Four Myths about Russian Grand Strategy
September 22, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
After spending most of the 1990s and early 2000s rebuilding their state, regime, economy, and military after the traumatic Soviet collapse, Russia’s return to a central—and often disruptive—place in world politics has laid bare the folly of many scholars and policymakers who ignored Russia during those years or dismissively argued that the country was irrelevant in a post-9/11 world focused on counterterrorism and sectarian violence in the Middle East. Perhaps owing to this neglect, Russia’s resurgence in the twenty-first century has resulted in a large number of misconceptions about its objectives in international politics. This paper seeks to clear up some of those misconceptions by identifying and dispelling four common myths about Russian grand strategy.1
Myth #1: Russia’s grand strategy is driven by ideology
One common misconception is that Russia’s leaders—and Putin in particular—are driven by ideological motivations in their pursuit of Russia’s grand strategic objectives. Oftentimes, this motivating ideology is identified as a general illiberal conservatism. This view is supported by claims from Putin himself, as in 2019 when he told the Financial Times that “the liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected...So, the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Further evidence of a conservative ideological bent to Russia’s grand strategy can also arguably be found in Russia’s well-documented ties to far-right political movements in Europe.
There is no doubt that Putin adheres to conservative social values and illiberal political principles, but their place in Russian strategy is more instrumental than ideological: they are useful tools for sowing discord and division in adversaries, thereby advancing Russia’s realpolitik interests in the political sphere. Additionally, such beliefs cannot account for the full range of objectives and methods that Russia employs in pursuit of national security. While these beliefs may shape Putin’s domestic rule, they do not motivate his strategic vision for Russia’s place in the world.
Others have suggested that Russia’s strategic worldview is heavily influenced by the Eurasianist ideology which has its roots in Russian nineteenth-century political philosophy and which bestows upon the Russian nation an inspired—or even divine—destiny to unite the Russian and non-Russian peoples who share common cultures across the territories of the former Russian empire. In recent years, Eurasianist ideology has been most closely identified with Russian political thinker Alexander Dugin, who was described once in Foreign Affairs as “Putin’s Brain.” However, there is little evidence to suggest Dugin holds any direct ideological influence over Putin, nor do Putin’s policies or statements reflect a complete embrace of Dugin’s Eurasianist ideas. Rather, Eurasianist ideology is just one strand of nationalist thought with which certain—but not all—Kremlin policies are consistent.
Rather than ideology, the foundations of Russia’s grand strategy can be found in the more universal, if mundane, condition of geopolitical insecurity that informs the realist school of thought. Russia's worldview and grand strategic objectives are the product of a deep and enduring sense of geopolitical insecurity that has conditioned its relationship to the outside world for centuries. This “persistent sense of vulnerability that never lies far beneath the surface in the consciousness of Russia's rulers” is born of a geography that is difficult to defend from external invasion, a close proximity to other great powers, and—as much as any other factor—Russia's own expansionist tendencies, which throughout history have frequently reduced security rather than bolster it. Ironically, much of Russia’s historical security dilemma has been self-induced, as Kotkin notes:
Russia simultaneously abutted Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. Such a circumstance should have argued for caution in foreign policy. But Russia had tended to be expansionist precisely in the name of vulnerability: even as forces loyal to the tsar had seized territory, they imagined they were preempting attacks [by other great powers]. And once Russia had forcibly acquired a region, its officials invariably insisted they had to acquire the next one over, too, in order to be able to defend their original gains. A sense of destiny and insecurity combined in a heady mix.
The resulting “besieged fortress mentality” that runs through Russian grand strategy can be found throughout Russian strategic documents and rhetoric, as in Putin’s March 2014 speech announcing the annexation of Crimea. In that address, he declared defiantly:
We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line…”
If this argument is correct—that Russia’s strategic worldview is driven by a deep sense of insecurity and a threat of encirclement rather than the ideology of its current leaders—we must acknowledge an uncomfortable reality about the future. One day, Russia’s current leaders—Putin included—will no longer rule the country. But Russia’s geography and geopolitical realities will remain unchanged and, if history is any guide, its grand strategic objectives will also endure long after a new generation of Russian rulers occupy the Kremlin.
Myth #2: Russia seeks to reconstruct the Soviet Union or Russian Empire.
In the wake of Russian military offensives against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014, which resulted in the annexation of Crimea, claims that Russia seeks to reconstruct an empire on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire have been common in many Western policy circles. But rather than restoring traditional imperial rule, Russia in the twenty-first century prefers to pursue what analyst Bobo Lo terms a “postmodern empire": “This type is characterized by indirect control rather than direct rule, and prefers to employ economic and cultural means instead of blunter military instruments…It aims for the best of all worlds: enduring influence and power, but with a minimum of responsibility.”
Instead of a formal territorial empire under direct rule, Russia endeavors to establish a privileged and exclusive sphere of influence across former Soviet territory. Within its asserted sphere, Russia seeks privileged status that gives Moscow a seat at the table in the capital of every post-Soviet country. It even claims the right to intervene when necessary in the domestic affairs of states within its sphere—for, in Putin’s view, only great powers like Russia are truly sovereign. Should a state in Russia’s supposed sphere take a decision that threatens Russian interests—such as a Ukrainian attempt to join NATO or the European Union—Moscow is prepared to exert the necessary levers of influence to veto that choice.
Furthermore, because Russia believes it is the only great power that can enjoy such a privileged pursuit of its political interests in the region, it views U.S. efforts to develop bilateral and multilateral ties with post-Soviet states as a zero-sum competition. Moscow is particularly sensitive to U.S. support for protest, democratization, and opposition movements in the post-Soviet space, seeing it as an attempt to enhance U.S. influence at Russia’s expense. It is worth pointing out that, while Moscow has been far more tolerant of expanding Chinese economic influence in Central Asia, even this remains a source of anxiety for the Kremlin. One can imagine rising friction in the region should Beijing’s overtures extend into the political and military realms.
This sphere of privileged and exclusive influence is a crucial element of Russia’s strategic solution to its security dilemma. It establishes a buffer zone between Russia and its key strategic adversary: the United States (as represented by NATO). Furthermore, it seeks to guarantee that the buffer states will not take sovereign actions that threaten Russia’s security. Finally, it aspires to eliminate what Moscow sees as destabilizing foreign meddling in its neighbors (especially the Colored Revolutions and Maidan Revolution) that is usually to the detriment of Russian interests. One need only recall Moscow’s forceful interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014 to appreciate the lengths to which the Kremlin is willing to go to defend its interests in the region.
Myth #3: Russia seeks to restore a bygone world order
Russia’s pursuit of spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space has led many analysts to draw historical parallels to previous eras of world order-making, attributing to Russia a desire to resurrect a bygone system of global order, such as the post-World War II “Yalta system.”
For the sake of historical accuracy—and contrary to popular belief—it should be noted that the concept of spheres of influence was not formally discussed at the Yalta Conference in 1945, although the tensely-negotiated fate of postwar Poland ensured that Moscow would consolidate its domination of Eastern Europe. In fact, it was in October 1944 that Stalin and Churchill famously agreed in Moscow to varying percentages of “influence” across Eastern Europe. And it was at Potsdam, not Yalta, that Truman—lacking Roosevelt's principled objections to spheres of influence—agreed to what amounted to a division of Europe into two spheres. Nevertheless, “Yalta” has become synonymous with the Soviet sphere of influence after the war, an image that appears time and again in Western and Russian discourse alike.
The other historical precedent sometimes offered as an analogy for Russia’s twenty-first-century grand strategy is the Concert of Europe system established after the Napoleonic Wars. As with Yalta, there is a grain of truth in this analogy. As it did then, Russia’s grand strategy still seeks to establish concerts of the world's great powers, through which it can exercise influence in world affairs beyond the post-Soviet region. As such, Russia sees the “concert” and its own participation in it, as the main guarantor of international order and stability. Combining both formal elements (such as the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto) and informal elements like ad-hoc consultation forums, the overarching objective of Russia’s participation in twenty-first-century “concerts” is to allow Moscow a decisive say in settling the world’s problems in ways that conform to its interests. Equally important is how concerts may help ensure that great powers respect one another’s interests—and, where necessary, deconflict.
That the images of Yalta and the Concert of Europe have gained prominence in accounts of Russian strategy is no accident: Putin himself has spoken on many occasions about both systems, lauding the peace, stability, and harmony they supposedly brought to world politics. In 2013, for example, he told participants of the Valdai Discussion Forum:
I want to remind you that the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the agreements made at Yalta in 1945, taken with Russia's very active participation, secured a lasting peace. Russia's strength, the strength of a winning nation at those critical junctures, manifested itself as generosity and justice. And let us remember [the Treaty of] Versailles, concluded without Russia's participation. Many experts, and I absolutely agree with them, believe that Versailles laid the foundation for the Second World War.
However, the myths of a “golden age” of great power cooperation, be it Yalta or the post-Napoleonic Congress system are just that: myths. The reality is that neither settlement produced global stability or even lasting cooperation among the victors. After all, it was only one year after Yalta that Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, marking the onset of the Cold War and clearly signaling that any cooperation among the USSR and the West was dead. Similarly, the Congress system was relatively short-lived and functionally dead by the end of 1825. However, these historical facts have not stopped present-day Russian elites from idealizing these systems and Russia's place in them, nor have they prevented speculation that Putin aspires to be a “modern Metternich.”
The reality is that the world order Russia seeks to establish—a multipolar system where great powers manage the rest of the world and coordinate to guarantee their own national interests—cannot be restored because it has never existed. As Putin no doubt recognizes, however, myths of resurrection can regardless be powerful propaganda tools.
Myth #4: Putin is an opportunist, not a strategist
It is common to hear commentators question the very existence of a Russian grand strategy by asserting that Vladimir Putin is an opportunist, not a strategist. Thus do Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent declare that Putin is not “a great chess player with a consistently pursued grand design. Instead, he is more of a shameless opportunist.” The assumption that strategy and opportunism are mutually exclusive is overly simplistic: regardless of who initiated action in round one, by round two of a strategic interaction, both states will be responding to the other. Strategic interactions are, as scholars of strategic choice theory recognize, iterated games rather than ephemeral single-shot interactions. Contrary to the myth that opportunism is a sign of poor or absent strategy, a certain degree of flexibility is essential for a state’s successful achievement of its strategic objectives.
No strategist—be it a general plotting the battlefield or the grand strategist contemplating the globe—can anticipate and plan for all the unexpected obstacles and opportunities that will arise between where they are and their strategic objectives. But the good strategist will have strong command of the tactical toolkit, knowing when to advance, backtrack, detour, or seize an opportunity to move toward the larger objective. Good strategy is not incompatible with opportunistic behavior—it depends on it.
Consider, in this light, Putin’s Crimean gambit. It is unrealistic to believe he was in control of, or even anticipated, the long string of events leading to Ukraine’s 2014 political earthquake: the European Union’s “take it or leave it” association agreement with Kyiv; the Maidan protests sparked by Yanukovych’s choice to “leave it”; the collapse of the power transition agreement of February 21, 2014; Yanukovych’s subsequent flight from Ukraine; and the nationalist policies, implemented by the interim government, which alienated many of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians in the south and east of the country. (This is not to say that Russia had no hand in influencing these events. Obviously, the Crimean invasion was deftly executed, indicating significant planning.)
But the collapse of political order in Ukraine presented Putin with both a risk and an opportunity. The risk was that the Maidan Revolution, like the Colored Revolution before it, threatened to pull Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence, perhaps forever. The opportunity, however, was that Russia was in a position to rapidly and unexpectedly intervene to achieve two major strategic victories: reclaiming the formerly Russian Crimean Peninsula and securing control of the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol, putting to rest a longstanding dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.
That Putin’s skilled opportunism makes him an effective strategist does not mean he is infallible. The equally pervasive myth that Putin is a master strategist, a chess grandmaster of global politics, is also untrue: Russia has made strategic mistakes in the last several years, including its military intervention in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where it has largely failed to achieve its political objectives six years on. All that is left is a simmering semi-frozen conflict from which Moscow appears unable to extract itself.
For Western policymakers, this means we should neither minimize nor mythologize Putin’s strategic abilities. Rather, we should recognize that he is a strategic opportunist: he will continue to seize unexpected opportunities to advance Russia’s national interests when and where they arise. We must therefore expect the unexpected and be equally ready to respond flexibly and rapidly to ensure Russian actions do not create “facts on the ground” that harm long-term U.S. interests.
Developing an effective response to Russia’s grand strategy requires a clear understanding of what that strategy is—and what it is not. This paper has sought to contribute to that discussion by identifying common myths about Russia’s pursuit of its core national security interests in the twenty-first century.
There is little doubt that Russia has a grand strategy, regardless of whether it is reflected in foundational national security documents. In analyzing Russia’s words and deeds, it seems clear it has well-developed strategic objectives and that Moscow coordinates a wide range of resources and methods to pursue them. In other words, Russia behaves strategically.
But does Russia have a successful grand strategy? Over the last few years, Russia has achieved several key steps toward its grand strategic objectives, all while encountering and adapting to unexpected challenges and opportunities. They are closer to achieving their objectives than they were 5, 10, or 20 years ago. By this metric, Russia has notched some notable strategic successes.
And yet one could rightly ask whether their asymmetric toolkit of disruptive tactics—no matter how effectively wielded against the United States—is truly up to the task of bringing about the kind of multipolar world order Russia seeks. Putin has proven adept at playing a weak hand to maximum effect. But does Russia have the means to bring about a fundamental reordering of the international system?
It is likely it does not: it is one thing to needle your opponent and chip away at the edges of their power; it is quite another to bring down the whole system and rebuild something in its place. If Russia’s vision of a multipolar world order dominated by a club of great powers with special privileges comes to pass, it will have less to do with Russia’s efforts and more to do with United States’ abdication of leadership and China’s rise into the void. And yet, as the Kremlin’s machinations in recent years have shown, Moscow can cause a great deal of trouble along the way.
Robert Person is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy and director of West Point’s curriculum in International Affairs. His current book project, Russia’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century, will be published by the Brookings Institution Press in 2022. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, United States Army, or Department of Defense.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
1 Portions of this paper are excerpted from Robert Person, Russia’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2022). I define grand strategy as an iterative process whereby states seek to identify their core national interests; articulate key strategic objectives that, if achieved, will fulfill those interests; mobilize resources to be applied in pursuit of strategic objectives; develop comprehensive and effective methods that make efficient use of constrained resources; and apply those methods through coordinated policy and action in order to achieve strategic objectives. Grand strategy is thus a state's attempt to optimally allocate scarce resources (means) toward the methods (ways) that are best suited for achieving the state's highest goals (ends), all while responding and adapting to opportunities and constraints posed by other strategic actors, structures, and events in the international system.