Russian strategic culture 2.0

In March last year I wrote a piece about Russian strategic culture. Events this week make this a good time to return to the subject.

Over the weekend, the news from Syria was of continued advances by the Syrian army and of its impending encirclement of the city of Aleppo. The general feeling was that the Syrian government would in due course recapture the whole of Aleppo. This would be a significant victory for the government and its Russian allies. Moscow’s military support has clearly played a crucial role in turning the fortunes of war in Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed with US president Barack Obama to a ceasefire which will come into effect in a few days’ time. After all, when you are winning, it makes sense to keep on going, rather than stop. A ceasefire will hamper the Syrian army from continuing its advance and securing full control of Aleppo. It seems to rob Assad of victory just when it is in his grasp.

Yet this fits with a pattern of Russian behaviour. In August 2014, rebel forces in Ukraine, almost certainly with Russian help, smashed the Ukrainian Army south of Donetsk and advanced to the outskirts of the port of Mariupol. By the start of September, the rebels were on the verge of entering the town. The Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Army, General Muzhenko, later admitted that ‘after 29 August [2014] we had no combat-worthy units from Ilovaisk as far as Nikolaev and Odessa’. This may have been an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless clear that the rebels probably could have pushed further had they been allowed to. Instead, on 5 September 2014, Russia signed the Minsk-1 peace agreement and got the rebels to do likewise.

Similarly, the Minsk-2 agreement came just when the rebels were on the verge of recapturing the town of Debaltsevo in February 2015, at a time when they were wanting to advance still further. And back in 2008, Russian troops responding to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia pulled back just before reaching the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. In all of these cases, what we see is Russia achieving a military victory and then refusing to press the advantage militarily but instead halting in order to convert military success into diplomatic success. I think that this pattern reveals something about Russian objectives and how Moscow views the use of force in international relations.

First, Russia seems to be aware of the limitations of its power, and to be cautious about sticking its neck out too far.

Second, for all the complaints that Russia wishes to destroy the existing international order, conquer large parts of Ukraine, and so on, its behaviour suggests that its objectives are far more limited. Once Russia has achieved these limited objectives, it sees no need to continue using force.

Third, this means that Russia views military power as an extension of diplomacy, not a substitute for it. Whereas modern Western states often pursue absolutist goals – regime change in Iraq and Libya, for instance – Russia seems to view the purpose of force not as being to destroy its enemies but rather to get them to talk. Once the enemy agrees to talk, Russia is prepared to talk back. In the event that no deal proves possible, it can and will turn the violence back on.

Fourth, Russia is serious about striking diplomatic deals with Western states. When it gets the opportunity to make a deal, it does.

The terms of the Syrian ceasefire state that ‘the cessation of hostilities does not apply to Daesh [Islamic State], Jabhat al-Nusra, or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.’  This means that the US and its allies can continue to strike against those terrorist organizations but they can’t fight against the Syrian army. In effect, the agreement amounts to an abandonment of the Americans’ objective of regime change. This represents a diplomatic victory for Russia, which it is happy to seize, even if that means halting the Syrian army’s advances. But we should not imagine that Russia will simply send its troops back home. If the ceasefire unravels, Moscow will then pursue further military successes which can be translated into diplomatic gains, in an incremental process.

The absolutist goals pursued by Western states are to some degree a product of a concept of war which defines it as something which can only be justified by extremely important goals. One cannot wage war just to secure some minor diplomatic advantage, only to fight some evil, which much be destroyed or forced to submit entirely. When that proves impossible, as it often is, Western states, unable to give up for fear of losing face, are left floundering.

By contrast, Russia appears to view war in a manner more in keeping with a Realist, one might say Clausewitzian, definition as a continuation of political discourse by other means. Military force is used to achieve limited military objectives, which are closely tied to political ones. In some respects, that could be seen as a cause for alarm. The idea that force is just another tool of diplomacy which can be turned on and off in pursuit of incremental gains is that one many may find uncomfortable. On the other hand, war of this sort does have the merit of being limited in its objectives. If my analysis is correct, then this should provide some reassurance to those who imagine that Russia is embarked on a grandiose strategy of aggression.

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25 thoughts on “Russian strategic culture 2.0”

  1. Yeah, I noticed the pattern too. I’d also add their failure to intervene, militarily, in Ukraine in February or March 2014, to restore the legitimate government. Which the US would definitely have done, had something like that happened in Canada…

    There are probably good political explanations for each separate event, but thinking about the pattern, I consider this a confirmation of my thesis that Russia is not a fully western (or maybe I should’ve said ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which would make it trivial) culture. Not entirely rationalistic, not purely calculative/technocratic.

    You state, as obvious, that the west considers war the last resort; I completely disagree. Yes, that’s what they say publicly, but in reality ‘all options’ are always ‘on the table’, and the chessboard metaphor is routinely used. They have no qualms whatsoever, only calculations.

    Russia, on the other hand, seems to employ some version of the ‘bronze rule’: meet force with force, kindness with kindness and cut plenty of slack to your opponent.

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  2. Given that the US has spent the great majority of the post-WW2 era at war with someone or another, I would agree that American strategic culture doesn’t tend to see war as a last resort. The key point though, I think, is that the PR machine at least pretends that war is only justified if the other side is really evil and there are no other options. As mentioned in the original post, this makes it really hard to justify backing down or compromising (because people will start wondering, if these enemies are so evil, why we’re able to compromise with them). Because this is a dilemma of public perception/image, it’s equally acute whether or not the pretense of considering war a last option is sincere.

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    1. “As mentioned in the original post, this makes it really hard to justify backing down or compromising (because people will start wondering, if these enemies are so evil, why we’re able to compromise with them). Because this is a dilemma of public perception/image, it’s equally acute whether or not the pretense of considering war a last option is sincere.”

      Leader of the Free World (and Nobel Prize winner for Peace) Barak Obama named Russia among with Ebola and ISIS as one of the greatests threats to the world. Defense Secretary (and a lot of currently serving American commanders) called Russia “Primarily threat to America’s national security”.

      How can the US back down from that? Not only their own public (and legislators… and the press…) won’t let this just “slide away” – Russians have heard it and remembered.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Second, for all the complaints that Russia wishes to destroy the existing international order,”

    Which is a lie, by the way, told by inveterately warmongering liars to justify their inveterate warmongering.

    “conquer large parts of Ukraine, and so on, its behaviour suggests that its objectives are far more limited. Once Russia has achieved these limited objectives, it sees no need to continue using force.”

    Exactly

    “The absolutist goals pursued by Western states are to some degree a product of a concept of war which defines it as something which can only be justified by extremely important goals.”

    Nonsense the West wages war at the drop of a hat, for trivial goals, as long as the horrors of war are inflicted only on others.

    “One cannot wage war just to secure some minor diplomatic advantage, ”

    They do this all the time.

    “only to fight some evil, which much be destroyed or forced to submit entirely.”

    That is called the process of demonization, which is a prewar process, to build political support for overthrowing the enemy-du-jour.

    It’s been going against Putin ever since he took out tax fraud Khodorkovsky before Kh could sell a chunk of Yukos to Excon-Mobile.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. From some of the responses, I guess that I didn’t phrase well the bit about the West only waging war for very important reasons. Ryan says what I should have said – to be sold to the public, war has to be portrayed as about fighting some great evil; this leads to absolutist goals, which aren’t achievable, leading to strategic impasse.

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  5. “If my analysis is correct, then this should provide some reassurance to those who imagine that Russia is embarked on a grandiose strategy of aggression.”

    Here’s your other mistake. There is no argument or evidence that will reassure those who purport to fear “Putin’s next move” because they intend to utilize that fear for their own purposes. As Upton Sinclair said decades ago:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    The Military-Industrial-Congressional complex are drooling over the prospects that “aggressive Russia” will provide them.

    Absolutely the last thing they want is reassurance.

    Get with the program! Billion$ depend on it!

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  6. A very important facet of the American reliance on airpower (now extended to automated airpower with cruise missiles and drones) is how it allows a kind of cost-free warfare that doesn’t even register as war in domestic politics. It’s practically eliminated prohibitions against military adventures.

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  7. “This represents a diplomatic victory for Russia, which it is happy to seize, even if that means halting the Syrian army’s advances. ”

    Why should the Syrian army cease its advances against the terrorists named in the “cessation of hostilities” ? The Russians don’t intend to stop either. This is the key to this Russian initiative. The “moderates” identify themselves by political orientation and physical location, something the US would not do on its own (of course), or they will be subject to continued attack.

    This is Russian diplomacy.

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  8. With the Syrian Ceasefire Pres. Putin may have found an alternative way to break up the barely united opposition front lines. The tactical and operational effect should be interesting to see develop.
    See: http://www.unz.com/ishamir/russians-ride-fast/

    “A friendly field commander of an armed anti-Assad opposition organisation near Aleppo faxed me a copy of a document he signed with the Russian army representative regarding the ceasefire.

    Request to enter the ceasefire regime

    I, the commander of such-and-such armed unit located in such-and-such area (see map attached) am ready to join the process of settling the armed conflict in Syrian Arab Republic. I guarantee that my unit will cease fire on March 1 and will not shell or shoot the government troops. I shall allow monitors and observers to enter our disposition. I shall allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to civilians at the area of my disposition.

    Syrian Arab Army will cease attacking my unit from March 1st. As long as ceasefire regime lasts, the Russian Air Force and Syrian Air Force will not bomb my unit. Government bodies will not interfere with delivery of humanitarian aid to my disposition. My representatives will take part in work of the Joint Committee for monitoring ceasefire.

    In case of disagreements I shall convey the problem to the Joint Committee.

    I attach the map of my disposition.

    Commander X”

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  9. I think that’s very accurate description on the modus operandi of current Russian government. And in a certain sense of any Russian government after Peter the Great.

    However problem is that this strategy is pretty much builds up problems instead of resolving it. Especially when it’s being performed in current environment. It provides enough scare for all the saber rattlers in the West to keep on demonizing Russia, while not giving anyone a pause to contemplate possible consequences of building up tensions.

    Probably one could say Georgia was a success story, but I think it’s clear already that Minsk I was a huge mistake, while Minsk II is doubling down on that. Syrian ceasefire will most likely lead to the same results.

    Fact is simple. To the west of Smolensk there is no single soul of any real political influence who wants to have a good deal with Russia. None, zero.

    And now more and more Putin looks like a schoolboy who fell in love and can’t accept “no” for an answer. So inspired by some crap love stories he keeps on trying to win heart of the girl who in turn keeps on humiliating him. And it looks increasingly pathetic to say the least.

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      1. I understand that this opinion (influenced to a degree by my current mood to be honest) is probably not the most widespread here. But do you seriously ask me what I mean?

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      2. Yes. If you mean that they should’ve sent paratroopers to Kiev exactly 2 years ago, then I agree. But in Syria, political solution there seems like the way to go. They already got YPG on their side (kind of. hopefully, autonomy was promised to them), and if they can turn some other militant factions, they’re in a decent shape… Perhaps…

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  10. I don’t even mean paratroopers in Kiev. I mean at least meaningful defeat to Kiev and serious territorial gains to rebels in August 14 offensive. That could have forced real diplomatic solution as long as total victory for rebels was real. What happened instead is Putin melting after first diplomatic offer from Europe. Following is best described by word “festering”.

    As for Syria, military situation is such that SAA was just getting momentum and on a verge of full military victory in the North. Ceasefire again trows away any chance for meaningful victory. Leaves time to regroup and rearm for anti-Assad forces and leaves Russia in the open for new accusations. Mark my word there are new sanctions coming. This time with promise to lift them if Russia will force Assad to implement ceasefire agreement. Wonderful pretext.

    Add to that time that Erdogan and Saudies will have to sort out (curb more realistically) their respective problems with kurds and houthis. This way they may possibly even able to launch an invasion under some international umbrella.

    Prof. Cohen words in his last appearance on John Batchelor show about opposition inside Russian government for Syrian deal which Putin had to withstand is a good marker (if true) of military opinion on what is going to happen.

    Another job well done.

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    1. Yeah, you may be right, probably right. Fits my theory, anyway, about them not acting fully European, in the perfectly optimal, rational way, without any rules or emotions.

      Same in Georgia, by the way: to march to the capital, and then stop and retreat? Not a rational behavior.

      I remember his speech (or was it interview) in 2014, where he confidently stated that he won’t invade Ukraine because he won’t need to: no Ukrainian general would ever order to shoot women and children (in Donbas)… Some evil KGB colonel he is, eh?

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