As paranoia concerning all things Russia continues to grip much of the Western world, it’s worth spending some time examining the Russian military, and its purpose, capabilities, and understanding of war. Fortunately, two recently published books provide us with an opportunity to do so, and I have therefore decided to review them together.
The first is Oscar Jonsson’s The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, which argues that in recent years the Russian understanding of war has undergone a fundamental change. Since around 2012, Russian military thinkers have become increasingly convinced that non-military means of political influence, such as economic sanctions and information/propaganda, can be as powerful in their impact as military means, and that therefore the boundaries between war and peace are ‘blurring’.
To argue this case, Jonsson engages in a very extensive survey of Russian writings on the nature of war, mostly consisting of the work of military theorists but also including official military doctrine. The large amount of information Jonsson has amassed to back his argument is a major strength of this book. That said, it does make it a bit dense. It’s not a work for the casual reader.
To his credit, Jonsson doesn’t buy into the idea that Russia has adopted a new strategy of ‘hybrid warfare’. The concept, he says, is ‘so vague that it lacks utility’ and is ‘useless for practical purposes.’ But he does think that something has changed. Soviet strategists viewed war in Clausewitzian terms as the continuation of politics by other means, and saw its defining factor as being armed violence. This view largely survived the 1990s and persisted into the 2000s, but in the 2010s thinking underwent a significant change. Many theorists continued to stick to the line that armed violence was an essential component of war, but others placed more and more importance on the informational and psychological aspects of war, particularly in the wake of the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Increasingly, Jonsson argues, Russians view war as being more than just armed violence.
Given the volume of evidence Jonsson provides, it’s hard to argue with this, but on occasions I felt that he perhaps overstated his case. He admits that the process of change is incomplete, and provides examples of Russian thinkers who persist in the older understanding of war as necessarily involving armed violence. Jonsson suggests that a change in thinking has taken place, but also admits that it ‘is difficult to state conclusively’ that this is so. Furthermore, he doesn’t show that this has significance beyond the realm of theory. I noticed that the examples he gives from government documents indicate that official doctrine is rather more conservative in its approach than the work of military theorists. In addition, Jonsson doesn’t draw a distinction between descriptive and normative theory. It’s one thing to describe war as involving non-military means; it’s another to say that one should be using non-military means as a form of war.
For the most part that doesn’t matter, as Jonsson generally doesn’t try to argue that Russian thinkers are saying that their country should be waging non-traditional warfare against the West or anybody else, not does he say that it is. He mainly restricts himself to describing what Russian theorists are saying, and does a good job of summarizing the main points of view. But in his concluding chapter it seems like he decided that it wasn’t enough just to describe Russian theory and that he needed to finish off with a little bit of sabre rattling. ‘The boundary between war and peace is blurring in the Russian view … This understanding underlies why Russia is more determined, more willing to take risks than a complacent West. … it takes a unified and determined West to acknowledge being in conflict with Russia’, he concludes, noting that,
Russia has seen itself as the victim of these forces but has also sought to master them for both domestic stability and its own offensive purposes. … Its threat perception in the information space is now a central foundation to its offensive strategy in the information arena. As Russia saw it lost the global information battle in Chechnya and Georgia it created RT and expanded its reach to include RT US in the United States and RT UK in the United Kingdom.
This is all rather out of place. Nowhere in his book does Jonsson show that Russia is ‘more willing to take risks’ than the West (a highly debatable contention), nor that its thinking about the nature of war is connected to an ‘offensive strategy’, nor explain why RT (suddenly mentioned on the fifth to last page) has anything to do with what he’s been speaking about. I felt that this attempt to bend his findings to fit the current zeitgeist was unnecessary and weakened an otherwise solid piece of military theory.
Compared to Jonsson’s book, Bettina Renz’s Russia’s Military Revival is a much lighter read, and on the whole I liked it. Renz notes that Russia ‘has experienced a remarkable military revival’ in the past decade and that this has led to a lot of fears in the West that the purpose of this revival is ‘further aggressive action’, with the annexation of Crimea being just a first step in a future campaign of imperial expansion. This has led to calls for Western states to beef up their own military to deter Russia. Renz argues that these fears are overblown for a number of reasons.
- First, Russia has always desired a strong military – this was as true under Yeltsin as under Putin; it was just that Yeltsin couldn’t do anything about it. Putins’ rule hasn’t led to a significant change in Russia’s view of the world or of the importance of military power.
- Second, Russia doesn’t view the purpose of its armed forces as being a tool for expansion. Rather, Russian governments have consistently seen them as a flexible policy tool able to achieve a variety of objectives, including deterring attack, defending Russia’s borders, enhancing Russia’s international status, and internal security.
- Third, although the Russian armed forces have improved in recent years, they remain qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to those of NATO.
- Fourth, all the hype about hybrid warfare is overblown. The change in the Russian understanding of war noted by Jonsson is ‘important’, but, Renz says, ‘it is important not to take this change out of context’ as that ‘could lead to a skewed understanding of Russian military capabilities and ambitious.’
Renz does a good job of making this case, providing a detailed overview of the structure of the Russian armed forces (including formations outside the military, such as the National Guard), the changes and improvements which have taken place in recent years, and the limitations of those improvements. She puts this into the context of Russian foreign and domestic policy objectives, strategic culture, and history. Overall, she makes a convincing argument that Russia’s military has significantly improved since the 2008 war against Georgia but that this shouldn’t be a cause of undue alarm to other countries.
Right at the end, Renz dials back the positivity a little. ‘Chance and uncertainty’ make the fears of Russia’s neighbours ‘understandable and justified.’ That said, Renz warns Western powers against an overly assertive response to Russia’s military revival. ‘If the trend of uncompromising rhetoric and military posturing on both side continues, a renewed arms race is a possible outcome’, she remarks. Interestingly, Jonsson at one point says something similar. Since the Russians see little distinction between war and peace, he argues, non-military actions taken against Russia (such as economic sanctions or information campaigns) may backfire, as they will be seen as proof that the West is waging war against the Russian Federation. If there is a common denominator here, it’s that it would be better for all if we were to dial things down rather than dial things up.
If someone has time to read only one of these books, I would recommend Renz’s Russia’s Military Revival, as it’s a lighter read and its approach is broader. Jonsson’s The Russian Understanding of War is more for the specialist. That said, both are interesting and informative, and make a useful contribution to our understanding of the modern Russian military.