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Russia’s new military doctrine: Is the reset over?

Jakub Kulhánek Jakub Kulhánek / Ed. 15. 2. 2016

On February 5, ten years after then president Vladimir Putin introduced the overview of security threats and guiding principles for the Russian Armed Forces, President Dmitry Medvedev finally approved Russia’s new military doctrine. How significant is the new document? The new doctrine suggests that the Kremlin envisages a more assertive role for its armed forces abroad. The doctrine states that Russia “considers it legitimate” to use its armed forces to repel aggression against its territory or its allies and to “to protect Russian citizens abroad”. The key word here is “legitimate,” as it indicates Russia’s continued effort to justify its intervention in Georgia in 2008. Thus the doctrine is in line with the amendments to the Law on Defense adopted in November 2009 that essentially expanded a set of circumstances under which the Russian troops might be dispatched abroad.

The doctrine says that military threats to Russia and its allies result from NATO’s quest for global dominance and its alleged aspirations to become a world policeman. Similarly, Moscow strongly objects to Washington’s plans to create an anti-missile shield that “undermine strategic stability” as well as Western troop deployments in the post-Soviet space. This is a warning towards NATO as much as to Georgia, Ukraine and other Russia’s neighbors. Additionally, Russia sends a clear message to the states of Central and Eastern Europe, who take part in the American missile defense initiative. This is interpreted by Moscow as a clear and present danger to its security. As far as NATO is concerned, the document is a testament to the schizophrenic nature of Russian foreign and security policy since a couple of lines below the doctrine calls for deepening ties with both the EU and NATO. Thus, both certain conservative elements in the Russian leadership and a large part of the public continue to see the country as a besieged fortress. According to this view the former Soviet republics belong to Russia’s sphere of dominance and any sign of “outside” meddling in the region should be opposed.

Finally, the unveiling of the new doctrine marks an intriguing moment in the evolution of Russian views on the use of nuclear weapons. In October 2009 General Patrushev, Head of the Russia’s Security Council, announced that a draft doctrine might lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, such as in local conflicts. Quite probably Patrushev’s insinuations were an attempt to legalize and codify actual plans of the Russian nuclear forces. Back then, Patrushev’s statements caused quite a stir. With the new doctrine, however, it is quite possibly that the Kremlin might have preferred to dissociate itself from straightforward presentation of Russian nuclear policy. Hence, the new doctrine states only that: “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack against its territory and its allies or in case of an aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons if the very existence of the state is at stake”. At the first glance, it looks like an outright rejection of Patrushev’s statements. Interestingly enough, however, the more elaborate document dealing with Russia’s nuclear doctrine approved by President Medvedev, the Principles of State Nuclear Deterrence Policy until 2020 remains secret. This might mean that Russia’s true views on the utility of nuclear weopons may be different than those outlined in the document available for the general public.

The new Russian doctrine was introduced at the moment when Russia’s relations with the US and West are in for some hard times. Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security architecture has little hope to succeed since not only Washington but also some other Western capitals oppose it. In the meantime, Washington is planning to deploy anti-aircraft Patriot missiles in Poland. Romania will probably be a country of choice for interceptor stationing as part of Obama’s new much scaled-down missile defense in Europe. Moscow, seeing all this through its typical lenses of megalomania merged with paranoia, will only perceive this as a further indication of the Western intransigency and general disregard for its interests. The more information emerges about plans for new missile defenses in Europe, the more likely it is that Russia will mount a diplomatic offensive on all fronts. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov already expressed bewilderment at the location of the Patriot missiles while a number of Russian officials have made it clear in no uncertain terms that they are opposed to the idea of the American missile base in Romania. Therefore, the promises of the “reset” may turn out in vain and the return to the ‘cold peace’ of the pre-Obama years may return. Certainly that seems to be what the hawks in the Russian power structure, whose ideas find a fertile ground in the new military doctrine, hope to achieve.

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