Development / Politics

Russia’s strategic culture or What are the odds of anything happening?

 Russia’s strategic culture 

Or: What are the odds of anything happening?

Eastern Europe has been the center of attention on security for 15 months. Since events in Ukraine started unfolding rapidly and tensions began rising between Russia and NATO, not to mention diplomatic ties being shaken with the European Union, more publications started speculating on the effects that such a domino might have on our future security. In this regard, the area known as the Eastern border of the EU and NATO came alarmingly into focus.

NATO and the EU have responded with diplomatic and economic sanctions to Russia’s ambivalent behavior, in a series of events that surely gave some sleepless nights to state officials and diplomats alike.

All diplomatic and military preparedness has been put to the test, which is actually not bad considering what could or could have happened, and each institution acted as it was supposed to, technically, but why did this series of events take everyone by such surprise? Have the measures taken solved any of the difficulties raised by the ongoing situation? Would major European institutions be prepared to handle an escalation? And so forth.

What’s most interesting here is that we, as Europeans, have been neighbours with Russia since our very beginning, sometimes collaborating, at other times with frictions, yet somehow the unraveling of these events exceeded expectations. The questions posed above serve to challenge the adequacy of NATO and EU’s reaction to its neighbour’s actions. From the very beginning Russia was seen as a threat, a relic of the former Soviet Union experience some might argue, or perhaps it was an attitude fueled by the relative recent stability of Russia’s democracy. Whichever the reason in the end, it seems like Russia knew Europe better than we know it, or ourselves, enabling it to play out the political game with the upper hand.

Recent years have witnessed the concept of strategic culture coming to light more and more, a bit at a time, and even transcending its conceptual state into an instrumental one to measure a state’s behavior. Strategic culture is not yet defined entirely and it’s a work in progress but it has been indeed coined in the ‘70s by Jack Snyder in a report in which he wrote about what factors can come into play in influencing a Russia’s strategic behavior and decision making regarding its nuclear strategy.[1] Since then Colin Gray has also taken on the subject, as well as Alistair Iain Johnston, and other scholars, trying to define it and its elements.

Since the idea of strategy is quite well pinned down, while term ‘culture’ remains not completely defined, and many authors take into account different interpretations of it and of its components to be then taken into consideration in strategic studies, but the most used in sociology is the definition given by Ann Swidler, who describes culture as a tool or set of tools with which we interpret the realities that surround us.[2] This should shed some light over the matter.

Taking an overview on existing analysis, several variables of strategic culture seem to be repeating, ranging from external to internal issues, from trans-national to international. An account of these sources would be of physical sources, comprising technology, geography, climate, natural resources, then political sources such as ideology, organization and historical experience, and social sources which are found in myths. This is just to show how complex a country’s own perception about oneself is and how understanding if a country or international actor is friend or foe can prove to be a daunting task especially nowadays.[3]

By analyzing said features one may be able to determine a finer outline of the possible behavior of another country. Indeed Russia’s in particular was considered an inspiration of this string of thought, since the first writing mentioning the concept was Jack Snyder’s. Subsequent authors have drawn insights by taking one variable at a time, with no definite conclusion, beyond that Russian behavior could have largely been influenced by its greater need for security. This derived from its open geographical borders, vast landmass, its political formation and consistency. Henrikki Haiekka, a Finnish researcher, pinpoints two major strategic approaches to attitudes towards confrontation: a hard-line offensive one and a defensive one. [4]

From this perspective, international actors’ behavior leans more towards a human character with its surroundings, environment and past interactions influencing its decision, and this is in line also with the new trend in international relations theory – constructivism, which in short explains that relations between global actors are socially constructed rather than based on fear of the other. There is a need for interaction that remains stronger than suspicion and a tendency to safeguard what has been built so far. [5]

There are no concrete answers to the questions asked above. The concept or even instrument of strategic culture – scarcely researched and vaguely defined, according to authors who have explored it so far, and ever so volatile because of its mostly unquantifiable variables – sheds fresh light on how those questions can be answered. This would be an invitation for debate and a call to try a different approach to what seems to be a stalemate situation regarding the current situation with which the EU and NATO are confronted at their Eastern border.


Oana Ria Nasaudeanu is an MA student of Security and Diplomacy at the National School for Administrative and Political Studies in Bucharest. She is also a co-founder of Intercultura, a Romanian-based NGO

[1] Jack Snyder, “The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations”, Sept. 1977, analysis for The Rand Corporation, USA, pp.1-5 , available at

[2] Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” in American Sociological Review no.51, 1986, pp.278-280

[3] Fritz W. Ermarth, “Russian Strategic Culture: past, present and…in transition?” prepared for Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S., 2006, available at

[4] Henrikki Heikka, “The Revolution of Russian Grand Strategy: Implications for Europe’s North”, working paper at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki, Finland, 2000

[5] Alain Bloomfield, “Time to Move On: Reconceptualizing the Strategic Culture Debate” in Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.33, No.3, 2012, pp.437-461


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