During the heated debates on Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, many point to past instances of Russian military aggression under Putin. But this emphasis on continuities overshadows that the way in which the Russian elite premeditates, plans, and conducts war is changing.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February surprised many but, to some, merely confirmed long-held beliefs: that the Russian elite has always been chauvinistic, aggressive, and unconcerned with hiding these sentiments. In this reading, the current invasion is simply the most recent expression of a long-existent mindset in Moscow.
Indeed, the Russian way of war, as it is now on display in Ukraine, has many features that come as no surprise to Russia observers.
This is nothing new. Russia had unleashed a massive cyberattack against Estonia in 2007. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 also saw cyberattacks against government and news websites in Georgia. Ukraine itself has been the target of severe and continued Russian cyberattacks ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Another forecasted feature of Russia’s way of war is the intense use of artillery.
The Russian artillery arsenal is infamous and one of the largest in the world. This is partly due to the heritage of Soviet ground combat doctrine. During the Second World War, the Red Army excelled in massed artillery fire capabilities. Subsequent doctrinal developments during the Cold War continued this emphasis on surface-bound long-distance weapons.
As many aspects of Soviet martial culture, this focus carried over into modern Russia.
When Yeltsin tried, and failed, to bring separatist Chechnya back under Moscow’s control in the 1990s, Russian forces indiscriminately bombarded Chechen positions, causing plenty of civilian casualties and drawing international condemnation. After Putin took over, Russia again sought to force Chechnya to heel, again using large-scale artillery bombardment.
In 2014, clandestine deliveries of Russian artillery and cross-border shelling ensured that forces loyal to Kyiv were unable to effectively bring the Donbass region back under the control of the Ukrainian government, which allowed Russia to freeze the conflict between its proxies and loyalists between 2016 and 2021.
In the current invasion, Russia has already relied heavily on artillery and is currently bound to employ more.
However, there are various instances in which current Russian conduct differs markedly from past military operations.
For example, the planning of the invasion seems to have given much less room for frictions and contingencies than preparations for previous campaigns.
When Putin led Russia into the Second Chechen War, he combined overwhelming force with extensive investments into Chechen society and the propping up of the Kadyrov clan as indigenous strongmen. In doing so, Putin could rely on vastly superior military forces and significant factions within Chechnya. This “Chechenization”, while brutal and costly, afforded Moscow a way out of permanent military occupation.
In 2014, Russia started its annexation of Crimea and war by proxy in Donbass using unacknowledged forces bearing no insignia. Putin long refused to admit Russian troops were active in Crimea and only dropped the charade after Russia had fully integrated the Ukrainian peninsula. In Donbass, Russia did not acknowledge active presence until 2022, instead of using, albeit clumsily, unmarked forces and cross-border shelling.
When directly intervening in Syria in 2015, the Kremlin let itself be invited into the country by the Assad regime and only send small troop contingents, largely focusing on training and high-altitude aerial attacks. It left most of the dirty work on the ground to Assad’s forces and private contractors.
In all three instances, the Kremlin used strategies that allowed for retreating, regrouping, and reconsidering without too much of fallout when doing so. It also sought to minimize and keep Russian casualties secret. Russian authorities even harassed the parents of fallen Russian soldiers into silence.
The invasion of 2022 bears different hallmarks.
The Russian leadership seems to have seriously underestimated the willingness and ability of Ukrainians to fight back. This is puzzling, as Russia has had eight years to observe that Ukrainian society became understandably hostile to the Putin regime and rallied around the patriotic causes of self-defense, sovereignty, and independence.
Furthermore, to maintain a modicum of ambiguity, the Kremlin had not properly prepared Russian military forces for the invasion, now relying on numerous conscripts that have received little training and are exhausted from the war exercises that served as a cover for preparing the invasion.
The Crimea annexation, overall, had been popular with the Russian population, and the regime’s continued denial of an active role in the war in Donbass was largely accepted as well.
But, ever since 24 February, the Kremlin’s spinmeisters are struggling much more to sell the overt aggression against Ukraine to ordinary Russians. Media-savvy Russians in the cities see their alternative media shut down, but can still trace it in internet archives (like this report on veterans from the Chechnya and Syria campaigns fighting in Ukraine). Protests are forming and brutally crushed. Older Russians, Putin’s real power base, are starting to organize to save their conscript sons.
Diplomacy at Gunpoint
Another difference to past campaigns is that, in the past, the Kremlin had not directly tied the threat of military invasion to pressure concessions from the West.
The Chechen campaigns were a Russian domestic affair, with the Kremlin simply opting to ignore Western demands for more humane conduct.
While the invasion of Georgia in 2008 was, in many ways, designed to delay and prevent eventual NATO accession, the Kremlin did so not by overtly threatening invasion if NATO’s accession promise was not reverted. Rather, the Kremlin created facts on the ground meant to delay and deter further Georgia-NATO alignment.
Similarly, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and started a proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbass region without overtly telegraphing these actions to the West with explicit demands.
This time around, Russia made widespread demands to the United States and NATO in December 2021, overtly tying them to the imminent invasion that followed in February 2022. This further corroborated intelligence that Russia was planning an invasion, stifling its effectiveness.
These Russian demands were so far-reaching as to warrant the assumption that they either were made to be rejected, that they represent an extremely misguided attempt to demand much to gain little, or that the Kremlin is now unable to understand the basics of U.S. and NATO decision-making.
For example, the demand NATO should make legally binding assurances to not include any new members in Russia’s vicinity would have forced NATO at the end of a rifle barrel to go back on its 2008 decision at the Bucharest summit to promise eventual accession of Ukraine and Georgia. Being successfully threatened into major concessions would hardly reassure any current NATO member that the alliance advances its own security. Furthermore, such “legally binding” assurances arguably violate the alliance’s Article 10 under which any European state might be invited into the alliance.
Another Russian demand was the withdrawal of NATO forces and infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe, returning to the status of 1997. Nearly all the NATO troops beyond this line had been brought there after Russia’s initial aggression against Ukraine in 2014, reassuring member states that pointed out that all of the rationales Russia had used to justify aggression against Ukraine could easily be applied to them. Furthermore, these troops number about 10,000 and are continuously rotating in and out – hardly an offensive threat to Russia.
Similarly, the Kremlin also called for a withdrawal of all nuclear weapons on “national territories”. This would entail little to no changes in Russian nuclear posture but would end the U.S. nuclear umbrella in Europe – a pillar of transatlantic security policy ever since the start of the Cold War. As the prime purpose of a credible nuclear capability is to deter large-scale conventional invasion, Russia had again used the threat of military invasion for a demand that would make NATO members nearby Russia much more vulnerable to exactly such an invasion.
Coping with Russia’s Changing Way of War
War is messy, as is the business of inferring reliable conclusions on elite decision-making. This is especially the case for personalist autocracies with formidable intelligence and security forces – a description that fits Russia better than nearly any other state in the world.
But Russia’s changing way of war still yields important lessons. While exact causes are, as of now, hard to assess with any reliability, it is safe to infer that either the priorities of the Russian elite or the logic of decision-making in the Kremlin has evolved over the last few years. In parallel, serious thinking about future Western policy toward Russia should factor in that the Kremlin will likely act more aggressively and less predictably than it has in the past.
Dr. Jonas J. Driedger is a Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. He specializes in foreign and security policy with a focus on Russia, Germany, and transatlantic relations. Previously, he was Visiting Researcher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, AICGS/DAAD Resident Fellow in Washington, D.C., and an Officer for Security Policy at Haus Rissen in Hamburg.
Note: This piece has been updated to fix a typo since publication.