A Comparative Guide to Russia’s Use of Force: Measure Twice, Invade Once

Look at the battlefields in Ukraine and you will find what was essentially an unreformed 1980s Soviet Army (Ukraine’s), engaged in artillery and tank duels against a proxy force that Russia supplied with comparable 1980s Soviet equipment.  Indeed, in the early phases of the conflict when Moscow sought to retain the veneer of deniability, they supplied only that which could be plausibly captured from Ukrainian forces.  Actual Russian forces use capabilities that are head and shoulders above what Ukraine is able to field.  The Russian approach has been to supplement proxy forces with regular units as necessary, and to the minimum extent possible.

While Russia prefers to pad its forces with disposable auxiliaries, it would be wrong to mistake this for an unwillingness to escalate when the fight calls for it.  A close look at how Russia uses military force reveals that it is an avid practitioner of gradual escalation and coercive warfare. Charap has observed this in his recent text, Russia’s Use of Military Force as a Foreign Policy Tool: Is There a Logic? He draws on Thomas Schelling, who observed that “coercive warfare can be conducted by degree, in measured doses.” Schelling also wrote:

coercion depends more on the threat of what is yet to come than on damage already done.  The pace of diplomacy, not the pace of battle, would govern the action; and while diplomacy may not require that it go slowly, it does require that an impressive unspent capacity for damage be kept in reserve.

However, Russia’s use of force is not defined by a choice between gradual escalation and decisive engagement, positing them as mutually exclusive.  Rather, Moscow leverages the fear of decisive engagement for coercion, and plays this card on the battlefield whenever the low-cost strategy runs into a ditch. In the case of Syria, Russia was engaged in a two-level game. Its objective was to change the foreign policies of the United States and Turkey. To do this, Moscow recognized that it would have to annihilate the Syrian opposition on the battlefield, destroying any alternatives to Assad. Moscow, with its Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese partners, killed its way to victory on a part of the battlefield in order to coerce adversaries at the strategic level.

Russia’s gradual approach is inherently vulnerable, since it is based around fielding the bare minimum amount number of troops in the battlespace to achieve desired political ends.  In order to deter and dissuade peer adversaries Russia  will often introduce high-end conventional capabilities, such as long range air defense, anti-ship missiles, and conventional ballistic missile systems.  These weapons are not meant for the actual fight. Instead, they are intended to make an impression on the United States

Source: A Comparative Guide to Russia’s Use of Force: Measure Twice, Invade Once



Russia retains absolute flexibility of decision-making at the national leadership level, with no accountability, but unlike many other countries, where this breeds incompetence, the Kremlin manages to retain good levels of technocratic competence in key areas, such as the military, financial administration, or the central bank.  It is a remarkable amalgamation: a feudal economy, headed by what can best be described as a national security aristocracy, but the principal agencies required to manage government affairs (like the Ministry of Defense) tend to be run by competent administrators.

Hard to excerpt. Read it all. “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read”.