Monday, 14 June 2021
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By Roshani Palamakumbura

In February, President Medvedev signed into law the much awaited new military doctrine. It has taken 4 years to draft and will define Russian security posture for the next decade. A new military doctrine is very much needed.  Since the 2000 Foreign Policy Concept (FPC) - the last time Russia updated its security posture - new challenges have arisen and some old challenges have continued to fester. Violence has been increasing in Ingushetia and Dagestan, many conflicts in Russia's "near abroad" have been frozen rather than resolved and Russian troops are entrenched in Chechnya and North Ossetia. The hailed victory in the 2008 Georgian conflict was fought entirely with equipment dating from the 1970s and brought to light glaring gaps in capabilities.


New security strategies are an opportunity for a country to assess the changed global security reality and reconsider their national security interests. The challenge is always to balance needs and means.  This new military doctrine does grapple with the changed face of contemporary warfare and the necessity of modernising the Russian armed forces. However, it only goes so far. There are limitations in its definitions of conflict and insecurity, its threat perceptions and also, in the scope of its ambitions and resolutions.

The doctrine defines 4 types of conflicts: small scale and intra-state wars; local wars; regional wars and large-scale "world" wars (involving all or many great powers). It identifies the prime military threats facing the Russian Federation as the desire of NATO to take on a global role and expand close to the borders of Russia; attempts to destabilise situations in individual states; the deployment of foreign troops close to the territory of Russia and its allies; the "creation and deployment of strategic missile defence systems undermining global stability"; territorial claims against Russia; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology; the violation of international agreements; the escalation of armed conflict caused by inter-ethnic tension near its borders and international terrorism. NATO is not only positioned at the head the list but its role is also implied in many of the other threats as well.

Russia's security posture is "aimed at preventing an arms race, deterring and preventing military conflicts and improving military organisation." The ultimate goal is to prepare Russia to succeed in a conflict against another armed state or more likely a grouping of NATO members.  Russia's security posture prioritises specifically military threats. These are likely to emanate from powerful states or alliances and must be countered by a well-armed and, if necessary, nuclear Russia. This is a 20th century grand strategy posited on state conflict and force-on-force warfare.

However, this is the least likely scenario that Russia will face and NATO is the most unlikely adversary. It is unsurprising that NATO Secretary General Rasmussen sounded frustrated: "NATO is not a threat to Russia. And NATO will never invade Russia. Nor do we consider Russia a threat to NATO," he told an audience in Warsaw, "That is why Russia's new military doctrine does not reflect the real world."

Rasmussen is right. Russia's military doctrine does not reflect the real world. It is not just that NATO is not the primary external threat but no conventional military is. The entire concept of security has changed and nations no longer hold the monopoly on violence. The wars Russia is fighting today bear little resemblance to the contingencies that have dominated conventional defence planning. Today, international terrorism, inter-ethnic conflict in the Caucasus, cyber-weapons, arms trafficking, global criminal gangs, narcotic smuggling and environmental degradation are the threats facing Russia. The doctrine recognises that modern warfare will increasingly rely on "precision, electromagnetic, laser and infrasound weaponry, computer controlled systems, drones and autonomous maritime craft, and guided robotized models of arms and military equipment". However, it does not acknowledge, let alone plan, for the unconventional.

By contrast, the US's Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) was unveiled last month as well. Within the QDR, the foundation of US security remains superior military deterrence capacity. However, there is also a clear recognition that failed states, uneven development, terrorism and environmental degradation are all insecurity multipliers. The QDR emphasises that fighting these threats will demand the less traditional tools of counter-insurgency, development, governance, rule of law and a functioning multilateral system. There is little sense of any of this within the Russian document.

Global threats driven by transnational groupings, inter-ethnic conflict and insurgencies are all fuelled by weak national state structures and a lack of governance. Contrary, to current Russian threat perceptions, Russia is threatened by weak states not strong ones. To meet its own stated aims - ensure it security, strengthen its borders and fight international terrorism Russia must recognise the necessity of strong, capable neighbours. There are clauses setting out cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). However, prevailing against global terrorism requires shared information, good intelligence and counter-intelligence and cyber-space surveillance. Only co-operation with NATO can deliver these to the Russian security establishment.

To manage insecurity in its neighbourhood, the Defense Ministry has been looking to build a tailored regional approach and shift its creaky tank battalions into small, specialised, mobile units. The purchase of the French mistral-class warships will also offer much needed amphibious and airborne landing capability.  As impressive as these reforms and additions are, these steps are not sufficiently ambitious. It is very much a reactive rather than proactive approach to managing insecurity.  Firstly, there has been no attempt to re-think the current defence posture in the Caucasus or to build effective deterrence architecture. Secondly, the fact that counter-insurgency is not directly mentioned is a significant weakness. What we have learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq is that armies entrenched in bitter wars of attrition in distant, unfamiliar territory can achieve little without the good will of the local people.

The most precious of asset of any military is its personnel. Looking after your people is not just humane, it is a strategic necessity.  This is recognised front and centre in the QDR.  By contrast, Russia's army reflects the state of Russian society on a wider scale. It is weakened by a looming demographic crisis among its men; plagued with health issues and beset with corruption. The Russian army is under strain, weakened by long wars in Chechnya, ill-equipped, malnourished and its young men demoralised by a brutal system of hazing.  For too long the health and well-being of this force has been undermined and ignored. Unfortunately, this military doctrine only addresses itself to questions of organisation, training and capacity development of its armed forces. It offers nothing concrete to support the reforms of the armed forces promised by Defence Minister Serdyukov.

A new security doctrine should have adequately resource R&D. Although, Russia has just unveiled its new fifth generation fighter, the PAK-FA "T-50", Russia has deteriorated very far since its technological mastery during the Cold War. Russia's famed technological institutes have been neglected. Investment into R&D and technological development have been modest, unsystematic and beset by corruption. There are definitely sectors within Russia's arsenal that could benefit from more technological innovation such as its medium and long-range strike capacity.

Above all, most significant by omission is that the new military doctrine does not recognise that Russia's security and national interests are intimately linked to the strength and integrity of the international system. A strong international system prosperous with open markets and stable democracies serve Russia best. These are common global goods and these should have been the pursuit of Russia's grand strategy.

The ink is barely dry on Russia's military doctrine and it is already irrelevant. Russia is becoming marginalised in international security structures. Consider how indifferent was the reception offered to Russia's proposal for a new European security architecture at the Munich Security Conference in February compared to the rapt attention and consideration accorded Putin's proposals in 2007. Now Russia's promises of modernization and change are beginning to look increasingly hollow. No longer is Russia a military force to be contended with or a viable security partner. After all, what value is there in a partnership with a shaky and weak former superpower?   This is not just a loss for Russia but has security consequences for the whole world. There is no safe and secure Europe without a strong and capable Russia. Global security depends on a Russia that is able to prevail against insurgencies, police its borders, and be a reliable partner in the fight against international terrorism.

At the Munich Security Conference, Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that the "politico-military realities in the Euro-Atlantic area are far behind the contemporary economic, technological, trade, investment and other processes of globalization and interdependence, which occur in the world today". This is true of course. The next step is making the Russian political and security elite believe it.

About the author:

Roshani Palamakumbura has a BA (Hons) in European History and Political Philosophy from Cambridge University and a Masters in European and Russian Politics from the London School of Economics. She wrote her dissertation on the security relations between the European Union and Russia. She has worked as an analyst for the Salzburg Global Seminar's "Russia 2010" session; as a researcher for the International Council on Security and Development and as a political analyst at a hedge-fund. Her hobby is wine: she has a diploma from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has worked as a Sommelier in Michelin starred restaurants. In 2006, she was chosen as one of the Top 5 female sommeliers in the UK.

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