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Turns Out Russian Grand Strategy Is Purely Defensive

July 9, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

With a new Cold War having begun in earnest, a little perspective goes a long way in diminishing fears of an apocalyptic showdown. Thanks to a research brief from RAND Corporation titled What Will Russian Military Capabilities Look Like In The Near Future? anyone who cares about the international system can be thankful Moscow’s overarching goal is minding its own business. This is the main takeaway from the four page summary meant to complement the 116 page research report The Future of the Russian Military. Both were published in June.

The brief does acknowledge Russia’s newfound willingness to send its military abroad, albeit with limitations. Rather than prop up a bunch of satellite states who can challenge the “free world,” the aim now is responding to terrorism and instability.

As explained in the brief, the Russian military has rebuilt itself to fulfill the following missions:

  • Strategic deterrence
  • Regional dominance
  • Preparation of major war
  • Internal security
  • Expeditionary capabilities

Of course, the authors acknowledge that pursuing these may drive Russia into conflict, especially when it expects to preserve its “regional dominance” over former Soviet republics. But the research brief is clear there are no devious plots in the works by Moscow to advance an unstated goal of world domination. Here are the authors’ own consensus: “It is highly unlikely that Russia is preparing to initiate such a [major] war, given its security goals and strategy, past decisions to develop key capabilities, and the constraints posed by its economy, demography, and personnel policy.”

To repeat, the Russian Federation has no plans for invading the European Union…or anywhere else.

Yet Russia’s military strength, which surpasses any of its neighbors, as well as its talent for adapting its economy to withstand sanctions and maintain its hard power, means the pursuit of its “grand strategy” invites confrontation. When it comes to “strategic deterrence,” for example, any effort by the US to recruit new NATO allies may provoke “unintended military escalation,” the authors note. This type of risk is triggered by US-NATO policies and Russia has no choice but react in its own fashion.

Unlike the 1990s, however, Russia has regained its edge over NATO in conventional warfare thanks to sheer numbers, a remarkable electronic warfare capability, and reorganized special forces formations. The brief cites eight particular capabilities that challenge the US Army’s own commitments to NATO allies. First, the Russian army is keeping its “legacy platforms” such as current tanks, APCs, and howitzers with specific upgrades with next-generation weapons years away from entering service. This may not seem impressive but their sheers numbers are daunting for Russia’s smaller neighbors.

Second, the “indirect fires” or rocket artillery available to Russian ground forces remains plentiful and overwhelming. The brief suggests the best counter-strategy is weakening Russian C4ISR and to employ “dispersal, denial, and deception” for US Army units that may face bombardment.

Third, Russia’s “long-range strike” or its road mobile Iskander-M and Kalibr cruise missiles are even more lethal and impossible to resist. The brief offers a feeble suggestion to US-NATO forces: “Prepare for coordinated and sustained attacks on rear echelon.”

Fourth, Russian advisers, special forces, and proxies may now operate anywhere in the world and there’s no way of stopping them. The brief emphasizes how the Russian military’s air defenses and electronic warfare are in a state of overmatch versus US-NATO forces. Indeed, if Russian C4I is overhauled in the near future, NATO may end up falling behind in a capability it once dominated. As if this isn’t sober reading, the brief points out that Russia can keep prosecuting a war even if it faces internal unrest.

The research brief is available as a free download here.

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