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

Russian navy shifts strategic focus with China in mind

I’m off to Russia again this week, for a conference on the Russian military. I’ll blog about the conference next week, but in the meantime, here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote on Russian naval missions. This is from February 2011.

SUBJECT: Navy rearmament and the implications for its missions and strategy.

SIGNIFICANCE: Recent announcements about shipbuilding plans strongly suggest that the navy no longer views the United States and NATO as its primary potential opponents. Over the coming decade, a revised strategy is likely to focus on attempting to counter China’s military rise, while also combating piracy and instability along Russia’s southern flank.

ANALYSIS: The shipbuilding plans outlined in the State Armaments Program (SAP) for 2011-20 show the likely direction of Russian naval strategy for the next decade. The key development is a shift in focus from countering US and NATO naval forces and towards the protection of Russian economic activity, accompanied by a shift in geographic balance towards the south and east.

Maritime Threats. According to official policy, the main maritime threats to Russia include:

  • the rise of naval activity by foreign powers, both near Russian borders and in the open seas;
  • the development by foreign states of naval forces more powerful than its own;
  • illegal economic activity (e.g. poaching) in territorial waters; and
  • the unclear legal status of the Caspian and Azov Seas and the Arctic Ocean – especially the existence of territorial claims in the Arctic.

Based on these threats, maritime policymakers have formulated three general goals for naval activity. They are:

  • defending national interests and security in the open seas;
  • maintaining Russia’s status as a ‘global naval power’; and
  • developing and effectively using naval potential.

These stated threats and goals are nebulous at best, and say little about how the navy will actually evolve over the coming decade.

Shipbuilding plans. However, shipbuilding plans provide useful signposts for determining the missions the navy will undertake. The main focus of Russian shipbuilding over the next decade, according to the SAP, will be on relatively small multi-purpose frigates and corvettes, as well as submarines and amphibious ships.

  • Frigates. The primary surface ships will include Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, twelve of which are to be built by 2020. These ships will be capable of long distance voyages, with an expected range of 5,000-10,000 kilometers (km).
  • Corvettes. Coastal defense will be provided by up to 20 Steregushchii-class corvettes, with a range of 2,000-5,000 km. Russia will also build ten amphibious-assault ships, including four Mistral-class ships to be built jointly with France and six Ivan Gren-class ships of domestic design.
  • Submarines. Submarine construction will consist of up to eleven Lada and Kilo diesel submarines, as well as up to three Severodvinsk-class nuclear attack submarines. Despite serious design challenges, strategic submarine construction will continue, with six to eight Borei-class submarines expected in the fleet by 2020.

Strategic Intentions. Notably, there are no plans to develop large surface combatants – though until quite recently, planners were talking about building aircraft carriers and destroyers, and renovating three old Kirov-class cruisers. All of these plans have been scaled back. Design work on new aircraft carriers and destroyers is proceeding, but none will be built in the next ten years. Only one cruiser is likely to be renovated, as the other two are not in good enough condition to make refurbishment worthwhile.

The shift in focus away from large surface combatants and nuclear attack submarines towards frigates, corvettes, and diesel submarines shows that Russia no longer sees NATO and the United States as realistic potential maritime opponents. Whereas the Soviet navy was focused on building ships designed to take on aircraft carrier groups, the ‘new’ Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home.

Naval missions. The navy is likely to carry out several missions:

  • Coastal Defense. The coastal protection mission will focus on offshore energy platforms and undersea pipelines, as well as the protection of Russian fishing fleets in areas where maritime borders are still disputed. This mission will be carried out primarily by the new corvettes and by older ships such as the Udaloy-class destroyers.
  • Multinational operations. While the navy’s global missions have been and will be sharply reduced compared to the Soviet period, it will continue to pursue some objectives around the globe. Most significantly, this will include participation in multinational counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Russian ships have maintained an almost constant presence off the coast of Somalia for several years; these deployments are likely to continue.
  • ‘Showing the flag’. In addition, the navy will send ships to visit states that are existing or potential arms industry customers. This was done two years ago in Venezuela and India, and is seen as having helped Russia secure several new contracts. Future trips may include states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Syria. These visits do not reflect a desire to build up a truly global naval presence, but rather represent the defense industry’s commercial priorities.

South and eastern shift. Going forward, the Baltic Fleet and Caspian Flotilla will both focus on coastal defense missions, including protecting offshore energy infrastructure; the Caspian Flotilla will also be used against poachers and smugglers. It is likely that the Baltic Fleet’s large ships, which are unnecessary for these missions, will be transferred to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The BSF, along with the Pacific Fleet, is also expected to receive most new vessels. These trends reflect an ongoing shift away from the Northern Fleet, which was traditionally the mainstay of the navy. The emerging consensus that NATO is no longer Russia’s primary potential adversary will result in a drawdown of Northern Fleet capabilities, and a shift towards eastern and southern threats:

Northern Fleet decline. The Northern Fleet is now largely unnecessary as a major war-fighting force. However, it will remain the primary home of Russia’s strategic submarines, including all the Delta IVs. Conventional forces will focus on:

    • protecting Arctic fisheries;
    • maintaining the security of facilities built to extract Arctic undersea hydrocarbon deposits;
    • ensuring control of northern sea lanes, which will eventually see a significant increase in merchant traffic as a result of global warming; and
    • sending larger ships on long cruises to promote political and military partnerships abroad, including trips to Latin America and the Mediterranean.

    Pacific Fleet power. Over time, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important in Russia. It will receive most (if not all) of the newest Borei-class strategic submarines, to replace its aging Delta III fleet. It will also receive the first of the Mistrals. The fleet’s missions will include:

    • countering the rapidly modernizing Chinese navy;
    • ensuring Russian sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands;
    • protecting offshore energy infrastructure off the Sakhalin coast; and
    • showing the flag in South and South-east Asia.

    Black Sea rearmament. Because of its poor condition, the BSF will receive the largest number of new ships, including six frigates, six diesel submarines, and at least two amphibious ships. It will have three primary missions:

    • controlling maritime access to Georgia in the event of a new conflict there or elsewhere in the Caucasus;
    • protecting shipping in the Black Sea; and
    • deploying for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

    CONCLUSION: Despite occasional hostile rhetoric, Russian leaders recognize that a conflict with NATO is extremely unlikely. Military planners clearly regard China as the most important potential threat to national security – even though great efforts are under way to enhance diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing.

    A strategy for military reform

    In early 2011, the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) released a massive report entitled “Discovering the Future: Strategy-2012.” The idea is to develop an agenda for Russia’s development during the next presidential term. The section on security issues and the military was authored by Alexander Golts and Mikhail Krasnov. Golts appears to be the lead author of the part on the military. In this report, he first goes through the reasons for the likely failure of the reform effort. This consists of a few fairly familiar points that I will simply list in bullet point form:

    • The current conscription system is not equipped to deal with the sharp decrease in the number of 18 year olds that is coming in the next 2-3 years.
    • Conscripts do not have the training (and often also lack the abilities) to work in a modern, technologically sophisticated army.
    • Junior officers are unable to improve their qualifications because they are increasingly having to spend all their time training new conscripts. This will hinder the introduction of modern equipment into the Russian military.
    • The military’s structural reform is incomplete, with unified strategic commands not much changed from the old military districts.
    • The organization of Russian defense industry is completely ineffective. As a result, the State Armaments Program will fail.

    In other words, these are the usual complaints with the system. What I find far more interesting is Golts’ proposal for how to make military reform successful. I’ll address his main points in a bit more detail.

    First, Golts argues that the president should announce that the military will transition to an all volunteer force by 2018. Given previous failures in this regard, this will require a high level of transparency, as well as a guarantee of adequate funding. Golts sets the level at no less than 3.5% of GDP, with a significant percentage of that funding set aside by law for military reform goals. The military would shrink to 400-500 thousand.

    Recruitment would have to increase significantly to compensate for the end of conscription. In order for this to happen, conditions for soldiers serving in the military would have to improve. Golts suggests something like a Russian GI Bill, with the government giving assistance for receiving an education after the end of the soldier’s service or providing credits to help in starting a business. Most importantly, contract soldiers would have to receive a salary that would be greater than the Russian average.

    Golts believes that the military education system would also have to be significantly revamped, with the establishment of several dozen training centers that would focus on training sergeants in disciplines such as administration, psychology and pedagogy. In other words, the goal would be to train leaders who could become, in effect, junior commanders. By training several thousand such sergeants each year, by 2017 the military could have its core of 50-60 thousand professional sergeants who could be counted on to maintain discipline in the barracks and would ensure that volunteer soldiers are trained in professional ethics and how to act morally. This is vital because it is likely that for the first several years after the end of conscription, most volunteers will be far from the best examples of the younger generation.

    The education of officers would also have to change. Cadets would receive a high level education in the sciences and humanities. The former would allow them to understand how to use advanced weapons and military technology, while the latter would allow them to understand their place in a rapidly changing world. Promotions would be based on merit and the system would have to be fully transparent, something like the up or out system used in the United States.

    Golts then turns to the structure of the military’s top organizations. He advocates transforming the Ministry of Defense into an agency staffed primarily by civilians whose job would be to translate the policies developed by the country’s civilian leadership into the language of military orders. They would also be responsible for orders of weapons and equipment and for budgeting and other financial matters. Military operations would be based on orders that would go directly from the Minister of Defense to the four Unified Strategic Commands. The General Staff would have no direct role in operations. Instead, it would focus on strategic planning and would provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Defense and Russia’s political leaders on the nature of military threats facing the country and how to counter them.

    National defense would depend not on the number of soldiers in uniform, but on a combination of threat detection by spy satellites, the ability to mobilize rapid response forces, and the use of modern long-range precision-guided weaponry. Necessary equipment could be stored at bases near areas where conflicts might be more likely, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia, or the Far East. This type of military would be designed primarily to fight in local or regional conflicts. Nuclear weapons and participation in global missile defense would ensure Russian security from larger threats.

    The military-industrial complex would be reformed as well. Rather than funding the full range of military procurement, as in the current SAP, the Russian government would focus on a few priority projects in the area of high tech, such as command and control, communications, and intelligence systems.

    Such a fundamental reform of the Russian military would include the establishment of a functioning system of civilian oversight through the State Duma, the press, and a system of independent analytical institutes. This would also require changes in budget and secrecy laws in order to allow the release of much more detailed budget information to the public.

    This is a very good plan, obviously modeled in large part on the American military. But unfortunately, it is also very much pie in the sky, as far as the Russian military is concerned. While Serdiukov & co have taken on the generals on many issues, a reform this wide-ranging would be opposed not just by the generals but also by the country’s civilian leaders. Despite Medvedev’s occasional statements on modernization, these leaders are not really all that interested in the greater openness and transparency that are a fundamental part of Golts’ plan. They also would likely be less than happy about the reduction in opportunities for corruption that would have to come with any plan for greater financial openness.

    So we are far more likely to be left with Golts’ other option — muddling through, with a few minor improvements and cosmetic changes that do not do much to make the Russian military more prepared for the conflicts of the 21st century than it is today.

    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 Arctic Security Strategy

    The following article has just appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1]

    During most of the late 20th century, the Arctic region was primarily a zone of military interests, used by both NATO and Soviet strategic forces as bases for their nuclear submarines and as testing grounds for intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the end of the Cold War, the Arctic initially lost its strategic significance. This has changed in the last decade thanks to a combination of accelerating climate change and a rapid increase in energy prices. As a result, Russian leaders now primarily see the Arctic as a potential source of economic growth for the country, both as a strategic resource base for the future and a potential maritime trade route.

    The Russian Arctic’s economic potential

    A 2008 US Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil and 30 percent of its natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic. A relative increase in energy prices compared to the historical average has made the exploitation of these remote and technically difficult resources more cost-effective. Russia’s natural resources ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more petroleum deposits than those currently held by Saudi Arabia. The same US Geological Survey estimated total Russian offshore oil reserves at 30 billion barrels, while natural gas reserves were estimated at 34 trillion cubic meters (tcm), with an additional 27 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.[2] Because most of these deposits are located offshore in the Arctic Ocean, where extraction platforms will be subject to severe storms and the danger of sea-ice, the exploitation of these resources will require significant investment and in some cases the development of new technology. This means that extraction will only be economically feasible if prices for hydrocarbons remain high.

    However, Russian natural resources in the Arctic are not limited to hydrocarbons. According to the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, the Arctic currently supplies more than 90 percent of Russia’s nickel, cobalt, and platinum, as well as 60 percent of Russia’s copper. Ninety percent of Russian diamonds and 24 percent of its gold is mined in the Arctic region of Yakutia. One of the world’s largest phosphate mines is located on the Kola Peninsula. In addition, Arctic Russia has significant deposits of silver, tungsten, manganese, tin, chromium, and titanium. The extraction of these natural resources provides Russia with 11 percent of its GDP and 22 percent of its export earnings.[3] In the relatively near future, Russia is likely to develop the significant deposits of rare earths, which are found on the Kola Peninsula and in Yakutia. Continue reading

    Ten Years of BlackSeaFor: A Partial Assessment

    This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of BlackSeaFor, which was set up back in 2001 in order to enhance peace and stability in the Black Sea region, improve relations among the Black Sea littoral states and increase regional cooperation. To further this mission, BlackSeaFor conducts biannual naval exercises that include ships from all six of the Black Sea littoral states (Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria). The tasks performed during these exercises have varied over the years, but usually include some combination of search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, mine counter measures, CBRN defense and peace support operations. The concrete goal of the exercises is to promote naval interoperability among the participating countries. Continue reading

    Russian Politics and Law, March 2011 Table of Contents

    Volume 49 Number 2 / March-April 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site at Contents after the cut.

    This issue contains:

    The Nature of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction p.3
    Dmitry Gorenburg
    The Nature of “Putinism” p.7
    Lev Gudkov
    The Political Mechanics of the Russian Regime: Substitutes Versus Institutions p.34
    Nikolai Petrov
    Distinctive Features of Interparty Struggle in the Russian Regions: Conflict Among Influence Groups and Simulation of a Party System p.70
    Alexander Kynev

    The Nature of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

    As we get closer to the 2012 Russian presidential elections and the prospect of the potential return of President Putin, Russian scholars have increasingly focused on thinking about the nature of Russia’s political system and speculating on how it might develop in the future. In the next two issues, we explore these questions. The articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law investigate the main characteristics of the “Putinist” political system as it developed in Russia over the last decade. The next issue will feature articles that examine potential future trajectories of this system.

    Continue reading

    Is the Mistral deal in danger of collapse?

    In today’s Moscow Times, Ruslan Pukhov (the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow and the publisher of the Moscow Defense Brief journal) has an excellent analysis of the problems that may stymie the Russian purchase of the Mistral ships from France. He argues that the disagreement is primarily about the transfer of sensitive technologies, especially the SIC-21 command and control system, and the total price of the ships. I have written about the price disagreement already, and it seems that little has changed on that front since early March.

    I imagine that if price were the only problem, it could be resolved through negotiations. French backtracking on the extent of tech transfer is potentially a much bigger problem for the deal. Pukhov argues, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the reason Russia wants these ships is to get the advanced control systems. It doesn’t really need the ships’ “modest force projection potential.” So if France refuses to transfer the systems, Russia may well call off the deal.

    Pukhov’s analysis of the root causes of the crisis is particularly interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full:

    As usual, both sides have contributed to the problem. Russia has not yet built up experience in purchasing big-ticket foreign military equipment for import. Despite the popular notion that Russia is planning to re-equip its military with foreign weapons systems, the reality is that such imports total less than $100 million per year. By contrast, Russia exported $10 billion in arms in 2010, with another $16 billion in equipment purchased for domestic use. What’s more, the lion’s share of those so-called “imports” are actually systems and components that foreign clients wanted installed in Russian equipment for export, meaning that they were never intended for domestic use.

    Without experience in foreign procurement deals, Russia also lacks the necessary legislation and history of cooperation between the relevant institutions. This has resulted in a less than perfect level of cooperation between the Russian military; Rosoboronexport, the country’s weapons export and import monopoly; and the defense industry.

    In addition, there are powerful opponents to the deal on the Russian side, especially the domestic shipbuilding industry and its patron, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. In summer 2008, Sechin halted the ill-advised purchase of the dilapidated and unfinished Ukrainian cruiser Ukraine for 20 billion rubles (more than $670 million). The influence of the gray eminence has declined since then, but it remains strong enough to stop the Mistral purchase in one way or another. Political opponents to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his reforms have also used the disagreements over the Mistral to boost their cause.

    Pukhov goes on to note that the French Saint-Nazaire shipyard’s economic position has improved significantly since discussions about the deal began, so that France does not need the work as badly and can stand firm in the negotiations.

    Pukhov also considers the role of Russian opposition to the European intervention in Libya and France’s leading role in it as a potential factor in the hardening of Moscow’s stand in the negotiation. I don’t think this is particularly relevant, especially as the timing is all wrong. Negotiations began to bog down in late February, some weeks before the start of the intervention in Libya. And the other factors Pukhov lists are more than sufficient to explain the problems.

    Pukhov argues that the chances of signing a contract are becoming increasingly remote. I’m not sure I would go that far yet. Both sides have invested a lot in the deal and I think they have very strong incentives to find a way to work it out. But it certainly won’t be smooth sailing.

    How was bin Laden’s death received in Russia?

    Russian reaction to the news that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden was somewhat muted because of the May Day holiday, which continued into Monday, May 2. The Kremlin limited itself to a brief statement congratulating the United States for its success and noting that Russians unfortunately have first-hand experience in dealing with international terrorism. Russian leaders noted that they were ready to further expand their participation in international cooperative efforts to stop terrorism.

    A number of newspapers and bloggers published some reactions as the day went on. There were two main themes to these articles. The first topic of discussion among Russian analysts was the impact of the successful operation to kill bin Laden on American politics. Here, the analysts were pretty much unanimous in declaring that the killing of bin Laden would guarantee President Obama’s re-election. In this, they showed far more certainty than American analysts, many of whom thought the positive effect on Obama’s approval would not be sufficiently long-lasting and would in any case be drowned out by the state of the economy in 2012. The parallel drawn by Russian commentators was to the capture of Saddam Hussein a year before President Bush’s reelection in 2004.

    Second, there was unanimous agreement that bin Laden’s death would have very little impact on the incidence  of international terrorism. The argument paralleled that made by many American commentators, noting that in recent years bin Laden had become merely a symbolic figure for the jihadist movement, rather than a planner of terrorist attacks in his own right. Some argued that the death of capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri might have had a greater impact, as he was seen to have a greater role in operational planning and had in fact become al-Qaeda’s de facto leader in recent years. Others pointed to previous Russian experience, noting that the death of prominent Chechen rebel leaders such as Dzhokhar Dudaev and Shamil Basaev did not end the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

    While there was widespread agreement bin Laden was the symbolic leader of Islamic terrorism, this led to a wide range of conclusions. Some Russian analysts argued that his symbolic role as the founder of international Islamic terrorism would outlast his death and would allow al-Qaeda and other jihadi organizations to continue their terrorist activity with little disruption. One commentator compared bin Laden’s future role for Islamism to Lenin’s role for Communism, quoting the Soviet slogan “Lenin’s ideas live and are winning.” Others argued that because sponsors of radical Islamist activity in various Muslim countries were oriented primarily toward supporting bin Laden personally, his death may lead to a disruption of financing for radical groups and therefore a potential decline in terrorism.

    One commentator related the impact of bin Laden’s ideas to public opinion in the Arab world, arguing that young people in the Middle East enter adulthood with a strong sense of unfairness. This comes first from media representations that the world is unfair in its treatment of Arabs. But young Arabs quickly learn that their own society is deeply unfair. The argument is that bin Laden’s success over the last two decades is the result of having a simple answer to the question of what is to be done about this unfairness. The commentator believes that bin Ladenism as an ideology will continue to prosper until some spiritual leader appears who is able to provide a less blood-thirsty answer to this question.

    The obvious answer, of course, is that an alternative answer has already been provided — by the organizers of the mass protests that in recent months brought down the regimes  in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening to do the same in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact that the Russian analyst does not reach this conclusion, arguing instead that for now bin Ladenism is alive and well in the Middle East, says more about the state of the Russian political system than about the relevance of bin Laden’s ideas for the next generation of Arab and Muslim youth growing up in the Middle East.