Russian Strategic Logic


BESA Center Perspectives No. 549, August 2, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Western observers are often astonished by Russian military decision-making, which defies the principle of waiting for full knowledge of the enemy before acting. The Russian approach holds that it is in engagement of the enemy that knowledge will emerge that can advance an ultimate strategic design.

The decision-making of Russian leadership and the logic informing it, particularly in the use of military force in operations outside the borders of Russia, has baffled Western onlookers over the past decade. In three events of global strategic import, Russian actions took the West by surprise: the large-scale maneuver in Georgia in the summer of 2008; the operation in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea; and the intervention in Syria.

What is the strategic rationale behind these moves? What, for example, is the aim of the Russian intervention in Syria? Has Russia defined an end-state in light of which it calculates its steps in the campaign?

The events in Syria illuminate a difference in approach between linear Western thinking and Russian thought. In 2014, an American general operating in northern Syria told The New York Times, “Until I understand the logic of ISIS, I cannot operate against it effectively.” Russian conduct in Syria demonstrates the reverse logic: we cannot wait to get to really know the forces in the region before we physically clash with them. This way of thinking is a cultural element deeply rooted in the Russian heritage. In Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace, he presents the reader with an observation on the emerging nature of the phenomenon of war:

“The commander-in-chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so can never at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted shaping of events, the commander-in-chief is in the midst of a most complex play…”

In contrast to the teachings at Western military institutions, Russian strategic thinking presupposes that from the moment one enters into action against a system, that system begins to evolve. Friction with reality is itself the key to planning. The potential for shaping an end-state according to a desired solution is not only revealed through friction, but arises from the very act.

This circularity explains the need for action, even before conditions have been created in which a final objective can be clearly defined. For those educated in planning according to the standards of American business schools, which stipulate that no step should be taken without first laying down a complete and detailed business plan, the Russian approach seems fundamentally irresponsible. This is why Westerners observing Russian courses of action are often as astonished as they are critical.

Operational Russian thinking does not completely ignore the need to define a purpose for action before implementation. But it ventures to recognize the paralysis that lies in holding back for lack of information in the initial stages. Instead of delaying action until sufficient knowledge has been attained to devise a positive strategic solution, the Russians step into action by using a basic logic that is fundamentally negative in the sense of denying the enemy’s intention.

At the first stage, this logic asks nothing more than to thwart the enemy’s course of action. This is probably the logic that informed Russia’s decisions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Its actions in those countries embodied an active initiative against the trend of the world order, which has been led, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, by American superpower hegemony.

The Russian line of thinking runs as follows. Out of action taken through negative logic – an effort to deny an existing course – greater knowledge will be achieved with which a further campaign can be planned, this time with a positive purpose.

This strategic logic explains how, despite the economic crisis in Russia, the problem of sanctions, and the difficulties inherent in implementing a military buildup, the Russian leadership has succeeded – in less than ten years of active initiative – to regain its status as a central superpower in the global system.

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Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for forty-two years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

August 2, 2017 | 12 Comments » | 551 views

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12 Comments / 12 Comments

  1. That alleged Russian strategy is a sure loser.

    In an environment characterized by constant chaos, one cannot consistently come out ahead.

  2. The US could easily induced the collapse of what is left of the Putin economy. Of course the losers would be the Russian people and not the nomenklatura. But who cares anyhow.

  3. Yes Russia has taken actions. It is bogged down all over the place. It has a very small economy that will shrink even more USA sanctions. So in the end how will it sustain itself?

    Its economy is based oil and natural gas. The USA will gradually eat Russia’s lunch with these fuels. Russia has serious economic problems that will just get worse.

  4. @ Bear Klein:
    I’m not sure I buy in to the description of the Russian strategic thinking model, or maybe I just don’t understand what is written. However, the western model of having everything planned out in a nice neat little bow hasn’t worked out so hot has it?

    As far as Russia, you must remember that Russia is a proud country and that Russia has been through a lot of sh_t and they’re still standing.

  5. @ Lawrence:
    Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area – almost 11 percent of the world’s landmass is sovereign Russian territory – but Russia’s economy pales in comparison to the U.S.’ According to 2016 first-quarter figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. GDP is around $18.1 trillion. Russia’s economy is roughly a tenth the size of the U.S.’ (the World Bank stated that Russia’s GDP in 2015 was $1.3 trillion.) According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. military expenditures in 2015 were 3.3 percent of GDP, and Russia’s were 5 percent of its GDP. That still puts Russia among the top five military spenders in the world, but in absolute terms it means Russia’s military expenditures add up to roughly 10 percent of U.S. military spending.

  6. @ Bear Klein:
    Bear, I don’t disagree with any of your points.

    One of these stats really jumps out at me though: the fact that Russia spends only 10% of what the U.S. spends on it’s military. Let’s use Syria as the example. Russia went into Syria (apparently catching us with our pants down) and has totally changed the whole equation. Is anyone saying Assad must go anymore?

    As far as the military spending imbalance – maybe, there’s some type of inverse relationship type thing going on.

  7. The American foreign policy is shaped by reaction to the events. Therefore it is inconsistent and unpredictable. The Russian foreign policy shapes the events in order to advance its long term objectives.

  8. @ Marco:
    Marco, your analysis not only is refreshingly brief, but, in my judgement it concisely describes the difference between Russian and US foreign policies. No matter the differences in the size of the economies of Russia and the USA, Russia will prove to be the winner in long-term empire rebuilding.

    Excellent analysis.

    Arnold Harris, Outspeaker

  9. “Oliver Stone interviews Vladimir Putin: On Syria
    Oliver Stone asks Putin to explain Russia’s reasons for involvement in Syria’s civil war
    MONDAY, JUN 19, 2017 07:59 AM EDT

    “Occam’s razor”
    “…among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”

    By the way, I am curious to know if he is in either group of dueling generals over The Taylor Force Act.

    Incidentally, the most astonishing thing I found about Megyn Kelly’s flabbergastingly weak interview of Putin is that she didn’t once ask about Syria. I can’t stand Oliver Stone and I wouldn’t take his treacherous word for anything but Putin is doing the talking here. Political leaders usually say what they mean. I find his explanation pretty straightforward unlike the strange theorizing of this article.

  10. So, in otherwords, though he didn’t say it outloud, Obama is responsible for Putin’s involvement in Syria. Putin didn’t want to see the chaos Barry Hussein unleashed extend to Syria and then blowback to Russia. Makes sense to me.

    Obama was also responsible for the Russian involvement in Crimea. It was Obama’s overthrow of the Ukrainian government that led to this.

    Obama sure overthrew a lot of governments for somebody who said he didn’t think America should be the world’s policeman.

    Let me correct myself. Political Leaders usually say what they mean, except when THEY ARE LYING.


    Star Trek – Liar Paradox

  11. The author’s theory seems to have applied to Obama and Clinton more than it does to Putin.

    Now, I’d like to see somebody ask Putin about Iran.

  12. But it won’t be Stone who has Iranian ties. Note how he tried to implicate Israel as one of the foreign actors Putin accused of meddling in Syria but Putin said no, not really, except a little to protect her borders and put it back on foreign Jihadists and enablers.

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