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Russia’s Military Revival

Bettina Renz



Part of the research and writing for this book was completed during a project funded by the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, Government’s Analysis, Assessments and Research Activities fund from October 2015 until July 2016. I would like to thank the fund for the generous support. The project, entitled ‘Russian hybrid warfare’, was conducted jointly with Hanna Smith at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute. Hanna also contributed with her expertise on Russian foreign policy and history to the first chapter of this book. I would like to thank Hanna for her invaluable input, our epic discussions and for her friendship throughout the years. For six months of the project I was based at the Aleksanteri Institute as a senior researcher and I benefited greatly from the positive atmosphere and from the space to think and write that the institute offers to its scholars. I am grateful to everybody there for their ongoing support and friendship. I would like to thank the project’s panel of experts for their vital input and for the time they spent with us in Helsinki: Tor Bukkvoll, Samuel Charap, Antulio J. Echevarria II, Keir Giles, Sibylle Scheipers, Hew Strachan and Rod Thornton. Thanks also go to Mikko Lappalainen for his involvement and support.

I am extremely grateful to Louise Knight and Nekane Tanaka Galdos at Polity for their wonderful support, advice and patience throughout the process of writing this book. Both went above and beyond to ensure that the project would come to fruition. I could not have wished for better editors and the book would not have been possible without you! I would like to thank Edwin Bacon, Lance Davies, Matthew Rendall, Rod Thornton, Hanna Smith, Jeremy Smith and Aaron Bateman for reading and offering valuable comments on various parts and chapters of the book. I am also grateful for the constructive criticism and helpful suggestions by the anonymous readers of the manuscript.

Thanks are due to many other people, who are too numerous to list here. I greatly appreciate the time given by the interviewees in Moscow to meet and discuss the subject in spring 2016 and to the many Russian scholars, analysts, journalists, politicians and officials that agreed to speak to me over the years. They all, without exception, have shaped and informed my understanding of Russian politics and military affairs. I would also like to thank all my wonderful colleagues and friends at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics & International Relations. Their support has been vital, especially during the final months of completing the book. I continue to be grateful to everybody, past and present, at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies, my intellectual home. Long may it continue! Special thanks go to Edwin Bacon, Julian Cooper, Sarah Whitmore, Mary Buckley, Alex Danchev and Vivien Lowndes, all of whom have been hugely supportive of me and my work. I would not have got here without you.

Finally, my thanks and love go to Jason Curteis and to my parents, Karl-Dieter and Marlene Renz. My parents have always believed in what I am doing and given me tireless encouragement and support, so I would like to dedicate this book to them.


“Mr President, acting on your decision, since the 30th, we have been carrying out missions to strike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist groups present on Syrian territory. Since September 30, we have conducted strikes against 112 targets. We are increasing our strikes’ intensiveness. Our various intelligence and reconnaissance forces have been working intensively over these last two days and have identified a large number of ISIS targets: command posts, ammunition depots, military hardware, and training camps for their fighters. Vessels from our Caspian Fleet joined our aviation in attacking these targets this morning. Four warships launched 26 Kalibr cruise missiles against 11 targets. Our target monitoring data shows that all targets were destroyed and civilian facilities were not damaged in the strikes. These strikes’ results demonstrate the high effectiveness of our missiles launched from a big distance of nearly 1,500 kilometres. This morning, 23 attack aircraft also continued their strikes against insurgent positions. Since September 30, we have destroyed 19 command posts, 12 ammunition depots, 71 pieces of military hardware, and six explosives production workshops producing explosives for car bombs and so on. We are continuing our operations according to plan.”

These are the words of the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, reporting to the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin, exactly one week after Russia’s air campaign over Syria was launched on 30 September 2015 (Shoigu 2015). Only ten years prior to this report, such an account of Russian military activities would have appeared like nothing but fiction. Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian armed forces had been left to fall into a state of serious disrepair. As Russia entered the new millennium it appeared clear, as Eugene Rumer and Celeste Wallander wrote that it did so with ‘its capacity to project power beyond its borders vastly reduced and its ability to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty severely tested’ (2003: 61). By the middle of the 2000s, many believed, both in Russia and in the West, that the ongoing neglect of the Russian armed forces had pushed them close to irreversible ruin. Given that their service personnel were by now ‘impoverished, demoralized and largely ineffective’ (Barany 2005: 33) and the forces ‘woefully inadequate to address the country’s security threats’ (Golts and Putnam 2004: 121), it seemed clear that Russia no longer cast the shadow of a global military power.

Against this background Russia has experienced a remarkable military revival within barely more than a decade. The operations in Syria demonstrated that many of the shortcomings, which had led to humiliating defeat in the first Chechen War and to operational problems in other conflicts, had been decisively overcome. One year into the Syria intervention in autumn 2016, Russian forces had experienced minimal losses, both in the air and on the ground. Moscow had put on display new capabilities, such as vastly improved command and control and inter-service coordination, as well as advanced technologies like precision-guided munitions, including cruise missiles fired from the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. What came, perhaps, as the biggest surprise to many observers was that Russia now had the sealift and airlift capabilities required to launch military operations far beyond its immediate neighbourhood (Gorenburg 2016). As such, in Ruslan Pukhov’s words, Russia’s air operations over Syria represented ‘the most spectacular military-political event of our time’ (2016).

The world’s amazement at the Kremlin’s conspicuous display of its shiny new military power in Syria did not come completely out of the blue. This operation was launched only a year and a half after another Russian surprise military success: the annexation of Crimea in spring 2014. In this operation, Moscow had demonstrated not so much the advances it had made in the procurement and use of modern technology and its ability to launch a twenty-first-century air campaign. The Crimea operation, instead, had stood out for extreme restraint in the application of any physical violence. ‘Little, green and polite’ special operations soldiers (Nikolsky 2015), in combination with an information campaign and other non-physical tools, allowed Russia to achieve its objectives without almost a single shot being fired. This stood in stark contrast to previous Russian military operations, which all, without exception, had been criticized for the excessive use of force. Until Crimea it had been widely assumed that Russian military strategists were unable to move beyond Cold War thinking on large-scale inter-state warfare. The approach in Crimea, which later became known as ‘hybrid warfare’, suggested that serious advances had been made also in Moscow’s strategic thought. Whilst previous conflicts were approached as conventional warfare campaigns almost irrespective of the circumstances, in Crimea appropriate means were skilfully matched to the conflict’s ends. After years of failed attempts at reforming the Russian armed forces, the 2008 modernization programme finally led to systematic change and restored the country’s standing as a serious military actor. As The National Interest put it, ‘Russia’s military is back’ (Gvosdev 2014).

Reactions to Russia’s military revival

For much of the post-Soviet era, it appeared clear that Russia’s days as a serious global military player were over for good. Even throughout the troubled 1990s, Moscow had maintained one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. This continued to give it some of the prestige and privileges afforded to military great powers, such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. However, in an age of small wars and insurgencies, where state-on-state warfare appeared to be a thing of the past, a strong nuclear deterrent alone was increasingly seen to be of little more than symbolic value. Within the former Soviet region, Russia always remained by far the most dominant military actor. It used this strength with impunity there in various conflicts since the early 1990s. Operations beyond this region, however, were largely outside of the realm of its possibilities, and its conventional capabilities were no match for the much more advanced militaries of the West. International views of Russia’s military, as a mere shadow of its former Soviet self, changed almost overnight with the annexation of Crimea. Surprise turned into awe as the operations in Syria unfolded. These not only showed that the country’s military capabilities had dramatically improved. They also demonstrated that Moscow was now confident and willing to use military force to pursue its interests on a global level, irrespective of strong condemnation by the West. What marks the military revival as a significant turning point in post-Cold War global security is the fact that, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a militarily resurgent Russia is seen as a threat not only to its neighbours, but also to the West.

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine in 2014 took most countries by surprise (House of Lords 2015: 6). As Viatcheslav Morozov wrote, it ‘created a shockwave in the European security system. It suddenly became apparent that certain key rules of international conduct in Europe could no longer be taken for granted’ (2015: 26). There was a sense that the Kremlin’s actions were the result of a relatively sudden and dramatic change in foreign policy – a ‘paradigm shift’ – which, enabled by a revived military, signified a ‘seismic change in Russia’s role in the world’ (Rutland 2014). Having previously paid little attention to the extensive modernization the Russian armed forces had been undergoing for some time, questions started being asked by many observers and officials in the West about the purpose of this undertaking. Many believed that the only explanation for the Kremlin’s efforts to strengthen the country’s military capabilities was the intention to engage in further aggressive action. As Jonathan Masters wrote for the US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, ‘the Russian armed forces are in the midst of a historic overhaul with significant consequences for Eurasian politics and security’ (2015).

To many observers, Putin’s intentions seemed to be crystal clear. Most immediately, the ‘paradigm shift’ in the Kremlin’s ambitions posed a threat to Ukraine, where the annexation of Crimea was only the beginning. In late March 2014, US intelligence officials reportedly cautioned that the probability of a full invasion of Ukraine ‘was very high’ (Gover 2014). A year after the annexation, some analysts were still convinced that Putin was driven by the desire to gain more territory. As Hans Binnendijk, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, and John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, wrote about Putin in the New York Times, ‘his long term goal may be the creation of “Novorossiya”, or New Russia, which would constitute all of southern Ukraine past Odessa to Moldova, and would enable Russia to control the entire northern coast of the Black Sea. There are no large armies to stop him’ (Binnendijk and Herbst 2015). Many believed that ‘Russia’s military buildup is a harbinger of neo-imperial expansion’, where the annexation of Crimea was merely a first stroke of the brush on a vast canvas (Ramani 2016). As former US Secretary for Defence Leon Panetta put it, ‘Putin’s main interest is to try and restore the old Soviet Union. I mean, that’s what drives him’ (quoted in CSIS 2016).

Fears were also expressed that, what many saw as the Kremlin’s new expansionist vision, might extend much further and even NATO territory might not be off limits. The Baltic States were seen to be particularly threatened by this. As a journalist writing for the UK broadsheet the Daily Telegraph asserted, if Putin ‘concludes that his adventure in Ukraine has served Russia’s interests, then he will turn on new targets – and the trio of countries along the Baltic coast would probably be next’ (Blair 2015). The US military analyst and Russia expert, Stephen Blank, in 2016 was ‘counting down to a Russian invasion of the Baltics’. The British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, also believed that there was a ‘clear and present danger’ that the Baltic States would be Moscow’s next target (Farmer 2015).

The Kremlin’s aggressive use of its improved armed forces in Crimea was seen by many not only as a danger to Russia’s immediate neighbours, but to the whole of Europe, and even to the United States and international security at large. As then-US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asserted in November 2014, Russia had been investing in its armed forces ‘to blunt our military’s technological edge … If this capability is eroded or lost, we will see a world far more dangerous and unstable, far more threatening to America and our citizens here at home than we have seen since World War II’ (2014a). Gustav Gressel, writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Europe was in need of finding a response to ‘Russian expansionism’. Although he conceded that ‘a major escalation’ on the European continent was ‘not imminent’, urgent action was required, because ‘Russia is clearly preparing itself for offensive operations’ (2015: 1, 13). In the words of Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush, ‘Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue’ (quoted in Shear and Baker 2014).

When Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria in autumn 2015, this affirmed in the eyes of many observers that a militarily resurgent Russia posed a security threat of global dimensions, as Putin continued his ‘power play’, this time in the Mediterranean (K. Johnson 2015). As the former secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, wrote in spring 2016, ‘we should hold no illusions about Moscow’s intentions … The clash is not only taking place in our shared neighbourhood. Moscow clearly aims to undermine the liberal international order and Western unity that has served us well since the end of World War II’. An article in The National Interest asserted that ‘Russia’s ongoing military buildup in Syria poses a serious challenge to American policy in the region’ (Graham 2015), others interpreted Moscow’s ‘unanticipated military foray into Syria’ as a ‘proxy US-Russian conflict’ (Stent 2016: 106). A journalist writing for the New York Post believed that Putin was intent not only on supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but on controlling Syria as a whole: ‘The Syrian coast will become another Crimea, if not completely annexed, at least occupied … Putin has arranged it so that no matter what happens in Syria, he wins – and we lose’ (Taheri 2015). In a strategy paper issued by the United States European Command in October 2015, a ‘revanchist Russia’ was listed as the top threat to European security, to the US homeland and to global stability (Breedlove 2015: 1). In 2016, Polish Prime Minister Antoni Macierewicz called Russia ‘the biggest threat to global security today’ (Sharkov 2016).

The demonstration of Russia’s new military prowess in both Ukraine and in Syria has led to fears that the previously superior militaries of NATO and of the US were in real danger of being overtaken, with severe repercussions for security in Europe and beyond. As Karl Nerenieks, a retired Major General of the Swedish Armed Forces, remarked in 2014, Russia’s armed forces ‘regained their capability to mount large conventional military operations. They are, I would say, some years ahead of us if we started to train for the same thing today’ (House of Commons Defence Committee 2014a). As Blank asserted, Russia’s military revival was being watched closely by the US Strategic Command, because of the belief that ‘within five years Russia could run multiple Ukraine-sized operations in Europe’. Blank (2015) also noted that, if Russian procurement plans were carried through to 2025, ‘this force would have parity with the US and NATO in conventional and nuclear dimensions of high-tech warfare’.

The way in which Crimea had been taken raised concerns that innovations in Russian strategic thought meant that the country had developed a new ‘hybrid’ approach to warfare, which the West already was unable to stand up against. To quote Chuck Hagel again, Moscow was developing ‘capabilities that appear designed to counter traditional US military advantages’ (2014b). This was also noted by Blank (2015): Moscow ‘now seems to favour an approach based on hybrid or multidimensional warfare, similar to the Chinese concept of “unrestricted war”, embracing simultaneous employment of multiple instruments of war, including non-military means where information warfare, such as mass political manipulation, is a major capability’. Michael Gordon, writing about the Crimea operation for the New York Times, described a military ‘skilfully employing 21st century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West’. This, he believed, had ‘implications for the security of Moldova, Georgia, Central Asian nations and even the Central Europe nations that are members of NATO’ (Gordon 2014). As a UK House of Commons Defence Committee report asserted, the ‘new and less conventional military techniques’ Russia had developed ‘represent the most immediate threat to its NATO neighbours and other NATO Member States’ (House of Commons Defence Committee 2014b).

Since the events in spring 2014, it has been widely accepted that improvements to the West’s defence posture and planning have become vital. In particular, European states have to increase their defence spending, which had been affected by significant cuts since the end of the Cold War. As the New York Times noted, this had rendered ‘NATO less formidable as deterrent to Russia’ (Cooper and Erlanger 2014). As then-NATO Secretary General Rasmussen stated in March 2014, ‘developments in Ukraine are a stark reminder that security in Europe cannot be taken for granted … That is why I will continue to remind European nations that they need to step up politically and militarily. To hold the line on defence cuts. To increase their defence spending’. At a NATO summit held in early autumn in 2014, alliance members pledged to freeze cuts and, where necessary, to increase spending to two per cent of their respective GDPs within the next decade. By 2016 the implementation of this pledge was well under way (Jones 2016). European states outside of the NATO alliance, including Finland and Sweden, have also increased their military budgets in view of the developments in Moscow (Tiessalo 2015; Rathi 2016).

Words of warning about the dangers of a militarily resurgent Russia have resulted in various actions intended to secure Europe. NATO has stepped up its force posture in Central and Eastern Europe, and especially in the Baltic States. The alliance has also held a number of military exercises to demonstrate resolve and unity, and to reassure those member states in the region that are particularly worried about the potential for aggressive Russian action. Whilst remaining outside of NATO, Finland and Sweden have stepped up cooperation with the alliance and both have sought defence cooperation agreements with the US (Borger 2016). Moreover, Nordic countries, including Norway, Denmark and Iceland, have increased their own military cooperation to enhance preparedness for any hostile Russian act in the Baltic region (Agence France Press 2015). There is a feeling in the West that the Kremlin’s actions since 2014 have left no option but to take an uncompromisingly tough stance and to bolster military postures and defences in order to deter an aggressive Russia. As the former chief of staff of the British armed forces, Richard Dannat, noted, ‘with a resurgent Russia this is a poor moment for the US-led West to be weak in resolve and muscle’. Sanctions and diplomacy were insufficient as a response to Moscow’s actions, in his eyes, because Putin ‘will look beyond those things to see where the real check on his actions might come from’ (quoted in Cooper and Erlanger 2014). This was echoed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Curtis Scaparrotti, who put forward an unambiguous warning to the alliance in May 2016: ‘a resurgent Russia [is] striving to project itself as a world power … To address these challenges, we must continue to maintain and enhance our levels of readiness and our agility in the spirit of being able to fight tonight if deterrence fails’ (quoted in Bodner 2016).

The purpose of this book

This book argues that reactions of this nature to the annexation of Crimea and to Moscow’s involvement in the war in Syria are problematic, because they are based on three misguided assumptions regarding the timing, purpose and scope of Russia’s military revival: first, the view that the desire for a powerful military and its use signals a ‘paradigm shift’ in the Kremlin’s outlook; second, the idea that the reason the military revival is pursued necessarily is to enable an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy; and third, the notion that Russian military capabilities now rival those of the West. These assumptions are misguided, because they fail to take into account the historical and international context of the military revival, which did not occur in a vacuum. The purpose of the book is to provide this context.

Taking these assumptions as a starting point, the book’s analysis revolves around three major arguments. The first argument purports that the Kremlin’s most recent efforts to strengthen the armed forces is not the result of a ‘paradigm shift’ in views on the utility of military power. This is because the decision to modernize the armed forces did not come out of nowhere or occur in a vacuum. As the chapters of the book will show, rather than representing a break from the past, recent developments are the result of a complex confluence of historical, political and economic factors, many of which have been long in the making. Second, the modernization of Russia’s military in recent years was not determined by the desire to pursue expansionist or unilaterally aggressive policies in a bid for domination. The assumption that this is the case reflects a one-sided understanding of why states, including Russia, view a powerful military as an important asset. Military power is a flexible tool of statecraft and its utility is not limited to the fighting of wars and defeating of opponents. This needs to be borne in mind when the Kremlin’s reasons for strengthening its armed forces are assessed. As such, recent efforts to reform the country’s armed forces can only be understood within the context of the variety of functions the Russian armed forces have fulfilled throughout history. Third and finally, the book argues that the military revival has not resulted in capabilities that have substantially altered the power balance in Europe or even beyond. This is because a state’s military power is never absolute, but always relative to that of others. It is beyond doubt that Russia’s military capabilities today are much improved compared to what they were in the 1990s. In terms of military planning, too, there have been marked improvements in the ability of Russian strategists to fine-tune military tactics to suit the circumstances of operations of various intensity. However, these improvements do not mean that the country’s capabilities now rival those of the West, will guarantee victory in all cases, or even that they have created substantially new opportunities for the achievement of objectives that were not achievable before.

Improvements in Russia’s military capabilities and Moscow’s growing confidence in using armed force as an instrument of foreign policy are significant and this poses challenges to its neighbours and to the West. However, the precise nature of these challenges is not as straightforward as often implied. The book’s arguments are developed in five chapters in order to provide detailed context for an informed assessment of recent events. The topics of these chapters are the role of the military in Russian foreign policy in the past and today, reforms of the Russian armed forces since the early 1990s, the significance of the force structures as an important component of the country’s military establishment, Moscow’s uses of military force in wars and conflicts since the end of the Cold War, and developments in the country’s military thinking.

A contextualized analysis of Moscow’s reasons for strengthening its armed forces, and of the significance of this for the security of both its neighbours and of the West, is not only of interest as an exercise of academic inquiry. It also has substantial policy relevance. Following the annexation of Crimea, it has become a widely accepted fact that a lack of capacity to understand political developments in contemporary Russia caused the West to ‘sleep walk’ into the current crisis (House of Lords 2015: 6; Monaghan 2016: 26–7). A contextualized study of Russia’s military revival contributes to a better understanding of the Kremlin’s thinking and actions, which can help to ensure that any potential future actions will come as less of a surprise. A better understanding of the reasons for, and implications of Russia’s military revival is also significant for policies adopted by the West vis-à-vis a more assertive Kremlin. If such policies are insufficiently informed by an awareness of the motivations driving Russian behaviour, they could fail and inadvertently lead to spiralling tensions. A contextualized understanding of the military revival is essential not to justify Moscow’s actions, but rather it is vital to inform policy and decision makers in the West where to go from here. As Carolina Vendil Pallin noted, ‘what the West does will matter … In spite of the fact that change must come from Russia, the policy response of the EU and NATO matters – and it does so irrespectively of how events in Russia develop’ (2015: 14, 20).

The book’s five chapters each address in detail an aspect of military power that is important for an informed understanding of Russia’s military revival. The chapters have been written so they can also be read individually. Read as a whole, they provide a comprehensive context for a better understanding of the timing, intentions and scope of Moscow’s efforts to restore its country’s armed forces and of the implications this has for international security.

Chapter 1 outlines the role of military power in Russian foreign policy in the past and today. As such, the chapter delivers the historical background of the book. The chapter is structured around four factors, all of which have been important in shaping foreign policy since the time of the Russian Empire. These are great power status, sovereignty, imperialism/imperial legacy, and multilateralism. Although these factors are not the only ‘persistent factors’ in Russian foreign policy, they are particularly salient for explaining the role of military power within it. The chapter demonstrates that not only has a strong military always been an essential component in Russia’s self-perception as a great power, but also that Moscow has always viewed and used the armed forces as a flexible tool of foreign policy. Highlighting relevant patterns and developments in the past, the chapter suggests that preparation for offensive war and expansion is unlikely to be the most important reason for the recent military revival.

Chapter 2 traces Russia’s struggle to transform what was left of the former Soviet military into a force fit for the twenty-first century. It shows that the neglect of the armed forces during the Yeltsin years was the result of a complex combination of political, societal and financial factors and not the result of a principled decision. Central elements of the 2008 modernization programme were debated since the early 1990s and Moscow never abandoned its ambition to be a global military power. Aided by a much improved economic situation, the Russian military’s fortunes started to turn when Putin became president and made the military reform agenda a priority. The chapter details the impressive advances in Russian military capabilities that have been made since 2008 and were demonstrated on a limited scale in Crimea and in Syria. It also shows, however, that the modernization process is far from complete and Russia is still a long way off meeting its goal of parity with other leading powers. Important obstacles continue to stand in the way. These include ongoing problems with maintaining the desired level of manpower and the defence industry’s inability to deliver the quality of technology required for competing with the world’s most advanced nations. Russia’s deepening economic crisis since 2009 has also meant that the affordability of its ambitions is far from certain.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of Russia’s force structures. These include, amongst others, the Interior Ministry (MVD), the Ministry for Emergency Situations (MChS), the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the National Guard Service (FSNG). The force structures form an important component of the country’s military establishment, but are often ignored in analyses, because they do not fit easily into Western frameworks. The chapter argues that the fate of the force structures since 1991 offers important insight into the timing and reasons for the revival of Russian military power in recent years. The creation of the force structures was determined in part by the need to build capabilities for dealing with a range of new security challenges that the regular armed forces were ill-equipped to deal with. Force structure personnel were used in various low-intensity missions since the 1990s and have also participated in multilateral security cooperation, including with NATO, throughout the 2000s. Political motivations, however, have been the most important reason for maintaining these structures, which are tasked predominantly with internal security. The availability of force structures loyal and subordinated directly to the president was as important for Yeltsin as it is for Putin today. They are essential for ensuring internal order and regime stability, which are increasingly viewed as being under threat and thus as a matter of national security.

Chapter 4 discusses the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria within the context of the Kremlin’s other uses of military power since the early 1990s. It argues that there is little evidence to suggest a fundamental change in Moscow’s views on the utility of force, or that the desire to expand its territory or to confront the West in a bid for domination have become the major drivers. Since the early 1990s, Russia has been using military force in pursuit of a variety of policy objectives. With regard to its neighbourhood, the imperial legacy has informed its decision to use force in the region since the end of the Cold War. However, chance and contingency, status concerns, insecurity and strategic interests have also been important. If patterns from the past are anything to go by, further expansion is fairly unlikely, because more indirect forms of domination offer a lever of control that is more valuable than adding more territory to an already vast state. With regard to the West, Russia has become more assertive in pursuing an independent foreign policy, even if this risks a breakdown in relations. That said, Russia’s approach to the West continues to be characterized by a complex interplay of cooperation and conflict. It desires inclusion, but does not avoid confrontation when it feels that its views are not taken into account.

Chapter 5 assesses developments in Russian military thinking since the end of the Cold War with a particular emphasis on the ‘hybrid warfare’ discussion. The chapter argues that the ‘hybrid warfare’ debate does not adequately reflect developments in Russian strategic thought and misrepresents the country’s ambitions as a global military actor. The perception of Russian backwardness in military thinking during the 1990s and 2000s was exacerbated by the preoccupation in Western strategic thought with counterinsurgency warfare, which pushed the perceived relevance of ‘traditional’ war-fighting onto the backburner. In Russia, the idea that conventional warfare was a thing of the past never established itself as a consensus view, because it did not correspond to the country’s strategic priorities. The chapter also engages with the problems pertaining to the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ as an analytical tool. Russia’s approach in Crimea showed that the country had vastly improved its ability to fine-tune military tactics to the requirements of different conflict scenarios. However, it has not found a new key to military success in the form of ‘hybrid warfare’.

The conclusion summarizes the book’s main arguments. Returning to the three assumptions in Western reactions outlined above, it suggests that a more informed understanding of the timing, reasons and scope of the military revival puts into question the sometimes alarmist interpretations of Russia as an imminent threat to international security. The Kremlin has become more assertive and better military capabilities have offered it more opportunity to use force in the future. This does not mean, however, that stronger armed forces automatically signal Putin’s desire to pursue expansionist policies. Moscow has always viewed a strong military as essential, so the revival was only a matter of time. Russian foreign policy is determined by drivers that are much more complex than the simple wish for global domination. In any case, the country’s relative military power is still limited in many respects. The conclusion also considers possible options for neighbouring states and for the West in responding to a more assertive and militarily capable Russia. There is no easy way out of the significant breakdown in relations since 2014. However, it is clear that policies based on a lack of understanding of the Kremlin’s intentions will significantly increase the danger of tensions spiralling out of control.