Russia and Ukraine: Not the Military Balance You Think

Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies has just published a new book on the military aspects of the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a preview of my book review, published today at War on the Rocks.

Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov, eds. Brothers Armed: Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, 2014).

Over the last few months, the crisis in Ukraine has led to a fundamental reassessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis began with Russia’s almost completely non-violent military takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014. A new English-language volume edited by Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov highlights the causes and nature of the conflict in Crimea, as well as provides some lessons for both Ukraine and other states that might be subject to Russian aggression in the future.

This volume provides balanced and comprehensive coverage of virtually all military aspects of the conflict in Crimea, including both Russian and Ukrainian points of view. The experts from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) are some of the top Russian military analysts and the quality of their research and understanding of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries is clear in the writing.

The book begins with a short chapter by Vasily Kashin describing the backstory of the territorial dispute over Crimea. Although it starts with the conquest of the region by Catherine the Great back in the 18th century and mentions more familiar arguments related to the legitimacy of the region’s transfer from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, the main focus is on events after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Kashin highlights tensions over Crimea’s status within Ukraine throughout the 1990s, the role played by former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in promoting pro-Russian separatism in Crimea in the 1990s and 2000s, and the contentious negotiations over the division and subsequent status of the Black Sea Fleet and its base in Sevastopol. His key insight is that “the Russian government took no serious measures to support separatist movements in Crimea” prior to its invasion of the peninsula last February. This illustrates that Russian actions during the crisis were not the culmination of a plan to dismember Ukraine, but a reaction to the perceived security threat coming from the Maidan protests that culminated in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.

To read the rest, please click here.

Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

I’ve avoided writing anything on the situation in Ukraine, because there’s so much material being written already and I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian military. But I do want to make just a couple of quick points.

1) Russian military experts seem to have been caught up in their government’s propaganda. This is especially disappointing when it comes from usually top-notch analysts such as Ruslan Pukhov and Igor Korotchenko. In an article that was picked up and translated by Russia Beyond the Headlines, they display a frightening amount of self-delusion in arguing that Ukrainian troops are not combat-capable simply because they stayed in their barracks while Yanukovych was being deposed. To assume, as Korotchenko does, that a military that stays on the sidelines during an internal conflict will not be able to act in the event of a Russian invasion betrays a willful lack of understanding of the difference in motivation between intervening in an internal conflict and defending your country when it’s under attack. Pukhov argues that because the army is made up of contract soldiers, local Crimean boys will not fight the Russians. This is a much more serious possibility and may well turn out to be the case, but so far there are at least a number of units that are refusing to submit to the “polite people” without insignia that are surrounding their bases. For the moment (and thankfully), they have not received any orders to fight, so the jury is still out on this question.

Now from what I know, the Ukrainian military is not in particularly good condition and would undoubtedly lose to the Russian military in any serious conflict. But that doesn’t mean that it would not be able to inflict some serious pain on its opponents in the process. And I would venture that should the conflict spread to “mainland” Ukraine, the soldiers would be highly motivated to defend their homeland.

2) Some Western analysts have argued in recent days that Putin is scoring a massive victory by taking Crimea with pretty much no resistance. But it seems to me that this action was taken not as a triumphant victory but as an effort to avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in the aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovych. This seems quite short-sighted to me, as without the Russian intervention the Maidan forces were likely to fall to squabbling and would have most likely come to a relatively quick accommodation with Moscow. Now, it appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state (or new province to subsidize) while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership. I would count this as a net strategic loss for Putin. 

The second likeliest scenario is a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, leading to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict with Russian troops involved. Even though Russia would be likely to win such a war, the result would be long term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time. And Russia would have to bear the full cost of supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future. This would be an even bigger strategic loss for Putin.

Putin has also already lost all of the international goodwill generated by his investment in the Sochi Olympics. He is gambling that EU states will fail to impose any serious penalties on Russia for its actions. Given past history this may seem to be a reasonable bet, but sending Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be seen as a game-changer in the most important European capitals, including Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw. While sanctions are by no means guaranteed (especially if Russian intervention remains limited to Crimea), they are more likely than one might expect given Europe’s general unwillingness to act.

For more on this, I would suggest that readers take a look at Mark Galeotti’s assessment, which parallels mine in many ways.

 

Eastern command exercises completed

A week ago, the Russian military completed the largest spot check exercise it has conducted since 1991. The MOD has put out some information on the scale and units involved. The slides were helpfully reproduced by Ruslan Pukhov in his blog.  They are done in the usual Russian style — it’s all about how many planes flew, how many tons of equipment were moved, etc. Nevertheless, there are some interesting tidbits. Here are some highlights.

The exercise involved 160,000 personnel from all three military branches. Ground forces from all four Eastern district armies and the 41st army of the Central district were involved, including 9 infantry brigades, the 18th artillery division (based in the Southern Kurils), a tank brigade, 2 air assault brigades, a naval infantry brigade, 5 signal brigades, 2 artillery brigades, 2 rocket brigades, 1 MRLS brigade, 2 air defense brigades, 2 NBC defense brigades, 4 logistics brigades, and 2 equipment storage bases. 12,000 vehicles were activated.

The air force activated 130 aircraft and helicopters from four commands (Long Range Aviation, Military-Transport Aviation, 2nd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Yekaterinburg, 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command — Khabarovsk). The specific air force units involved were the 6952nd LRA Base from Amur Oblast, the 6955th MTA Base from Tver, the 6980th aviation base from Chelyabinsk, and the 6983rd aviation base from Primorskii Krai.

Naval participation included 70 ships from the 36th surface ship division, 165th surface ship brigade, 10th and 25th submarine divisions, 19th submarine brigade, 100th assault ship brigade, 114th coastal defense ship brigade, and the 520th independent coastal missile-artillery brigade.

One infantry brigade arrived by sea, while 30 transport aircraft moved 8,500 personnel over 167 flights. 1000 reservists were involved, from Primorsky Krai. 45 field control centers were activated, most at the brigade level. 8 UAVs completed 22 flights. One of the 12 long range aviation planes failed to complete (or maybe to start?) its flight.

The overall assessment of these exercises from the military has been largely positive, though some areas did come in for criticism. Yuri Borisov noted that 3-4% of vehicles broke down during the exercise, either because of errors made by the  operators or because the equipment was old. This is not ideal, but is certainly a better statistic than in the bad old days a decade ago. Shoigu criticized the state of the communications system, noting that military communications are only 18% effective. It’s not clear what that number actually means, but it’s clearly not good. Marksmanship also came in for criticism, in part because of a lack of practice.  He was pleased with military transportation, highlighting in particular that railroad transportation functioned at almost double the allotted rate of travel (1000km/day vs 600km/day). He also noted that changes may be made to the structure of the air force, primarily by dividing up the air bases that were created a few years ago and and re-opening some of the military airports closed by Serdyukov.

UPDATE: Aleksei Nikolskii wrote to say that Shoigu’s statement on the communications systems being 18% effective referred to R&D efforts on C2 systems not producing results, rather than the systems’ effectiveness during the exercise itself.  He also notes that the actual number of troops involved was much lower. For each infantry brigade, only battalion-size tactical groups were mobilized, for other brigades, composite detachments were formed to represent each brigade. About 15,000 troops were moved by rail and aircraft (8,200 of these by air). Cooperation across military branches was problematic, with the naval infantry unit getting an unsatisfactory rating. The problems with firing accuracy were mostly among conscripts, who also were responsible for the lion’s share of technical problems with equipment.

 

How to save money on the military

In last Friday’s NVO, Ruslan Pukhov takes on the always controversial topic of how to reduce military expenditures. He notes that the plans set out by President Putin in his article on security issues require a high level of financing, which may not be available if the price for oil and natural gas declines or if Russian economic growth slows down. He mentions that the Ministry of Finance is discussing the option of reducing defense expenditures by as much as 0.5 percent of GDP. If that plan comes to fruition, how would the savings come about?

Pukhov proposes two primary areas for cost reductions. First, he points out that no one has ever explained why Russia needs a one million man army. That level of manpower is excessive for dealing with local and regional conflicts, while more serious conflicts with NATO or China can be deterred with nuclear weapons. Russia’s poor demographic situation means that even without the cost considerations, Russia will not be able to maintain a million man army in the next decade. I have previously noted that even now there are only 750,000-800,000 personnel serving in the military, while 20-25 percent of billets are vacant.

But Pukhov goes farther, arguing that military manpower could be cut to 700,000 or even 600,000 by way of eliminating 6-8 brigades in the ground forces. This would result in significant savings on staffing and training, with little negative effect on overall combat readiness.

The second area for savings is in procurement of equipment and weaponry. Here, Pukhov makes the argument that given Russia’s geography and the nature of the potential threats it faces, the navy provides the least value for the price. Ships and submarines are of course notoriously expensive items and it is true that the most likely source of conflict for Russia will come from across its southern border, where naval forces can play no more than an auxiliary role. At the same time, the Russian Navy is likely to play an important role in protecting sea lanes in the Arctic and in guarding offshore oil and gas extraction facilities in the Pacific. It would also play a crucial role in any potential future conflict in East Asia. So I was initially dubious about Pukhov’s call for downsizing the fleet.

However, if you look at the details of his recommendations, they primarily concern the ongoing shift from a blue water navy to a coastal protection force. While this has been the de facto strategy for Russian naval development for the better part of the last decade, recently the MOD has made statements indicating that it will seek to restore the RFN as a global force. Pukhov rejects this initiative, specifically by calling for the cancellation of the pointless project to restore the Soviet-era nuclear cruisers. This is a recommendation I fully support. I know that boosters of the RFN will respond with data about how powerful these ships can be. My response is that power is one thing, but usefulness is a different matter. There is simply no way that the project’s cost can be justified given the lack of missions for such ships in current Russian military strategy.

Pukhov’s second recommendation is to cancel the purchase of Mistral ships. Here I am a bit more skeptical. These are very expensive ships, no doubt. But they will provide value for the RFN in three ways. First, they can serve as a helo-carrying amphibious assault ship, a capability largely lacking in the current RFN. Second, they can serve as command ships for specific fleets. And third (and still the main reason for the deal), by building two ships in Russia, the deal will contribute to the ability of Russian shipbuilders to construct modern ships of various types in the future. So there may be value here. But if the budget axe does fall on the Russian Navy, then it would no doubt be more effective to cancel this project than the new frigates and corvettes that are to form the core of the Russian Navy for the next 20-30 years.

Whether or not one accepts Pukhov’s specific recommendations, his article serves a useful purpose in calling our attention to the kinds of hard choices that the Russian military will have to make should the rumors of impending budget cuts come true.

 

 

The death of Tupolev

To continue the aircraft theme of the last few weeks, I just read a very informative article by Ruslan Pukhov that appeared in last week’s NVO. In this article, Pukhov contrasts the state of Russian aircraft design bureaus that have successfully made the transition to the post-Soviet economic environment, such as Sukhoi and (to a lesser extent) MiG, with those that haven’t, such as Ilyushin and (especially) Tupolev.

One might have expected quite the opposite situation, as MiG and Sukhoi designed aircraft exclusively for the military during the Soviet period, while Ilyushin and Tupolev combined military and commercial aviation. Given the complete lack of government financing for military procurement during the 1990s, one might have thought that a greater diversity of projects and clientele might have helped the latter two companies to come out of the 1990s in better shape than the purely military design bureaus.

Pukhov describes the many false starts made by Tupolev in its efforts to remain competitive in the commercial aircraft industry, including such recent howlers as a proposal for in-flight refueling of passenger aircraft. But the main source of its problems resulted from an inability to launch full serial production of its Tu-204/214 medium-range passenger airliner, which was designed in the late 1980s and has now become somewhat outdated. The situation was made worse by Tupolev’s difficulties in servicing these aircraft. Other potential projects, such as the Tu-334 regional jet and the supersonic Tu-444 business jet have fared even worse. The Tu-334 was recently canceled with only two prototypes built after two decades of effort, while the Tu-444 is unlikely to ever move beyond the concept stage. As a result, Tupolev seems poised to be completely shut out of the commercial airliner market in the very near future

Tupolev’s position in military procurement is not much better. Tupolev’s core military business was in long range and strategic bombers. While there are ongoing plans to modernize existing aircraft, these programs are proceeding very slowly. Pukhov believes that if the military ever decides to develop a new long range bomber, it is unlikely that Tupolev would get the contract for this work. Tupolev’s Soviet-era efforts to develop UAVs is largely useless for the types of missions required of 21st century UAVs. There is no chance that Russian efforts to design UAVs would be based on Tupolev’s experience in this field.

By contrast, Sukhoi in the last decade has not only developed a number of successful new combat aircraft, but has also entered the commercial aircraft market with the SSJ-100. The difference between these manufacturers goes a long way toward explaining the differences in the Russian military’s ability to relatively quickly restore the potential of its combat aircraft, versus the problems it is having in modernizing its transport aviation and developing an indigenous UAV capability. As Pukhov argues in his conclusion, the failure of companies such as Tupolev and Ilyushin to adapt has opened the door for new entrants to take over the commercial and military transport aircraft sectors. In addition to Sukhoi, the leading candidate for this role is Irkut, formerly just a manufacturing concern, which has now entered the design field with a new mid-range commercial airliner currently in developed and expected to enter production in 3-4 years. Tupolev, for its part, is likely to face closure in the next few years as United Aircraft Corporation consolidates its holdings.

 

Valdai Club 6: Missile Defense

The conference took place at the same time as the G8 summit in Deauxville, which included a statement on possibilities for missile defense cooperation between Russia and the US/Europe. The discussions on this topic at Valdai, however, left me very much pessimistic about the likelihood for such cooperation. There were two events directly related to missile defense. The first was a panel discussion on May 26th, with presentations by Oksana Antonenko of IISS, Mesut Hakki Casin of Yeditepe University in Istanbul, and Aleksandr Stukalin of Kommersant-Daily, followed by a discussion. The second was a meeting that same evening with a senior MOD official who has some responsibility for missile defense. As you will see from the report, the tone of these two meetings could not have been more different. (Note: I don’t have detailed notes on the presentation by Casin — it focused on how important missile defense cooperation would be for international security)

Panel on building a European missile defense system

Oksana Antonenko — Prospects for NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation

Antonenko provided a very optimistic assessment of the possibilities for including meaningful Russian participation in a European missile defense system. She began by reviewing the history of international cooperation on missile defense, noting several promising initiatives dating back to the Clinton presidency have been signed but never fully implemented, including the RAMOS program and the JDEC program to exchange early warning data on launches. Theater missile defense cooperation within the NATO-Russia Council was thus the 3rd stage of cooperation. This allowed for significant progress, including joint exercises. A live fire exercise that was to be held in 2008 in Germany would have brought cooperation to a new level, but it was canceled because of the Georgia war and the entire program was suspended. As a result, many of the experienced people involved in that cooperation left. Continue reading

Valdai Club 1: Panel on Russian Military Reform

I spent last week in Moscow at the inaugural meeting of the Valdai Club’s military section. I will have a number of posts this week with my impressions of the meetings. I’ll start today with a brief summary of the overall schedule and a discussion of the first substantive panel, which was on developments in Russia’s military reform.

Altogether, there were three panels during the conference. In addition to the panel on military reform, the topics covered included cooperation on building a European missile defense system and possibilities for new alliances that could include Russia.

We also visited the base of the 5th Guards Independent Motor Rifle Brigade (former Tamanskaya Division) and the Don-2N multifunctional radar station. We were scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Makarov, but neither was available, so we met with Andrey Tretyak, the chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry. We also had some off the record meeting with other MOD and defense industry officials.

Foreign participants included a number of specialists on military and security issues from the US, Turkey, France, Norway, Japan, Belarus, Germany, the UK, and Poland. Of course, there was also a large contingent of Russian analysts and journalists.

So with that overview out of the way, let me focus on the first panel, which took place on Wednesday, May 25. (Other descriptions of this panel may be found here and here.)

Ruslan Pukhov — Reform of the Armed Forces

The panel was officially entitled “Reform of the Russian Armed Forces,” and featured three speakers. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), began with an overview of the problems that forced the Russian government to begin the radical transformation of the armed forces. Continue reading