Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

The Evolution of Russian Grand Strategy -- Implications for Europe's North

January 2000

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


A study about Russian grand strategy is certain to raise more than a few eyebrows among observers of Russian foreign policy. How can one possibly assume that in a country with constantly changing prime ministers and an economy on the verge of bankruptcy there could be a commonly accepted Grand Plan about anything? Moreover, the record of post-cold war Russian foreign policy is so full of reckless moves and unpredictable u-turns, that it seems rather far-fetched to suggest that there could be, even in theory, a common logic behind it. Judging by the steady flow of publications on the role of self-interested politicians, parties, business elites, and organizational and bureaucratic actors in the formation of Russian foreign policy, it does indeed seem that most scholars see Russia’s external policy driven by the dayto- day power struggles of various groups within the Russian political elite rather than by a common national strategy.

In this report, I seek to question this conventional wisdom. My analysis begins with an introduction to the study of grand strategy, in which I try to correct some common misconceptions related to the topic, and show through empirical examples how grand strategies have shaped the security architecture of the Nordic-Baltic region during crucial moments of the 20th century. I then proceed with a historical review of Soviet/Russian strategic culture, which carves out a debate between two schools of thought: a Frunzean “hard-line” school, characterized by near-paranoid threat perceptions and a preference for offensive strategies at all levels of military doctrine; and a “realist” school, originating in the work of Alexander Svechin and characterized by an understanding of security dilemma theory. According to the analysis, the hard-line school dominated Soviet strategic culture from the early years of the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev years. The nature of the cold war security dilemma, I show, was largely defined by the Soviet doctrine of strategic (counter)offensive in the European theatre, which provided the rationale for the existence of the Warsaw Pact and necessitated the American military presence in Europe. The “realist” school of thought, I argue, revived in the 1980’s as civilian analysts with direct access to Gorbachev began advocating different varieties of defensive grand strategies. Following this logic, I show how the end of the cold war can largely be explained by the change in Soviet grand strategy, which changed the nature of the East-West security dilemma by erasing the fear of Soviet offensive intentions in Central Europe.