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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Moscow Conference on International Security 2015 Part 1: The plenary speeches

Last week, I was once again in attendance at the Russian MOD’s Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS). As I did last year, over the next couple of weeks I’ll write up some of the key speeches and then conclude with some takeaway thoughts on the event.

The Russian speakers at the plenary session included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev delivered greetings from Vladimir Putin. So pretty much the same lineup as last year, with the addition of Patrushev. The links above go to video of the speeches, with Russian language audio. Texts of the speeches have also been posted: Shoigu, Lavrov, Gerasimov, Patrushev.

For those who don’t understand Russian, here are some highlights of the speeches:

First up, the greeting from Vladimir Putin, as read by Nikolay Patrushev. The greeting highlighted the significance of holding the conference just before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, noting that it is a reminder that history cannot be forgotten and of the threats presented by the glorification of Nazism, the encouragement of xenophobia and extremism, and pretensions of any country to world domination. The speech also noted that the current system of international security was developed collectively in the aftermath of the second World War on the basis of mutual interests and partnership. Any distancing from these rules leads to one-sided and non-workable efforts to resolve global threats. Furthermore, crude interference in any country’s internal affairs through scenarios such as “color revolutions” just increases the space where violence and chaos are rampant. The rise of the Islamic State highlights the rapid growth and global spread of extremism and terrorism that no single country or grouping of states can defeat. Coordinated action by the entire global community, based on international law, is the only way to address this threat.

Sergei Shoigu gave the first substantive speech, expanding on the themes in Putin’s greeting. He highlighting the leading role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism, while noting the contributions of all countries that participating in the fight. He then transitioned to the need for the world to unite to fight the rebirth of fascism, xenophobia, racism and militarism and to tie Russia’s perceptions of the current international situation to the fight against Nazism. Specifically, he focused on the threat posed by “countries that consider themselves winners of the Cold War and want to force their will on others” to the stability of the international system that was created after World War II. He warned against unilateralism in international affairs and against efforts by any one country to develop absolute military superiority.

He then returned to the previous year’s theme of the threat posed to the world by color revolutions, noting events over the last year in Hong Kong and Venezuela as continuing the effort by the United States and its allies to sow chaos in states that oppose US policies. He then turned to Ukraine, calling it the greatest tragedy caused by the color revolutions policy. He said that in its efforts to make Ukraine into its satellite, the US had crossed all conceivable lines in promoting an anti-constitutional overthrow of the legal government that resulted in a civil war and forced Russia to react. With the war having already resulted in 6,000 deaths, “how many more victims will be needed to force Ukrainians in the southeastern part of the country to feel themselves European?”

Shoigu also highlighted the Kosovo precedent: While Western countries blame Russia for unilaterally changing European borders for the first time since World War II, they ignore the planned dismemberment of Yugoslavia that “served as a laboratory for Western efforts to develop techniques to destroy a sovereign state” and culminated in the removal of Kosovo from Serbia without any respect for international law. Shoigu also blames the West for sowing chaos around the world through its ill-conceived military interventions, particularly in Iraq and Libya, which have resulted in the long-term destabilization of entire regions of the world. As a result, he denies that critics of Russia’s actions in Crimea have any moral right to blame Russia for violating international law.

Instead of adopting Russian ideas for building a common system for European security, Western states have enacted sanctions and launched an information war against Russia. They have renewed talk about containment and how to use NATO to deal with a growing Russian threat. The main goal is to break countries that have long cultural and historical ties with Russia free of its influence. Previous talk of NATO-Russia partnership has ended. Instead non-nuclear NATO states are being involved in exercises on how to use American tactical nuclear weapons that have been placed in a number of European states. The world should remember that the United States is the only country in history to have actually used nuclear weapons. “What consequences might have such eagerness to use nuclear weapons have had for Europe, had the US Army developed such weapons a little earlier.”

Shoigu also noted that Russian fears of the threat to global stability caused by American missile defense systems are also coming to pass. He said that It is becoming clear that the US has been bluffing about potential missile threats emanating from Iran, since no moves have been made to reconsider US missile defense plans now that a nuclear deal with Iran has been completed. Instead, the US is making moves to expand missile defense systems in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu then turned to the threat to international security posed by terrorism. As with the rest of the speech, he went out of his way to highlight the role played by the United States and other countries in encouraging the development of terrorist organizations around the world. Pointing to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State, he noted that such organizations have commonly gotten out of the control of their patrons and become a problem for international security.

In the final part of his speech, Shoigu turned to the importance of working together to solve international security. He argued that the liquidation of chemical weapons in Syria and the recently achieved nuclear agreement with Iran show what can be done with diplomacy when the international community comes together. He noted that similar breakthroughs could be achieved in the development of non-strategic missile defense in Europe and the establishment of a new multilateral security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Shoigu was followed by Sergei Lavrov, who highlighted that peace can only be achieved through a collective international effort. NATO’s euphoria about winning the Cold War resulted in a belief that the West would be on top of the world forever. Meanwhile, international processes were actually heading in the direction of multi-lateralism. As a result, the world now stands at a crossroads where it must choose between cooperation and deadly conflicts. Lavrov highlighted the need to create a global security infrastructure to deal with the arc of instability stretching from northern Africa to Afghanistan.

In turning to the conflict in Ukraine, Lavrov argued that there is no military solution and that efforts to punish Russia for “its independent foreign policy, for standing up for truth and justice, for defending its compatriots” are absurd. He noted that many European leaders agree that the effort of some countries to break Russia is a huge and unforgivable risk to international security. Instead, the only solution is to carry out all parts of the second Minsk agreement, including not just the ceasefire, but also the end of Kiev’s economic blockade of the Donbas and the start of a real political process that leads to constitutional reform that takes into account all of Ukraine’s regions. In keeping with the theme of mentioning the anniversary of the end of World War II at every opportunity, Lavrov made sure to point out that the West must force the Kiev government to stop “glorifying Nazism and persecuting those who saved Europe from fascism.”

While Washington keeps talking about Russia coming to the gates of Europe, the reality is that NATO has brought its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders while US naval vessels are now regularly appearing in the Black Sea and US missile defense sites are being built in Romania and Poland. Russia sees US missile defense as part of a global project to reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic deterrence forces. Like Shoigu, Lavrov highlighted that the continuation of missile defense plans in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement shows that missile defense has always been aimed primarily against Russia.

Meanwhile, Lavrov noted that real threats to international security, including terrorism and the rise of extremist forces in the Middle East and North Africa, require international partnership to resolve. The exacerbation of Sunni/Shi’a divisions require a serious effort to create a compromise based on principles of international law. Instead, Western states have been using it as a pretext for interference in internal affairs in the region. Lavrov asks how the US can support the coalition operation in Yemen to restore by force a president who fled the country while in Ukraine it pursued the exact opposite policy. The double standards of US policy are in plain view in comparing the two situations.

Lavrov concludes by reinforcing the point made by Shoigu that unilateralism and forcing one country’s values on another leads to escalation of conflicts and an ever-growing region of chaos. Positive results can only come from combining forces, such as took place with the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran can now be included in the discussion on regional security in the Middle East and in the amelioration of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, as well as in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similar partnerships can be developed in other regions and conflict zones, including in Afghanistan and in East Asia. International organizations such as the Arab League, OIC, UN, and SCO can all be used to promote international security.

Valery Gerasimov spoke next, but his speech deserves a separate post, while I will endeavor to have up in the next few days.

The rest of the first session included presentations by Amb. Michael Moeller, the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva and by Amb. Marcel Pesco, the Director of the Office of the OSCE Secretary General. These speakers highlighted the role of their respective international organizations in promoting peace and resolving conflicts. Moeller focused on the threat posed by transnational violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram. He called for the international community to come together, to prevent the international system from being undermined. He argued that having power does not give states the power to take unilateral action. Instead, the international community should focus on rebuilding trust among leading actors, working on preventing conflicts, and improving early warning systems.

Marcel Pesco argued for the need for the members of the international community to commit to developing a common security infrastructure. He noted that the crisis in Ukraine has called into question some of the fundamental premises of the international system of cooperative security. He argued that the international community needs to build on the Minsk agreement to try to settle the conflict.

As a result of the Ukraine conflict, confrontation now exceeds cooperation in Europe, preventing forward momentum on other issues such as arms control. Pesco noted that the OSCE remains a platform for dialog in Europe but needs to become the basis for regional security.

Interview on last month’s Russian military exercises

A couple of weeks ago, I gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on the significance of the Russian military exercises that were conducting in conjunction with the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The newspaper has kindly granted permission to publish an English-language version of the interview.

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Author: Ingrid Burke
Publication: L’Indro
Date: March 25, 2015

On 18 March, one year after Russian and Crimean leaders gathered in the Kremlin to formalize Moscow’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, festivities erupted across Russia.

Tens of thousands of enthusiastic Muscovites mobbed Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the annexation. Some of Russia’s most iconic pop and rock stars took the stage that day to entertain the patriotic revelers. But it was a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin that stole the show.

“What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support,” he told the cheering crowd, addressing Moscow’s rationale for taking Crimea into its federal fold. “We understood how important this is to us and that this was not simply about land, of which we have no shortage as it is.”

Festivities aside, the week of celebrations saw its fair share of brash statements and actions flaunting Russia’s military might.

On Sunday 15 March, state-run TV channel Rossiya-1 aired “Crimea: the Path to the Motherland,” a documentary on the annexation that featured a never-before-seen interview with Putin. The documentary elucidated a great deal about the annexation.

But one revelation in particular generated a wealth of nervous media buzz. When asked if the Kremlin was ready amid the Crimea crisis to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, Putin answered: “We were ready to do that.”

A day after the interview aired, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Putin had ordered large-scale military drills across the nation. A Defense Ministry statement cited Shoigu as saying 38,000 servicemen, 3,360 vehicles, 41 combat ships, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft and helicopters would be involved in the drills.

Reporting on the development at the time, Reuters touted the drills as the Kremlin’s biggest show of military force since Russia’s ties with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows in the aftermath of the Crimea crisis.

The following Thursday, 19 March, the Defense Ministry announced that the military drill numbers had doubled. An official statement said the number of servicemen involved had surged to 80,000, and the number of aircraft to 220.

Agence France-Presse described the amped up drills as some of Russia’s largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, noting that the maneuvers had caused jitters across Eastern Europe.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a Senior Research Scientist specializing in Russian military reform at U.S.-based think tank CNA Corporation, spoke with L’Indro on Friday about the drills, their significance, and whether leaders in Eastern Europe and beyond have reason to fear a sinister motive.

“They [the drills] are clearly intended to be sending a message, so in that sense they are significant,” Gorenburg said, adding that the intended message is not unique. “It’s not any different from the messages that Russia’s been sending for the last year really, which is that they’re back, their military is serious, it’s powerful, it’s prepared, it’s ready to counter any NATO aggression as they see it.”

The annexation of Crimea came against the backdrop of the ouster of the Kremlin-loyal administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. With Yanukovych out, and a new Western leaning regime beginning to take form, fears ran rife in Moscow that Kiev might soon be joining NATO.

The signal Moscow was aiming to send with the drills was one of defense capability, rather than the threat of an offensive, Gorenburg said. “From the Russian point of view — or at least the point of view that Russia is trying to convey — this is all defensive, including Ukraine,” he said. “So they see — and they’ve said this repeatedly — that they are countering an effort to encircle Russia by NATO and the US and hostile forces, and that they have no intention of aggression beyond what they consider their sphere of influence.”

Gorenburg noted, however, that one man’s defense can to another man have all the bearings of an offensive maneuver. “This is the tricky thing. From the point of view [of the West], this [Russia’s actions in Ukraine, such as the Crimea annexation] is seen as aggressive because it’s outside of [Russia’s] borders. But as far as Russia’s concerned, a lot of the military types never fully reconciled to Ukraine being independent… A lot of the people [in Russia] honestly believe that the country is threatened by Ukraine potentially joining NATO. And they have to stop that from happening.”

Putin gave voice to the sentiment of Russia and Ukraine being inextricably bound during his speech at the Crimea jubilee on Red Square on Wednesday. “The issue at stake [with the Crimea annexation] was the sources of our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people and single united nation,” he said, the domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral gleaming overhead. “Friends, we in Russia always saw the Russians and Ukrainians as a single people. I still think this way now. Radical nationalism is always harmful and dangerous of course. I am sure that the Ukrainian people will yet come to an objective and worthy appraisal of those who brought their country to the state in which it is in today.”

When asked whether he thought the timing of the drills was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the annexation, Gorenburg responded, “I very much doubt it’s a coincidence. It was a symbolic act, I think.”

But he was less sure about the timing of the release of Putin’s comments about nuclear preparedness in the Crimea context. “I’m not sure why it was said now, because the overall message that I think Russia’s trying to send is to try to deter,” he said. Relevant to this point is that the Rossiya-1 interview was pre-recorded. It is unclear when the interview itself took place.

And in fact, deterrence seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. “[The West is] trying to deter [Russia] from expanding the conflict in Ukraine. [Russia’s] trying to deter [the West] from interfering. And I think that every time Russia mentions nuclear weapons… that’s sort of the final trump card in preventing any serious attack on Russian forces,” Gorenburg said. “And they want to highlight that in order to make Western publics and therefore decision makers more reluctant to take on Russian forces.”

As Gorenburg saw it, signaling a willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear arsenal could serve to rally members of the Western public against action that could be interpreted by Moscow as threatening.

For months now, leaders in the Baltic states have expressed unease with the implications of the Crimea annexation, concerned about the prospect of a Russian military threat to their own post-Soviet territories.

On this point, Gorenburg felt confident that these countries face no immediate threat. “As far as what happens in the Baltics, I really think the chance of any kind of military offensive in the Baltics is very, very low.”

But he also emphasized the imperative of thinking in both the short and long term with respect to Russian strategy in the region. “That doesn’t mean that the Baltics are safe, because I think there is a possibility in the future — not in the short term, but say five years down the line, or at some point when the situation warrants — of some sort of internal destabilization, not using military forces, but either training some local Russians, or using political means. There are certainly parties in each of the countries, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, that are more sympathetic to Russian positions. And you get those politicians that have more influence, more power, to change the foreign policy of those countries.”

In his view, a scenario such as this — involving long-term strategy and covert actions as opposed to overt military force — would be far more likely than a flagrant offensive due largely to Russia’s interest in not triggering Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Article 5 is the provision dictating that an armed attack against one or more NATO parties in Europe or North America shall be viewed as an attack against all of NATO’s members. Such an event would compel the member nations to assist in “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” according to the treaty’s text.

“[Russia’s] conventional forces are no match for NATO,” Gorenburg said.

But in the end, Gorenburg asserted that while both sides are concerned about the aims and strategies of the other, neither wants the situation to escalate. “Both sides think that the other side is more aggressive than that side thinks of itself. So the US thinks — we just want peace, and the Russians are being aggressive. The Russians think — the US is trying to surround us, and overthrow our government, and we just want to defend ourselves. So in that kind of environment, you can see both sides being fairly cautious, hopefully, because neither side actually wants to fight a big war.”

Russian arms sales

Another Oxford Analytica piece, this one from mid-December.

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Russia is the second-largest arms exporter in the world, behind only the United States. In the period 2009-13, Russia accounted for 27% of total world arms sales.

However, Russian arms sales have been highly dependent on a few major customers, with India, China and Algeria accounting for over 60% of Russian purchases in the last five years. Another 15% of Russian exports went to other Asian countries, primarily Vietnam, Indonesia and former Soviet Union states.

Russia is particularly hopeful of expanding its sales to Indonesia and Vietnam — which are both looking towards naval expansion, which have to date included systems ranging from aircraft to combat ships to infantry fighting vehicles.

The main targets of Russian weapon sales are gradually shifting. Sales to China, have been in decline for years as Beijing has pursued a programme of shifting to domestic manufacturing of advanced weaponry.

India

India has replaced China as Moscow’s main foreign customer. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that between 2009 and 2013 Russia supplied 75% of weapons imported by India. However, serious delays such as the transfer of the modernised aircraft carrier — the Vikramaditya — have dented Russia’s reputation as a reliable partner.

Therefore, Delhi seeks a diversity of supply from sources including the United States and several European countries. This is evidenced in India’s preference for French Rafale fighters in the multi-billion dollar Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) fighter tender.

India’s MMRCA tender is for procuring 126 fighters to replace squadrons of MiG-21s. The deal will see France supply a number of aircraft fully built and ready to fly — while the remainder will be built under a technology transfer agreement by Hindustan Aeronautics.

Moreover, India is looking to be 75% self-reliant in defence production by 2020-25. It will also seek to become a weapons exporter and probably promote partnerships with Russia. The BrahMos Aerospace programme has been a particular noteworthy area of close cooperation between Russia and India with the creation of the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile.

Pakistan

Pakistan may also provide a new opening for Russia. On November 20, Russia and Pakistan signed a military cooperation agreement, reportedly involving a deal for Moscow to supply 20 Mi-35 transport helicopters to Islamabad.

Middle East

Besides Asia, Russia has been actively looking for new customers for its arms in the Middle East. Russia has recently concluded significant contracts with Iraq for helicopters and air defence systems worth 4 billion dollars and Egypt for air defence systems worth 2 billion dollars.

Latin America

In Latin America, Russia remains hopeful of selling fighter aircraft to Brazil and Argentina. Russia has sold air defence systems to Brazil and hopes to develop a defence industrial partnership that might parallel its military cooperation with India.

Competitive sectors

The sectors in which Russian weapons systems are considered equal or superior to Western equivalents include air defence, fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines and cruise missiles. These are the sectors in which Russia’s defence industry can compete with the most advanced Western suppliers, with weapons such as the S-300 air defence system, the Su-35 fighter jets and the Kilo class submarine being noteworthy. Russia can also be competitive in sectors such as tanks, armored vehicles, small arms, artillery, and small combat ships. These are sectors where Russian weapons are not as good as Western equivalents, but are generally significantly cheaper. This price difference has allowed them to be competitive in many countries despite lower quality and/or inferior characteristics.

Ukraine delays

However, Russian arms sales have largely depended on selling late Soviet designs, with new designs proving more difficult to manufacture. The freeze on military cooperation with Ukraine may lead to further delays as many Russian weapon systems depend on Ukrainian components and the transition to Russian domestic substitutes is expected to take two to three years.

Half-hearted military assistance to Ukraine will only make things worse

recent report by the Atlantic Council think tank advocating the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine highlights the threat posed by Russia to neighboring states.

But the key question missing from the Atlantic Council report is what the West’s overall goal in the conflict should be. The possible goals could range from helping Ukraine restore control over the Donbass, to implementing a cease-fire along the current line of control, to simply deterring Russia from similar adventures elsewhere.

The Atlantic Council report assumes but does not prove that Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors pose a grave threat to international security in general because success in Ukraine will embolden President Vladimir Putin to take similar actions elsewhere.

Click here to read the rest of the op-ed.

No, the Russian Navy isn’t going to collapse

Is the Russian Navy about to collapse? In a recent article on War is Boring, David Axe made this argument largely based on data from my recent articles on the Russian shipbuilding program and the Russian Navy’s priorities. While the information I provided is sound, Axe’s overall interpretation is not.

The Russian Navy is investing in a time-phased recapitalization of its navy over the next 20 years. Submarines are the first phase, already well under way, followed by smaller surface combatants, then increased amphibious capabilities. The navy is letting recapitalization of cruisers and destroyers slip into the next decade. As such, the availability of large combat ships will decrease in the near term but begin to increase in the medium to long term.

The Russian Navy has historically had four main missions: 1) strategic deterrence, 2) coastal defense, 3) protection of sea lanes of communication, and 4) out-of-area deployment.

Click here to read the rest of the article.