Grand Strategy is the harnessing of military, political, and economic power over a significant period of time to achieve goals that have been dictated by history or indicated by the future. American presidential administrations tend to pre-occupy themselves with fighting crisis after crisis rather than expending limited resources on strategic visions that may not pay dividends for generations. In contrast to this, Russia tends to be more organized in the long view and often appears challenged by the here and now. History has dictated harsh realities to Russia ranging from geographic deficiencies to powerful and aggressive neighbors on its borders. A country with a dark history, and a sinister political culture, often creates strategic success out of necessity.
Soviet grand strategy was governed by creating and exploiting the “constellation of forces,” which included overseas power projection. The Putin Doctrine, which has been as patient as it has been successful, is attempting to resurrect aspects of this. The Russian media announced the doctrine in 2007. It declared policies embraced by the United States and NATO as threats to Russian national interests.
Putin particularly called attention to NATO’s expansion and warned that the deployment of a US antiballistic missile system into Eastern Europe would be a precipitous step toward a new arms race. Russia has endorsed the use of energy as part of a coercive diplomacy strategy and the old Soviet method of using arms control and reduction agreements to achieve Russian national interest.
Throughout these declarations is the need by Russia to be treated with the respect granted the old USSR.
Sometimes this is demonstrated by single “celebrity” actions, such as the decision to launch the new RC-28 Sarmat (“Satan 2”) ICBM on Good Friday. In a deeper sense, the new Russian aggression can be demonstrated by an analysis of their defense budget and military acquisitions. This was demonstrated by their ZAPAD military exercises in 2017 which debut a reconstituted 1st Guard Tank Army and military hardware like the Iskander-M missile, the RS-24 YARS ICBM, and T-14 Amrata tank. More importantly, Russia was telegraphing its ability to drive a military wedge through NATO forces between Kaliningrad and the Baltic. This, combined with the modernization of its navy, and the development of hypersonic missiles, should all be of great concern.
Russia’s continuing threat against the Baltic is well documented. However, this is not the only geopolitical concern. In some areas, Russia seeks to fill perceived vacuums or areas of weakness in American grand strategy: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. It continues to use the crisis over North Korea to gain greater leverage there. In two places, in particular, one can see bolder moves.
Russia’s continued support of the Assad regime in Syria is one area that demonstrates Russian motivation abroad, and in concert with the Iranians, Russia has altered the entire tenor of the Syrian Civil War. The expansion of the base at Tartus to accommodate larger ships indicates a desire for a deeper Russian footprint in the Mediterranean as well as Russia’s lease renewal of the Syrian airbase in Khmeimim following Russia’s announcement that intended to draw down Russian forces.
Nowhere is this new projection as forceful as in the Arctic. The amplification of Russia’s military presence in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, the opening of three new Arctic bases, the creation of an Arctic Brigade (80th Motor Rifle Arctic Brigade), and the expansion of its nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet demonstrates Russia’s goal to dominate the oil-rich strategic route.
Although far from being able to project power worldwide, the steps taken now are the building blocks to return Russian grand strategy to a global footing.