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The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace by Oscar Jonsson. Georgetown University Press, 2019, 260 pp.

This doctoral dissertation turned paperback written by Oscar Jonsson (PhD from King’s College London’s Department of War Studies and director of the Stockholm Free World Forum—a foreign and security policy think tank based in Sweden) is unlike most texts in the literature of this field. While many geopolitical works superimpose (albeit often subconsciously) the assumptions of the analyst upon that which is being analyzed (mirror imaging), The Russian Understanding of War seeks to pierce Moscow’s strategic calculus and the “nuances of the Russian language” (p. ix) to answer the question, “Has the Russian understanding of the nature of war changed, and if so, how?” (p. 4).

Dr. Jonsson frames the problem in the introduction by ensuring the audience understands the distinction between Clausewitz’s “character of war” (something that perpetually evolves with technology) and the “nature of war” (something generally regarded as immutable). With the lexicon established in support of the thesis question, the author then divides his treatise into four main sections. Section 1 (“The Soviet Understanding of War”) examines the view of the collective USSR as the intellectual foundation for the Russian Federation’s initial cadre of political and military leadership—with particular emphasis on the uniformity of Soviet political and military thought as an extension of Marxism-Leninism, Hegelian Dialectics, and the Communist Party. While Lenin regarded violence and armed conflict as requisites for war similar to Clausewitz, his understanding of “politics by other means” differed on the basis that the Soviets believed war to be a paradoxical evil that could only be eliminated by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat worldwide. Section 2 (“The Russian Understanding of War after the Dissolution of the Soviet Union”) subsequently outlines how the Russian Federation’s views regarding the nature of war evolved, stressing the gradual yet notable departure from the traditional understanding of Clausewitz as incorporated by Lenin, Stalin, and others into Communism as the official worldview of the party and the state. Finally, Section 3 (“Information Warfare”) and Section 4 (“Color Revolutions”) leverage the philosophical foundation of the first two sections to examine Russia’s understanding of war relative to what it perceives as two of its greatest external/internal security threats on the basis that “Russian threat perception is the backdrop to Russian offensive action” (p. 121).

This book is a remarkable and timely work of scholastic achievement with key insights for a geopolitical period of great power competition. Dr. Jonsson concludes that, as the title suggests, the Russian strategic calculus blurs the lines between “war” and “peace.” He articulately and definitively demonstrates that the principal political and military elites of Russia today believe that either the nature of war has completely changed to include “non-violent” actions or that the fundamental definition of “violence” must be expanded to include the nontangible and nonlethal—in either case, the net effect remains that Moscow is corporately shifting its focus toward the political goals of war rather than solely focusing on its means (“armed violence”). Moreover, Dr. Jonsson adeptly balances what the Russian inner circle actually believes and what it states publicly, noting that formally acknowledging its perceived change in war’s nature would go against concepts that inform both international law and the Russian federal law “On Defense” (both of which rely on “armed violence” as the defining element of war and organically declaring a change in war’s nature would be tantamount to unilaterally declaring a worldwide state of war). The thesis question and its answer are supported not through an examination of Western experts writing about Russia (i.e., from an outsider’s perspective) but through an exhaustive examination of documents and speeches produced by Russian politicians, strategists, tacticians, and oligarchs, thereby effectively using primary source materials to generate insights about the Russian understanding of war while simultaneously minimizing the risk for analytical bias by allowing the Kremlin et al. to speak for themselves.

Ultimately, this book is a must for anyone seeking to navigate the great power competition environment or those attempting to understand why Russia behaves in the manner it does. While it may be tempting to examine Russia through several centuries of Czarist and Communist history, it is paramount that military strategists and analysts remember the Russian Federation is less than 30 years old and, particularly since the ascendance of Vladimir Putin, is still finding its identity in the post–Cold War era. The author focuses on the findings of his research rather than the tangible implications for US or NATO policy makers. This is perhaps the only area where the book could be improved, while in fairness such a weight of effort is common practice for a dissertation contributing to the body of knowledge in support of field practitioners. Woven throughout this book is a singularly profound sentiment that must be understood by those in the US national security apparatus. Specifically, the following fallacious assumption must be purged from US/NATO policy development: “Western states believe it is up to them to choose whether they enter a war with Russia or not” (p. 157).

Simply put, the Russian government is actively engaged in what it considers a “war” against the West, albeit one fought via nonmilitary means, and as such the West must change the way it thinks about deterrence, competition, and conflict when engaging Moscow and when seeking to cooperate with nations in Russia’s near abroad. In other words, “when Western states are taking actions that they perceive as being short of war—sanctions, democracy promotion, and information operations—but that are understood by Russia as amounting to war, there is a risk of unconscious and/or unintentional escalation” (p. 2). Regardless of whether or not one accepts that the nature of war has changed, the semantic aspects of that philosophical and academic debate must not overshadow the real and potentially dire consequences of ignoring how Russia thinks and conducts operations. As articulated by Sun Tzu, those seeking to overcome must first “know thy enemy.”

Capt Jayson M. Warren, 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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