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Learning from Russia’s Recent Wars: Why, Where, and When Russia Might Strike Next

Learning from Russia’s Recent Wars: Why, Where, and When Russia Might Strike Next by Neal G. Jesse. Cambria Press, 2020, 244 pp.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea, support of armed rebels in eastern Ukraine, and intervention in Syria each surprised Western defense and intelligence establishments. Few—and perhaps none in a position of influence—predicted these actions. There has been great interest in preventing a repeat—reflected in the many articles and books written on the topic—and Neal G. Jesse’s Learning from Russia’s Recent Wars is a recent addition to this discussion. Jesse’s work purports to examine each of the three dominant schools of international relations theory to identify which best explains and predicts Russian foreign policy. The objective, as suggested by the title and stated in the first chapter, is to enable prediction of future Russian actions.

The book begins by exploring theories of Russian foreign policy. It argues that to date there have been five broad approaches to the topic, all falling short for one reason or another (pp. 2–3). Jesse’s critiques are valid, and he suggests a better approach, arguing that structural realist, domestic factor, and social constructivist theories of international relations should be applied simultaneously and “without bias or prejudice” to explain Russian foreign policy (p. 4). Doing so will help “predict any future aggressions” and avoid the pitfalls of other theoretical explanations of Russian actions (p. 21). At this point, the reader expects a thorough examination of Russian foreign policy using international relations theory.

The next chapter explores Russian wars and interventions since 1991 and tries to connect them to the predictions of the three theoretical approaches described above (p. 32). The attempt falls short. He does not clearly apply the theories and musters insufficient evidence to prove the theories’ validity. In fact, Jesse makes no use of primary sources that could reveal the factors that influenced Russian leaders’ decisions, making it difficult to determine whether the balance of power, domestic politics, or ideas mattered more. More surprising for a chapter of applied theory written by a professor of political science is the complete absence of citations to other academic literature on the topic. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed at least a dozen articles in the last few years that apply one or more theories of international relations to contemporary Russian foreign policy. The chapter concludes by attempting to answer the questions posed in the book’s title. Jesse argues that “why” is best understood through realism, “when” via domestic factors, and “where” through a combination of these and social constructivism (pp. 62–63). This conclusion, “when” in particular, does not stand up to scrutiny. Jesse presents no compelling evidence that domestic political factors influenced the timing of Russian wars and interventions. Instead, it seems clearer from the evidence he provides that realism better answers the “when” question. Russia seems to respond when specific threats to its interests or security arise. This leaves the reader wondering whether realism alone best explains Russian foreign policy, as it is the common theme in the answers to “why, when, and where.” Ultimately, the book would have benefited from a clearer, more detailed exploration of each theory, perhaps by devoting a chapter to each or by exploring in greater detail specific cases through the lens of each theory.

After the second chapter, the book ceases examining the explanatory or predictive value of international relations theory. Instead, it moves into a series of chapters summarizing Russian military, propaganda, and cyber capabilities. These chapters do little to support the overall thesis, but they could have been useful summaries for a general reader if they did not contain numerous factual errors. For example, the statement that the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base at Sevastopol provides “direct access to the Mediterranean” seems to discount the narrow chokepoint of the Turkish Straits (p. 70). Equally problematic is the discussion of Russian military doctrine that fails to put the writings of Valery Gerasimov, Russian chief of the General Staff, in their appropriate context (pp. 81–82). Readers would be better served by reviewing the secondary literature that Jesse cites.

Finally, the book examines the threat Russia poses to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. These chapters would have been an opportune place to explore the predictive value of international relations theories, but instead read like a shopping list of terrible things Russia could do to countries in these regions. Jesse also makes several questionable claims. For one, he argues that it is more likely Russia would invade and annex the Baltic states than Ukraine (p. 159). He seems to forget the existence of NATO, which he earlier notes prevents Russian military action in the Baltic (p. 139). Equally questionable is the assertion that China does not challenge Russian dominance of Central Asia (p. 187). Readers with a cursory understanding of the economic imbalance between Russia and China and knowledge of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative will find this claim disputable.

Despite great promise, this book will leave its likely audiences dissatisfied. Academics will be disappointed that it neither develops new theoretical insights nor properly applies existing theories to the cases in question. The absence of new policy recommendations will irritate policy makers. Intelligence analysts will be disappointed that the book offers no new framework for predicting Russian actions. Finally, even general readers will be annoyed by the remarkable prevalence of typos—at least 67 by my unsystematic count—and awkwardly phrased sentences.

The questions the book purports to answer—why, where, and when might Russia strike next—are important ones. They remain unanswered.

Ian Sundstrom
Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center




"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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