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Dimitri Minic: "There is transparency in the Russian strategic factory".

A specialist in Russian politico-military elites and strategic thinking, the IFRI researcher presented his latest book at a strategic debate at the IHEDN. Interview.

Dimitri Minic is a researcher at the Russia/Eurasia Centre of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and holds a doctorate in the history of international relations from Sorbonne University. He is particularly interested in Russian strategic thinking, the Russian army and Russian hybrid and high-intensity capabilities. He also works on threat perception and the strategic culture of Russia's political and military elites. His thesis on the latter subject was awarded the Albert-Thibaudet prize and forms the basis of his book "Pensée et culture stratégiques russes, Du contournement de la lutte armée à la guerre en Ukraine" (published by Maison des sciences de l'homme, April 2023). On 13 November, he came to the IHEDN to present his book as part of a strategic debate presented by Guillaume Lasconjarias, head of the Institute's studies and research department.

What prompted you to write this book? How did you go about it?

I started thinking about this thesis in 2013-2014, at a time when Russia was annexing Crimea, carrying out subversive actions in the Donbass and seeking to destabilise Europe. At the same time, the media and experts, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, were beginning to relay elements from the Russian military sphere, such as the concept of hybrid warfare and the Guerassimov doctrine.

I came up against several pitfalls: the problem with research at the time was not so much documenting what Russia was doing, because researchers and journalists were already doing that very well, but how Russians thought about strategy and how it related to politics: Doctrines, military literature, military dictionaries and encyclopaedias, speeches by military and political officials... all material that was little used or even absent, such as post-Soviet Russian military literature and encyclopaedias. Nor were we interested in the strategists and institutes that thought about strategy in Russia... To sum up, in the West there was a lack of understanding of Russian strategic thinking in the post-Soviet period.

I discovered that senior Russian officers and generals expressed themselves very freely on their conceptions of strategy. Not only that, but that what they theorised was reflected in the speeches of military and political officials, in doctrines and in practice. There is a form of transparency in the Russian strategic factory that I had no idea was there. These sources are therefore extremely rich, but they also have their limits, because they remain open sources. Their authors, whether active, retired or reserve officers, do not hesitate to criticise each other. There is a lively debate within the Russian military community, right up to the highest level.

I also noted two levels of transparency: horizontal, between military personnel, but also vertical, with criticisms addressed to the political and military leadership, sometimes concerning subjects outside the strategic field such as domestic policy.

What are the main characteristics of Russian strategic culture?

The beliefs that make up part of Russian strategic culture date back to the Soviet period, some of them even imperial, and have been renewed since the fall of the USSR. It is important to bear in mind that people have not changed from one period to the next, which has a major impact on the transmission of this cultural heritage to new generations of soldiers.

This cultural dimension has had an extraordinary impact on the way Russian military elites have thought about and implemented strategy, and in particular on the theorization of the circumvention of armed struggle. Information warfare, strategic deterrence, special operations and the other concepts that embodied the theorisation of circumvention are, to a certain extent, an emanation of specific beliefs and ways of thinking. This is one of the reasons why bypass should be described as a strategic tropism rather than a doctrine or model, which it overhangs. Three central beliefs stand out among the Russian politico-military elites:

  • The world is hostile to Russia on principle;
  • The West is omnipotent and omniscient;
  • Russia is a unique great power.

 

All this allows the Russian military elites to maintain the idea that Russia is constantly under attack, either because it is very strong, because it has a messianic destiny, or, on the contrary, because it has weakened.

The impact of conspiracism is also fundamental and is reinforced, beyond beliefs, by a specific way of thinking. It is characterised in several ways: firstly, a form of denial of chance in international relations; secondly, a denial of the autonomy of the individual, as well as of the spontaneous wills of the masses; a pronounced penchant for determinism (economic, civilisational, religious, but above all geographical, due to the central position of Russian Eurasia and its natural resources); and finally a tendency to think that the phenomena arising in international relations are interconnected and often hidden. This way of thinking reinforces beliefs.

Its environment is therefore populated only by enemies, or false friends. In this context, can Russia have friends?

Russia's political and military elites believe that their country has spent its entire history sacrificing itself for peoples who have never reciprocated. This is the case for the countries of the former Soviet space, for whom they believe that Russia has sacrificed itself, and that they are rewarding it by wanting to join NATO. This is also why Russia does not see itself (wrongly) as a colonising power, which would have been an unjust dominant power. The Russians feel the same way about the African countries, or elsewhere in the Third World, with which they forged relations during the Cold War.

So Russia sees itself as a fortress under siege, which is nothing new. This obsidional complex is crucial, but what interested me in this work on Russian military theory and doctrine is that this whole dimension of Russian strategic culture has produced a strategic concept, and has had very concrete consequences not only on strategic thinking, but also on institutions, training, military organisation and strategic practice... The theorisation of the circumvention of armed struggle by Russian strategists is an offshoot of this.