The Russian Way of Deterrence
Strategic Culture, Coercion, and War
Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky



THIS BOOK IS ABOUT the Russian approach to coercion and the cultural factors that account for its unique features. Coercion is a form of geopolitical influence. Its aim is to prevent an opponent from engaging in unwanted behavior by threatening to use force, or by its limited employment. Coercion targets the adversarial strategic calculus. By communicating that the costs of a prospective action outweigh the expected benefits, it seeks to convince the adversary to do something against its will. This strategy has two subcategories. Coercing an actor from doing something is called deterrence. Coercing an actor to do or stop doing something is called compellence.

In each form of influence the mechanism is identical—imposing one’s strategic will on the adversary by the use of threat without resolving to massive use of force. Coercion rests on negative incentives, but it is a strategy of psychological influence, not physical domination. In international politics coercion is one of the main tools of statecraft, along with diplomacy and war. It is also a prominent scholarly concept in the academic world, where it features under the rubric of “deterrence theory.”

Deterrence theory was incepted during the first decade of the nuclear era. Since then it has turned into one of the key constructs of international security studies. Until recently, the scholarship implied that the principles of deterrence theory and policy are somewhat generic and universal. However, the more scholars have explored how different actors practice this strategy worldwide, the more they have come to realize that the concept of coercion (both deterrence and compellence) varies across strategic communities. Various international actors conceptualize and practice this strategy differently. The Russian case offers an excellent illustration of a unique approach to deterrence by a non-Western strategic community.

This book dubs the Russian theory and practice of coercion (both deterrence and compellence) as deterrence à la Russe. This choice of wording reflects the Russian tendency, evident until recently, to use the term deterrence as an umbrella reference to all forms of coercive influence. The book explores the evolution of deterrence à la Russe and its intellectual sources, novelties, strengths, weaknesses, and prospective avenues of development. It investigates how and why this concept differs from the Western practice of this strategy and outlines the implications of this singularity for the policy and theory of international security.

The intellectual histories of the Russian and Western approaches to deterrence differ. For various reasons, which this book discusses, Russian deterrence theory is almost five decades younger than its Western equivalent. However, since the Soviet collapse, Russian defense intellectuals and practitioners have not only bridged the knowledge gap with the Western scholarship on this subject, but have also developed a unique and innovative theory of coercion. The Russian conceptualizations seem to be at least as sophisticated as the Western community’s take on this matter. Russia is in good shape to deal with the psychological-cognitive dimensions of deterrence; it has demonstrated flexibility in merging different domains, and sophistication in its search for effective calibration of damage and in its effort to tailor its approach to the adversarial strategic culture.

Until the recent splash of interest, for most of the 2000s, Russian scholarship of deterrence left Western theoreticians and practitioners of this strategy somewhat behind. In the West, especially in the U.S., international security studies during the 1990s took what some call a vacation from military thought and strategy. As a result, up to the first decade of the twenty-first century, deterrence largely fell into disfavor in Western academic and defense circles. In the meantime, in Russia, deterrence theory was in full blossom. The new Russian “deterrence” converts have been storming the ivory tower of Western Cold War strategic theory and exploiting the Western intellectual hiatus to catch up. While Western deterrence theory has been in relative stagnation, and its practice has atrophied, the Russian experts have explored, internalized, critically emulated, and adopted certain constructs. Like the mythical Holy Grail, canonized deterrence theory has provided Russian experts with insights as regards two goals: to make better sense of adversarial strategic behavior, and to organize their own strategic behavior in the protracted political-military competition with the West.

Main Argument

This book compares and contrasts the Russian approach to deterrence with the Western conceptualization of this strategy. It argues that deterrence à la Russe has a much broader meaning than what Western experts have in mind when they use this term. In Russian parlance, it stands for employing threats, sometimes accompanied by limited use of force, to maintain the status quo, change it, shape the strategic environment within which the interaction occurs, prevent escalation, or de-escalate. Russian discourse uses the term to describe activities toward and during military conflict, and the usage of the term spans all phases of war. Also, deterrence à la Russe is not so much about rhetorical threats as it is about an action itself, concrete engagement of the competitor, which Russian experts see as a necessary condition for shaping a situation of coercion.

The official Russian term for the host of coercion activities in various operational domains is “strategic deterrence.” At least until recently, Russian strategic thought tended not to differentiate, as is customary in the West, between coercion, deterrence, and compellence. This is one of the book’s leitmotifs, and it matters in understanding Russian strategic behavior. The analysis in this book is guided by the argument regarding the peculiar Russian way of conceptualizing the relationship between deterrence, coercion, and compellence. The individual chapters integrate all three concepts rather than treat them separately.

What accounts for the difference between the Russian conceptualizations and the Western version of this strategy? Where does the sophistication of the Russian approach come from, especially considering that their research and development of this concept has been shorter than in the West? The main argument of this book is that cultural and ideational factors account for the peculiarities of the Russian approach. The singularities of deterrence à la Russe emanate from Russian strategic culture, national mentality, military customs, and intelligence traditions. The book demonstrates how the latter have been conditioning the former.

The book integrates the concept of coercion with the strategic culture framing, as the main lens to explain it. This nexus is the book’s main novelty. To explore the impact of cultural factors on the Russian approach to deterrence, this work leans on several bodies of literature and builds on the author’s previous efforts.1 It offers delta as compared to the author’s work and the state of the field. The basic facts about Russian strategic culture and military modernizations, the meta-themes of this book, which the author has been exploring elsewhere, have not changed. They therefore demand revisiting to promote the main argument.

The book itself, however, is a fresh analytical product. The author’s previous endeavors were mainly micro-oriented. They are the point of departure for the novel claims and the framing of the macro picture. The book adjusts, expands on, and widens the author’s earlier findings and supplements them with new empirical evidence, new linkages and contexts, and innovative theoretical explanations. The comprehensive analysis that the book offers has a synergetic effect—the new framework (i.e., cultural exploration of the Russian approach to coercion) is larger than the sum of its elements (i.e., an expanded earlier work with added, entirely new components).


Why does the Russian approach to deterrence matter for international security theory and policy? Strategic deterrence, or what this book calls deterrence à la Russe, lies at the heart of the current Russian art of strategy and is one of the main tools of statecraft in the Kremlin’s arsenal. Figuratively speaking, it occupies an intermediate position between classical war (i.e., use of massive brute force) and traditional diplomacy. Exploring the intellectual history of this concept and contrasting it with the equivalent tool in the West is not an arcane exercise, but a necessary condition for understanding the deep mechanics of this Russian stratagem.

Scholars and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic have been laggard in tracing the evolution of the Russian theory of deterrence, its conceptual apparatus and terminology. With few exceptions, Western observers often lack a suitable framework of analysis to grasp Russian strategic theory and its operational applications. If left unaddressed, this shortcoming may downgrade Western performance in the national security realm. Examining Russian conduct through what some Western experts see as the “universal logic of deterrence” and analyzing it using the terminological apparatus of Western strategic studies is at best unhelpful. At worst, it could result in mirror imaging, intelligence misdiagnosis, and misperceptions, leading to security dilemmas and inadvertent escalations. If investigated properly, however, it can enrich Western strategic thought and improve crisis behavior and military performance.

Theoretically, the book breaks new ground in three subdisciplines of international security studies. First, it contributes to the field of Russian area studies. The book is the first comprehensive intellectual history of the Russian approach to deterrence. It arranges the existing knowledge on the subject, offers novel findings pertaining to the unique mechanism of deterrence à la Russe, and makes it accessible to broad audiences. It merges state-of-the-art scholarship on various aspects of the Russian theory and practice of deterrence with Russian strategic culture literature to offer the first-ever discussion of the cultural sources of deterrence à la Russe. Scholars can apply this pioneering method to explore other fields of Russian strategic behavior.

Second, the book contributes to the field of international security studies. This is the first systematic effort to merge the literature on deterrence with works on strategic culture, and to utilize the latter to explain the former. As a rule, these two corpora of research have been kept apart in the security studies literature. The literature has employed strategic culture theory to better tailor deterrence programs to the object of influence. This book is among the first comprehensive efforts to do things the other way around—to employ a cultural lens to explain an actor’s proclivities when initiating a strategy of coercion. This novelty has potentially broad theoretical implications. The analytical framework that the book introduces aims to open a new avenue of research. Scholars of international security studies can replicate and apply the propositions, research design, and method that this book offers to other empirical cases of coercion.

Finally, this is a trailblazing effort in all three subdisciplines of international security studies (i.e., deterrence, strategic culture, and area studies) to compare and contrast, through a cultural lens, the Russian approach to deterrence to Western strategic theory.


The main argument about the nexus between strategic culture and the Russian approach to coercion in the nuclear, conventional, and informational realms knits together the individual chapters. The book sets out to outline the intellectual history of deterrence à la Russe and then offer cultural explanations for its traits.

Following this Introduction, the book proceeds as follows: Chapter One introduces the reader to the strategic culture scholarship and deterrence terminology—two key theoretical concepts that frame the book’s analysis.

Chapter Two presents the genealogy of deterrence à la Russe from Soviet times to the present. It analyzes the various realms of deterrence as well as their cross-domain integration, highlighting the unique characteristics that distinguish deterrence à la Russe from the non-Russian, mainly Western approach to this strategy.

Chapter Three explores Russian strategic culture. It traces the peculiarities of deterrence à la Russe to unique cultural, ideational, and historical factors pertaining to the Russian style of strategy and military tradition.

Chapter Four critically discusses deterrence à la Russe and hypothesizes about the main challenges, which Russian practitioners of this strategy have been facing.

Chapter Five identifies the unknowns pertaining to deterrence à la Russe, merges them with the preliminary evidence from the war in Ukraine, and outlines the avenues of future research. The Conclusion summarizes the findings.

A note on terminology is due. Terminological discipline is necessary to study any foreign sphere of strategic activity where the object of analysis, in this case Russia, possesses its own professional vocabulary. This is not a casuistic, but a way to understand the otherness of a strategic other and avoid mirror imaging. Russian and Western experts often mean different things when using the same terms and use different terms to refer to the same things when discussing deterrence. Moreover, even Russian sources differ among themselves. This book sticks to Russian jargon as much as possible. It explicitly mentions when it uses the English terminology and when it introduces its own terms in order to better grasp the Russian concepts. In keeping with this approach, the book uses the non-Russian term “cross-domain coercion” in order to explain and discuss the Russian term “strategic deterrence” and make it accessible to non-Russian audiences.

A note on the sources is also due. The book explores the genealogy of Russian strategic thought and the intellectual climate within which it evolved. The analysis draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Russian authors are affiliated with the establishment to varying degrees and come from different, often competing organizations within and beyond the Russian strategic community. The book seeks to represent this intellectual edifice in its entirety. It covers doctrinal and theoretical debates and competing schools of thought, comprised of active-duty or retired officers and officials, defense intellectuals, and experts from Russian academia and the think-tank industry. The book specifies who is writing what, and the extent to which the writings reflect formal doctrine, policy plans, and strategy.

A note on the analytical approach: the book also pays attention to disconnects between theory and practice—a recurring trait in Russian strategic tradition. Russian holistic theories, as the book demonstrates, do not always cover everything adequately, and often mix descriptive and aspirational arguments. The book seeks to represent the Russian discourse as a coherent whole, but also highlights its internal incoherence.

Deterrence à la Russe, like any other strategic theory, is constantly evolving. Deterrence as a subject of study is not a passing fashion but one of the main themes in the Russian international security discipline. In this regard, the Russian expert community is far-flung and vibrant. In the foreseeable future, this milieu is more likely than not to double down on its efforts to refine this tool of strategy and open new avenues of exploration. For Russia watchers in the West, then, it is essential to systematize knowledge about deterrence à la Russe and closely follow its evolution. This book does exactly that, but it certainly is not the conclusive statement on the matter. Rather, it delves into the intellectual history of the concept and outlines a prospective research program.

The book was completed and went into production several months prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of this writing, the war continues to unfold and the big picture is still emerging. Until the initial fog of war fades away, probably after the first cessation of massive fighting, any conclusions are premature. The chapter outlining the known unknowns and the future avenues of research offers some preliminary insights pertaining to Russian coercion prior to and during the war. However, the book’s main contribution lies in providing the framework for a systemic examination of the Russian approach, once sufficient data has been accumulated from the battlefields of Ukraine. The book describes the genealogy of the Russian approach to coercion and highlights the cultural, ideational, and historical factors that have shaped it. This intellectual history makes it possible to understand the sources and style of the Kremlin’s prewar and intrawar coercive conduct in Ukraine and to examine the prospective evolution of theory and practice of deterrence à la Russe.


1. For the author’s earlier efforts to explore the impact of cultural factors on strategic behavior in Russia and elsewhere, see Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US and Israel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy,” Paris, IFRI, 2015; “From Israel with Deterrence: Strategic Culture, Intra-war Coercion and Brute Force,” Security Studies 26, no. 1 (2017); “From Moscow with Coercion: Russian Deterrence Theory and Strategic Culture,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, no. 1 (2018); “Russian Campaign in Syria: Change and Continuity in Strategic Culture,” Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 1 (2020).