Resurgent Russia: Part I

Recent changes to Russian defense strategy reflect a fundamental realignment of Russian foreign policy priorities and goals. Under Russian President Vladamir Putin, Russia has raised its international profile, begun modernizing its dilapidated military, and reasserted itself internationally, specifically in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Arctic.  Recently, we have examined Russian involvement in the insurgencies of the North Caucasus and Dagestan. Additionally, we assessed a strategic and fundamental realignment of Russian interests in North Africa and the Middle East, to include new Russian relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian military will have increased its professional soldier ranks to 500,000 within the next decade, making official a policy of “professionalizing” its military and reducing the conscription characterization of the largesse of the ranks. The 500,000 marker would effectively make half of the Russian military “professional”. Ria Novosti reported:

“Russia is undertaking major reform of the military that includes plans to spend $650 billion by 2020 on new equipment and a transition from a conscript army to a largely professional force.

But it has struggled with a shortage of recruits as a result of draft dodging and a shrinking pool of eligible conscripts. Draft evasion and demographic decline have forced the Defense Ministry to halve the number of conscripts in five consecutive recruitment periods since autumn 2011.

The military needs to enrol about 300,000 men during each draft to keep the number of personnel at the required level of 1 million. All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are obliged by law to perform one year of military service.” (Ria Novosti, December 10)

Other recent news on Russian defense moves include the development of a new lightweight fighter jet, the announcement that a base for the light-class modification Angara 1.2PP carrier rocket in northern Russia will be completed ahead of schedule and, most provocatively, a pronounced and marked change in defense strategy:

“A senior government minister warned…that Russia could retaliate with a nuclear strike if a new US military strategy threatened its security.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia was “preparing a response” to plans by the United States to develop a new fast-strike weapons platform capable of hitting high-priority targets around the globe.” (Ria Novosti, November 12)

Recent Events

Over the weekend, Putin dissolved Ria Novosti, Russia’s state-run news service, and announced the creation of a new media outlet, Russia Today. BBC reported that the new agency is to be led by Dmitry Kiselev, a notoriously anti-Western and homophobic media personality. The Economist has examined Kiselev’s rhetoric as well.

These events are in the wake of a methodical and planned increase of Russia’s international profile. This past summer, Putin flexed diplomatic muscle in Syria, helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally, avoid punitive United States military strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack In Ghouta near Damascus on August 21. On December 3, Putin met with Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan in Moscow, ostensibly to discuss Geneva II and the ongoing efforts to ensure the safe destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program. We wrote of the recent Russian involvement in North Africa and the Middle East in our article “Geostrategic Seismology: Realignment” on November 26. Al Arabiya noted the recent Putin-Prince Bandar meet:

“Lina Sobonina, a Russian political analyst and researcher, told Al Arabiya News Channel that the discussion could address President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the future of Syria. Russia might also invite Saudi Arabia to attend the Geneva II conference.” (Al Arabiya, December 3)

These events are in the wake of the methodical rise of Russia’s international profile. Putin flexed diplomatic muscle in Syria, helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a key Russian ally, avoid punitive United States military strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack of August 21. Last Friday, Johnson’s Russia List reported on Russian claims in the arctic:

“Russia must be prepared to confront international rivalry in the Arctic, which is a priority of its geopolitical agenda, Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov told Interfax. ‘This is a topical agenda considering the expected effects of global warming on the Arctic zone. It is necessary to maintain the combat potential of the troops stationed in that region: certainly, there will be no military conflict but this is important for potential legal, geopolitical and geo-economic rivalries for which our country must be prepared,’ Margelov said. (Johnson’s Russia List, December 6)

Johnson’s Russia List had a previous article on Russian Arctic policy on November 28th as well. Russian policy in the Arctic has the potential to put the country at loggerheads with several states, to include China, Canada, the United States, and others.

The Putin Doctrine

Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has examined the recent changes in Russian policy and has written extensively on what the future holds for Russian strategy.  Russia’s willingness to become more involved in international crises and diplomatic rows is the newest phase of what Aron has codified as “The Putin Doctrine”. Outlined in his extraordinary Foreign Affairs Magazine article “The Putin Doctrine Russia’s Quest to Rebuild the Soviet State”, Aron outlines, defines, and explains the importance the doctrine:

“After his election as president in 2000, Putin added to this agenda an overarching goal: the recovery of economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state in 1991.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs, March 8)

In his follow-up article, also published at Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Russian Pause: How Putin Stalled the Reset”, Aron goes on to explain:

“The doctrine also promotes an assertive affirmation of three essential national goals, inherited from the Soviet Union and likely to be upheld by any Russian regime: the maintenance of Russia’s roles as a nuclear superpower; as the military, economic, and cultural hegemon in former Soviet territories (with the exception of the three Baltic states); and as a great world power.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs, August 15)

Aron goes on to explain that the implementation of the doctrine and the pursuit of its goals is a phased approach. The increase in professional military service members, likely with higher pay, is reflective of an important part of the implementation. As Aron explained in March:

“Another central pillar of the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of unchallenged military superiority in Russia’s neighborhood, explains the steady increase in Moscow’s defense budget during Putin’s years in power, from an estimated $29 billion in 2000 to $64 billion in 2011 (both figures are listed in 2010 U.S. dollars). Even in today’s tough economic environment, Moscow continues to expand defense outlays at rates far outpacing those for other domestic programs, including education and health care. During his campaign for the presidency in February 2012, Putin promised a “comprehensive and systematic rearmament” of the Russian military and “modernization of the military-industrial complex,” pledging to spend 23 trillion rubles ($770 billion) on these projects in the next ten years.” (Aron, Foreign Affairs, March 8)

The increase in defense spending and the fundamental changes to the characterization of Russian military personnel are indicative of an effort to modernize the Russian military. As Aron has written, the strengthening of Russian military might is one of a series of phased steps that will both define and provide the foundation for Russia’s resurgence internationally.

On Friday, we will further examine Russian strategy and recent international involvement. We will look ahead to the implementation of policies supporting the pursuit of Russian foreign policy goals and explain how they reflect Leon Aron’s analysis of The Putin Doctrine.

Below are some links to resources for additional study of Russian policy and recent events.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
Foreign Intrigue

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: