Parsing Russia’s New Military Doctrine: NATO as a Core Threat


2015-01-08 By Richard Weitz

The new Russian military doctrine adopted shortly before Christmas [available on the Kremlin website makes somewhat clearer Russian leaders’ current threat perceptions and national security priorities.

This iteration, which more accurately reflects Russian government statements, is the fourth since the Russian Federation became an independent country in 1991; the earlier versions date from 1993, 2000 and 2010.

The Russian Security Council, which includes the president and other senior national security officials, directed the writing of an updated military doctrine in July 2013 and established a special working group for that purpose.

In September 2014, Mikhail Popov, the Council’s deputy chairman, said that the doctrine would address new threats that have arisen since 2010, such as “the Arab Spring events, the military conflict in Syria and the situation in Ukraine and around it” as well as NATO’s more hostile stance toward Russia, including its unreliability as a supplier of military equipment.

The Council approved the new text on December 19 and President Vladimir Putin signed it one week later.

In its press release announcing the new doctrine, the Council highlighted these new threats (which cover and sometimes transcend foreign and domestic ones) as well as the challenge presented by the global growth of religious extremism, ethnic violence, state separatism, the decline of patriotism in Russian youth, the “intensification of global competition,” the “rivalry of value orientations and models of development,” and the “indirect action” tactics of “leading states” (i.e., NATO members) – their manipulation of popular protests, extremist organizations, private security companies, and other tools and agents against legitimate independent governments.

In addition to addressing these threats and dangers, the Council press release justified the revisions as needed to take into account Russian defense legislation that had appeared since 2010, recent changes in the structure and capabilities of the Russian armed forces, and the need to guide development and acquisition of a new generation of weapons systems as the existing ones reach the end of their services lives.

The Council insisted on the defensive nature of the doctrine and the government’s intent to apply military power only as a last resort after Russia first uses non-military tools of influence (diplomacy, energy, and other).

As foreshadowed by Popov’s remarks, the latest iteration describes NATO as becoming a more serious threat to Russia due its growing capabilities, both in general and in Russia’s vicinity, its expanding membership, which is encompassing many former Soviet bloc countries, and NATO’s perceived grasp for “global functions” in “violation of international law,” a reference to the alliance’s military interventions in Kosovo and Libya without Moscow’s unreserved approval in the UN Security Council.

Of course, NATO’s stronger policies in Europe result largely from Russian aggression against Ukraine, threats to other countries, and Moscow’s veto of UN mandates authorizing international interventions to protect civilians from state-sponsored mass repression.

From the Kremlin’s vantage point, moreover, NATO, the EU, and the rest of the West are allegedly plotting to overthrow governments friendly to Moscow through “social revolutions” engineered by Western diplomats, intelligence agencies, information campaigns through the Internet and other communications technologies, private military contractors and paramilitary groups, local fascists or terrorists, and other instruments.

In this interpretation, this campaign encompasses the Arab Spring but aims to subvert Moscow’s allies and eventually “the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” itself.

With NATO “puppets” in charge of these countries, Western businesses can more easily exploit their natural resources and undermine Russia’s “sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”

Of course, Russia has been developing and employing its own panoply of non-military hybrid capabilities to subvert or influence foreign governments, including cyber weapons, mass media tools, foreign intelligence assets, energy dependencies, agents of influence within ethnic Russians or other groups living in foreign countries, and other tools.

Russia is also building alliances with other states (and statelets).

The doctrine actually priorities the latter—Abkhazia and South Ossetia are designated as Moscow’s closest military allies, along with Belarus, due to the integration of their militaries with those of Russia. Below them rank the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The doctrine also says Russia is eager to develop security partnership with international groups that Moscow believes share its perspectives—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China), the BRICS (which besides Russia includes Brazil, India, China and South Africa), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Other than these short references, China is not explicitly mentioned in this version of the doctrine or the previous one, either as a threat or an ally.

The Doctrine’s description of Russia’s more capable nuclear forces, which have been receiving priority funding and attention by the current leadership, does not differ much from previous documents.

Despite some earlier speculation that the Russian government would announce some kind of preemptive strike doctrine, the text states that the Russian President would authorize the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for an attack against Russia and its allies that involved the use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological) or in the case of an attack with conventional weaponry that “threatens the very existence of the state” (Article 27).

Of course, Russia joins the other nuclear weapons states, with China’s being the sole and unverifiable exception, in refusing to exclude first using these weapons.

In addition, Russian officials, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have been issuing more explicit nuclear threats during the past year, including to affirm that defending Crimea falls under Russia’s nuclear umbrella and even that Moscow can now legally place nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

The caveat about Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons to prevent a major conventional defeat would apply most obviously to NATO but also to any Chinese attempt to exploit its local conventional superiority to recover Russian Far Eastern territories lost in previous centuries.

One reason for this abstention may be that the Doctrine more forthrightly acknowledges Russia’s non-nuclear “strategic deterrence measures,” such as better-prepared conventional military forces, improved precision-guided munitions, and other means of combat without using nuclear weapons.

Scholars may debate the importance of the distinction in the distinction between opasnosti (dangers) and ugrozy (threats) facing Russia, but the latter are probably more easily dealt with by non-military means.[ref] See the contributions by Roger McDermott (“Putin Signs New Military Doctrine: Core Elements Unchanged”) and Stephen Blank (“Russia’s Defense Doctrine Reflects Putin’s Paranoia and Siege Mentality”) in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 12, Issue 2 (January 6, 2015).[/ref]

The Russian command is still studying the issue of how to operationalize an effective “system of non-nuclear deterrence” and the December 2014 Military Doctrine only hints at what might come, but Russia’s conventional forces have certainly improved since the 2008 Georgia War and the Doctrine explicitly pledges to continue the current military reform program.

Yet, the text cites the U.S. development of precisely these systems (without mentioning the United States by name) as a threat, singling out “strategic conventional precision weapons” (the possible placement of conventional warheads on ICBMs to develop “prompt global strike” systems that can hit targets throughout the world in only a few minutes), space-based weapons (possibly anti-satellite weapons but not ballistic missiles, which Russia guards as the jewels in its arsenal), and ballistic missile defenses.

Even some Russian analysts worry that Russian officials are exaggerating U.S. capabilities in these areas, while foreign analysts believe this may be to justify Russia’s own programs and military spending. Like the United States and China, moreover, Russia is also developing hypersonic conventional strike systems, anti-satellite capabilities, and even missile defenses.

Another novelty is the new emphasis on the Russian military’s role in defending Moscow’s interests in the Arctic region.

In recent years, the Russian government, citing alleged NATO threats, has decided to establish a network of military facilities and send more warplanes, warships, and troops to the region. Bolstering Moscow’s hold on the Crimea is naturally another priority. The doctrine is even willing to discuss with NATO, as long as it is “a dialogue of equals,” such issues as regional security, arms control, confidence-building measures, and even joint missile defense.

The Obama administration no doubts welcomes the assertion that Moscow is eager “to maintain equal relations with interested states and international organizations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” (art. 50e). Yet, the duty of the Russian military to help “ensure the protection of its citizens, outside the Russian Federation” (art. 22) is an alarming clause that Moscow could cite to intervene in the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine, and other NATO members and partners.

Although the current version more accurately reflects Russian thinking, it is more difficult to accept the Doctrine as a definitive guideline for future Russian strategy and tactics. Doctrine tends to lag behind and mirror rather than lead the development of actual policies, and Russia is undergoing a traumatic economic crisis that could well derail its planned military buildup.

With the collapse of both world oil prices and the value of the ruble on foreign exchange markets, as well as the Western sanctions limiting trade and investment with Russia, the Kremlin will find it difficult to sustain its exceptionally high spending. (Russian government spending for 2015 is scheduled to rise to 35% of the 15.5 trillion ruble budget, or about $100 billion.

The new situation might require the government to roll back its previous goal of modernizing at least 70 percent of its conventional equipment and 85 percent of its strategic nuclear weapons by 2020 in the new state defense program under development for the years 2016-2025, which should appear in public soon. Whatever the Doctrine’s intentions, until Russia’s economy recovers, the Kremlin will struggle to achieve the capabilities designed to implement it.

[The author would like to thank Karolina Lovejoy for her research assistance with this article.]