Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power

The basic conflict of interest between Russia and the West means that the West must either invest heavily and for the long term in deterring Russia or abandon the front-line states together with the defence of Western values, writes Keir Giles.

Research paper Published 21 March 2016 Updated 18 May 2023
Vladimir Putin visits the English-language service of Russia Today, now renamed RT. Photo: Getty Images.

Vladimir Putin visits the English-language service of Russia Today, now renamed RT. Photo: Getty Images.


  • In the last two years, Russia has demonstrated its return to an assertive foreign policy by successful military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. The capabilities it employed to do so surprised the West, despite being well advertised in advance and their development described in detail by the Russia-watching community in Western nations.
  • The distinctive Russian approach to operations in Ukraine gave rise to an impression among some observers that its military had employed fundamentally new concepts of armed conflict. The widespread adoption of phrases such as ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘Gerasimov doctrine’ reinforced this perception of novelty, and was indicative of a search for ways to conceptualize – and make sense of – a Russian approach to conflict that the West found at first sight unfamiliar.
  • Nevertheless, the techniques and methods displayed by Russia in Ukraine have roots in traditional Soviet approaches. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s military academics have displayed an unbroken and consistently developing train of thought on the changing nature of conflict and how to prevail in it, including – but certainly not limited to – the successful application of military power. As a result, despite modern technological enablers, Russia’s intentions and actions throughout the Ukraine conflict have been recognizable from previous decades of study of the threat to the West from the Soviet Union. Today, as in the past, Western planners and policy-makers must consider and plan not only for the potential threat of military attack by Russia, but also for the actual threat of Moscow’s ongoing subversion, destabilization and ‘active measures’.
  • Two specific tools for exercising Russian power demand close study: the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation; and the state’s capacity for information warfare. In both of these fields, Russia’s capabilities have developed rapidly in recent years to match its persistent intentions. The most visible demonstration of this has been the unprecedented near-total transformation of Russia’s armed forces since 2008. This transformation and the accompanying rearmament programme are continuing, and the Russian military is benefiting from ongoing ‘training’ under real operational conditions in Ukraine and Syria.
  • Russia has now demonstrated both the capacity of its conventional military capabilities and willingness to use them. The trend of the past 10 years appears set to continue – the more Russia develops its conventional capability, the more confident and aggressive it will become. Despite the perception of Russian operations in eastern Ukraine as irregular warfare, it was a large-scale conventional military cross-border intervention in August 2014 that brought to a halt the previously successful Ukrainian government offensive, and stabilized the front line close to the one currently holding under the Minsk agreements.
  • This readiness to use military force will only have been heightened by the experience of campaigning in Syria from October 2015 onwards. The February 2016 Syrian ceasefire agreement, concluded on Russian terms, in particular confirms for Moscow once again that assertive military intervention is an effective means of achieving swift and positive foreign policy results.
  • Russia’s practice of information warfare has also developed rapidly, while still following key principles that can be traced to Soviet roots. This development has consisted of a series of adaptations following failed information campaigns by Russia, accompanied by successful adoption of the internet. Misconceptions about the nature of Russian information campaigns, and how best to counter them, remain widespread – in particular the notion that successful countermeasures consist in rebutting obvious disinformation wherever possible. Russian disinformation campaigns continue to be described in the West as failing due to the implausibility of Russian narratives. But by applying Western notions of the nature and importance of truth, this approach measures these campaigns by entirely the wrong criteria, and fundamentally misunderstands their objectives.
  • Russia continues to present itself as being under approaching threat from the West, and is mobilizing to address that threat. Russia’s security initiatives, even if it views or presents them as defensive measures, are likely to have severe consequences for its neighbours. Russia’s growing confidence in pursuing its objectives will make it even harder for the West to protect itself against Russian assertiveness, without the implementation of measures to resist Russian information warfare, and without the availability of significant military force to act as an immediate and present deterrent in the front-line states.
  • In short, Russian military interventions and associated information warfare campaigns in the past two years have not been an anomaly. Instead they are examples of Russia implementing its long-standing intent to challenge the West now that it feels strong enough to do so. For Western governments and leaders, an essential first step towards more successful management of the relationship with Moscow would be to recognize that the West’s values and strategic interests and those of Russia are fundamentally incompatible.