.
W

ithin the study of national security and military science there is a distinct subset of analysis that focuses on the strategic culture of a country or region. Seeking to find the heart of the art of warfare to accompany the arguably more defined science of combat. Parsing through history, actual art, socio-economics, and more - analysts seek to find the kernel of what makes the West’s way of war unique from say, China, Russia, Iran, or another adversary. 

Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy | Ofer Fridman (Editor) | Oxford University Press | August 2021.

Indeed, the Royal United Service Institute in London, England, recently (and sadly) concluded an absolutely delightful podcast series simply titled “The Western Way of War”. Hosted by Professor Peter Roberts, each episode opened with a deceptively simple query—“What does the western way of war mean to you?” The podcast posed this question to innumerable experts and analysts over its three seasons, including such notables as General Jim Mattis, Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir David Richards, and the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.  While there were some similarities in answers, be it tactics, technology, an all-volunteer force, seeking decisive battle, and avoiding casualties, but the diversity of answers and paucity of agreement was striking. 

If the West cannot agree on what its own strategic culture or way of war is, understanding the cultures of strategic competitors such as China, or potential disruptors like North Korea and Iran is likely doubly challenging. This challenge is further magnified by linguistic barriers and historical ignorance. This unfortunately means that rather than considered analysis and deep understanding, hyperbole and simplicity often dominate attempts to understand these foreign strategic cultures. 

This is perhaps no clearer than when it comes to Russia. Lazy stereotypes of the Russian spirit or culture, Moscow as a declining power, or other tropes are constantly recycled. Furthermore, Russian behavior is almost exclusively understood through an American lens. Getting at the core of Russian culture, particularly strategic culture, means reading and engaging with Russian thinking on strategy, doctrine, and “war and peace”—beyond Tolstoy’s magnum opus. Thankfully Ofer Fridman of King’s College London offers an exceptionally illuminating window into the evolution of Russia’s strategic thinking in his book “Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy”. Oxford University Press kindly provided a review copy which is now heavily (if scandalously) highlighted and annotated (I will always draw the line at dog-earing pages, which is an unforgivable sin). 

“Strategiya” is an absolutely fascinating read and a credit to Fridman’s dogged passion in translating the works included in this volume. His selection of Tsarist, Soviet, and exile authors highlights a diversity of thinking and analysis on the subject of war and Russia’s understanding of the art and science of state-organized violence. Reviewing the individual entries themselves is beyond the scope of this review and likely something best done at a war college or institute of higher defense education. Yet, Fridman’s contribution has incredible value, providing a glimpse inside the evolution of Russia’s strategic thinking from primary sources—not secondary or tertiary interpretation. This offers an invaluable insight into not just the history of these periods (which is very interesting), but also the growth of the narrative on war itself, its art and science. 

The greatest value in “Strategiya” comes from this very narrative. It is insufficient to look at Clausewitz’ “On War” and assume one knows everything about the Western conceptions of war and peace. To be sure it was an influential and indeed foundational book and many of its core principles remain just as apt now as during the Napoleonic Wars. But to read the Prussian alone and assume one knows everything about the West’s strategic culture is setting oneself up for failure. This is akin to reading Sun Tzu’s the Art of War—really more of a series of self-evident, if artfully worded, maxims than a strategic doctrine—and thinking that the reader can now interpret the moves of the People’s Liberation Army. Good luck with that. 

Reading “Strategiya” will not unlock the mysteries of the Kremlin’s thinking. The evolution of strategic thought is neither so linear nor so singular—there is no “Gerasimov Doctrine”. There are, however, fascinating echoes. The centrality of politics to Russian strategic doctrine mirrors that of the West, but goes beyond the superficial to discuss a deep battle of sorts for not just political will, but for the political narrative and information space. 

Lieutenant General Evgeny Martynov writes, “It is important that the chosen political aim should be as big as possible, allowing the country to make as big an advance toward the national idea as possible.”This seems to fit with President Vladimir Putin’s present line of effort in Ukraine—asking for everything, e.g. two treaties with the U.S. and NATO, and hoping to get something considerably smaller than the full pot in the end. 

Martynov in 1899 also wrote that “while attracting the most useful allies to its side, politics should simultaneously destroy the alliances of the enemy” and that “almost every country carries within it the germ of internal political or social disease”. This echoes Moscow’s campaign of subversion to split the European Union, deal with NATO countries in isolation as opposed to a bloc, and even split the internal politics of individual states. For as much as people like to think that “active measures” and subversion are a recent creation, there is a deep historical basis for these practices within Russian literature. General of the Infantry Nikolai Mikhnevich wrote, “Knowledge of the weaknesses of the internal politics can direct the blows of a skillful and innovative enemy in the right places”. 

Later, Colonel Evegeny Messner put it more starkly, writing that “the soul of the enemy’s society has become the most important strategic objective” and that “it is easier to degrade a state than conquer it by arms.” Written in the pre-cyber era, this is as applicable now as perhaps at any point in history. Purchasing social media advertisements is considerably cheaper than deploying and sustaining the 20th Combined Arms Army.  

What is missing from “Strategiya” is actually more of Fridman himself. He is an exceptional analyst in his own right—his book “Russian Hybrid Warfare” is a fascinating, if debated, look at Moscow’s understanding and application of the concept. Therefore, more commentary from Fridman in-line with the text or at the beginning or end of each section would have strengthened the already strong book. The book opens with an excellent introduction by Sir Lawrence Freedman (under whom I studied at King’s College London) setting the stage for the book that follows. 

Fridman did a masterful job of providing descriptions of from where the selections came, what historical figures the authors were referencing, and highlighting errors or inconsistency. More contextualization—either in the essays themselves or before or after the essays—would, however, have made the book much more accessible to a broader audience. As it stands, this is a fairly wonky book best read in discrete chunks. I found myself frequently jumping back and forth comparing and contrasting what previous entries said and looking to Clausewitz for comparison (which also triggered flashbacks of my core War Studies graduate class). 

It is not without some irony that for as much and as often as Clausewitz is quoted, the West is particularly terrible at grasping Clausewitz’ core tenet—politics. Save for World War Two, it seems as though for the majority of the 20th and 21st centuries the United States, in particular, has entered an engagement with unclear and undefined aims, scrambling post facto to come up with a viable political goal. In Fridman’s selection, every author places politics at the center of strategy. Anton Kersnovski wrote “the aim of politics is to prepare the stage for strategy, to place it in the most favorable situation at the beginning of a war, to ease its work during the war, and to reap (as best as possible) its fruits after the war.” 

“Strategiya” is a book I truly savored. Careful engagement and patient reading are the most rewarding way to digest Fridman’s book, and it is one I would welcome being transformed into a podcast or an online course. This will not provide the reader with an “aha” moment in which all of Russian behavior, past, present, and future, make sense. It will, however, contribute to a richer understanding of Russia’s history and strategic culture.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Understanding Russian Strategic Culture

Just before 12 noon, according to the clock on the Kremlin's Spassky Tower, a crowd watches the changing of the honor guard at Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, c.1985. President Boris Yeltsin removed the honor guard in Oct. 1993. Photo by Steve Harvey via Unsplash.

January 15, 2022

Western experts have struggled to truly understand Russian strategic thinking for decades, but Ofer Fridman's latest book offers a helpful, illuminating window into the evolution of Russia's strategic thought, writes Joshua Huminski in his review of Fridman's recently published Strategiya.

W

ithin the study of national security and military science there is a distinct subset of analysis that focuses on the strategic culture of a country or region. Seeking to find the heart of the art of warfare to accompany the arguably more defined science of combat. Parsing through history, actual art, socio-economics, and more - analysts seek to find the kernel of what makes the West’s way of war unique from say, China, Russia, Iran, or another adversary. 

Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy | Ofer Fridman (Editor) | Oxford University Press | August 2021.

Indeed, the Royal United Service Institute in London, England, recently (and sadly) concluded an absolutely delightful podcast series simply titled “The Western Way of War”. Hosted by Professor Peter Roberts, each episode opened with a deceptively simple query—“What does the western way of war mean to you?” The podcast posed this question to innumerable experts and analysts over its three seasons, including such notables as General Jim Mattis, Chief of the Defense Staff General Sir David Richards, and the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.  While there were some similarities in answers, be it tactics, technology, an all-volunteer force, seeking decisive battle, and avoiding casualties, but the diversity of answers and paucity of agreement was striking. 

If the West cannot agree on what its own strategic culture or way of war is, understanding the cultures of strategic competitors such as China, or potential disruptors like North Korea and Iran is likely doubly challenging. This challenge is further magnified by linguistic barriers and historical ignorance. This unfortunately means that rather than considered analysis and deep understanding, hyperbole and simplicity often dominate attempts to understand these foreign strategic cultures. 

This is perhaps no clearer than when it comes to Russia. Lazy stereotypes of the Russian spirit or culture, Moscow as a declining power, or other tropes are constantly recycled. Furthermore, Russian behavior is almost exclusively understood through an American lens. Getting at the core of Russian culture, particularly strategic culture, means reading and engaging with Russian thinking on strategy, doctrine, and “war and peace”—beyond Tolstoy’s magnum opus. Thankfully Ofer Fridman of King’s College London offers an exceptionally illuminating window into the evolution of Russia’s strategic thinking in his book “Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy”. Oxford University Press kindly provided a review copy which is now heavily (if scandalously) highlighted and annotated (I will always draw the line at dog-earing pages, which is an unforgivable sin). 

“Strategiya” is an absolutely fascinating read and a credit to Fridman’s dogged passion in translating the works included in this volume. His selection of Tsarist, Soviet, and exile authors highlights a diversity of thinking and analysis on the subject of war and Russia’s understanding of the art and science of state-organized violence. Reviewing the individual entries themselves is beyond the scope of this review and likely something best done at a war college or institute of higher defense education. Yet, Fridman’s contribution has incredible value, providing a glimpse inside the evolution of Russia’s strategic thinking from primary sources—not secondary or tertiary interpretation. This offers an invaluable insight into not just the history of these periods (which is very interesting), but also the growth of the narrative on war itself, its art and science. 

The greatest value in “Strategiya” comes from this very narrative. It is insufficient to look at Clausewitz’ “On War” and assume one knows everything about the Western conceptions of war and peace. To be sure it was an influential and indeed foundational book and many of its core principles remain just as apt now as during the Napoleonic Wars. But to read the Prussian alone and assume one knows everything about the West’s strategic culture is setting oneself up for failure. This is akin to reading Sun Tzu’s the Art of War—really more of a series of self-evident, if artfully worded, maxims than a strategic doctrine—and thinking that the reader can now interpret the moves of the People’s Liberation Army. Good luck with that. 

Reading “Strategiya” will not unlock the mysteries of the Kremlin’s thinking. The evolution of strategic thought is neither so linear nor so singular—there is no “Gerasimov Doctrine”. There are, however, fascinating echoes. The centrality of politics to Russian strategic doctrine mirrors that of the West, but goes beyond the superficial to discuss a deep battle of sorts for not just political will, but for the political narrative and information space. 

Lieutenant General Evgeny Martynov writes, “It is important that the chosen political aim should be as big as possible, allowing the country to make as big an advance toward the national idea as possible.”This seems to fit with President Vladimir Putin’s present line of effort in Ukraine—asking for everything, e.g. two treaties with the U.S. and NATO, and hoping to get something considerably smaller than the full pot in the end. 

Martynov in 1899 also wrote that “while attracting the most useful allies to its side, politics should simultaneously destroy the alliances of the enemy” and that “almost every country carries within it the germ of internal political or social disease”. This echoes Moscow’s campaign of subversion to split the European Union, deal with NATO countries in isolation as opposed to a bloc, and even split the internal politics of individual states. For as much as people like to think that “active measures” and subversion are a recent creation, there is a deep historical basis for these practices within Russian literature. General of the Infantry Nikolai Mikhnevich wrote, “Knowledge of the weaknesses of the internal politics can direct the blows of a skillful and innovative enemy in the right places”. 

Later, Colonel Evegeny Messner put it more starkly, writing that “the soul of the enemy’s society has become the most important strategic objective” and that “it is easier to degrade a state than conquer it by arms.” Written in the pre-cyber era, this is as applicable now as perhaps at any point in history. Purchasing social media advertisements is considerably cheaper than deploying and sustaining the 20th Combined Arms Army.  

What is missing from “Strategiya” is actually more of Fridman himself. He is an exceptional analyst in his own right—his book “Russian Hybrid Warfare” is a fascinating, if debated, look at Moscow’s understanding and application of the concept. Therefore, more commentary from Fridman in-line with the text or at the beginning or end of each section would have strengthened the already strong book. The book opens with an excellent introduction by Sir Lawrence Freedman (under whom I studied at King’s College London) setting the stage for the book that follows. 

Fridman did a masterful job of providing descriptions of from where the selections came, what historical figures the authors were referencing, and highlighting errors or inconsistency. More contextualization—either in the essays themselves or before or after the essays—would, however, have made the book much more accessible to a broader audience. As it stands, this is a fairly wonky book best read in discrete chunks. I found myself frequently jumping back and forth comparing and contrasting what previous entries said and looking to Clausewitz for comparison (which also triggered flashbacks of my core War Studies graduate class). 

It is not without some irony that for as much and as often as Clausewitz is quoted, the West is particularly terrible at grasping Clausewitz’ core tenet—politics. Save for World War Two, it seems as though for the majority of the 20th and 21st centuries the United States, in particular, has entered an engagement with unclear and undefined aims, scrambling post facto to come up with a viable political goal. In Fridman’s selection, every author places politics at the center of strategy. Anton Kersnovski wrote “the aim of politics is to prepare the stage for strategy, to place it in the most favorable situation at the beginning of a war, to ease its work during the war, and to reap (as best as possible) its fruits after the war.” 

“Strategiya” is a book I truly savored. Careful engagement and patient reading are the most rewarding way to digest Fridman’s book, and it is one I would welcome being transformed into a podcast or an online course. This will not provide the reader with an “aha” moment in which all of Russian behavior, past, present, and future, make sense. It will, however, contribute to a richer understanding of Russia’s history and strategic culture.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.