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Research Questions

  1. What are the key military problems that have influenced Russian operational concept development since the late Cold War?
  2. What is the unified strategic operation, and how does it fit in with this history?
  3. What are the key military tasks that are likely associated with this operation, and how is Russia developing its forces to carry out these tasks?

For decades, the Russian military has been faced with the same problem: how to overcome the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) strategic depth in a time of strategic nuclear parity. In the late Soviet era, this was done by building up massive numbers of ground forces to overcome prepared defenses. In 2008, Russia drastically reduced its land forces in the hopes that long-range strike could compensate for a lack of mass on the ground in a regional war. Russian strategists have since focused on the ways and means through which Russia can conduct offensive actions throughout the entire depth of NATO without large numbers of ground forces.

As of 2021, Russia was still reliant to some degree on nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) for regional warfighting. Recent evidence suggests that Russian planning for regional war is trending toward a unified strategic operation. This notional concept is intended to more effectively organize and allocate Russia's conventional strike and nonkinetic attack capacity as it fills the role of Russian NSNW in regional war over the coming decades.

To understand why this trend is occurring, this report examined Russia's evolution toward a unified strategic operation and associated capability development, focusing on four areas: long-range conventional strikes against critical military and civilian targets; electronic warfare (EW) to disrupt NATO command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; counterspace actions; and cyberattacks against critical infrastructure.

The primary research for this report was completed in January 2022, before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The few references to the war in Ukraine were added prior to publication.

Key Findings

In the post–Cold War period, NATO's enlargement and Russia's reduction in land forces have played a critical role in Russian operational concept development

  • These factors place the military burden on Russia's long-range strike capacity to overcome the geographic separation of forces.
  • Russian operational concept development for regional war is driven by how to coordinate, allocate, and employ long-range, kinetic, and nonkinetic attack assets in a conventional fight that could escalate to nuclear use.
  • Currently, Russia's limited conventional long-range strike capacity, combined with NATO's strategic depth, suggests a continued reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence and large-scale operations when the existence of the Russian state is in jeopardy.

The unified strategic operation is a proposed solution to the coordination of forces to engage regional-level targets and degrade NATO's ability to launch an aerospace attack deep into Russia

  • This concept is an organizing construct for a future Russian force structure with increasing conventional capacity. It includes nuclear and nonnuclear components and involves the coordinated action of joint strategic commands.

The key military tasks of the unified strategic operation are all related to engaging targets beyond the range of Russian ground forces and artillery

  • Russia has fielded conventional systems capable of striking NATO targets beyond artillery range and has plans to extend the ranges of multiple systems.
  • Russia has invested heavily in EW assets and reinvigorated its military space and counterspace capabilities.
  • Russian military strategists view cyber operations as useful for achieving effects against critical infrastructure, but Russian cyber capacity remains unknown.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Russia's Evolution Toward a Unified Strategic Operation

  • Chapter Three

    Russia's Conventional Precision Strike Assets in a Notional Unified Strategic Operation

  • Chapter Four

    Russian Electronic Warfare Capabilities for Countering NATO C4ISR and a Massed Aerospace Attack

  • Chapter Five

    Russian Capabilities for Functional Suppression and Destruction of Space-Based Assets

  • Chapter Six

    Russian Cyber Operations to Attack Critical Infrastructure

  • Chapter Seven


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

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