Russia’s Syria operation reveals significant improvement in military capability

Although relatively small in scale, Russia’s military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.

Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia’s operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.


Originally published by the Lowy Institute Interpreter. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 5: International cooperation in combating terrorism

With apologies for the long delay, today I’m posting the final installment of my notes from the 2015 Moscow Conference on International Security, covering the panel on combating terrorism and extremism. Speakers included Mohamed Atmar, the National Security Advisor to the President of Afghanistan, Amb. Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special representative for Afghanistan; Maj. Gen. Walid Salman, the Chief of Staff of the Lebanese Army; General Ngoga, the head of the military police of Cameroon; and Richard Weitz, the Director of the Center for Political-Military Analyses at the Hudson Institute.

The keynote speech was delivered by Igor Sergun, the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian Armed Forces. Unfortunately, the text of his speech is not available, so I all I have is my incomplete notes and photos of the slides Sergun presented. He argued that terrorism is increasing a global force that is advancing around the world. The characteristics of modern terrorism includes fanaticism and intolerance, global goals, secure financing sources, access to modern weapons and advanced technology, and close ties to criminal networks.


Efforts by groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to restore the Great Caliphate pose a critical threat to a wide swath of the world, from Libya to Afghanistan, and especially including Iraq and Syria.


The expansion of terrorist and radical activity has claimed many lives.


ISIS is a particularly grave threat to the region.


Groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, IMU, and Hizb-ut Tahrir are active on the periphery of this core region. The Taliban continues to have access to training camps in remote areas of Pakistan. Even farther away, Jamaa Islamiya poses a threat in Southeast Asia. Experienced fighters are returning to Europe and even starting to act in South America.


Western countries don’t realize that the controlled chaos strategy they have implemented around the world has led to the growth of terrorism. US assistance to Afghan mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet Union in the 1980s led to the emergence of al-Qaeda. More recently, Western efforts to remove the Qaddafi regime in Libya have resulted in the spread of radical ideologies and Libyan weapons to groups throughout northern Africa. Similarly, US support for rebels opposing the Syrian government have directly led to the formation of ISIS and other radical groups in Syria and Iraq. US actions lead to the growth of extremism around the world. Then the US tries to mobilize the international community to stop terrorism, not recognizing that it played a key role in the origin of the threat in the first place.


I thought it was interesting that the entire speech did not mention the threat posed by terrorists and radical Islamists to Russia itself, and specifically to the North Caucasus. In past speeches on this topic, Russian leaders always made sure to note that danger and how it tied Russia and other countries together against a common threat. Now, it almost seems like the discussion of radical Islam and terrorism is being used as a pretext to condemn Western countries (and especially the US).

This sense was highlighted for me by an intervention during the discussion after the speakers. The chair, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, recognized Russian Middle East expert Yevgeny Satanovsky. He called on Satanovsky in such a way as to make it appear that the intervention was pre-arranged. Satanovsky, in turn, started by arguing that it was time to stop thinking that the US is part of the solution to the problem of terrorism, and to start thinking that it is part of the problem. He noted that the US supports Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which both have supported terrorist organizations in the Middle East. He then went on to talk about the risk posed by a Central Asian Spring and the need for Russia, China and Iran to work together to guarantee Central Asian security. Support for Iran’s role was also expressed by Kabulov, who argued that Iran does not export terrorism and should be included in the SCO once sanctions are lifted.

Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 4: Russian views of NATO

In addition, to the plenary session, there were two panels at this year’s MCIS conference. The second, on the role of military and political instruments in ensuring regional and global stability was the more interesting of the two. The main speaker was Andrey Kartopolov, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian military’s General Staff. Kartapolov focused on the threats posed to Russia by NATO.

He started by reminding the audience that NATO was founded to stop the spread of Communism in Europe. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the new Russia sought to become close to the West. The Russian government made unprecedented concessions to the West, including removing its troops from Europe and handing over its military bases to the countries of Eastern Europe. The west took this as a demonstration of Russian weakness, rather than an offer of peace and partnership. The US wanted to be the sole superpower and chose to ignore Russian interests. Washington saw Russia as a source of cheap resources that it would like to control. In order to achieve these goals, the US has consistently sought to weaken Russia’s influence in the international system and in the post-Soviet space.

NATO has brought its military infrastructure up to Russia’s borders. As a result, the entire territory of European Russia is under the threat of NATO air attack, with the time it would take NATO assets to reach critical Russian infrastructure having been cut in half. This is why a number of military facilities in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have been modernized to NATO standard since 2008. Furthermore, NATO is organizing military equipment storage bases on the territory of a number of East European states. This will allow NATO to rapidly deploy its first response forces near our borders and also decrease the amount of time it will take for additional forces to be transferred from the continental US and from Britain. Support agreements signed with Finland and Sweden have legitimized the presence of NATO forces on the territory of these countries and will allow the use of their infrastructure for the transfer of coalition forces to northern Europe.


NATO has increased its military strength in recent years, as the US has provided modern arms to its East European allies, including JASSM LRCMs. This will allow NATO to attack targets deep in Russian territory while avoiding Russian air defenses.


At the same time, the US is still trying to convince Russia that its strategic missile defense systems do not present a threat to Russia while refusing to take into account that Standard-3 missiles could in the future be capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs. Furthermore, the vertical launchers used by missile defense systems could also be used to launch Tomahawk missiles.


Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, NATO activity has become strongly anti-Russian in its nature. Under the banner of countering Russian expansion, the alliance has systematically expanded its military presence on Russia’s borders. At the present time, NATO has instituted a constant rotational presence of military forces in Eastern Europe, including up to 30 combat aircraft, at least 300 pieces of armor, and more than 1500 US military personnel. US and other NATO navies have almost constant ship presence in the Black Sea, while the frequency of reconnaissance aircraft flights have doubled compared to 2013. Since January 2015, there have been regular flights by Global Hawk UAVs over the Black Sea and in March they were expanded to include flights over Ukrainian airspace.


NATO exercise activity increased by 80% in 2014. Exercises such as Baltops and Sabre Strike were carried out next to Russia’s borders and were openly anti-Russian in their nature. During these exercises, the NATO forces group in the Baltic region included 10,000 personnel, 1500 pieces of armor, up to 80 aircraft, and around 50 combat ships. Five US strategic bombers were also involved, deploying from airfields in the UK.

In the aftermath of the Wales summit, NATO is planning additional increases in force structure for next year, including a rapid response force of 30,000 personnel and a spearhead force of 5,000 personnel that can be ready to deploy in 2-7 days. AThe deployment of these forces will be organized by six command centers that will be established in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.


Kartapolov’s conclusions regarding NATO’s activity and intentions highlighted US efforts to turn NATO into an instrument designed to contain Russia and ensure US global dominance. He also highlighted that bringing NATO infrastructure to Russia’s borders will allow its air attack forces to penetrate deep into Russian territory, while reducing their response time, and in the future may allow the US to counter Russian strategic deterrence forces.

Kartapolov noted that Russia will have to take measures in response and argued that instead of mindlessly expanding NATO to include new members that were not ready for membership and placing members’ armed forces next to Russia’s borders, NATO should have been focusing on more significant threats (such as Islamic extremism and terrorism).


In good Soviet tradition, Kartapolov concluded his speech with a slide showing a citation from a speech by President Putin, in which he states that “Russia is not looking to start a military standoff with the West or to threaten anyone. But we will not allow anyone to use the language of force against us and will stand up for our national interests using all of the means at our disposal.”


In addition to General Kartapolov, there were several other speakers on the panel. Here are highlights from some of their remarks:

Jean Pierre Chevenement — French Special Representative on relations with Russia

  • The crisis in Ukraine could have been avoided. Maintaining a frozen conflict is not in anyone’s interest, but will only help extremists.
  • Need to declare Ukraine’s neutrality.
  • Need to follow UNSC rules in order to avoid a new Cold War.

General Rivera — Head of Cuban military intelligence

  • Color revolutions and hybrid warfare have become state policy for some countries.
  • The US is still fighting against Cuba through subversion.
  • Other Latin American states don’t interfere in each other’s affairs.

General Yao Yunzhu — Director of China-US Defense Relations Center

  • Cold War legacies are still with us.
  • New security mechanisms are needed to maintain stability in the world.
  • US alliance networks in Asia-Pacific have become a de facto security architecture in the region.
  • Asia needs a security architecture that includes China. China wants an inclusive security partnership, rather than alliances.
  • The balance of nuclear forces prevented an active war during the Cold War period.
  • The desire for absolute security on the part of any state will upset strategic stability.
  • Missile defense upsets the balance of deterrence and could lead to future arms races.

Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 3: Speeches by foreign defense ministers

This year, there were a lot of foreign defense ministers participating in the Moscow Conference on International Security. In fact, there were so many that the organizers had to take an unscheduled break as the conference running well over time, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu notably absent after the panel resumed. In this post, I will summarize the most interesting of the presentations. Videos of all the plenary speeches are available on the Russian Defense Ministry website.

Not surprisingly, the first slot in this lineup was given to Chang Wanquan, the Minister of Defense of the People’s Republic of China. Minister Chang focused on the development of a multipolar world as the center of gravity in international affairs has moved in recent years. He noted that some countries (not mentioning the U.S. by name) have been trying to obtain absolute security, which has complicated the international situation. China has been promoting a comprehensive vision of global security, focused on the need for a fair international order, the idea that common development enables security, and the primacy of dialog and cooperation over threats and the use of force. He noted that the PLA has been focused on safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, as crises on China’s periphery have been causing insecurity for the country. He also mentioned the role of the PLA Navy in conducting evacuations from Yemen and Libya and conducting other humanitarian missions such as disaster assistance and providing medical help for the Ebola crisis in West Africa. He highlighted the need to commemorate the victory over Nazism in World War II and the steps that China has been taking to promote development through the AIIB Bank and various Silk Road initiatives. Minister Chang concluded with a discussion of new efforts to conduct military dialog and increase military cooperation between China and the United States as part of efforts to counter terrorist threats and violent extremism. The overall perception from the speech was of China performing a careful balancing act between supporting Russia as the conference host while telegraphing that it was not interested in getting involved in any kind of confrontation with the United States.

Panos Kammenos, the Greek Defense Minister, was the only senior military official from a NATO country to make a presentation. He began with a statement highlighting the strong ties between Greece and Russia based on spiritual and historical connections, as well as on the two countries’ joint fight against fascism. He mentioned the dangers posed by terrorism and by new asymmetrical and hybrid security threats. The financial crisis that has affected the European Union has led to an increase in instability. Traditional security problems have been joined by new threats, such as ethnic and religious conflict, mass migration, and the dissemination of arms to non-state actors. He argued that the greatest security threat is posed by terrorism and religious conflict in the Middle East and the role of Greece as the bastion of Europe in this area. In this context, he mentioned the significance of Greece’s Hellenic initiative to protect Christians in the Middle East. He concluded by noting that security cannot be divided into internal and external areas. The same terrorist groups are attacking both the U.S. and Russia, so there is no choice but to have both countries working together to resolve this crisis.

The Pakistani Defense Minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, highlighted the emergence of new security threats in the last years. He noted that the radicals of the Islamic State have created a transregional crisis that has heightened the danger of the fragmentation of the modern state order. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen can all be viewed as outcomes of failed regime change, the Arab spring and regional conflict. The old order in the Middle East is dying, while external powers are the only force preventing the emergence of a new order based on religious radicalism. Local extremists in Southeast Asia and Africa are losing foot soldiers to transnational groups such as the Islamic State and Daesh. The region needs a comprehensive social, economic, and political reform package that must be combined with ongoing military actions. 200 thousand Pakistani soldiers are currently fighting terrorists in northwest Pakistan. We need to compromise on principles to ensure that the conflict ends (referring to Charlie Hebdo and Muhammad cartoons).

The Iranian Defense Minister, Hossein Dehghan, started by describing ISIS as a global cancer that has support from foreign states. He blamed the United States and Israel for using these groups to change the strategic balance in the region. He made a very strong statement against Saudi aggression in Yemen, arguing that as a result in the future Saudi Arabia will face the same situation as Saddam Hussein did. He argued that Saudi Arabia has killed many civilians through its aerial bombing campaign and needs to stop supporting terrorism in the Middle East. The international community needs to stop foreign interference in Yemen. Iran, by contrast, is a factor for stability in the region. He then turned to U.S. cyber attacks on Iran and the role of the U.S. as a threat to international security. He proposed a multilateral cooperation initiative between Iran, Russia, China, and India against U.S. missile defense and other international threats. He highlighted that Iran is focused on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The North Korean Defense Minister, Hyon Yong Chol, did not pull any punches in his speech. He started by arguing that the U.S. is the greatest threat to world peace and has caused an increase in the risk of war on the Korean peninsula by its actions. He called the U.S. and South Korea a cancer, because they want to overthrow the DPRK and dominate northeast Asia in order to put added pressure on Russia and China. He called the 1953 armistice worthless and argued that North Korea has been threatened by a U.S. nuclear attack. Efforts to have dialog with the U.S. did not achieve any results as it became clear that the U.S. just wanted to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons without creating a peace deal. “If we had peace, we would not need nuclear weapons.” If the U.S. were to suspend joint exercises with South Korea, North Korea would stop its nuclear program. Instead, the U.S. is trying to create an Asian NATO.

The Indian Defense Minister, Rao Inderjit Singh, highlighted that most nations have now given up some of their sovereignty to various transnational bodies, as the have recognized that traditional state instruments are not adequate to respond to modern threats. Non-state actors are becoming orchestrators of conflict. States can’t reign them in or are even tacitly encouraging them in some cases. Responses need to combine hard and soft power. Conventional wars have declined in recent years, as have civil wars. Now, multi-polarity is allowing old rivalries to reemerge.  In addition, there are new forms of threat from resource scarcity and climate change. Armed forces have to be prepared to fight both high end threats and irregular warfare. Space, cyberspace, and even underground warfare are now part of the war environment and have to be taken into account. Rapid technological innovation will help wealthy states and local entrepreneurs of violence, while potentially hurting the middle powers.

Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 2: Gerasimov on military threats facing Russia

Here’s the second installment of my reporting from the 2015 MCIS conference. This one and the next will focus on Russian views of NATO as the primary source of military threat to the Russian Federation. The first speech was by General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff. His topic was the military threats and dangers facing Russia in the contemporary period. He launched into a discussion of how the West saw Russia’s efforts to stabilize the situation in Ukraine as unacceptable independence in standing up for its national interests. He argued that this reaction was the cause of the increase in international tension over the last year, as the Western countries have sought to put political and economic pressure on Russia in order to “put it in its place.” He argues that while many Western experts believe that the Ukraine crisis has led to a sudden and rapid collapse of world order, the reality is that the situation has been developing since the start of the 1990s. The problems were caused by the collapse of the bipolar system, which allowed the US to consider itself the winner of the Cold War and to attempt to build a system in which it had total domination over international security. In such a system, the US would decide unilaterally which countries could be considered democratic and which were “evil empires,” which were freedom fighters and which terrorists and separatists. In doing so, the US stopped considering the interests of other states and would only selectively follow the norms of international law.


Russia has had to respond to this threat and has done so in its new military doctrine, which strictly follows international norms. The key points, as presented by Gerasimov in the slide below, include using violent means only as a last resort, using military force to contain and prevent conflicts, and preventing all (but especially nuclear) military conflicts. At the same time, the doctrine states that the current international security system does not provide for all countries to have security in equal measure. In other words, Russian military leaders continue to feel that Russian security is infringed by the current international security system and imply that they would like to see it revised.


The most significant threat facing Russia, in Gerasimov’s view, comes from NATO. In particular, he highlights the threat from NATO enlargement to the east, noting that all 12 new members added since 1999 were formerly either members of the Warsaw Pact or Soviet republics. This process is continuing, with the potential future inclusion of former Yugoslav republics and continuing talk of perspective Euroatlantic integration of Ukraine and Georgia. Political arguments about creating a single Europe sharing common values have outweighed purely military and security in enlargement discussions, with many new members added even though they did not fulfill the economic and military criteria for membership. This expansion has had a serious negative effect on Russia’s military security.


In addition to NATO enlargement, NATO has also expanded cooperation with non-member countries in the region through programs such as the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, which includes Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine among 24 priority countries for cooperation, and Privileged Partnership, which will allow NATO to use infrastructure in Finland and Sweden to transfer troops to northern Europe. Furthermore, NATO is actively seeking to increase its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.


NATO is using the crisis in Ukraine as an excuse to strengthen the forces it has arrayed against Russia. It has openly blamed Russia for aggressive policies in the post-Soviet space and has made containment of Russia the prime force for future development of NATO. The decisions made at the Wales NATO summit in September 2014 confirm this.


While NATO military activity near Russia was relatively stable through 2013, it has increased substantially over the last year. NATO states’ naval presence in the Black Sea has quadrupled, flights by reconnaissance and tactical aviation have doubled, and flights by long range early warning aircraft have increased by a factor of nine. US UAVs are flying over the Black Sea, while German and Polish intelligence ships are constantly present in the Baltic. The number of NATO exercises increased by 80% in 2014 compared to the previous year. The character of these exercises has also changed. Whereas in the past they were focused primarily on crisis response and counter-terrorism, now they are clearly aimed at practicing military action against Russia.


The action plan approved in Wales included a significant increase in NATO military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, including a rapid reaction force and a constant presence of a limited contingent of forces rotating through the region. This will allow a large number of NATO military personnel to be trained to conduct operations against Russia. At the same time, military infrastructure, including weapons storage facilities, is being built up in Eastern Europe. Gerasimov argued that on the basis of all of these developments, it is clear that efforts to strengthen NATO’s military capabilities are not primarily defensive in nature.


Gerasimov then turned to the question of US efforts to develop global ballistic missile defense systems. He argued that Russia views the development of these systems as yet another move by the US and its allies to dismantle the existing international security system on their way to world domination. Over the last four years, US BMD systems have begun to appear near Russian borders, including Aegis-equipped ships in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, Aegis Ashore systems in Romania and Poland, and anti-missile systems being deployed in the Asia-Pacific region with Japanese and South Korean cooperation.


These forces present a real threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces and could also strike Russian satellite systems. Washington has so far refused to share command authority for global BMD systems, even with its allies, making it clear that it alone will decide which NATO member states it will defend from missile threats. Since Russia will have no choice but to take counter-measures against global BMD systems, this may subject non-nuclear NATO-member states to the risk of being early targets of Russian response measures.


What’s more, the deployment of anti-missile systems violates the INF treaty, since the Aegis Ashore systems can be armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles as easily as with SM-3 anti-missile systems.


Russia is also concerned with the development of the concept of Prompt Global Strike, which will also damage the strategic nuclear balance that currently provides the main guarantee for international stability.


In its efforts to “put Russia on its knees,” Washington and its NATO partners continue to create crises in territories on Russia’s borders. Having successfully carried out regime change scenarios under the guise of colored revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the US was able to place anti-Russian governments in power in a number of states bordering Russia. The radicals and Russophobes who came to power in Ukraine in 2014 have based their policies on blaming Russia for all of Ukraine’s problems while persecuting the country’s Russophone population. They are now trying to use force to repress their own citizens who expressed a lack of confidence in this new government. As a result, Ukraine has been plunged into civil war. Gerasimov said that it is difficult to know how the conflict will end, since “we don’t know what directives Ukrainian leaders will receive from their Western ‘curators’ and where Kiev’s aggression may be directed in the future.” But it is clear that these actions pose a military threat to Russia, much as the Georgian attacks on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in 2008 did. Gerasimov also noted that Mikheil Saakashvili, who ordered these attacks, is now an advisor to Ukrainian President Poroshenko.


Gerasimov then moved on to a discussion of other frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space, noting the increased risk that these conflicts may be “unfrozen” as a result of the currently heightened threat environment. He noted statements by the current Georgian government reflecting its intention to restore control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. The Moldovan government has been pressing for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Transnistria while continuing its economic blockade of the region. This is all leading to an increase in tension in these regions and may result in response measures from the Russian side.


In conclusion, Gerasimov turned to the threat posed by global terrorism. He noted that the number of members of various extremist organizations has grown from 2000 in the 1960s-70s, to 50,000 in the 1990s, to over 150,000 today. He also expressed concern about the growth of transnational terrorist networks, including some such as ISIS that have developed certain aspects of statehood. Some ISIS fighters are Russian citizens. These fighters threaten the entire world and attempts to fight the threat by a US-led airstrike operation have so far not achieved visible results. As a result, Washington and Brussels have once again turned to developing new armed groups among so-called “moderate Islamists.” But such projects do not take into account how such terrorist empires have formed in the past. Al-Qaeda, for example, formed from mujahideen who were funded by the US and its allies. Similarly, ISIS fighters until recently were “good” fighters but have now gone out of Western control and started to threaten their former sponsors.



In response to this range of threats, Russia has continued to develop its armed forces. Nuclear forces are maintained at a level designed to guarantee nuclear deterrence, including modern systems that can overcome US BMD systems. Russian Air-space defense systems continue to be developed. Defensive forces have been placed in Crimea. Russian bases have been placed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These bases will serve as a guarantee of stability and security in these regions.


At the same time, Gerasimov noted that Russia understands that most modern security threats affect entire regions and even the whole world so that their solution requires international dialog and cooperation.


I’ll have some reactions to this speech in a follow-up post. For now, let me just say that it was interesting to see the shift to the discussion of “old school” military threats, following last year’s focus on colored revolutions and hybrid warfare.