How Russia has upgraded its military strategy by drawing deep on history

Historical influences permeate Russian grand strategy. Operation Barbarossa remains seared into its military’s psyche. This has important consequences for how Euro-Atlantic policymakers should think about the Russia threat.

operation barbarossa
Russian soldiers in the Second World War. Credit: akg-images / Alamy Stock Photo

While (almost) all eyes have been fixed on Moscow’s measures short of war – the blurring of the lines between peace and war through waging ‘hybrid’ activities below a threshold that would trigger an armed response from the west – the Russian military has undergone a major transformation. 

This sustained, decade-long process is not just about the purchase of large quantities of modernised or new tanks, aircraft, helicopters, ships and submarines, among much other equipment, but the reform and restructuring of the wider Russian defence and security landscape as a whole, and the effort to enhance coordination between different parts of the state. Major exercises rehearse not only military activities such as deploying forces at scale across long distances, but also coordination between civilian and military authorities, often including government ministries, such as communications, transport and agriculture, and state banks. 

The results are plain for all to see: a decisive intervention in the battle of Debaltseve in 2015 which led to the defeat of Ukraine’s armed forces and the Minsk II agreements, the extensive combat deployment in Syria beginning in 2015, and now the substantial capabilities that Moscow is concurrently deploying in the Mediterranean, in the High North and around Ukraine, in what some Euro-Atlantic officials are calling the biggest concentration of forces in Europe since the Cold War. 

For the Russian leadership, which foresees growing geopolitical and geo-economic competition throughout the 2020s, possibly even leading to war, the Russian military has become an important tool of state policy, a key feature of a wider grand strategy of positioning Russia as an indispensable player in an era of great power competition.  

Understanding what this means for Euro-Atlantic security – and especially for shaping deterrence concepts – requires a major shift in thinking towards considering Russia’s measures of war. This means not just being able to count Russian troops and tanks, but understanding how the Russian military thinks and seeks to act. In short, it requires a grasp of Russian military strategy. 

Historical influences permeate Russian military strategy. The most obvious example is the role of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in Russia, which is central: Operation Barbarossa remains seared into the Russian military psyche. The experience of that war has underpinned thinking about command and control and a persistent debate about the value of ‘knock-out blow’ strategies of destruction or strategies of attrition ever since.

This may sound like it is harking back to 1941, but it is in fact a very modern attempt to think about future war. It is an attempt to understand the influence of information and technology on the conduct of warfare, the changing ratio of force, command and control and logistics. It is also an attempt to come to terms with the role of new capabilities and their use at the outset of a war to destroy the adversary’s own precision weapons as well as command and control, air defence and military formations. In effect, it represents the effort to defeat the enemy in the initial period of war.

The Russian military has paid particular attention to US global strike capabilities (how the US can deploy to any region of the world to destroy an opponent in joint operations) and to what officials call the Pentagon’s ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy, which envisages using the protest potential of a fifth column to destabilise the domestic politics of a state while simultaneously using precision strikes against that state. 

Consequently, senior Russian officials point to the short and fast flowing character of modern wars, often referring to war’s dynamism and the potential for decisive action to resolve policy clashes. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, has even talked of a twenty-first century version of blitzkrieg: the massive employment of long-range, high-precision strikes from the air, sea and space throughout the depth of the enemy’s state as the main means to achieve goals. From this has emerged new discussion of how to create strategically deployable groups of forces, and strategies of territorial defence, limited operations, essentially expeditionary operations, and active defence, pre-emptive efforts to disrupt and disorganise the adversary at the outbreak of war.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has suggested that Russia’s actions around Ukraine mean that we are entering a ‘new normal’ in European security. The focus on the number of troops Russia has built up around Ukraine and elsewhere reveals only a part of the challenge. It is time to learn – once again – Russia’s ways in war, and what these strategies mean for how they are to be used.

Author

Andrew Monaghan