Russian Strategic Logic

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Western observers are often astonished by Russian military decision-making, which defies the principle of waiting for full knowledge of the enemy before acting. The Russian approach holds that it is in engagement of the enemy that knowledge will emerge that can advance an ultimate strategic design.

The decision-making of Russian leadership and the logic informing it, particularly in the use of military force in operations outside the borders of Russia, has baffled Western onlookers over the past decade. In three events of global strategic import, Russian actions took the West by surprise: the large-scale maneuver in Georgia in the summer of 2008; the operation in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea; and the intervention in Syria.

What is the strategic rationale behind these moves? What, for example, is the aim of the Russian intervention in Syria? Has Russia defined an end-state in light of which it calculates its steps in the campaign?

The events in Syria illuminate a difference in approach between linear Western thinking and Russian thought. In 2014, an American general operating in northern Syria told The New York Times, “Until I understand the logic of ISIS, I cannot operate against it effectively.” Russian conduct in Syria demonstrates the reverse logic: we cannot wait to get to really know the forces in the region before we physically clash with them. This way of thinking is a cultural element deeply rooted in the Russian heritage. In Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace, he presents the reader with an observation on the emerging nature of the phenomenon of war:

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