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jams, vol. 14, no. 2

From the Editor

Nataliya Bugayova



I am honored to serve as the guest editor for the fall 2023 edition of the Journal of Advanced Military Studies (JAMS), dedicated to the topic of Russia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Ukraine. 

Russia launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago. In spite of the length of the conflict, the Kremlin has yet to achieve any of its objectives in this war, and the Russian Army is suffering damage that will take years to repair. With Western support, Ukrainian forces have liberated significant portions of Ukraine’s territory, reversed many of Russia’s gains, and have initiated counteroffensive operations. In spite of these advances, Ukraine still faces an existential requirement to liberate its people and territory. Russia's war has evolved through various stages, which are discussed in “Russia’s War in Ukraine: Two Decisive Factors,” by Gilbert W. Merkx. While the battlefield situation remains dynamic, this issue seeks to explore interim lessons learned. 

Intent, capability, and the perception of intent and capability are shaping the trajectory of this war. Much of the current Western analytical debate revolves around these three dynamics, a holistic assessment of which is complicated by the Kremlin’s deliberate efforts to manipulate Western decision-making. 

Alex Hughes’s article, “Plan Z: Reassessing Security-Based Accounts of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” explores the debate on the origins of the Russia’s war against Ukraine. Hughes observes that realist scholars argue that Russia chose to invade Ukraine as a last resort to reverse Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration, while critics of this point of view contend that Ukrainian accession did not seriously threaten Russian security, and that Vladimir Putin launched the invasion in the hopes of achieving one or more non-security objectives. Hughes concludes that the available evidence is difficult to reconcile with a primarily security-seeking interpretation of the Russian government’s war aims. 

The Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine have always exceeded countering NATO. Despite Russia’s anti-NATO rhetoric, their actions and force posture have demonstrated little serious concern about a conventional military threat from NATO.1 Despite Western assumptions, Russian president Vladimir Putin has never been satisfied with the territorial gains he made in Ukraine in 2014 because territory alone was never his goal; full control over Ukraine was and remains his intent.2 The Kremlin has tried to gain control over Ukraine for years: first by trying to dominate Ukraine’s politics in the 2000s and early 2010s; then by military intervention in 2014 and trying to force Ukraine into the manipulative peace frameworks for the following years. When these efforts failed, Putin launched a full-scale invasion in 2022, including a campaign to eradicate Ukrainian statehood—a maximalist goal the Kremlin has not abandoned as of September 2023 despite Russian military setbacks. 

Ukraine is not the only country the Kremlin seeks to control. Russia’s goal to subordinate Belarus militarily and politically remains unchanged. The Kremlin has not abandoned its attempts to regain control over Moldova either. Russian military setbacks in Ukraine slowed both efforts. However, if Russia solidifies its gains in Ukraine, the Kremlin will most certainly try to complete the absorption of Belarus and, over the long term, could try to integrate other territories that Russia illegally occupies, such as Transnistria.3

Anthony Roney II explores the question of Transnistria in his article, “The Devil’s Advocate: An Argument for Moldova and Ukraine to Seize Transnistria.” He outlines the policy suggestion for Moldova and Ukraine to bilaterally invade the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, otherwise known as Transnistria, to eliminate the risk of Russian influence and interference from posing a larger threat in the future for these states. Roney conveys the reasons, risks, and benefits for a joint invasion of Transnistria and gives strategic and tactical suggestions on how to accomplish this task.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is shaping the requirements for U.S. global posture. The Kremlin’s future ability to threaten NATO depends on Russia’s gains or losses in Ukraine. Russia is weakened, but the Kremlin seeks to neutralize NATO and undermine the United States. The Kremlin is preparing Russian society for a long fight against the West and has expressed unambiguous intent to rebuild Russia’s large-scale warfighting capability. The United States should not underestimate Russian capabilities in the long term.

If Russia is defeated in Ukraine, many of Russia’s remaining sources of power will further decrease. If Russia retains its gains in Ukraine, the Kremlin will have a chance to reconstitute its forces, launch future attacks against Ukraine, and connect its military gains in Ukraine and Belarus. This would mean additional requirements for NATO and the United States, because in the event of future Russian aggression, the United States will have the same obligation to support its allies in Europe but will be forced to do so under worse conditions in this scenario.

Major Maxwell Stewart explores the issue of U.S. global posture in his article, “Revisiting the Global Posture Review: A New U.S. Approach to European Defense and NATO in a Post-Ukraine War World.” Stewart argues for the United States to draw down its permanent presence in Europe to refocus on the Pacific while retaining NATO unity. He recommends a time line for a reduced U.S. force posture in Europe from the present to 2035 and an approach to maintaining strategic flexibility while assuring the NATO allies.

Russia’s influence in what the Kremlin considers its core theater is also at stake. In his article “The Russian Bloodletting Strategy in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War: From Success to Hubris,” Spyridon N. Litsas explores the nature of Russian relations with one of its key partners—Armenia. Litsas argues that Russia implemented a “bait and bleed” strategy in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 to discipline Armenia for its pro-Western agenda. In addition, he discusses Turkey’s role as a supportive apparatus for Azerbaijan’s military efforts against Armenia, evaluating the connection established between Moscow and Ankara.4 According to Litsas, the Nagorno-Karabakh case marked a new manipulative Russian strategy to influence the balance of power in regions with geostrategic significance for the Kremlin. 

Russia took advantage of two separate crises in 2020 to expand its influence over Armenia and Belarus. The Kremlin used the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War to reassert Russian influence in the Caucasus. Putin has strengthened Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan, expanded Russia’s military foothold in the region via its peacekeeping force, and expanded Russian influence over Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan.5 The Kremlin also used the protests against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 to expand Russian influence over Lukashenko along with the Russian military presence in Belarus in advance of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, limits the value the Kremlin can offer to its partners and the threats it can credibly make. Russia’s redeployment of peacekeeping elements from Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine is likely straining the Kremlin’s ability to play a larger mediating role in that conflict. The Kremlin also remains unable to force Belarus to fully commit its forces to Russia’s war in Ukraine, despite monthslong efforts to do so and billions invested in controlling Lukashenko. If Russia loses in Ukraine, the military and economic leverage Russia can exert over its neighbors will decrease. 

Russia’s ability to influence adversarial and partners’ perceptions remains a core capability. For years, the Kremlin has manipulated perceptions to advance its goals beyond the limits of its hard power.6 Russian information operations continue to profoundly shape Western perceptions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including assessments of the objectives and means.7

Two articles touch on the issue of the Kremlin’s information space. In his article, “Enemy at the Gates: A Strategic Cultural Analysis of Russian Approaches to Conflict in the Information Domain,” Nicholas H. Vidal explores strategic culture around the Russian approach to conflict in the information domain. Vidal lays out the key cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral pillars of Russia’s strategic culture to facilitate a better understanding of their behavior in the information domain. He concludes that contemporary Russian thinkers tend to view information holistically—that is, as both a tool to be leveraged and a resource to be protected—and thus as a critical asset in what they see as a state of fluid and continual geopolitical struggle with the West. Contemporary Russian thinkers argue that Moscow must respond asymmetrically, utilizing military and nonmilitary means to achieve its strategic objectives. In his article, “Tackling Russian Gray Zone Approaches in the Post–Cold War Era,” Major Ryan Burkholder also examines the Kremlin’s use of the information space in the context of Russian gray zone approaches in the post–Cold War era. He concludes that Russia has adapted Soviet Cold War techniques for the digital and globalized age and integrates instruments of power against the United States by targeting seams within the culture, maintaining ambiguity, and controlling narratives. He argues that countering these tactics requires that the United States modify its mindset toward conflict and improve integration of its own instruments of power.

The Kremlin’s threats to the West aim to diminish Western support to Ukraine, but they do not match Russia’s conventional ability to escalate. Ukraine’s will to fight and Western support of Ukraine remain the centers of gravity in this war. If Ukraine and its partners persist, the Kremlin is unlikely to achieve any of its objectives in Ukraine. Instead, Putin is betting on outlasting the West’s will to support Ukraine. Russia, however, presently does not have the ability to carry out an effective conventional military operation against the West.

Nuclear blackmail remains a key Russian information effort aimed to deter Western support to Ukraine. For example, the Kremlin launched a major phase of its nuclear information operation in fall 2022 after Russian forces’ humiliating defeats in eastern and southern Ukraine. The Institute for the Study of War assessed the information operation was aimed specifically to deter the West from immediately reinforcing Ukraine’s counteroffensives by creating irrational fears that Putin might react to further Ukrainian battlefield successes with nuclear escalation.8

In her article, “Russia’s Nuclear Strategy: Changes or Continuities,” Arushi Singh explores the evolution of Russia’s nuclear strategy from the USSR through modern Russia. Singh assesses the reasons behind the changes in Russia’s nuclear strategy in the twenty-first century, the major factors that influence Russian nuclear strategy under Putin’s leadership, and evaluates the possible geopolitical implications of the current Russian nuclear strategy.

Disregard for ethical norms remains a central component of the Russian way of war in Ukraine and beyond. Brutality and deliberate attacks on civilians are but a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to offset the limitations in Russia’s military power and the lack of a value proposition to the people the Kremlin is trying to occupy. 

In his article, “The Ethical Character of Russia’s Offensive Cyber Operations in Ukraine: Testing the Principle of Double Effect,” Ian A. Clark explores the ethics of Russia’s offensive cyber operations in Ukraine. Clark writes that Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine is not the first time that cyber weapons have been deployed for military purposes; however, it is likely the first example of cyber warfare tactics being deployed in a sustained and strategically significant manner in the context of conventional warfare. He argues that Russia’s offensive cyber operations in Ukraine represent an unjust use of force and proposes ways to enhance the ethical character of cyber warfare in future conflicts.

Russia’s war against Ukraine further spotlights the impact of economic coercion tools. Two articles touch on the economic dimension of warfare. In his article, “The Cold War Computer Arms Race,” Bryan Leese looks back to the Cold War computer arms race. Leese notes that the Soviets bought and stole versus creating their own computer technology. He discusses how a U.S.-led coalition integrated economic, diplomatic, and information mechanisms, embargoing computer technology to disadvantage the Soviets. In the second such article, “Substitute to War: Questioning the Efficacy of Sanctions on Russia,” Brent Lawniczak questions the efficacy of sanctions on Russia. He examines several critical concepts including the instrumental effectiveness of sanctions, the significance of state identity, the pitfalls of mirror imaging, and aspects of prospect theory as they relate to the effectiveness of sanctions.

Eighteen months of war have demonstrated that the Western sanctions and export controls are effective when aimed at an appropriate objective of diminishing Russian capability to sustain the war, instead of trying to change the Kremlin’s inflexible intent. Russia’s intent regarding Ukraine has remained the same for years, and sanctions are unlikely to change that. However, the Kremlin’s capability is a variable, which Western sanctions can affect significantly.9 The Kremlin’s ability to sustain its war directly depends on the Russian defense industrial complex’s capacity to produce, restore, and maintain heavy weapon systems. Russia’s defense industrial base remains dependent on access to Western technologies and markets despite efforts to achieve self-sufficiency. Putin’s system of governance has been largely antithetical to genuine capability development and innovation. Sanctions have created shortages of specific component parts used in Russian weapon systems, forcing Russia to replace them with lower quality alternatives and invest in ways to circumvent sanctions; efforts, which, even when effective, still require time and resources.10 The West today has significant ability to deny Russia’s military-industrial complex access to global markets if it chooses to. 

The West overall continues to have a profound ability to shape the outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Its collective resources dwarf Russia’s, while the West’s known capability obstacles remain surmountable.


  1. George Barros et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment,” Institute for the Study of War, 14 February 2023.
  2. For more on the history of Russian aggression in the region, see the Global Conflict Tracker by the Center for Preventive Action. “War in Ukraine,” Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations, 10 August 2023.
  3. Nataliya Bugayova, “Target Russia’s Capability, Not Its Intent,” Institute for the Study of War, 20 December 2022.
  4. In 2022, the United Nations agreed to change the spelling from Turkey to Türkiye. Official U.S. channels still use the former term, however.
  5. Ezgi Yazici, “Russian President Putin Wins Upset Victory in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Institute for the Study of War, 13 November 2020.
  6. Nataliya Bugayova, Putin’s Offset: The Kremlin’s Geopolitical Adaptations since 2014, Military Learning and the Future of War Series (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War, 2020); and Kathryn E. Stoner, “Russian Hard Power,” in Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (New York: Oxford Academic, 2021),
  7. Kateryna Stepanenko and Frederick W. Kagan, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment,” Institute for the Study of War, 12 February 2023; and Nataliya Bugayova, “Reframing the US Policy Debate on a ‘Long War’ in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, 27 April 2023.
  8. Stepanenko and Kagan, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment.”
  9. Bugayova, “Target Russia’s Capability, Not Its Intent.”
  10. Max Bergman et al., Out of Stock? Assessing the Impact of Sanctions on Russia’s Defense Industry (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2023). 

About the Guest Editor

Nataliya Bugayova is a nonresident Russia fellow at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Nataliya led ISW's Russia and Ukraine research team from 2019 to 2020 and has been ISW’s Russia fellow since 2018. Her work focuses on the Kremlin’s foreign policy decision-making, information operations, and ongoing global campaigns, including in the former Soviet Union and Africa. She holds a master's in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she was a student fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Marine Corps University, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, or the U.S. government.

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