21 June 2021

Russia’s military a willing tool of Putin’s foreign policy

The Russian military is today loyal to the political leadership. But it can quickly become an independent player in Russian foreign policy. This is the conclusion of an FOI report that provides an overview of scientific literature on the military’s role in Russia’s foreign policy.

Putin och Shoigu skake hands in front of a military parade.

Russias President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu shake hands at a Victory Day military parade in Red Square. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/ITAR-TASS/TT.

Throughout history, the Russian military has had various roles in its relation to political power. FOI’s study, The role of the military in Putin’s foreign policy: An overview of current research, identifies three ideal-type roles (also see the fact box):

  1. The loyal Servant of the political leadership;
  2. The independent Shaper of foreign policy;
  3. The Sinker, unable or unwilling to shape international relations.

Under Boris Yeltsin, the military shaped foreign policy within the area of the former Soviet Union, despite a decrease in the military’s abilities. The military’s decrease in capability continued even in the the early Putin years, 2000–2008. But, after the war in Georgia in 2008, something happened.

“Russia certainly won the war. However it was not through skill, but weight. This led to a comprehensive reform of the armed forces, where the Soviet era mass-mobilisation system was abolished,” says the study’s author, Fredrik Westerlund.

A massive investment in armaments and training strengthened not only the Russian military. It also strengthened Vladimir Putin’s position with the military.

“In contrast to Yeltsin, he has taken personal responsibility for the development of the armed forces. In addition to allocating money for weapons, training and salaries, Putin appeared in uniform, showed up at exercises and gave new life to the military parades on Red Square. He also gave the military freer reins in Chechnya,” says Fredrik Westerlund.

In many roles

As reward, Putin gained loyal armed forces carrying out missions in large parts of the world on behalf of the Russian state – as peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, as combat forces in Syria and Ukraine, or as coronavirus fighters in Italy. One conclusion from this is that Russian foreign policy is more predictable.

“Because today we can assume that it is politics that lies behind the Russian military’s actions. When it behaves threateningly, it is a politically controlled activity.”

But, according to Westerlund, this is not a condition that can be guaranteed forever.

“The stronger the military becomes, the greater the risk that it serves its own purposes instead of those of the regime. During previous major upheavals in Russia, we have seen that the military’s will to submit to the political leadership has wavered.”

For even though Putin seems to have a strong grip on Russia, there are political threats, for example from the now-imprisoned Navalny’s opposition movement. But even Putin himself can be weakened, on purely human grounds.

“From age or illness. For example, Putin has shown great concern about the coronavirus and taken drastic steps to avoid being infected. Everyone who is to meet him must be in quarantine for 14 days, despite the fact that he claims to have been vaccinated twice,” says Fredrik Westerlund.

Unpleasant surprise

A Russian military power that begins to formulate its own foreign policy can be an unpleasant surprise for the West, according to the report.

“Existing research on values within the Russian military elite points to a greater tendency to use force in foreign policy, and a more negative view of the EU and the US than what Russian civilian rulers have,” he says.

The report was written on behalf of the Swedish Ministry of Defence.

In foreign policy research, the Russian military’s role can be described using three separate ideal-types:


During the Yeltsin era, the military was an influential force in Russian foreign policy. Perhaps not always of its own volition, but the result was that the military shaped a major part of Russia’s foreign policy.


During the latter part of the Soviet era, especially in the 1970s and -80s, the military was the political leadership’s extended arm in foreign policy. This led to extensive operations, involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers around the world, in support of Soviet interests. Not unlike the later Putin era, where we see a loyal military in many places throughout the world. Also, during the Russian Empire (1682-1917), the military for most of the time was a loyal servant.


During the late tsar period (from the 1880s until 1917) and the early Soviet era, the military was less willing to participate in foreign policy, as the political leadership’s interests and – under the Bolsheviks – ideals differed from the military’s.