Anticipating a New Russian Military Doctrine in 2020: What it Might Contain and Why it Matters


Russia’s last military doctrine was released on Christmas Day in 2014. Since then, Moscow has been busy — it intervened in Syria, meddled in U.S. elections, and showcased a half-dozen developmental weapons, to include a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a transoceanic torpedo. In addition, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty collapsed, and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) faces an uncertain future. Given these recent developments — along with the further deterioration of ties with Washington, and the military’s considerable operational experiences in Syria and Ukraine — it seems the time is approaching for Russia to update its military doctrine.

Although Russian officials have not announced that an updated doctrine is in the works, there are several reasons why unveiling one in 2020 makes sense. In this article, I will attempt to divine some of the changes that may come to this seemingly dry and almost legalistic text because, however subtle those changes may be, they can provide essential clues to the next evolution in Russian military thinking, planning, and development.

Why Update the Doctrine in 2020?

There are a few reasons why the Russian military may release an updated doctrine next year: 2020 has long been a benchmark year for Russian military planners, Russian threat perceptions have hardened with respect to the United States, and Russia appears to be entering a cycle of updating several national security strategy documents.



First, 2020 has long been an important year for Russian military planning, and it would be an ideal time to transition past the tumultuous, expensive, and difficult modernization and readiness recovery work of the last decade. Since 2008, the Russian military has undertaken ambitious, “New Look” reforms to — among other things — replace or modernize 70 percent of its military equipment by 2020, increase the number of enlisted personnel, and overhaul the defense industrial base. Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said in a speech that he believed these reforms and a series of presidential decrees also tied to the year 2020 would allow the Russian military to  “reach a new qualitative level.” For the most part, these reforms have been successful. An updated doctrine would likely take into account the qualitative improvements in readiness and procurement of the last decade, and would be an important signal of a new phase in military development by looking to the future — to 2030 and beyond.

Russian threat perceptions have hardened considerably since the last doctrine was released in 2014, particularly with respect to the United States and NATO. Russian leaders believe that certain negative trends — the use of economic sanctions, “color revolutions,” and the potential for interstate conflict — are accelerating. They assess that the current U.S.-led world order is coming to an end while rising powers like China, Russia, and others challenge the existing order. Senior officials assume Washington and its allies are attempting to contain or intimidate Russia. They cite as evidence the latest National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon’s renewed focus on great power competition, and NATO’s rotational troop presence in Eastern Europe. Some of the language in an updated military doctrine would likely reflect this growing pessimism. Deepening distrust of the West was a prominent feature of the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy and 2016 Foreign Policy Concept.

Finally, from a purely bureaucratic standpoint, it is simply time for an updated military doctrine. Over the last two years, the Russian government has been busy updating multiple strategy documents related to national security and domestic policy issues. In July, Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolay Patrushev stated that Russia will update its National Security Strategy next year. The previous two military doctrines were published in 2010 and 2014 as part of a constellation of several other national security-related strategies, most of which were written to last “until the period of 2020.” In fact, if past is prologue, an updated military doctrine could be released as early as late December 2019, at the poetic dawn of a new decade.

Nine Things to Look for in the New Doctrine

In general, the language and structure of Russia’s military doctrines tend to be stable from one version to the next. However, small changes are often significant — additions and subtractions to the document reflect larger programmatic changes, points of emphasis, and clues about future activities. For example, internal threats were included for the first time in the 2014 doctrine, and since then Russia updated the legal relationships between the military and internal security agencies, created the National Defense Control Center in Moscow to better monitor and respond to many types of threats, and consolidated multiple internal security services into the national guard (rosgvardia). In another example, the 2016 Russian Foreign Policy Concept deleted references to the INF Treaty, a subtle foreshadowing of the agreement’s implosion this year.

Based on Russian threat perceptions, leadership statements, force modernization, and combat operations since the last military doctrine’s publication in 2014, the following are likely to be included in a new Russian military doctrine:

A continued emphasis on non-military methods before and during military conflict

Since 2013, Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, along with many other Russian military strategists over the years, has emphasized the growing use of non-military measures along the entire conflict spectrum. The 2014 military doctrine broadened this concept, which Russian military leaders then operationalized in Ukraine, Syria, and possibly Venezuela, according to some reports. Observers should parse Gerasimov’s words from a March 2019 strategy speech closely. He noted that although the decisive role in conflict is still played by military force, the role of non-military methods in the achievement of political and strategic objectives has only increased over time. He directed military scientific research organizations to continue to improve these strategy concepts.

The strategy of active defense

In the same speech, Gerasimov pointed out that integrated military and non-military threats will logically require an integrated defense. He noted, as he has in the past, that during a military conflict, Russia’s enemies will conduct indirect actions to destabilize Russia internally while simultaneously conducting military operations and inflicting precision strikes on critically important targets. An updated doctrine might include mentions of a new integrated defensive concept of operations such as the “strategy of active defense,” which Gerasimov vaguely described as a “set of measures to proactively neutralize threats to state security.” Analysts could interpret Gerasimov’s comments as preemptive offensive actions that Russia might take during a building crisis.

Based on Gerasimov’s recent comments that more study is needed on the “joint employment of interagency forces and means to ensure complete security,” the updated doctrine could include strengthened language on the “territorial defense” concept, the role that the National Defense Control Center plays in coordinating military forces with multiple federal bodies in wartime, or a description of the national guard’s wartime support to the military. In a revised doctrine, there may be some discussion of military and internal security forces operating together to combat hybrid enemy threats.

The strategy of limited action

Russian military strategists published the country’s last doctrine before the military deployed to Syria — Moscow’s first major out-of-area combat operation since Afghanistan in the 1980s. Gerasimov recently used the phrase the “strategy of limited action” (стратегия ограниченных действий) to describe operations in Syria. This concept could be applied to multiple types of operations, but Gerasimov specifically used this phrase to describe an out-of-area expeditionary campaign. The “strategy of limited action” does not appear in the official Russian military encyclopedia, but the 2017 edition of Dmitry Rogozin’s Voina i Mir, a dictionary of national security and military terms, cites the phrase. The definition is as follows:

The way of conducting war and operations with limited goals, with the deliberate spread of military actions on strictly defined territories, using only a part of military potential and only certain groups of armed forces, selectively striking a certain number of selected objects, targets and groups of troops (forces) of the enemy. It is used in conditions when there is no need to use the entire military power of the state to achieve the goals set, or if one side or the other seeks to avoid the enemy’s dangerous large-scale actions. At the same time, military actions are of a limited nature; they are carried out on a smaller scale, mainly by launching fire strikes and conducting joint air, anti-air, front-line, army and divisional operations. The strategy of waging war with limited use of nuclear weapons acquires a special character. In this case, hostilities are carried out with the utmost determination by all branches of the armed forces in the form of strategic operations. Nuclear weapons are used to the extent necessary to achieve the goals, but do not threaten the reverse effects.

If “strategy of limited action” appears in the new Russian military doctrine, this inclusion will have several implications. This concept could be a general philosophy for military planning, suggesting a priority for well-scoped objectives and just enough forces to accomplish those objectives. It could also be the conceptual basis for expeditionary operations planning in the future (perhaps a modern take on reasonable sufficiency as Dmitry Adamsky has suggested). Such an approach would be distinct from the U.S. concept of expeditionary operations and consistent with the structural limitations of the Russian military (e.g., constraints in strategic air and sea lift and a lack of overseas basing networks). Such a philosophy would imply that Russia sees a strategic benefit to using a small but well-supported task force abroad, like the 3,000–5,000 Russian group of armed forces in Syria.

Congested battlefields and the growing role of private military companies

The 2014 doctrine briefly mentioned for the first time private military companies, listing them as a feature of modern conflicts. Since that time, private military companies have participated alongside regular forces in complex battle spaces in Syria, Ukraine, and Libya. Russia’s revised doctrine would likely continue to tread lightly around this legally thorny issue. At most, it may include a vague or a coded reference to the increasing role of private military contractors with language similar to a statement like this one from Gerasimov: the “number of actors participating in armed combat is increasing. Along with armed forces of sovereign states, various rebel groups, private military companies, and self-proclaimed “quasi-states” are combatants on the battlefield.”

The uneasy future of arms control

The doctrine could include language blaming Washington for the demise of the INF Treaty. It would likely claim (falsely) that the loss of the INF Treaty was result of the “unilateral withdrawal by the United States … under a far-fetched pretext”, without acknowledging Moscow’s multi-year attempts to secretly develop weapons like the 9M729 (SSC-8) cruise missile in contravention to the treaty. An updated doctrine would probably reiterate Russia’s commitment to the New START treaty and restate Russia’s position that an arms race should be avoided. That being said, the Ministry of Defense is wasting no time proceeding with the development of new weapons systems now that it is unencumbered by INF restrictions — a trend that is likely to continue as the United States tests new capabilities. Defense Minster Sergey Shoygu stated earlier this year that Russia would begin work on a long-range hypersonic ground-launch cruise missile based on the Kalibr system and extend the ranges of existing ground-launched systems beyond the 500-kilometer range.

No major revisions to declared nuclear-use policy

Russia’s declared nuclear policy can be found within the military doctrine. This language lays out the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons — a nuclear or WMD attack on Russia or its allies, or a conventional attack that threatens the very existence of the state. President Vladimir Putin clarified in 2019 that Russia has a “launch on attack” policy, not a preemptive nuclear policy. Other statements from Russian leaders have generally not reframed the nuclear use issue since the 2014 doctrine.

The importance of emerging classes of weapons, combat robotics, and artificial intelligence

A revised military doctrine would probably codify the role of emerging capabilities like hypersonic missiles and emerging weapons technologies. The document would likely continue to praise Russia’s conventional precision-strike weapons for their combat roles and contribution to non-nuclear deterrence. Many of Russia’s newest weapons, like the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, Avangard hypersonic glide delivery missile, Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, and several others are allegedly in the testing phase. Much is riding on the success of these weapons, as Putin put his reputation on the line unveiling them during a splashy presentation in 2018. The Russian military may not be able to resist the temptation to brag about these weapons, and might inject a modified variant of Gerasimov’s words into the doctrine: “There is no doubting the fact that in this area [hypersonics] we are leaders in comparison with the technologically advanced countries of the world.” References to the role of combat robotics, supercomputing, and other automated or semi-automated decision-making support tools could be possible, as Gerasimov has noted that one of the main distinguishing features of future conflicts “is the widespread use of high-precision and other types of new weapons, including robotic ones.” Putin himself noted that the country first to harness the power of artificial intelligence will rule the world.

Coded barbs against U.S. focus on great power competition

A revised doctrine and national security strategy would almost certainly include indirect critiques of U.S. strategy documents, which defense leaders recently reoriented towards great power competition. In a revised doctrine, this critique could perhaps appear as oblique references in the “military danger” threat category as statements describing dominant powers containing rising powers with a mixture of political, economic, informational, and military tools. Based on past language, it would be surprising for the doctrine to contain acerbic accusations like some military leaders have made lately, for example, accusing the United States of trying to “control Russia, and ultimately, the world.”

The United States would probably not be upgraded into the “military threat” category

Shifts in threat perceptions and an overall hardening tone towards the West aside, an updated doctrine is unlikely to explicitly name the United States or NATO as a “military threat” — the highest threat category possible (for reference, NATO expansion near Russian borders is currently considered a “military danger,” the lesser of the two categories). Elevating the United States or NATO to a military threat would be a serious move in the world of military strategy, certainly one of the most provocative actions that a new doctrine could take. “Military threats” are defined doctrinally as a state in which there is a “real possibility of the outbreak of military conflict” and a corresponding high degree of military readiness on both sides. While tensions between NATO and Russia are problematic and sustained, they do not rise to this level, according to the Russian definition of the term. Even if the General Staff tried to justify this step by pointing to U.S. strategies that name Russia directly as an adversary, the outsized negative reactions from the United States would almost certainly outweigh the benefits for Russia.

Gerasimov’s Legacy

The United States and its allies should anticipate the possibility of an updated Russian military doctrine as early as 2020. Evaluating this document closely — particularly changes in tone or shifts in content from previous versions — is important for understanding Russian threat perceptions and the leadership’s methods to address those threats. Russia’s military doctrines contain explicit and implicit signaling, and any new document will likely reflect Russia’s deepening pessimism and concerns with instability in the international order. An updated doctrine would likely prioritize new capabilities like hypersonic missiles, combat robotics, artificial intelligence, and a growing sophistication in melding military and non-military tools to achieve results.

An updated military doctrine in 2020 would most likely be the last doctrine that Gerasimov will approve as chief of the General Staff, as he has been in the position for almost seven years. If the next doctrine will indeed be Gerasimov’s swan song, he might be able to leave his mark on the future direction of Russian military strategy through the next decade.



Dara Massicot is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, following Russian military capabilities and defense policy. You can follow her on Twitter at @massdara.  

Image: Russian Kremlin