No Return To Cold War In Russia’s New Military Doctrine – Analysis


By Michael Kofman and Roger McDermott*

With little fanfare, one of the most anticipated documents of the year, Russia’s new military doctrine, was signed into law on December 26, 2014. On the heels of a year that witnessed a an international crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine, resulting in a confrontation reminiscent of chapters of the Cold War, the new doctrine was expected to codify the deterioration of relations and inaugurate what some have termed “Cold War 2.0”. Some have already assessed the doctrine from this perspective, but in truth those anxieties went completely unfulfilled. Far from the anticipated sea change in its relations with the US and NATO, this fundamental guide for Russia’s perception of its security in the world, and use of military power, proved a carefully calibrated adjustment to the previous military doctrine. It is a strikingly defensive document in tone, and the new additions are almost entirely focused on Russia’s regional security concerns and personal insecurities. The establishment of a framework for a lasting confrontation with the West, or language structuring existing animosity, is notably missing.

The new doctrine was borne not out of the crisis in Ukraine, but initiated in the summer of 2013. Moscow was due for a new guiding document to replace the 2010 Military Doctrine and keep up with rapid military modernization, significant changes in its own armed forces and military leadership, along with events on its periphery such as the Syrian civil war. Putin also decided that strategic documents needed to be revised prior to the drafting of the next state armaments program for 2016-25. This guiding paper also had to reflect the tangible cooling of relations with the US after the intervention in Libya, 2011, and Putin’s return to power in 2012; a trend marked by disagreements over Syria, the Snowden affair, and tit-for-tat legislative bills, culminating in the 2014 conflict in Ukraine.

The drafting of the new doctrine was overseen by the Russian Security Council, coordinating input from all the power ministries and the State Duma as well as advice from leading military theoristst such as Army-General (retired) Makhmut Gareev, who strongly advocated renaming the document as a “defense doctrine.” Putin ignored such advice and the document retains an inherently conservative tone as the new Military Doctrine. The internal political argument between “hawks” and “doves” appears to have been well handled, with the doctrine offering few appeasements for hawks arguing who sought a tougher tone with the West.

In the document Russia’s perception of the global operating environment has undergone a revision, characterizing it as one of increasing global competition, competing models of development and value orientations, and overall heightened tension. It retains from the previous edition the view that influence is shifting globally from established centers of power, meaning the West, to emerging powers, such as China, Russia, Brazil or India. It also highlights pervasive economic and political instability, laying out a global context from Moscow’s eyes where previous risks and negative trends which existed in 2010 have intensified, and become realities that it must now reckon with. Although we know from recent speeches by Vladimir Putin that Russia largely blames the West for these trends, the doctrine notably does not. In this respect it is remarkably restrained.

The doctrine retains previous admonishments against NATO’s expansion, the increasing proximity of NATO members’ military infrastructure to Russian borders, and efforts to endow the alliance with global functions in contravention of international norms. However, the only change visible to this previous formulation from 2010 is a nuanced addition commenting on NATO’s “increasing power potential”. Given the ironic reality that most NATO members had been on a consistent trajectory to cut budgets and capabilities in real terms, it is difficult to interpret this addition as anything other than a response to NATO’s announced plans to establish a rapid response force. Otherwise, the new doctrine does nothing to identify NATO or the US as the primary threats to Russia’s national security, keeping both in the “dangers” category, a calculated distinction from “threats,” continued from the 2010 version.

Instead of having Ukraine serve as the context for this document, the doctrine addresses the events and conflict in specific changes in two sections. The first, outlining new external threats such as the “establishment of regimes in states contiguous with the Russian Federation,” the “overthrow of legitimate state authorities,” and “subversive activities of special services and organizations of foreign states and their coalitions against the Russian Federation.” The second in revisions to Russia’s perception on the prevailing characteristics of modern war, including the “use of political forces and public movements financed and controlled from the outside,” make clear Moscow’s views on the overthrow of Yanukovich in Ukraine, seeing that popular movement as an externally sponsored rebellion, and a threat to Russia’s national security. This is perhaps the most anticipated change, and can be viewed in light of previous Russian protests against “color revolutions” on its periphery. The language changes here are characteristic of a prevailing view in Moscow that such events are externally orchestrated, inherently instrumental, and fundamentally pose a threat to Russian interests. The doctrine lays the legal basis to enact measures to ensure that a “Euromaindan” never occurs in Moscow.

Several changes are designed to update Russian thinking on the modern features of warfare, most notably an addition on the “tendency for military dangers and threats in the information space” to materialize within the sphere of the Russian Federation. This clause can be interpreted as marking increased cyber threats to Russia, and as a reflection of Moscow’s overall perception that it is engaged in an active confrontation within the information space with the West, particularly in mass media. Other updates and clarifications include “participation of irregular armed force elements and private military companies in military operations” and “use of indirect and asymmetric methods of operations.” These, however, are less important than the overall unchanged statement that despite increased global threats, Russia continues to see a reduced likelihood of any large scale war. Maintaining this clause and not reclassifying NATO as a threat, despite the heated rhetoric of last year, suggests that Russia is not willing and cannot afford to commit to a new Cold War style confrontation.

Ironically, the new doctrine features some revisions that make Russia’s nuclear posture and deterrence more stable. In its previous formulation, the doctrine included the possibility of nuclear first use within a regional context, if the regional war developed into an existential threat. This was seen as ultimately destabilizing, implying that Russia had few conventional means of deterrence or de-escalation options, forcing it to resort to early first use of nuclear weapons if a conflict spun out of control. Russian military leaders had made statements to this effect. Now that clause has been removed, which may reflect greater confidence in Russia’s conventional capability, and an understanding about the lack of utility of nuclear weapons in a regional war context.

More importantly, an entirely new trend in Russian military thought has made an appearance, first an evolution of military thinking first advocated in 1990s by defense academician Andrei Koloshin, espousing the creation of a “system of non-nuclear deterrence – a complex of foreign policy, military and military-technical measures” intended to prevent aggression against Russia using non-nuclear means. If implemented, this appears to envisage military-technical modernization and use of air and sea power on strategic axis; utilizing regional command structures rather than relying on one central command. For now this may be wishful thinking, given Russia’s heavy investment in various types of strategic weapons and means of delivery, but it is a trend away from overdependence on nuclear deterrence in Russian thinking. It also marks a steady modernization in Russian thought regarding the utility of nuclear deterrence, or lack thereof, and could be viewed as an admission about its failure to secure Russia’s interests in the current context. Simply put, nuclear deterrence has done nothing to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, contain Syria’s civil war, or prevent what Russia sees as Western meddling abroad. It has not staved off NATO expansion, and by self-admission, seems inapplicable in regional conflicts.

It tells us that Russian leaders recognize, for better or worse, that the country needs a combination of conventional and information based tools to secure its interests. This may manifest itself in increasing reliance on standoff conventional weapons, cyberwarfare, and even perhaps the type of shadow war campaign currently being waged in Ukraine. It is unclear if this references existing capabilities, reflected by Russia’s current activities in Ukraine, or a desire for an entirely new approach, but it signals a slow desire to turn away from over reliance on nuclear weapons to ensure national security within the big ship that is Russia’s security establishment.

Ultimately the doctrine is a restatement of global realities, as Russia sees them, but more focused on regional threats to Moscow’s interests. It is characterized by defensiveness and insecurity, rather than a desire to chalk up the West as an enemy. At its core, the document leaves any would be Cold War warrior or alarmist disappointed. If anything, it combines Russia’s long standing protests to Western behavior, with changes to Russian military thinking, and potentially positive revisions in the country’s nuclear posture. As such, if carefully scrutinized by Western policymakers, the 2014 Military Doctrine may serve to deflate existing fears of a return to the Cold War, and tamper prevailing worst-case thinking regarding Russia’s intentions.

*About the authors:

Michael Kofman spent years managing professional military education programs and military to military engagements for senior officers at National Defense University. There he served as a subject matter expert and adviser to military and government officials on issues in Russia/Eurasia. Additionally, Kofman is a Wilson Center expert.

Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC.

Roger McDermott

Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC.

One thought on “No Return To Cold War In Russia’s New Military Doctrine – Analysis

  • October 19, 2015 at 10:50 am

    Thank you for the insight! Where might I find a copy of the 2014 Russian military doctrine document described? Thanks much! I’m a student in AWC writing on Russian strategy.


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