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.

 

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