Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code, written by Graeme P. Herd

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
Keith Prushankin Freie Universität Berlin Berlin Germany

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Graeme P. Herd, Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code. Contemporary Security Studies (London: Taylor and Francis, 2022). Pp. 262. £34.99 (Paperback). ISBN: 978-0-42-926198-5.

In his 2022 book Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code, Graeme P. Herd asks whether the West has ‘a Putin problem or a Russia problem’? (207). Herd’s answer is both. Russia created Vladimir Putin, and Putin in turn has created Russia’s imperial-strategic and operational code. Russia’s interest-based approach to geopolitical strategy cannot be understood through the lens of the West’s rules- and values-based approach but must be viewed through the web of historical and cultural influences from Tsarist times to the troop build-up immediately preceding the invasion of Ukraine. Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior offers a sweeping historical perspective while deriving currently applicable lessons critical to the understanding of students and practitioners of Russian relations. Conceptualising contemporary Russian strategic culture as a continuous evolution of identity, values and threat perception, Herd shows a state trapped in its own past, constrained by the traumas, paranoia and grandiose dreams of its bygone eras.

In Chapter 1, Herd describes the threads of continuity linking Tsarist, Soviet and Putinist geopolitical strategy, identifying autocratic mechanisms of decision-making that lead to the centralised formulation and execution of policy. Chapter 2 explores the concept of strategic culture, which Herd suggests is the product of an unending quest for great power status and security through control of its borderlands. These factors have constituted lasting objectives of the Russian state, as well as justifications for the centralisation of power through informal networks at the expense of the meaningful development of individual rights. The besieged fortress mentality, Herd argues, enables Russia to justify its civilisational position and the extraordinary measures undertaken in its defence. Chapter 3 challenges cyclical interpretations of Russian history while presenting the dilemma faced by Russian leaders since the Tsarist age of balancing between modernisation and its inherent risk of instability. Chapter 4 identifies commonalities between Putin and his Soviet predecessors, noting the influence of the cult of personality, economic stagnation and the security elite coupled with patriotic mobilisation and a heightened threat perception on the regime’s strategic calculus. Unlike Marxism-Leninism, Putinism lacks a bright future to mobilise the population. Putinism is retentionist, relying on the security services’ control of political and economic activity and personalistic loyalty to Putin to ensure regime survival.

Chapter 5 develops a conception of Putin’s Russia as a ‘hybrid state’, in which an unofficial network operates alongside the formal organs of state in a symbiotic relationship with the president, creating structural dependencies among the various networks using ‘unwritten rule chains’ to influence and ultimately control the information Putin receives (125). Chapter 6 delves deeper into these decision-making processes, showing them as operational outcomes of both historical conditioning and Putin’s personal conditioning. Internal stability and external unpredictability allow Russia to obtain strategic advantage over adversaries, while tactical ambiguity enables Putin to pursue no-lose scenarios, minimising risk for higher gains. Herd devotes Chapter 7 to strategic methodology, namely hedging and power projection in global hotspots in which Russia affects a posture as a neutral intermediary to justify its role as a great power. Chapter 8 assesses different scenarios of power transition from the continuation of Putin in power, to his use as a figurehead, to liberalisation. The book concludes with an examination of the paradoxes of Putin’s leadership — the ‘time bombs’ planted in the system. Russia’s strategic culture, predicts Herd, will cause it to struggle for a multipolar order to stabilise itself through its besieged fortress narrative. Internal stability and external unpredictability are Russia’s trump cards, and acquiescence to the West’s predictable international order will continue to represent an unacceptable concession. Herd ultimately predicts that the regime’s inability to achieve genuine legitimacy will be its downfall, an outcome he predicts will occur in the next decade.

Herd offers a compelling, historically based argument for Russia’s geostrategic mindset. The work is not a ground-breaking reinterpretation of Russian strategic behaviour as it utilises the historically conditioned interpretation of Russian behaviour from George Kennan’s The Sources of Soviet Conduct, but this does not detract from its impressive breadth of historical and contemporary analysis. Using the past to predict the future is fraught with the risk of oversimplification. Putin’s Russia is not the USSR or the Russian Empire, and it is important to remember that even in the early days of his presidency, Putin sought further integration with the West. Throughout the book, Herd relies on the concept of ‘the collective Putin’ to enrich his analysis by indicating the networks around the president that manage and maintain the regime, creating an image of a state more complex than the popular image of it as having a single omnipotent ruler. Using Herd’s historical conditioning argument, his interpretation is insufficiently proven. The experience of autocrats from the Tsars to Stalin suggest that history conditions Russia to accept the rule of an all-powerful individual capable of organising and utilising willing henchmen who ultimately serve at their pleasure. The ‘collective Putin’ is therefore similar to Stalin’s security apparatus: individuals with powerful mandates serving at the mercy of an all-powerful vozhd. Control over the flow of information is not control over the individual, but rather influence. Ultimately, Putin is in charge, and the siloviki owe their positions to him. The argument for the ‘collective Putin’ could have been strengthened with a deeper investigation into those individuals Herd argues compose it, tracing their influence on Putin and their ability to take independent action.

Similarly, the book does not sufficiently consider the impact of the increasing availability of information and the attraction of higher standards of living to the population. While the Tsarist and Soviet populations lived in fairly closed societies, modern Russians are aware of the material comforts once in reach and now increasingly denied to them. Economic discontent is a powerful catalyst for political change, and Russian history does not offer an example of an economy under crippling international sanctions to predict a popular reaction. Herd’s relegation of the role of the Russian people to passive observers is a similar flaw of the book. Approaching this on Herd’s own terms, Russian history offers powerful examples of popular discontent forcing political concessions. The book could have been further strengthened through a discussion of the agency of the Russian people and their potential role in the regime’s future.

Recent events necessitate the book’s recognition as a rational-strategic explanation rather than a predictive description of Russia’s wartime performance. Written from a pre-war perspective, the book presents a compelling picture of Russia as capable of challenging NATO in a contest of arms. Herd naturally did not have the benefit of foresight, but Russia’s mismanagement of the war demands a new perspective on the immediacy of its ability to ‘reach Kyiv … in 2 days’ (7). Considering that the book was published roughly a month before the outbreak of the war, this does not detract from the book’s strong historical perspective.

As a contribution to diplomatic studies, Understanding Russian Strategic Behavior takes readers into the black box of the Russian state to reveal the behaviours, responses and ideas that influence its strategic thinking. It is a well-argued and historically rich reminder that state behaviour is the sum of many complex parts over a vast time horizon. Herd’s discussion of Russian strategic methodology is especially enriching, constituting an updated manual for understanding Russia’s diplomatic and foreign policy calculations. These lessons are timelier than ever. Practitioners and scholars alike should take heed that for both Putin and his country, ‘besiegement, encirclement and containment become performance indicators: the worse the situation the better’ (10). Herd’s work demonstrates that this is not an accident of fate, but a product of Russia’s hopeful, painful history.

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