Russia’s New “Evolutionary” Strategy

Peter Turchin


Prompted by the great discussion that followed my post, Does America Have a Long-Term Strategic Plan?, a reader sent me the link to a very interesting article by Michael Kofman, A Comparative Guide to Russia’s Use of Force: Measure Twice, Invade Once. Kofman presents a very interesting analysis of Russia’s strategy for dealing with Ukraine, Syria, United States, and the European Union during the last three years.

One characteristic feature of this strategy, according to Kofman, is “fail fast and fail cheap.”  As an example, an earlier article, The Moscow School of Hard Knocks: Key Pillars of Russian Strategy, describes how Russia rapidly tried four different approaches dealing with the crisis in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, quickly abandoning those that didn’t work. Mark Twain once said, “good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.” The essence of an adaptive strategy is to try different things, and then use what works. It’s natural selection in action.

Another element of the Russian strategy is using a minimum of force, just enough to get the job done, but no more. Russian involvement in conflicts of both eastern Ukraine and Syria followed this logic:

In Ukraine, Moscow sent in regular units to beat the Ukrainian army in decisive battles, then withdrew many of those units. Rapid escalation, with an influx of battalion tactical groups, was followed by rapid de-escalation.  Russia’s presence in Syria is similarly adjusted on a weekly basis and kept to a minimum, with surges as needed.

… in Syria, the Russian contingent regularly resizes its air wing and military footprint, introducing specialized units such as sappers or military police and promptly withdrawing those no longer needed.  In order to manage public perception, Russia declared a withdrawal back in March 2016 and just recently again in January.  Each is meant to “close” a chapter of the campaign, show political gains, and normalize the military presence among domestic audiences.


The third element is refusal to conquer and hold territory. Crimea is an exception to this policy. Check out the previous posts I wrote to explain it:

My Article in Aeon: To understand Crimea, we need an evolutionary theory of national honour

and also why I predicted that Russia would not annex eastern Ukraine:

Russia’s Sacred Landscape, and the Place of Eastern Ukraine within It

In fact, in 2014 the Ukrainian armed forces were in such disarray, that a single Russian division could punch all the way to Kiev and install a government friendly to Kremlin. But Moscow avoided this course. In Syria, similarly, Kremlin relies on local troops (Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Iranians) to fight on the ground and hold territory.

There is no question that this strategy has worked very well for Moscow in the last three years. In fact, astoundingly well, given the general weakness of Russia. Compared to the United States, Russia is a military and economic dwarf. Its economy is in bad shape. During my visit to Moscow a month ago, all with whom I spoke said that life has become harder as a result of galloping inflation and stagnating wages. Clearly, the Kremlin doesn’t have a good strategy for restarting economic growth as long as the price of oil stays low. Instead of trying new approaches, and learning from failures, over the 17 years that he has been in power, Putin and his economic ministers have been recycling the same old and tired neo-classical recipes that are pushed by the likes of the IMF.

Also, it’s important not to forget that many of the tactical moves in the foreign policy arena in the last three years have been poorly conceived and executed. But as Kofman notes, “Moscow is comfortable with failure, preferring for it come fast and cheap so it can improvise the next evolution rather than investing in a failing plan. As I described in an earlier article, the overall Russian strategy is emergent, preferring a lean approach to deliberate planning. The Kremlin regularly attempts to set up no-lose scenarios for itself, such that complete defeat in the conflict is politically manageable at home.  Much of Russia’s effort to establish plausible deniability is intended to create the political space to make mistakes, paving the road for cycles of retreat and escalation as necessary.”

In other words, an evolutionary, adaptive strategy can make up for a lot of tactical mistakes.

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I agree with the summary presented, not that I am supportive of some of Russia’s interventions abroad; very much not. I have personally expected since 1989 Russian intervention in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine on historical grounds, and we may only be thankful at the relatively low loss of life thus far compared to main force conventional wars. That said, the issues there are far from concluded on the scale of geopolitics. These things take time to play out; we’re partway through the second chapter.

i would, though, emphasize two additional, salient issues in my view in recent Russian policy application. The first is that present Russian leadership has a very keen sense of Russian spheres of interest. The actions we have seen are anything but ‘adventures,’ but rather careful interventions in regions of Russian long-term involvement and integral interest. In short, they are rational realpolitik which should surprise no one. That speaks to current foreign policy decision making in Russia’s current upper echelon. The second is that these actions have finely gauged the weakness of other international actors, and been made on a quick but relatively non-provocative basis (‘non-provocative’ because very limited in scale as Peter points out in the post). The crippled and simply craven policy projection of the second Obama Administration and the inchoate policy apparatus of the EU leave Russia practically a free hand, which has been quickly and adroitly exploited.

I see nothing of long-term policy basis that may come out of this, though. The approach seems the personal decision and action process of a small team rather than something institutionalized. We shall have to see what follows.

Putin cares little about the Russian economy because he doesn’t have to; that is my view. He delivers the minimum, and more importantly stability. There is no alternative to him, even less one that the public might prefer. Successful kings often proceeded similarly, from which you may draw such conclusions as you are inclined.

For the record, I find Russia’s actions in Syria reprehensible. Unfortunately, the same could be said for those of many internal factions there and virtually all foreign interventions regardless of whose. The conflict reads like the Spanish Civil War, only with even more severe war crimes and opportune ethnic cleansing. It is hard not to see worse deeds following on from this conflict as from the prior one: the best are miserably destroyed and the worst are empowered beyond all expectations: that seldom ends well.

I would argue that in itself Syria is irrelevant to Russian interests, but as an entry into politics in the Near East it remains crucial.

In terms of international leverage, the Near East, rather oddly, has become the essential context for major powers: if one does not act there, it is not a major power, by definition. Actions there force attention and response by other powers. It is a game board in a way, sad to put it that way. Yes, the oil is important, but the perception of being willing and able or unwilling and unable to impinge on the actions of other powers is demonstrated there more than anywhere, and doubly safe because not the direct territory of another major power. Action in Syria is currently a means to impinge upon the interests of other major actors, and hence a way to trade this for that. Russian involvement in Syria, while entirely cynical in my view, has been very effective in international realpolitik. Consider the degree to which Ukraine dropped far, far down the international agenda after Russian direct, measured intervention in Syria. THAT is the utility of intervention in the Near East.

I dislike current Russian policy, but frankly it has been very effectively pursued from the historical standpoint.

Peter, I dropped you a lengthy email tonight at your Uconn address on other matters I hope of interest to you. Perhaps we will have occasion to discuss the problematic and materials I raise there. Regards.


Syria is of interest to Russia for geostrategic and economic reasons. Economically, the key actors have been wrangling over two conflicting pipeline proposals. Assad passed the rubicon when he didn’t obey the wishes of the masters in D.C.

If the proposed line running from Qatar is put in place, this would cut into Russia’s market in Europe. And doing so would be a good way for the U.S. to stifle a rival by economic means… Real-talk about American foreign policy doesn’t make it into the lame-stream press in America, because the lame-stream press and its ‘journalist’ apparatchiki must absolutely shill for Washington. And so we get little more than agitprop instead. The Syrian ‘civil war’ was catalyzed by the U.S. – the latest act of regime change for which Washington has a long history of executing in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even a Kennedy has been red-pilled on the matter:

Edward Turner

//Compared to the United States, Russia is a military and economic dwarf.//

No state that possesses nuclear weapons, that can reach anywhere in the world, is a military dwarf. Hence the desperation to prevent North Korea from developing missiles that can reach the US mainland.

Nuclear weapons need to be totally phased out. But they will unlikely be phased out until disparities in conventional weapons are rolled back. It is the conventional weapons that make military power a practical tool.

Russia has shown how to use conventional weapons sparingly to great effect. America has used them at vast expense to self-defeating effect. It would be interesting to know the differences between the Russian and American ‘military-industrial complex’ and whether this has an effect on American strategy.

For example, any undue influence of arms companies over US government might encourage bad strategy.

al loomis

i think american foreign policy is strongly affected by a consciousness of over-whelming power in the military sphere.the iraq adventure was driven by ideologues without military experience and they thought it would be a walk-over, due to the relative strength of the armies. correct, but once again, no account was made of the power to resist occupation possible to an armed and motivated populace.
after ‘visiting’ vietnam, there is no excuse for this ignorance.
the hyper-developed munitions industry is the result of transferring tax money to investors, and selected groups of voters. it does not drive war-making so much as make it apparently effective.
perhaps russia has greater continuity of rulers, and these men with real experience in war and covert operations, leading to more effective management of their lesser resources.


The problem with the American Leadership is not that they lack spirit, but they refuse to see spirit. They think wars can be won based on kill ratios and technologies and greater numbers of troops, when in reality, war is a battle of wills between two forces, and war ends only when one force loses its spirit and submits to the enemy. On paper, American Leadership is correct, American forces can overwhelmingly win the war. In reality, war is not won on paper but in the heart of a people.

The other problem is that the WEIRD American Leadership does not seem to understand nationalism or respect it as a power in geopolitics, otherwise, they would realize a country like Iraq would never become a functional democracy given its ethnic structure, anymore than Congo can. In contrast, the USSR was destroyed by the power of ethnic nationalism, and I am certain not a day goes by in the Kremlin when they do not consider this factor.

Hence, Russia wisely avoids attempts to hold non-Russian territories, knowing that this is a formula for provoking ethnonationalist revolt and insurgency. In contrast, America has a long string of Vietnams and Iraqs and Afghanistans. . .

Gene Anderson

Looks like they learned plenty from the World Wars about military strategy, but not a lot from anybody about economic strategy.


“Another element of the Russian strategy is using a minimum of force, just enough to get the job done, but no more.”

It’s not so much a strategy as some kind of weird kremlin schizophrenia that is highly demoralizing to the people who are forced to have them for allies.

The Donbass withdrawals kept victories from being complete and improved the Maidanists’ negotiating positions.

The March 2016 withdrawal announcement happened in the very midst of the SAA drive to recapture Palmyra. It was received very well by the men in the trenches. /s

“Check out the previous posts I wrote to explain it.”

I remember those predictions. Impressive – Congrats.

“Compared to the United States, Russia is a military and economic dwarf.”

It’s not a military dwarf. The Russian military doesn’t have America’s global reach but it maintains military superiority across the Near Abroad (including the Baltics, the paltry NATO force there regardless) and, since it doesn’t have global ambitions, that is what matters.

“Clearly, the Kremlin doesn’t have a good strategy for restarting economic growth as long as the price of oil stays low.”

A temporary recession if oil prices were to collapse was always inevitable (I wrote as much back then).

Russia’s economy certainly it’s great but it’s far from a disaster. With the exception of a few “star” performers (basically just Poland and Estonia), GDP growth has tracked the performance of the other post-socialist East European states. Also inflation isn’t “galloping,” it’s the lowest it has been since a brief period in 2012 (otherwise, the lowest after post-USSR).

An experimental-evolutionary strategy for the economy sounds like a nightmare. Markets like stability and predictability. Even subpar policies applied consistently are better than shooting darts all over the board.

The Kremlin only cares about the Kremlin insofar as I can tell. That seems the salient principle of Russian policy.

While I don’t think that the Kremlin cares about Russians in the Donbass, other Russians may. There is more in play here, at least as far as public perception management, though you are in a better position to asses this then most. I don’t specialize in current affairs in Eastern Europe. That said, it is very much in Russian strategic interests to prevent a cohesive Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO if such were possible. An incoherent, catastrophist, near failed state in Ukraine is the best means to present such an outcome. I would say the Kremlin has succeeded admirably for the current decade, and at very low cost . . . .

Are Russian policy makers even _trying_ to develop a market economy? Their heart doesn’t seem to be in it, to say the least. Commodity exports that enrich the elite and fund the military and security apparatuses seem to be the most of such economic policy as one sees at the top. Of course more is happening organically outside of main industries and functions which interest the elite. Does policy help the latter intentionally? Then a market economy is being pursued. Does policy leave the latter to sink or swim? Than not. I don’t really know, but would be interested in the perspectives of others on that point.


Measure Twice, Invade Once? It seems that Michael Hofman vastly underestimates the wise of Russian proverbs, which strongly recommends – Measure Seven Times, Before Cutting off Once!

Since the time of Clausewitz (who by the way was an officer of the Russian and Prussian armies), the main difference between Western and Russian military strategy can be defined as follows: For the Russian war is the continuation of politics (by other means), whereas for the West politics is the continuation of war.
Post Cold War political turmoil in US is generated by the different points of view on what kind of war we are conducting right now – Is it a war on terror? Is it a continuation of the Cold War? Is it a war for global hegemony? Is it a crusade for democracy?

Michael Moser

I think it is more what they learned from from the Afghanistan invasion – the prolonged invasion turned into a strategic disaster for the Soviet Union.


Not on topic, but more signs of increasing intra-elite competition:

Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, too. And rumored Zuckerberg. Everyone wants in on the president game.


Yeah, but they haven’t gotten around to funding domestic insurgencies yet. .. .

Ross Hartshorn

I cannot help thinking that part of the reason for Russia’s more reality-based military efforts, which admit of the possibility of failure and avoid overextending, is that they can actually imagine being defeated militarily. They have nuclear weapons, and they are not quite a dwarf, but for example I don’t think Russia could win an all-out war with China, much less the U.S.

The U.S., on the other hand, doesn’t think about the possibility of military defeat (nowadays), because they cannot imagine it. This hasn’t always been the case, but the entire generation of American leadership is post-WWII now, and thus has never really faced the prospect of defeat. The U.S. has certainly failed to conquer in places like Vietnam and Iraq, but there was never really a fear of a foreign power taking advantage of a moment of weakness to seize and hold U.S. territory, at least since WWII. This is the great handicap for the U.S. in making strategic decisions; there is too much political posturing and not enough pulling together to consider hard questions, because in their heart of hearts no one in the elite believes there is any possibility of being conquered if they screw up.

Now that I think about it, this might be a mirror image of the situation in economics. It is easier to take chances, economically, and tolerate the possibility of a new venture failing, if you’re wealthier. Poverty does not encourage risk-taking. The U.S.’s relative wealth allows it to try many startups, most of which fail and go bankrupt in an orderly and legal fashion, and the occasional Facebook or Google or Amazon makes up for the many busts. The eminent position that makes the U.S. not afraid of failure in military adventures (to their detriment), makes them not afraid of failure in economic adventures (where it is an advantage).

Boris Leyvi

Dr. Turchin, do you think Russia is more capable today compared to seven years ago and what are your thoughts on its pursuing more of a long-term military strategy? Also, do you think Russia is more stable as a state comparing to the US? The reason for my question is Russia is not suffering elite overproduction as does the United States. Thanks.

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