“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” observed the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his classic treatise On War. Although the aphorism has become axiomatic almost to the point of cliché, it is an especially apt prism for understanding Russia’s increasingly adventurous foreign policy.
Take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for “hybrid warfare,” or the combination of traditional military methods with the manipulation of information for strategic gain. In many ways, Moscow’s recent interventions in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine are explicit exemplars of Clausewitz’s maxim, albeit with a twist. For Clausewitz, war was simply another way to achieve relatively concrete strategic objectives, such as security, which could not be otherwise realized through politics. Russia’s recent wars in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, however, have been military expressions of its government’s desire to lend truth to its pretensions to superpower status. In all three conflicts, Russia’s local interests were debatable, if not negligible; instead, their purpose was first and foremost to demonstrate, for both domestic and international audiences, that Russia is a great power with global reach and aspirations. For the Kremlin, war is state branding by other means. For the Kremlin, war is state branding by other means.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has consistently sought to position itself as a peer to the United States and NATO—sometimes as a partner and sometimes as a competitor. Such status anxiety was most infamously expressed in Putin’s 2005 comment that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” More recently, the official 2015 Russian national security strategy document is laced with references to Russia’s instrumental role in managing major global crises and cites “transforming the Russian Federation into a world power” as a key national interest.
Russia’s strategic intentions crystallized in August 2008 during its brief war with Georgia, which had launched an offensive to recapture the Moscow-backed breakaway province of Tagliavini Report assigned blame for the five-day war to both sides, but the initial spark—the report claimed that Georgia fired first—almost did not matter. Russian troops, whose military exercises suggested that they had anticipated the conflict weeks in advance, showed no hesitation in defeating the Georgians and pouring into South Ossetia, in what was Moscow’s first foreign combined-arms combat operation since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
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