Russia and Post-Modern Deterrence

  • Published

Russia and Post-Modern Deterrence by Stephen J. Cimbala and Peter J. Rainow. Potomac Books, Inc., 2007, 179 pp.

This book is timely, given Russia’s influence on a host of issues from US relations with former Soviet republics to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion to the possible deployment of a defensive missile shield in former Eastern Bloc countries. It seeks to place Russia in its modern context with reference to its past and how that informs policy and strategy. The authors contend that Russian leaders are struggling to cope with three scenarios that define their current situation: (1) Except for China, all the world’s leading economic and military powers are market-based economies with democratic political systems, something Russia is struggling with on both fronts; (2) Russia’s failure to keep up with the revolution in military affairs (RMA) focusing on development in information technology, electronics, and communications; and (3) The shift from a Cold War premise of deterrence based on nuclear weapons and attritional warfare to something else entirely.

The authors contend that Russia has not kept up politically, economically, or militarily with the world’s leading economic and military powers. Consequently, Russian leaders struggle to find a way to assert their authority and to regain some measure of great power status. The title is something of a misnomer, since the subject is broader than the commonly accepted concept of traditional nuclear deterrence. They argue that Russia, faced with a crumbling infrastructure, outdated weapons, and an ineffective conscripted military force, relies more and more on the threat of early or even the threat of first use of nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries. This obviously turns more traditional theories of no-first use and mutually assured destruction through guaranteed retaliation on their heads. They argue since Russia cannot respond effectively at the conventional level, Russian leaders are seriously considering whether they might be willing to use their nuclear arsenal in a more proactive manner than in the past. How this frightening scenario came about is the subject of a good portion of the book.

Two situations from Russia’s past help explain why the authors see this situation developing as it has. The first is the legacy of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. The authors argue this was such a searing event to the Russian psyche that Russian leaders vowed never to let anything like it happen again, even if it means using nuclear weapons. The second is Russia’s failure to subdue the breakaway republic of Chechnya. They show how Russia’s failure in this conflict highlighted its inability to keep up in the communications and electronics revolutions that are reconfiguring the military forces of their more advanced competitors. The inability to compete on a conventional level leaves a resort to nuclear weapons to prevent defeat as the only recourse in a major conflict. The authors conclude that Russia needs to modernize its forces while not focusing solely on technological advances. They content that conscription and its abuses are a debilitating handicap in creating and developing a modern military force based on advanced technology. Russia leaders also have to make their country more economically viable to compete more effectively with a rapidly growing China and an economically weaker but still formidable United States.

Cimbala and Rainow make an interesting but in the end not so compelling case. They use Chechnya as the litmus test for Russia’s military effectiveness, but this has limited applicability. Chechnya degenerated into a quasi-guerilla war the Russians were ill-equipped to fight. The Russian’s marginally better performance in the second conflict showed they still had not shaken off the attritional Cold War mindset sufficiently to adapt to the changed conditions. The problem with this is the authors; focus is too narrow. They never discuss Afghanistan to compare it to Chechnya to show what the Russians learned or did not learn from these conflicts and the implications for policy development and military force structure. This book probably went to press before Russia invaded Georgia, but the situation between those countries and Russia and Ukraine over NATO expansion seems to support the notion that Russian conventional military power is neither as moribund nor as ineffective as the authors believe. If true, this could have major implications for their argument regarding Russia’s threatened use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s cyber warfare capability seems to be advancing, which argues against its failure to address at least portions of the RMA in information technology, electronics, and communications. Finally, there is the issue of the recent worldwide economic crisis. Russia was hit hard, but her natural resources give her leverage and guaranteed income she can use to advantage regardless of her market structure.

The authors are well qualified to write on this topic and do a tolerable job. However, their argument is too narrow and does not account for situations more amenable to the Russian military as currently structured. The conclusions were sound but said almost nothing about the role nuclear weapons will play in a future Russian military. Since this theme looms large at the beginning, it should have been addressed at the end. A minor point, the book includes no maps; so, discussions about Chechnya’s geography and its impact on the campaign were less effective than they might be. There is very little discussion of Russian military airpower and none about cyber warfare; therefore, readers looking for information on those topics must look elsewhere. This book is of broad interest to those interested in Russia and where it is headed, but it serves more as a primer than it is a definitive discussion.

Lt Col Golda T. Eldridge Jr., USAF

AFROTC Detachment 845

"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."