Russia's moderate wars

None of the originally envisaged texts is ready for primetime, so let's ponder a bit about something that's more important anyway:

Russia employs a completely different idea of warfare than the West does.

Western wars have had maximalist objectives ever since the neocons couldn't stop whining about a supposedly "incomplete" job on Iraq in 1991. The objectives were maximalist ever since, and the missions kept being renewed or replaced.

We weren't satisfied by Yugoslavia toning down its measures against UCK rebels in Kosovo; we had to rip Kosovo out of Yugoslavia, and then kept it occupied it. Kosovo is occupied to this day, by about 4,000 NATO-led troops even though there's no real risk of Serbia trying to invade and annex Kosovo.

It wasn't enough to defeat the government that gave sanctuary to the terrorist who had motivated and supported the mostly Saudi 9/11 terrorists. Ordinarily, wars where you have an issue with a government and its actions end when you have destroyed the former and ended the latter. No, in the case of Afghanistan we had to launch a 17+ year occupation, install an utterly corrupt new government and pretend that not only the actual terrorist group, but also the political faction that once had given it sanctuary would have to go extinct. Except next door in Pakistan, of course. There they could dwell for eternity, which of course eliminated the prospect of it ever going extinct. The de facto mission wasn't only maximalist, but also obviously impossible to accomplish. A recipe for a never-ending involvement in a distant civil war.

It wasn't enough that Iraq had lost most of its conventional military power in 1991-1996 and had its NBC programs disassembled, with frequent and intrusive inspections. It just had to be destroyed as a government. And then be occupied for 13 years.

Daesh? Had to be destroyed. It wasn't enough to simply tip the scales towards their destruction - they had to be destroyed (in Syria, where the real deal sat), and several cities with them. Of course, the Western troops weren't withdrawn from Syria because the West is really crappy at getting stuff wrapped up, ever.

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Let's compare Russian warfare: They, too, have their neverending missions (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), but their objectives aren't that maximalist (except in the Crimea).

They didn't rip Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia - even in the moment of total Georgian defeat in 2008 Putin didn't move his troops into Tiflis, forcing the Georgian government to cede those territories into independence.

Crimea was invaded and annexed, alright - but Donbass was but invaded, not annexed. And the war in Donbass was fought with some restraint by Russia. Russia could have used its air force for air/ground attacks - it didn't. Russia could have gone for Kiev and taken it, and dictate a peace treaty - it didn't. Russia could have gone all-in with its conventional forces in the area - instead, it rotates its forces in and out. The Neocons would have annexed not only Crimea, but also Donbass by now - and they would have installed some puppet in Kiev, maybe even helped it to maintain power with an occupation force of 100,000+, calling on CIS governments for auxiliary forces.

Russia's involvement in Syria appears to tip the scales in Assad's favour, but it's far from all that Russia could do. Russia did not send a single brigade of ground forces, and it could muster much more ground attack aircraft. It didn't even only bring much artillery to the fight.

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Russia certainly has less resources and much greater security challenges at home than the U.S. or even NATO as a whole, but the pattern of limited objectives doesn't seem to be explained by resources alone. This is most evident in Georgia (though that episode may have been unintended as a whole).

There's no extremist or maximalist faction comparable to the Neocons steering Russian foreign policy. The whole pattern rather looks like typical great power games, with a certain emphasis on the own periphery. That emphasis is often interpreted as Putin intending to re-create the Soviet Union (or Russian Empire). I have written such an interpretation before myself, and it makes a lot of sense from the partisan view of NATO and EU; better safe than sorry regarding the Baltic members.

Yet we might actually see a Russia that's -at least under Putin- not maximalist or extremist in regard to war as we in the West have become used to be under the influence of American extremism since 2001. It may be all about playing great power games instead, which opens the door for entirely different dissuasion efforts to succeed.

One example is that we could threaten a set back in one of their great power games (such as helping Georgia to push out Russians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as countermeasure to some new Russian aggression elsewhere. This would be considerably less promising if imperial restoration was really the end goal, for then it might escalate the conflict into a stupid Russian attempt to gain everything desired in one war.




  1. Russia is concerned about buffers. They have been invaded over and over again for a thousand years at least. Russia just isn't comfortable unless they have this shooting range between them and their neighbors. Trouble is there ain't no space between them and China.

  2. The russians does not have the ressources for total targets in warfare (so they cannot afford extremist warfare) and cannot afford a protracted war which would be necessary to achieve them. So this russian way of war is imo a result of the econommical borders and the limitations of russia.

    Because of them they today think, that the prussian doctrine of the short decisive war could be working for them if they choose small targets. They must keep their wars short and/or cheap and decisive in the sense that they achieve their goals. One could now conterargue the eastern ukraine with no end in sight:

    Although it seems they are fighting a protracted war in the eastern ukraine, this is not the case because here the war and instability in the ukraine and the enhanced stability at home are in reality the targets of this armed conflict. Because defeating the ukraine would be an extremist target which would lead to a protracted war, the small and very cheap war in the eastern ukraine is for itself the target of this russian operation. And end to this war is therefore not in the interest of russia and the costs are smaller if they would fight the ukrainians down.

    This prussian doctrine of the short decisive war russia would also apply in peer warfare against the nato and imo here lies a great danger for an escalation because the russian could come to the conclusion that they could fight a short conventional war against the nato to an decisive end (according to the russian goals) - because of that doctrine. This enhances the possibility for an conventional war with russia and needs to opppose this doctrine and strong and very high readiness nato military for the first decisive battle(s) which according to the russian doctrine would decide the conflict.

    1. See, if you had read and paid attention you would have known that the South Ossetia conflict disproved the notion that it's the resources situation that limits their ambitions.
      Georgia's defeat was total. Russia could have forced them to accept just about any peace treaty.

      I also have a low opinion about what you wrote about the Donbass conflict. It's far from "small" or "very cheap".

    2. They could have imposed any conditions on Georgia, but they could not have enforced them.

      They got what they wanted, the EU was driven out of the Russian sphere, and cheered the defeat, remember "we dont wanna put in" being thrown out of Eurovision?

      Ukraine is also a much tougher nut to crack, vast in size, poor roads and plenty of reasonably well equipped defenders.

      Could Russia win, sure, not without a general mobilisation though.

    3. What's there to enforce? They could have forced Georgia to recognise the independence or some extreme form of autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, impose arms limitations on Georgia and force Georgia to stay neutral.
      Nothing of this would have carried much or any weight with the non-CIS international community because it would have been forced on Georgia, but it would have carried weight in Russia's periphery.
      Instead, they demanded practically nothing - Russia achieved decisive strategic military victory with its resources and got nothing but status quo ante with it.

  3. The achieved a decisive military victory against the conventional georgian forces but this would not have ended the war if russia would have demanded much more than it wanted / got. If russia would have demanded what you wrote here, the war would not have stopped. The russians would then faced a guerilla war in a mountainous region with very difficult terrain and the west would have armed the georgian resistance etc and moreover also the chance for an further escalation in the caucasus region was thinkable.

    Therefore russia was not able to achieve goals you named (like independence of the sad regions etc) without fighting a protracted war.

    I think you also overestimate the russian military at this time. The georgian conflict showed clearly the russians were much weaker than anticipated. Not the russian army was strong here, but the conventioneal georgian forces were extremly weak.

    For the costs of the donbass conflict: This is a cheap conflict for russia in comparison to a full war against the ukraine and also i think you overestimate the costs here. There is not so much real fighting and the structure of the "russian" forces in the eastern ukraine is mainly cost efficient. russia again achieves what it wants without investing much. Instead a full victory against the ukraine would cost tremendous amounts more.

    My thesis is still: that russia follows a doctrine of short decisivie wars with restricted strategic/political targets mainly because of the limitations and the many limitations and weaknesses of the russian forces which even today are not in any way so strong as they present themselve or as they are seen in the western tm militaries.

    Russia could not fight a protracted total war, therefore it must limit its targets to achieve cheap/short wars with limited aims.

    1. They defeated Georgia completely and got nothing for it other than status quo ante. I stick to the opinion that you can get something if you win that completely.
      Saakashvili wasn't exactly someone who would have wanted to wage a guerilla war or be in exile for a decade.

  4. Project for the new american century. Recognise that China will own the 21st century. Therefore, attempt to write the terms around which the 21st century will be defined Create a distraction. Inter religious conflict, inter cultural conflict. Knock out the 'pegs' Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and watch it fall apart.

    That was the theory. It didnt work. It caused sufficient chaos, it started the fire. However the public tired of it. The costs grew too much. The 07-08 collapse was unforeseen and massive, the west is still badly wounded from it.

    Was it a reasonable or supportable strategy? Doesnt really matter for the discussion at hand. It was a global strategy. A strategy to meet the rise of China and the East, direct global politics and use that to retain their top position. Russias ambitions have never been so broad. They can never be so broad because of their horrendous geographical disadvantages.

    Ukraine didnt go the way they wanted. They are stuck. It complicates their future planning, places a tax on their current actions and increases the level of threat (That is why theyll give Trump a gift, handing back the Donbass for 'nothing').

    Couple of things annoy me, though Im probably being overly picky.

    Russia did use its ground forces, it was firing SP Art from inside its own borders. Although admittedly it didnt use them on the offensive, it used them to prevent its new territory falling to counter attack.

    The Russian strategy isnt maximalist. Okay. So, would you think if the US took a 'bite' out of afghan or iraq and held it(as the RUS strategy is), the present would be any different?

    'No Russian neocons' Youtube, "If Russia Isn't The Global Power, There Will Be No Russia!" A childish discussion on Channel One from a childish man. Okay. But the call is there, the public are being exposed to it, given 10 years and decreasing internal political options will it set root in the body politic? Look at Trump for proof that sometimes the cart can lead the horse.

    Yank foreign policy is operated in a world where they are the sole superpower. "The end of history". They are the sole nation that can support corps scale combat on any continent in the 'fight tonight' sense. They have a freedom of action that no other nation has. So when they act, they dont have to consider a conventional response. Russias behaviour in UKR had a rather obvious boundary. Push too much, Kiev, and risk a conventional or unconventional response that massively eclipses their own.

    The yanks had the free chance to play one card at the start of the century. They played it. They lost. It is a failure to look at the outcome and say they were idiots for acting, they had to act in order to have any chance to maintain their dominance. There is no permutation where they wouldnt have acted.

    Twenty years from now I dont think Russian geo strategy is going to look any better than the yanks. Though they started with a far weaker hand and a lower ceiling, so that obviously matters less.

    The chaos has been set. Regional players are acting on their own. There are so many competing, concealed interests it is impossible to successfully play great power games. Anyone who attempts it is doomed to fail because the present is far too complex. Yankland needs to split into multiple countries. Russia needs to split into multiple countries. If that happens the rest of us can be left alone as the world adjusts to that new reality. Thats not going to happen though.

    Oh dear.

    1. Russia used its arty and tanks well within the Ukraine, not just from beyond the border.

  5. Didn't Ukraine make at least tentative motions towards joining NATO?

    I was under the impression that the Russians want to keep the conflict/war in Donbass in its current simmering state indefinitely, purely to thwart that. Since a country already involved in an ongoing conflict can't join NATO by default (as it would automatically draw the alliance into said conflict).

    1. Gotta have that buffer. Same old song, umpteenth verse.