The Russian army and soldiers are all over the news since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It is therefore crucial to understand the military machine that is supposed to serve Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. In her insightful book, Russia’s Military Revival (Polity), University of Nottingham Professor Bettina Renz quotes a fellow academic who observed that “by the end of the 1990s, Russia had largely been written off as a global military force as it was generally assumed that its armed forces stood ‘perilously close to ruin.’” While Putin’s 2008 modernization program proved instrumental in giving the Russian army its pride and means, the main argument of the author is that this development “did not occur in a vacuum.”
Since the reigns of the Tsars, “[…] having a strong military has always been important to Russia”, mainly to ensure régime stability, its presence in the world as a great power and the necessity – in the Kremlin’s perspective – of keeping a buffer zone against real or imagined potential invasion. Continuity is the main theme developed by Bettina Renz in her book.
In my humble opinion, her main contribution is not helping us to better understand the actions of Vladimir Putin, but those of his predecessor. It is easy to discount the bon vivant and bombastic Yeltsin as a transitional footnote in Russian’s history. That’s a mistake because he laid the groundwork for the rebuilding of the Russian army and its use on different theaters in the last 2 decades.
When Yeltsin designated his lackluster Prime minister to replace him at the helm of the country on New Year’s Eve in 1999, it was believed that Putin’s loyalty and intention to leave his predecessor living in a quiet retirement were the main reasons behind the decision. Historians might have more to say on that, but he might also have recognized in the current President an agent of continuity. Russia’s military DNA didn’t disappear when the Soviet flag was brought down on December 26, 1991. But “[…] the country’s dire economic situation meant that ambitious plans for the Russian military were simply not realistic at the time.”
Boris Yeltsin’s hands were tied, as the 1999 war in Kosovo was to show. “The Kremlin’s failure to influence events diplomatically [and provide meaningful support to Serbian allies whose government was deposed] underlined that the country’s great power status could not be maintained without strong military forces.” No matter the sanctions or the outcry in the streets, Vladimir Putin would not let that humiliation happen again.
To that end, he was able to build on his predecessor’s legacy, since “[…] the political system enabling Putin to bolster the force structures and to rely on them as an important power resource had already been put in place by his predecessor.” The strong performance of the Russian economy during Putin’s first years enabled him to put Moscow’s money where its mouth was. Hence, the military interventions in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Syria (2015 – ) and Ukraine (2022).
Many observers posit that the 2022 aggression of Ukraine was the logical continuation of 2014. “Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine [that year] did not denote a ‘paradigm shift’, but a continuation of drivers that had long been evident in Russian foreign policy.” The military has always been a tool in Moscow’s foreign policy box.
Several questions nevertheless arise, in light of the recent combat operations in Ukraine. First, the mighty Russian army’s performance in front of outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian patriots makes one wonder if Putin’s army has really evolved as a real fighting force or if its only design would be to impress the crowds on Victory Day parades with tanks that are now towed by Ukrainian farmers. Second, the author evokes that régime stability is one of the reasons why Moscow has always been eager to count on a strong military force. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Putin’s régime fell because he decided to flex the muscles of his soldiers?
“Russia is continuing its long history of punching above its weight when it comes to its military ambitions” wrote Bettina Renz in the book, which was published in 2018. 4 years later, that observation is still accurate. Moscow might end up defeated on the battlefield in a few weeks or months but let us hope that people and statesmen will not forget that armies are not a feature of the past and that some statesmen are still ready and eager to use them to advance their pieces on the chessboard. Understanding them is the first step to fighting them efficiently.
Russia’s Military Revival is destined to become a classic and is an essential read for whoever wants to understand the pugilistic ethos of the Kremlin and the historical context of the war in Ukraine. It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin is not destined to the most glorious pages of history, but his mindset is imbricated in the history of Russia.
Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival, Cambridge, Polity, 2018, 240 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Lydia Davis of Polity Books for her generous and continued collaboration with this blog. Lydia always goes the whole nine yard to help, and this is much appreciated.