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  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.