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Russia’s Military Revival

Russia’s Military Revival by Bettina Renz. Polity Press, 2018, 249 pp.

Understanding and interpreting the last five years of Russian foreign actions, particularly military adventures in Crimea and Syria, is a challenge for even the most seasoned defense practitioner or foreign policy expert. In her book Russia’s Military Revival, Bettina Renz presents a useful framework for contextualizing Russian actions. An associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham who focuses on contemporary Russian military activity, Renz dispenses the bucket of cold water necessary to ease alarmist concerns of massive Russian expansionism. Her writing supplies a convincing and systematic approach to understanding how Russia arrived at its current position and a persuasive argument that Russia’s motives remain mostly unchanged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the title suggests, Russia’s Military Revival is a compelling argument that Russia’s military operations over the past five years are not new, but a resumption of historical motivations that will continue to challenge the United States and NATO for the foreseeable future.

The power of Russia’s Military Revival is its scope beyond a simple accounting for Russia’s increased absolute military strength combined with the care it takes to avoid creating a 100-foot giant out of recent Russian military adventurism. Renz provides essential historical precedent to interpret Russian intentions and military activity. Through a lens of four Russian policy factors—the pursuit of great power status, Russian sovereignty, imperial legacy, and the pursuit of multilateralism—Russia’s Military Revival constructs a contextual picture of Russian actions and gives the reader a realistic and repeatable model for examining the “why” behind Russian military activity. Renz methodically uses each of the four factors to lift a mirror to the Western world, arguing that Russia’s military growth is not the most significant change in Russian relations. Instead, Renz argues, the international community’s response to Russia’s reemergence from stagnation in the 1990s is an essential and often overlooked source for the change in relations between the West and Russia.

Historical context anchors the author’s arguments throughout the book. However, the most valuable contribution is Renz’s perspective regarding the Russian view on NATO actions in Kosovo during Operation Allied Force. While now a historical footnote for most Americans, from a Russian perspective NATO’s engagement and disregard of Russian input was a humiliating and instructive event highlighting the importance and necessity of military power as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. Operation Allied Force taught Russia that respect as a global power in the international community would require more than goodwill. Instead, military might would be necessary to shape international activity to Russia’s favor, or at least to garner acknowledgment from the West. While it would be imprudent to cite Allied Force as the event anchoring Russian foreign policy today, it is a seminal event that reverberates throughout Russian and NATO relations.  

Russian operations in Crimea and Syria are undoubtedly the most significant military actions in the eyes of US policy makers today. Renz suggests that concerns of a “paradigm shift,” “aggressive foreign policy,” or Russian military capabilities rivaling the West are misguided and ignore historical and international context. Instead, she contends that actions in Crimea and Syria are representative of Russia’s use of the military as a beneficial tool to gain great power status and respect from the international community while simultaneously undergirding important domestic concerns. Russia’s involvement in Crimea represented less than one percent of the nation’s military force but served as the right strategy matched for the moment. Crimea exemplified the importance Russia placed on stemming Western interference and establishing dominance within Russia’s perceived historical sphere of influence. Countering wide exclamations regarding the emergence of “hybrid warfare,” Renz suggests Crimea was, simply put, “suitable means to a specific end.” Examining Russia’s continued involvement in Syria, Renz suggests the perceived lack of respect given to Russia by the West when formulating a solution to the Syrian civil war echoes dismissal of Russian views during Operation Allied Force and is a more plausible explanation for Russian operations in Syria than the fearful exclamation of rapid Russian expansionism. In addition to contextual analysis of Russian policy, Russia’s Military Revival provides insight into the lessons Russia has gleaned from operations, most notably significant improvements in command and control and the ability to project power abroad. The combined strategic and operational analysis of Russia’s military Renz offers is rare and invaluable to practitioners at all levels of warfare.

Over 70 years ago, German operations during the Spanish Civil War and the annexation of Czechoslovakia challenged Western foreign policy. Today, Western policy and strategy must correctly interpret and respond to another nation reemerging from a decade of humiliation. Russia’s Military Revival is an excellent and useful guide for contextualizing Russian actions and should be on every policy maker’s and strategist’s bookshelf. The only unfortunate portion of Renz’s analysis is the hedging statement embedded at the end, stating the obvious conclusion that Russia’s intentions are impossible to determine. However, this critique is minor; Renz surrounds one unfortunate statement with pages of beautifully constructed analysis. Leaders at every level of warfare, from the strategic and tactical, will be challenged to interpret Russia’s reemergence correctly. Russia’s Military Revival is a vital starting point for correctly understanding the next decade of near-peer competition.

              Lt Col Kyle Bressette, USAF

The views expressed in the book review 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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