Released 8 April 2022.
This podcast is inspired by Dr. Bettina Renz’s 2016 Parameters article “Why Russia Is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power.” Dr. Renz revisits her original work and shares her insights on the current situation in Ukraine.
Click here to read the article.
Stephanie Crider (Host)
Decisive Point introduces Conversations on Strategy, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who explore timely issues in national security affairs.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.
The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Bettina Renz)
Conversations on Strategy welcomes Dr. Bettina Renz, author of “Why Russia Is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power,” published in Parameters’ summer 2016 issue. Renz is professor of international security at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She obtained her (master of arts or) MA and (master of science or) MSc in Russian studies at the University of Edinburgh and completed her PhD at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham.
Welcome, Dr. Renz. Thank you for sharing your time with us today. I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s talk about your 2016 article “Why Russia Is Reviving Its Conventional Military Power.” In it, you note that this was about more than preparing for offensive action. Russia wants to be seen as a world power. Please lay the groundwork for our listeners and briefly walk us through your article.
I wrote this article in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. And pretty much what I’m calling for in the article is that we need to view what is going on in Russia at all times really within more historical context—and, in particular, the annexation of Crimea and what happened afterwards—not as a sudden turnaround or an unexpected event. Because I think we encounter this problem quite often in Western assessments of Russia again and again.
I think we are again in danger of making the same mistakes. There’s a tendency to hyperbole when assessing Russian military capabilities and intentions. So, during the 1990s, there was very much the view in the West that Russia was finished as a global actor. It had a very weak conventional military. There was the assumption that Russia no longer had any ambitions in that respect, and it was only interested really in fighting small wars in its periphery and performed very badly there.
Against this background and sort of lack of attention paid to Russia, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 came as a surprise to many. And then, assessments of Russia and of the military capabilities and ambitions pretty much flipped to the other extreme almost overnight. So all of a sudden, there was the assumption that Russia pretty much now had almost surpassed the United States or the West when it comes to military capabilities; a lot of focus spent by analysts, and so on, on new technology that the Kremlin and (Vladimir) Putin were propagating, like the hypersonic weapons and so on; a lot of emphasis on hybrid warfare as a major danger to Russia and to its neighbors.
And now in 2022, of course, we have a clear escalation of the war in Ukraine that in fact has been going on since 2014. This is clearly a very offensive and aggressive military operation that has a very serious danger of escalation beyond Ukraine. But the focus seems to be, by many analysts now, on how poorly the Russian armed forces are doing operationally—even talking about the Russian military as a paper tiger and so on. So these assessments are not useful, and I deal with that in the article.
In the article, I show that conventional military power, in addition to nuclear deterrence of course, was actually always important to Russia. It was important for upholding the Soviet Union’s power during the Cold War. It was seen as important under (Boris) Yeltsin; even already in the 1993 military doctrine, very ambitious plans were laid out for conventional military capabilities that were only affordable at the time. And then, since 2000 also, President Putin immediately focused on conventional military power as important. And the military reforms that occurred in Russia then—especially, since 2008, military modernization—were conducted not only to fight wars more efficiently, but especially, really, to recreate a powerful military for Russia as a symbol of a great-power status. Because Russia—again, this is nothing recent—Russia always saw itself as a great power. Even during the 1990s where, when it came to military capabilities, it wasn’t really the case.
So there is a challenge for the West, and this is what I pose in the article as well: How do we deal with this? How do we deal with Russian great-power ambitions and its preparedness also to use military force?
The West and the United States and its allies and coalition partners have been used to being able to stand up to opponents, various dictators, and so on—intervene in various humanitarian situations—since the 1990s. But, of course, Russia is different from these opponents. And there’s only so much that we can do, that the West can do, about stopping or preventing Russia from using conventional military power because of the danger of nuclear escalation, as we also see now in the war in Ukraine.
Here’s a quote from your piece: “Russia has used armed forces to pursue a variety of policy objectives throughout the post-Cold War years, including various ‘peace enforcement’ operations across the former Soviet region at the beginning of the late 1990s, the Chechen wars, the war with Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine started in 2014, and most recently in Syria.” And as you mentioned, the current situation—the continuation of that in Ukraine. Do you think Russia is just feeling emboldened as you predicted in your article, or is this something else?
Russia, of course, has been using military force to pursue various interests, objectives—and this is nothing new—since the early 1990s. And, again, this is something we have to bear in mind.
So what Russia was dealing with there, especially in its neighborhood, were, yeah, various security concerns: concerns about destabilization and so on, extremist movements. But also very importantly, status concerns were always important to Russia, especially regionally; so what Russia, the Kremlin, has long called or sees as its sphere of influence in the former Soviet region. And they became involved in various armed conflicts, civil wars, and so on in the early 1990s. But they kept forces, Russian military units, in all of these areas— Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan—that they were involved in as so-called “peacekeepers” since 1992.
And as such, really, then, the war in Ukraine is nothing new. Very much 2014, the annexation of Crimea, was also about regional status concerns first of all. So from the Kremlin point of view, and we see that in an extreme form now in 2022, they have been seeing an independent Ukraine that is pursuing its own independent foreign policy as a threat to Russian interests in this particular region in what Russia sees as its sphere of influence.
So, the war has been ongoing since 2014, but of course escalated significantly since February 2022 all over Ukraine. But also, we shouldn’t disregard, then, the international status concerns. These are also important. And what is important here, from the point of view of the Kremlin, is to show that Russia is a force to be reckoned with, to show this to the West and to the United States.
There has been a lot of talk over the last decade or more about multipolarity: the wish to, you know, have a multipolar system where Russia would play an important role. And the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was just again talking about this with regard to what is going on now in Ukraine. There’s a lot of discussion in Russia—and criticism, really—of what they have been seeing as a US monopoly on the use of force; a tendency to portray humanitarian interventions then by NATO, and so on, throughout the years, going back especially to the Kosovo war (the Kosovo conflict), Operation Allied Force, in 1999 as an excuse of the West to expand power; dismissing that this is about humanitarian issues and so on. And this of course has been going on for two decades after the Cold War already.
So the war in Ukraine now, in 2022, first of all is about Ukraine, about the Kremlin’s refusal to accept that Ukraine is a sovereign and independent state that can decide on its own politics internally and internationally. It’s about destroying Ukrainian national identity in the state. But it also is to show to the West—to the United States, in particular, and to NATO—that there are limitations on the use of force by the United States and by the West—more or less saying, well, we can do what we want in our sphere of influence, and you have to stand by, and you can’t do anything about it unless you want to risk nuclear war. And this is of course a very difficult situation.
One of the implications you bring up is the possibility of a potential shift in the global power structure. Does that apply here? Or maybe I should be asking, how does that apply here?
Well, from the Kremlin’s point of view again, yes, this applies here—so, again, the Kremlin, the foreign minister, Lavrov, again just speaking about the dawn of a new multipolar era and so on. I see it at a little bit differently. The outcome of the war in Ukraine is not yet clear. What is clear, I think, is that the Putin regime, Russia as it exists now with its current political system, will not be able to survive this war in the long term. Because this war is simply strategically unwinnable for the Kremlin.
I’m not talking here about the immediate military operations. I’m talking about the longer term. I don’t think there is any reason to expect a fast collapse, unfortunately, of Putin’s regime at the moment. The war in Ukraine in 2022 was a clear strategic miscalculation, not only regarding Russia’s ability to achieve their objectives in Ukraine immediately, but, also, miscalculation about how the West would react. So, while Russia got away relatively lightly with Crimea in 2014, the war in Georgia (conflict in South Ossetia) in 2008, and so on, this extreme and unprovoked war of aggression now against Ukraine will not be forgotten. There will be no return to normal on this occasion, no matter how the war pans out. And so, it will change Russia’s relationship with the West, and with the EU also, significantly and irrevocably, I would say.
Of course, we have to bear in mind that not all states are against this war—or, at least, not as strongly. So there are other countries (China, India, Pakistan, and so on) that are not as unambiguously condemning Russian actions and human-rights abuses and war crimes. And some of those countries of course share the views, in particular, with Russia about the West and about the United States and the international order. But I already warned in the article in 2016 that Russia cannot and will not win another arms race against the West if it comes to it, just as the Soviet Union was unable to win this.
As I mentioned before, President Putin prioritized military modernization and military reforms right from the outset of his presidency. But for quite a few years, it was unclear how far he would go with this—whether he would yet again, like was done in the Soviet Union, prioritize military power over all other instruments of statecraft at the expense of many other areas of the state and of development. But I think now it’s clear that Putin again failed to build a state in Russia that could truly compete internationally or have much to offer, really, in areas other than military power and military aggression, either politically or economically.
So it’s clear there are some states around the world that have not yet joined the clear condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. But these actions—and, especially, these extreme, worst excesses and human-rights violations—they will have an impact on Russia’s international image long-term. And I don’t think it will be seen as a reliable or predictable or desirable partner anywhere in the longer term. And also, from the point of view of affordability, of course, with the sanctions that will continue for a long time, putting everything into military power as well—Russia’s only instrument, really, to compete internationally—is not something that Russia will be able to survive in the long term.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic and for making time for us today.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
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