Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?

If I had to recommend a single article for foreign policy decision makers to read, it would be Robert Jervis’s 1968 essay ‘Hypotheses on Misperception.’ As I’ve written before, many of the tensions between states derive from misperceptions. People misperceive others; misperceive themselves; and misperceive how they are seen by others. In his article, Jervis hypothesizes 14 misperceptions which are commonly encountered in international politics. Hypothesis number 9 is the following: ‘actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than it is.’ Jervis adds that, ‘Further, actors see others as more internally united than they in fact are and generally overestimate the degree to which others are following a coherent policy.’ In my opinion, this is absolutely correct, and we can see a lot of this going on in contemporary analyses of Russia.

For obvious reasons, analysts want to make sense of what Russia is doing on the international scene. Developing a policy to respond to Russia creates an incentive to boil Russian behaviour down to simple categories. If one can say that Russian policy is a simple ‘a’ or ‘b’, then it’s relatively easy to come up with a response, such as ‘x’ or ‘y’. Analysts therefore have a tendency to want to find some ‘grand strategy’ which explains Russian actions. That in turn leads them to view Russian policy making as ‘centralized, disciplined, and coordinated’, to use Jervis’s words. The fact that Russia is generally considered to be an ‘autocratic’ state adds to this tendency, as it creates the impression that decision-making is far more centrally controlled in Russia than in Western liberal democracies. This supposedly makes it easier for Russia to pursue a strategy in which all the elements of the state work together in pursuit of a single objective, with each element fulfilling a role assigned to it by a central coordinating authority.

One can see this line of thinking in a quite a few recent analyses of Russia. There are too many to examine them all, but two published in the last couple of weeks exemplify the point. The first is a report by British MP Bob Seely, published by the Henry Jackson Society and entitled ‘A Definition of Contemporary Russian Conflict: How Does the Kremlin Wage War?’ The second is an essay in the ‘War on the Rocks’ blog by Michael Kofman, with the headline ‘Raiding and International Brigandry: Russia’s Strategy for Great Power Competition.’ The titles alone make the point: Russia has a definable modus operandi, in short something which one can call a ‘strategy’.

In his report, Bob Seely remarks that, ‘Contemporary Russian Conflict is a sophisticated and integrated form of state influence.’ ‘Integrated’ is perhaps the key word here, and Seely uses it again later, writing of ‘an integrated strategy’, as well as a ‘holistic and coordinated approach’ in which ‘all the tools of national power are woven together.’ According to Seely, Russia is waging a form of war against the West in which it uses a mix of tools ‘in a coordinated, efficient, and, often, non-coercive fashion.’ The strategy is ‘holistic, opportunistic, and flexible’, and ‘in waging this form of conflict, Russia makes use of at least 50 tools of state power’ including ‘political conflict; culture and governance; economics and energy; military power; diplomacy and public outreach; and, information and narrative warfare. At its heart is the seventh element: command and control.’ To make things clear, Seely includes the following graphic:


Underpinning this is a very specific model of the Russian state: as a highly centralized body in which the ‘command and control’ element determines the goal (‘undermining the West’) and the methods to be used in achieving it, and then assigns tasks to all parts of the state and society, each of which then obediently fulfils its mission in accordance with the overall objective. In this model, the Russian army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gazprom, Russian banks, TV stations, biker gangs, internet trolls, and the like, are all just cogs in a machine, working in perfect unison at the behest of a single controlling will.

Michael Kofman doesn’t go quite so far in his piece, but still sees both a clear intent and a clear method in Russian behaviour. As he says, ‘Russian leaders may not have something that would satisfy the Western academic strategy community as a deliberate “grand strategy,” but they nonetheless possess a strategic outlook and a theory of victory for this competition.’ Russian strategy, Kofman claims, consists of ‘raiding’, which he defines as ‘the way by which Russia seeks to coerce the United States through a series of operations or campaigns that integrate indirect and direct approaches.’ This is a rather vague definition, and it’s never quite clear to me what Kofman means by ‘raiding’, although he obviously views it as some way of influencing others by aggressive actions which as much as possible avoid direct combat. The aim is as much disruption as it is outright victory. He draws what is to me a rather odd parallel with the middle chevauchées conducted by the English Black Prince in France. These chevauchées were extremely violent campaigns of pillage, so I don’t quite see how they compare with Russian actions today, but what I think Kofman is getting at is that these were an indirect form of warfare and about causing damage rather than seizing territory. The implication is that contemporary Russia’s aims are much the same, albeit using modern techniques, such as cyberwarfare.

Kofman’s view of the Russian state is very different to Seely’s. Whereas the latter’s Russia looks a bit like a well-rehearsed army on the Western Front in the later stages of World War One, the former’s is more in keeping with a World War Two army operating on the basis of ‘mission command’ – that is to say, with subordinates having a clear understanding of the mission set by superiors but at the same time having authority delegated to them to decide how to execute their own part of the mission themselves. As Kofman puts it,

This is not a short-term strategy for victory, and it would be wrong to assume that these raids are centrally directed given the diverging security factions, clans, and personalities seeking to shape Russian foreign policy. … On the contrary, raiding has historically been conducted by detachments with a simplified chain of command, pre-delegated authority, and substantial leeway in how to prosecute their campaign.

In my mind, Kofman’s model of the Russian state is much more sophisticated than Seely’s. Nonetheless, one shouldn’t lose sight that in Kofman’s model, even though the ‘raiders’ have ‘pre-delegated authority’, they are still all operating within the confines of a defined mission set from above, in accordance with a certain centrally determined plan, and using a common method – ‘raiding’. They remain, therefore, part of an integrated whole, and I find it revealing that Kofman at one point describes raiding as an approach which ‘integrates’ direct and indirect approaches. He also declares that ‘The endless trope that Russia doesn’t have a long game is a self-serving delusion.’ In other words, like Seely, he identifies a centrally coordinated strategy. For sure, the execution is more decentralized in Kofman’s model, but it’s there nonetheless.

I have my doubts. Integrated strategy of the sort being discussed here requires a) a clear vision from the top, and b) a large amount of cohesion among all the actors involved, from top to bottom. I’m not sure that either exists in Russia. When it comes to international politics, I think that Russia’s leaders do have a clear vision of their objective – a multipolar world in which Russia enjoys a high status and in which Russia’s interests are taken seriously into account by other leading nations – but I don’t detect any clear vision about how to achieve this goal. Rather, what I see are largely reactive measures, as Russia tries now this and now that in response to events . The idea that somewhere in the Kremlin someone has sat down and said something like, ‘OK, from now on we’re going to do a strategy of raiding – everybody go and do and their bit’, strikes me as rather unlikely. When I was writing an article a couple of years ago for the journal ‘European Politics and Society’ about Russia’s role in the war in Donbass, one thing which struck me was the distinct lack of a coherent plan. There was considerable evidence to suggest that Russian leaders were largely making it up as they went along, and that the chosen methods kept changing. This isn’t something that I can prove, but I suspect that the same is somewhat true for Russian policy more broadly – looking for too much coherence in Russian methods may be a mistake.

Likewise, I suspect that it is probably wrong to look at the Russian state and Russian society as institutions in which everybody pulls in the same direction, regardless of whether it is in the form of a highly centralized machine, per Seely, or a more decentralized body operating according to mission command, per Kofman. Indeed, the fact that Russia is ‘autocratic’ in the literal sense of power being concentrated in the hands of a single person rather rules against this. Somewhat paradoxically, autocratic systems are often less centralized and less fully coordinated than other types of government. This is because autocrats tend to dislike institutions which enable subordinates to coordinate their work, as that might allow them to in effect gang up against the autocrat. Instead, subordinate institutions in autocracies tend to operate in silos, largely separated from each other. In such circumstances, ‘integrated’ strategy is very difficult. Given how rarely we see properly integrated strategy coming out of Western states, which in many ways are far more efficient than Russia, I find the idea that Russia is capable of getting all its institutions to move effectively in the same direction somewhat implausible.

All in all, therefore, I think that we need to exercise a little more caution when trying to identify a coherent Russian foreign policy ‘strategy’. Faced by intense external pressures, as well as by rapidly changing international events, improvisation at all levels of government is perhaps just as likely as policy coherence. Moreover, this improvisation may on occasion involve different parts of the state improvising policies which contradict those of other parts. This creates all sorts of problems for other countries, which find that they are not able to predict what Russia will do . That unpredictability creates fears and so contributes to international tensions. Instead of trying to impose clear models on Russia, as if we understand it, maybe we should instead recognize that what really causes us anxiety is the uncertainty which derives from our lack of understanding. Seely and Kofman make Russia sound far too predictable. That, I think, is a mistake. Perhaps our problem is not that Russia has a clear strategy which we can identify, but rather that it doesn’t.

13 thoughts on “Strategy or improvisation? Predictability or unpredictability?”

  1. Dear Professor, you’ve written an excellent and cogent argument on the subject of the misperception of and the ideal vs actual nature of the coherency of state power. However I’m not entirely convinced this is what is going here: after all what do “political conflict”-also known as give and take, “culture and governance”-having another point of view, “economics and energy”-i.e. selling energy to neighbours, scary!, “military power”, “command and control”, and most laughably “information warfare”- as though RT and Sputnik, low-quality troll websites that they are, will bring about the collapse of civilisation, together constitute, if not the whole spectrum of activity of an independent state? Just with Putin’s weaponising of everything, including the air we breathe, the point appears to me to be rather to label as WAR the continued existence of the RF and it’s people as an independent entity. Having established the grounds firmly in people’s minds, how can the exeptional West (in itself a concept of highly debatable meaning) not take action to win this WAR and crush (by siege of course, smashing in the front door doesn’t seem to work) the WAR loving barbarians? I may be wrong of course, and perhaps these authors were merely being over-enthusiastic in including all manner of peaceful activities under the rubric of WAR, and aren’t actually engaged in trying to muddy the waters – time will tell!


    1. Then again, since the my half-cojerent ramble is hard to prove and ultimately not an easy argument to use, analysing and criticising the consistency of their arguments factually at face value is probably the only realistic and pragmatic option so as not to get sucked into endless philosophical disputes – once again bravo!


    2. This is a fair point. The labelling of Russian actions as ‘war’ or the use of similar words, such as ‘raiding’, is clearly meant to induce fear and to justify a security response.


  2. The West’s problem is they’re used to confronting a war-scarred Soviet leadership who built enormous military power out of fear of a great power war, but that fear made them prefer backing down in every major Cold War crisis to even remotely risking that war. These guys up to Gorbachev saw the most horrific war ever, up close & personal, and they made their names as national-level politicians supervising reconstruction. Their souls were deeply marked by the horrors they’d seen & rebuilt from.

    What Putinvedev saw was the consequences of surrendering to the West, Russia’s “irreversible decline into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” As Jeffrey Taylor’s May 2001 article in the Atlantic put it. And the lesson Putvedev seem to have learned from the experience of Kruschev-Chernenko at the strategic level is that vast military forces lose strategic credibility if you fold your hand every time your opponent raises you. The lesson is, the statesman must have military forces that are seen to be usable, and must take calculated risks to defend his country’s interests. And that’s what Putvedev have done.

    And that’s really why the West is so perplexed by Putinvedev. The West have all sorts of ingrained, reflexive responses that were effective to intimidate the war-scarred elderly Soviet leaders that simply fail when used on the present surrender-scarred Russian leadership.


    1. @ rkka,

      “a war-scarred Soviet leadership ”

      I would say a very valid observation. Looking at my parent’s generation it is obvious they fear the war, any disturbance which might turn into a war ( bigger or smaller or even only in their imagination).



  3. At this level of “experts” perceptions and misperceptions, do Seely or Kofman make any practical difference? Put another way, does or will the “expert narrative” have any influence on the issues that need to be moved onto the negotiation agenda, West or US – Russia? On this question the Russians seem to have a coherent strategy, and it is quite simple: they say “Ok, here are the issues, the problems a, b, c…that need to be solved. We suggest that we need to talk. Do you want to talk now or do we have to wait until you recognize that we need to talk because the world has changed such that you penalize yourselves and open flanks of vulnerability if you do not talk? The age of impunity is over.”

    The quotes you select are precious. — The strategy is ‘holistic, opportunistic, and flexible’, and ‘in waging this form of conflict, Russia makes use of at least 50 tools of state power’ including ‘political conflict; culture and governance; economics and energy; military power; diplomacy and public outreach; and, information and narrative warfare. At its heart is the seventh element: command and control…. ‘holistic and coordinated approach’. – First of all, this is merely one more in a vast collection of footnotes to the infamous “Gerasimov Doctrine,” which was, as I presume we all know by now and could have known from the outset had we read the original document, about western warfare methods. Now, Gerasimov, not being a theoretical academic, contributed to the Russian debate and thinking about how to counter the West. Yes, that is true. And, yes, it is comprehensive. But in the practical realm, Seely here is not offering any actionable analysis of what Gerasimov may have come up with, he instead offers a barely concealed complaint: whatever the West or the US has been doing, it turns out to have been not a ‘holistic and coordinated approach’. Unfortunately but predictably, Seely does not tell us how that situation might be practically remedied. And that means that he is spinning in his narrative hamster-wheel with like-minded theoretical experts.

    Russian “strategy” is “opportunistic”. – Hilarious! – If your analysis is accurate, Mr. Seely, where, pray tell, do the opportunities come from? There are implicitly two possibilities: 1. Either Russia has so completely mastered the mechanics of geopolitics, that it predictably generates its own opportunities, or 2. Russia or its leadership knows in general that Nemesis is bearing down on the West/the USA, and has mapped out areas of potentially arising opportunity, so that – yes – Russia must be prepared to exploit the opportunity when it arises.

    Granted, there are differences between Seely and Kofman, but where Seely speaks about “opportunistic,” Kofman speaks of “raiding.” They are both complaining that the age of impunity for US foreign and military policy has ended, so they do not want to sound defeatist: let’s instead use a term such as “raiding”, as if that were morally reprehensible. Who, Mr. Kofman, is to blame if you have been slaughtering the chickens in the chicken-coop you considered your proprietary privilege, and then you leave the door to the chicken coop open… and the fox comes in and your privilege is gone? – What?!, Mr. Kofman, do you really want to claim that you did not know the door was open, that it was not entirely predictable that the fox would get in? That dastardly fox obviously had a “holistic” approach, and now you discover that you have no such approach.

    The main problem with the “raiding” concept is that it is in fact not at all holistic. To the contrary, it is simply the self-consoling idea that all of Russian policy is oriented to the US or the West, looking to “raid” where it can. Russia has its own aims, internally and abroad, which can only be perceived as directed against the US if the US continues to persuade itself that the entire world belongs to the US.

    Nevertheless, as concerns “mission command” Kofman does have a point. But someone who does not understand how mission command works, is not able to offer an actionable analysis of it, and therefore, as you point out, the picture is skewed in favor of a mechanistic-monster or a quasi-Newtonian clockwork.

    I recently scanned the Internet for US articles on the subject of “mission command,” or Auftragstaktik in German. I was looking for one thing, and I was amused, but not entirely surprised that I could not find it. Many years ago, I asked a German Special Forces Colonel to give me a nutshell explanation of Auftragstaktik. I was working with them. The Colonel smiled and claimed it is really quite simple: Never expect from someone else, or command someone else do to something you cannot in principle do yourself, something you know how to do yourself. That is the basis for any commander’s own personal responsibility for his orders. That simple explanation was what I was looking for in all the American literature on the subject, and I did not find it. The reason for that is also simple: they don’t know what they are talking about.

    Anyone who cares or is interested to do so may read Vladimir Putin’s explanation for the composition of the new government: pure and unadulterated “mission command.” As for what the mission is, the Russians are also quite open about everything. But the American experts do not like to read what the Russians say, because to them it’s all trickery. Those who care and are interested can see in the review you provide how and why they trick themselves.


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