Russia's New Military Doctrine: Should the West Be Worried?

"Russia will retaliate against a nuclear/WMD attack against itself and/or its allies; and it will also go nuclear if an existential threat is posed by a conventional attack."

As one of his final acts of 2014, on December 26, President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s new military doctrine. In principle, the doctrine, an official statement on national defense, is regularly updated and made public. Its previous iteration had been in place since February 2010. In the run-up to the publication of the text, there were gloomy predictions. One suggested that the United States and its NATO allies would be formally designated Russia’s likely adversaries. Another one, based on the remarks of a senior serving general, expected Russia to adopt the notion of preventive nuclear strike. Neither of these provisions found its way into the published document. The doctrine does, however, faithfully reflect the sea change that occurred in Russia’s foreign policy and security and defense postures in 2014.

Essentially, for Commander-in-Chief Putin and for his generals, admirals and security officials, war in 2014 ceased to be a risk and turned into grim reality. Russia has had to use its military forces in Ukraine, arguably the most important neighbor it has in Europe.  The conflict over Ukraine, in Moscow’s view, reflects the fundamental reality of an “intensification of global competition” and the “rivalry of value orientations and models of development.” Against the background of economic and political instability—crises and popular movements—the global balance is changing in favor of emerging power centers. In this new environment, the doctrine highlights information warfare and outside interference in Russia’s domestic politics as risks of increased importance.

The list of main external risks has not changed much, but the nuances are important. As in the past, at the top of the table are NATO-related issues: its enhanced capabilities, global reach and enlargement, which brings alliance infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. After the risk of NATO comes the risk of destabilization of countries and regions, which can be taken to mean Libya, Syria and Ukraine, and foreign force deployments close to Russia, which presumably refers to additional NATO aircraft in the Baltic States, ballistic-missile defense (BMD) assets in Romania and naval ships in the Black Sea. The top portion of the list of risks contains references to U.S. strategic ballistic-missile defense, its Global Strike concept and strategic non-nuclear systems.

The latter two risks have attracted a lot of attention in Moscow recently, which put them on par, along with strategic BMD, as key risks to Russia’s deterrence capability, the apple of the eye of Russia’s entire defense posture. The danger is, of course, that Russian officials may exaggerate the risks and overreact—as they did once under Mikhail Gorbachev, when they fell under the spell of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), with its “brilliant pebbles” and such. As a result, much of Gorbachev’s disarmament agenda was based on the need to avert something that was not coming.

Some standard notions in the doctrine have acquired new urgency. Threats to territorial integrity and foreign claims to parts of Russia have always been there, but, with the acquisition of Crimea, Moscow must seriously consider the need to protect the peninsula against Kiev’s irredentism. Consequently, Russia has, since last summer, been turning Crimea into an area of major military deployments.

Notably, other risks, which do not directly impact on Russia, have moved down on the list. Among these risks are: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and missile technologies, global terrorism (potentially with the use of radioactive and toxic materials), arms and drug trafficking, armed domestic conflicts along ethnic and confessional lines and the activities of armed radicals and private military companies—a provision covering both the Islamic State and the successors to Blackwater.

The concept of what constitutes a military risk has been broadened to include the use of information and communication technologies—which may mean anything from Twitter/Facebook flash mobs, as during the Arab Spring, to cyber attacks—to achieve military-political goals. Another risk added to the doctrine is the toppling of legitimate governments and subsequent imposition of regimes inimical to Russian interests—a clear reference to Kiev’s Maidan and the overthrow of President Yanukovych.

This reference is also linked to the list of domestic military risks. First on that list are violent attempts at changing the constitutional system. During the winter of 2011-2012, the Russian authorities watched the growth of the protest movement in Moscow and across the country with increasing concern. Vladimir Putin then accused the protesters of colluding with the U.S. government. In May 2012, on the eve of Putin’s presidential inauguration, the Russian authorities reacted strongly against the protesters scuffling with police in central Moscow, and then worked effectively to degrade and stifle the radical opposition. However, the Kiev Maidan, which began in late November 2013, soon gave them an example of the successful overthrow of an entrenched regime.