Military parade in Moscow

The shrinking resource base for military build-up determines the rising level of tension between the traits in military culture and creates disarray in the strategic culture.

The Interplay of Bureaucratic, Warfighting, and Arms-Parading Traits in Russian Military-Strategic Culture

April 2019, Number 028

Executive Summary

A key element in the Russian strategic culture is its military culture, which, however, lacks coherence and has been evolving through the interplay of three main traits: bureaucratic, warfighting, and arms-parading. The conflict in the Donbas region and the country’s military intervention in Syria gave a boost to the warfighting trait, but the escalation of confrontation with the West and work on the 2027 State Armament program (SAP-2027) have increased the influence of the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s frequent boasts about new weapons systems have exemplified the arms-parading trait. Three ongoing impacts have significantly influenced the development of the interplay between the three traits:

  • The value of the Syrian intervention to building combat experience in the officer corps and for testing modern weapons has been mostly exhausted. The ongoing employment of private contractors is contrary to the bureaucratic nature of the military culture.
  • Huge investments in modernizing Russia’s nuclear arsenal have paid scant political dividends. Putin’s interest in new weapons has added confusion to the priority-setting process in the SAP-2027.
  • Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has sought to create harmony among the various traits in the strategic culture and has gained authority within the ranks, but his input to decision-making remains incoherent.

The shrinking resource base for military build-up determines the rising level of tension between the traits in military culture and creates disarray in the strategic culture. The growing external pressure of various crises and engagements could prompt ill-considered but consequential decisions on new applications of military force.


Studies of Russian strategic culture examine a phenomenon of such complexity that isolating its elements is essential to productive analysis. Military-strategic culture is one of its key elements because it deals most directly with the use of armed force. Russia’s military-strategic culture has deep historical roots and is profoundly conservative; yet it is also fluid and responsive to new challenges. This culture has not been cultivated exclusively in the cabinets of the General Staff, nor has it been taught in its academy, important though these institutions are. This culture is transformed by the reforms continuing in the Armed Forces, and has been shaped by civilian-military interactions as well as by the experiences gained in multiple armed conflicts. Research on this complex culture often distinguishes its bureaucratic and warfighting traits, but this analysis adds a third trait: arms-parading, which blends the propensity for showing off with the desire to modernize and obtain most modern weapons. This analysis first examines the interplay between these three traits in the case of the Syrian intervention; then evaluates the new emphasis on nuclear forces added by President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 address to the Federal Assembly; and finally investigates Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s leadership style.

Peculiarities of the Three Traits

The Russian Armed Forces, while not quite thirty years old, inherited many structures, traditions, and cultural features from the Soviet military, an institution of colossal scale, which determined the heavy militarization of the Soviet Union and contributed much to its collapse. While the present-day confrontation between Russia and the West resembles the Cold War, the Russian state is significantly less militarized than the USSR was, and Putin’s ruling elite enjoys a lavish lifestyle, in stark comparison to the rigor, discipline, and sacrifice that defines military life.1 The special services originating from the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB)—with the significant exception of military intelligence, known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)—have acquired dominant roles in decision-making in the Kremlin, but their influence on strategic culture is moderated not only by competition between the numerous services, but also by Putin’s recognition of the unique contribution and competence of military culture.

The Russian state is a colossal and typically self-serving bureaucracy, and the cultural characteristics of this super-structure constitute a natural interface with the bureaucratic trait in the military culture. The key feature of bureaucracy is the internal battles over resource distribution, and the winners in these squabbles excel at claiming an increasing share of resources, allocated primarily through the state budget. The claims to priority access to the money flows need to be supported by convincing reasoning, and the best possible justification for military demands on resources (which are actually diminishing) is the need to counter the growing threats to Russia’s security in its evolving confrontation with the West. The proposition that NATO is a hostile and aggressive alliance seeking to encircle Russia and diminish its ability to protect legitimate interests is inherent to the bureaucratic trait, and the strong emphasis in the U.S. National Defense Strategy on containing Russia is presented as irrefutable evidence.2

Since the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989), the Russian Armed Forces have accumulated unique and diverse experiences in fighting and managing regional wars, and the on-going engagements in Ukraine and Syria have added to this learning. Large parts of the officer corps, particularly in the Army, have gained first-hand combat expertise and internalized the war-fighting cultural trait, with its camaraderie and disdain for the bureaucratic ways of “parquet generals.” This tribe of “warriors” is also keen to demand more funding, but they advocate investment in capabilities that are needed for operations in real wars, and not for counter-balancing hypothetical threats. This cultural trait is therefore less NATO-centric and more attuned to innovations of war-fighting on unconventional battlefields and in “hybrid wars.3

Fighting may be the core function of the military, but parades and demonstrations of force are such a traditional preoccupation in the Russian army that arms-parading should be considered a particular trait of its culture. What adds meaning to this habit of showing off is the desire to prove that, in every component of military might, Russia is the leader in developing modern weapons systems and incorporating the newest technologies. This desire is driven by fear of falling behind in the ever-progressing “revolution in military affairs,” and it compels the military to order and deploy greater variety of arms than it can possibly use. It can be strategically useful to project the impression of greater power than Russia really possesses, but this urge to show results is both a systematic misallocation and waste of increasingly scarce resources.4

The interplay between these three cultural traits translates into competition for influence between their carriers among the top brass. This competition is rich in conflict and short on compromise, so that the cumulative military impact on the evolution of Russia’s strategic culture is disjointed and contradictory.

Military planes above Orthodox church dom

The Provisional Score of the Syrian Test

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has demonstrated the newly-gained capacity for projecting military power beyond the immediate neighborhood, and has tested the combat capabilities of the Air Force as well as the Navy and, to some extent, the special operations forces. While this has reinforced the war-fighting trait in the military-strategic culture, this sustained operation has also enriched the bureaucratic and arms-parading traits and exacerbated the interplay between them. Victory in Syria remains elusive, and frictions between incoherent modes of managing this war adopted by the Russian leadership and its allies may hamper Russia’s ability to learn and internalize strategic lessons from this risky adventure.5

President Putin and top military leaders have claimed, on many occasions, that Syria was a perfect testing ground for modern weapons systems; indeed, much of the state propaganda around the conflict has emphasized the technical sophistication of the intervention.6 The most impressive demonstration was certainly the series of strikes by the Kailbr long-range cruise missiles (SS-N-27) from various naval platforms, which proved the Russian navy’s ability to project power on shore, even if the precision of such weapons remains dubious.7 Not all attempts to parade new arms were successful, and the deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missiles in order to establish an anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” over northwestern Syria failed to stop U.S. missile strikes and Israeli air raids.8 The brief visit of newly-designed Su-57 fighters to the Khmeimim airbase was not impressive, but the most embarrassing fiasco was the deployment of Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in late 2016, which saw the loss of two fighters and resulted in the withdrawal of the ship from the Northern Fleet for protracted repairs.9

The Syrian campaign has provided an opportunity for the Russian military leadership to enrich the bureaucratic cultural trait with some combat experience by establishing a system of fast rotation of commanders of the grouping of forces in Syria and their staff, as well as military advisers with the Syrian army. Some 50,000 Russian military personnel, including most of top-level commanders in the Army and about a half of brigade- or regiment-level commanders, have had a three- or four-month tour of duty in Syria as of early 2018.10 The benefits of such a rotation are seen as more important than the negative impacts of blunders and casualties caused by the lack of special training of commanders and advisers. Such high-level personnel losses as General Valery Asapov and Colonel Valery Fedyanin, both killed in action in September 2017, are perceived as acceptable given the benefits of the rotation process.11 A particularly difficult challenge for the Russian military hierarchy in this conflict is the employment of various private armies; the poor communication between Russian military commanders and mercenaries operating outside of the formal command structure resulted in a disastrous attack on the U.S. military position near Deir al-Zour in February 2018.12

The value of the Syrian intervention for gaining combat experience and showing new combat capabilities is mostly exhausted. Three months of trepidation cannot make a warrior out of a career bureaucrat, just as a return flight to Khmeimin cannot make the Su-57 a combat-tested fighter. The common strategic sense dictates that leadership should terminate involvement, but despite several orders from President Putin to withdraw the bulk of the grouping, the situation on the ground has enforced the need to continue combat missions, with all the costs and risks.

Military vehicles with missiles during the military parade in Moscow

The Rationale and Redundancy of Nuclear Modernization

The massive effort at modernizing all components of Russia’s strategic and non-strategic nuclear arsenal, undertaken as part of the 2020 State Armament Program (SAP), is set to continue in the belatedly approved and already revised 2027 SAP. The rationale for this priority is usually taken for granted in Russian strategic culture and maximized in the bureaucratic trait of military culture, but from the perspective of the war-fighting cultural trait, this nuclear fixation is seriously overdone. Putin’s presentation of “wonder missiles” in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly exemplifies the ambitions of the arms-parading trait, but it is striking that the new pet projects that he has announced deviate from the guidelines of the 2027 SAP, which had to be revised accordingly.13

The half-implemented and hugely expensive projects, like the deployment of the new generation of strategic submarines (Borei-class, three out of 14 submarines now operational), will necessarily be continued in the 2027 SAP, even if they demand allocation of an even greater share of dwindling resources.14 These large-scale projects still answer the strategic logic of “reasonable sufficiency”, but where the bureaucratic drive to build the widest possible range of weapons systems departs far from it, is in the juxtaposition of strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. Putin asserted with great confidence that such innovations as the Sarmat (SS-X-30) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), equipped with the hypersonic Avangard warhead, would render any U.S. “anti-missile shield” ineffectual and useless.15 Even Russian experts concede that the effort aimed at breaking through the nonexistent U.S. missile defense system is excessive.16 At the same time, the 2027 SAP envisages the allocation of a huge amount of resources toward building Russia’s own missile defense system, based on the S-500 and the Nudol surface-to-air missile systems.17 Critics assert that U.S. designs for strategic defense are detrimental for strategic stability, but the vision in Russian strategic planning for combining the upgraded A-235 missile defense system around Moscow with the A2/AD “bubbles” covering the Kola Peninsula, the Kaliningrad region, and Crimea is considered a workable proposition.18

This vanquishing of “reasonable sufficiency” was reinforced by Putin’s introduction of new weapons systems in his March 2018 address, a quintessential case of importing the arms-parading cultural trait into the strategic culture. It is unclear how Putin’s list was compiled and why some innovative missile projects (like the hypersonic Zircon 3M22 antiship missile) were not included, but the rather dubious Peresvet combat laser was.19 What is clear is Putin’s bold departure from well-established plans for modernizing of Russia’s nuclear arsenal—which had already been too ambitious for the available resources—means that those plans now have to be expanded even more. Perhaps the most troublesome parts of Putin’s new package are the nuclear-propelled vehicles (cruise missile Burevestnik and underwater drone Poseidon), as the latter fits poorly with the naval strategy aimed at strengthening Russia’s submarine forces, and the former does not help in the necessary modernization of the long-range aviation.20 Besides the possibly severe environmental damage, these weapons systems undermine the prospects for U.S.-Russian strategic arms control, which are jeopardized by the collapse of the INF Treaty. Despite the setback in efforts at preserving this treaty, arms control remains a key intersection of the bureaucratic trait of military culture and high-level diplomacy, which produces a strong impact on the strategic culture.21

Colossal investment in the modernization of the nuclear arsenal is driven by the interplay between the bureaucratic and arms-parading traits in the military-strategic culture, but both have generated the urge in the High Command to make nuclear weapons into a more useful instrument of policy, and the warfighting trait can neither ignore nor accommodate this demand.

The Man for All Missions

Typically, particular actors promote different traits of Russian military culture, but Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, with all the shortcomings in his professional/cultural background, gained in the leadership of the Ministry of Emergencies, embodies a perfect cross between the bureaucratic, warfighting and arms-parading traits. Having no connections with the Armed Forces, he has managed in the six years of his leadership to earn respect in the officer corps and loyalty in the vast defense bureaucracy, and has maintained a solid political profile and support base. He is a unique figure in the Russian political landscape, and his impact on security decision-making is second only to Putin’s, with whom he cultivates close personal relations despite their dissimilar careers.

Unlike his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, who was fired in disgrace in late 2012, Shoigu is attuned to the war-fighting cultural trait and promotes to the high ranks officers with combat experience, from the Chechen war to the Syrian intervention. He knows the value of showing respect to professionalism, and has established smooth cooperation between his ministry and the General Staff, where “warriors” are now also in key positions. At the same time, he has streamlined the structures of control and set up the new Headquarters of the High Command, which is supposed to be an efficient and modern bureaucracy.22 Shoigu is also aware that it was the bitter conflict with the defense-industrial complex that brought Serdyukov down, and so has built useful ties with the bosses of key corporations, supporting their claims for funding in the 2027 SAP and avoiding the blame game for delays and underachievements—for instance, in the shipbuilding industry.23

A politician to the bone, Shoigu enjoys publicity and is eager to preside over parades in a designer-made uniform, but this vanity is tempered by the caution of a political survivor, so he is attentive not to outshine Putin as the Commander-in-Chief. He avoids bombastic statements, unlike Dmitry Rogozin, who was removed from the key government position of supervising the defense-industrial complex.24 Shoigu is not a stranger to corruption, which is at the core of Russian bureaucratic and business cultures, but he has resolved to suppress embezzlement scandals in his ministry.25Despite blending the three cultural traits, Shoigu is still unable to make the mix harmonious because the opportunism, intrigue, and conceit characteristic for his team cannot constitute an optimal environment for sound strategy-making.


Russian strategic culture has evolved rapidly and even radically since the eruption of the Ukraine crisis in early 2014, and in the military culture—most affected by this crisis compared with other arms of government—the interplay of its three main traits (bureaucratic, warfighting, and arms-parading) has grown more contentious.

The war in Donbas and the intervention in Syria have strengthened the prominence of the war-fighting trait, and Defense Minister Shoigu duly promotes “warriors” in the command ranks. At the same time, the buildup of groupings of forces in the Western theater and the work on the 2027 SAP have increased the influence of the bureaucratic trait, which is focused on sustaining confrontation with the West. President Putin’s (as well as Shoigu’s) delight in staging military parades and the president’s boastful presentation of new weapons systems in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly give new impetus to the arms-parading trait.

What turns the divergence of these traits into conflicts is the inescapable fact that the resource base for military buildup is shrinking, which has created the need to make hard choices and painful cuts. The new T-14 Armata main battle tank, which was the star of the 2015 Victory Day parade on Red Square in Moscow, is now seen as too expensive so its procurement plans have been curtailed.26 The pressure of external crises and ongoing engagements is growing and exacerbating tensions inside the incoherent military culture, which affects the strategic culture more generally. Brandishing of arms, whether rhetorically or in massive exercises like the Vostok-2018, amounts to a series of bluffs, which are called by NATO’s increasing investment in containment capabilities.27 As a result, Russian leadership feels compelled to raise the stakes. Escalating risks is a technique alien to Russian bureaucratic strategy- and policy-making, but staying the course in the steady arms race means accepting the role of a designated loser.

Putin is aware—perhaps more acutely than the military leadership—that the over-extension of the USSR in such a race brought about its inglorious collapse. In his new presidential term, he has taken a pause in projecting Russia’s military might, expecting that disagreements would erode NATO’s resolve, that Ukraine would succumb to internal quarrels, and that U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria. This pause has yielded Russia few dividends, so the Kremlin might again opt to resort to direct application of military instruments of policy, expecting that another victory would break the trend of stagnation and domestic demobilization. Disarray in the strategic culture and confusion in the military culture make such a choice both more probable and the assessment of its possible consequences – less rigorous.


1 An excellent recent research on the Russian political culture is Brian D. Taylor, The Code of Putinism, (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

2 One example of this argument is Vladimir Ivanov, “Pentagon Wants to Make History,” Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 21, 2018.

3 One original interpretation of new features of this culture is Michael Kofman, “Raiding and International Brigandry: Russia’s Strategy for Great Power Competition,” War on the Rocks, June 14, 2018.

4 One competent evaluation of the real posture is Keir Giles, “Assessing Russia’s Reorganized and Rearmed Military,” Task Force White Paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 3, 2017.

5 A useful evaluation of these lessons can be found in Dmitry Adamsky, “Moscow’s Syria Campaign: Russian Lessons for the Art of Strategy,” Russie.Nei.Visions, No. 109, IFRI, July 2018.

6 A perhaps somewhat-exaggerated overview is Dave Majumbar, “Russia’s Military Used 215 New Weapons Systems in Syria,” National Interest, January 30, 2018.

7 Nikolai Sokov, “Russia’s New Conventional Capability: Implications for Eurasia and Beyond,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 472, May 2017.

8 Justin Bronk, “Could Russian S-400s Protect Syria Against Cruise Missiles?” RUSI Commentary, April 19, 2018.

9 A useful net assessment is Anton Lavrov, “The Russian Air Campaign in Syria,” CNA Report, June 2018.

10 General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff, described this rotation system in a lengthy interview: “We Broke the Back of Terrorist Forces,” Komsomolskaya Pravda (in Russian), December 26, 2017.

11 “What Is Known About the Russian Military Personnel Killed in Syria,” Kommersant, November 7, 2017.

12 Kimberly Marten, “The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir al-Zour,” War on the Rocks, July 5, 2018.  

13 See “State Armament Program Will Be Revised Accordingly with the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly,” TASS, March 20, 2018.

14 On the cancellation of the cost-inefficient Borei-B design, see “Source: Russia Will Build Six More Nuclear Strategic Submarines of the Borei-A Class,” TASS, May 21, 2018.

15 Eric Gomez, “Why Putin Is Obsessed with America’s Missile Defense,” National Interest, March 3, 2018.

16 Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, “Super-Arms of Prestige and Deterrence,” Russian Council, accessed March 2, 2018.  

17 Sergei Ptichkin, “Russia Has Created Missile Defense System of a New Generation,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 19, 2017.

18 Nikolai Surkov, Alexei Ramm, “Moscow Will Get New Anti-Missile Defense,” Izvestiya, February 21, 2018.

19 For more on the Zircon missile, see Robert Beckhusen, “Imagine Almost Every Russian Warship with Hypersonic Missiles,” War Is Boring, October 11, 2017. Abbreviated information on the laser weapon can be found in “Persevet Combat Lasers Enter Duty with Russia’s Armed Forces,” TASS, December 5, 2018.

20 On the submarine strategy, see Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds, “Why the Russian Navy Is a More Capable Adversary Than It Appears,” National Interest, August 22, 2017. On the Air Force build-up, see Franz-Stefan Gady, “Russia’s Upgraded Tu-22M3M bomber to Make Maiden Flight in August,” The Diplomat, May 17, 2018.

21 Igor Subbotin, “Nuclear Arsenals Give Russia and USA a Chance for Détente,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 9, 2018.

22 On the new command center, see Aleksandr Golts, “Barracks Style,” New Times, November 27, 2017.

23 Maxim Klimov, “Russian Navy Has Lost Ocean Status,” Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, November 30, 2018.; Maksim Kislyakov, “Problems and Achievements of the Russian Shipbuilding,” Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 2, 2018.

24 Aleksandr Golts, “Dmitry Rogozin as the Mirror of the Defense-Industrial Complex,” New Times, May 28, 2018 ( On Rogozin’s poor start as the head of Roskosmos, see Dmitri Sarkisov, “The Master of Trampoline,” (in Russian), July 26, 2018.

25 There has been no follow-up to the exposure of Shoigu’s Chinese-style dacha; see Carl Schreck, “Russian Defense Chief Shoigu Accused of Owning $18 Million Mansion,” RFE/RL Features, October 27, 2015.

26 “Vice-Premier Borisov: We Need to Modernize Old Tanks Instead of Procuring Armata,” Kommersant, July 30, 2018.

27 Useful evaluation of these exercises is Dave Johnson, “Vostok 2018: Ten Years of Russian Strategic Exercises and Warfare Preparation”, NATO Review, December 12, 2018.

About the Author

Pavel Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).  Pavel specializes in Russian military reform, Russian conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, energy interests in Russia’s foreign policy, and Russian relations with Europe and NATO.

Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI)

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