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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Saint Paul was able to preach the length and breadth of the Roman Empire because of its transportation infrastructure and its political unity.

Saint Paul was able to preach the length and breadth of the Roman Empire because of its transportation infrastructure and its political unity.

One of the reasons that Christianity has held a near-universal appeal is that it was formulated during an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan period of human history; Christianity is as much a creation of pagan Rome as of Christ and His Apostles, if not more so. There have been many charismatic religious visionaries and leaders through the ages, and only a handful have successfully founded new religions that went on to play a significant role in human history. In each case, the conditions of success were unique to the time and the place of the inception of the incipient faith. With Rome, the universal empire of the western world, there was peace, unity of political control, a network of roads and shipping, literacy, and a vast population ripe for spiritual exploitation.

Roman roads

Any religion formulated under the social conditions of the Roman Empire would have had a certain worldly outlook, a cosmopolitanism and universality, and a familiarity that still feels fresh two thousand years later. The writers of antiquity speak to us directly as though to contemporaries, to an extent that archaic and medieval literature cannot speak to us, and so the most successful religion of late antiquity speaks directly to men and women of the modern world. The religious traditions of archaic Greece as, for example, related in Homer, or even those of medieval Europe, though the latter constituted the immediate predecessor of our civilization today, are far more distant and foreign than the religious traditions of the Roman world.

Vladimir Putin as action figure.

In his widely quoted State of the Nation address of 25 April 2005, Vladimir Putin said that, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I heard a commentator at the time make the case that it was the most cosmopolitan institutions of the Soviet Union that suffered the most from the Soviet collapse. Large political entities like the Soviet Union tend to support certain types of cultural expression that are seen to reflect positively on the state (say, the Bolshoi Ballet, for example). In this sense, Putin was right. But the Soviet Union, on the whole, suppressed far more cultural expression than it supported.

Putin's predecessor, Tsar Vasily III.

There is a connection here with classical antiquity. In 1511 the monk Philotheus wrote in a letter to Tsar Vasily III, “Hear me, pious Tsar, all Christian kingdoms have converged in thine alone. Two Romes have fallen, a third stands, a fourth there shall not be.” Thus Moscow is the Third Rome, and the vanguard for Orthodox Christendom.

Byzantine version on the left, Russian Federation version on the right.

Double-headed eagles: Byzantine version on the left, Russian Federation version on the right.

Samuel Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, identified a region of Orthodox civilization, the core state of which is Russia. To a certain extent, then, Huntington and Putin are on the same page. Orthodox civilization apparently is thought to deserve its own sphere of influence. However, it would be a stretch to suppose that the Soviet Union represented the interests of Orthodox civilization. On an explicit ideological level, it allied itself not with a regional interest, but with the vanguard of international communism.

New York, New York.  Page 159.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1996 The Clash of Civilizations. Simon & Schuster: New York, New York. Page 159.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union may have been the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century, the greatest geopolitical tragedy of Western history was the collapse of Roman power in the West. We live with the consequences of it still. The Middle Ages looked backward to a lost Golden Age, while the beginning of the modern period in the renaissance looked back to classical antiquity as its model of a civilization to emulate.

Even with the loss of the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire, the eventual emergence of Christendom in Western Europe created a culture that extended (as has been said by others) from Iceland to Sicily. And while the unity of Christendom came at a certain cultural cost, there were serious scholars of the Middle Ages, all churchmen, who studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic in order to read the ancient books of these traditions.

Christendom around 1230 AD.

Christendom around 1230 AD.

Today new cosmopolitan institutions have emerged. For example, the English language, as well as international science and scholarship. The critics of American hegemony will say that the use of the English language is a form of imperialism. The political left, in particular, has worked itself into a real lather over apparent ambitions for an American Empire.

Despite the gains of clarity in political science over the past hundred years, the terminology of the discipline is so vague as to virtually guarantee the people will be talking at cross purposes. Part of this is because the vocabulary of political science includes everyone’s favorite propaganda terms — “glittering generalities” as they are sometimes called. Think of terms like “democracy”, “revolution”, and “empire”. They mean a great many things, and are used in a great many ways by a great many individuals.

What I have here been calling cosmopolitanism could as well be called imperialism, or even cultural imperialism. Certainly the Roman Empire practiced imperialism. This imperialism had consequences both good and bad, both intended and unintended. There was the Pax Romana, of course, and there was the establishment of Christianity that I mentioned in the first paragraph above. I let the reader decide which of these development was good or bad, but obviously the first was intended and the second unintended. What exactly is the idea of imperialism, and how does it differ from cosmopolitanism?

Is the cosmopolitanism of today imperialism? Is there an American Empire? If so, in what sense is there an American Empire? In what ways does an American Empire resemble, and in what sense does it not resemble, the Roman Empire? This is, in a way, a fun question to ask for the images that it allows us to entertain. For example, US military missions do not end in a triumphal procession in Washington DC. Maybe they should. This would be a perfect example of what I have called symbolic efficacy. Imagine David Patraeus in a chariot (with a slave whispering in his ear, “Remember, thou art mortal too”) leading a spectacular procession through the wide boulevards of Washington DC, past the White House and the Congress, past the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, leading tens of thousands of marching soldiers and, after them, thousands of prisoners and booty brought back from his campaign.

The lesson from today’s considerations? The past furnishes a vision at least as often as the future. Perhaps the past gives us a vision more often than does the future. The past has the advantage of being concrete. The Roman Empire is with us still because, like the coliseum itself in Rome, the Roman Empire itself dominates Western history, and because of its position astride the commanding heights of Western history, it has served as a vision, and it will continue to serve as a vision, of what a state can aspire to. We feel its loss still.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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