone is learning to ignore.
Russia is more self sufficient than the US will ever be.
Closer relations between China and Russia are being driven by US behaviour around the globe. To suggest that China could be pushed by Russia in this way is also insulting to China. They are quite capable of making autonomous decisions based on the evidence before them.
‘Russia began to feel like a 3rd world nation’: an assumption you have placed on the situation based on the US’ automatic

Nathan October 31, 2015 at 6:14 am

Thanks, Roseanne! I take it from your comments you think America’s current policy is less patronizing to Russia?
I actually think your comments support the general accuracy of the article. It is an article written in English to address Americans about how to understand what U.S. behavior is doing and how the U.S. does not accurately assess Russia or its intentions. As for Russia and China, I’ve studied this relationship for years through the lens of both Russian experts writing in Russian, trained Russian intelligence experts on China, and Chinese experts on Russia. You are correct China makes its own decisions, but you are incorrect about Russia not trying to influence China’s policies.
“Russia is more self-sufficient than the US will ever be.” I’ll count you as a supporter of the viewpoint the U.S. needs to change its policy.

Nathan October 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

And actually, Roseanne, what I said was Russia began to feel like it was TREATED (by the U.S.) like a second rate, even third world nation. Do you think the U.S. treats Russia like it should?

Randy McDonald November 1, 2015 at 8:34 am

“In Russia’s strategic estimation, survival and Cold War II are worth the risk of a re-energized NATO. ”

How, exactly, does this work? If, as Barrick suggests, Russia is desperate to enlist the support of NATO to hold off the Chinese and Muslims, how would Cold War II possibly work to this end? This is particularly the case if Russia’s elites do not believe in any possibility of a Russian-Chinese entente, only a postponement of an inevitable confrontation. Why would they risk Russia’s complete isolation?

Nathan November 1, 2015 at 8:52 am

It’s a good question, Randy. If I’d laid all that out, it takes this out of a readable essay (pushing length boundaries anyway).

However, a brief response. 1) Russia isn’t desperate for NATO support. They only need NATO to not be an added threat, and if they’re not a partner/ally, then NATO needs diminished.
2) Cold War II means the U.S. (and other nations) are considering what Russia’s response might be to any situation, obviously some more important than others. Also, the U.S. being cognizant (some apparently don’t like the word ‘respect’) of Russia means Russia’s neighbors will likely be doing the same. This situation reduces the urgency of Russia’s threat perceptions.
3) In a changed global environment, not U.S. unipolar, Russia likely believes the risk of complete isolation is minimal. Russia thinks there is a groundswell of anti-U.S. sentiment being generated by U.S. arrogance and domination and role as global policeman/human rights enforcer.
4) Counter-intuitively, a more confrontational global environment is MORE secure for Russia. In that environment, Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent is more effective, more influential.
5) Lastly, I think the Kremlin is focused on the KNOWN negative impact of the current global environment which is more threatening to their sensibilities than the UNKNOWN of a multipolar or bipolar world where isolation is risked.

Thanks again, Randy — I think this is a worthwhile conversation to be having.

Randy McDonald November 1, 2015 at 3:49 pm

I’m unconvinced of Russia’s rationale, or at least of its ability to understand how its European neighbours work.

The expectation that the European Union will split, any day now, comes to mind. Does it understand, or believe, in the idea of European integration as a non-zero-sum affair that EU member states benefit from? If we did get a transatlantic split over NATO, rather that restoring a Europe of rival nation-states we might be more likely to see a militarily integrated EU sitting on Russia’s western frontiers. The creation of a broadly superior power on Russia’s western frontiers would arguably be an even worse outcome from Russia’s perspective.

Of course, if Russia does not understand how its neighbours and likely rivals work, this just makes it all the more likely that it will miscalculate.

Nathan November 4, 2015 at 5:16 am

Sorry about the delay in answering, Randy.
I agree Russia’s ability to discern European intentions and strategies is not perfect. I think we can blame France (19th C), Germany (20th C) and U.S./NATO (21st C) for that problem. As well as fixing blame on how Russia trains and develops diplomats.

However, I think the greater issue is the U.S. and NATO miscalculating Russia’s will and resolve. The U.S. and NATO appear to be ascribing Russia’s actions to simply wanting to be a bad actor. Western criticism does not rationalize how Russia sees its behavior to its own benefit. If the West does not begin to accurately assess Russian intentions, it will fail to take appropriate steps to avoid war. Because the West does not assess war as inevitable on the current policy path, I doubt there is a pro/con debate going on among policymakers about whether the West is better off fighting this war or not.

You might be unconvinced of Russia’s rationale, but does your alternative perspective predict Kremlin decision-making?

In my view, the best step towards working to avoid a war is readmitting Russia into the G8. If something like that does not happen to meet Russia’s strategic objectives — there will be a war in Europe. A short one, but an influential one.

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