Russia’s Military Revival

  • Published

Russia’s Military Revival by Bettina Renz. Polity Books, 2018, 240 pp.

Russia’s Military Revival is an ideal introduction to the modern Russian military, written by an expert in Russian military reform, Bettina Renz. Throughout her book, Renz gives context to Western readers for understanding new capabilities Russia has deployed in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria. Renz is no apologist for Russia’s behavior, yet she does an admirable job demonstrating the strategic problems Russia seeks to solve and how the Russian military addresses the country’s problems.

Bettina Renz is a professor at Nottingham University specializing in Russian military reforms. Since 2005 she has published numerous articles in academic journals describing the background and effects of changes in Russia’s post-Soviet military. Russia’s Military Revival is a scholarly, academic work.  Each chapter begins with a thorough review of the literature on Russia’s military and political activities. Renz concisely summarizes nearly 15 years of research into only 206 pages—quite a feat considering how much information is available. She balances her perspective with sources by those who perceive Russian actions differently from her own. This parity leads the reader to understand both Russia’s activities and the Western analysis that has driven so many policy decisions. It is what makes Russia’s Military Revival crucial and authoritative for analysts and policy makers addressing the Russian problem set.

Renz states upfront why she wrote Russia’s Military Revival: to correct what she perceives are Western misconceptions about an apparently unexpected resurgence in Russia’s military capabilities. As she points out in the introduction, starting with its invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russia abruptly reappeared on the world stage as a major military power. The Russian interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela only solidified this view. Numerous commentators, analysts, and policy makers have referred to a “resurgent Russia” with new, unprecedented capabilities, seeking to expand its territory by military force.

Renz demonstrated the continuity between the military Russia inherited at the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s apparently new military strength. To do this, she makes three major points. First, the present Russian military does not represent a paradigm shift from previous Soviet thinking. Second, the growth of the Russian military does not represent a desire by Russian leadership to forcibly incorporate the territory of other nations into its borders, the example of Crimea notwithstanding. Third, the Russian military still does not seriously rival the West in size, technology, or training. While the Russian military has improved vastly since 1991, it simply does not have the resources or manpower to seriously challenge Western capabilities.

Renz illustrates how the modern Russian military developed organically from the Soviet Army. By tracing the development and performance of the Russian military since 1991, she makes her arguments more credible than those promulgating the belief in an innovative change to Russia’s forces that suddenly presents a threat to the West. Renz lays out in detail how Russian leaders and military thinkers learned from experience in Chechnya and Georgia, as well as from Soviet military traditions, to reform their armed forces in a way that achieves Russian state goals. Her analysis includes discussion of Russian technological as well as organizational and doctrinal developments.

Further, Renz shows that far from being directed against the West, Russian armed forces—including both traditional military as well as internal security forces—are oriented to protecting the regime. Russian leadership places a premium on regime survival. While in part this includes defense against external threats (i.e., NATO), it is even more important for state leadership to guard against unstable elements among its own population. Once this point is clear, the organization and equipping of Russian military forces makes tremendous sense. The armed forces are a Praetorian Guard to protect the highest levels of a paranoid and authoritarian state leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, Renz directly addresses the infamous “Gerasimov Doctrine”—the concepts of modern warfare attributed to the current chief of the General Staff, Valery V. Gerasimov. Although some analysts see this doctrine as an almost “secret weapon” by which Russia seeks to disrupt traditional Western warfare, defeating the West through information warfare, Renz shows that Gerasimov was actually discussing modern American ways of war. Far from laying out a blueprint for his own country, Gerasimov was outlining that of his adversary. Once Western analysts understand this, Renz suggests, they can see Russia’s actions clearly and react appropriately. Instead of a malign actor attempting to overthrow Western democracy, the picture Renz paints is that of nervous national leaders seeking to protect themselves.

Russia’s Military Revival is essential reading for analysts and decision makers charged with achieving US goals in the face of the Russian posturing. The author gives analysts a model by which to assess Russian actions and decision makers a framework to predict Russian reactions to Western shows of force. Renz does not make Russia an insignificant problem; she is clear-eyed toward the disruptive role Russia plays in global affairs. Yet she also brings Russian military forces down to a manageable size. Rather than a 10-foot cave bear, Renz illustrates how Russia is a normal brown bear. Perhaps frightening and dangerous, yet, when properly understood and dealt with, defeatable. The book is an excellent resource for personnel developing solutions for America’s current strategic landscape.

     Maj J. Alexander Ippoliti, ANG

"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."