The Obvious Question: What Does Russia Want?
Beyond their pure shock value, it is important to understand that these weapons have been carefully designed to fit Russia’s unrestricted-warfare ideals. As Steven Blank explains, this is “a strategy to demonstrate nuclear capability ostentatiously throughout all the stage [sic] of any crisis to control the escalation processes during that crisis.” In other words, the aim is to inhibit any possible Western response by presenting an unacceptable possibility, backed up by just enough credibility to cause momentary paralysis in Western military thinking—a sort of “nuclear blackmail.” Obviously the West, and more specifically NATO, was the intended “audience” for this part of the speech. The message was clear: Russia reserved the right to pursue its interests in the post-Soviet space without Western interference, in any way it saw fit.
Geopolitically, Russia wants to maintain a security zone between itself and NATO. This “security belt” would consist of states whose friendliness is ensured by their status as de facto Russian vassals. Belarus would be an obvious example here, but the Black Sea region is also increasingly important in this regard. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia felt sufficiently secure a year later to flex its newfound regional power by using its military capabilities in this area to “springboard” into direct military involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The Black Sea fleet’s warships have been actively involved in this operation since day one.
Ten years of military and political investment in the region are not without design. The area falls squarely within three sectors of Russia’s national-interest matrix. Economic interests are represented by the Novorossiysk export oil terminal and, more significantly, the planned “Turkish Stream” natural-gas pipeline. When this is complete, it will be possible for Russia to supply natural gas to southern Europe without passing through Ukrainian territory. Keeping Turkey at arm’s length as a military and political competitor in the region, or co-opting it as a partner, is another important part of the “security belt” strategy. Finally, control over Crimea allows the Russian Navy to project power to the eastern Mediterranean, thus putting Russian naval assets in close proximity to the politically volatile, oil-rich Middle East.
If Russian authorities were ready to endure international condemnation, loss of membership in the G-8 and debilitating international economic sanctions while pursuing of national interests in one sensitive region, the likelihood is that they can, and will be willing to, do the same elsewhere. This brings us to the second audience for Putin’s March message: the Russian people. The message here is that, after years of defying the West, Russia has not only endured the hardships of growing international isolation, but has nevertheless grown strong enough to challenge them militarily. The fact that this message seemed to strike a chord with the Russian electorate demonstrates just how much pride and recognition still matter within their society.
In sum, Russia seems intent on successfully exploiting its democratic opponents’ transparency with unrestricted warfare, while developing niche asymmetric military capabilities that it hopes will be difficult for them to counter: a classic asymmetric stance. Alliances like NATO, established to provide solely military capabilities—which, through consensus, are all the more vulnerable to political blackmail—are poorly placed to respond to such hybrid threats, and thus their advantages are somewhat muted. To its credit, NATO has made some early counter-efforts, but much more remains to be done.
In the following weeks, this look at Russia’s national interests will be further broken down into objectives within key regions and military capability areas, such as its strategic rocket forces and maritime efforts, to better understand what the West are up against. The series will end with a consideration of recommendations for the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels in July.
Angus Ross is a professor of joint military operations at the Naval War College and something of an amateur historian, while Andrew Savchenko writes on political risk in the post-Soviet space and teaches Economy and Society at RISD. The views expressed here are theirs alone.