Russia’s new military doctrine: An exercise in public relations

Last Friday, the Kremlin finally published the long-awaited text of Russia’s new military doctrine. All in all, it’s a fairly innocuous document largely filled with empty generalities. Aleksandr Golts is probably right in arguing that this is the best that can be expected in a situation where clans of military bureaucrats are engaged in an ongoing conflict. He describes the document as fifteen pages “filled with breaking news that the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea.”

Nevertheless, there are some important points to be made regarding this document. The item that has received the most publicity, though, is something that did not make it into the final document. Despite Nikolai Patrushev’s prediction of several months ago, the doctrine does not include any statement about the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The text reads “Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use against it or (and) its allies of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, if [such an attack] threatens the very existence of the state.” This is more or less taken verbatim from the previous edition of the military doctrine, which was adopted in 2000. Nikolai Sokov points out that if anything, the criteria for use of nuclear weapons are actually somewhat narrower, as the final clause  in the previous edition read “in situations critical for the national security of Russia.” The only other innovation in this regard is that the new text makes clear that all decisions on the use of nuclear weapons are made by the President of the Russian Federation.

Commentators inclined to treat anything done or said by Russian officials with suspicion argue that such a statement was excluded from the military doctrine to avoid increasing tension with the international community but is undoubtedly included in the unpublished and classified “Basic principles of state policy in the area of nuclear deterrence to 2020″ document, which was approved at the same time as the military doctrine and supposedly spells out the situations in which Russia would use nuclear weapons. Given that planners in both Russia and the United States still by and large subscribe to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, there is little point to secret plans to use nuclear weapons — the whole point is to publicize a relatively explicit set of situations in which your side would use nuclear weapons in order to make sure that the other side does not cross those lines.

More believable commentators speculate that the absence of the clause on preemptive use of nuclear weapons is a sign that negotiations with the United States on a new START treaty are going well.

For me, the most striking passages in the  doctrine have to do with the listing of external threats facing Russia. Eleven such threats are listed, including some fairly generic ones such as the spread of international terrorism and the spread of ethnic and religious extremist groups in regions near Russian borders. But the first threat listed refers explicitly to NATO and its efforts both to extend its reach globally and to bring its military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. The second threat listed refers to “efforts to destabilize the situation in specific countries and regions so as to undermine strategic stability,” clearly a veiled reference to Russian elites’ belief that the US was behind popular efforts to remove autocratic rulers in various former Soviet states in the last decade.

Because of these two sentences, the new doctrine is much more explicit than any previous official policy document in declaring that Russia considers NATO and its member states to be the most significant source of military danger to Russia. This makes for good domestic politics, but does little to address the real security issues facing Russia. Nor does it provide for a realistic set of guidelines for how to structure the Russian military in coming years. Clearly, Russian military planners are not planning  a military buildup on Russia’s western border. The actual threats will continue to emanate from the south in the near term, with a growing potential for tension with China sometime down the road.

Russian military planners know full well that NATO is not a threat and this was made clear today when French and Russian officials announced that they were going forward with the sale of France’s Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia. It seems fairly unlikely that Russian officials would buy military technology from an enemy state, nor that such an enemy would agree to sell it.

It seems to me that the prominent mention of NATO in the list of threats is a sop to the military’s old guard, who have been defeated in the battle over the future direction of the Russian military through the elimination of the mass mobilization army and the forced retirement of most of the old guard generals. Listing NATO as a threat is seen as a relatively harmless way to keep them quiet while the current leadership presses ahead with both structural reforms and closer ties with foreign defense industry.

Thus, we can see that Russia’s new military doctrine is simply a public relations document both in terms of its statement on nuclear policy and its listing of the key foreign threats facing Russia. In this context, it is not surprising that the content of the rest of the document is so generic, as the only politically relevant parts of the document are those that serve a PR purpose. As far as Russia’s military and civilian leadership is concerned, the rest could be filled with complete gibberish.