Another round of reorganization

According to Viktor Litovkin, the Russian military is about to undergo another around of reorganization. The current system of six military districts and seven armies will be replaced by four “operational-strategic directions,” broken down as follows:

  • The Western direction will include the current Leningrad and Moscow military districts, the Kaliningrad special district, and the Baltic and Northern Fleets.  It will be headquartered in St. Petersburg next door to the Admiralty.
  • The Southern direction will include all of the North Caucasus and part of the Volga-Urals military districts, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Caspian Flotilla. Its headquarters will be in Rostov.
  • The Northern direction will include the Siberian and the rest of the Volga-Urals military districts and will be based in Ekaterinburg.
  • The Eastern direction will include the Far Eastern military district, the Kamchatka special district, and the Pacific Fleet. The headquarters will be in Khabarovsk.

In each case, the direction headquarters will control all troops in their area, including naval and air force units and air defenses, with the exception of Strategic Rocket Forces, which will remain under separate command. At the same time, the headquarters of each of the separate services (i.e. the ground forces, navy, air force, and air defenses) will be transformed into structural divisions of the General Staff.

The transformations are to occur imminently, as there are already plans to test this system in the Vostok-2010 exercises, scheduled for July-August 2010. The main goal of these exercises is to test the integration of all military command and control systems.

These exercises will involve the entire Far East from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean and will consist of a “modern combined arms operation,” including airborne and amphibious landings in hostile territory, counter-terrorism operations, and rocket and artillery attacks. The air force and navy will both have prominent roles, with the Navy in particular involving two cruisers — the Peter the Great and the Moskva.

The goal of all these transformations is to reduce the number of layers of command from sixteen to three, hopefully thereby increasing the speed and accuracy of military decision-making. The idea is that with this new simplified command system and improvements in communication equipment, “the chief of the general staff will be able to call any company or platoon commander” and vice-versa.

Litovkin argues that given the current condition of the Russian military, the goals of this exercise sound like science fiction, rather than anything that could actually be accomplished. I too am skeptical of the military’s ability to implement the reorganization and train people to use all this new communications equipment in the 2-3 month window prior to the start of the exercises. But even if these moves are delayed, they are at least signs that the military is continuing to head (albeit slowly) in the right direction.

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Russian foreign arms purchases are good for regional stability

A great deal of ink has been spilled recently about how terrible it is that a number of European NATO members are considering selling arms and military equipment to Russia. Many commentators vehemently argue against such arms sales. The reasons for the opposition are rarely stated openly, but when they are they tend to focus on the fear that such deals would tie West European states more closely to Russia, preventing them from standing firm against Russian policies that the commentators oppose. A secondary reason is that these deals would improve Russian military capabilities.

Both of these reasons are fundamentally misguided. First of all, countless studies have shown that greater ties between states reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or Germany sell military equipment to Russia, they not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but they also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO military equipment. Cold warriors seem to think that the dependency argument only runs in one direction — Western states who sell to Russia wouldn’t want to lose sales, so they’ll do whatever Russia wants. But the road of mutual dependence is a two way street. If Russia starts buying certain categories of military equipment from abroad, its domestic defense industry will likely lose whatever capability it still has to produce that category of equipment. Russia will then depend on NATO states for the procurement (and perhaps maintenance) of its military equipment. In that situation, Russian leaders will have to think twice before undertaking any actions towards NATO that are sufficiently hostile as to result in it being cut off from access to such equipment.  This form of dependence is much more serious. After all, if Russia gets upset with France and stops buying its military equipment, French arms manufacturers will lose some money and perhaps some French people will lose their jobs. But if France cuts off military sales to Russia in a situation where Russia is dependent on France for certain types of equipment, Russian security will suffer.

Some analysts fear that Russia could use equipment purchased from NATO, such as the Mistral ships, to attack its neighbors. The 2008 Georgia war showed that even without NATO equipment the Russian military is plenty strong enough to defeat a small and weak army of the kind that just about all of its immediate neighbors possess. Western arms sales are not necessary for Russia to be able to successfully undertake hostile action against a country like Georgia. But again, if NATO arms sales to Russia become ubiquitous, Russia may well become more hesitant to undertake actions that could potentially result in the cut-off of such arms sales. In other words, Western leverage over Russian actions will actually increase.

Second, if Russia starts using NATO equipment, this will improve interoperability between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such piracy, smuggling and counter-terrorism than they are to actually fight each other, it seems to me that selling NATO equipment to Russia can only lead to improvements in security for NATO states.

Russian leaders have recently contemplated a large number of potential arms purchases from abroad, including both basic equipment, such as uniforms, weaponry,  such as sniper rifles, and major platforms, such as amphibious assault ships and armored vehicles. This shows that these leaders no longer trust the capabilities of Russia’s domestic defense industry to rebuild the Russian army, which is equipped almost entirely with aging Soviet-era technology. They have come to understand that foreign ties are only way to rebuild their military capabilities in a reasonable time frame.

Western leaders should encourage this trend, because it will only enhance regional and global security. Rather than “eroding the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood,” extensive arms sales by NATO states to Russia will increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests, while enhancing regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO forces against threats to their mutual security.

The strategic significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

Pretty much all analysts are in agreement that the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet is limited. This is due to factors that go beyond the age of the fleet and its limited warfighting capabilities, which were addressed in my last post. It is obvious that even if the most optimistic Russian projections for rebuilding the fleet over the next 10-15 years are fulfilled, it will remain much weaker than Turkey’s navy, not to mention that of NATO as a whole. Furthermore, Russia just does not face any particularly serious threats in the Black Sea. Georgia, the only remotely possible adversary, has not rebuilt its Navy after the 2008 war. Despite the occasionally belligerent rhetoric from Moscow and the text of Russia’s new military doctrine, NATO does not present a threat to Russia and there is no chance of conflict between Russia and NATO in the foreseeable future.

Finally, the Black Sea Fleet does not have (and has never had) any strategic value in a large scale conflict. In the absolutely unlikely event of a conflict between NATO and Russia, it would be very simple for Turkey to block the Bosphorus to Russian ships to prevent them from entering the Mediterranean. In that situation, the BSF would be bottled up in the Black Sea, able only to harass Turkey, Romania, or Bulgaria. Given the likely scale of such a conflict, this battles would be insignificant. Even during the Georgia war in 2008, the Black Sea Fleet had a distinctly secondary role.

In the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, the Black Sea Fleet is a “prestige fleet” or a “PR flotilla.” Its value for both Russia and Ukraine is primarily symbolic. For Russia, the symbolism has to do with past greatness and sacrifice, both during World War II and earlier, during the 19th century Russo-Turkish war. For Ukraine, the symbolism has to do with either independence from Russian domination or with maintaining ties with Russia, depending on which side of the political divide one stands.

Despite the fleet’s military and strategic irrelevance, the extension of the leasing agreement is quite important for Russia. First of all, allowing the base to remain in Sevastopol means that Russia will not have to spend a great deal of effort and financial resources to relocate the base to Novorossiisk or elsewhere. Novorossiisk is not an ideal location for the fleet because of its less central location in the Black Sea, poor climate, and limited space for military ships in the port, which is dominated by commercial shipping.

The strategic value of the deal for Russia is even more significant. It is in effect a public announcement that Russia and Ukraine are resuming a partnership that was dissolved five years ago after the Orange Revolution. This partnership will have major economic and political benefits for both countries.  Various economic cooperation projects have been proposed, including the politically highly contentious possibility of a merger between Gazprom and the Ukrainian Naftohaz. Of more direct benefit, Russia has promised to increase its investment in infrastructure and economic development in Crimea. Ukrainian anti-Russian forces will undoubtedly see this as yet another step in a gradual Russian takeover of the region, but the reality is that the region is in desperate need of investment and given its current economic crisis Ukraine simply does not have the money to invest in Crimea. Russian newspapers have published articles discussing the rapid influx of Russian businessmen coming to Crimea with proposals for joint projects in the week after the announcement of the basing treaty.

There have also been several proposals for increased cooperation in military construction, including the possibility of joint shipbuilding projects using Ukrainian shipyards in Nikolaev/Mykolaiv and the possible merger of the Ukrainian airplane builder Antonov with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation.  Of course, both of these manufacturers are not in any better shape in terms of physical plant or staffing than the equivalent Russian plants. For them, cooperation with Russian defense industry may make survival possible, but is unlikely to lead to a genuine revival. For Russia, working with Ukrainian defense industry will not reverse the decline of its own industry.

Finally, the deal allows Russia to score symbolic points against two long standing betes noir. Russian experts believe that as long as the Black Sea Fleet remains in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s accession to NATO is off the table, as the alliance prohibits members from hosting bases of non-NATO states. In reality, Ukrainian accession has probably been off the table for several years, due to the unpopularity of membership among a majority of the population and increasing “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe caused by that country’s unstable politics since the Orange Revolution.

The deal also allows Russia to settle some scores with Ukraine’s opposition in general and with former President Yushchenko in particular. Given the glee with which Yushchenko strove to stick it to Russia over the last five years over this issue, this deal must have felt like especially sweet revenge for Putin and Co., and especially the sight of the opposition being helpless to stop the deal’s ratification in the Rada despite resorting to acts of assorted hooliganism (egg throwing, smoke bombs, etc). Even if the deal did not help Russia’s geopolitical goals, this last factor was probably enough to make it all worth while for Putin, given how personally he takes slights from other world leaders.