Russia’s Revised Military Doctrine: Putin’s Posturing And Swaggering – Analysis


On February 5th 2010, just a day after Romania gave the go-ahead for an overhaul of the US plan to deploy medium-range ballistic missile interceptors, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev affixed his signature to a new “military strategy” intended to serve as the basis of defence policy for the next ten years. On December 26th 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an updated version of this military doctrine, which details new threats to national security.

As expected, the “new” policy is an update of the three previous strategic blueprints signed in 1993, 2000 and 2010. It explicitly identifies threats to Russia and spells out who Russia’s allies and enemies are, and in what contexts. The main point it makes, as in previous doctrines, is that “the expansion of NATO’s military potential on the Russian border” is the greatest threat to Russia.

The document has much to say about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) enhanced capabilities and global reach, and the increased role the military will play in shaping the foreign policy of most countries. It states that “actions aimed at violent change of the Russian constitutional order, destabilisation of the political and social environment and disruption of the functioning of governmental bodies, crucial civilian and military facilities and informational infrastructure of Russia” are a major threat deriving from these sources.

Other threats to Russia’s security and the global security system listed are actions aimed at undermining global and regional stability, not least by hampering the work of Russian systems of state and military rule, and those aimed at disrupting the functioning of strategic nuclear forces, missile attack early warning, antimissile defence and space monitoring systems and their combat stability, nuclear munition storage facilities, nuclear power generation, nuclear and chemical industries and “other potentially dangerous installations.” The document also takes into account the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and missile technologies, global terrorism (which potentially involves using radioactive and toxic materials), arms and drug trafficking, armed domestic conflicts along ethnic and confessional lines, and the activities of armed radicals and private military companies. It also says that Russia should be prepared to fight future wars in space.

For years now, former President Medvedev, incumbent President Putin and their senior aides have been attacking NATO for plans to deploy weapons systems and bases in the new states of the former Soviet bloc. They have also lambasted US plans to install parts of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. The Obama administration, having renounced the Bush Administration’s antimissile shield project expected to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009, has nevertheless revised it and embarked on a new missile defence project. It has convinced Bucharest (Romania) to host U.S. missile interceptors as part of Washington’s “phased adaptive approach.”

The Kremlin’s worries have not subsided because the current and future deployment of interceptor missiles and other various anti-missile facilities close to the Russian borders and in waters adjacent to Russia. Russian commanders regularly attack the US missile defence plans, whilst claiming that Russian long-range bombers could easily destroy radar stations and other facilities which are part of the US defence shield in Eastern Europe. Since the missile defence facilities are weakly protected, any number of Russian aircrafts is indeed capable of electronically jamming or simply destroying them. The recent incursion of Russian military airplanes over East European territory was perhaps aimed at gathering information on the US anti-missile systems or even partly undermining them.

US officials have repeatedly sought to assure Moscow that the planned medium-range ballistic missile interceptors are targeting intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by rogue states, mainly Iran and North Korea, and are not intended to weaken the Russian nuclear deterrent, but Russian officials remain skeptical. Many Russian military experts believe that components of the US system in Eastern Europe would be capable of destroying Russian missiles. The Kremlin’s proposal to make the US assurances to the contrary legally binding has been rejected out of hand.

A final key feature of the document is that it reiterates that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if the existence of the country or its allies is threatened by WMDs or even conventional weapons attack. It also states that Russia has every reason to be confident in the deterrence capabilities of its strategic nuclear arsenal.

Most governments treat the formal unveiling of a military strategy as a PR exercise conducted to have an effect on neighboring states and declared or potential faraway enemies. “A state or statesman swaggers in order to look and feel more powerful and important, to be taken seriously by others in the councils of international decision, to enhance the nation’s image in the eyes of others,” according to Robert J. Art, an American Foreign Policy and International Relations scholar at Brandeis University.

In international security parlance Russia’s new military doctrine can be considered a component of a “swaggering” strategy towards NATO and the European Union (EU). Swaggering in international relations is usually expressed in displaying a country’s military power at military exercises and parades and buying from foreign states the most prestigious weapons available (although currently on hold, the purchase of France’s Mistral warship comes immediately to mind here).

But in August 2008 Russia did not content itself with merely holding the Kavkaz-2008 military exercise. As we know, this extended into a war against Georgia. That became possible because Russian leaders had no doubt that Georgia would be an easy prey. Furthermore, at the end of February 2014 Russia did not hesitate to support the separatist movement in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea through military intervention and de facto occupation of the region, illegally incorporating it into the Russian Federation a few months later. At the same time it carried out subversive activities in eastern and southern Ukraine and massed troops along the Ukrainian border.

However, when it comes to NATO and US conventional and nuclear “war machine” Russians are far less confident, and swaggering is not on the agenda. For instance, in the last few months Russian strategic bombers have been flying to the shores of the United Kingdom, Sweden and even the United States, provoking the State Department to warn Moscow to abide by international law. But an important detail, mostly overlooked by the media, is that these aircraft were Tu-95 bombers, first commissioned in 1952. They entered into service in 1956 and will serve the Russian Air Force until at least… 2040. The least one can say is that they are far from cutting edge military equipment.

In February 2009 a report from Russian Technologies, a state-owned corporation which runs the arms exporter Rosoboronexport and is a major stakeholder of the carmaker AvtoVAZ and VSMPO-Avisma, the world’s largest titanium producer, appeared in the weekly Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye. It stated that about half of Russia’s weapons makers were almost bankrupt, despite this sector being Russia’s largest exporter of manufactured goods. At that point only 36 per cent of the strategic organisations in the military-industrial complex enjoyed stable financial and economic conditions, and since the beginning of the world financial crisis in 2007-2008 the situation has worsened. According to the Federal Statistics Service, industrial production has plummeted. The Russian economy contracted by 7.9 per cent in 2009 (the first contraction since 1998), making it one of the hardest hit by the world economic slowdown. The World Bank released data according to which, between 2010 and 2014, the Russian economy grew by only 2.8 per cent on average, with a peak of 4.5 per cent in 2010 and a mere 0.6 per cent growth in 2014.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the number of weapons designers and manufacturers which have gone bankrupt or shifted their production to more lucrative civilian sectors can be counted by the hundred. New military procurement has been suspended for more than a decade. The world economic crisis has underlined Russia’s excessive reliance on the export of raw materials such as oil and gas. Demand has tumbled by as much as 50 to 70 percent in some industrial sectors.

The Russian arms trade enjoyed record sales levels of $15.2 billion in 2012 and $13.2 billion in 2013. However, industry officials have long warned that the primary goals of increasing investment levels in research and production capacity have not been met for many years, and that the industry remains beset by a myriad of labor, technology and manufacturing problems. Russia’s major clients, and China in particular, have complained about late deliveries of major orders. India, another major purchaser of Russian weapons, has lately turned to the US defence systems.

In 2008, Algeria returned 15 MIG fighters, saying that they contained some old and substandard parts. Russia’s shipyards are also in need of modernisation, as they cannot currently produce carriers of the size or sophistication as those found in the US, French or British fleets. The loss of Russia’s shipyard in Ukraine, and Kyiv’s March 2014 decision to cease all defense-industrial cooperation with its eastern neighbor, are compounding the Kremlin’s efforts to modernise the Army.

The most important aspect of Russia’s naval modernisation plan, however, is the purchase of two French Mistral-class warships, which were expected to be delivered from the Saint-Nazaire-based STX shipyard in northwest France in 2014 and 2015. The purchase of French hardware was designed to increase Russia’s capacity to intervene in short and medium range theatres of conflict. However, as part of the recent Western sanctions against Russia, the French government has decided to put the delivery of the ships until Russia changes it policy towards the conflict in eastern Ukraine and complies with the Minsk Protocol signed in September 2014 by Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the self-proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).

In 2010, the Kremlin enacted the State Armaments Program (SAP) for the period 2010-2020. The scope of the program includes the purchase of high-tech Western military equipment and technologies. However, due to the depreciation of the ruble, the SAP’s budget has shrunk from $600 billion (20.7 trillion rubles) to $340 billion. A ramping up of military spending is much needed, but the recent drop in energy export earnings, the collapse in the value of the ruble and the ever more biting Western sanctions in response to Moscow’s alleged involvement in the war in Ukraine war are presenting an unprecedented budget challenge to the Russian leadership. While the Kremlin insists that it will maintain the military’s rearmament program at current levels, EU and US sanctions forbid Russian corporations to have commercial transactions with Western companies.Russian Army insiders are also already alluding to the fact that the Ministry of Defence is behind schedule with SAP. They claim that insufficient funds have been allocated from the budget to carry out the proposed changes. Finally, one has to keep in mind that more than 20 per cent of Russia’s military budget always vanishes due to corruption. With the global economic crisis potentially gaining momentum, such problems and recriminations are not likely to disappear any time soon.

With bank interest rates now close to 20 per cent, the Russian military-complex has a hard time finding domestic credit at a reasonable cost. In the past it could approach Western banks for loans, as credit was several times cheaper than in Russia, but Western sanctions have eliminated this alternative. Credit is the most painful topic for Russian arms makers. Enterprise managers grumble that with such high interest rates they are simply unable to modernize the industry and make profitable investments.

Russia, unable, as yet, to fully reintegrate ex-Soviet satellites into its orbit, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, whose positions towards Europe are irreversible, sees NATO enlargement to the east as a political defeat and a military humiliation. However, Russia’s greatest humiliation is actually its incapability of rebuilding its armed forces, despite what some interpret as its military “swaggering.”

This article appeared at New Eastern Europe and is reprinted with permission.

Richard Rousseau

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D., is an international relations expert. He was formerly a professor and head of political science departments at universities in Canada, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. His research interests include the former Soviet Union, international security, international political economy, and globalization. Dr. Rousseau's approximately 800 books, book chapters, academic journal and scholarly articles, conference papers, and newspaper analyses on a variety of international affairs issues have been published in numerous publications, including The Jamestown Foundation (Washington, D.C.), Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (Canada), Foreign Policy In Focus (Washington, D.C.), Open Democracy (UK), Harvard International Review, Diplomatic Courier (Washington, C.D.), Foreign Policy Journal (U.S.), Europe's World (Brussels), Political Reflection Magazine (London), Center for Security Studies (CSS, Zurich), Eurasia Review, Global Asia (South Korea), The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs, Journal of Turkish Weekly (Ankara), The Georgian Times (Tbilisi), among others.

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