In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails. This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives. In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage. Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.
In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done. The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda. When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.
The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then. Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost. As Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap. The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.
Reasonable Sufficiency: Inverting the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine
Russia’s leaders have shown they understand how to use military power in a manner that recognizes constraints, but is still potent enough to achieve foreign policy objectives. Samuel Charap recently explained Russia relies principally on acts of compellence, making the military an “element of a broader coercive bargaining process.” From Ukraine to Syria, Charap cogently identified an important trend in how Russian leadership deploys the military: “Moscow has used just enough force to get the policy job done, but not more.”
This is part and parcel of a Russian strategy defined by reasonable sufficiency, compelling an outcome with the least amount of force required. It contrasts sharply with working to achieve battlefield dominance and overmatch at the outset. Perhaps, this is best understood for what it is not. The Russian approach is the polar opposite of the Weinberger Doctrine, which Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger laid out in a famous 1984 speech. Weinberger’s six conditions for the use of force included, “if we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all,” and the “need for well-defined objectives and a consistent strategy is still essential.”
Moscow seems to reject this formulation of deliberate strategy. In the Russian view, force must be used cheaply, deniably when necessary, and with emphasis placed on retaining agility, which requires holding the bulk of its forces in reserve. Military objectives are emergent, subjugated to a political and diplomatic strategy, and force is meant for coercion rather than conquest. This approach stems from a healthy fear of commitment that could result in overextension, quagmires, and offer opportunities for opponents to counter. It is driven by a cognizance of Russia’s limits in terms of economic and human resources, together with a recognition that opposition in the international system could be substantial, namely the United States and its network of allies.
In the post-Cold War period, the U.S. policy community also rejected the Powell-Weinberger doctrine, but it has arguably not replaced it with anything serviceable. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are hardly the resume of a successful policy establishment. What’s more, large parts of the national security community have trouble even admitting these wars have not gone well, with the notable exception of President Obama identifying Libya as one of his greatest mistakes. However you define American doctrine on the use of military power, it seems to not be doing all that well in practice. It is said that Obama’s first rule of foreign policy was “don’t do stupid shit,” though there is a strong case to be made that he also failed to stick to this limited guidance.
Force Multipliers: The Dead Cost Nothing
Both in Ukraine and Syria, Moscow has applied force sparingly, leveraging the local population, its own volunteers, and the militias of allies. Russia indulges in sub-conventional approaches, including irregular warfare, or a mix of conventional, and unconventional capabilities where it has little need to worry about escalation, because it would likely win as long as the conflict remains geographically contained. These are all cost reduction methods in material and political terms. In Syria in particular, Russia has leveraged mercenaries and special forces as multipliers to bolster the rather poor combat effectiveness of the Syrian Army and Iranian allies. The wide scale use of private military contractors in the Middle East was pioneered by the U.S. campaigns in Iraq, where they represented a significant percentage of forces used. Mercenary groups are still outlawed in Russia, and in practice are more a deniable extension of the state’s national security interests than business enterprises.
At times, as in the case of Ukraine, this preference for auxiliaries has resulted in messy escalation, but the costs for Russia have been politically tolerable. Russia retains a low density of forces on the battlefield, working quickly to build up expendable manpower in the conflict based on proxies, the loss of which comes without any tangible consequences for domestic political support or actual military capability. Throughout 2014 and 2015 the Russian force presence in Ukraine at most can be counted in battalions, often appearing in company size, and small supporting elements on the battlefield. The contact line has rarely been manned by the Russian army, which is typically in the back providing offensive fires, air defense, and serving as a quick reaction force.
This strategy is aided by a vast arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union, much of it retired from service in the Russian armed forces, and displaced to large storage parks. The Russian armed forces are actually small relative to the size of the country they have to defend, perhaps exceeding no more than 900,000 in total size with a ground force doubtfully greater than ~300,000. That may not seem small, but Russia is one eight the earth’s land mass. As a comparison, countries like Turkey or Pakistan are fraction of Russia’s geographic size, yet they possess comparable if not larger armies with over 400,000 in the land forces. The same can be said of peers like the United States and China. However, Russia has enough military equipment to equip countless small armies to the technological level of the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1980s.
Look at the battlefields in Ukraine and you will find what was essentially an unreformed 1980s Soviet Army (Ukraine’s), engaged in artillery and tank duels against a proxy force that Russia supplied with comparable 1980s Soviet equipment. Indeed, in the early phases of the conflict when Moscow sought to retain the veneer of deniability, they supplied only that which could be plausibly captured from Ukrainian forces. Actual Russian forces use capabilities that are head and shoulders above what Ukraine is able to field. The Russian approach has been to supplement proxy forces with regular units as necessary, and to the minimum extent possible.
Firing in Burst Mode: Battlefield Dominance and Coercive Warfare
While Russia prefers to pad its forces with disposable auxiliaries, it would be wrong to mistake this for an unwillingness to escalate when the fight calls for it. A close look at how Russia uses military force reveals that it is an avid practitioner of gradual escalation and coercive warfare. Charap has observed this in his recent text, Russia’s Use of Military Force as a Foreign Policy Tool: Is There a Logic? He draws on Thomas Schelling, who observed that “coercive warfare can be conducted by degree, in measured doses.” Schelling also wrote:
coercion depends more on the threat of what is yet to come than on damage already done. The pace of diplomacy, not the pace of battle, would govern the action; and while diplomacy may not require that it go slowly, it does require that an impressive unspent capacity for damage be kept in reserve.
However, Russia’s use of force is not defined by a choice between gradual escalation and decisive engagement, positing them as mutually exclusive. Rather, Moscow leverages the fear of decisive engagement for coercion, and plays this card on the battlefield whenever the low-cost strategy runs into a ditch. In the case of Syria, Russia was engaged in a two-level game. Its objective was to change the foreign policies of the United States and Turkey. To do this, Moscow recognized that it would have to annihilate the Syrian opposition on the battlefield, destroying any alternatives to Assad. Moscow, with its Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese partners, killed its way to victory on a part of the battlefield in order to coerce adversaries at the strategic level.
Russia’s gradual approach is inherently vulnerable, since it is based around fielding the bare minimum amount number of troops in the battlespace to achieve desired political ends. In order to deter and dissuade peer adversaries Russia will often introduce high-end conventional capabilities, such as long range air defense, anti-ship missiles, and conventional ballistic missile systems. These weapons are not meant for the actual fight. Instead, they are intended to make an impression on the United States. The first goal of the Russian leadership is to make the combat zone its own sandbox, sharply reducing the options for peer adversaries to intervene via direct means. America does this in its campaigns by attaining air superiority. Russia’s method is cheaper: area denial from the ground.
In cases when coercive diplomacy fails due to the ineffectiveness of gradual escalation or because threats of force can lose their credibility over time (as occurred in Ukraine during the summer of 2014), Vladimir Putin puts on the iron gauntlet. There is a preference for indirect approaches, organized by the Kremlin’s experts in political warfare like Vladislav Surkov and the country’s intelligence services, but sometimes these machinations simply amount to making a mess of things. Their failure forces the Kremlin to hand the problem over to the Russian General Staff, which pulses high-end conventional capability within a narrowly allotted time window. Russia’s military rushes across the line, punches the adversary in the face, and withdraws, having made its point. Sometimes, this is to convince the adversary that they cannot win, which was the intent behind the Battle of Illovaisk in August 2014. At other times, Russia hopes to force the enemy into a political agreement at gun point. This is what happened after the Battle of Debaltseve in February 2015.
In Ukraine, Moscow sent in regular units to beat the Ukrainian army in decisive battles, then withdrew many of those units. Rapid escalation, with an influx of battalion tactical groups, was followed by rapid de-escalation. Russia’s presence in Syria is similarly adjusted on a weekly basis and kept to a minimum, with surges as needed. The reason for this is straightforward. When deployed in regular formations, the Russian armed forces typically execute a not-so-sophisticated military doctrine for which they drill all year through numerous exercises and snap readiness checks. On the battlefield, the Russian military’s plan is simpler: Maneuver to contact and annihilate the enemy with face-melting firepower. Understanding this, the Kremlin prefers to use regular forces in burst mode, both to prevent combat losses and avoid uncontrolled escalation once they shift into the high gear. Leave any conventional force on the field long enough and you will find things becoming flatter, but Russia’s army in particular does this quickly.
The United States is not positioned to switch quickly from gradual escalation to decisive engagement because it’s military tends to play distant away games, while Moscow tends to fight just across the street, or at least in its general neighborhood. It is much easier to escalate, de-escalate, and adjust the amount of force applied in the conflict when you are fighting on, or near, your own borders. There are other dissimilarities that affect strategic flexibility, including leadership decision-making, the number of allied interests to consider, and domestic constraints imposed by the political system.
Russia retains absolute flexibility of decision-making at the national leadership level, with no accountability, but unlike many other countries, where this breeds incompetence, the Kremlin manages to retain good levels of technocratic competence in key areas, such as the military, financial administration, or the central bank. It is a remarkable amalgamation: a feudal economy, headed by what can best be described as a national security aristocracy, but the principal agencies required to manage government affairs (like the Ministry of Defense) tend to be run by competent administrators.
Accountability and competing political forces in democracies often force their political establishments to double down when facing foreign policy failure abroad so as not to realize those losses at home. Since the Kremlin controls domestic media and faces no serious internal opposition, it has no fear of changing course, declaring a withdrawal, or selling a completely new narrative about the conflict. Unlike in the West, there is little to no path dependency in how Russia approaches use of force. However, this is an iterative and calibrated process. Moscow is cautious not to gamble with its power to shape public opinion at home and plays its actual cards close to the vest in terms of how much room it has to escalate.
Always Be Withdrawing
Beyond its political objectives, Russia places strong emphasis on having an exit strategy. In fact, a viable exit strategy seems just as important than whatever they are trying to achieve. It is perhaps one key point where Russia’s leaders would agree with Weinberger and Colin Powell. But unlike the United States, they actually practice it. This is typically the part the U.S. policy community struggles with the most: how to withdraw. Washington is great at kicking the door open but has a hard time finding its way back out. Usually, a decade and a trillion dollars get lost in the fumble to find the exit.
Russia, on the other hand, tries to create numerous points of disengagement, options to stand down, and roll back the crisis if things go pear shaped, be it in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, or Syria. Presence is calibrated to a bare minimum required, so much so that in Eastern Ukraine it first led to a fitful escalation without results. However, Russia managed to impose its political framework on the conflict, such that it has never been declared an official party to the war and can readily come and go at will.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin was seemingly attempting the ridiculous, trying to use a tiny amount of force to regain a say over the strategic orientation of the largest country in Europe. Russia lacked the force, the money, and the military experience to attempt any large-scale operation. Yet, they coerced Kiev into giving up Crimea without a fight. Later, Moscow got Kiev to sign the Minsk agreements which locked them into Russian terms for settling the conflict. Russia did even better with Washington, often convincing prominent Hill leaders like Sen. John McCain and the op-ed commentariat that a large military campaign was in the offing to establish a “land bridge to Crimea.”
Every few months, the newspapers still ring with expectations of a Russian offensive. Like Pavlovian conditioning, Russia barely has to move a few units around and watch a Western media fueled panic. Moscow has trained the West so well that if every Russian soldier were to depart Ukraine, or Syria, there would be immediate concern that it is only to invade elsewhere (perhaps a “land bridge to Kaliningrad”).
It would be fair to observe that since the signing of Minsk II, the politics have bogged down, and Russia’s coercive credibility has slowly faded. Ukraine’s confidence on the battlefield seems to support this perspective. Nobody has established sufficient leverage over anyone in that conflict. Moscow appears to be playing a waiting game in Ukraine, eroding Kiev’s support among Western countries. Still, if Minsk II continues to go nowhere, it is quite probable that Russia will reapply a brief but hefty dose of force this year.
Meanwhile in Syria, the Russian contingent regularly resizes its air wing and military footprint, introducing specialized units such as sappers or military police and promptly withdrawing those no longer needed. In order to manage public perception, Russia declared a withdrawal back in March 2016 and just recently again in January. Each is meant to “close” a chapter of the campaign, show political gains, and normalize the military presence among domestic audiences. The cost of this approach is that political gains can prove slow and much adaptation is required. However, there is a clear prioritization to not end up overextended and retain flexibility in strategy, rather than commit. The intended impression for audiences at home is that Russia is not embroiled in one ongoing campaign, but is actually splitting the Syrian conflict into smaller phases, each of which have ended successfully with a victory and a withdrawal.
The Russian goal is to retain coercive credibility, keeping much of its military potential in reserve. Whereas Stalin once remarked that “in the Soviet army it takes more courage to retreat than to advance,” the modern Russian army withdraws regularly. Russia prefers to establish dominance for brief periods of time, but does not desire mastery of the battlefield, and would rather take a long time with limited application of power than have to ‘own’ the war. Rather than risk taking, its use of force is based on calculated prudence. Russia carves the battlefield piecemeal, in line with Creighton Abrams’ caution on eating an elephant: Take one bite at a time.
Although Russia did annex Crimea, it appears to be a unique case. In other examples like Georgia, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, we can see a distinct Russian aversion to owning real estate. If anything, the entire concept of Russian strategy in Eastern Ukraine is to force Kiev to take these regions back, which it has agreed to on paper. Moscow is angling to make this a reality. Russia’s use of force is akin to a geopolitical mugging, in which the case of Crimea should be considered a grand theft, rather than expansionist imperial pursuit.
Rethinking Use of Force: No Tool is Too Small for the Job
The U.S. approach to warfare is predicated on establishing dominance and subsequently control of the battlespace. Unfortunately, the policy community seems to then transmute control into ownership, and ownership into quagmire. Its special power is turning water into tar. Dramatic changes in strategy only come after the effort is widely recognized as a complete shambles. Perhaps, the Kremlin has been taking notes on the U.S. experience, which is why its use of force appears flexible yet always married to political ends.
More importantly, Moscow is comfortable with failure, preferring for it come fast and cheap so it can improvise the next evolution rather than investing in a failing plan. As I described in an earlier article, the overall Russian strategy is emergent, preferring a lean approach to deliberate planning. The Kremlin regularly attempts to set up no-lose scenarios for itself, such that complete defeat in the conflict is politically manageable at home. Much of Russia’s effort to establish plausible deniability is intended to create the political space to make mistakes, paving the road for cycles of retreat and escalation as necessary.
Ironically, Russia is able to get many of its desired outcomes largely by twisting arms, rather than breaking them, because a series of brutal wars have solidified its coercive credibility. From the leveling of Grozny in the Second Chechen War to the war with Georgia in 2008, most observers expect Russia to pursue maximalist outcomes with a large employment of force and to get stuck doing it. Russia does quite the opposite, typically bidding the bare minimum required for coercive warfare, rather than jumping in chest deep. This is about seeking leverage to shape adversary behavior and coerce, not ownership, and the strategy holds when looking at the broader U.S.-Russia geopolitical confrontation.
As the world transitions to increasing multipolarity — or even worse, simply disorder — the United States should consider using force differently. A better motto for conflicts against small and middle sized powers, many of which tend to be wars of choice, could be “go small or go home.” If Russia can figure out how to use its much smaller conventional force for coercive effects over countries sized big and small, certainly the U.S. policy establishment can get smarter on the subject. Only in the shadowy drone war, a component of the global counter terrorism campaign, has the United States shown the sort of tactile flexibility and creative thinking required of this century.
America’s political system may simply be ill suited to the task. The lean approach in U.S. strategy does not translate into staying agile, failing cheap, and pursuing an emergent strategy that leverages coercive warfare over the endless bombing of things. America’s established pattern of behavior results in under resourcing a deliberate strategy, failing slow, and when the disaster is self-evident, doubling down to pursue a revised set of political goals, at higher cost. Eventually it becomes all about begging for departure.
One possible way forward could be to remove rigidity in strategy — or even better, have no deliberate strategy — and replace it with quick cycles of adaptation in use of force. The goal of military power should be to shape adversary behavior not to control battlefields and get stuck owning them. We know what the policy establishment will do if you give them a country sized nation building project. That means sticking to limited political ends in foreign wars. Incidentally, this might make them actually achievable, and who knows, even the American public might agree that they are in the national interest.
Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.