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Michael KofmanDmitry GorenburgMary ChesnutPaul SaundersKasey StricklinJulian Waller
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Scholars and analysts debate the extent to which Russia has a grand strategy, whether Russian strategy is deliberate, or more emergent. Russian elites are often portrayed as opportunistic, yet this speaks more to the activist and revisionist characteristics of Russian foreign policy. Leaders use defined political objectives to discern opportunities, calculate risks, or opportunity costs. Successful strategy is often flexible, adapting to the changing environment, disproved assumptions, and the actions of other actors. Without resolving the debate on whether Russia has a grand strategy, or is capable of executing one, this report provides a primer on Russian approaches to strategic competition. It engages with primary Russian sources, the Western analytical debate on Russian approaches, and the drivers of Russian behavior.

The broader drivers of Russian strategy reflect a quest for status, often beyond the state’s economic or technological foundations of power, and a desire for geopolitical space where Russian interests predominate. Moscow sees the US as its main rival, seeking to reduce American influence in international politics, and especially in regions where it has vital interests. Meanwhile the Russian leadership perceives the international operating environment as one of increasing competitiveness and instability, which offers both risks and opportunities.

Russian strategy is best characterized as offensive, seeking to revise the status quo, resulting in an activist foreign policy. The strategy does not eschew selective engagement in areas of mutual interest, but it is not premised on accommodation, concessions, or acceptance of the current balance of power. Instead, it emphasizes building the military means necessary for direct competition, and using them to enable more indirect means of advancing state objectives. The direct approach invests in means such as conventional and nuclear force modernization, expansion of force structure in the European theater, exercises, brinkmanship, and use of force to attain vital interests. They deter US responses, threaten escalation, and lend coercive backing to Russian foreign policy. Indirect means in turn can include military deployments abroad to peripheral theaters, covert action, use of proxies and mercenary groups. Political warfare and information confrontation fall into the indirect category as well. These instruments are interrelated, with direct approaches, tied closely to military capability or classical forms of deterrence, enabling the indirect approach.

A further parsing of Russian approaches categorizes them into forceful and non-forceful means, though the distinction may admittedly be in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, prominent Russian concepts employ such distinctions. Forceful means speak to those that primarily rely on the coercive utility of military power, advanced conventional and traditional nuclear capabilities. Non-forceful means involve a range of political-diplomatic, informational, legal, economic, and other forms of  competition (though backed by the threat of force). The logic of Russian strategy is that absent the ability to generate strong economic means, Moscow is best served with approaches that reduce US performance by disorganizing its opponent's efforts, reducing cohesion, and employing asymmetric means in competition.

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  • Pages: 84
  • Document Number: DRM-2021-U-029439-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/18/2021