Colouring Russian views of conflict in the 21st century

Tracey German

The perceived threat posed to Russia from so-called coloured revolutions – popular uprisings attributed by Moscow to malign sponsorship by external forces – has become a central theme in Russian security discourse. There is a deep-rooted concern that coloured revolutions are part of the character of conflict in the 21st century, a new means for an adversary to achieve its strategic objectives without the need for a large-scale military invasion. The term ‘coloured revolution’ emerged in reference to a series of anti-government protests and popular uprisings that occurred across the post-Soviet space in the early to mid-2000, although Russia applies it to a wide range of events from the 2000 “Bulldozer” revolution in Serbia to the Arab Spring.

In a recent article I establish that although they are a relatively recent phenomenon, the reaction of Russian military and political elites to the perceived threat from coloured revolutions and concern about internal destabilisation by non-military means is rooted in habits of thought, based on historical experience and the perpetuation of specific narratives about the country’s vulnerability. The concept of strategic culture provides a useful framework to analyse these perceptions, offering a cultural context for strategic decision-making within a country: by understanding a state’s collective beliefs about security policy and the use of force, shaped by shared experience and history, it may be possible to gain an insight into what shapes the threat perceptions of a state’s policy-making elites and how they might interpret, and therefore react to, international events such as popular uprisings or coloured revolutions. To Western eyes, the Russian characterisation of coloured revolutions as part of a new strategy deliberately employed by the West to undermine regimes viewed as ‘unfriendly’ to Western interests seems absurd. When viewed through the lens of a specific strategic culture, based on a different worldview, it seems more logical.

The contemporary Russian attitude towards the use of force – both by itself and others – is rooted in a sense of vulnerability linked to the country’s experience of invasion, as well as the revolutionary foundations of its predecessor state, the USSR, whose formative experiences were of the threat of counter-revolution, the fear of being undermined from within. The perpetuation of a siege mentality enables the Russian leadership to take actions that may be unpopular internally, but which can be justified by reference to the country’s historical experience (particularly of invasion) and the narrative of adversaries always being ‘out there’, ready to exploit any weakness. There is deep-rooted concern about the possibility of strategic surprise: Russia is characterised as a ‘besieged fortress’ that is surrounded by enemies and needs to be prepared for an attack at any time. This links to a narrative of competition and the belief that powerful states will exploit whatever means possible to undermine their adversaries, including subversion, in what is perceived to be an ongoing, covert struggle for global power and dominance.

The Russian narrative surrounding coloured revolutions is part of much broader thinking about the changing character of conflict and reflects long-running debates within the wider Russian military strategic community about the features of contemporary conflict, particularly non-military means of destabilisation, such as ‘controlled chaos’. Coloured revolutions are considered to be part of a new U.S.-led approach to warfare, which involves the internal destabilisation of rival states through largely non-military means, using democracy promotion and regime change to achieve fundamental security objectives. The framing of coloured revolutions as a national security threat suggests a degree of continuity in the Russian view of how adversaries may seek to achieve their strategic objectives, using all available means, as well as Moscow’s perception of external threat and the ongoing possibility of foreign interference.

Featured Image – Demonstrators gather in Kyiv’s Independence Square, 22 November 2004.