Prompted by the great discussion that followed my post, Does America Have a Long-Term Strategic Plan?, a reader sent me the link to a very interesting article by Michael Kofman, A Comparative Guide to Russia’s Use of Force: Measure Twice, Invade Once. Kofman presents a very interesting analysis of Russia’s strategy for dealing with Ukraine, Syria, United States, and the European Union during the last three years.

One characteristic feature of this strategy, according to Kofman, is “fail fast and fail cheap.”  As an example, an earlier article, The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy, describes how Russia rapidly tried four different approaches dealing with the crisis in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, quickly abandoning those that didn’t work. Mark Twain once said, “good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.” The essence of an adaptive strategy is to try different things, and then use what works. It’s natural selection in action.

Another element of the Russian strategy is using a minimum of force, just enough to get the job done, but no more. Russian involvement in conflicts of both eastern Ukraine and Syria followed this logic:

In Ukraine, Moscow sent in regular units to beat the Ukrainian army in decisive battles, then withdrew many of those units. Rapid escalation, with an influx of battalion tactical groups, was followed by rapid de-escalation.  Russia’s presence in Syria is similarly adjusted on a weekly basis and kept to a minimum, with surges as needed.

… in Syria, the Russian contingent regularly resizes its air wing and military footprint, introducing specialized units such as sappers or military police and promptly withdrawing those no longer needed.  In order to manage public perception, Russia declared a withdrawal back in March 2016 and just recently again in January.  Each is meant to “close” a chapter of the campaign, show political gains, and normalize the military presence among domestic audiences.


The third element is refusal to conquer and hold territory. Crimea is an exception to this policy. Check out the previous posts I wrote to explain it:

My Article in Aeon: To understand Crimea, we need an evolutionary theory of national honour

and also why I predicted that Russia would not annex eastern Ukraine:

Russia’s Sacred Landscape, and the Place of Eastern Ukraine within It

In fact, in 2014 the Ukrainian armed forces were in such disarray, that a single Russian division could punch all the way to Kiev and install a government friendly to Kremlin. But Moscow avoided this course. In Syria, similarly, Kremlin relies on local troops (Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Iranians) to fight on the ground and hold territory.

There is no question that this strategy has worked very well for Moscow in the last three years. In fact, astoundingly well, given the general weakness of Russia. Compared to the United States, Russia is a military and economic dwarf. Its economy is in bad shape. During my visit to Moscow a month ago, all with whom I spoke said that life has become harder as a result of galloping inflation and stagnating wages. Clearly, the Kremlin doesn’t have a good strategy for restarting economic growth as long as the price of oil stays low. Instead of trying new approaches, and learning from failures, over the 17 years that he has been in power, Putin and his economic ministers have been recycling the same old and tired neo-classical recipes that are pushed by the likes of the IMF.

Also, it’s important not to forget that many of the tactical moves in the foreign policy arena in the last three years have been poorly conceived and executed. But as Kofman notes, “Moscow is comfortable with failure, preferring for it come fast and cheap so it can improvise the next evolution rather than investing in a failing plan. As I described in an earlier article, the overall Russian strategy is emergent, preferring a lean approach to deliberate planning. The Kremlin regularly attempts to set up no-lose scenarios for itself, such that complete defeat in the conflict is politically manageable at home.  Much of Russia’s effort to establish plausible deniability is intended to create the political space to make mistakes, paving the road for cycles of retreat and escalation as necessary.”

In other words, an evolutionary, adaptive strategy can make up for a lot of tactical mistakes.

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