A look at Russian national strategy in the context of defence, foreign policy, and relations with NATO

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A look at Russian national strategy in the context of defence, foreign policy, and relations with NATO
Published 15-08-2013, 12:30

Ruslan Pukhov

Ruslan Pukhov is the Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Member of the Public Council under the Russian Defense Ministry

Despite a multitude of various official doctrines and concepts, the Russian approach to strategic policy and national defence planning still remains internally inconsistent and haphazard. The Russian National Security Doctrine-2020, approved by erstwhile President Dmitry Medvedev in May 2009 (and clearly developed under the guidance of Vladimir Putin) is largely devoid of any political commitments or meaningful strategies. The situation results from the fact that Russia has yet to overcome the crisis of national identity since the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The Russian nation and the political elite have not yet reached a comfortable level of consensus regarding post-Soviet Russia’s national goals, values and political orientation. That is why Russian politics is an odd mix of the old and the new; Russia wants to modernise, but it also wants to keep its old values. Part of it wants to be pro-West, but another part remains staunchly an- ti-West. This conflict stands in the way of clearly defining the national goals, as well as the objectives to be set before the Russian armed forces, the nature of the threats for the country, and the list of its potential adversaries. Answers to these important questions are often being given ‘on the hoof’, often as a knee- jerk reaction to whatever challenges, threats or problems the country happens to be facing at any given moment. This fundamental deficiency defines the current state of Russian foreign and defence policy, as well as Russian strategic planning.

Nevertheless, clear progress has been made in this area since the late Nineties. Russia is gradually moving towards a national consensus regarding the goals and objectives of national development. It appears that most Russians still want their country to be a great power, and one of the leading global players; not a satellite of the United States, not a member of the European Union, but an independent power with an independent foreign and defence policy.

One of the manifestations of the nascent national consensus was the radical military reform implemented in 2008-2012. That reform has been an important step forward in terms of implementing the latest Russian military goals and strategies.


External Policy


It is quite obvious that the aforementioned Russian policy goals are in conflict with the American and Western policies. The US and the NATO countries want Russia to be economically, politically and militarily weak . They certainly do not want the country to regain its great power status; they are not interested in Russian ‘imperial resur-gence’. The goals of the majority of the Western countries with regard to Russia run counter to Russia’s own nascent consensus. In essence, the West does not want Russia’s internal and external consolidation as a powerful global player. This is a natural consequence of the US-led Western bloc’s wish to preserve its own global dominance, and to neutralise all potential rivals.

As a result, many Russians see the US and the West as an obstacle on the way towards Russia’s national renaissance and modernisation. That is why the US still remains a potential adversary for Russia.

At the same time, the West has is own economic interests, and it wants to ‘neutralise’ Russia not only by ‘containment’ but also through the country’s in-tegration into West-controlled institutions, arrangements and mechanisms. Western policy on Russia is, therefore, very ambiguous; both sides constantly vacillate between hostility and cooperation in their mutual relations.

Broadly speaking, it would not be an exaggeration to say that none of Russia’s neighbours, not a single one (including most of the former Soviet republics) is interested in Russia becoming a great power once again. That explains their staunchly pro-West orientation, their aspiration to join NATO, etc. Unstable and ultra-nationalistic post-Soviet entities (especially the Baltic states and Georgia, as well as Ukraine, which is in a state of permanent flux about its foreign policy orientation) currently represent the greatest problem for Russian security. China does not want Russia to become stronger, either. It can be said, therefore, that Russia is surrounded by a fairly unfriendly environment, and its neighbours will not help it to achieve its national policy goals. That is why Russia is forced to regard almost all of its direct neighbors as potential adversaries, to a greater or lesser extent.

On the other hand, it is entirely obvious that the former Soviet republics are a natural sphere of Russian national interests. These republics have a multitude of social, political and economic links with Russia. That is why Russia’s renaissance as a great power is impossible without the restoration of Russian dominance in the former Soviet republics. The forms and methods of such dominance are a question for another discussion. But it is clear that such dominance will be impossible without putting an end to Western meddling in this zone of Russian interests.

Finally, Russia continues to face the threat of terrorism and separatism; to some extent, these threats are being fu-elled by external actors.


Military Threats and the Goals of Russian Defence Strategies


Russia is currently facing three main types of military threats, listed here in the order of probability:


· - Post-Soviet type conflicts, both in Russia itself (in the form of separatist uprisings and attempts to secede) and similar conflicts with the neighbouring former Soviet republics. Most of these republics regard Russia as the main threat to their sovereignty, and are, therefore, interested in weakening Russian influence on their territory and internationally by all possible means.

· - The threat of a conflict with the US, as the pre-eminent global superpower, and with the US-led Western bloc. It is quite obvious that because the American goal is global dominance, Washington automatically views Russia (as well as China) as the only realistic potential rivals, and as independent and therefore, potentially hostile global powers. Weakening Russia is, therefore, a natural goal of US foreign policy.

· - The possibility of conflicts with countries that are not part of the Western bloc, especially with China. At present this type of threat is very unlikely to materialise because there are very few areas where Russian interests are at odds with the interests of these countries.


Conflicts of the first type currently pose the greatest threat. It is important to note that in the foreseeable future, Russia will retain its complete military superiority over the former Soviet republics, and maintain its military-strategic dominance in the former Soviet territories. The main problem is the possibility of political and military intervention by Western countries in conflicts in the former Soviet republics. Such intervention constitutes the greatest threat to Russia’s national goals in Eurasia.

As for the possibility of the conflicts of the second type, relations between Russia and the US are now largely based on typical great power rivalry of the kind that existed in the 19th century.


The concept of the ‘multi-polar world’, of which Russia is a staunch advocate, is inherently prone to conflicts. It turns the world into an arena of rivalry between the various players, and that rivalry may also include the use of force. The numerous ‘poles’ in such a multipolar world will inevitably become rivals, and try to create their own spheres of influence in their respective regions. Naturally, given Russia’s military and industrial capability, its long imperialist tradition, and its unique geopolitical situation at the heart of Eurasia, Russia is in a better position than many other nations to become one of the world’s greatest powers. That is why the Russian elite believes that a multi-polar world and the concomitant geopolitical chaos would be in Russia’s best interests, and open up great opportunities for further-ing Russian interests. At the same time, Russia cannot ignore its numerous links with the Western countries, let alone enter into a state of ideological confrontation with the West. Russia is facing the same modern challenges as the rest of the world, including terrorism and separatism. Russia wants to make sure that there are no threats to its own security emanating from the territory of former Soviet republics. Finally, Moscow is also forced to take into account the rise of the new great powers on the global are-na, especially China.

The combination of these factors is compelling Russia to pursue a multipronged defence strategy. The country needs to be prepared for a broad range of threats, and for several possible types of conflicts, from counter-insurgency and interventions in the former Soviet republics to a large-scale conventional land war with NATO or China, and a global nuclear war with the US. Clearly, such multi-pronged approach creates a huge number of problems for the Russian armed forces and defence planning, especially if one takes into account Russia’s vast territory, the length of its borders, and the shortage of resources the country is still facing.

The key goals of Russian defence strategy can be outlined as follows:


· - Putting military-political pressure on the domestic and foreign policy of the former Soviet republics, and using military force against these republics, if such force is required to protect Russian national interests

· - Military deterrence ofthe US and the NATO countries, with the primary goal of preventing any Western meddling in conflicts in the former Soviet republics or Western attempts to forestall possible Russian actions with regard to these republics

· - Participation in countering internal threats such as separatism and terrorism.


NATO Today – a View from Russia


NATO is still being regarded by Moscow as the main external military threat. For all the efforts made in the post-Soviet period, the Russia-NATO relationship has not become a partnership. Such a situation is, in fact, entirely natural, due to the obviously different nature of the two sides’ military-political views and interests.

NATO was created as a military coalition against the sole adversary, the Soviet Union (Russia). NATO is an alliance whose purpose is to defend Europe from Russia. For all the latest geopolitical shifts in Europe and globally, NATO remains an anti-Russian military alliance, and the main reason for its existence is militarily defending European states (including the new NATO members) from Russia.

As far as Moscow is concerned, NATO’s transformation over the past two decades has not changed the nature of that alliance. Clearly, NATO is trying to adjust itself to the currently fashionable military trends, such as fighting terrorism, conducting peace-keeping and sta- bility-restoring operations, etc. But why is NATO doing all this? Is it not merely to find some new uses for the coalition so as to preserve its existence and to enable it to continue performing its core function, i.e. deterring and containing Russia? The Russians have no reason at all to turn a blind eye to NATO’s central mission merely because the alliance has undertaken some additional roles.

In military-political terms, NATO’s nature as an anti-Russian coalition determines all the military-political aspects of its activities, from military planning to eastward enlargement. Looking from Moscow, it is quite obvious that the task of ‘keeping Russians out of Europe’, which was formulated in 1956 by the first NATO secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, remains the central strategy of the NATO countries with regard to Russia. The only difference is that now they want to draw a new eastern border of Europe somewhere near Smolensk and Kursk.

Finally, let us not forget about the dominant role of the US in NATO. Without the US, NATO would be entirely unable to fulfill its central mission. Militarily, of all the European NATO members the armed forces are merely an adjunct to the US war machine. That is why Moscow regards NATO as an in-strument of US policy. For that reason, relations between Russia and NATO are seen in Moscow merely as an aspect of the larger Russian-American relationship. As for the United States, there is a growing consensus in Moscow that Washington would never accept Russia as an independent global power, regardless of the political regime in the Kremlin. That is why Moscow is convinced that the US will always try to undermine Russia; consequently, NATO is seen as one of the instruments of America’s an- ti-Russian policies.

To summarise, the Russian view of NATO is deeply pessimistic, and Moscow does not see any genuine motives for cooperation with the alliance.

The East European Factor in NATO


The admission of the former Warsaw Pact members and the Baltic states to NATO has been a huge factor behind the instability in relations between Russia and NATO. All these new members regard Russia as their traditional historical enemy. To these countries, the greatest value of NATO is that the alliance is an anti-Russian military coalition. The main goal of the foreign policy of most East European states is to weaken Russia and undermine its influence. This is why these countries are constantly provoking a series of endless crises in relations with Russia in an effort to paralyse any cooperation between Russia and Western Europe.

As a result, even if the leading Western NATO members want to pursue partnership between the alliance and Russia, they will always have to choose between Russia and their new East European allies. This, undoubtedly, is one of the most important factors that undermine NATO’s ability to pursue effective dialogue with Moscow.

NATO, Ukraine and Georgia


Efforts to drag Ukraine and Georgia into NATO are another irritant in Russia-NA- TO relations. Without dwelling on the effects of the Five Day War on relations between Russia and Georgia in 2008, let us note one very important fact that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. Russian public opinion was utterly shocked by the anti-Russian reaction of the West on that conflict, and the apparent willingness of the Western countries to support and justify any anti-Russian actions, including blatant attacks on peacekeeping zones and peacekeeping forces, as well as the killing of Russian peacekeepers and Russian citizens. In essence, the West has decided that Russia has no right to defend itself. It has resulted in a massive upsurge of anti- Western sentiment in Russia, and growing hostility among the general public to the idea of military and political cooperation with the West - especially with the US.

The conflict in Georgia has demonstrated that there is nothing as common ground between Russia and the NATO countries on security matters. Even more importantly, that conflict has demonstrated to the Russian public that Russia cannot trust the Western countries on any single national security matter. That fact has completely paralysed any serious rapprochement between Russia and the West in the area of defence.

As for the problem of Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO, the issue is a ticking nuclear time bomb for Russian- Western relations. Attempts to drag Ukraine into NATO would cause a tremendous pan-European military and political crisis. In addition, Ukraine itself would be plunged into an extremely deep domestic political crisis owing to the different cultural orientations and values of Ukrainians living in different parts of the country. The West under-estimates the importance of the Ukrainian issue for Russia, and the role of Ukraine as a colossal destabilising factor in Western-Russian relations in the immediate term. The West often imagines that Russia will be forced, one way or another, to succumb to the eventual Ukrainian accession to NATO. That is a dangerous delusion, which could lead to a catastrophic turn of events.

Existing Common Ground Between NATO and Russia


Clearly, some common ground does exist between NATO and Russia in terms of military contacts. The three most re-alistic areas of cooperation are:


· - Cooperation in fighting international terrorism and piracy

· - Cooperation in achieving stability in Afghanistan

· - Mutual confidence-building measures, including those that nominally still exist in the framework of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.


Nevertheless, the importance of these areas should not be overestimated. Cooperation between Russia and NATO in countering the terrorist threat still remains largely a matter of declarations. In addition, the main terrorist threat Russia is currently facing is posed by Islamist extremists in the North Caucasus; the US and other Western countries are not interested in Russia’s complete victory on that front. The West did not expect a Russian victory in Chechnya, which came as something of a disappointment for the Western capitals. The Western countries would have preferred destabilisation in the North Caucasus to continue so as to pile up more problems on the Kremlin.

As for achieving stability in Afghanistan, that is something the US and NATO need a lot more than Russia does. Afghanistan lies on the periphery of Russia’s political interests.

Finally, the CFE Treaty is rapidly approaching its complete demise. This process is accelarating due to prevailing opinion in the Russian military-political circles that the NATO countries view the treaty merely as one-sided instrument of weakening and controlling the Russian military machine. It is a commonly held belief in Russia that the West does not really want to seek a genuine balance of security interests or any comprehensive agreements on con-ventional weapons. This view is borne out by the fact that the NATO countries have for a long time completely ignored even the most reasonable Russian wishes in terms of amendments to the CFE (on matters such as flank restric-tions, accounting for weapons held by the new NATO members, etc). It is clear that the Western countries want to retain a maximum freedom of manoeuvre for themselves in terms of conventional weapons, while at the same time denying a similar freedom to Russia. Obviously, such a position was bound to destabilise the treaty and lead to a CFE crisis.

As for missile defence cooperation with NATO, for obvious reasons such cooperation can no longer be regarded as a realistic prospect.

Given all these circumstances, the Russian leadership’s defence strategy boils down to preventing a military confrontation with the West by maintaining and strengthening a powerful strategic nuclear deterrent. As for the Russian conventional forces, they only need to be strong enough to win local conflicts, such as the recent war with Georgia. This Russian defence strategy clearly demonstrates that Russia does not want a military confrontation with NATO, and that it has no intention of menacing the European countries with its force groupings. Russia simply does not have such groupings. As a result, the Russian military threat to NATO member states has essentially ceased to exist. This is a much more unambiguous and powerful signal to the West than any political statements or declarations.

On the whole, Russia doesn’t have any particular feelings of love or friendship towards NATO – but neither is it bent on confrontation with the alliance. Russia simply does not have any negative goals with regard to the US or NATO. In simple terms, Russia wants to be left alone; it wants others not to threaten its security, and to respect its sphere of influence.

The US and NATO, on the other hand, are still wavering between three approaches towards Russia:


· - Containing Russia

· - Actively putting pressure on Russia and pursuing a Western expansion in the post-Soviet countries

· - Trying to pursue cooperation with Russia


Various groups of countries within NATO prefer different approaches. It is obvious that on the whole, the NATO countries (and especially the United States) are concerned that if they were to end their policy of containing and pressurising Russia, the latter could become too strong, consolidate its sphere of influence, and become a genuine global power.

On the other hand, NATO hopes that pursuing closer cooperation with Moscow can pull Russia into Western insti-tutions, and diminish its determination to lead an independent foreign and defence policy. For a variety of obvious reasons, the West finds it impossible to make a clear choice between these different strategies.

As a result, both sides, Russia and NATO, continue to pursue a fairly inconsistent policy in their mutual rela-tions, with many conflicting goals and objectives. That makes these relations extremely volatile and dependent on the situation at any given moment.



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