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.”

Personalization and Patriotism

The following article originally appeared at the Carnegie Forum on Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations, where it is one of a number of contributions by eminent experts such as Henry Hale, Mark Kramer, Thomas Graham, Steven Pifer, and many others. 

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American media narratives generally tend to excessively personalize politics and international affairs, and recent coverage of Russia is no exception to this overall trend. During the entire Ukraine crisis, and especially in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as an evil leader bent on some combination of restoring the Soviet empire and destroying the international order. His motivation has frequently been framed as a sense of pique for the exclusion of Russian leaders from key decisions, such as on the Iraq war, on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and on NATO enlargement.

While Russian leaders certainly do have a sense of grievance over perceived slights by the West, and particularly by the United States, against Russia that have accumulated over the 20-plus years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these grievances are not sufficient to explain Russian foreign policy. Instead, Russian foreign policy is driven by a combination of a desire to restore Russia’s great power status, the perception that Russian security can only be guaranteed if Russia is surrounded by friendly states, and the fear that the United States is taking active measures to overthrow the current Russian government.

Furthermore, the personalization of Russian foreign policy hurts U.S. policymaking toward Russia by creating a perception that Russian actions, as guided by Putin, are irrational and therefore cannot be dealt with through strategies other than containment. Furthermore, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) undercurrent that the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations will inevitably continue unless and until Vladimir Putin is removed from his position as Russia’s leader.

While Vladimir Putin has unquestionably installed a repressive domestic regime in Russia and pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to establish a set of dependent buffer states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy does derive from a rational set of beliefs, goals, and interests. The inability of many Western commentators and some policymakers to see the world from the Russian point of view damages the ability of the U.S. government to adopt a Russia policy that allows for a reasonable response to Russian actions without defaulting to the outdated image of Russia as a direct descendant of the Soviet “evil empire.” In addition, Western analysts neglect the likelihood that if Vladimir Putin is forced out of office, his replacement is unlikely to be a pro-Western politician. Instead, any successor is likely to be at least as anti-Western as Putin is perceived to be. Given the strength of nationalist sentiment among the Russian population, any new leader is in fact likely to be more nationalistic and aggressive than the current incumbent.

Throughout the current crisis, Russia has been acting from weakness, rather than from strength. While various commentators have described Putin as playing a chess game against the West, I would argue that he has actually been primarily reacting tactically to what he saw as a major defeat. After all, in late February, Ukraine went in just a few days from having chosen alliance with Russia over Europe to a victory by anti-Russian forces and the prospect of a close alliance with the West, and the potential loss of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol.

Russian leaders see the protests in Ukraine as part of a Western plot. For them, colored revolutions are a new form of warfare invented by Western governments seeking to remove independently-minded national governments in favor of ones that are controlled by the West. They have argued that this is part of a global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations around the world that refuse to accept American hegemony, and that Russia was a particular target of this strategy.

This perspective appears to be at the core of a new national security strategy that Russia is developing. Although Western readers may find the lumping together of uprisings as disparate as those in Serbia in 2000, Syria in 2011, and Venezuela in 2014 hard to swallow, from the Russian point of view they all share the common thread of occurring in countries that had governments that were opposed to the United States. Although uprisings in countries whose governments were tied more closely to the United States, such as Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Egypt and Bahrain in 2011 are harder to explain, such inconsistencies appear to not trouble the Russian government.

If this is the dominant perspective, then Russia’s opposition to the United States and the West is about mindset and has nothing to do with interests. In that case, it is not worth spending time to try to convince the current Russian leadership to pursue more cooperative policies. If they truly believe that the United States is seeking to force them out of power and is simply waiting for an opportune moment to strike, then Russian policies will remain committed to ensuring that the United States does not get such an opportunity.

In that environment, Russia’s current policies in Ukraine have little to do with geopolitical calculations about Ukrainian economic ties with the EU versus the Eurasian Union or even with potential Ukrainian NATO membership. And the annexation of Crimea was not about ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the main goal is to strengthen the Putin regime domestically by increasing patriotic attitudes among the Russian population. Patriotism would thus be the means by which the Russian government inoculates the Russian population against anti-regime and/or pro-Western attitudes. This goal would explain the obsessive focus on building an anti-Ukrainian and anti-American domestic media narrative from an early stage in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. response to such a position would have to focus on a combination of reassuring steps to show that the United States is not planning to overthrow the Putin regime with the restatement of the core U.S. position that the citizens of each country deserve the right to determine their own government without external interference (from either Russia or the United States).

In practical terms, the U.S. government should encourage the Ukrainian government to pursue policies of reconciliation in the Donbas. While the conflict has been greatly exacerbated by Russian actions, it has an internal component that cannot be solved by military action alone. In an ideal world, Russia and the United States would work together to encourage this reconciliation, though I doubt that the current Russian government is genuinely interested in peace in eastern Ukraine. Instead, it would prefer to keep eastern Ukraine unstable as an object lesson to its own population of the dangers of popular protest leading to the overthrow of even a relatively unpopular government.

Crimea Taught Us a Lesson, But Not How the Russian Military Fights

I have started a new collaboration with War on the Rocks. I’ll be writing for them once a month or so. Here’s the first piece, on Crimea and the Russian military.

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With the rapid operation that resulted in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the Russian military returned to the collective consciousness of the American public. Many commentators were impressed with the “little green men’s” professional demeanor and shiny new equipment. In some cases, this impression was undeservedly expanded to apply to the rest of the Russian military. In this context, it is important to discuss what the Crimean operation does and does not tell us about the capabilities of the Russian military.

The first clear lesson from the Crimean operation is that the Russian military understands how to carry out operations with a minimal use of force. This observation may initially seem banal or trivial, but we should keep in mind how Russian troops acted in previous operations in Chechnya and even to some extent in Georgia. Subtlety was not a strong suit in these operations, nor did it seem to be particularly encouraged by the political leadership. Instead, the goal seemed to be to use overwhelming force without much regard for civilian casualties. By contrast, the entire operation in Crimea was conducted with virtually no bloodshed or violence. There were three keys to this success:

Diversionary tactics

The Swedish analyst Johan Norberg was perhaps the first to highlight the significance of the major military exercise that was held on Ukraine’s eastern border in late February. While the Ukrainian government, as well as Western analysts and intelligence agencies, were distracted by the large-scale publicly announced mobilization in Russia’s Western military district, forces from the Southern military district and from airborne and Special Forces units located elsewhere in Russia were quietly transferred to Sevastopol.

You can read the rest of the article at War on the Rocks.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. I’ve written about the fleet in the past, but it may be worthwhile to provide an update, especially as there have been a couple of surveys of the fleet published in recent days in the Russian press and blogosphere.

The fleet currently consists of 40 combat ships, 28 of which are on active duty while the others are undergoing repair or modernization. The average age of these ships is 25, though the largest and most capable ships that are based in Sevastopol are also the oldest. (The average age of Sevastopol-based ships is 32.5) The flagship is the Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Large combat ships also include the Kara-class cruiser Kerch, the Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi, and two Krivak class frigates (Pytlivyi and Ladnyi). The Ladnyi is current being overhauled and is scheduled to return to active duty in August. A second Kara-class cruiser, the Ochakov, was decommissioned several years ago and has now been scuttled so as to block the exist of several Ukrainian Navy ships from Lake Donuzlav. These ships comprise the 11th brigade of ASW ships. The 197th brigade of amphibious ships includes six active ships: three Alligator class (Saratov, Orsk, Nikolai Filchenkov) and four Ropucha class (Novocherkassk, Azov, and Yamal), as well as one inactive Ropucha class ship, the Tsesar Kunikov. Together, these two brigades comprise the 30th division of surface ships. Smaller combat ships based in Sevastopol include three Grisha-class corvettes (Suzdalets, Aleksandrovsk, and Muromets) in the 400th ASW ship squadron, four mine warfare ships in the 418th minesweeper squadron, and 4-5 missile boats in the 295th missile boat squadron. There is also the Alrosa Kilo-class submarine. The newest of any of these ships were commissioned in 1990.

Ships based in Novorossiisk include three Grisha-class corvettes (Kasimov, Eisk, Povorino), two Nanuchka-class missile ships (Mirazh and Shtil), five active and two inactive mine warfare ships, and two hoverborne guided missile corvettes (Bora and Sivuch). These ships are generally newer than the Sevastopol-based ships, with an average age of 22.8. There are also several quite new patrol boats based in Novorossiisk.

Over the next few years, the BSF is expected to receive six new Admiral Grigorovich class frigates over the next three years. These are similar to the Talwar class frigates that Russia exported to India a few years ago. It is also expected to receive up to six new improved Kilo class diesel submarines in the same time period.

Finally, it may be worth briefly pointing out the Black Sea Fleet’s land and air forces, which include the 11th coastal missile artillery brigade armed with Bastion anti-ship missile systems. These are normally located in Anapa (2 on the map), though there have been some reports that they have been relocated to the Crimea in recent days. The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment is located in Sevastopol (5 on the map). Naval infantry forces include the 810th naval infantry brigade based in Sevastopol (3 on the map) and the 382nd independent naval infantry battalion based in Temriuk (4 on the map). The 431st naval reconnaissance post is located in Tuapse, near the border with Abkhazia (6 on the map). Naval aviation forces include facilities at Kacha (7 on the map) and Gvardeiskoe (8 on the map), both Crimea. The former houses (approximately) 20 Ka-27 and Mi-14 helicopters and 10 Mi-8 helicopters, as well as 10 Antonov transport planes of various types and 4 Be-12 amphibious planes. The latter houses 22 Su-24M attack aircraft.

Update: Thanks to Constantin Bogdanov, who highlighted some changes that I (and the authors of the surveys) missed: “The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment was disbanded in 2011; now there are two anti aircraft battalions (зенитно-ракетных дивизионов) combined with 810th brigade. Also, all Mi-14 are scrapped between 1995-2005.”

Map of Russian and Ukrainian military forces

Here’s a useful map of the locations of Ukrainian military bases (as of 2008) and Russian forces located near Ukraine’s borders. It’s drawn from a new Russian language blog, and due to limited time I haven’t checked the accuracy of the map, I’m afraid. Feel free to note any inaccuracies in the comments.

Note that the majority of Ukraine’s forces are located in Western Ukraine, as the positioning of the forces is left over from the Soviet period, when they were placed so as to maximize Soviet defensive potential against NATO forces. There are two mechanized infantry brigades, a tank brigade, and an artillery brigade in the east, though, as well as  airborne brigade and a tactical aviation brigade. Compare this to western Ukraine, where there are five mechanized infantry brigades, two artillery brigades, a tank brigade, a rocket brigade, four tactical aviation brigades, two army aviation regiments, and an air mobile brigade. Also worth highlighting the forces located in the south, near the Crimea: one mechanized infantry brigade, a tactical aviation brigade, an air mobile brigade and an army aviation regiment.

Here’s another map from the same source, with just the Ukrainian forces shown.

The accompanying text notes that the total personnel of Ukraine’s armed forces consists of 184,000 people, including 93,000 in ground forces. These are comprised of four tank brigades, 15 mechanized infantry brigades, 15 artillery brigades, two rocket brigades, 3 air mobile brigades, one airborne brigade, and one air mobile regiment. (Obviously this doesn’t match the numbers on the map) The air force has 160 combat and 25 transport aircraft. Of course, it’s likely that only a relatively small percentage of these units are combat-ready, especially in the air force.

The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian naval strategy

The Russian military analyst Prokhor Tebin has put together a very useful article explaining Crimea’s military significance for Russia. He highlights the Black Sea’s economic significance for Russia: Russia’s Black Sea commercial ports carry 30 percent of its total maritime exports. The Black Sea also provides the closest access for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Tebin points out that the Black Sea Fleet is needed to ensure that access, as well as to deal with potential  instability in the Caucasus.  It will also serve as a logistics hub for the Mediterranean task force that the Russian navy has decided to form, though ships for the task force will come from other fleets as well. He ranks the fleet third in importance for the Russian Navy, behind the Northern and Pacific Fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.

The composition of the fleet is currently inadequate for its missions. It has only a few old Soviet-era ships: one missile cruiser, three frigates, seven large amphibious ships, and one diesel submarine. It has not received any new combat ships since 1990, while almost all of its existing ships will need to be decommissioned fairly soon. Tebin compares the strength of the BSF to the Turkish navy, which includes 16 frigates, 8 corvettes, and 14 diesel submarines, with more ships on the way. To change the situation, Russia is currently building six new Talwar-class frigates and six improved Kilo class diesel submarines for the BSF. The fleet may also get some small missile ships and gunboats, as well as new minesweepers. Tebin considers this an absolute minimum for the BSF and argues that it will still not be enough to fulfill all of the fleet’s missions or to restore the balance of power in the Black Sea. He also calls for the development of additional shore-based infrastructure, especially in Novorossiisk. However, the latter port is inferior in location and climate conditions to Sevastopol, being subject to the extremely strong wind known as Bora. This relatively unpredictable wind, with speeds registered at over 200km/hour, has in the past damaged ships at pier. The location of Novorossiisk is also far less central than Sevastopol and the harbor is inferior. For these reasons, Tebin argues that Novorossiisk can only serve a complementary role for the Black Sea Fleet, while Sevastopol must remain its main base for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Tebin also provides a very nice map of Russian military facilities in Crimea, which I reproduce below.

The legend reads as follows:

The 1997 agreement permits a maximum of 25,000 personnel, including no more than 1,987 naval infantry and naval aviation personnel. 14,000 are actually deployed.

1) Sevastopol: main Black Sea Fleet forces, up to 30 ships; 810 naval infantry brigade; 17th arms storage facility, Khersones and Yuzhnyi airfields

2) Kacha airfield: Be-12 and An-26 aircraft, Ka-27 and Mi-8 helicopters

3) Gvardeiskoe airfield: 20 Su-24 bombers

4) Feodosiia: 31st naval armaments testing center

5) Cape Opuk: naval firing range

6) Otradnoe: 219th radio-electronic warfare regiment

7) Yalta: 830th communications post

8) Priberezhnoe: 1001st high-frequency communications post

 

Ukraine discussion on Foreign Entanglements

I was on the Foreign Entanglements video blog yesterday with Robert Farley, talking about Ukraine. Here is the show description with links to the various segments, or you can just watch the whole thing.

On Foreign Entanglements, Rob and Dmitry discuss the recent Russian incursion into Crimea. Dmitry summarizes Russian interests in the region. Have the US and Europe handled the situation correctly so far? Dmitry suggests that, in the long run, Putin will pay substantial costs for the incursion. Is the new Ukrainian government stable enough to fight back? Rob and Dmitry compare the strengths of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. Finally, Dmitry thinks through some options for the Western response.