Seeing the big picture — how Russia’s past guides its grand strategy

  • Themes: Russia

If Western states see a new era of great power competition taking shape, this is a conclusion Moscow reached some time ago. The Russian leadership has already been preparing for such a competition for a decade with its military history playing an important role in its preparations.

second world war crimean plan russia
Troop movements in the Crimean Offensive (8 April-12 May 1944) known as the Battle of Crimea. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

This essay originally appeared in ‘Past and Present: to learn from history‘, 2020, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

A sense of history infuses how the Russian leadership sees the world today, permeating contemporary political and public discourse and policy-making. It frames, for instance, how Moscow sees the big picture trends in current international affairs. When President Putin addressed a meeting in 2014 dedicated to the question of ‘The World Order: New Rules or a Game Without Rules’, for instance, he stated that international affairs had reached an ‘historic turning point’. ‘Let us not forget history’s lessons’, he stated, ‘first, of all, changes in the world order – and what we are seeing today are events on this scale – have usually been accompanied by if not global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive local-level conflicts.’ Likewise, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that ‘a well-thought out policy cannot be detached from history’. A ‘close look’ at history’s landmarks, he continued, ‘clearly testifies to the special role that Russia has played in European and world history’. ‘As international relations go through a period of turbulence, Russia, as many times before, has found itself at a crossroads of key events that will determine the direction of global development in the future’, he stated.

This helps to illuminate how Moscow has sought to position Russia in international affairs in the last decade, including attempts to establish a role as a global, great power involved in all major international questions, and the substantial effort to rebuild Russia’s armed forces, which had withered away over a generation after the end of the Cold War. It also explains the significant efforts the Russian leadership has made to enhance the state’s ability to shape and implement a strategic agenda.

How does history feature in the Russian public policy debate? There is much debate about how history illuminates contemporary Russia, from a neo-imperialist policy abroad, to an authoritarian approach to domestic politics. But broadly there are two ways in which it shapes politics and strategy making. Both represent a blend of ‘The Past’ – events and myth-making – and ‘History’. The first, the point of most attention in the late 1990s and through the 2000s, but now largely overlooked in today’s discussions of Russia’s resurgence and Great Power competition, is what might be called the practical influence of history on Russian strategy today. This is the inheritance, or, more accurately, hangover of the USSR and the 1990s, which means that no Russian leader begins from where they might like. The practical consequence of history is one of weakness, limitation and structural deficit, creating a series of substantial obstacles for the Russian leadership. The Soviet legacy continues to distort the Russian economy, for instance, as a result of the inherited production structure: the way in which resources were allocated, Soviet pricing decisions about the value of assets and rates of return, the location of industries and the poor use of assets have been endemic to post-Soviet Russia, and according to Barry Ickes and Clifford Gaddy, bad institutions have sustained the misallocations.

The structural and physical legacies of the Soviet Union on the Russian socio-economic landscape are legion, not just in terms of how the population was distributed across the country, including in ‘monogorodi’ – cities, often in very inhospitable locations, that were structured on the basis of one industry. Not only were these cities heavily subsidised by the Soviet state, but they resulted in a dislocated population poorly connected across vast distances by limited and often decrepit infrastructure. A paucity of horizontal connections across Russia has left Moscow with a double dilemma of how to establish effective governance across the state and to manage authority with regional and local authorities. Similarly, Russia inherited a Soviet command economy which was dominated by resource extraction and the military-industrial complex and characterised by informal work arrangements. All of this complicated the transition to a market economy.

This difficult situation was exacerbated by a troubled 1990s, characterised by chronic underinvestment, even divestment over many years across the state. At the same time, Russia endured other socio-economic legacies from the USSR, including major environmental devastation and a serious demographic problem. Dealing with this historical legacy has been at the heart of the Russian leadership’s strategic agenda for the past fifteen years.

The second main way in which history shapes politics and policy is more conceptual: the Russian leadership is intellectually immersed in, and makes frequent use of, history. Putin, for example, has a well-known personal interest in history. He is an avid reader interested in the roles of prominent individuals in Russian history. As one senior Russian official noted in 2011, Putin ‘reads all the time, mostly about the history of Russia’, including the memoirs of Russian historical figures. Putin himself has suggested that figures from Vasily Chapaev, a Red Army commander during the Russian Civil War, to Pyotr Stolypin, a reforming, strategic planning, Russian statesman during a complex period in the early 20th century, are heroes. Equally, Putin has often referred to the importance of Peter the Great: in an interview in the Financial Times in 2019, he named Peter as the world leader he most admired – considering him to be a great reformer who reshaped Russia.

But history has a broader role to play in national politics. Western observers largely agree that Putin uses history not only to fit a narrative that Russia is strong when it stands together, but also to seek legitimacy. Some emphasise a focus on the Second World War, even the creation of a ‘cult’ of the Great Patriotic War, one which also contributes to the ‘rehabilitation’ of Stalin. And to be sure, the Great Patriotic War features prominently in the political and public debate. The government sponsors patriotic films about the war, for instance, and Victory Day is marked every year not only by a military parade, but with a march by the Immortal Regiment, a tradition begun in 2012 – and which has grown substantially since, both in Russia and abroad – in which citizens march with photos or portraits of relatives who fought in the war.

Others point out, though, that Putin does not prioritise or criticise particular periods. Instead he picks out examples from different periods when the Russian leadership’s decisions and actions made Russia all the weaker. Thus, history becomes a much broader source of justification for a strong state supported by a patriotic society, for the unity of national groups and territories within one polity acting as a defence against external enemies. As Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy have argued, Putin appreciates that history has a role as a broader socio-political organisational tool that shapes identities and community, particularly through the attempt to emphasise continuity and Russia’s unique political and military traditions. For them, his use of history and synthesis of ideas are part of a carefully calculated policy. Throughout his time as president, he has mined Russia’s past for what he deems to be appropriate parallels and concepts, presenting himself as the modern standard-bearer of long-term continuity and reform in Russia to forge and legitimise his system of governance.

Putin himself stated, for example, during a meeting with academics and history teachers in 2014, that history can be useful to policymakers, and the goal of historians is to help the Russian leadership ‘understand what guided previous generations of the Russian people … in making various decisions’. He often points to the ‘lessons’ of history, and the need for a strong state acting as an anchor for Russia’s cohesion, since internal conflict leads to fragmentation, a weakening of the state and thus heightened vulnerability to external threats. ‘This history lesson about periods of fragmentation must trigger a danger signal … we must know our history.’

And Putin repeatedly refers to the ‘continuity’, the thread and links of history. In 2014, at an unveiling of a monument to the First World War, Putin spoke not only of how internal division and betrayal led to Russia’s defeat, but how through recognising the role of Russia in that war, ‘links in time’ were being restored, giving Russia’s history a ‘single flow’ again. And, more recently, at a ceremony marking the graduation from higher military academies in summer 2019, Putin highlighted the ‘continuity of our Fatherland’s traditions, the unbreakable spiritual and historical bond between the heroes of bygone eras and the current generation of Russian soldiers’. Pointing to Russia’s ‘great traditions’, he referred to a number of Russian military heroes from Princes Alexander Nevsky and Dmitri Donskoi to Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov and Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, linking them to contemporary Russian soldiers who have ‘fought and won in Afghanistan, the North Caucasus and Syria’.

But the importance of history goes well beyond Putin, and has taken a number of forms. The leadership more broadly lends considerable public support to various social movements associated with Russia’s military history such as the project ‘Bow to the Ships of the Great Victory’ and the search and burial parties recovering the remains of those killed in the Great Patriotic War. At the same time, links are being re-established through the (re)building of churches, monuments and statues, and (re)introduction of famous regiments, portraits and busts of tsars, military heroes and political luminaries from different periods in Russia’s past.

And the influence of history on foreign and defence policy is also evident. Since the 1990s, Foreign Ministers Yevgeniy Primakov, Igor Ivanov and Sergei Lavrov have all resurrected the 19th century statesman Prince Alexander Gorchakov as a model for contemporary Russian foreign policy, regularly referring to him in speeches and writing, with the emphasis on Gorchakov’s realpolitik and his success in restoring Russian influence in Europe following its defeat in the Crimean War. As indicated above, Lavrov frequently draws on a very wide historical horizon, reflecting on the ‘continuity of history’ and delving back into the 15th and 16th centuries, via the 19th century and all the way through to more contemporary history of the late Cold War and early post-Cold War eras. He uses history to refute the concept of the ‘End of History’, to assert Russia’s natural, even central place in Europe and European politics and, in common with other senior Russian officials and politicians, to attack ‘revisionism’, particularly in terms of the result of the Second World War.

If anything, history permeates debate and policy in the Russian defence establishment even more visibly. In 2012, Putin reconstituted the Military History Society, and the Ministry of Defence runs Olympic games in military history. The recently formed Yunarmiya, or youth army, includes education in military history. Echoing the points made above about continuity in Russian history, the Russian National Security Strategy notes the importance of history in education as part of forming a consolidated civil society. And echoing a point often made by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Strategy also points to the centrality of history in the ‘intensifying competition in the global information arena, – including the manipulation by some states of ‘public awareness and falsifying history’ (particularly about the Great Patriotic War) to achieve geopolitical goals.

There is much debate in the military about the importance and lessons of history, too. Indeed, military history is a central element of Russian military science. Again, there is a broad focus to include lessons from various different periods in Russian (and foreign) military history, not least the 1920s and 1930s. But the Great Patriotic War is a focal point for much discussion, featuring prominently in articles and speeches by senior figures in the defence establishment such as Makhmut Gareev, a veteran of that war and now President of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, who writes about the lessons of that war for today’s conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

It is in national defence, too, that there are visible implications of this history for policy. Operation Barbarossa of 1941 has often formed the basis for contemporary military exercises, and the lessons of that war are being translated into contemporary practice in national mobilisation and command and control. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff, has published, for instance, an article on the lessons of unified command in that war. This has had practical implications, including the opening of the National Defence Management Centre in 2014. It is intended to enhance, even unify, command and control across the country, bringing together and coordinating almost all the ministries, departments and agencies, military and civilian. According to the Centre’s commander, Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, the closest analogy for the Centre’s function is the Commander-in-Chief Headquarters during the Great Patriotic War, which centralised all controls of the military machine and the economy of the nation in the interests of the war.

Indeed, there is much evidence of the re-birth of Russian grand strategy under Putin, with history featuring prominently, albeit in different guises. Troubled, difficult, flawed and problematic though it may be, the Russian leadership has made a persistent and consistent effort, especially since the mid-2000s, to establish a legislative and institutional architecture, to shape a guiding strategic agenda, and to generate strategy. This has led to the publication of numerous concepts, doctrines and strategies, reflected in specific documents such as the National Security Strategy, Foreign Policy Concept, and Military Doctrine, many of which make explicit the influence and importance of history. It has also led to a series of measures, including modernising or establishing new organisations or institutions to enhance the implementation of these plans – again, many of which draw explicitly on historical examples. History also features as a form of socio-political ‘glue’, as the leadership has sought to emphasise a useful past that unifies the country and emphasises patriotism – a glue that is intended to safeguard Russia from fragmentation and revolution.

That the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia see the world in very different (and often conflicting) ways has only become more obvious during this decade. At the heart of this difference is history and how it is understood and used, something that has become exacerbated as a result of the war in Ukraine. That Russian interpretations of history differ from those in the Euro-Atlantic community should not come as a surprise: it has been a prominent feature of discussion among specialists and commentators alike for years, with mutual recriminations about each side abusing history and revising it. It is important to note the different approaches: the greater emphasis in Russia, for instance, as Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has suggested, on a ‘useful past’, on a more patriotic history as a social process. This is anathema to many in the Euro-Atlantic community who adopt a more critical approach to history.

This will continue to offer grounds for divergent views. The release in Russia in 2016, for instance, of the film The Battle for Moscow (‘Panfilov’s 28’) which depicted an heroic, self-sacrificial defence of the approaches to Moscow in 1941 was widely criticised in the Euro-Atlantic community for being little more than propaganda and not only indicative of official history but the perils of disagreeing with it. Historical inaccuracies were noted, including by Sergei Mironenko the Director of the State Archive who called it a myth. Nevertheless, the film was endorsed by senior officials, including Putin and Medinsky, with the latter stating that even if it had been invented, it is a ‘sacred legend that should not be interfered with. People that do that are filthy scum.’ Mironenko was subsequently removed from his position (and others in Russia have faced criminal proceedings for falsifying history).

These debates about history are important. But at the same time, in terms of contemporary Russian decision-making and activity, a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how the Russian leadership uses history will become more important to Euro-Atlantic audiences. If Western states see a new era of great power competition taking shape, this is a conclusion Moscow reached some time ago. The Russian leadership has already been preparing for such a competition for a decade – and it is this which lies at the heart of the more practical references to the Great Patriotic War, the last time Russia was in a great power war.

Currently, the Euro-Atlantic policy debate is belaboured by superficial historical analogies – the rise of Nazi Germany and the Munich Agreement, and comparisons with arbitrary dates in the Cold War. This leads to both a persistent sense of surprise at Russian activity, and a lack of understanding of the practical implications of much of Russian history and how it is being applied to contemporary policy. Russia’s different historical experiences to the West often feature in Russian military and security writing, and greater familiarity with this different history and how it influences Russian military science, for instance, will be essential for ‘translating’ the meaning of Russian statements and strategy. Effective deterrence – an important pillar of Euro-Atlantic policy regarding Russia – depends very much on knowing the adversary. Without a grasp of Russian history, however different it may appear, this will not be possible.


Andrew Monaghan