February 22, 2024

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Russian Military Strategy: Organizing Operations for the Initial Period of War

Research Questions

  1. How is Russia developing its military strategy to mitigate perceived weakness?
  2. In a period of crisis, is Russia preparing to exploit local advantages to strike the lightning blow and win the so-called decisive battle, or is it building an armed force based primarily on defensive operational concepts to exhaust NATO of its advantages in the initial period of war?

Russia has defined its national interests in terms of resisting the U.S.-backed European integration system, challenging or supplanting U.S. influence around the globe, and pursuing an “independent foreign policy” that could bring it into conflict with China at some point in the future.

Under the conditions present at the time of this writing, a great power war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the most likely large-scale scenario for which the Russian military must prepare. How is it preparing? What is its strategy? The authors of this report identify and examine key factors to assess the orientation of Russia’s military strategy. The factors the authors consider are the overall balance of power, Russian diplomacy with China, Russian views on the character of future war, and key trends in force readiness and mobilization. The authors also explore existing operational concepts to understand how Russia might execute that military strategy.

The research for this report was conducted in 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Key Findings

There is little evidence that Russia is orienting its military strategy toward attrition and defense

With the notable exception of national air defenses, attrition and defense are not prioritized in Russian military thought and operational planning.

Russia’s emphasis in the initial period is oriented toward preemption to reduce or destroy NATO’s ability to conduct an aerospace attack and sustain the war

Even if Russia preemptively moved into NATO territory on the ground, the gains could be fleeting if Russia is not able to deny air superiority and reduce NATO’s military-economic potential. These tasks likely negate the possibility of a NATO-Russia war that is limited to a single region in any scenario.

Russian focus on indirect or asymmetric approaches to warfare partially resembles the Air War Plans Division-1 of the late 1930s

This division sought to rapidly destroy German air bases, electric power plants, transportation networks, oil refineries, aluminum plants, and other critical infrastructure without which planners assumed that it would be impossible to continue the war. These courses of actions are prevalent in Russian military thought and operational planning.

Compared with the West, Russia has a large and ready military, population, and territory

Despite much of the evidence pointing to Russia staking its military strategy on destruction in the initial period, recent efforts to build a more effective state mobilization system suggest that the Russian leadership is hedging against a protracted contingency.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Situational Factors That Influence Russian Military Strategy

  • Chapter Three

    Trends in Force Structure and Mobilization Readiness

  • Chapter Four

    Organization of Operations — from Destruction to Contact War

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusion

This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, United States European Command, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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