Cover: The Russian General Staff

The Russian General Staff

Understanding the Military's Decisionmaking Role in a "Besieged Fortress"

Published Mar 22, 2023

by Alexis A. Blanc, Alyssa Demus, Sandra Kay Evans, Michelle Grisé, Mark Hvizda, Marta Kepe, Natasha Lander, Krystyna Marcinek


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Research Questions

  1. What are the formal authorities and responsibilities of the General Staff?
  2. What is the General Staff's capacity to influence Russia's national security decisionmaking process?

The Russian General Staff is unlike any single organization within the U.S. defense establishment. The absence of an analog in the United States means that audiences within the U.S. civilian and military communities largely are unfamiliar with the concept of a General Staff. Because of the increasing militarization of Russian foreign policy since 2008, it is important to understand not only the formal authorities and responsibilities of this institution but also its capacity to influence Russia's national security decisionmaking process.

In this report, the authors develop a foundational text for policymakers and warfighters to improve collective understanding of the Russian General Staff. The authors first draw on a variety of primary and secondary Russian-language sources⁠—e.g., statutes, speeches by political and military elites, and academic military writings—to inform their characterization of the General Staff's statutory mandate. They then place the General Staff in a comparative institutional context, providing a high-level evaluation of the institutional roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the General Staff's U.S. counterpart—the Joint Staff. They consider what the formal roles and responsibilities of the General Staff suggest about the relative balance of power among Russia's political leaders, the General Staff, and the broader Russian military.

The authors then take this understanding and apply it to the roles and responsibilities of the General Staff in a practical context by analyzing two case studies of this institution's involvement in recent conflicts: Ukraine (2014–2021) and Syria (2015–2019).

Key Findings

  • The Russian General Staff is the key organ for exercising command and control of the Russian Armed Forces.
  • A symbiotic relationship exists between the Minister of Defense and his first deputy, the Chief of the General Staff: the Minister of Defense cannot build a strong political position if the Armed Forces are weak, and the Chief of the General Staff cannot strengthen the influence of the Armed Forces in the broader national security system if the Minister of Defense does not have a strong position in the government.
  • The United States and Russia have chosen distinct models of military command authority: largely decentralized in the case of the United States and highly centralized in the case of Russia.
  • The case study of Ukraine suggests that the emphasis on secrecy and deniability materially constrained the ability of the Russian General Staff to orchestrate the 2014 war in Ukraine—i.e., Russia's use of force was not entirely under the General Staff's control.
  • The Russian intervention in Syria, by contrast, appears to have been prosecuted in a manner largely concordant with the General Staff's mandated roles and responsibilities.
  • The Russian General Staff, as an institution, seems to emphasize interpersonal relationships among key players.
  • It is plausible that the broader, bottom-up issues discussed in this report—for example, the General Staff's tight grip on information and its treatment of knowledge as currency and the military's institutional resistance to reforms—are at least partly responsible for the Russian military's performance in Ukraine thus far.

This publication was sponsored by the Russia Strategic Initiative, United States European Command, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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