A Chronology of Russia's Military and Defense Strategy

7 MINS READFeb 19, 2014 | 11:00 GMT
Spotlight on Sochi

Editor's Note: The following is the fourth in a series of chronologies that illuminate Russia's geopolitical context.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the future of the Russian military was in question. As the Warsaw Pact countries and the republics of the Soviet Union gained autonomy and independence, Russia lost many of its bases in its periphery, its military industries in those states and a significant percentage of the military personnel, who now belonged to independent countries.

The Russian military and its industrial complex in the 1990s were chaotic and top-heavy, and there was no political will in the Kremlin to fix their problems (mainly due to President Boris Yeltsin's concerns that the military could overthrow him one day). For a national military, a decade without reforms and procurement is something that takes decades to recover from — which is why the Russian military is still struggling to become even a shadow of its former self. The military was embarrassingly ineffective in even containing security issues within its own borders, such as during the First Chechen War.

Impact of the Kursk Accident

Aug. 17, 2000: When President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, restructuring, modernizing and strengthening the military became a priority. This priority intensified after Russia launched the Second Chechen War in 1999, and in 2000 when the military felt a deep humiliation after the Kursk, a Russian submarine, exploded and sank during a training mission, killing 118 sailors. Both the war and the incident led the Russian public (and the government) to see the necessity of the reforms.

Battle for the FSU: Russia's Gambit and NATO's Checkmate

Feb. 11, 2004: The Kremlin's focus on the Russian military and its doctrines started to take serious shape in 2000. Putin's main goal was to reorganize the Russian military by making it a tighter and smaller force. Russia's 2000 military doctrine was meant for a period of transition for the military and industrial complex. It set up the Russian military to be defensive in character during this timeframe.

Russia was granted a brief period without much focus from the West, since the United States and its allies were engaged in military activity in the Islamic world following 9/11. However, the immediacy of restoring the military grew as Russia's historical adversary — NATO — encroached onto its doorstep. NATO had already started to expand into most of the Warsaw Pact states, and in 2004 brought the former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on as members. That year also saw the Orange Revolution in Ukraine bring a pro-Western and NATO-oriented government to Kiev. Moscow felt that the West was encircling Russia and treating the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine as a dress rehearsal for a color revolution in Russia.

U.S.: The Real Reason Behind Ballistic Missile Defense

June 18, 2007: By 2006, Russia had started to come up with a coherent plan for its future — one based on internal consolidation and a future push into its traditional sphere of influence. This new mindset of a stronger Russia was reflected in its next military doctrine (which took three years to develop).

In the meantime, Russia used its relationships with NATO countries to prevent the organization from further expanding to the former Soviet states. Russia wielded Western Europe's need for energy as leverage, and Germany and France responded by vetoing the military alliance's plan to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia at the 2007 Bucharest Summit. However, at the summit NATO did agree to the U.S. initiative for expanding its ballistic missile defense system into Central Europe — another threat to Russian security.

The Real World Order

Aug. 18, 2008: In 2008, Russia took a step further to show that it had returned as a regional power by finally flexing its military muscle. In August, Russia went to war with Georgia in order to prove to those former Soviet states that NATO would not confront Russia within its periphery. While not without some military snags, Russia was able to project force into another country, and today still militarily occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory. Fallout from the war rippled through all the former Soviet states and started a process of reconsideration about whether NATO would honor commitments to defend them if they were attacked by Russia.

The Medvedev Doctrine

Sept. 1, 2008: Just after the Russia-Georgia War, Moscow released its newest military doctrine — its first aggressive and proactive military doctrine since the 1970s. It has a clear strategy and definable set of threats. Of course, the latest security strategy was drawn up when Russia was feeling militarily confident after two decades of feeling vulnerable and weak. Russia was looking to explain to the world what its strategy from that point on would be.

Within these points, Russia is saying that it wants to redefine the regional and global system, rejecting the United States' hegemony. It said that Russia is focused on its regional position in two ways. First, it is willing to protect Russia's interests no matter where they are — such as citizens and groups in the Baltics or Georgia. Next, Russia has deemed the former Soviet sphere a special interest, meaning that foreign activities in this region that undermine Moscow's position there are considered a threat. Overall, this doctrine does not mean that Moscow is recreating the Soviet Union or Russian empire, but that Russia is the center of gravity in the region.

Russia's Interest in a French Helicopter Carrier

Oct. 15, 2009: With its focus refined, the Russian military has publicly announced several modernization programs since 2008. Most of these reforms are just starting, and it is doubtful that Russia has the funds or the will to implement every modernization effort announced. Nevertheless, some major reforms — most of which have centered on command and control — have occurred that have changed the military's structure in accordance with the country's military doctrine. This suggests that Russia is designing a conventional force that will project power only within its immediate sphere of influence to defend the homeland, while relying heavily on its nuclear arsenal to discourage superior militaries and coalitions from encroaching upon its regional turf.

Although Russia has begun reorganizing its military to make it more efficient, the need to replace the bulk of its equipment has not been addressed. During his various speeches outlining the State Armament Program 2020, Putin outlined a modernization plan that would cost $770 billion over the next eight to 10 years in addition to the current level of defense spending (adding another 25 percent every year to the defense budget). As part of this, the Russian government changed its strategy for the industrial complex, acquiring foreign military weaponry with the purchase of two Mistral-class French helicopter carriers. Given the ambitious nature of the program, it is unlikely that Russia will meet all of its declared goals if the plan is approved, but the Russian military will still find itself in a much better position.

The Future of Russia's Military

Aug. 31, 2012: Slowly the Russian military has been consolidated, strengthened and reformed to the point that it is once again a regional heavyweight. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the decade of decay the Russian military underwent still haunt the military's attempt to evolve today.

The Russian government continues to stress the large investments it will make into the Russian military and industrial complex. Moscow is also looking at plans to strengthen its regional military alliances, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as plans to expand its bases in the region to neighboring Belarus. Russia's defense strategy is also starting to shift from being primarily focused on the former Soviet states, Europe and NATO to include East Asia, as Moscow feels a military build-up in the Pacific could threaten Russia's security once again. 

The military will continue to be a primary tool in Russia's toolbox for shaping policies in its neighborhood, as well as protecting Russian interests.

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