The Putin Doctrine

3 March 2014


Vladimir Putin

It has been the custom of strategic thinkers to make explicit the underlying strategic doctrine implicit in the actions of political leaders, formulating this strategic doctrine in summaries that encapsulate the principles of power projection employed by the leaders in question. Those of us in the Western world usually speak in terms of strategic doctrines promulgated by American presidents (with their strategic doctrines eponymously named), since presidents dominate the “big picture” strategic vision of the US, which is the superpower among western powers. Yet the same thinking applies to other political leaders beyond the US. Many Cold War analysts spoke of a Brezhnev Doctrine; I previously formulated a Stalin Doctrine. Today I want to go further by identifying a Putin Doctrine that is implicit in Russia’s contemporary use of power projection.

To give a sense of some of the strategic doctrines that have had currency among analysts, here is a brief summary of some major strategic doctrines from the emergence of the post-WWII global situation to the early twenty-first century:

● Reagan Doctrine “[W]e must not break faith with those who are risking their lives — on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua — to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth… Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” “The Reagan Doctrine proclaims overt and unashamed support for anti-communist revolution… It is intended to establish a new, firmer — a doctrinal — foundation for such support by declaring equally worthy all armed resistance to communism, whether foreign or indigenously imposed.” (The former is from a Reagan speech; the latter is a passage from Charles Krauthammer quoted in The Reagan Doctrine: SOURCES OF AMERICAN CONDUCT IN THE COLD WAR’S LAST CHAPTER, Mark P. Lagon, PRAEGER, Westport, Connecticut and London, 1994, p. 2)

● Brezhnev Doctrine “Reflecting on the ‘lessons’ of 1968-69, the Brezhnev leadership resolved to run a tighter ship in Eastern Europe against the possibility of further crises. Dubbed the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine of Limited Sovereignty’ by Western observers, the new policy line would rely on the implicit threat of military intervention to prevent any deviation in the region from Soviet-approved norms. In this way, the Kremlin sought to perpetuate communist monopoly rule in Eastern Europe, free from the instability that reformism and diversity had unleashed in the past.” (The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy, Matthew J. Ouimet, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2003, p. 40)

● Bush Doctrine “When people talk about a Bush doctrine, they generally refer to three sets of principles: the idea of preemptive or preventive military action; the promotion of democracy and ‘regime change’; and a diplomacy tending toward ‘unilateralism,’ a willingness to act without the sanction of international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of its allies.” (EDITED BY MELVYN P. LEFFLER AND JEFFREY W. LEGRO, TO LEAD THE WORLD: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2008, p. 37)

● Clinton Doctrine “It’s easy… to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” (cf. Clinton Doctrine) The Clinton doctrine is most famously associated with the commitment of armed force for the purpose of humanitarian intervention.

● Stalin Doctrine “…whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.” (cf. The Stalin Doctrine)

There are many other strategic doctrines, of course. The most famous strategic doctrines in US history were the Monroe Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine, which date from earlier eras and no longer address the global circumstances of contemporary power projection. Moreover, it would be argued that the more recent (American) strategic doctrines cited above are all variations on the theme of the post-VietNam Weinberger Doctrine, that is to say, the US coming to terms not only with being a superpower, but also coming to terms with the limitations of power projection that even superpowers must observe.

Strategic doctrine may be contrasted to tactical doctrine. When the military speaks of “doctrine” they usually mean “tactical doctrine,” which is the body of principles and practices for the use of men and materiel in the theater of combat. Similarly, strategic doctrine may be characterized as the body of principles and practices, though governing political entities (today, primarily nation-states, their leaders, and their populations) and their use of power projection, not limited to the detailed directives for soldiers and the weapons they carry.

In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I wrote that, “A weapons system is an embodied tactical doctrine.” I should have offered a slightly more nuanced formulation by incorporating the distinction between the tactical and the strategic, thus: “A tactical weapons system is an embodied tactical doctrine; a strategic weapons system is an embodied strategic doctrine.” When the strategic situation changes, or the technology of weapons systems changes, strategic doctrine is forced to evolve.

The massive nuclear arsenals of the US and the USSR of the Cold War were the embodiment of the strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Now that we are at the end of a nuclear era, and have seen all over the world the devolution of warfare from massive peer confrontation to dispersed, asymmetrical conflicts, the kind of strategic doctrines that ruled the Cold War are increasingly less relevant. The many strategic doctrines summarized above represent a kind of strategic experimentation as world leaders seek to find a formula for the use of power projection that is effective but which is also carefully calibrated not to escalate to a nuclear confrontation.

In the post-Cold War world, with the rise of China as a global power and the (partial) recovery of Russia, strategic doctrines are in flux. As of this writing, the current situation in Ukraine provides an occasion to witness the practical implementation of strategic doctrine in a region of Eurasia that finds itself (and has always found itself) uncomfortably wedged between Europe and Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has sought to establish itself as an independent nation-state, which has meant distancing itself from Russia, with which it was formerly joined as a Soviet Socialist Republic. But Ukraine is an ethnically and culturally divided nation-state, with a northwest of Ukrainian-speaking, European-identifying people, and a southeast of Russian-speaking, Russian-identifying peoples. Such divisions were submerged during the Cold War, but have since returned with a vengeance (some have called this “the return of history”).

The conflict within Ukraine came to a head once in the Orange Revolution, but the Russian-identifying Viktor Yanukovych steered Ukraine back toward a Russian orbit (jailing his rival Yulia Tymoshenko in the process), and now the conflict has come to a head again. Street protests in Kiev led to the ouster of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia; a new government has been installed in Kiev, but Russian sentiment remains strong in the southeast, and strongest in the Crimean Peninsula. Crimea is technically an autonomous republic within Ukraine, but now Russia has moved significant military forces into Crimea, with strong support from the local population, over the protests of western leaders.

The ability of anti-government protesters in Kiev to take the initiative and to seize power in the capital was a function of their identification with the majority Ukrainian-speaking, European-identifying people of the region. These peoples seek to tie their destiny to that of Europe. This demographic reality cuts both ways: the ability of Russia to assert control over the Crimea is a function of Russian forces’ and their local proxies’ identification with the majority of Russian-speaking, culturally Russian-identifying people of the region. These peoples, by contrast, seek to tie their destiny to that of Russia.

In response to Putin’s commitment of Russian troops to the Crimea, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, “On the centenary of 1914, we are suddenly in a Europe of invasion, aggression and threats of massive use of military force.” Previously in The Idea and Destiny of Europe I cited Bildt’s opinion piece, Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine. Bildt is a very level-headed statesman, and from the tone of his reaction we can judge more generally of the Western response to Russia’s entry into Crimea.


What Putin is doing in Crimea is neither new nor unprecedented. In fact, Putin’s commitment of Russian troops to Crimea embodies what I will call the Putin Doctrine, and I will define the Putin Doctrine as follows:

● Putin Doctrine Peoples in Russia’s near abroad who desire to be brought under the Russian security umbrella (whether Russian-identifying peoples, or Russian sympathizers) will be given Russian military assistance in secession from a nation-state to the extent that this secession results in a geographical region in which effective political control can be exercised by the seceding peoples, with Russian assistance. Priority is given to geographical regions immediately contiguous with the Russian border, and de facto rule is the object, rather than formal recognition of sovereignty by the international community.

The practical corollary of the Putin Doctrine is that Russia will project power in its near abroad where it has the cooperation of the peoples in these regions. This it has already done many times. A few analysts have compared the situation in Ukraine with the war in Georgia a few years ago, with the qualification that Georgia is much smaller. But the comparison is just. Georgia — another former Soviet Socialist Republic, and the homeland of Stalin — has been to a considerable extent dismembered by Putin’s Russia as the world has looked on.

Abkhazia is legally a part of Georgia but it able to assert its independence because Russia is more than happy to have a stick to poke in Georgia's eye.

Abkhazia is legally a part of Georgia but it able to assert its independence because Russia is more than happy to have a stick to poke in Georgia’s eye.

In Deep Battle and the Culture of War I discussed the Russian presence in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia. Georgia has also been forced to accept a Russian-dominated South Ossetia. Technically, as far as the international state system is concerned, Georgia is a geographically contiguous nation-state that wholly includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia; in fact, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been brought under the Russian security umbrella; there is nothing Georgia can do about this, and nothing that the rest of the world is willing to do about this.

South_Ossetia Roki Tunnel

There were already intimations of the Putin Doctrine with the conflicts over Transnistria, a narrow region between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border, the peoples of which did not wish to separate themselves from the Soviet Union, as was the desire in most of Moldova. After almost a quarter century, Transnistria is not a recognized nation-state, but it enjoys de facto sovereignty under the eyes of 1,200 Russian soliders.

Putin’s authority in Russia could be said to embody the degree of autocracy that is possible for a global power at the present time; he does not rule as an absolute autocrat, and he must be consciousness not only of the opinion of his people, but also the opinion of the international community. Putin’s power projection thus has limits, but his observance of the opinions and demands of others also has limits. It would have been entirely unsustainable — both politically and militarily — for Russia to invade the whole of Ukraine and to reinstall Yanukovych as president in Kiev. Everyone knows this. But Crimea is another matter entirely. Crimea mostly wants the Russians there, and the Russians want to be there, not least to protect the port of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

There will be a western response to Putin’s adventure in Crimea, but it will be a tepid response. Neither the EU, nor the US, nor both together as NATO, are going to send forces into Crimea and attempt to dislodge the Russians. Again, everyone knows this. Moreover, Putin’s carefully calibrated and measured violations of Ukrainian state sovereignty are so modest that any sanctions enacted are not likely to be very effective or far-reaching. Already several European countries have announced that there would be no major interruptions in trade with Russia. That is to say, even before sanctions have been enacted, it is widely acknowledged that any sanctions will be merely symbolic. Crimea is about to become another frozen conflict, and very little is likely to change in substance (though appearances may shift radically from day to day).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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After the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, the most formidable instrument of force projection to emerge in Western Europe was that of Viking Civilization. The naval force projection capabilities of the Vikings were unique in the historical period, and this achievement counts alongside the great instruments of force projection in human history. The next great instrument of force projection to emerge in human history — the Mongol horse archer — was neither naval nor Western European. (I wrote about the Mongol instrument of force projection in The Power of Mobile Fire.) The next capable naval instrument of force projection in Western Europe did not emerge for another five hundred years, as Western Europe fell into the lassitude of an inland and almost purely agricultural civilization.

As with the Mongols, whose power projection abilities grew directly out of a way of life of nomadic pastoralism that involved horsemanship from an early age, the Norse power projection ability also grew directly out of a way of life, that of a people dependent upon shipping. Life in Scandinavia is difficult. If you can imagine the difficulty of life in early medieval Europe, and then multiply this difficulty by colder temperatures, shorter growing seasons, and more difficult overland transportation, you get an idea of the difficulty of life in early medieval Scandinavia. The coastline of what is today Norway in rocky, bleak and cold, and it faces the inhospitable North Sea, but it is deeply indented by fjords. What is a fjord? A fjord is a sunken mountain range whose valleys are filled with frigid waters and whose peaks tower above the narrow waterways. What little farming there is in Norway takes place on a very narrow strip of alluvial deposits between the water’s edge and the steeps sides of the walls of the fjords.

This is a hard land in which to make a living, and people here would have been unimaginably poor were it not for waterborne commerce — raiding and trading by ship gave the medieval Norse peoples what little wealth they possessed. Without shipping, the peoples of Scandinavia would be limited to what little produce can be coaxed from their northern soils. With shipping, the Vikings made themselves a power to be reckoned with, whose influence stretched from the British Isles to Constantinople, where Swedish Vikings became the Varangian guard who were the special detail of the Emperor of Byzantium.

The geography of the fjords was the key to Viking power projection in the same way that the grasslands of Central Asia, capable of pasturing horses but not suitable for settled agriculturalism, were the key to Mongol power projection. The fjords open directly onto the North Sea, but they are not mere harbors. The waterways of the fjords penetrate deep into the interior of the Scandinavian landmass, and these waterways are lined with trees that cover the sides of the fjords. Since a fjord is a sunken mountain range, the tops of the mountains (at least at the coast) do not rise above the timberline. (It is quite beautiful to see Norway in the fall since the autumn colors reach to the top of the walls of the fjords.) Deep waterways plus lots of timber plus quiet inland spots long the fjord far from the storms of the North Sea mean that you can build a boat virtually anywhere along the edge of the fjord.

Shipbuilding technology, while sophisticated, is a skill that one man can acquire from participating in a few projects, after which the experienced shipwright can set himself up at the quiet end of a fjord. His family homestead can supply him with enough to eat while he builds a ship, and once the ship is built the neighbors can all jump on board, leaving their wives at home to care for the farm. Since there were no raiding parties coming from elsewhere in Europe, probing the coast of Scandinavia for unguarded farmsteads, these farms would be safe for the weeks or months that a raiding party was away. Also, there was little wealth here for any foreign raiders to steal. Like the Vikings, they would be attracted to soft targets that had something worth taking and little ability to defend it — like monasteries.

At this point in European history, there was little competition for raiding and trading. The Vikings mostly had the sea lanes to themselves; their free hand on the water meant many opportunities, and the many opportunities lured the ambitious and the adventurous to improve their lot, in the course of which they improved their knowledge of seamanship and the communities upon which they preyed. Communities were isolated. Communications were poor. There was no strong central authority that could be mobilized to systematically counter the Viking threat. Little changed. A soft target might well remain a soft target for generations.

The farms along the fjords were a base and a supply depot; the inhospitable terrain functioned like a natural citadel in which these bases of operations remained safe for generations; the same terrain necessitated shipping as a way of life, and the knowledge of shipping meant a people intimately familiar with life on the water. Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia. The success of raiding and trading was a strong incentive for others to iterate the successful model, drawing upon the same knowledge rooted in the same way of life. Moreover, the mythology of the Norse peoples before Christianization was remarkably similarly to the Homeric ethos celebrating the life of the warrior, in which battle is honorable and honor more important than life, and this mythology was the source of a vigorous tradition of poetry that was equally part of the lifeway of the people. One suspects that famous lines of Skaldic poetry were repeated under the breath of Vikings as they approached their targets and prepared themselves to loot and pillage, or perhaps, in the spirit of the genre, lines were improvised as the men went about their brutal work.

Power projection before the industrial revolution was always about a way of life. Some ways of life lent themselves more effectively to power projection than others. Many peoples led peaceful histories in so far as their neighbors would allow them to live in peace without taking up arms, but in an age that respected strength and the right of conquest, the narrative of armed conflict was socially necessary and leaves the impression that all peoples were equally warlike.

The calculus of power projection has not necessarily changed with the advent of industrialization. Still, some things have changed. Earlier, in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement, I identified a technological threshold, marked by the Industrial Revolution, that is crucial to the development of power projection:

Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.

While I still agree with this, I would point out now that, although ambition and effort could tip the balance in a contest between peoples, as a matter of historical fact the great instruments of power projection have been rooted in the lifeways of a people. This is less about imperial ambition than about the ordinary business of life. The difference for power projection, then, between before and after the Industrial Revolution, is that before the Industrial Revolution an Ozymandian figure could cajole his people to imperial conquest through sheer feats of will, whereas now this is probably no longer possible.

Perhaps it could be said that the essence of power projection has not changed, but certainly its appearance has changed. And here is the sense in which the essence of power projection has not changed, despite the technological threshold: those peoples most adept at the lifeways of industrial-technological civilization are those that can most effectively wage industrialized warfare, and which will then be most effective in industrial age power projection.

It sounds odd to speak of the “lifeways of industrialized peoples,” but it is necessary to begin to think in such terms if one is going to be able to make sense of contemporary history in the same spirit that one brings to the understanding of earlier history. The lifeways of industrialized people do not at all appear similar to the lifeways of pre- and unindustrialized peoples, but the relation of these lifeways to effective power projection remain essentially unchanged.

The first great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was that of the British Navy, in service to the worldwide British Empire, and with its coaling stations around the globe. Ships crewed by hundreds or thousands of men required coal, fresh water, and food; an entire global infrastructure was necessary to support such a navy. Thus the Royal British Navy both made the British Empire possible as well as the infrastructure created by this Empire made the global reach of the Royal Navy possible.

The second great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the success of German land forces during the First and Second World Wars (and the Luftwaffe as well, in so far as it participated in combined arms operations by providing air support For the Wehrmacht’s armored advance). The German mastery of industrial-technological lifeways was apparent in the excellence of German military hardware (both in terms of design and construction), the care and expertise with which German soldiers employed this hardware (British soldiers in North Africa reported that the Germans always made an effort to recover as many of their tanks as they could after dark), and the ability of the German economy to continue to supply its war machine despite the pressures of fighting a two-front war.

The third great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the nearly seamless US replacement of the British Navy after the end of the Second World War. The world’s oceans, once patrolled by the Royal British Navy, are now patrolled by the US. The totality of US global control of the sea lanes is nearly unprecedented in history; it continues to this day, though it is under threat (cf. U.S. Confronts an Anti-Access World), and it has played no small role in the growth of global commerce. The Pax Americana has held on the world’s oceans if it can be said to have held anywhere.

The forth great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was and remains overwhelming US air superiority, with its global infrastructure of airbases (analogous as they are to coaling stations). An air force must have fuel, spare parts, mechanics, and must meet the needs of aircrews. It takes the largest economy in the world to support this infrastructure. And, as with the symbiosis of the Royal Navy and the British Empire, US global influence makes worldwide airbases possible, while the worldwide airbases make US global air superiority possible, and thereby secure continuing US global influence. Continued economic productivity is necessary to support the upkeep and operations of such a force. Should the US economy seriously falter, the US would prove itself unable to remain a competitor in industrial-technological power projection. The fact that the US has managed to maintain and expand its global network over a period of almost seventy years, through good economic times and bad, and has at present no peer force to challenge it globally (though it can be challenged locally), demonstrates the US ability so far to maintain its dominance. Neither more nor less. We cannot extrapolate this dominance into anything beyond the immediate future because there are too many unknown parameters.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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