The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare

  • Stephen R. Covington
| October 2016


In September of 1991, I met with Russian general officers in Minsk at a military reform seminar. Our discussions took place against the backdrop of the August coup attempt in Moscow, the subsequent collapse of Soviet power, and the so-called parade of sovereignty by former Soviet Republics.  At the same time, President Yeltsin was signaling his intent to change dramatically the national security strategy, military doctrine, and military system the Soviet Union had developed since the 1940s.

A senior Russian three-star general had listened to the discussions on concepts such as defensive defense and preventive defense—recognizing that change to the Soviet military system was on the immediate horizon, one that would probably match the change to the Soviet political system witnessed over the previous weeks. At the end of the conference, he approached me with a puzzled look on his face, as though he had been questioning the basic assumptions of his thinking, assumptions that had driven a lifetime of professional military decisions.

He asked, “Do people in the West understand that Russia has a unique geostrategic position, unlike any other nation in the world?  Do people in the West understand that how the rest of the world defends itself, builds its doctrine and strategies, simply won’t work in Russia?”

His question in 1991 reflects one of four fundamental cultural pillars of Russian strategic military thought, a culture that I have encountered over the last two decades in every  discussion with Russian military officers ranging from Ministers of Defense, Chiefs of General Staff, Chiefs and generals of the Main Operations Directorate, across services from Strategic Rocket Forces to Airborne Forces, and from operational-strategic level commanders down to tactical-level commanders.

In the Cold War, this culture of Russian military strategic thought played a fundamental role in the Soviet system, shaping the structure of the Soviet Armed Forces, the type of strategic operations to be conducted in war, and the military system designed to meet the requirements of that unique strategic environment in accordance with the Soviet political leadership’s aims in peace and war.1

After years of marginalization, Russian military strategic culture has returned to a position of great influence inside Russia’s political system, and strikingly so over the last four years.  This culture of strategic thought plays a dominant role in the country’s military preparations for war, and shapes the countries economic priorities. Russian military strategic culture also provides President Putin a strategic framework for Russia’s most critical security and defense calculations in peace, crisis, and war. This return of traditional Russian military strategic culture to the forefront of Moscow’s security policy decisions comes at a critical juncture in Russia’s post-Cold War development.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Intelligence Project
For Academic Citation: Covington, Stephen R.. “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare.” Paper, October 2016.

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