Tag Archives: strategic culture

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.

Russian strategic culture

This week’s topic in my ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy’ class is strategic culture. We will look at the extent to which foreign policy decisions may be a product of culture rather than pure reason. The idea is that countries have certain preferences which are culturally determined. Give a Canadian and a Russian the same problem, and they will come up with different solutions, simply because they are accustomed to approaching problems in different ways and to favouring different types of solutions.

On the face of it, the idea of strategic culture seems fairly obvious. But when you try to pin down what people mean by culture, and what effects it actually has, you discover that it is rather amorphous, and you run the risk of ending up with a circular argument which says that x does y simply because x does y. This is not very useful.

Strategic culture is best thought of as a disposition towards certain policies. It frames policy debates by helping to decide what policy issues are considered important and what the acceptable options are for dealing with those issues. Alternatively, it can be described as a sort of lens through which policies are viewed. It reflects habits of behaviour, and depends upon a variety of factors, such as: history, geography, economy, ideology, and social and political structures.

So, is there such a thing as Russian strategic culture?

For such a thing to exist, we must assume some degree of stability over time, with a degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation, and perhaps also some degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia. Given the vast differences between those polities, this is quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible one. Ideology may have changed, but the history of modern Russia is linked to that of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia, Russia’s geographical position remains unchanged, and there has been a degree of institutional continuity, which means that habits of decision making have been carried forward. The possibility of a strategic culture exists. But what might it consist of?

Scholarship on Russian strategic culture is rather scanty, but in so far as it exists, it makes the following claims:

  • Russia’s lack of natural borders has made it seek security through expansion. By its own nature, ‘Russia is a revisionist country,’ writes Marcos Degaut.
  • The same lack of natural borders has made Russia vulnerable to invasion. According to Norbert Eitelhuber, this has created a somewhat paranoid worldview ‘characterized on one hand by an almost obsessive perception of a general threat towards Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and on the other hand by great power aspirations as a response.’
  • Following from the previous point, Fritz W. Ermarth claims that, ‘Russian foreign policy culture has often expressed a puzzling combination of contradictory attitudes: defensiveness bordering on paranoia, on one hand, combined with assertiveness bordering on pugnacity, on the other. In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.’
  • Russia’s history of resisting invasion has combined with its history of autocratic government to create a belief in the utility of military power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic growth has become more important in Russian thinking compared with military power but, says Degaut, ‘military strength … is still the chief institutional foundation of Russian statehood.’
  • Russian strategic culture is Realist rather than ideological in nature.

Some of this is highly debatable, most notably the idea that ‘Russia is a revisionist country’. Even the Soviet Union, after the Second World War, never used force for ‘revisionist’ or expansionary purposes, but only to prevent the overthrow of allied communist regimes  – e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan – in other words, not to revise things but to keep them as they were.  As seen by its hostility to NATO expansion, its objections to Western doctrines of humanitarian intervention and preventive war, and its support for President Assad of Syria, Russia is far more interested in preserving the status-quo than in undermining it. Having experienced the traumas of revolution, it values stability.

Still, the idea that Russia desires to be respected as a great power is accurate, and there is some truth to the depiction of Russian strategic culture as Realist in nature, albeit Realism interpreted through the lens of ‘defensiveness bordering on paranoia … [and] assertiveness bordering on pugnacity.’ This makes Russia a player which needs to be handled with a degree of care – rather more care than has been the case in recent years, indeed. Confronting Russia, isolating it, and making it feel threatened, are likely to accentuate the defensiveness and increase the consequent pugnacious assertiveness. If Western states pursue such an approach they will find it counter-productive. Instead, as Eitelhuber concludes, the West should try to highlight ‘commonalities of interests, by reducing the points of friction, by alleviating Russian fears, and by channeling the interaction into a structured setting.’