Review of Bettina Renz’s new book on Russia’s Military Revival

I wrote the following book review for Oxford’s CCW Russia Brief, Issue 3. These Russia briefs from Oxford’s changing character of war program feature some of the top experts and are worth reading cover to cover. The most recent issue also includes articles by Richard Connolly, Michael Kofman, Nazrin Mehdiyeva, and Andrew Monaghan.

It can be reasonably argued that over the last decade, the Russian government has had no higher priority than restoring its military as a potent force that can both strike fear into its adversaries and be capable of being used to achieve state goals in an armed conflict. In Russia’s Military Revival, Bettina Renz sets out to explain the reasons for this focus on rebuilding its military. In doing so, she moves well beyond the common narratives that focus on improvements on hardware and training or, less commonly, on strategy and doctrine. Although an overview of all of those things is provided, the real focus is on the purpose of the revival, rather than its technical details or the means with which Russia is planning to fight.

In writing the book, Renz seeks to correct three misguided assumptions about the “timing, purpose, and scope” of Russia’s drive to rearm: 1) the idea that the drive to rearm signals a “paradigm shift” in Russian policy, 2) the notion that rearmament is being driven by “an expansionist and aggressive foreign policy”, and 3) the view that “Russian military capabilities now rival those of the West” (p. 11). The book is devoted to disproving these assumptions. In doing so, Renz shows that since Russia became an independent country in 1991, its government has consistently sought to maintain, use, and whenever possible strengthen the military instrument of its power. She also shows that despite significant improvements in capabilities in recent years, the Russian military remains far weaker than those of the West and Russia’s military power is not sufficient to “guarantee victory in all cases” or even to “create substantial new opportunities for the achievement of objectives that were not achievable before” (p. 12).

Renz focuses the first chapter of the book on countering the idea that Russia is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. She argues instead that Russia’s foreign policy has four main drivers: great power status, sovereignty, imperial legacy, and multilateralism. Most critically, Russian foreign policy is driven by an effort to restore its great power status and to have that status recognized by the international community and by the leading powers in the international system. This recognition is necessary for Russia to achieve its second goal, of having a right to sovereignty in its decision-making. Russian understandings of sovereignty differ somewhat from those common in the West. Most importantly, “The Kremlin believes that its sovereignty to conduct internal affairs without outside interference can only be preserved if it can also pursue an independent foreign policy abroad” (p. 34). This linkage of the internal and external components of sovereignty, together with the fear that its adversaries are infringing on its sovereignty through regime change efforts, has resulted in a belief that a strong military is needed to secure Russian sovereignty. The belief that a sphere of influence is a sign of being a great power, together with an understanding of sovereignty as pertaining to great powers but not necessarily to smaller states, encourages Russian political elites to pursue the legacy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union by seeking to dominate its former territories in the “near abroad,” though generally without asserting direct territorial control. Finally, the Russian leadership sees the solution to problems in the international sphere in great-power multilateralism, a sort of renewed version of the 19th century Concert of Europe wherein the great powers work together to ensure international peace and security.

It is Russia’s perceived inability to convince other major powers, and especially the United States, of the benefits of this type of international system that has led its leaders to focus increasingly on ensuring their country’s security through unilateral means, including through the revival of its military and security forces, expansion of their use domestically and especially abroad, and the development and refinement of non-military and quasi-military means designed to achieve Russian foreign policy goals. The rest of the book is devoted to describing these developments, beginning with chapters on the reform and strengthening of the Russian military and on militarized components of other Russian government agencies.

No book is perfect, and these two chapters are arguably the weakest part of this one. The chapter on military reform begins promisingly, with a discussion of the origins of the reform effort, and generally seeks to contextualize the strengths and weaknesses of the reform effort. In doing so, unfortunately, Renz tends to overstate the constraints on Russia’s ability to carry out the reform and to strengthen its military. While this is not the place for a full discussion of these issues, I would note that the Russian military has in the last five years largely solved its manpower problem through a combination of decreased deferments for conscripts and improvements in recruitment of professional soldiers. Recruitment should become even easier in the coming decade due to an increase in the number of draft eligible young men in the population.

Similarly, while economic problems and international sanctions have created difficulties for the production of new weapons over the last five years, Russia has largely weathered the storm without suffering an economic collapse and has found alternative sources, both domestic and foreign, for components that it used to import from European states. Finally, Russian military planners have impressed in how they have worked around the constraints imposed by defence industry gaps and financial limitations. For example, the Russian Navy has dealt with the shipbuilding industry’s inability to provide it with new large ships in a timely manner by developing a strategy that focuses on the installation of small numbers of highly effective cruise missiles on a large number of relatively small ships. These ships can then be used to deter attack by threatening the adversary from the relative safety of enclosed seas where the ships can be protected by shore-based defence systems. This is not to negate the author’s larger point that Western analysts face the risk of overstating Russian military prowess, simply to highlight that it is very difficult to achieve precision in the balance between overstatement and understatement.

The chapter on Russia’s “second army” – the various agencies and ministries other than the Ministry of Defence that have armed formations under their command – suffers from a very different flaw. It falls into the descriptive trap, wherein the author spends numerous pages describing the various agencies and the forces they control, but without explaining their purpose. The reader would have been better served had the chapter cut out much of this description in favour of a more detailed set of explanations of how these agencies promote the themes that connect Russian military revival and Russian foreign policy, as spelled out in the rest of the book.

The last two chapters return to the book’s core strengths, discussing situations in which Russia has used its military forces and developments in Russian military thought in the post-Soviet period. In both chapters, as in the book as a whole, the dominant theme is continuity. Renz shows that Russia’s recent use of military power abroad comes from largely the same foreign policy sources as its actions in the 1990s. Similarly, she shows that the concept of warfighting that has been labelled hybrid warfare in the West has largely grown out of existing concepts, both in Russia/the Soviet Union and in the West, that have been extended based on new developments in technology and military thinking in recent years. The key point, though, is that these concepts do not provide a fool-proof winning formula for Russian aggression in the near abroad or elsewhere in the world.

Overall, Russia’s Military Revival makes a convincing argument that Russia is not a ‘revanchist’ state that, “enabled by better military capabilities, is seeking to forcefully expand the country’s influence in the CIS region and to confront the West in a bid for domination” (p. 157). Instead, the key takeaway from this well-written and cogently argued book is that Russian foreign policy goals have been largely consistent since the early 1990s, but that the change in Russia’s relative power vis-à-vis its main competitors in the international sphere has resulted in the changes in foreign policy behaviour that we have observed over the last decade.



5 things to know about Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises

I have an explainer article about the Vostok exercise on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…

Military analysts around the world are keeping a close eye on Russia’s annual fall military maneuvers, as this year may turn out to be the largest post-Cold War show of force. Vostok-2018 kicks off this week in Russia’s Far East and the Pacific Ocean, along with auxiliary exercises before and after the main event.

The big news this year is the addition of joint exercises with China. What do these military exercises entail, and what do you need to know?

1. What are these war games?

The Vostok exercise is part of an annual rotating series of large-scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. “Vostok” means east; last fall’s Zapad-2017 took place along Russia’s western border.

Similar major strategic operational exercises took place each fall throughout the Soviet period as well. However, unlike past military readiness drills, the Defense Ministry has billed Vostok-2018 as a strategic maneuver exercise, in which the forces are divided into two groups that engage each other rather than fighting against an imaginary opponent, as was the case in all previous iterations.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Valdai 2017: Reactions from a newbie

I promised a readout of my impressions of the Valdai Club meeting. This was the first time I had been invited to attend this event and I was curious to get a sense of both the content of the discussions and the atmosphere. The four day conference was held at a Gazprom-owned mountain resort an hour outside of Sochi, though after the first day we had virtually no opportunities to go outside, much less leave the compound. When I decided to take a walk in the hills during the lunch break on the last day of the conference, I was very nicely told by the guard at the gate in the fence that the gate was closed for the day (almost certainly because that was the day that Vladimir Putin was supposed to appear). That was very indicative of the setup. Having a conference in a beautiful mountain resort is very nice, but it’s also a good way to keep the participants from wandering off or seeing anything the organizers might not want them to see.


1) I had not realized just how little of the conference would be on Russia. The theme was “Creative Destruction: Will a New World Order Emerge from the Current Conflicts?” The individual panels within that theme were all on grand topics such as man vs. nature or rich vs. poor. There was one panel on “the conflict between differing geopolitical worldviews,” where most of the panelists ended up either spouting self-serving formulations of the “China just wants to share its prosperity with the world” variety or seemed bizarrely naïve, such as one European speaker arguing that Britain would not leave the European Union and Europe would be just fine. A Russian scholar talked about how the US and Russia were engaged in a new Cold War that was even worse than the old one and of course this was America’s fault. The one exception was a prominent American IR scholar, who tried to bring some sense to the proceedings, but with limited success.

The surreal nature of the choice of panel topics was highlighted by the special panel on US domestic politics. First, its presence on the program highlighted the absence of a panel on Russian domestic politics. Second, the speakers included a senior Russian diplomat and two highly respected American experts on Russian politics. Absent were any experts on US politics, which lent the proceedings a slightly odd air, even as the participants did their best to explain the Trump presidency to the audience.

The best panel was another special panel – on the Russian revolution in honor of its 100th anniversary, with five top historians giving their interpretations of the meaning and impact of the revolution on Russia and the world. Overall, though, it seemed odd to gather a large number of experts on Russia just to have them discuss big conceptual issues such as climate change and poverty on which they were experts. As a result, the most interesting discussions I had were in the corridors and in the bar, where there were plenty of opportunities to interact with and learn from both Western and Russian colleagues.

2) The meetings with Russian officials are usually the highlight of the event, yet they seemed to be somewhat disengaged. The senior officials who came to speak with us included Sergei Lavrov, Sergey Kislyak, Igor Shuvalov, Vyacheslav Volodin, German Gref and, of course, Vladimir Putin himself. The dominant theme of all the meetings was that the United States had betrayed Russia’s trust in the 1990s. As Putin said when asked about any mistakes Russia had made in its relations with the United States, our greatest mistake was that we trusted you too much and your greatest mistake was that you took our trust as weakness. The video and transcript of the Putin speech are widely available, so I won’t go over the content in detail. Putin’s attitude was perhaps more interesting than the content of his speech and answers to questions. He seemed disinterested and disengaged. The answers he gave were rote. Some attendees who had been present at Valdai last year indicated that some of the answers were virtually verbatim repeats of things he had said the year before. Given that Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov had promised a “major announcement” from Putin at Valdai, the audience members were left wondering if they had missed something.

Putin clearly wanted to really hammer home the double standards argument that he has been making vis-à-vis the West (and particularly the United States) for years now. He spent an inordinate amount of time on a minute relitigation of the ICJ court case affirming Kosovo’s declaration of independence, pulling out a folder with printouts of the decision and of the reactions to it of various Western governments, which he spent a good 10 minutes reading out loud. He went on a little tirade about Ukrainian nationalism, though he seemed to conflate Petliura and Bandera in the process.


The most interesting thing about his speech was perhaps the conclusion. In response to moderator Fyodor Lukyanov’s tongue in cheek closing comment about how Valdai would miss Putin if he stopped attending because he was no longer president, he asked “will you not invite me if I’m not president?” and followed up with a joke about an oligarch who discovers that he has lost all his money and tells his wife that they will have to sell the fancy cars and houses and move back to the old apartment in Moscow. When the oligarch asks her if she will still love him, she says “yes and I will miss you very much.” The implication was that Putin very much recognizes that his status derives from his position and that leaving the position is fraught with the threat of great personal losses for him. The joke was perhaps the only time when Putin allowed a glimpse of his actual views on the world or his role in it, going beyond the by now stale script of how Russia didn’t want to be opposed to the West but had been forced into the position after being repeatedly betrayed by the United States.

The other officials all spoke off the record, but the impression they gave was not a particularly positive one. Lavrov was smart and cynical as usual. Shuvalov seemed to have dropped the “I am a good pro-Western liberal” act and was just acting like a post-Soviet bureaucrat defending his government’s policies. Volodin was, if anything, worse. As my colleague Rawi Abdelal put it, if Shuvalov looked like he had come from 1994, Volodin seemed to have arrived directly from 1974. He lost his cool on a couple of occasions, including in responding to a question about Navalny, and his scowl was really a sight to behold (see below). Gref seemed to have taken over the role of good Western liberal from Shuvalov, giving a slick presentation about various disruptive 21st century technologies and their potential impacts on Russia in general and on Sberbank in particular. The audience members’ level of interest in the presentation was inversely proportional to their familiarity with the technologies being discussed. Gref came off as a neophyte who had just discovered these new scientific developments that he mostly but not completely understood but thought were really really important and couldn’t wait to share them with everyone.


3) Finally, it’s worth briefly addressing the optics of the event. The parts of the event that involved Russian officials were clearly highly choreographed. The first few questions to Putin gave all signs of being pre-arranged softballs asked by known members of the “Russia understanders” camp. It was quite noticeable that the moderator of the Putin Q&A avoided calling on Americans until the very end, when he did call on Toby Gati. The Lavrov and Putin meetings were slightly odd in another way, as rather than taking the stage alone to address the audience and answer their questions, they were instead on panels with other speakers (colloquially called “side dishes”), who gave short presentations and then sat more or less uncomfortably as the audience addressed their questions to the Russian officials while ignoring them. The Putin panel included Hamid Karzai and Jack Ma (Alibaba CEO), as well as a representative of the Nobel Research Institute. I imagine these are not people who are used to being ignored for long periods of time. Also, there was a gala awards dinner the first evening, emceed by Sofiko Shevardnadze. It all seemed a bit too forced and too loud, like amateurs trying to put on the Oscars and ending up with something more like a small town’s annual good citizen award ceremony. It would probably be best to drop this event, or at least tone it down, as I overheard a lot of participants making uncomplimentary remarks about it afterwards.

There’s always a lively debate in the United States about whether one should attend Valdai. This was the first year I was invited, but I have always thought that for those of us who study Russian politics, it is our job to take any and all opportunities to gain a better understanding of the country and of its leadership. Activists may take a different position, eschewing any signs of “collaboration” in what is clearly a staged and choreographed event. While I wish there were more panels focusing more directly on Russian politics and foreign policy, seeing Putin, Lavrov, et al in action was worthwhile in and of itself. I’ll certainly go back if invited again, since it would be useful to compare the messaging pre- and post-2018 elections.

Zapad-2017: A brief explainer

I wrote the following article for The National Interest.

The Zapad-2017 military exercise that will take place in September in Russia and Belarus has already begun to draw attention in the Western press. In recent days, media outlets have published somewhat panicked accounts about the unprecedented numbers of Russian troops conducting drills on the borders of vulnerable eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania. Others are arguing that once Russian troops enter Belarus to participate in the exercise, they are likely to stay behind “in order to give Moscow a more-advanced forward base in Europe” or, in the less carefully chosen words of some Ukrainian officials, to occupy Belarus possibly as a prelude to an invasion of Ukraine from the north. Given this level of excitement about a military exercise still six weeks away, it may be useful to analyze what we actually know about the upcoming exercise and its predecessors.

The Zapad exercise is a regularly scheduled event that has been held quadrennially since 1999. What’s more, it is part of an annual rotating series of large scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. Similar major strategic operational exercises were held in the fall throughout the Soviet period as well. In other words, everyone has known that this exercise would be held in the early fall of 2017 since at least four years ago. The only uncertainty was regarding the scope and exact parameters of the exercise.

These aspects remain uncertain at the present time. Official Russian sources have indicated that the total number of troops involved in the exercise will not exceed 13,000, while Western officials and analysts have been quoted as sayingthat as many as 100,000 Russian personnel may be involved. Previous Zapad exercises have been on the larger side, with Zapad-2013 involving approximately 75,000 troops and personnel. Part of the discrepancy in numbers may stem from a disagreement over who should be counted. The highest Western numbers usually include not just members of the Russian armed forces, but also personnel from security agencies and civilian officials who may be involved in parts of the exercise. Furthermore, the Russian military may choose to conduct other related exercises that are not technically part of Zapad-2017 and would therefore not be included in the official declaration on the number of troops involved.

What we do know is that the total number of Russian troops on Belarusian territory is not expected to exceed 3,000 personnel. … <To read the rest of the article, click here>

New Gerasimov article on nature of warfare

Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, has published a new article on the nature of modern warfare. Given how much attention has been paid to his 2013 article on this topic, it seems worthwhile to quickly review what’s changed in the last four years.

The most important observation, though, is how much hasn’t changed. Gerasimov still focuses on the American origin of hybrid warfare, both attributing the origin of the term to American theoretical writings and discussing its implementation in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria.

Gerasimov’s discussion of the origins of the conflict in Syria is worth citing at length. He notes that in the first stage, internal Syrian tensions were transformed into armed actions by the opposition. The opposition was supported by foreign trainers and an active information war from abroad. Subsequently, terrorist groups supplied and organized from abroad then entered the conflict against Syrian government forces. The conclusion that Gerasimov draws is that hybrid warfare is actively practiced by the United States and other NATO members, in large part because this type of action does not fall under the definition of aggression.

Nevertheless, Gerasimov isn’t eager to assume that the hybrid warfare concept is here to stay or to introduce it into official Russian discourse. Instead he focuses (as in the 2013 article) on the continuing erasure of the boundary between conditions of war and peace. He highlights that it is more and more common for a country’s sovereignty and national security to be threatened in peacetime. The spectrum of reasons for use of military force is continually expanding, with force being more often used to secure a state’s economic interests or to enforce democratic values in another country.

Much of this is a repeat of the 2013 argument, with the focus on Western states using a wide spectrum of measures (political, economic, diplomatic, informational) combined with the “protest potential of the population,” to ensure that their interests are observed. Cyber warfare is added to this list, with an example of cyber attacks on Iranian energy infrastructure.

What seems interesting to me is the second half of the article, where Gerasimov discusses how Russia is responding to this heightened risk of “new generation” warfare. Here, Gerasimov drops all the discussion of hybrid and information warfare. Instead, his focus is very much old school: a discussion of strategic deterrence with nuclear weapons and long range aviation. To this is added the development of long range cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions, next generation fighter aircraft, modern ships, etc. There is also a discussion of advances in automation and electronic warfare. In other words, Russia is preparing to respond to this threat environment by strengthening its conventional and nuclear military capability. There is virtually no discussion of Russian efforts to engage in information warfare or hybrid warfare of any kind. “Little green men” play no role in this vision of Russian military power. Instead, we are given to understand that Russia will respond to any aggression with overwhelming force.

Slides from MCIS 2016 panel on Color Revolutions

Two more sets of slides today, both from the panel on Color Revolutions and Regional Security. The first set goes with the speech by Major General Sergei Afanasyev, Deputy Chief of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff. While the text of the speech is not available, there is a video with English translation (starts at approximately 3 minute mark).

(Scroll down for slides provided by President Putin’s internet advisor.)


The second set of slides goes with the speech by German Klimenko, the advisor to President Putin on the internet. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a video or text of his speech online. If anyone has a link, please email it to me or point to it in the comments.IMG_2368IMG_2369IMG_2370IMG_2371IMG_2372IMG_2373IMG_2374

Gerasimov slides from MCIS 2016

A number of people have asked me to post the slides from the MCIS conference. I have a number of sets. First up is Valery Gerasimov’s presentation. These slides can be usefully combined with the Russian text of his speech or the translated English language video of his remarks.