Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.

 

Central Asian Military and Security Forces: Assessing the Impact of Foreign Assistance

The next PONARS Eurasia policy conference is happening next Monday and Tuesday. Here is my policy memo for that conference, based on my forthcoming report on this topic for SIPRI and OSI. For more information about the conference, including the full program, visit the PONARS Eurasia website.

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As the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan has accelerated in preparation for the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014, media attention has come to focus on the extent to which equipment being withdrawn from the region will be left behind for Central Asian states to use. At the same time, recent extensions of Russian military base agreements in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have underlined Russia’s own provision of military equipment and other forms of security assistance to the region. Central Asia has been receiving external military assistance since the mid-1990s, and the amount of such assistance has grown substantially in the last decade due to a combination of U.S. interest in using the region to provide access to Afghanistan and the Russian desire to ensure its continued predominance in regional security affairs.

Local leaders sense that the heightened interest in the region by foreign powers may fade once the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan is complete. They are therefore using the current situation to highlight the potential threats to the region and how these might affect the rest of the world. The goal is to ensure that outside powers provide the maximum possible amount of assistance in the short term, before their focus shifts to other parts of the world. This memo examines the extent of external support for military and security forces in Central Asia and analyzes the possible effects of such support on the security situation in the region. Since the vast majority of military assistance to the region comes from Russia and the United States, I focus on these countries in this memo. Other sources include Turkey, Israel, and several West European states. China, on the other hand, provides very little military assistance to the region.

Russia

Russia has been the primary source for military equipment and training for Central Asian states since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Because the Central Asian states in large part retain Soviet legacy forces, which are stocked with Soviet equipment and still largely follow Soviet doctrine, military personnel are familiar with Russian equipment and with Russian training methods. However, Russia does not have a real strategy in its military assistance policy toward the region beyond seeking to keep the Central Asian states in its orbit while making sure that U.S. and NATO forces leave the region after the completion of the operation in Afghanistan. As one Russian interlocutor put it recently, “If the price of stability in Central Asia is [continued] U.S. presence, that price is too high for Russia.” To ensure that the situation does not deteriorate to the point where that choice has to be made, Russia has been shoring up Central Asian regimes as best it can, through efforts to modernize their military forces and security services to improve their capabilities both to take on externally-based insurgents and to suppress potential domestic revolts. By providing assistance, Moscow has also sought to ensure that the region’s governments remain relatively pliable. The entire policy was described by one Moscow observer as “playing preemptive defense.”

Russian military assistance to the weaker Central Asian states can be described as a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Russia provides political and military support for ruling regimes in exchange for basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence to Russian foreign policy priorities in the region. Kyrgyzstan provides the clearest case of this type of arrangement, with the institutionalization of a major Russian military presence in the country coming in conjunction with Russian expressions of support for the government of President Almazbek Atambaev. Tajikistan’s reluctance to give final approval to its recent military base agreement with Russia may be related to Russia’s refusal to provide guarantees of continued support for President Emomali Rahmon’s rule. Moscow has been highlighting the potential danger of instability spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia as a means of ensuring that local states feel the need to maintain close ties with Russian security forces. At the same time, Central Asian leaders use Russian foreign policy priorities to meet their own goals, including the development of more capable military and security forces.

There is less to Russian military assistance than meets the eye, however. Both Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have made numerous promises of assistance and expanded cooperation to Central Asian states. Only some of these promises have been met. In part, Russian military assistance is constrained by the limited capacity of the Russian defense industry. Exports to Central Asia remain the lowest priority for Russian defense corporations, behind both domestic military procurement requirements and exports to countries that pay full price for weapons and equipment. Most Central Asian states pay the lower prices charged on the Russian domestic market for equipment, while repercussions to the Russian defense industry for delays in the fulfillment of export contracts are not as serious as when dealing with the Russian Ministry of Defense. As a result, most military equipment provided to Central Asia consists of older used systems, primarily armored vehicles and helicopters, that are being replaced by more modern weapons and are therefore no longer needed by the Russian military.

United States

For much of the last decade, assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan has been the highest priority for the United States in Central Asia. Other goals, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and democracy promotion, have been pursued but only rarely have they been allowed to infringe on the priority of the Afghanistan mission. In a period of reduced budgets and limited resources, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably result in a decreased emphasis on all forms of assistance to Central Asia. The region will once again become a relatively low priority for the U.S. Department of Defense. Security assistance budgets for states in the region have already been cut in recent years and are likely to be cut further in years to come.

Central Asian leaders sense that the withdrawal period presents a final opportunity to receive significant amounts of military assistance from the United States. Several Central Asian states have developed so-called wish lists of military equipment that they would like to receive from the United States and its NATO allies through the donation of equipment left behind as NATO forces leave Afghanistan. The countries that are most interested in such equipment include Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have the financial wherewithal to buy new equipment and are less interested in donations of used armaments.

To date, the U.S. government has not agreed to transfer any excess defense equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian states. Most equipment is currently being returned to the United States or scrapped onsite in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it seems likely that at least some EDA equipment will be transferred to Central Asian states at some point in the future. The extent of the transfers will depend on whether the United States signs a bilateral status of forces agreement with Afghanistan. The terms of this agreement will determine the force posture in the region, which will in turn affect how much equipment will need to be removed from Afghanistan and how quickly. In any case, the equipment is not likely to include major weapons systems or even small arms. More likely, it will be limited to items such as night-vision goggles, trucks, mine detection equipment, or reconnaissance UAVs to be used for border surveillance.

The timing of these donations reduces the likelihood that they will be provided as a quid pro quo for Central Asian states’ permission to allow the reverse transit of personnel and equipment leaving Afghanistan. At this point, agreements on transit have all been signed and the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan is well under way. Since no public announcements of equipment donations have been made so far, it appears that the two processes have been working in parallel, with limited linkage. It is of course possible that promises of assistance have been made secretly and will be announced at a later date. However, even if such announcements are made in the coming months, the security consequences of such donations will be limited.

Much of the discussion about the extent of such assistance has overstated both the amount and significance of equipment likely to be provided and the potential impact of such assistance on regional security. Legally, the U.S. military is obligated to declare equipment to be “excess” before it can be donated to other states. Excess Defense Articles (EDA) then cannot be replaced with similar but new equipment back in the United States. This means that the EDA process cannot be used to avoid the expense of shipping equipment out of Afghanistan if the unit might still need such equipment in the future. Furthermore, states receiving EDA equipment would be responsible for its shipment from Afghanistan to their territory. Most Central Asian states would not be able to afford the cost of transferring and maintaining major weapons systems, even should the United States agree to such a transfer.

Impact on Regional Security

As currently constituted, the military forces of Central Asian states are fairly limited in their capabilities. Local leaders have devoted more effort and resources to developing their internal security forces, since they see these forces as far more necessary for the survival of their regimes. Despite years of largely half-hearted reform efforts, Central Asian states’ armed forces remain primarily based on Soviet-era equipment and doctrine. Efforts at modernization have progressed to some extent but have been limited in most states by a lack of financing (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) or a limited understanding of modern military strategy (Turkmenistan). Only Kazakhstan has begun to make some progress in transforming its military into a more modern force, and even there changes have been limited by continued adherence to Soviet legacy ideas.

Despite the extensive publicity generated by the deals for Russian military assistance in exchange for basing rights in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the possibility that the United States may be willing to donate excess military equipment as it departs from Afghanistan, the reality is that this assistance will at best have a modest impact on these states’ military capabilities. Both Russia and the United States are likely to provide primarily non-lethal equipment. Given the limitations of the Russian defense industry, Russian assistance will consist primarily of older armaments and equipment that are being retired from the Russian armed forces. The United States will also donate used equipment that may have a limited lifespan. Furthermore, local military personnel are less familiar with Western military equipment, limiting its usefulness unless the receiving countries contract for training in its use.

External military assistance is unlikely to have much of an impact on regional security and stability, simply because none of the states in the region are receiving or are planning to receive in the future enough external support to shift regional power dynamics appreciably. The greater danger is in small arms and basic military equipment being provided to internal security agencies, either directly by donor states or through transfers from the relevant military forces. As seen in past events in Andijan, Osh, and Zhanaozen, relatively basic equipment can be used with great effect against domestic opponents, who are at most lightly armed and usually completely unarmed. The use of foreign equipment against unarmed domestic opponents has the potential to be highly embarrassing for the donor states, as shown by the extensive attention paid to the provenance of tear gas canisters used against protesters in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Defense have highlighted that they do not provide lethal military equipment to internal security forces. They have also noted that any transfers of equipment provided by the United States from local armed forces to internal security services would be a violation of various agreements that could lead to a suspension of future assistance. The extent to which such safeguards would prove effective in a situation where local leaders feel that regime survival is at stake remains unclear.

U.S. officials argue that U.S. training has had a positive impact on the behavior of units in internal conflict situations. They say that units that had received such training are less likely to use violent means to disperse unarmed protesters. According to Defense Department sources, during the 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan, U.S.-trained units returned to their barracks rather than participate in the violence. Similarly, during the May 2013 unrest in Kumtor, Kyrgyzstani special forces units fell out of communications, possibly in order to avoid shooting their own civilians. While it is impossible to independently confirm the extent to which such training has had a positive impact on the behavior of special forces, Central Asian armed forces do receive training in non-violent crowd control and are taught international human rights standards by U.S. military trainers.

At the same time, there is little doubt that local authorities would be able to find units from the military or security forces that would be willing to use violence against regime opponents should the future of the regime be at stake. The success of the two uprisings in Kyrgyzstan had more to do with the unwillingness of key officials in the regime to order the use of force on a large scale than with the refusal of units to follow such orders. Furthermore, Russia is unlikely to have problems with transferring equipment to security services or to put conditions on the transfer of such equipment to security services from the armed forces.

External military assistance to Central Asian states is thus unlikely to have a serious negative impact on regional stability and security. With the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, the region’s decade-long position of prominence on the international arena is likely to fade. Instead the states of the region will increasingly be left to their own devices, with internal instability the most serious threat. External military assistance will be limited and will do little to strengthen local armed forces.

The Southern Kuril Islands Dispute

The annual PONARS Eurasia conference is coming up this Friday in DC. I will be giving a presentation on the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. Here’s the text of my memo, which can also be found in pdf on the conference website.

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The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands represents one of the longest standing territorial disputes in East Asia. The dispute concerns possession of the four southernmost islands in the chain, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai.[1] This dispute has recently returned to the headlines in the aftermath of a visit to one of the islands by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a move that drew condemnation from leading Japanese officials.

Russia and Japan have traded possession of the Kuril Islands and SakhalinIsland since they first established diplomatic relations in 1855. In that year, the Treaty of Shimoda assigned possession of the northern Kuril Islands to Russia, while Japan received the four southernmost islands. Sakhalin itself was administered as a joint condominium until the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg assigned the entire island to Russian possession in exchange for Japan receiving the entire Kuril Islands chain up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Russo-Japanese border shifted again after Russia’s defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war. The Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war gave the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan.

These borders remained stable until the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the entire Kuril Islands chain and southern Sakhalin Island in late August 1945. Soviet possession of these territories was decided during the Yalta summit in 1945, at which time Joseph Stalin promised to attack Japanese forces three months after the conclusion of the war with Germany. The entire population of the four southern Kuril Islands was expelled in 1947 and resettled in northern Japan.

The Japanese Position

Japan first began to raise its claim to the four islands in the 1950s. Initially, only the smaller Shikotan and Habomai were claimed. As late as 1956, Japanese negotiators reached an agreement with their Soviet counterparts to settle the dispute by transferring Shikotan and Habomai to Japanese control while simultaneously renouncing all claims to the much larger Kunashiri and Etorofu.[2] This deal was scuttled as a result of pressure by the United States, which threatened to keep control of Okinawa if Japan accepted this compromise.[3] In the end, the two sides signed a joint declaration that ended the state of war that had existed between the Soviet Union and Japan since 1945 but postponed the resolution of the territorial dispute until the conclusion of a formal peace treaty between the two states. Since the early 1960s, however, the Japanese government has unwaveringly claimed all four islands to be Japanese territory.

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has sought to expand its cooperation with Russia, in part because it hoped that better overall relations would result in a favorable settlement of the territorial dispute. During the difficult years immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Japan began to provide humanitarian assistance to Russian residents living on the disputed islands. Since 1991, residents of the disputed territories have been allowed visa-free travel to Japan in exchange for similar privileges granted to former Japanese residents of the islands and their families.

At the same time, Japan has in recent years taken a number of actions that have shown unwillingness to compromise on its official position. In July 2009, the Japanese parliament adopted a law stating that the southern Kuril Islands are Japanese territory that has been unlawfully occupied by Russia. After President Medvedev visited Kunashiri in November 2010, Japan filed a protest with the Russian government and temporarily recalled its ambassador from Moscow. The government also protested subsequent visits to the islands by senior Russian officials. While protests on Northern Territories Day (February 11) are an annual occurrence, in 2011 protesters desecrated the Russian flag in front of the Russian embassy in Tokyo while the Japanese Prime Minister declared President Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri an “unpardonable rudeness.”

However, Japanese leaders have increasingly come to understand that they need to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia on a broad range of issues separate from the Northern Territories dispute. Japan badly needs to diversify its energy supply sources and increasingly sees Russia as a necessary ally that could help to prevent Chinese domination of East Asia. Japan has sought to gain access to Russian gas and oil exports from fields in Siberia and Sakhalin, amid concern that pipelines may be built that send the energy resources to China instead. Both countries see China as a rising power that potentially needs to be balanced and have sought to deepen their security relationship to address the changing security dynamics in East Asia. In 2011, Japanese leaders announced they would be willing to consider participating in joint economic activities in the southern Kurils, provided that such activities did not negatively affect Japan’s claims to the disputed territories. Japan’s leaders have thus recognized that the chances for solving the territorial dispute are quite low and have resolved to bracket the dispute while developing other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

The Russian Position

When he first came to power, Vladimir Putin sought to solve the dispute with Japan by negotiating on the basis of the 1956 declaration. This was the first official recognition by the Russian side since that year that they might be willing to return some of the islands as part of a negotiated solution. However, the Japanese government rejected this overture, insisting that it was only willing to negotiate the timing of the transfer of all four islands to Japanese control and therefore could not base the negotiations on a declaration that called for the transfer of two of the four islands to Japan while allowing Russia to retain the other two. At the same time, Russia became much stronger politically and economically and was much less in need of the assistance that Japan had always held out as a carrot in exchange for the return of its Northern Territories. As a result, Russian leaders became far more reluctant to endorse even the compromise two-island solution that they had promoted during Putin’s first term.

Beginning in 2005, Russian officials have generally argued that the islands belong to Russia and that Japan has to accept Russian sovereignty over all four islands before any discussions can begin. Russia has said it is open to a negotiated “solution“ to the island dispute while declaring that the legality of its own claim to the islands is not open to question. In other words, Japan would first have to recognize Russia’s right to the islands and then try to acquire some or all of them through negotiations.

During Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term, the Russian government began to undertake a number of concerted measures to strengthen Russia’s hold on the islands. The first step was the adoption of a special federal program for the economic development of the islands. The program earmarked 18 billion rubles for various infrastructure development projects on the islands to be completed between 2007 and 2015. To ensure its security in the region, the Russian government has recently taken steps to strengthen the islands’ defenses. To this end, it is planning to modernize the equipment used by the 18th artillery division, which is based primarily on Kunashiri. Analysts do not expect the dispute to result in armed conflict but do believe that the strengthening of the disputed territories’ defenses will show Russia’s resolve to keep possession of the islands and may convince Japan to focus on other aspects of the bilateral relationship.[4]

The primary reason that Russian leaders insist on keeping possession of the islands has to do with conceptions of national honor and the sense that a handover would be seen by both the international community and by the Russian population as an admission of weakness. However, there are also a number of more practical considerations that have pushed the Russian government into a more uncompromising position. The islands and their territorial waters possess a great deal of economic value for their mineral resources, which include offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, and titanium. Etorofu is also the only source in Russia of the rare metal rhenium, which has important uses in electronics. The islands are also able to supply enough geothermal energy to meet its entire annual heating needs. The waters off the southern Kurils are the location of an upwelling that makes the area an exceptionally rich source for fish and seafood production, worth an estimated 4 billion dollars a year. Russian leaders also believe they could turn the region into a profitable tourism center, though this seems somewhat dubious given its remoteness and lack of appropriate infrastructure.[5]

Russian leaders also see possession of the southern Kurils as playing an important role in defense planning. The islands control access to the Sea of Okhotsk and thereby allow the Russian Pacific Fleet free access to the Pacific Ocean. The deep channels between the southern Kuril Islands allow Russian submarines to transit to the open ocean underwater. Russian military planners have argued that the loss of these channels would reduce the effectiveness of the Russian Pacific Fleet and thereby reduce Russian security in the region.[6]

Russia’s current position on the dispute has much in common with that of Japan. Russia is not particularly interested in making serious concessions on the territorial dispute, but it would like to further develop the bilateral relationship in other spheres, particularly trade and joint development of Russian energy resources. Russia is also concerned about the rapid increase in Chinese economic and political power and would like to work with Japan to constrain Chinese influence.

Potential Solutions

A number of potential solutions to the conflict have been proposed over time. Most of these proposals have come from scholars, although until recently the Russian government was also willing to compromise. Traditional solutions have focused on the number of islands or amount of territory that would be transferred as part of a compromise agreement. The Russian government has periodically offered to transfer the two southernmost islands, while offering to include Japan in efforts to jointly develop the other two islands. From the Japanese point of view, this offer does not seem very equitable, since the two islands that would remain in Russian possession comprise 93 percent of the disputed territory’s total land area. The Japanese scholar Akihiro Iwashita notes, however, that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) commanded by Habomai and Shikotan is quite large and rich in marine resources. Depending on how the boundary is demarcated, the total territory handed over (including maritime territory) could reach half the size of the total EEZ of the four disputed islands (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The Northern Territories’ EEZ

Source: Brad Williams, “Dissent on Japan’s Northern Periphery: Nemuro, the Northern Territories and the Limits of Change in a ‘Bureaucrat’s Movement,’” Japanese Journal of Political Science 11(2), p. 232. Adapted from Akihiro Iwashita, Hoppo Ryodo Mondai: 4 demo 0 demo, 2 demonaku (Chuko Shinsho, 2005), p. 165.

Japanese scholars and a few politicians have recently sought to promote various proposals that include the transfer of Kunashiri and in some cases part of Etorofu to Japanese control. These proposals have collectively been labeled “the 50/50 plan.” These proposals have received the support of a sizeable number of former Japanese residents of the disputed islands and their descendants. Surveys show that both former islanders and other Japanese strongly oppose any solution that would compel Japan to renounce its claims to Etorofu and Kunashiri, but they are willing to accept solutions that are far more flexible than the Japanese government’s current all-or-nothing negotiating position.

At the moment, most Japanese and Russians prefer the continuation of the status quo to territorial compromise. As long as this situation persists, the possibility of a successful negotiated solution is very low. Given the situation on the ground, the ball is entirely in Japan’s court, as Russia holds the territory and therefore has an advantage. Russian leaders have repeatedly made clear that the transfer of all four islands to Japan will never happen. The only way for any progress to be made is for Japan to take the quite radical step (by internal political standards) of dropping its insistence on an all or nothing solution and offering to negotiate the exact parameters of territorial compromise. This would move the ball to Russia’s court as the Russian government would face pressure to confirm its willingness to actually give up territory. Given that Russia has previously on several occasions declared its willingness to give up two islands, it may be difficult for Russian leaders to stick to their recent statements that the southern Kuril Islands are indisputably Russian territory and not subject to negotiation. If they feel confident enough to reiterate their willingness to give up two islands, that would create an opportunity to enter into negotiations over the exact parameters of the territorial compromise, whether this ends up being two islands, three islands, or some version of the 50/50 plan.

However, such a compromise is actually extremely unlikely. The initial move would require a strong Japanese leader to break with decades of precedent and be willing to take on the concerted criticism that is sure to come from Japanese nationalists. Given the long-term weakness and instability exhibited by the Japanese political system over the last two decades, there is a very low probability that such a leader might emerge any time in the foreseeable future. If such a leader did emerge, he would have to expend a great deal of political capital to shift the preferences of the Japanese people and political elites.

There is also the possibility of a non-traditional solution, such as joint sovereignty by both countries over all or some of the four disputed islands. Such a solution would allow the two countries to focus on joint economic development projects in the region, rather than arguing about territorial delimitation. However, such a solution would require Russian willingness to withdraw its military from the four islands. This move would have to be combined with guarantees of major Japanese investment in Russian energy development or other economic incentives.

Such a compromise is as unlikely to be reached as the more traditional solutions based on a formal division of the disputed territory between the two sides. The strength of nationalist attitudes on both sides makes it very difficult for political leaders to stand down from the maximalist positions they have adopted for years. Nationalists in Japan have fiercely attacked both academics and politicians who have broached the merest hint of compromise on the government’s long-standing all or nothing position. While Russian nationalists are not as powerful an interest group as their Japanese counterparts, they have previously protested against Russian territorial concessions to China made in 2004. While at that time, Vladimir Putin had broad popularity among the Russian public and could dismiss such protests as irrelevant, the Putin regime now faces a great deal of popular discontent and may find itself less willing to alienate one of its core remaining constituencies.

The change in the Putin regime’s circumstances in the last few years points to a second reason that makes compromise unlikely. The political elites in both countries are relatively weak and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Numerous large protests opposing Vladimir Putin’s stage-managed return to the presidency revealed a widespread sense of discontent with the Russian president, reducing his ability both to make unpopular political decisions and to shift the public discourse in favor of new initiatives. The Japanese government has been weakened by two decades of slow economic growth and popular discontent with widespread corruption among political and business elites. The result has been a revolving-door cabinet, with no prime minister serving for longer than fifteen months since 2006 and only one serving a full term since 1989. Last year’s tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima further reduced confidence in the government among the Japanese public. The consequence of this lack of trust and government weakness is that Japanese leaders are not likely to take a significant risk on an unpopular foreign policy initiative such as compromising on claims to the Northern Territories.

With neither the Russian nor Japanese leadership in a position to take the political risks that would be necessary to resolve the dispute, the status quo is virtually certain to continue for the foreseeable future. However, this will not prevent the two states from continuing to strengthen their relationship in other spheres, as both sides seek to protect themselves from the economic and political consequences of China’s rapid emergence as the preeminent East Asian power. As trade in energy expands and bilateral security cooperation deepens in the coming years, the territorial dispute left over from World War II will become increasingly irrelevant to both the governments and the public. This development could in turn allow for a compromise solution to emerge ten to twenty years down the road.


[1]  The Russian names for the first two islands are Iturup and Kunashir. I use the Japanese names for the sake of consistency.

[2]  Gregory Clark, “Northern Territories dispute highlights flawed diplomacy,” The Japan Times Online, March 24, 2005, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/eo20050324gc.html.

[3]  James E. Goodby, Vladimir I. Ivanov, Nobuo Shimotomai, “’Northern territories’ and beyond: Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives,” Praeger Publishers, 1995.

[4]  See, for example, Andrei Kisliakov, “Iuzhnym Kurilam Obeshchanna Usilennaia Oborona,” Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrennie, April 22, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurilskii Pretsedent,” VPK: Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, March 2, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurily: Prognoz Politicheskoi Nepogody,” Golos Rossii, February 21, 2011.

[5]  A. Koshkin, “Rossiia i Iaponiia: Vozmozhen li Kompromis o Kurilakh,” Aziia i Afrika Segodnia, November 2008, p. 32.

[6]  Kisliakov; Koshkin, p. 32.

Why Russia Supports Repressive Regimes in Syria and the Middle East

The following post has just been published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo. It was originally presented in early May at a PONARS workshop in Tartu, Estonia. Click here for more information and other memos from this conference.

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In recent months, Russia (with Chinese support) has increasingly staked out a strong position in support of the Assad regime in Syria. As Syria’s allies dwindle, Russia has become its foremost protector in the international arena. In doing so, it has followed a policy consistent with previous statements in support of regimes facing popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. This is not a new policy, as similar statements were made by Russian leaders during the Green revolution in Iran in 2009. To explain this policy, many analysts have focused on the importance of Russian economic investments in countries such as Libya and Syria or on political connections dating back from the Soviet days.

Undoubtedly,economic factors play a role in determining Russian policy. But the threat of spreading political instability and concern about setting precedents are at least as important for Russian leaders, who see the potential for the spread of unrest to other states in the region and fear the demonstration effects of successful revolts on vulnerable regimes in Central Asia. This memo will discuss the balance between interest-based and ideological factors in determining Russia’s response to the Arab Spring.

I argue that although Russia’s economic and strategic interests in the Middle East have played a role in shaping its response to the Arab Spring, fear of demonstration effects and positioning in the international arena have arguably had a larger effect on Russia’s support for Middle Eastern dictators over the last year. Russian leaders’ primary goal has been to prevent the establishment of a norm that allows for international intervention in response to government repression of domestic protests or violent uprisings. Second, the Russian government has sought to counter what it perceives as U.S. strategic gains in the Middle East. Economic factors, including arms sales, are thus only the third most important reason for Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders facing popular revolts over the past year. Continue reading

An Interactive Planning Approach to Shaping U.S.-Russian Relations

The annual PONARS policy conference in Washington DC took place Friday. I usually post my memos for it a week or two in advance, but I was hiking in the wilds of Utah in late August and away from the internets, returning just in time for the conference. So here it is after the fact. Other memos, including several related to the Russian military and arms control, may be found here.

U.S. policy toward Russia, as toward the rest of the world, tends to be highly reactive. Analysts and policy-makers usually spend their time discussing what the Russian government might do in the future and how the United States will (or should) react. This is not actually a useful model for foreign policy planning. Over thirty years ago, Russell Ackoff, one of the pioneers in operational planning research, described reactive planning as walking into the future while facing the past. In his words, a reactive planner “has a good view of where the organization has been and is, but no view of where it is going.”[1] In this memo, I will describe the three forms of planning outlined by Ackoff and make the case for the advantage of developing a Russia policy based on the principles of interactive planning.

 

Three Types of Planning

In his article, Ackoff describes most planning as a form of “ritual rain dance performed at the end of the dry season to which any rain that follows is attributed.” Rather than having some effect on subsequent outcomes, it makes the planners feel better about any future successes that come their way, while allowing any failures to be attributed to externalities or unforeseen circumstances. The main reason for this lack of impact is that while most planning is designed to address existing or expected problems, problems as such do not exist in the real world. Rather than face finite and well-defined problems, decisionmakers confront what Ackoff calls messes—systems of problems in which all the problems interact with each other. With such systems, solving each problem only creates new ones and may only make the situation as a whole worse.

The most common type of planning is of the reactive or retrospective variety. Policymakers who use this form of planning are focused primarily with “identifying and fixing up bad situations.” The goal of reactive planners is to try to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Government action officers generally spend the vast majority of their time in this mode, dealing with crises that in one way or another imperil the functioning of the programs for which they are responsible. In large part because of limits on time and resources, they are preoccupied with tactical questions and ignore strategic issues.

Prospective planning is the second type of planning commonly used by policymakers. This approach consists of attempting to predict what the world will be like at some point in the future and then preparing to deal with that future. In Ackoff’s words, “it doesn’t try to buck the tide, but rides on its leading edge, so as to get where the tide is going before anyone else does.” The key tools of prospective planners include forecasting and scenario-building. While reactive planners focus on short-term issues, prospective planners focus on long-range programs that attempt to optimize a particular set of policies given a set of assumptions about the external environment at some future point. While this approach is less commonly used in government, it does feature in departments that focus on long-range planning. An improvement over reactive planning, this approach suffers from two critical problems. First of all, the scenarios used by prospective planners are generally based on some combination of past experience and current trends. However, as any stock market analyst can tell you, past results are no guarantee of future performance. The only time that the future can be forecast accurately is when it is completely determined by the past. As Ackoff points out, that is also the condition under which no amount of planning can change the situation. Second, it makes no effort to affect the external environment, assuming that this is not something that can be influenced by policymakers.

This willingness to change the external environment is what sets apart the interactive planner. He or she “believes that the future is largely under an organization’s control” and depends largely on actions and events that occur going forward than on the events of the past. Therefore, the goal of planning is to design a desirable future and invent ways to bring that future about. Ackoff calls this type of planning “the art of the impossible.” He argues that the goal of planning should be “to convert what is initially considered to be impossible into what is subsequently accepted as possible.” The most effective way of accomplishing this is to change the environment in a direction that makes the preferred future end-state more likely to come about. Unfortunately, this approach to planning is hardly ever used by the policymaking community because they feel they will be able to deal with the future simply by doing a better job of predicting it and preparing for it.

In order to make the impossible possible, Ackoff advocates starting by developing an idealized vision of the future as the planners would like to see it, “if they were free to replace the current system with whatever they wanted most.” The only constraints on this “idealized redesign” are technological feasibility and operational viability. The idea is to stop planning away from a current state and start planning toward a desired state. Ackoff is careful to note that he is not advocating trying to design a future utopia. In his words, an idealized design “is built on the realization that our concept of the ideal is subject to continuous change…” Therefore, the planners have to include a capability for the system to be able to adapt to shifts both in the environment and in the policymakers’ preferences.

Once an interactive planner has developed a vision of a desired future, she or he can work backwards to find potential critical juncture points that can help change the current environment in a direction that would bring it closer to the ideal state. Some of these efforts will succeed, while others will fail. As a result, the conception of the ideal state is likely to change over time and the planning process has to be sufficiently flexible to take such changes into account. But the end result is that planners stop focusing on how to modify the existing world at the margins and start thinking creatively about how to bring about their ideal future.

 

Building toward an Idealized Redesign of U.S.-Russian Relations

The agenda in relations between Russia and the United States appears to be permanently stuck in reactive mode on both sides. Residual fear of the other side’s intentions, seemingly left over from Cold War days that ended 20 years ago, continues to exert an influence on policy planning in both countries. Many American policy planners continue to worry about the possibility that Russian leaders harbor aggressive intentions toward the other countries that became independent when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Russian planners, in turn, still seem to genuinely fear the possibility of a NATO invasion of Russian territory, at least if one were to take at face value documents such as the 2010 Russian military strategy.

As a result, policy planning on U.S.-Russian relations usually revolves around an agenda based on the past. The dominant issues—NATO-Russia relations, nuclear arms control and proliferation, even missile defense—would be completely familiar to policymakers working in the 1960s and 70s. The few truly new areas of cooperation, such as transit of supplies to Afghanistan via Russian territory and intelligence sharing in counter-terrorism, are often treated with suspicion by analysts and politicians on both sides.

There have been some efforts to engage in prospective planning in the relationship. This has primarily taken the form of efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities. In some cases, these efforts have had some positive impact, such as the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council as a step to prevent the creation of new dividing lines in European security. Similarly, arms control efforts over the last twenty years have led to fairly significant cuts in the two countries’ nuclear weapons arsenals. And planners on both sides continue to look for ways to reduce distrust and increase cooperation in the bilateral relationship, including through the well-publicized attempt to “reset” the relationship after the 2008 elections in both countries. The various bilateral commissions set up by President Obama and President Medvedev are relatively successful aspects of this effort.

But these efforts, while laudable, suffer from the faults common to all prospective planning. They take the current environment as the starting point and attempt to build the relationship from there. They also focus cooperative initiatives on dealing with the threats that exist today or that seem likely to exist in the future based on current trends. In doing so, they are inevitably doomed to do little more than modify the existing relationship at the margins. What is needed instead is a new paradigm for the bilateral relationship, akin to the ideas that in the aftermath of World War II envisioned a full partnership between the Allied states and Germany and led to German participation in NATO just ten years after its defeat in the war.

What might such a new paradigm look like? The rest of this memo is obviously speculative, and presents a personal point of view of what an ideal Russian-American relationship might look like twenty or thirty years in the future.[2]

  1. Russia and the United States would be partners in a new European (or perhaps even worldwide) security architecture. They would cooperate with other states in ensuring stability and strengthening governance in potentially unstable parts of the world.[3]
  2. The nuclear relationship between the two countries would be similar to that of the United States and Great Britain. In this environment, bilateral nuclear arms control would no longer be relevant. Instead, Russia and the United States would focus on counter-proliferation and multilateral nuclear arms reductions that include all states that possess nuclear weapons.
  3. Both countries would be working together to adjust the international security system to deal with China’s rising power. The ideal would be to incorporate China seamlessly into existing international security structures or to establish new structures in which China is a full partner.
  4. Russia and the United States would be partners in developing technologies to intercept long-range ballistic missiles that could threaten international security. This partnership would be extended to other potential partners, including the European Union and perhaps China and India.
  5. Both countries will work together to stem the potential danger from transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling. They will also cooperate in dealing with the potential security effects of global climate change.

Given this set of aspects of an ideal security relationship between the United States and Russia, policymakers could work backward to develop a set of policies that could shift the world in a direction that would make some or all of them more likely to occur. For example, it may turn out that thinking along these lines leads to the realization that maintaining NATO in its current form is actually damaging to European security in the long run, leading to efforts to replace it with another organization that includes a broader range of states and does not carry the burden of NATO’s Cold War legacy. On the other hand, Russian planners may realize that their country does not face any threat from the West and can therefore transfer their military forces away from European borders and toward more likely security threats on its southern borders. Both of these scenarios seem to be completely unrealistic given today’s security environment, but interactive planners may find that they provide the best way to maximize their countries’ security in the long run.

Again, in this brief memo I have simply sought to provide some illustrative examples of this approach. The main point is not to focus on the specifics of the particular ideal state of the relationship but to make the case that an interactive planning perspective will be more likely to lead to improvements in security for both the United States and Russia than approaches based on a combination of continued mistrust due to Cold War legacies and piecemeal efforts to adapt existing institutions to new realities.


[1] All quotations in this memo are from Russell L. Ackoff, “The Corporate Rain Dance,” The Wharton Magazine, winter 1977. My thinking about this topic was greatly stimulated by Peter Perla, “Beyond alternative futures: Thinking about designing the future Navy,” CNA Quick Response Study CQR D0024818.A1, March 2011.

[2] Due to space constraints, I focus here only on security issues. A full analysis would also look at economic relations between the two states.

[3] Based on current trends, such areas might include Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, but of course the zones of instability might be in completely different areas by that point in time.

US-Russian Cooperation in the Caspian: An Opportunity Worth Pursuing

For the United States, the strategic importance of the Caspian region has increased dramatically in recent years. The Caspian littoral states have come to provide an important set of opportunities for the U.S. in a strategically significant region. Now, however, they face a range of significant security threats in the region, which have resulted from a combination of changes in the region’s geopolitical environment resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union and conflicts over the division of marine and seabed resources in the Caspian Sea. Specific threats include smuggling of narcotics and other contraband, proliferation of WMD or related materials, and the limited reach of government authority in remote land and maritime areas. Further, Caspian energy security is particularly vulnerable to a number of regional actors. There is also the potential for armed conflict that can spill into the wider region; in particular, Azerbaijan and Armenia may come to blows over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Finally, terrorism presents a threat—both directly to several of the littoral states, and indirectly to the entire region, which serves as a transit corridor for terrorist group members traveling between the northern Caucasus and Afghanistan. An important consideration is that the effects of these threats can and do proliferate beyond the region. It is in the interests of the U.S. government  to help its Caspian regional partners achieve or enhance the ability to deter, detect, and respond to these threats themselves before the problems spread. Continue reading

Russia’s State Armaments Program 2020: Is the Third Time the Charm for Military Modernization?

The following post is being published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo and will be presented at its annual policy conference, which will be held in Washington D.C. on Friday, October 22. For more information, click here.

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For the first two years of the Russian military reform program that began in October 2008, the top priority of the Ministry of Defense was reorganization. This involved the transformation of the military’s division-based structure into one based on brigades, as well as a shift in the ratio of officers to enlisted soldiers in favor of the latter. The last step of this reorganization was the replacement of military districts with four operational strategic commands, modeled on the U.S. military’s regional commands. These are joint commands that control all of the forces on their territory, including naval and air force units.

As this organizational transformation was being completed, top defense officials increasingly focused on the need to rearm the newly streamlined Russian military. In several speeches last winter and spring, President Dmitry Medvedev called for large-scale rearmament. More specifically, in a March 5 speech to the Defense Ministry Collegium, he called for renewing arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.

This will be a difficult target to achieve. The current rate is less than two percent; even the Soviet military of the 1980s averaged only a 5-7 percent renewal rate. In order to achieve this plan, the Russian government is putting together a new State Armaments Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020). This program will replace two earlier programs enacted since Vladimir Putin came to power, the most recent for the period from 2007 to 2015. What the previous programs have all had in common is that in each case the government failed to achieve the program’s stated goals.

SAP-2020: What We Know So Far

The SAP will not be announced until later this fall, but some information about its parameters has already begun to appear in the Russian press. The total size of the program is still under negotiation. Back in May, President Medvedev announced that total spending on armaments over the next ten years will be 13 trillion rubles, or approximately $425 billion at current exchange rates. This would be a significant increase from the previous armaments program, which allotted five trillion rubles over a nine-year period. However, Defense Ministry officials argued that this amount would not be sufficient to modernize the entire military. General Oleg Frolov, the acting chief of armaments, noted that for 13 trillion rubles the ministry would be able to modernize only the strategic nuclear forces, the air force, and air defenses. To modernize the ground forces, an additional 15 trillion would be necessary, while the modernization of the entire military (including the navy and the space forces, which operate Russia’s military satellites) would cost a total of 36 trillion rubles ($1.2 trillion).

The definitive program budget will not be announced for several more months, though it seems impossible for the Ministry of Defense to obtain anywhere near the full amount it seeks. In late September, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that total spending for the armaments program would equal 22 trillion rubles, of which 19 trillion would be allocated to the Ministry of Defense and 3 trillion to other power ministries. This would increase Russian defense spending to around 3.5-4 percent of GDP, up from the current 2.9 percent.

The Air Force

The full parameters of which armaments the Russian military will procure with this money have also not been announced, though some specifics are now available. The air force will be one of the main beneficiaries, while the navy and ground forces are considered a lesser priority. The Ministry of Defense believes it can modernize all of the country’s military aircraft over the next ten years. The goal is to purchase 350 new fighter airplanes, 1,000 new helicopters, and a number of new transport aircraft. This is a high priority as most of the existing aircraft have reached or exceeded their original lifespan. Specific air force procurement plans include:

  • T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft (PAK FA). 10 to be purchased in 2013-2015. An additional 50-60 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • Next generation long-range bomber (PAK DA). Design began in 2010. Prototype to be built by 2015. First units scheduled to enter air force in 2020.
  • Su-35BM fourth generation fighter aircraft. 48 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • Su-34 fighter-bomber. 32 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • MiG-35 fighter. Currently in development. First units expected to enter air force in 2013.
  • Yak-130 training aircraft. 150 to be delivered in 2010-2015. An additional 50 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • An-124 transport aircraft. 20 to be purchased in 2015-2020. 10 to be modernized in 2011-2020.
  • An-70 transport aircraft. 60 to be purchased in 2011-2020.
  • Mi-26 transport helicopters. Exact number unknown. Main focus of helicopter renewal program.

Air Defense and Strategic Rocket Forces

The armaments program also promises significant improvements in air defense and strategic rocket forces. For the former, Russia will continue to procure the S-400 air defense system. Two air defense regiments were armed with this system prior to 2010. An additional five were to be procured during this year. The goal is to have as many as 23 regiments (of 8 to 12 missiles each) by 2015. It will then be augmented by the more advanced S-500 system, currently under development and expected to be ready for production by 2013. Both the S-400 and S-500 systems are superior to the US Patriot PAC-3 in maximum speed, range, and accuracy. Russia will also continue to procure the Pantsir-S1 short-range surface-to-air missile, with at least 200 units expected to be added by 2016 to the 10 already in service in 2010.

The strategic rocket forces will continue to receive Topol-M (SS-27) and the new RS-24 ICBMs. The latter is a Topol-M variant with three or four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed) that began to be deployed this year. These will gradually completely replace the older SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, as the service life of these missiles is scheduled to expire over the next ten years.

The Navy

The procurement plans for the navy seem quite extensive, but are likely to be carried out in full only if the Ministry of Defense succeeds in its effort to increase the government’s total financial commitment to the State Armament Program. The strategic submarine force remains a priority for the military and will be funded no matter what. Financing for other projects, especially the larger and more expensive ships, is more uncertain, though the commander of the navy recently announced that the construction of a total of 15 ships and diesel submarines for the Black Sea Fleet will be part of the armament program. Specific plans include the following:

Submarines

  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarine. First currently in sea trials. Five to seven more to be commissioned in 2010-2017. Three of these are already under construction. The project’s success will depend on the military’s ability in getting the Bulava SLBM to fly successfully.
  • Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarine. First launched in June 2010. Two to five more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Lada-class diesel submarines. First commissioned in April 2010. Two to seven more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Improved Kilo-class submarines. If problems with Lada class continue, could build as many as eight of these instead, with at least three going to the Black Sea Fleet. There is also the possibility that a smaller number of these would be built to be used in conjunction with a small number of Ladas.

Surface Combat Ships

  • Aircraft carrier. This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year. It is likely that the construction of one or two carriers will be included in the State Armaments Program. Their actual construction is likely to take many years in the best of circumstances, and it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a functioning aircraft carrier by 2020.
  • Mistral amphibious assault ships. Two will be purchased from France, with another two to be built in Russia under license. Negotiations over the purchase are still ongoing, but they are likely to conclude successfully in the next few months.
  • Ivan Gren-class landing ships. Three to five to be commissioned in 2012-2020.
  • New destroyers. Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000-ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. The hope is to build 10 to 12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than two or three could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.
  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Two currently under construction. Plans call for a total of 20 to be built over the next 20 years. Of these, three to six are likely to be built by 2020.
  • Krivak IV-class frigates. Given the slow pace of construction for the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, the Russian navy is likely to build three or four of these frigates for the Black Sea Fleet. Previously, these ships have been built for the Indian Navy.
  • Steregushchii-class corvettes. First commissioned in 2007. Second launched in March 2010. Three more are currently under construction, to be commissioned by 2013. In total, 20 are expected to built, with 10 likely to be completed by 2020.

In addition to these procurement plans, the Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov-class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) may also be modernized prior to 2020. The Admiral Ushakov (originally Kirov) could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance. The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov Slava-class cruiser. If this project goes through, the three active Slava-class cruisers in the Russian navy may also be modernized over the next ten years.

Ground Forces and Other Equipment

Much less is known about procurement plans for the ground forces, in part because they are likely to receive the least amount of new equipment in the next decade. We do know that the military has canceled plans to procure the T-95 battle tank and will instead continue to purchase T-90 tanks for the foreseeable future. The ground forces will also receive Italian light armored vehicles, probably instead of the BTR-90 armored vehicles that they had previously planned to purchase. They will also continue to purchase Iskander tactical ballistic missiles for its missile brigades, replacing existing Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) missiles in seven more brigades, in addition to the two that have already been rearmed with Iskanders in 2010. It is likely that sometime during the next decade, the design of a new generation of multiple rocket launcher systems will be completed, with some likely to enter service prior to 2020 in place of the currently used BM-30 Smerch systems.

In addition to platforms and weapons, the Russian military will focus on improving its communications capabilities by upgrading its GLONASS satellite system and procuring new digital communications and command and control systems, as well as other high tech items such as night vision equipment and better IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) systems. Many of these items are likely to be procured abroad or developed with foreign assistance.

Limitations

Whatever the actual details of SAP-2020 turn out to be, if the Russian government carries all of them out, it will be the first time such a program is actually carried out in full. Past programs foundered due to three reasons: lack of financing, corruption, and the poor state of the Russian defense industry. All these factors are likely to play a role in limiting the Russian military’s ability to modernize its weapons and equipment over the next decade.

The large increase in funding promised for SAP-2020 may not be sustainable, as it depends on a stable or rising price of oil and natural gas in coming years, which itself depends on the continuation of the current global economic recovery. If government revenues should falter, financing for the military will undoubtedly suffer as well. And even if revenue projections are met, the increase in financing being discussed right now will require a significant shift in government expenditures toward the military despite ever more pressing needs in the civilian sector.

Whether the government will be able to maintain such a plan if its popularity starts to erode in coming years is very much an open question, especially as it becomes more and more obvious to the population that much of the procurement money instead goes to line the pockets of senior military officials. Various press reports estimate that as much as half of all procurement money is spent on bribes and other forms of corruption. Last spring, the Audit Chamber announced that one billion rubles of military procurement money was lost to corruption in 2009. Analysts argue that without corruption, 19 trillion rubles would be more than enough to finance the entire defense procurement wish list, rather than the 36 trillion that was asked for by the Ministry of Defense.

However, the real question facing the armaments program is whether the Russian defense industry can actually build the weapons they are being asked to produce. The ability of the Russian defense industry to design and produce new weapons has been declining for 20 years. The best workers—those left over from Soviet times when the industry was well funded and a highly prestigious place to work—have retired or are about to do so. Few good people went into the field in the 1990s, when there was virtually no financing and the industry came close to collapse. At the same time, because there was no money for equipment modernization, the industrial plant began to deteriorate. By the start of the Putin presidency, even the allocation of additional financing was not enough to counteract the decline in the defense industry’s ability to produce high quality products. This decline will have to be reversed if the Russian military is to be successful in producing new high-tech military equipment.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet after the Georgia War

Back in December 2008, I wrote a short essay discussing the role of the Russian Navy in the Georgia War. Given some of the misinformation circulating about the conflict, I thought it might be useful to repost it here. It originally appeared as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo.

Black Sea Fleet Activity in the August War
Russian ships left their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossisk and sailed for the Georgian coast on August 9, the day after hostilities began in the region. A total of 13 ships were involved in the operation, including the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, the Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi, several Grisha-class corvettes (Suzdalets, Aleksandrovsk, Muromets, and possibly Kasimov), the Nanuchka-class missile ship Mirazh, two patrol craft, three amphibious landing craft (two Ropucha-class,Tsesar Kunikov and Yamal, and one Alligator-class, Saratov), two mine warfare ships (Admiral Zhelezniakov and Turbinist), the transport ship General Riabikov, and the tugboat Epron.

This list includes the bulk of Black Sea Fleet (BSF) deployment-capable ships. The only major combatants not involved were the Kara-class cruiser Kerch and two Krivak-class frigates. The Kerch is currently undergoing sea trials after a decade-long period of repair and is therefore not yet ready for active service. The guided-missile frigate (FFG) Ladnyi was preparing for participation in operation Active Endeavor, though it subsequently returned to the Black Sea and shadowed U.S. and NATO ships that entered the region in late August. The FFG Pytlivyi is currently undergoing repairs. This deployment should thus be considered to demonstrate more or less the maximum possible capability of the BSF at the present time.

The stated goal of BSF ships deployed in this conflict was to provide naval support for Russian ground forces in the region and to be prepared to transport refugees out of the conflict zone. These goals were consistent with the Russian government’s initial argument that it was conducting a support operation for its peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, which had been attacked by Georgian forces on August 8.

As the nature of the Russian military operation changed, first to focus on driving Georgian forces out of the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and then on destroying Georgian military capabilities altogether, the role of the BSF changed as well. Amphibious landing craft, accompanied by escort ships and patrol craft, were sent out of the Russian Navy’s Novorossiisk base with naval infantry troops onboard. Some of these troops helped to secure the Abkhazian port of Ochamchira against the possibility of a Georgian invasion, while others secured the Georgian port city Poti.

As they approached the Russia-Abkhazia maritime border on August 9, some of the Russian ships encountered Georgian patrol boats, which were assumed to have hostile intent after they failed to respond to radio warnings to turn away. While sources are not consistent, it seems most likely that the Russian ships involved included the two amphibious ships Tsezar Kunikov and Saratov, accompanied by the corvette Suzdalets and the patrol ship Mirazh. It appears likely that the Russian ships sank at least one and possibly two of the Georgian patrol boats. The shots were fired by one of the two accompanying ships, most likely the Mirazh. After the initial encounter, the remaining Georgian ships fled and were later sunk at pier in Poti by Russian military forces.

We can make some suppositions about Russian naval command and control based on published reports about this battle. First, all available reports indicate that after potentially hostile ships were detected by radar on the Mirazh, the ship’s captain contacted Vice-Admiral Meniaylo, the commander of the naval group based on the Tsesar Kunikov, who gave the orders to fire warning shots and then to attack the opposing ships when they did not change course. Once the opposing ships did change course, the Russian ships ceased to attack because “there were no orders to destroy all targets.”

None of the reports show any indication that the fleet’s actions in combat had to be approved by commanders at fleet headquarters or in Moscow. This is somewhat surprising given the Russian military’s tendency toward centralization of authority. In normal situations, ship commanders in the Russian navy are given little control over decisionmaking. There are two possible explanations. The more likely one is that ship commanders are given authority to take whatever action is necessary to defend their ships if they believe they are in imminent danger. Another possibility is that the naval group commander did contact Moscow and received clearance to fire on the Georgian navy ships prior to ordering the attack. This is less likely, given the relatively short timeframe between the ships’ detection and the order to fire.

Overall, the BSF naval group’s actions during the Georgia conflict provide additional support for the supposition that Russian navy ships operate with a relatively low threshold for weapons use, and ship commanders are authorized to take action on their own if they perceive an imminent threat to their ship. In situations where an imminent threat does not exist, virtually all major decisions are taken by the naval group commander, rather than the commanders of specific ships in the group. Only if the ship is operating alone does the ship commander have the authority to make major operational decisions.

Black Sea Fleet Capabilities and Performance
The Georgia war in and of itself does not allow us to say much about the capabilities of the BSF, as the Fleet was not seriously tested by the Georgian navy, which consisted solely of a few patrol craft and two small missile ships, which were most likely not actually armed with missiles at the time of the conflict. Furthermore, with the one exception discussed above, most of the Georgian navy sailors and officers abandoned their ships in port rather than engage the Russian navy or withdraw to the south. As a result, most Georgian navy ships were destroyed by the Russian military at pier in Poti. While the Russian navy is no longer one of the most powerful in the world, it was clear before the conflict that it could easily handle threats from an adversary at this level of capabilities. Having said that, BSF ships that participated in the conflict acquitted themselves fairly well, according to all observers. The navy clearly had a plan of action designed for the possibility of a conflict with Georgia, and this plan was implemented quickly and efficiently. A large percentage of the Fleet’s ships were able to get underway within 24 hours of the start of hostilities. Several hundred naval infantry soldiers were placed on amphibious landing ships and deployed to Abkhazia, with missile ships and corvettes acting as escorts. These escorts successfully eliminated potential threats to the landing ships. Overall, the BSF’s participation in the Georgia war showed that it is quite capable of playing a role in combat should it be called upon to do so in the future.

At the same time, the August events have not changed my overall assessment of the state and capabilities of the BSF. The Black Sea Fleet currently includes 28 operational ships and submarines with an average age of 25 years, though these are mostly smaller craft. There are six 1st class surface ships (four operational), two diesel submarines (one operational), seven Ropucha and Alligator amphibious landing craft (six operational), two relatively new Bora-class missile hovercraft, and 15 operational 3rd class ships, including small anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships (Grisha), small missile ships, and minesweepers. Of the larger ships, only the Moskva and the Smetlivyi can be considered fully operational, though recent reports indicate that both of the Kara-class cruisers will soon rejoin the fleet. The Kerch has recently emerged from overhaul and is undergoing sea trials, though some reports indicate that it still has difficulty operating in deep water environments. Following reports in June that the Ochakov, which has been in overhaul since 2000, has recently completed repairs and would become the Black Sea Fleet’s new flagship, the ship was removed from drydock and the BSF announced that it would be scrapped in the near future.

Only four first-class combat ships have deployed outside the Black Sea in the last ten years. One of these (the Pytlivyi) is currently being overhauled. Even if all of the overhauls were completed successfully, the BSF would only have six large combat ships for the foreseeable future. As independent Russian military observers have noted, the entire fleet is much weaker than the assemblage of random NATO ships sent to the Black Sea in August-September 2008 in the aftermath of the Georgia war. Russian anti-ship weaponry is mostly outdated and would be unlikely to penetrate NATO’s Aegis defense systems. At the same time, the guidance systems for Russian anti-ship missiles would be unlikely to survive a conflict with NATO.

Furthermore, the ships in the fleet are relatively old, and their lifespan is likely to have been negatively impacted by poor maintenance during the financially difficult 1990s. The Moskva, the youngest of these ships, is 26 years old, while the Smetlivyi was commissioned almost 40 years ago. It is likely that most of these ships will have reached the end of their useful lifespans in the next 10-15 years. This implies that by the time BSF ships may need to be relocated from Sevastopol in 2017, some of them are likely to be no longer active.

Impact on Cooperative Activity
The naval campaign of the Georgia war did not have a significant impact on the course of the war, which was fought almost entirely by both sides’ ground forces. Nor did it affect the military balance in the Black Sea region to any great extent. But the use of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in combat has had a dramatic effect on political relations in the region and has led to a curtailing of the extensive program of naval cooperation between the Russian navy and NATO navies in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Before the recent conflict, Russian admirals often touted cooper¬ation with foreign navies as a prime role of the Russian navy. They saw the participation of Russian naval ships in exercises and operations with foreign navies not only as a way to improve naval interoperability, but also as a means for improving interstate relations. According to them, multinational operations provided the Russian navy with opportunities to improve its skills and extend collaboration with neighboring navies, while also letting it show others that it can act as a responsible neighbor and is ready to direct multinational military operations in the region should the need arise. BSF ships participate in a number of multilateral annual naval exercises and operations, including BlackSeaFor, Black Sea Harmony, and Active Endeavor. Together, participation in these three programs accounted for about one third of BSF ship deploy¬ments during 1999-2007. BSF ships have also participated in bilateral exercises with the navies of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and other Mediterranean littoral states.

Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor counter-terrorism operation in the Mediterranean provides an excellent example of the importance the Russian navy attaches to this type of activity and the active role it can play in such operations. While Active Endeavor has been an ongoing NATO operation since 2001, planning for Russian participation only got underway in 2004, with the first Russian ships participating in January 2006. The Russian navy attached particular importance to having at least a core group of officers develop sufficient English-language skills to be able to operate with the NATO group. As part of the operation, Russian ships routinely participate in joint exercises with NATO ships from a number of countries, including Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. These exercises have included Russian helicopters landing on board NATO ships, practicing boarding of suspicious vessels, and other tasks typical of counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. In addition to the practical training provided by participation in this operation, the Russian navy values the status provided by Russian participation in a NATO operation. This was made clear in a report published in the official Russian Navy journal after the conclusion of the Moskva’s participation in Active Endeavor in January 2006. The report noted that this was the first time ships from a state that was not a NATO member had participated in the operation and noted the historical importance of the presence of the NATO Secretary General on board the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

In retaliation for Russian action in the Georgia war, Russian ships were barred from participation in Active Endeavor, even though the Ladnyi had already arrived at the location of the operation off the coast of Turkey. Russian media reacted quite predictably, arguing that the operation was not so important and that Russian ships that had participated previously were exploited by being used as messenger ships rather than as full-fledged combatants. Nevertheless, as NATO and Russia slowly resume cooperative activities, it is likely that BSF ships will once again be invited to participate in Active Endeavor. In the long run, cooperative naval activities in the Black Sea are sufficiently institutionalized that they are likely to survive the current downturn in relations.

Future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet
In the aftermath of the Georgia war, the Russian government announced a significant expansion of its military activity, accompanied by a substantial increase in planned financing and a commitment to replace aging hardware. At the same time, the government announced a significant expansion of its worldwide naval presence, with plans for four year-end long distance naval task force deployments simultaneously for the first time in well over a decade. In addition to ongoing deployments by two Northern Fleet combat ships to the Mediterranean Sea and Venezuela, and by the Baltic Fleet escort ship Neustrashimyi to the Gulf of Aden, the Northern Fleet’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and accompanying ships have deployed for exercises in the Mediterranean with the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva. Furthermore, the Pacific Fleet destroyer Admiral Vinogradov is sailing to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to make a series of port calls and conduct exercises with Peter the Great and Admiral Chabanenko as they return from Venezuela. The Russian navy will soon have as many as 8-10 major combat ships deployed at the same time. While this is the highest number of ships deployed simultaneously by the Russian navy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we should not forget that the Russian navy has only approximately 18 major naval combatants capable of deploying outside their home base. This set of deployments may well represent the maximum simultaneous out of area deployment capability of the Russian navy at the present time.

Despite talk of a substantial expansion of naval construction, including plans for a new class of aircraft carriers to be built in the next 15 years, the capabilities of the Russian navy in general and the Black Sea Fleet specifically are likely to decline for at least two decades. Grandiose plans for building aircraft carriers and other as yet unspecified combat ships are unlikely to come to fruition, partly as a result of the decline in Russia’s financial situation in the months after their announcement, and partly because the Russian military industrial complex is in poor condition and is not capable of building such large ships at the pace called for in the plans. Smaller ships will be built but will not be able to fully replace the capabilities possessed by the Black Sea Fleet’s aging cruisers and destroyers.

In the meantime, the extensive array of cooperative activities between Western navies and the BSF is likely to be maintained at more or less the level that existed prior to the war. There have not been any announcements about curtailing Russian participation in BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, and Russian participation in Active Endeavor is likely to be resumed sometime within the next two or three years.

Russia’s New Model Army: Radical Reform in the Russian Military

Last August, the Russian army undertook its first offensive action on foreign soil since the end of the Afghanistan war in 1989. After the initial outburst of patriotic fervor faded, the Russian military did not have long to bask in the glory of its first definitive military victory in many years. In early October, the civilian leadership of the Ministry of Defense announced a radical restructuring of the armed forces, one that, if enacted in full measure, would completely change the military’s structure and mission capabilities for the foreseeable future. More than nine months have passed since the initial outlines of this reform were announced. This memo will describe the reform’s main goals, the military’s reaction to it, and the extent to which it has been implemented. It concludes with a discussion of the likely trajectory of the reform process.

A Radical Break

On October 14, 2008, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that, over the next four years, the Russian military would undergo a radical restructuring. The main elements of the reform were to include the following:

  • A cut in the total number of military personnel from 1,130,000 to one million, including a cut in the total number of officers from 355,000 to just 150,000. The General Staff would be particularly affected, with 13,500 of its 22,000 personnel positions slated for elimination;
  • Remaining officers and contract soldiers will see a significant pay increase over the next four years. The hope is that this will help retain officers, aid in recruiting contract soldiers, and reduce incentives for corruption;
  • Henceforth, all military units will be considered permanent readiness units and be fully staffed with both officers and enlisted soldiers. The previous practice of maintaining numerous units staffed only by officers will be eliminated. Prior to the reform, only 17 percent of all units were fully staffed.
  • The existing 140,000 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be replaced by 85,000 professional sergeants trained over the next three years;
  • The four-tiered command structure will be replaced with a three-tiered structure, with the brigade serving as the basic unit;
  • The military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) will be cut in size and subordinated directly to the civilian defense minister (it was previously under the control of the chief of the general staff);
  • Numerous overlapping military institutes and medical facilities will be consolidated.

This reform was made possible, as Pavel Baev has described, by the removal of many top military commanders at General Staff headquarters, including Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky in the summer and early fall of 2008. These commanders were replaced by generals sympathetic to Serdyukov’s reform agenda or beholden directly to the defense minister for their careers.

These reforms amount to the complete destruction of Russia’s mass-mobilization military, a legacy of the Soviet army. Such a change was completely anathema to the previous generation of Russian generals, who continued to believe that the Russian military had to be configured to protect the country from a massive invasion from either Europe or China. This perception explains the military leaders’ reluctance, for two decades, to dismantle key aspects of the old Soviet army and, most especially, its vast caches of outdated and unneeded weapons overseen by an equally vast number of officers with very little battlefield training and no combat experience. These officers and weapons are the remains of an army designed to fight NATO on the European plains and have served no functional purpose since the end of the Cold War.

However, this reality contradicts the culture and interests of Russia’s military elite, who were educated to regard the Soviet army as a world-class military that could match any adversary, including (and especially) the United States. For them, the transformation of the Russian military to a smaller and more mobile force, equipped to fight local and regional conflicts, primarily against insurgents and other irregular forces, is damaging to morale, prestige, and future funding. It was thus inevitable that they would resist these reform efforts at all costs.

Past reform efforts have foundered because they were opposed by the military’s top leadership. As president, Vladimir Putin understood that military reform could not succeed unless the power of the generals was taken away first. He did this gradually, putting civilians in charge of the Defense Ministry and then breaking the power of the General Staff. Once Baluyevsky and his immediate subordinates were replaced with Serdyukov’s supporters, the plan could proceed. But the intensity of resistance to reform among top generals was such that, even then, Serdyukov felt he could not announce the ultimate goal of the reform: the elimination of the mass mobilization army left over from the Soviet Union.

The Counterattack

Immediately after the announcement of the reform program and in the months that followed, traditionalist figures in the military and analytic community did their best to derail the reform. They were helped in this effort by the Defense Ministry’s poor handling of the rollout of the reform package. Rather than putting out a complete reform package, various aspects of the reform were announced piecemeal over a period of two months. These announcements usually did not take the form of official documents; reform measures were simply mentioned in speeches and interviews by top civilian and military officials such as Serdyukov and the new chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov. Many of the details mentioned in the various speeches contradicted each other, and the extent and sources of financing for the reform were left unclear.

As a result, reform opponents did not have to focus on the substance of the reform and were initially content to criticize the various inconsistencies of and secrecy surrounding the program. The majority of the substantive criticisms focused on fears that the government would not be able to provide officers forced to retire with the apartments that were legally guaranteed to them. This became a focus of reporting on the reform efforts, especially in the aftermath of the serious downturn in the Russian economy after the collapse of oil and stock prices in the late fall of 2008. Analysts repeatedly stated that given the country’s budget deficit, it seemed virtually impossible for the government to build or buy the tens of thousands of apartments necessary to fulfill the obligations to retiring officers.

At the same time, some critics argued that, if implemented, the planned reforms would destroy the Russian army as a functioning military force. They argued that only a mass mobilization army would be able to withstand an attack by China in the Russian Far East. In their analyses and interviews, these experts calculated the necessary size of the Russian military based on either the area of the Russian Federation or the length of its border. Given Russia’s size, this method allowed them to justify a numerically large army, though they never questioned why Russia would need to defend its land border with Kazakhstan or what role the military would play in protecting its vast interior land area.

Staying the Course

Despite this criticism, the Defense Ministry’s civilian leadership has pressed ahead with their reform plans. Furthermore, both President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have expressed their support for Serdyukov and his reform plans on several occasions in the last six months. In the first round of personnel cuts, several hundred generals and other senior officers were dismissed in the first months of 2009. The transition to a brigade-based structure commenced on schedule, with 46 of the 90 new brigades formed by the end of June. The rest are expected to be formed by December 1. This means that, as far as retaining the mass mobilization army is concerned, the point of no return has already been reached.

Serdyukov has continued to systematically remove opponents of the reform from their positions, including the heads of the medical service, the military housing agency, and the Navy’s chief of staff. The removal in April of Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence, was particularly critical, as the GRU was traditionally independent of the Defense Ministry and was seen as the last bastion of opposition to Serdyukov’s reform program.

At the same time, Russia’s financial troubles have had an impact on the implementation of reforms. In April, the relocation of the naval headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg was postponed. The deadline for reducing the number of officers was extended from 2012 to 2016, giving the government more time to arrange for apartments and to finance pensions for thousands of retirees. The two-year program for professional sergeants, which had been planned to start in February, was delayed until September, likely because there was not enough time to recruit the requisite personnel or develop a training program in time for a February start. This delay will inevitably result in more time passing before the transition from NCOs to professional sergeants can be completed.

These delays, however, appear to be mere bumps in the road for the military reform juggernaut. After almost two decades of false starts and unfulfilled promises, the current iteration of military reforms seems destined to fundamentally change the Russian military.

The Future of the “New Model Army”

Given recent developments, it appears that, sometime in the next 3 to 5 years, Russia will have a more or less functional modern professional army, one that is able to fight effectively in the kinds of conflict in which Russia has actually engaged over the last twenty years. The new structure will allow the military to be more effective in fighting small wars on difficult terrain against adversaries that are likely to combine traditional military tactics with irregular warfare. This is the main, if unstated, goal of the reform. It is thus not surprising that the reforms have left the paratroopers largely untouched; they are a force that is already effective at the tasks for which the new military will be designed.

Largely missing from the discussion among either proponents or detractors of the reform effort has been the question of how to make this “new model army” more effective. While the elimination of the mass mobilization model and the move to professionalization are excellent first steps, there has been very little discussion of the extent to which the new Russian military will still be equipped with old Soviet weapons. The various rearmament programs promulgated by the government in the last ten years have all shared one feature: none has come close to even partial implementation.

Once the initial conflicts surrounding the personnel reforms are resolved, the Russian military will have to deal with the fact that the country’s military industrial complex is no longer capable of producing modern weaponry in the quantities necessary to reequip the Russian military in a timely manner. In the short term, it will have to shed its insistence on buying only domestic military hardware and make more purchases from abroad, such as the unmanned drone aircraft it recently purchased from Israel. In the long term, it will have to reform and modernize its defense industry, a project that may also require foreign assistance.