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If Europe is from Venus, then Russia is from Mars


In 2003 American scholar Robert Kagan wrote an essay titled “Of Paradise and Power,” which was supposed to reveal the mounting discrepancies between Europe and the United States. The publication, primarily known for its infamous comparison that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” ironically depicted the features of a European approach to solving problems. Kagan writes:

Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others subtly and indirectly. They are more patient when solutions do not come quickly. They generally favor peaceful responses to problems. They are quicker to appeal to international law, international conventions and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance.

Despite an obvious exaggeration and oversimplification that this description offers, it contains a grain of truth. Twelve years later, European policy that is being made in regards to the Russian aggression toward Ukraine is based on the same premise: There is no military solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Wakeup call

There is a missing element in Robert Kagan’s essay: Russia. For those who wonder why I recommend the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy, which provides a background to the strategic climate that dominated Washington, D.C. after Sept. 11, 2001, it reads as follows: “Russia’s top leaders have a realistic assessment of their country’s current weakness and the policies – internal and external – needed to reverse those weaknesses. They understand, increasingly, that Cold War approaches do not serve their national interests and that Russian and American strategic interests overlap in many areas.”

Interestingly enough, Russia – a world power which back then just brought the Second Chechen War to an end – was perceived neither as a likely rival nor a long-term threat. In practice, Russia has never renounced its “Martian” citizenship which was founded on direct and clandestine military interventions in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, challenging evolution of the military doctrine and modernization of its armed forces. There is no doubt that if Europe is from Venus, then Russia definitely is from Mars.

For many in the West, the Russia-Ukraine war has become a wake-up call and a strategic long-term game changer. Russia invaded, occupied and annexed Crimea – a portion of the sovereign territory of Ukraine – where it has systematically persecuted ethnic minorities and others who oppose the occupation. It has provided a considerable amount of weapons, materiel, trained personnel and financial support to armed separatists operating in eastern Ukraine, where it instigated a conflict that is still raging until today. Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. Until now the war has left more than 6,000 dead and nearly 1.4 million displaced. Why did this war come as a surprise to so many?

Since 1989 – the year Soviet troops experienced a major defeat in a decade-long war in Afghanistan – Russia has directly taken part or indirectly fueled nine wars and conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, including: the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988–94), the South Ossetia war (1991–92), the Transnistria war (1992), the Abkhazia war (1992–93), the First Chechen War (1994–96), the Second Chechen War (1999–2000), the counter-terrorism operation in Northern Caucasus (2000–09; in practice still ongoing), the Russian-Georgian war (2008) and finally the Russia-Ukraine war (2014–present).

Russia’s understanding of the use of force has significantly evolved and matured in the last 25 years. In the beginning, it was still predominantly based on the old paradigm of industrial war which derived from a conflict between states and was based on the maneuvers of forces en masse and the support of a state’s manpower.

For Russia, the basic premise of industrial war — the sequence peace-crisis-war-resolution — became strategically, militarily and financially unattainable in the last decade of the 20th century. Over time, decision-makers in Moscow understood that only a new paradigm – which in military strategy is often described as war among the people – could become a long-term cure allowing Russia’s hegemonic vision to remain sustainable. Those nine wars and conflicts have at least one common feature: They all are based on the concept of a continuous crisscrossing between confrontation and conflict. Indeed, in those cases there is no predefined sequence of war and peace. Peace is often neither its starting nor ending point.

Therefore, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus are marked with protracted conflicts which, as defined by British General Rupert Smith in his book The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern War, could be characterized by six major trends.

First, one fights for other ends than in the past and therefore the goals of war go beyond clearly measurable objectives. Second, the conflicts become timeless, since one starts to seek a condition which must be maintained until an agreement on a definitive outcome is reached. Third, many conflicts have been fought in a way not to lose force, as opposite to the fighting by using force at any cost to achieve the goal. Fourth, on many occasions new applications are found for old weapons. In fact, the Russian model of hybrid warfare constitutes a perfect exemplification of this process. Fifth, the two warring sides mostly are (or in many cases pretend to be) non-state actors. Finally, one fights among the people, a fact currently amplified by the central role of the media in every conflict zone.

These six trends reveal a new reality of war, known to and exploited by the Russians, which no longer consists of a single massive event of military decision that delivers a conclusive political result.

Military doctrine

The character of war cannot be fully understood without a proper doctrinal basis. The state’s military doctrine possesses a normative quality that should be binding on relevant state agencies. Doctrine is supposed to represent an official view about the character of contemporary war, the threats as well as what policies the government and the armed forces will implement to confront those dangers and challenges.

In Russian military tradition, doctrine plays a particularly important role. Russia’s military doctrine has always been more abstract and has had more politics than its western equivalents. As a result, the Russian military doctrine is strongly associated with a political-strategic aspect.

This distinctive connection is evident in the country’s most recent military doctrine, which was signed by Vladimir Putin in December 2014. Bearing in mind the current state of international affairs, especially the Russia-Ukraine war and the West’s response to it, it comes as no surprise that three main issues listed as threats for Russia are related. These are: NATO (i.e., its enhancement of capabilities, global reach and enlargement, which brings NATO’s infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders), the U.S. (i.e., ballistic missile defense, strategic non-nuclear systems), and Ukraine (i.e., the toppling of a legitimate government and subsequent imposition of a regime hostile to Russian interests). Moreover, Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea gave a new urgency to emphasizing the threats to territorial integrity and foreign claims to parts of Russia outlined in the doctrine.

To gain insight into Russia’s security policy, a thorough analysis of the development of the Russian military doctrine is essential. The first attempt to formalize Russia’s military doctrine following the collapse of the Soviet Union came in 1993. The underlying principles of this document reflected the need to resolve internal political, economic and social problems and thereby maintain domestic and international political stability while Russia consolidated itself. As such, it was the first iteration of a territorially defensive, as opposed to an expansionist strategy — a theme that would become prominent in later revisions of the doctrine in 2000, 2010 and 2014.

During the 1990s, Russia’s political and military leadership realized that the security apparatus would be increasingly exposed to domestic and regional armed conflicts. This shift from global to internal conflicts was also reflected in changes in the perception of the use of military force. The emphasis changed from external large-scale warfare, or industrial war, to operations within the Commonwealth of Independent States and joint operations of the Russian armed forces in internal conflicts, or a war among the people.

In April 2000 Putin signed a new military doctrine that extended the list of factors destabilizing Russia. It underlined that a suppression of the rights of Russian citizens abroad is a threat to national security, as well as the threats emanating from extremist national-ethnic and religious separatism, the weakening of existing mechanisms of international security, and the unlawful application of military force under the pretext of “humanitarian intervention.” Other Russian concerns included NATO’s Strategic Concept of 1999 and the Alliance’s enlargement with new member states in the east. The doctrine also rejected a leading role for any institution in international politics other than the United Nations Security Council.

Finally, the document permitted the use of nuclear weapons to counter aggression. It allowed for the use of nuclear arms to repel a conventional attack as well, under certain, yet not specified, critical circumstances for national security. (By comparison, Soviet doctrine had reserved nuclear weapons for use only in retaliation for a nuclear attack.) This new Russian stance was not unexpected. The ongoing decline in conventional strength had to be compensated with emphasis on the nuclear deterrent.

When it was signed into law in February 2010, the doctrine lowered the nuclear threshold even further by introducing an undercover provision on the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons. Russia retained the right to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack by weapons of mass destruction against itself or against its allies, but also against an attack with conventional weapons when the very existence of the state was under threat.

Moreover, together with a build-up of foreign troops on territories of states contiguous with Russia and its allies, a desire to endow NATO’s force potential with global functions and to move its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders, were perceived as the main external military threats. Yet, Moscow needed such an adversary perception to justify some crucial aspects of its foreign and security policy, especially a forceful protection of Russians abroad, which included an operational use of force outside Russia’s borders.

In other words, the Russia-Ukraine conflict could come as a surprise only to those who turned a blind eye to the development of Russia’s military doctrine.


The military remains a key pillar of Russia’s foreign policy. The armed forces have suffered years of neglect after the Soviet collapse, but still cast a shadow of global power. In fact, the Russian military is in the midst of a historic overhaul with significant consequences for Eurasian politics and security.

In 2008 Russia’s then-defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov launched a long-term colossal project of comprehensive military reforms, whose objectives his successor, Sergey Shoygu, has also upheld since his November 2012 appointment. The Russian armed forces have already accomplished the organizational transition from mass mobilization army to a modern combat force.

According to strategic documents, the reforms were necessary to bring a Cold War-era military into the 21st century. However, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has only confirmed that the armed forces will enable Moscow to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy relying on force to coerce its weaker neighbors. Russia achieves this goal by permanently stationing its troops in the region: in Armenia (3,300), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (over 7,000), Transnistria (1,500), Kyrgyzstan (500), Tajikistan (6,000) and Crimea (20,000).

The structural reorganization of the armed forces started with a replacement of the cumbersome divisions – intended for an industrial war – by smaller more rapidly deployable brigades. Moreover, the military command structure has been thoroughly revamped enabling joint operations. In a second step, new structures have been systematically tested and practiced. In fact, this was one of the main focuses of the military activities in 2013 and 2014. In addition to the scheduled exercises of the normal training cycle, the Russian defense ministry concentrated in particular on a series of unscheduled, snap, large-scale drills. These included three of the largest maneuvers of the post-Soviet era.

The success of any reform project, however, largely depends on sufficient financial resources. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Russian military budget equaled $31.1 billion in 2000. In 2013 it amounted to $84.8 billion – an astonishing 272 percent increase. In 2015 the Russian military spending is set to grow by another 33 percent, which will lead to Russia’s highest defense budget ever, roughly 4.2 percent of its GDP.

Alongside the structural and budgetary changes, upgrading equipment has been another core element of Russia’s military reforms. In 2008 only 10 percent of weapons systems satisfied modern standards; that share is on track to increase to 70 percent by 2020. By then, Russia foresees a massive acquisition program, which includes: 600 aircrafts, 1,100 helicopters, approximately 100 vessels (comprising 25 corvettes, 15 frigates and 24 submarines), 2,300 tanks, 2,000 artillery pieces, 120 Iskander-M launchers, and new air defense units (approximately 400 S-400 Triumph and 100 S-500 Triumphator-M systems).

Setting priorities

In March 2015 Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, ignited a fierce debate about the role of the EU in deterring Russia’s aggressive foreign and security policy. He proposed that the EU establish an army which, according to him, would convey a clear message to Russia that Europe is serious about defending its values.

In reality this proposal again symbolizes how European elites are, indeed, from Venus. The idea of an EU-wide army – which has been floated since 1950 when the French Prime Minister René Pleven proposed the establishment of a European Defense Community – cannot be treated as a silver bullet to the challenges of European security. In practical terms, an EU army would duplicate and potentially weaken the existing NATO structures and would require a fundamental reshaping of the political decision-making processes, which is hardly imaginable in the current state of EU affairs.

Nevertheless, Russia’s belligerent foreign policy, which relies on military power, offers a chance to set the priorities in the EU and to anchor its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) in a broader set of policies and instruments to confront the Russian challenge. In this context, three recommendations for Europe emerge.

First, the EU should improve its strategic and practical cooperation with NATO. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has confirmed that the Alliance will remain the principal vehicle of transatlantic military strength and a primary source of long-term measures countering Russia’s military threats.

Since the September 2014 Summit in Wales, NATO has been implementing the Readiness Action Plan, which provides a comprehensive package of instruments to respond to the changes in the security environment in and near Europe. The two pillars of the Readiness Action Plan, the assurance and adaptation measures, include the continuous air, land and maritime presence in the eastern part of the Alliance on a rotational basis as well as an enhancement of NATO’s military posture and readiness levels. Given the fact that the Alliance’s plan is already more concrete and robust, the EU and NATO should search for additional synergies as they have no interest in accommodating a revisionist power in their eastern neighborhood. That is why both the EU and NATO should aim at orchestrating their response to Russian hybrid warfare model, through a combination of predominantly military and non-military components. Enhanced strategic communications, coordinated exercises and prioritizing cybersecurity could constitute a starting point.

Second, the EU member states should renew their financial commitment to defense. Between 1985 and 1989 Western European states spent on average 3.1 percent of their GDP on their armed forces. Data contained in “The Military Balance 2014” indicate that Europe collectively now spends only about 1.4 percent of GDP on defense. This is the second lowest proportion of GDP in the world invested by a region in military. (Only Latin America spends appreciably less as a proportion of GDP.)

Yet, mistakes should not be made: The world will neither be safer, nor more just, if Europe disarms. On the contrary, future generations of European citizens would likely face an international environment less amenable to both their socio-economic and security needs. The EU should not exclude a creation of a defense pledge on its own. In fact, it could be based on an innovative formula going beyond a single indicator based on a GDP target.

Finally, the EU should remain operationally engaged. Missions and operations are a powerhouse of the CSDP. The EU should continue to focus its security efforts on its neighborhood, yet, rebalance the operational presence and boost its engagement in Eastern Europe. Currently, there are only three ongoing EU missions on the eastern flank. To put that into context, the EU presently conducts eight civilian missions and four military operations in Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (since 2005), the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (since 2008) and the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine (since 2014) should be perceived only as an overture to a larger European operational presence in Eastern Europe.

If Europe chooses to remain an inhabitant of Venus, it should not implicitly believe that every conflict can be solved by peaceful means. Zealots more easily lose sight of the big picture. Europe cannot forget that freedom is not static, nor is it necessarily benign. In practice, freedom constantly evolves and in doing so generates new requirements and abolishes old constraints. Ironically, the Russia-Ukraine conflict may yet prove to be the source of Europe’s salvation.

This article was originally published by “New Eastern Europe“.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.



Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.