MCIS slides on regional security in the Middle East and North Africa

Today’s installment of MCIS slides comes courtesy of Sam Charap, who attended the breakout session on regional security in the MENA region. The panel was led off by Lt. General Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, the Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff. Unfortunately, the Russian MOD has not made available speech texts or video of the breakout sessions. (I’ll have a report on Monday on the other breakout session on soft power, which I attended.)

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MCIS presentation on Asia-Pacific security problems

One more set of slides today, this one from a speech by Vice Admiral Igor Kostyukov, the first deputy chief of the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff, on the topic of security in the Asia-Pacific region. MCIS has put on its website the text of his speech in Russian and video in Russian only.

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Quick thoughts on Syria strike

I wrote this up quickly on Saturday for friends, and it seemed to get a positive reaction, so I decided to expand a bit and send it out to the wider world…

The United States (and the Trump administration) came out well. The would saw a measured response that showed US willingness to follow up words with actions, while also showing that Trump’s rash tweets do not equal rash actions (at least vis-a-vis Russia). Jim Mattis in particular showed that he is the chief voice of reason and restraining figure in the administration.

At the same time, the strikes accomplished little in practical terms. Syria’s ability to make and use chemical weapons was largely unaffected, because what they are using now is chlorine gas, rather than the sarin that was made in its chemical weapons program prior to 2013. Chlorine gas is much easier to make and is almost certainly made at sites other than the ones that were targeted (and even if it was being made there, it can relatively easily be made elsewhere).

For this reason, Syria (and Assad) also came out well. For the price of a few destroyed buildings they got to take over Douma and wipe out the last rebel controlled zone near Damascus. The main question is the extent to which the strikes will deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. My guess is that there will be some short-term deterrent effect (because of worries that the next strike will be more damaging), but little long-term effect — because of beliefs that US memories fade and because of cost-benefit calculations that show that use of chemical weapons in certain situations is highly effective in demoralizing enemies and causing them to surrender (see Douma) while also forcing somewhat reluctant allies such as Russia to publicly support Assad.

Russia is a (minor) loser for this round — Russian officials made big loud statements early on, but then clearly got scared of being painted into a corner and started backing off a few days ago. In the end, the situation showed that Russia cannot deter the United States from hitting an ally, but it can limit the extent of the strike and the choice of targets. Also, Syria’s (older) Russian-made air defenses were completely ineffective, while potentially more effective modern air defenses under Russian control were not activated. In other words, the US strikes clearly showed both the extent and the limits of Russian influence in the region. Russian leaders clearly care about this image problem, thus the somewhat ridiculous statements about Syrian air defenses successfully intercepting US missiles supposedly aimed at airfields that the US and its allies did not target.

The military balance in the region is clearly revealed. In a few days, the US and its allies were able to gather a set of forces that are much stronger than what Russia could bring to bear in the region. This is not the early 1970s, when much of the world believed that the Soviet Union could more or less match the maximum US presence in the Eastern Med (even if present-day Russian analysts are skeptical about the actual strength of Russian military forces in the region at the time). The Russian military (in terms of conventional forces) is stronger than it was a few years ago and is more than a match for any of its other adversaries, but it’s still far weaker than the US military.

Finally, the impact of the strike on US domestic politics is pretty certainly going to be short-term and very limited. Some of Trump’s isolationist allies on the far right were appalled and highly critical, but they will come back to the fold soon enough since they have no alternative to supporting Trump. What’s more, Democratic politicians’ critiques that the attack should not have been done without Congressional authorization are not likely to last long, because actually having that debate in Congress is not in their interest politically (which way to vote — to authorize Trump to use force or to allow other countries to carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity?). Better to just carp from the sidelines on this issue and go back to the various scandals after a couple of days.

So, to sum up, the world avoided a big international crisis through a combination of US restraint, Russian desire to avoid escalation in a situation where it did not have escalation dominance, and good use of US-Russian deconfliction channels. The strike itself was not particularly effective at achieving its stated goals vis-a-vis Syria, but was good at signaling US intent and capabilities for the future (including the limits of that intent). The major problem that remains is that given what I described above, Assad is unlikely to have been deterred from future use of chemical weapons and therefore we may well be back in the same place again a few months or a year from now.

MCIS 2018 Belarusian Defense Minister slides

Today’s installment of slides comes from the speech of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov. While last year, Ravkov’s speech immediately followed and was largely complementary to Valery Gerasimov’s speech, which focused on European Security, this year he got to headline the panel on European Security himself. This was convenient for his staff, as they didn’t have to change the title slide at all, and really only made superficial modifications to a number of other slides. Compare the slides below to last year’s slides. I guess as far as Belarus is concerned, European security hasn’t changed much over the last year. The Ravkov speech is available on video in Russian and English.

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MCIS 2018 Sergei Rudskoi slides

Well, it’s time once again for the annual slide show of presentations from the Moscow Conference on International Security. This was my fifth time attending. I’ll write up some overall impressions later in the week. Sadly, Valery Gerasimov was absent this year, supposedly because he was accompanying Vladimir Putin during his state visit to Turkey.  His spot on the program was filled by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, speaking about Russia’s operation in Syria. His speech is, as usual available on YouTube in both English and Russian versions. MCIS has also posted a Russian transcript. The slides are below, though some can also be viewed (including animations) in the linked videos.

(All in all, if ability to make use of advanced features of PowerPoint is a proxy for Russian military modernization, the West should be concerned, because the Russian General Staff has made giant strides in this regard in the last five years. I would estimate the gap between the best Russian and American powerpoint rangers at no more than 10 years now.)

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Russian Air Force procurement plans

The last month or so has seen a number of good overviews in the Russian press of recent procurement and future plans of the Russian Air Force. The Russian Air Force has been substantially modernized and upgraded as part of the current State Armament Program (SAP-2020). The table below summarizes procurement in tactical aviation over the last ten years, as compiled by Moscow’s CAST think tank.

Type earlier 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 Total Contracted
Su-34 15 10 14 18 18 16 16 107 129
Su-35S 2 8 24 12 12 10 68 98
Su-27 SM3 12 12 12
Su-30 SM 2 14 21 27 19 17 100 116
Su-30 M2 4 3 8 3 2 20 20
MiG-29 SMT /UBT 28/6 3/2 11/0 42/8 50
MiG-29 KR /KUBR 2/2 8/2 10/0 24 24
Yak-130 12 15 18 20 14 10 6 95 109
Total 77 29 61 101 89 70 49 476 560

Much of this procurement reflects the need to replace aging Soviet aircraft with new airframes with modern electronics and weapon systems. Nevertheless, many Soviet-era airframes remain in service. These include approximately 100 Su-27 and Su-27SM and approximately 150-170 MiG-29S fighter aircraft, approximately 150 MiG-31 interceptors, and over 200 each of the Su-24 bomber and Su-25 strike aircraft.

Most of these aircraft are expected to be either replaced or modernized over the next 10 years. According to Ilya Kramnik, who recently published a comprehensive summary of Russian aircraft procurement plans, the Russian Air Force is planning to have at least 700 fighter aircraft in active service. The bulk of these (around 450) will be designed by Sukhoi. These will include 66 additional Su-30SM aircraft, with 16 of these to be delivered in 2018 based on an existing contract signed in 2012 and the other 50 by 2022 based on a new contract to be signed in the near future. These aircraft are being built at the Irkutsk aircraft plant. This will bring the total number of Su-30SM and Su-30M2 aircraft to at least 186 by 2027, with approximately 50 of these in naval aviation.

In addition, approximately 130 Su-35S aircraft are to be delivered over the next 10 years, with 30 still remaining on an existing contract from 2015 and another 100 expected to be procured on a new contract to be signed as part of SAP-2027. When added to the 68 aircraft already delivered, the Russian air force should expect to have approximately 200 Su-35S fighters by 2027. The new fifth generation Su-57 fighter aircraft will be procured in limited numbers, with reports indicating that 12 aircraft will be delivered by 2021 and around 50 more by 2027. Delays in deliveries of these planes may be covered by an increase in purchases of Su-35s and perhaps Su-30s.

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the extent to which the Russian Air Force will procure the new MiG-35 multi-role fighter jet. Some sources have stated that 170 MiG-35 aircraft will be purchased over the next 10 years, while Kramnik quotes unnamed experts who believe that the number purchased will be limited to 70-80 units. I expect the lower number to be closer to reality, given the general lack of enthusiasm in the Russian MOD for the MiG-35. In the meantime, the air force is continuing to modernize its existing fleet of Soviet era MiG-31 aircraft, with as many as 150 of the 250 units in inventory expected to be modernized by 2027. Of these, around 30 will remain assigned to naval aviation. The 50 MiG-29SMT and UBT variants procured between 2009 and 2016 will also remain in the force, while older MiG-29 versions are likely to be phased out over the next ten years.

Carrier-based naval aviation will consist of the 17 remaining older Su-33 fighter planes, currently undergoing an expensive modernization, together with 23 MiG-29KR aircraft delivered in the last few years.

Strike aviation will consist of modernized versions of the Soviet-era Su-25, with a total of 120-140 aircraft to be converted to carry precision-guided munitions. The venerable Su-24 bombers, on the other hand, will be entirely replaced by the new Su-34s, which performed quite well in Syria in recent years. In addition to the 114 Su-34s already in service, Kramnik expects the Russian military to sign a contract in the next two years to purchase an additional 90-100 aircraft, with perhaps additional units earmarked for naval aviation to replace its current stock of Su-24s.

Prospects for long range aviation are relatively clear, with serial production of a modernized version of the Tu-160 expected to start in 2021. While exact numbers of aircraft to be procured have not been revealed, some early estimates suggested that as many as 50 new Tu-160s will be procured over the next decade. In the meantime, existing Tu-95 and Tu-160 aircraft are in the process of receiving new engines, avionics, and weapon systems.

Transport aviation is in much worse shape than combat aviation, with relatively few new aircraft procured in the last ten years.  The Il-76MD is expected to remain the heavy transport workhorse of the Russian Air Force. These aircraft were built in the 1980s and were relatively underused in the post-Soviet period, so that they could serve another 15-20 years in their present form. In 2013, the MOD ordered 39 aircraft of a modernized Il-76MD-90A variant, although only five have been delivered through the end of 2017, including two units that will be developed into the A-100 AWACS aircraft. According to Vladimir Moiseev, the main need for modernized aircraft is as a platform for the A-100 and for the Il-78 refueling aircraft, rather than for new heavy transport aircraft themselves. Moiseev notes that given the issues with organizing timely production of the modernized Il-76, development of a next next generation heavy transport aircraft has been put off into the distant future.

Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force desperately needs a new medium transport aircraft, since the remaining 60 or so An-12 aircraft were built in the 1960s and early 1970s and are rapidly approaching the end of their service lives. The various projects to build a new multi-role transport aircraft that have been under discussion for more than 15 years have been united only by their continued failure to produce an aircraft. The current plan is to have a design finalized this year and test flights to start in 2023. Given that most An-12s will have to be retired by 2024, this gives little margin for error and in fact almost guarantees that the Russian Air Force will either face a gap of at least a few years without a medium transport aircraft or (more likely) will have to do what it can to keep as many An-12s as possible airworthy for as long as it can.

The situation with light transport aircraft is a little better. Although the 40 existing An-26 aircraft will also have to be retired soon, the design of the new Il-112 replacement aircraft is relatively far along, with initial test flights expected in late 2018 and serial production possibly ready to start no later than the early 2020s.

Finally, the Il-114 is expected to become the main platform for special aviation, including variants for maritime patrol (to replace the Il-38), electronic warfare, AWACS, and reconnaisance. About 50 aircraft of this type are expected to be produced for the Russian military over the next ten years.

Based on this overview, we can make a rough estimate of what the Russian Air Force and naval aviation will look like in 2027. I am excluding the various types of specialized aircraft, such as AWACS, tankers, maritime patrol, etc, from this table, just to keep it manageable. The table includes aircraft in both the air force and in naval aviation.

Type Category Number
Su-25 Strike 120-140
Su-27 Fighter 60-70
Su-30 Fighter 190-200
Su-33 Carrier-based fighter 17
Su-34 Bomber 210-230
Su-35 Fighter 200
Su-57 Fighter 50-60
MiG-29 Fighter 60-80
MiG-31 Interceptor 150
MiG-35 Fighter 70-80
  Total Tactical 1100-1200
 
Yak-130 Trainer 110-130
Yak-152 Trainer 150
  Total Trainers 260-280
     
Tu-22 Bomber 69
Tu-95 Bomber 60
Tu-160 Bomber 66
Total Long Range Aviation 190-200
   
Il-76 Heavy transport 100-150
An-12 Medium transport 30-60
Il-112 Light transport 40-50
Other types (mostly Antonov) Transport 40-50
Total Transport 210-300

As can be seen from this overview, Russian military aviation is set to build on its core strengths in combat aviation while improving its strike and long range bomber capabilities. Transport will remain a weakness, with little progress being made over the next decade to address continuing problems in that sphere that have only been exacerbated by the end of defense cooperation with Ukraine and its Antonov design bureau.

Overall, Russian aircraft procurement has followed the path of buying more of what Russian defense industry is good at producing, rather than basing procurement on a programmatic assessment of Russian defense needs. In addition, the MOD has to some extent succumed to pressure to support defense industry and will be procuring aircraft such as the MiG-35 that it is not particularly excited about. As a result, the air force will be faced with a proliferation of combat aircraft types, with the attendant higher maintenance and training costs. In the meantime, the long-term weakness in transport aviation will persist, limiting the improvements in military mobility that have been one of the core aspects of military reform efforts over the last decade.

Russian Military Intervention in Kazakhstan

I’ve written a short report for an American Enterprise Institute project on possible Russian interventions in neighboring states. I was asked to discuss possible reasons for and trajectories of a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. You can access the full report through AEI, but here’s an excerpt.


Key Points

  • Kazakhstan’s size and Russia’s lack of significant military presence in the region make outright invasion unlikely.
  • Nevertheless, the death or deposition of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev could generate regional instability, which may prompt Russia to intervene in support of a new regime or to undermine a newly empowered Kazakh nationalist one.
  • The likeliest cause of intervention would be to put down an Islamist insurgency, either with or without a request from Astana.

Introduction

Although a Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan is fairly unlikely, there are scenarios under which it could occur. This report first describes several possible scenarios that might result in such an intervention, considering potential Russian responses that range from providing assistance at the request of Kazakhstan’s government to an outright invasion. It then briefly examines the forces Russia could bring to bear in a conflict in Central Asia, looking in slightly more depth at the likeliest scenario—a Russian intervention to suppress an Islamist incursion or uprising.

Possible Scenarios for Intervention in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s size would make Russia reluctant to undertake a full-scale military intervention. Still, there are circumstances under which the Russian leadership would feel pressure to use force to intervene in Kazakhstan.

The greatest potential threat to political stability in Kazakhstan would come from the death or incapacity of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Such a situation could be followed by a succession crisis, with multiple groups jockeying for position.

If prolonged government weakness or conflict ensues, radical Islamist groups connected to the Taliban or the Islamic State could seize the oppor-tunity to launch an armed insurgency, potentially combined with an incursion from the south. A weak or divided Kazakhstan government might prove incapable of resisting a well-organized insurgency, especially if the anti-government forces are able to draw on the support of local inhabitants in the more religious (Islamic) southern parts of the country. In such a situation, Kazakhstani leaders might request assistance from Russia. Russia might also intervene on its own without a request for help, but only if Kazakhstan were largely engulfed by instability and Russia wanted to protect its borders or ethnic Russians living in areas near Russia that were under threat.

Although the threat from religious extremist groups is real, it requires some degree of state weakness or division to develop. While scholars have long argued that a crisis precipitated by the death of an aging leader could provide such an opportunity in any of the Central Asia states, the two cases so far of leaders dying in office in Central Asia (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have both resulted in fairly smooth leadership transitions.

A second, though relatively unlikely, possibility is that Nazarbayev’s death coincides with a difficult period in Russian domestic politics for the Vladimir Putin regime. Whether because of economic problems or political weakness vis-à-vis younger politicians, Putin and his circle might choose to reenact the Crimea scenario in Kazakhstan. The goal would be to boost the regime’s popularity through another injection of militarized patriotism by annexing a territory with a predominantly Russian population. Such territories are located in the north and northeast of the country, directly adjacent to Russian territory. Counting on support from at least some of the local ethnic Russians, Moscow could seek to annex the territories around Petropavlovsk and Kustanay in the north or the territory around Ust-Kamenogorsk in the northeast.

Somewhat paradoxically, a third scenario for Russian intervention could follow a smooth transition of power. In this case, Nazarbayev could be succeeded by a leader who begins to implement a Kazakh nationalist agenda, acting aggressively to remove Russian language from the public sphere and ethnic Russians from positions of authority inside the country. Government policies under such a leader might also shift financial resources away from the northern and eastern parts of the country where ethnic Russian inhabitants predominate.

The leadership might undertake policies to reduce Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia, perhaps going so far as to suspend membership in the Eurasian Union. In doing so, the leadership would bank on expanding already close economic ties with China into the political and security spheres. Such a development would worry Russian leaders, who are comfortable with a division of influence with China in Central Asia as long as Russia continues its primacy in the security sphere—they would be concerned about a Kazakhstani government bent on severing political and security ties to Moscow.

Finally, Russian intervention might also be triggered by mass protests leading to a color revolution, similar to Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2004–05 and 2013–14. The population might be outraged by corruption and repression during tough economic times. As in the first scenario, Kazakhstan’s leadership would need to precipitate the intervention by requesting assistance from either Russia directly or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian leaders would then act in support of this request.


Read the full report here