Russian military threat assessment stays old school

I recently came across an interesting article in Voennaia Mysl, the most authoritative official Russian military publication on matters of doctrine and military planning. The title translates to “Political-military aspects in the formation of Russian interests on the southern geopolitical vector.” This article, written by Colonel Maruev and Lt. Colonel Karpenko and published last November, serves as a good indicator of how military planners view Russia’s military planning priorities for the near term.

The authors state clearly and up front that the southern sector is the most tense from the point of view of assuring Russian national security. This is a welcome antidote to recent items (including the new military doctrine) arguing that NATO presents the chief threat to Russia.  But unfortunately, this kind of new thinking does not last beyond the first page. In fact, the ostensible NATO threat repeatedly sneaks in through the back door, as it were.

Georgia and the Caucasus

For the authors, Georgia presents the main threat of instability in the region, plausibly enough given the recent conflict there. Blame for the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations is placed squarely on the Georgian leadership, who “see Russia as their enemy” and therefore make cooperation impossible. Instead, the authors advocate not just supporting Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, but in fact call for using these territories as a “launching pad for the further expansion of Russian influence in the Caucasus in order to realize [our] geopolitical interests.” This should be done by increasing Russian military presence in the two regions in order to counter Georgian military forces, which are equipped with the latest in modern NATO military technology. (No mention is made of the extent to which “modern” Georgian military forces failed in their war with Russian forces using almost exclusively with Soviet-era equipment — equipment can help win wars, but not if facing a vastly more numerous and better trained force.)

The authors then turn to the pernicious role of US efforts to take the states of the Caucasus out of the zone of Russian influence by bringing them into western political-military structures. Countering this effort in Georgia is seen as very difficult, but can be achieved by fulfilling all obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan and thus showing the Georgian population that Russia does not have any aggressive intentions toward their country. The hope is that this method of rebuilding trust would lead to a political change in Georgia that would bring to power more pro-Russian politicians. The contradiction between “fulfilling obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan” and increasing Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia  is not addressed, which leads me to think that Russian military planners interpret these obligations as requiring the withdrawal of forces merely to the borders of the “newly independent states,” rather than back into Russia proper.

Armenia is seen as a critical country in the region because of the presence of Russian military bases on its territory and its consequent role in containing Turkish and Azerbaijani interests. Maintaining Russian influence can be accomplished by not allowing the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the consequent end of Armenia’s transport and economic isolation through a scenario designed by the West. All I can say is that they better hope that Armenians don’t read this article.

Actually, the same goes for Azerbaijan, where the authors argue that the main problem for relations is that Baku is trying to connect relations with Moscow to the solution of the Karabakh conflict along lines that benefit Azerbaijan. (Shocking, I know…) They advocate using some flexibility in dealing with Azerbaijan, because of the country’s geopolitical importance.

In true zero-sum neo-realist fashion, the authors argue that Russia needs to make clear to the Caspian littoral states that their developing close relations with external powers would destroy their traditional links to Russia, thus causing them significant economic and political-military problems.

The Near East and Iran

In the concluding section of the article, Maruev and Karpenko turn to the Near East, focusing on Russia’s close relations with Lebanon and Syria, and also on the possibility of forming a pro-Russian lobby in Israel that could be used to further Russian interests in the region. (Fifth column, anyone?)

Relations with Syria are primarily supposed to focus on arms sales and the development of the Russian naval base at Tartus, while Lebanon should receive economic assistance in order to prevent it from drawing closer to the US. Iraq is mentioned  in the context of trying to revive Russian economic positions, particularly in the energy sector.

Finally, the authors argue that the current tension around Iran’s nuclear program partially benefits Moscow by keeping energy prices high, while also posing a danger because of the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They essentially advocate continuing to play both sides to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons while also trying to convince Western powers to be more flexible.

Analysis

All I can really say is that I’m glad the Russian military has so little influence in Moscow’s corridors of power these days. If the sentiments expressed in this article were actually Russian policy, I would have to go crawling back to George Friedman to ask for forgiveness. But fortunately (both for me and for the world), this article is more of a last gasp from a dying breed of Russian military strategists who continue to see threats from the West lurking around every corner and hope that politicians will believe them so they can get more resources for the army.

This is not to say that they are wrong on all aspects. Clearly, Russian leaders would love to have a more pro-Russian Georgian government in power and have taken political steps to try to make such an outcome more likely. I don’t see this as any different from steps taken by every other significant power in the world (and particularly the US) to try to change hostile regimes in strategically significant countries. The key question is not whether states try to influence the politics of other states, but whether they do this through illegal and/or destabilizing means, such as by fomenting coups. So far, since the war Russia doesn’t appear to have crossed this line Georgia, but it has come close.

I would argue that Russian policy in the region is far more subtle than the brute force zero-sum security thinking of the authors. Russian leaders are perfectly capable of conducting a far more subtle foreign policy that allows for close relations, for example, simultaneously with Armenia on security issues in the Caucasus and Turkey on trade and energy, as well as Black Sea security. Furthermore, Russia has been maintaining fairly cordial relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia for years now and there’s no reason to think it can’t continue to work with both states. Furthermore, I would argue that solving the Karabakh conflict is actually very much in Russia’s interest — both because it would eliminate a significant source of instability in the region and because Armenian economic revival would promote economic growth throughout the region, which would help Russian economic interests in the Caucasus.

Hopefully, we will eventually see a new generation of Russian military analysts take over, with more nuanced positions on Russian security. In the meantime, I guess I’m glad that the ongoing Russian military reform has significantly reduced the old guard among the General Staff.

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