War admissible – a view on Russian Military Doctrine and Clausewitz

Karl von Clausewitz. Oil on canvacs.
Karl von Clausewitz.

You can’t talk Clausewitz without quoting.

War is the continuation of policy by other means

Clausewitz, Karl von. On War.

If you belong to those who use this quote light-handedly, please stop reading now. I’ve tried to write as popularly as possible, but this is still rather heavy and perhaps not even all that coherent. I will, however, try to go a bit beyond the famous quote.

Policy and war

The Clausewitzian view of war as subject to policy is quite comforting. From it follows that war – if not being a continuation of a rational policy that will shape the manner and methods of warfare and be traceable and evident in activities, objectives and the smallest of operational details – is futile and ill-advised and thus not admissible from a moral point of view or applicable as an effective instrument of policy. Irrational policy – often too far-reaching, ideological or mismatched in purpose and objectives – will only create an ineffective and open-ended application of the ultimate instrument of policy. The Gulf War, by some considered the acme of Airland Battle; The Iraqi War, with a long mission creep after Bush’s ”The war is over” announcement; and the Campaign on Terror in Afghanistan and globally, winding down to a stalemate at best; are all excellent showcases of wars where military activities did not push towards objectives or result in desired end states — or did so by creating an even more complex environment, often tackled with an instrument rendered useless. On the Russian side the two Chechen wars demonstrate how a diffuse policy, but ready application of a disintegrating, functionally corrupt military machine did not lead to any measurable success.

Crimea and Russian Military Doctrine

The Russian blitz deployment to Crimea (and the Russo-Georgian War) can be viewed from the perspectives of contemporary Russian military doctrine and the legacy of Soviet military doctrine. I chose to omit the short Post Cold War period of Russian realism manifested in a defensive doctrine as it should ascribed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In local wars, such as the Ukraine crisis, the principles of the use of Armed Forces, according to Russian Military Doctrine (2010), are to localize the seat of tension, to create the prerequisites for ending the war or armed conflict or for bringing it to an end at an early stage. This rhymes well with the Frunze doctrine of energetically, decisively, and bravely conducted offensive operations and subsequent Soviet military doctrine on conventional warfare. Appraising the events leading up to Russian operations in Georgia and Crimea, the ”new” Russian rationale for utilizing military force seems to be a deterministic belief in that a rational policy, clearly defined and limited in aim and scope may effectively be pursued by war. Thus, the instrument of war is prescribed to conflicts, where threats and conditions restricting other policy tools are identified. The external military dangers in the case of Crimea and Ukraine were (are):

  • ”the desire to endow the force potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with global functions carried out in violation of the norms of international law and to move the military infrastructure of NATO member countries closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, including by expanding the bloc;”
    • Commentary: Russia doesn’t view Nato expansion as resulting from decisions of sovereign states, but rather as a unified effort to curb Russian legitimate interest and influence.
  • ”the attempts to destabilize the situation in individual states and regions and to undermine strategic stability;”
    • Commentary: From a Russian perspective, ”attempts to destabilize” is not limited political means (diplomacy) or military force, but may also include economic support, subversion, information-technical (cyber) and information-psychological operations. The very broad scope of ”attempts to destabilize” is evident in the military doctrine.
  • ”the deployment (build-up) of troop contingents of foreign states (groups of states) on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation and its allies and also in adjacent waters;”
    • Commentary: This danger still applies to the state of affairs in the Baltic regions. NATO exercises, expanded in both scope and aim, with recently announced contributions of strategic forces [B-52s,B-2s], will most likely be perceived as a military threat requiring a clear and unequivocal response.
  • ”the use of military force on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation in violation of the UN Charter and other norms of international law;”
  • ”the emergence of seats of interethnic (interfaith) tension, the activity  of international armed radical groupings in areas adjacent to the state border of the Russian Federation and the borders of its allies, the presence of territorial contradictions and the growth of separatism and violent (religious) extremism in individual parts of the world.”
    • Commentary: The Russian depiction of the new Ukraine government, its supporters and armed forces as ‘illegitimate’ and ‘fascist’ with massive information operations is an attempt to clarify this very broadly described danger.

These dangers create the following clear and present military threats to the Russian Federation:

  • ”a drastic deterioration in the military-political situation (interstate relations) and the creation of the conditions for the utilization of military force;”
  • ”the creation and training of illegal armed formations and their activity on the territory of the Russian Federation or on the territories of its allies;”
  • ”a show of military force with provocative objectives in the course of exercises on the territories of states contiguous with the Russian Federation or its allies;”
  • ”a stepping up of the activity of the Armed Forces of individual states (groups of states) involving partial or complete mobilization and the transitioning of these states’ organs of state and military command and control to wartime operating conditions.”

The lists above, where quoted, are excerpts from the Russian Military Doctrine (2010). Not exhaustive, but the most obvious external military dangers and military threats arising from the current situation. This perception of danger and threat also matches well with the Russian narrative of its legitimate concerns regarding the crisis.

Applying military force

In order to counter these threats, Russia has acted in accordance with its doctrine, and utilized its Armed Forces. A prerequisite of the use of armed force is readiness. Russian doctrine states as a main task for the Russian Federation:

  • ”to maintain the Armed Forces and other troops at the prescribed level of readiness for combat utilization;”

This task has been emphasized during the last one and a half year of recurring snap drills increasing in volume and conducted on all levels from ”Ставка” to units. The aim of these drills is simple — to prepare for a more rapid utilization of the Armed Forces in quick, decisive, high-tempo operations. The utilization of military force is governed by the following principal tasks. ”The principal tasks of the Armed Forces and other troops in peacetime, during a period of an immediate threat of aggression, and in wartime”

  • ”The Russian Federation considers it legitimate to utilize the Armed Forces and other troops in order to […] ensure the protection of its citizens located beyond the borders of the Russian Federation in accordance with generally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation.”
  • ”With a view to protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security, formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces may be used operationally outside the Russian Federation in accordance with the generally recognized principles and norms of international law, the international treaties of the Russian Federation, and federal legislation.”
    • Commentary: The protection of citizens is not limited to the risk of severe physical harm, but is rather defined as the ”discrimination and the suppression of the rights, freedoms, and legitimate interests of the citizens of the Russian Federation in foreign states.” The use of Armed Forces outside the territory of the Russian Federation in this task is explicitly stated in the main tasks of the Armed Forces and other troops in peacetime:
    • ”to protect citizens of the Russian Federation outside the Russian Federation from armed attack;”
    • ”to participate in operations in the maintenance (restoration) of international peace and security, to adopt measures to avert (eliminate) a threat to peace, and to suppress acts of aggression (violation of the peace) on the basis of decisions of the UN Security Council or other bodies authorized to adopt such decisions in accordance with international law;”
  • ”In the context of the implementation by the Russia Federation of strategic deterrence measures of a forceful nature, provision is made for the utilization of precision weapons. The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”
    • Commentary: This provision is not relevant regarding the situation in Ukraine, but most relevant regarding NATO exercises and exercises of strategic forces. While NATO exercises including strategic forces should rather be viewed as a response to the recent increase in Russian strategic forces exercises, Russia will most likely attribute the build-up to NATO expansionism and aggression, and respond in kind by scheduling more exercises of its strategic forces.


The Russian use of military force in Crimea and non-military force in Ukraine is well within the scope and purpose stated in the doctrine. From a policy point of view, war has become an admissible instrument – almost a prescription drug for sores and blisters – and the threshold for utilizing Armed Forces has lowered. This is development is evident since the Russo-Georgian War. The main reason for the restraint in utilizing military force has been the low readiness and fighting potential of the Russian Armed Forces. Now, military force is readily applied long before the possibilities to resolve crises by other means have been exhausted. The threshold of utilizing military force will lower further, as military potential and fighting potential increase. The core capabilities of the Armed Forces, increasing in volume, projection power, strike reach, precision and economy of force, will increase the latitude of the Russian government and permit it to apply rapid, decisive force against states with organized conventional fighting potential. The implications for non-aligned countries like Finland and Sweden are obvious. Finland is a state with contiguous borders and adjacent waters with Russia. While Finnish security policy and the emphasis on good neighbourly relations may keep us out of direct conflict with Russia, Finland will be part of any conflict in the Baltic. As non-aligned European Union members the assumptions regarding Finland and Sweden are quite clear — in a crisis, the countries will align with the bloc opposing Russia, lending support as implied by statements of solidarity and required by the treaty of EU. As non-aligned EU members not supported by any military structure, but rather non-military policy instruments, the possibilities for the future defence solutions of Finland and Sweden, if intended to be independent, credible and create a deterrence against aggression are very limited. The most obvious defence solution is to create and maintain an extremely high defensive readiness, in order to counter blitz operations by maintaining a conventional parity up to a level of uncontrollable escalation requiring intervention of the international community. Appraising Crimea and Ukraine, this requires the immediate readiness (0-7 days) of 3-5 army battalions and the rapid reaction (7-14 days) of 2-3 army brigades. The cost of maintaining such readiness would require a substantial increase in defence budgets. The number of army units required can be decreased by increasing a long-range strike capability, but this in turn would require a more offensive doctrine allowing for the early and aggressive use of joint fires. Like said twice before:

Nothing is as expensive as a fully independent credible defence.

The era of fully independent defence solutions in states with contiguous borders with Russia is coming to an end. As Russia’s fighting potential, readiness and willingness to use military force at early stages of crises increases two choices remain: to seek security together or quietly prepare to acquiesce to ”legitimate claims and concerns.” The sovereignty of non-aligned countries is like honey for the bear.

2 reaktioner på ”War admissible – a view on Russian Military Doctrine and Clausewitz

  1. Dear Tapio!

    Thank you for taking the debate a step further. I very much agree with the need to understand political intentions and rationale behind Russia’s actions, and to do so in a cool and in-depth analytical fashion.

    Compliments given, I however feel you misread me on the relation between policy and war; I stated that war is subject to policy. When you suggest that ”we certainly cannot derive political intentions and rationales by solely looking to the state of any given nation’s military capabilities…” it could be understood that you turned it the other way around – policy subject to war? – if deductive reasoning is assumed. Well, when you assume, they say… Maybe it’s just a native speaker thing, we’d both perhaps be a bit better off using our native Finnish and Swedish — another excellent reason to use your English pen now and then.

    Ad rem: I didn’t, of course, mean to imply that an absolute deductive logic always applies, but I still firmly hold that ”The main reason for the restraint in utilizing military force [in Russia] has been the low readiness and fighting potential of the Russian Armed Forces.” Military capabilities and military formations in readiness create political latitiude. There isn’t an automatic trigger mechanism, but Russia acts as it doctrinally states it will – this is contemparary Realpolitik. Military dangers that develop into military threats are neutralized by (show of) military force when such force is accessible and effectively applicable.

    The accessibility is regulated by readiness. At this point, I feel it prudent to remind ”civilians” that in military structures there are automatic mechanisms that get triggered when crises build up. These mechanisms of readiness enhance the availability, combat efficiency and applicability of military force by mobilization, force projection, training for relevant scenarios, increasing logistic sustainability and intelligence preparation of the battlefield.

    When viewing war as an instrument of policy, and Russia as a nation that views war as admissible, it becomes clear that the only way to de-escalate and avoid a Cold War 2.0 is to understand Russia, its interests, Politik and leaders.

    Best rgds


  2. Insightful analysis, especially on the part of capabilities and the changing nature of the Russian doctrine. It is actually somewhat ironical, if you think of it historically, that Russia’s nuclear doctrine, for example, that is now based on the idea of ‘de-escalation’, has plenty of congruence with Nato’s doctrine of flexible response during the cold war (of which, like Russia now, Nato deployed partly because of the fact – and perception, as it turned out to be a bit of a hubris as conclusion – of being inferior when it came to conventional capabilities in European soil).

    Somehow I feel that we should also try to understand Russia’s intentions in a more wider sense. By this I mean that we certainly cannot – and as plenty of research coming from political psychology have recently asserted – derive political intentions and rationales by solely looking to the state of any given nation’s military capabilities and their doctrinal reformulations. Like for example when you assert that ”The main reason for the restraint in utilizing military force [in Russia] has been the low readiness and fighting potential of the Russian Armed Forces”, It almost sounds like there are no political, psychological or organizational constraints behind any decision to use force. It seems more like an automatic mechanism that gets triggered when an immediate buildup to a relevant crisis seems imminent (defined perhaps by the perceptions stated in the doctrine).

    That said, I certainly agree with you on the urgency to acquire the appropriate level of readiness and crisis management capabilities (also in wider sense, building up the resilience all the way from social cohesion on policies) – with the combination of future uncertainty (as it will always be) and the worrying flexibility and agile nature of The Bear that it has recently demonstrated, this seems almost like a no-brainer to me (at least until we are starting to count the expenditures to achieve this readiness and possible misperceptions that this might discharge). But what I think is essential for our political leaders and intelligence community is to have as accurate and cool analysis also on the political intentions behind the reasoning that is leading the rationale of contemporary Russian foreign and security political sentiments. They may not be pretty, and definitely not rosy, but they might not be that fatalistic, mechanical, consistent and straightforward as their military build up (including cyber, IO’s and that stuff) might suggest alone. Of course, this is an immense task even for a more resourceful nation or, indeed, an alliance, but something that your rigorous analysis above will certainly support.

    Tapio Juntunen


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