The Evolution of Russian Military Doctrine

Syria a Russian “hybrid armed conflict” 

The two common features of the Russian Military Doctrines of 1987, 1993, 2000, 2010 and 2014 is their defensive nature and the growing attention paid to the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) phenomena. Despite widespread belief in the West, the key thesis of Russian Doctrine is to avoid conflicts and manage disagreements peacefully. In cases where a conflict cannot be prevented, the Doctrine states that Russia localize and neutralize military threats. Political, diplomatic and other non-military settlement is defined as preferable at both global and regional levels.

The current Russian Military Doctrine can be traced back to documents of the late Soviet era, and particularly to the military strategy that was outlined by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988. A key component of this is Russian reliance on its status as a leading nuclear weapons power to contain aggression against itself and its allies – the CSTO states (Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There are also informal security guarantees that Russia provides for Transnistria and Donbass.

Among its highest priorities in international relations, Russia sees ensuring equal dialogue on European security with the EU and NATO, and supporting construction of a new security model in the Asia-Pacific based on the principles of collectivity and nonalignment. Local border conflicts are considered the main causes for use of Russian military forces. Indeed, as Russian Joint Staff Head Valeriy Gerasimov has pointed out: “Large-scale wars may not be denied, and we cannot afford to be unprepared for them. But today the highest threat for the country is coming from conflicts in our neighbourhood.”

The distinguishing feature of Russia’s understanding of defense in the last twenty years has been the realization of the existing asymmetry of capabilities between itself on the one side and NATO states on the other. For this reason, Moscow has been consistently, and notwithstanding any circumstances, modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, allowing for the ability to deter a potential conflict between Russia and the West. The maintenance of strategic parity with the west, and particularly the US, is the key element of the Russian Military Doctrine. Accordingly, recent efforts by the US and its allies to pursue and build regional antimissile defense systems or to implement the concept of (a potentially disarming) Global Strike program are perceived with real concern and strong resistance in Russia.

The contemporary Russian military concept is rooted in the Military Doctrine of the Warsaw Pact states of 1987.9 This document took shape in conditions of roughly equal parity in military capabilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. However, unlike previous Soviet doctrines, it proclaimed the renunciation of confrontation, reflecting the international political environment at that time, as well as the commitment of the Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev to “new political thinking,” which called for fundamental revision of the problem of war. In 1985 the Soviet-US negotiations on limiting nuclear and space weapons met with great success, which encouraged the two states, first, to restrain and then – to bring an end to the arms race. Later, in 1986, during the 27th convention of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s initiative on creating a universal system of international security was also received with strong support. In these circumstances the Soviet leadership proposed the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a step towards this goal.

With the ongoing decrease in the intensity of confrontation between the Western and the Socialist blocs the objective of reaching a strategic balance at the lowest level possible was set. The 1987 Soviet Military Doctrine for the first time stressed its defensive character – unprecedentedly, it lacked the term “potential enemy.” It also set as its main objective “to prevent war.” The text read that under no conditions would the Warsaw Pact states initiate a war against any other state or a group of states, unless they themselves become a victim of military aggression. Additionally, the Warsaw Pact states declared their commitment to not using nuclear weapons first. International disputes were to be settled peacefully and by political means exclusively.

Soviet military defense was established on the principle of “sufficiency” to prevent leaving a nuclear attack unpunished. The “sufficiency” principle for conventional weaponry involved having military forces and equipment in sufficient quantity and quality to ensure collective security. The limits of “sufficiency” were set by the US and NATO actions. The Warsaw Pact states did not seek more security than NATO, however, they did not want to put up with any less security than that of NATO and opposed any military superiority over themselves. The Doctrine stated that the strategic military parity remained the key factor in preventing war.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Soviet scholars were the first ones to identify that a new range of technological innovations presents a fundamental discontinuity in the nature of war. In the USSR this phenomenon was labeled Military-Technical Revolution. Later, the Soviet approach to these transformations in military affairs would be analyzed by the US, becoming the intellectual inspiration for the Revolution in Military Affairs concept. Soviet and Russian strategists thus had an unparalleled advantage in reviewing the 1991 Gulf War and the American talk of a RMA.

A new Russian Military Doctrine was adopted in 1993 – two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The document was a product of a different epoch, when Moscow started showing its first signs of dissatisfaction with the results of the way the Cold War had ended. The international environment, as well as the internal conditions in Russia, went through fundamental and largely negative changes. Most notably, by 1993, Moscow’s hopes for equal participation in the major apparatus of international security regulation slowly faded away, and the Russian leadership returned to considering its military forces as an instrument for implementing policy. Russia was left alone to face an escalation of local conflicts in its neighborhood – in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Tajikistan.

However, the 1993 Doctrine was still based on the key principles of Gorbachev’s 1987 Doctrine; for instance, the term “potential enemy” was not used. Moreover, shortly before the adoption of the 1993 Doctrine, Russia and the US signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I and START II nuclear arms control treaties. The focus of the new Russian Military Doctrine shifted towards internal threats with nationalist and separatist organizations, whose actions aimed at internal destabilization. The 1993 document, the same as the current Military Doctrine, stated that the key threats for international peace and stability are local and armed conflicts. Another threat mentioned in the Doctrine was the enlargement of military blocs and alliances to the disadvantage of Russian military security. In other words, Russian disapproval of NATO expansion was explicitly mentioned for the first time.

Still Russia intended to respond to these challenges by means of preventing war. The 1993 Doctrine retained the defensive nature proclaimed in 1987 and made clear its intention of not starting military actions first, and instead taking the first hit from an adversary on its territory. Apart from that, Russia’s regional priorities, which would later become far more important, were set for the first time. These were, namely, “securing stability in the Russian neighborhood … and in the world in general.” Meanwhile, the Doctrine abandoned the nuclear no-first-use principle and proclaimed its right for a first nuclear strike should such a need arise. Nuclear weapons were seen not as an instrument to be used in military actions, but as a political containment tool against the growing threat from the West. Still the “reasonable sufficiency” principle remained – the Doctrine claimed the need to maintain the military potential on the level that could allow Russia to adequately react to the existing and developing threats.

Seven years later – in 2000 – a new edition of the Military Doctrine was approved. The document preserved its defensive character, but at the same time reflected Russia’s growing concern over its vulnerability in the face of emerging conflicts within its immediate neighborhood. For the first time Russia stated its position on RMA, which Moscow had been observing for some time from afar, particularly since the 1991 Gulf War. The unfavorable international and internal environment was weighing heavily on the country’s leadership. With the First Chechen War lost and a new one beginning, Russia was struggling to prevent the state from collapsing. In the meantime, NATO started its expansion and launched a military operation in Yugoslavia, which was strongly opposed by Moscow with the Russian leadership experiencing for the first time what it is like to be an object of Western aggression. Nonetheless, as Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia initiated a number of proposals on cooperation with NATO. It started to look like – at least for a short time – Russian membership or at least greater participation in the Alliance was a likely possibility. Indeed, the 2000 Military Doctrine remained essentially defensive in character. It read that, Russia

… is consistently committed to peace, however, [the country] is prepared to take decisive measures to secure its national interests and guarantee military security for the Russian Federation and its allies.

The key objectives for ensuring Russia security, according to the Doctrine, were in prevention, localization and neutralization of military threats with political, diplomatic and other non-military instruments. The document reiterated Russia’s right of the use of nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other weapons of massive destruction against itself and its allies, in addition to a large-scale aggression carried out by means of conventional weapons “if it poses a threat to the national security.”

The main military threats for Russia in the new Doctrine were essentially a restatement of the theses of the 1993 document. The most prominent of these being the enlargement of military alliances’ that endanger Russian military security (i. e. NATO) as well as the activities of extremist, nationalist, religious, separatist and terrorist movements and organizations. The US and NATO policies towards European security were criticized and defined as destabilizing factors. In particular, Moscow saw the NATO operation in Yugoslavia as an effort to weaken the existing mechanisms for ensuring international security, namely the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and to ignore the universally accepted principles and norms of international law – the notion that later became the leading idea in Russian foreign and defense policies.

The 2000 Military Doctrine was the first one to give a detailed overview of the Russian stance on RMA. It stated the current international trend of enhancement of means and instruments of armed fighting, its increasing spatial scope and spread into new spheres. In this context, new threats were identified that consisted of aggressive actions aimed at hindering the functioning of strategic nuclear capabilities, and the building of missile warning, missile defense and space control systems. In addition to this, the term “information aggression” was introduced. These ideas became an integral part of the Russian Military Doctrine that would be developed in other later military documents.

In order to counter these threats, the 2000 Doctrine set the priority of implementing a complex program of military reform that would concentrate on the introduction of innovative command and control systems, as well as precision-guided munitions and mobile non-nuclear weaponry. Russia’s commitment to its sovereignty in weapon production and its intention to strengthen its scientific, technical and resource independency in developing and producing major types of armaments were also reflected in the Doctrine.

The contemporary Military Doctrine was adopted in 2010 and then specified in parts in 2014. These two documents belong to the period of revival for Russian military forces and their first use in twenty years, which happened in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in 2008. This war provided another painful experience for the Russian military since the brief conflict showed many shortages in military organization, equipment and outdated concepts of warfare. In fact, 2007, when the Russian military first started to receive new armaments, is considered to be the date of reference for the new epoch, but in 2008 the impact of this change was still to be fully felt. Previously, the only equipment the military received were intercontinental ballistic missiles – the step aimed at maintaining combat-ready Russian strategic nuclear forces for the last resort containment of possible conflicts.

The gradual increases in Russian military capabilities did not change the defensive nature of its military doctrine, even as the focus of the new documents shifted towards unconventional threats and new ways of responding to them by means of the RMA-type thinking. The sources of these unconventional threats are both terrorist activities and acts of aggression, including latent forms of these on the part of unfriendly states.

The new Doctrine points out that military dangers and threats are likely to emerge primarily from the information space and within Russian territory itself. At the same time, the list of military threats proposed by the 2014 edition of the Doctrine remains almost unchanged, and includes the classic theses on aggravation of the military-political situation in the neighboring states and the hindering of state and military control systems and strategic nuclear forces. Special attention is drawn to the main characteristics and distinguishing features of the modern military conflict largely influenced by RMA. The Doctrine argues that today’s wars are waged with the complex use of military, political, economic, information and other non-military instruments, including the use of the protest potential of the population and special operations.

Among the main features of military action, the documents mention massive use of precision-guided munitions, hypersonic weapons, electronic warfare, and weapons based on new physical principles, comparable to the nuclear weaponry in its effectiveness, as well as unmanned aerial and autonomous marine machines and controlled robotic weapons and military equipment. The doctrine clearly states its priority in the sphere of military building, which is strengthening centralization and automation of military command and transforming the exclusively hierarchical system of command into universal network automated control systems.

The 2010 and 2014 documents for the first time state Russia’s readiness for “hybrid armed conflicts” and the use of indirect and asymmetric modes of action. For instance, they point out the potential of creating permanent war zones on the territories of adversary states and the participation of irregular armed groups and private military companies. The Doctrine also mentions the phenomena of the widespread use of political groups and social movements financed and controlled from outside among the main characteristics of the modern conflict.

The concrete military threats for Russia are seen in the US policies of realizing the Global Strike concept, Washington’s intention to place weapons in outer space, in addition to the deployment of strategic nonnuclear systems of precision-guided weapons. Moscow considers these actions as damaging to global stability and the existing balance of power in the missile and nuclear field.

The Color Revolution experiences in the post-Soviet space are also reflected in the documents. The Doctrine states that there is a possibility of the use of information and communication technologies for political and military causes in order to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Among the listed threats, the documents mention establishing unfriendly regimes in the Russian neighborhood in the result of toppling legitimate authorities of states.

The latest 2014 edition of the Military Doctrine for the first time includes the term “non-nuclear deterrence,” which implies measures to prevent aggression against Russia by means of non-nuclear instruments and, mainly, the use of precision-guided munitions. At the same time, it points out that mutual nuclear containment and strategic parity have not lost their urgency. Russia reiterates its right for the first nuclear strike in response to the use of nuclear and other weapons of massive destruction against itself and its allies, as well as aggression carried out with the use of conventional weaponry in cases when “it poses a threat to the existence of the state.”

The Doctrine has the most detailed overview in twenty five years of the Russian approach to military development and the modernization of military forces guided by the notions of “a new face” and the RMA. The technological independence of Russia in the sphere of arms production, the preservation of state control over the defense industry and its objects of strategic importance, development of military and civil critical technologies that will encourage technological breakthroughs to create fundamentally new kinds of weapons – are set as priorities.


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