20 years under Putin: a timeline

This recap focuses on the military aspects of Western research into Russia under the current government. RAND analyzes modern political warfare by reviewing cases of Russia, Iran, and ISIS; Chatham House studies Russia’s latest armament program, known as GPV 2027; Atlantic Council assesses the threat of nuclear de-escalation strikes from Moscow.


November 15, 2016. Russia's Admiral Grigorovich frigate takes part in the operation against ISIL in Syria. Photo | TASS.


  1. RAND: Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses

The report produced by RAND experts is dedicated to analyzing methods of modern political warfare, that is “the use of any available non-military means for achieving political goals.” In-depth studies of practices by Russia, Iran, and ISIL are included.

Threat to the United States

  • Today, the U.S. is confronted with several political and non-political actors which employ political, informational, military, and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate, or undermine U.S. interests or those of their friends and allies.
  • One such actor is the modern Russia government. The report notes that Russia has repeatedly used proxy forces, propaganda, cyber warfare, economic leverage, and other tools with the goal of undermining European security. The most revealing example of this in recent times is Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
  • The authors state that there is every reason to believe that Russia will continue these tactics into the future, thus threatening the interests of Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world.

Russia’s Concept of Political Warfare

  • The authors state that Russia’s approach to political warfare is distinguished by three main points, and understanding these is imperative for an effective Russia containment policy:
  • 1) Russia regards its actions as a defensive reaction to the West’s actions. Therefore, the “Maidan” events, the “colour revolutions,” the “Arab Spring,” and all other events that led to a democratic change of power in other countries are nothing more than the results of the West’s aggressive policies.
  • Russia is also convinced that American propaganda of democratic values, as well as support for civil society and free media, are instruments of the political war that Washington has been waging to undermine the foundations of the Russian state.
  • 2) Russia, as a rule, does not directly organize political crises in other countries. However, Russia does contribute to increasing tensions and social disagreements, and thereby benefits from emerging conflicts.
  • One of the most striking examples of this is the story of the “Bronze Soldier” monument in Tallinn. Russian propaganda addressed to the Russian-speaking population in Estonia paved the way for a further escalation of the conflict; Russia provided financial aid and other support to various groups that played important roles in the outbreak of mass riots. However, Russia was not the initiator of the crisis, and its actions were presented as a response to it – similarly to how the Kremlin acted in eastern Ukraine.
  • This opportunistic approach corresponds to the portrait of Putin as a politician. The authors also refer to Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov, who believes that, although Putin cannot be called a strategist, he is always “ready for any development of events” and for an “immediate reaction.”
  • 3) Russia’s methods of political warfare are largely determined by the geographical and political context. Of course, Russia is able to exert influence far beyond the borders of its “near abroad” – for example, in Syria. However, the opportunities for Russian influence are much more significant in the post-Soviet space and in the countries of the near abroad (due to factors such as the presence of a Russian-speaking population, the general Soviet narrative, and the low level of economic development).
  • For example, the FSB (which is run by Russia and the near abroad) has many more resources than the Foreign Intelligence Service, whose scope of responsibility extends to Western Europe and the U.S. The Russian propaganda campaign is also more effective in countries with a Russian-speaking population than it is in Eastern Europe.


  1. Chatham House: Russia’s New State Armament Program: Implications for the Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2027

Dr Richard Connelly, an associate fellow at Chatham House, and Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow also at Chatham House, analyze Russia’s military capabilities and 2018 state armament program, known as GPV 2027, which will serve as the basis for Russia’s defense and military priorities until 2027. The analysis shows that despite the advances outlined by the plan, internal and external factors will cause the armed forces to still rely on a mix of legacy hardware and modernized Soviet systems alongside the modern designs and improvements. 

The Plan’s Goals

  • The past plan, GPV 2020 already worked to revitalize Russia’s defense program—higher wages attracted a higher caliber of workers, new capital stock was installed, and manufacturing lines shifted toward serial production of equipment. Thus, many problems have already been overcome and the foundation has been laid for the new program to improve upon it.
  • Despite the program being classified, statements by Russian officials give an insight into the basic mandates of the program. It is likely to focus on force mobility and deployability, military logistics, and consolidation of command-and-control systems, with a strong emphasis on the modernization of Russia’s nuclear triad
  • The Ministry of Defense has allocated $306 billion for the modernization and procurement of military equipment, as well as for research and development.
  • The navy is likely to receive less funding than ground forces, and air defense systems will likely maintain their status as an important part of the military.

Key challenges:

  • Internal factors such as the struggle to modernize equipment, the need to increase research and development substantially, and technological development will likely present challenges to the fulfilment of all the plan’s goals.
  • External factors will also play a major role: namely, “lessons learned” from operational combat experience in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the negative impacts that targeted international sanctions have had on Russia’s defense sector, and from the breakdown of military cooperation with Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea.


  1. Atlantic Council: A Strategy for Deterring Russian Nuclear De-escalation Strikes

The author, Matthew Kroenig, is Deputy Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center of Strategy and International Security and Professor at Georgetown University. The report assesses the threat of nuclear de-escalation strikes from Moscow, and presents a detailed analysis of possible Russian containment strategies. 

Analysis of Potential Threats:

  • After the Cold War, the United States committed to the reduction of nuclear weapons, believing that the rest of the world would follow suit. However, these beliefs did not come to fruition. Although the U.S. and NATO reduced their dependence on nuclear weapons, other countries, including Russia, are pursuing a completely opposite policy.
  • For example, Russia’s nuclear strategy calls for the use of nuclear de-escalation strikes in the event of conflict with NATO countries. A limited nuclear strike of this kind is meant to orient Western leaders toward choosing between a truce and nuclear escalation.
  • Although a nuclear exchange between Russia and the USA is improbable, the report states that the risk of such a scenario is higher today than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin’s demonstration of new Russian weapons—notably nuclear ones, as well as extensive drills by the Russian Armed Forces which conclude with simulated nuclear strikes, and unambiguous declarations by top-ranking officials, confirm the risk.

Strategic Containment of Russia

  • According to Kroenig, the U.S. and NATO do not have a clear strategy for deterring Russian nuclear de-escalation strikes, and thus for Putin it is a free-for-all.
  • The author then analyzes four possible response strategies for the West to utilize in constraining Russian nuclear strikes. All four are actively discussed amongst experts.
    1. Surrender
    2. Responding exclusively using conventional (non-nuclear) weapons
    3. Responding with a reciprocal massive nuclear strike
    4. Responding with a limited nuclear strike
  • Kroenig believes that the most acceptable response is the application of a limited retaliatory nuclear strike. This approach is the only one that would prevent further attacks from Russia and demonstrate Western decisiveness in the face of the Russian threat.
  • At the same time, however, the author stresses that a NATO retaliatory strike must be done solely with the goal of preventing full-on nuclear war, and not to incite it.

The Main Tasks of the U.S. and NATO

  • Believing that Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence is in Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin believes that his interests in that region are greater than the West’s. The U.S. must demonstrate that its stake in Eastern Europe (primarily in the Baltic countries) is the same, if not greater, than Russia’s.
  • A U.S. refusal to defend a NATO member from Russian aggression would have serious consequences: the report states that “if Washington loses Tallinn, then it risks losing Warsaw, Tokyo, Seoul, and Tel Aviv.”
  • In other words, if Eastern European countries are nothing more than local spheres of influence for Russia, then the goals of the U.S. in those regions should be to fulfill military obligations, observe nuclear non-proliferation, and maintain the existing system of international security, as well as Washington’s role as the leader in establishing the world order.
  • It also must be noted that the West is markedly inferior to Russia in terms of the potential for limited nuclear weapon usage. Unlike Russia, NATO does not possess an arsenal of low-power weapons which may be deployed in or near the conflict zone and that could, with a high degree of probability, overcome Russia’s air defense system.
  • Thus, it is imperative for both the U.S. and NATO to build up their military power and their ability to withstand possible aggression. First, the alliance must strengthen its military presence in Eastern Europe, and consolidate its defense forces in the region. NATO should also deploy limited missile defense systems in Europe to protect critical infrastructure and military installations.
  • However, the expert points out the paradox that if NATO intends to continue the policy of reducing the nuclear escalation threat, then it must provide for the use of nuclear weapons in its own security strategy.