Russian Hard Power Projection: A Brief Synopsis
March 25, 2020
Russian military activity on its periphery and in its near abroad is commonplace. This activity spans a broad spectrum from conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia on one hand, and joint exercises with Belarus, China, and Kazakhstan, on the other. In recent years, Russian forces have begun to go further away from these traditional areas of operation: Troops have been fighting in Syria since 2015; Moscow has sent naval vessels to the coast of South Africa for exercises with China; and has flown nuclear-capable Blackjack (Tu-160) strategic bombers to Venezuela.
The Russian military’s growing global presence suggests that Moscow maintains a significant capacity to project hard military power. Their strategy and tools, however, differ significantly from those of the United States. The ‘American Way’ relies on aircraft carriers, aerial refueling, and overseas basing – three areas where Russia is almost entirely lacking. As its actions in Syria and elsewhere demonstrate though, Russia projects in its own way, and has learned and developed from each experience: How and why does Russia project military power the way it does? What specific lessons has Moscow learned from its experience with power projection?
According to a recent Rand Corporation report, Russia has five broad strategic priorities: First, strategic deterrence; second, regional dominance; third, expeditionary capabilities; fourth, preparation for major war; and fifth, internal security. These priorities determine how military power is projected.
The specific tools that Russia uses to pursue these priorities, is in part driven its lack of hardware used to project military might the ‘American way’; namely, aircraft carriers (zero functional – Kuznetsov class), aerial refueling tankers (21 active – Ilyushin-78 variants (NATO- Midas)), and overseas bases. For comparison, the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy operates more Kuznetsov carriers than Russia (two). The United States Navy possesses 11 active aircraft carriers (19 with Amphibious assault ships) and the Air Force possesses 212 active-duty tanker aircraft (455 if the Air National Guard and Reserves are included). Russia has plans to expand these capabilities, but there are no quick fixes.
This lack of hardware has led Russia to rely on a diverse toolkit, one that reflects its comparative strengths. Moscow is more likely to deploy conventional ground forces, its primary means of hard power projection , in places on its periphery like Ukraine or Georgia. Elsewhere, asymmetric means are preferred to traditional military power. These include, but are not limited to, economic/resource coercion (OPEC / Belarus), information operations (Turkey/ USA), and private military contractors (PMCs) (Venezuela / Sudan).
In order to project further afield, to confront the United States and NATO, Russia introduces an explicit nuclear dimension to its toolkit. An important component of this is well-calculated ambiguity as to the cases in which Russia could use nuclear weapons. For example, the most recent (2014) military doctrine states that:
“The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
The doctrine continues to say that the sole mission of nuclear weapons is the prevention of war. Adding to the ambiguity, is the lack of an explicit definition as to what constitutes an act that threatens “the very existence of the state.” This current doctrine runs contrary to the 1998 assessment by Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who participated in START I and START II negotiations, that [following internal debate throughout the 1990s] “the purpose [of Russia’s nuclear strategy] is to enable nuclear weapons to achieve a broad variety of missions when less than survival of the country is at stake.” Writing again in 2014, Sokov notes Russian strategy is:
“a strategy envisioning the threat of a limited nuclear strike that would force an opponent to accept a return to the status quo ante. Such a threat is envisioned as deterring the United States and its allies from involvement in conflicts in which Russia has an important stake, and in this sense is essentially defensive. Yet, to be effective, such a threat also must be credible.”
Analysts like Olga Oliker, however, reject Sokov’s assessment. She specifically rejects the notion that the proponents of escalation won a bureaucratic fight. Stating the exact opposite of Sokov in a 2018 article, Oliker wrote, “proponents of a lowered threshold ultimately lost a bureaucratic fight… None of this is to say that Moscow’s nuclear policies are purely defensive. There is evidence to suggest that a coercive element also exists, even if a ‘de-escalatory’ one does not.” Others such as Kristen ven Bruusgaard have reached similar conclusions.
Regardless of the precise nature of Russian nuclear strategy and the prescribed scenarios for use, the Russian government has achieved its projection goals in the nuclear domain: their systems and strategy have been, are now, and will be omnipresent in NATO and US decision-making about potential crises and conflicts with Russia.
To enhance the credibility of its threats, Russia also seeks to demonstrate its capabilities through the expansion and modernization of its arsenal and large-scale exercises of its strategic forces. This includes an intensive research and development program for new weapons systems, with an emphasis towards hypersonic systems capable of defeating a perceived American advantage in missile defense capability.
How has this toolkit been developed and implemented over time?
In August 2008, Russia engaged in a brief war with its overmatched southern neighbor, Georgia. Despite its victory, the Russian Armed Forces, and especially the Ground Forces were exposed: they were underequipped, undermanned, and undertrained. This proved to be troublesome, yet not catastrophic, and many lessons were quickly learned. The application of these began mere months later: Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov initiated major reforms in only October 2008. They continued over the next several years, developing towards their live-fire testing in Ukraine and eventually Syria.
In Ukraine, Russia applied and tested what it learned . It deployed a broader selection of tools, achieved initial military objectives, and projected hard power abroad in precisely the manner Russian leadership wanted; it took Crimea without a fight, it created lasting instability throughout Ukraine , and, most importantly, it deterred Western intervention in the region beyond military aid. To do this Russia used PMCs and special operations forces (SOF) to initially deny involvement in Eastern Ukraine; used its ground forces both to deter through their presence near Ukraine’s borders and to intervene in the Donbas War ; and, brought its nuclear forces to a heightened state of readiness (though this was only broadly known after the fact).
Russia also deployed non-kinetic means to achieve initial military objectives in Ukraine. These included information operations to heighten political instability throughout the country; cyberattacks against critical infrastructure targets; and the leveraging of economic resources to hurt the Ukrainian economy.
In Syria, further new operational concepts were tested. In the initial stages of its involvement, the Russian Navy tested its ability to conduct long-range precision conventional strikes (cruise missile strikes by the Caspian Flotilla). These strikes demonstrated an ability to cast a shadow over not just Syria, but the whole of Central and Southwestern Asia. Furthermore, it showed how hardware deficiencies can be overcome. This has resulted in development and procurement being geared towards systems and supporting equipment (radars, electronic warfare systems) that enable the expansion of this mission. For example, the 9M729 missile and the 29B6 “Kontayner” Radar have entered service.
Moscow has additionally learned about, and gained further experience for its personnel in, combined arms warfare, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance), and battlefield C2 (Command and Control).
Russia now possesses a more finely tuned strategy that allows it to engage in military conflicts and project military power and influence further from its borders. It does so differently from the United States, in a way that is adjusted to adapt to, and maximize, any comparative military advantage Russia has, or may gain. The Russian Armed Forces have always proven to be crafty and resilient: This is aptly demonstrated by the evolution of its power projection toolkit over the conflicts of the past twelve years. This evolution is despite immense economic pressure disallowing projected advances in the quantity of modernized systems deployed. From the revelation of major flaws in Georgia, to the success of the Syrian campaign, Russia will continue to adapt and refine the way it projects military power.
William Heerdt is a research intern with the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.