Sources of the Russian Military’s Ukraine Strategy: From Kosovo to Kyiv
By: Brian Lessenberry
Russian president Vladimir Putin has forcefully asserted that NATO’s intervention in Kosovo established the politico-legal precedent for Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine. While there are ample grounds for questioning this comparison, it is clear the Kosovo conflict has profoundly influenced Russian military doctrine and tactics in Ukraine.
As noted by CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman, the NATO air campaign in Kosovo demonstrated the use of precision-guided munitions on an unprecedented scale. These weapons gave the alliance unmatched freedom of action and highlighted the relative weakness of Russia’s military at the time. This led to three changes in Russian doctrine that have informed Moscow’s actions relative to Ukraine.
First, the disparity in NATO and Russian capabilities triggered a major military modernization program. As described by Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian Foreign Ministry official, Kosovo was a game changer that led to the development of a broad range of “modern” weapons systems including short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Russian officials have acknowledged the forward deployment of one such system—the Iskander SRBM—amid the current tensions.
Second, NATO’s conventional superiority prompted Russian strategists to renew their focus on nonmilitary means of war. Russian doctrinal statements increasingly emphasized indirect and nontraditional warfare and called for “the utilization of political, diplomatic, legal, economic, environmental, informational, military, and other instruments for the protection of [Russian] national interests.” Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, replete with disinformation and “little green men,” has shown these nontraditional tactics in action.
Third, Russia revised its nuclear doctrine. As explained by Sokov and others, Moscow lowered its nuclear use threshold after Kosovo to permit limited nuclear strikes in response to large-scale conventional attacks near its borders. While Putin’s August 2014 comments about Russian nuclear prowess may seem excessive in the Ukranian context, they are consistent with a deterrent posture that seeks to prevent Kosovo-style conflicts in the Russian near abroad.
It would be wrong to describe Russian doctrine and tactics in Ukraine as a reaction to Kosovo alone. To be sure, other factors—including the Chechen and Georgian conflicts—have influenced Moscow’s strategy. Kosovo does, nevertheless, appear to have catalyzed important changes in Russian thinking that are evident in Ukraine today.