Russia’s grand strategy goes in circles. Plagued for centuries by an indefensible geography, Russian leaders have consistently viewed border states not as potential friends and allies, but rather as avenues of invasion. Lacking natural boundaries, the early Muscovite state (and precursor to modern Russia) expanded in order to preempt attack. Over centuries, this aggressive foreign policy compounded, leading historians to remark that the tsars found it easier to take territory than to keep it.
With the loss of some two million square miles of territory following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow finds itself in a familiar position. This overriding drive for security is a prime factor in Vladimir Putin’s occupation of the Crimea, and continued war in Ukraine. Like Joseph Stalin, Putin fears a Western beachhead along his country’s borders; invariably, an independent Ukrainian state feeds this near-paranoia. The Kremlin, in short, will not be satisfied with anything short of a demilitarized border region, or puppeted buffer state, in Eastern Europe.
Where Stalin and Putin very quickly diverge is in available material assets. Stalin commanded legions; Putin commands a rump state, shorn of vital resources and manpower. Despite illusions to the contrary, his country is unable to engage the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a full-blown arms race, which would divert essential resources from the already-deprived civilian sectors of Russia’s economy and stretch his forces too thin. And while the economy has certainly advanced in the post-Cold War era, the state remains mired in corruption and reliant on oil and natural gas exports.
Thus faced with severe shortages in key areas, modern Russia’s defensive strategy has necessarily shifted towards keeping the West out. There are two halves to this grand strategy:
- Defensively maintain internal security by deterring the West from attacking ‘Fortress Russia’; and
- Offensively hamstring Western ability to respond to Russian aggression through cyber attacks, isolating and manipulating foreign countries, and playing on the cracks in the NATO alliance.
Traditionally, Russia’s defensive strategy has involved extending territory to incorporate geographic defenses (e.g. Bessarabia and the Carpathian Mountains, Caucasus Mountains, Tien Shan Mountains), and using buffer states to close the spaces in between. Thus secured, Soviet forces were able to expand influence into overseas regions and fight proxy wars with the United States.
Modern Russia is, of course, far smaller than its Soviet predecessor, but the nature of its defensive outlook has not changed beyond circumstances. We see this in the makeup of the Russian military.
The former Red Army, which once marched from Moscow to Berlin, has been retooled for hybrid and defensive warfare — combining conventional, irregular, and cyber warfare doctrines. At home, long-range A2/AD (area access/area denial) platforms and the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons serve to deter would-be invaders. Abroad, Russia’s sophisticated modern anti-air/missile systems, air force, aircraft carriers, highly-trained spetsnaz special forces, and bleeding-edge tanks ensure it is well-prepared for a very specific kind of war: high-intensity, low-duration conflict involving technologically-inferior combatants.
But there are weaknesses inherent in this setup. For one thing, the Russian Armed Forces is significantly diminished in size from its Soviet counterpart. In 1991, the year it was dissolved, the Soviet Union had 4.23 million under arms; under the 2008 reforms, that number for Russia was reduced to some 771,000. Seeking to compensate for a shrunken population, Putin’s regime continues to rely on outmoded mass conscription. Yet as wide a net as is cast, it is nevertheless estimated that half of Russian men escape the draft each year - 75,000 out of 150,000 conscripted.
Lacking the ports and naval bases of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy is confined to a limited range of deployment, confining the range of the country’s land and air forces as well. Prior to the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s navy was made up of some 600 vessels; by 2015, that figure had shrunk to just under 200.
Economic realities and the low price per barrel have stymied Vladimir Putin’s ability to engage in lengthy conflicts abroad, leaving his country with the stark goal of quick victory, and rapid withdrawal. Doubtless, older Russians are haunted by memories of the decade-long occupation of Afghanistan and the brutal toll it took on their lives and well-being; Putin would be wise to avoid becoming bogged down in Syria. Thus, while quick victories bring domestic applause, he runs the risk of a local conflict escalating into a long-term war — a reality Putin cannot afford to ignore.
In 2017, expect continued Russian intransigence in cooperating with U.S.-led outfits, the better to embarrass America and promote Putin’s position as global leader of the anti-American states. Cyberattacks on Western infrastructure, coupled with an onslaught of pro-Russian propaganda, have proven to be favorite tools of the regime; expect more of the same should tensions continue to rise with the West.
Should the Islamic State collapse, and the recent ceasefire with Syrian rebel groups stick, an intact Bashar al-Assad regime might prompt Vladimir Putin to declare victory and withdraw his forces to their new naval base at Tartus.
In expectation of the Republican Party’s push for military growth in the U.S., it is not hard to imagine ever-tighter ties between Iran and the Kremlin — perhaps even with Turkey, despite historical tensions between the two countries in the Cold War and beyond. Worth noting, too, is the recent Moscow Declaration — an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran to coordinate an end to the war in Syria.
Whether this signals the beginning of a new axis in opposition to the United States remains to be seen.
Any road, President Trump will need to think on his feet if he is to manage Putin’s ambitions.
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