USS Monterey and the US presence in the Black Sea

Josh Kucera from The Bug Pit asked me for my views on recent Russian criticisms of the USS Monterey Aegis-equipped cruiser participating in the Sea Breeze 2011 naval exercises in the Black Sea.

The purpose of the exercise is to conduct training in counter-piracy operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, boarding, and search and seizure. As Josh points out, none of this has anything to do with missile defense. Yet Russian objections focus on this issue. Josh quotes two Russian statements on the ship visit, the first from a Georgian newspaper and the second as reported by RIA-Novosti.

  1. “The Russian side has repeatedly stressed that we will not let pass unnoticed the appearance of elements of US strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders and will see such steps as a threat to our security.”
  2. “The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous ‘reconnaissance’ operations near the borders of our country.”

In addition to these objections related to missile defense, the foreign ministry also objected to the Monterey’s visit to Batumi, Georgia after the exercise:

And now this American warship has demonstratively entered the Georgian port of Batumi… Whatever the explanations are, it is clear that the Georgian authorities will see the incident as encouragement for their ambitions for revenge against the Russian allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is unlikely to help stability in the region.

As I see it, the reason for the controversy is because the Russian side believes that they were promised that the U.S. would not send Aegis cruisers to the Black Sea unless there was some kind of imminent threat. Obviously that wasn’t the case here, so they think this is another case of promises broken, something they’re very sensitive about because of their perceptions of how NATO enlargement went down.

The Monterey has been officially designated as part of phase one of the European missile defense shield. It is normally stationed in the Mediterranean as a missile defense ship. So it wasn’t irrational for Russia to connect its arrival in the Black Sea with missile defense issues.

On the one hand, the purpose of the visit has nothing to do with missile defense. On the other hand, it’s obvious to everyone that by sending an Aegis cruiser to Batumi the US is making a statement. Not so much about missile defense, but about the US feeling that it has the right to send its warships anywhere it wants to without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia. And Russian officials never miss the opportunity to turn a molehill into a mountain when it comes to that kind of symbolism.

At the same time, it seems to me that as far as the US is concerned, its navy is just following a long-stated policy that its ships will go anywhere they’re invited, without regard for what other states in the area think. So from that point of view they’re just following through. And they’re right that the ship’s purpose in the Black Sea has nothing to do with missile defense.

I think the US policy is consistent — after all, Moscow has objected to the presence of US warships in the Black Sea on several previous occasions. It’s just that sending an AEGIS cruiser has allowed Moscow to give its criticisms another form. Rather than just focusing on US ships visiting Georgia, it can now use the missile defense angle…

While Josh thinks this may have a negative effect on efforts to reset US-Russian relations, I’m not so sure. One should always be careful to distinguish Russian rhetoric from practical cooperation. While I think cooperation on missile defense is a dead end, there is every possibility of continuing cooperation on other issues that affect the security of both states. I would be surprised if any number of negative statements such as the ones put out by Moscow on the Monterey visit would affect that.

UPDATE: Regarding the last paragraph, Josh wrote me with the following clarification:

I don’t think this episode is causing problems between the US and Russia, but more that a symptom that something is wrong. Because otherwise Russia wouldn’t be making such a mountain out of this molehill, and possibly the US would have been a little more cautious about sending a provocative signal. But then, when we get
into Russian politics I’m definitely out of my element…

On this, I pretty much agree. There are still many people (on both sides) who are inherently suspicious of the other side’s intentions, and their statements just feed on each other to reproduce the cycle of suspicion and latent (or more) hostility. And that is going to keep causing problems for US-Russian relations for years to come.

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Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

Stratfor, the company that provides  “global intelligence” to the world, seems to have completely lost its collective mind. It is currently in the middle of publishing a four part series on “Russia’s Expanding Influence.” (The reports are only accessible through the website to subscribers, though they are being reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List.) No author is listed, so I must assume this means it is a collective product that has the imprimatur of the entire corporation.

To summarize briefly, the introduction indicates that because of its geographic indefensibility, Russia needs a buffer zone around its borders to be a stable and strong state. The next part is the core of the argument and worth quoting in full:

First are four countries where Russia feels it must fully reconsolidate its influence: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries protect Russia from Asia and Europe and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. So far, Russia has reconsolidated power in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and part of Georgia is militarily occupied. In 2010, Russia will focus on strengthening its grasp on these countries.

This analysis is so wrong as to be funny. To say that Russia has reconsolidated its influence in those three countries is to be completely ignorant of current events. Belarus has recently turned away from Russia and is trying to get closer to the EU. Kazakhstan is primarily focused on developing its economy and is turning more and more to China in the economic and even inthe security sphere. And anyone who thinks that Yanukovich will do whatever Russia wants will be sorely disappointed. All signs in Ukraine point to him driving a hard bargain and making Russia pay for what it wants — it won’t be the knee-jerk anti-Russianism of Yushchenko, but he won’t meekly submit either.

Furthermore, as Keith Darden has shown in great detail in his recent book, for most of the last 20 years, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been spearheading re-integration efforts in the former Soviet space, efforts that Russia has repeatedly resisted. The story of the Belarusian efforts to increase political integration with Russia is instructive in this regard. After years of getting nowhere on implementation, Belarusian President Lukashenka has finally given up and has turned to the EU to balance his previously completely Russia-focused foreign policy. With Kazakhstan, Stratfor discusses  the gradually increasing Chinese influence but underplays its current role in the country and in Central Asia as a whole. In fact, rather than Russia having “reconsolidated power” in Kazakhstan, there is a three-way competition for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China and the United States. Russia is for the moment the strongest player in this competition (and the US is clearly the weakest), but its influence is waning while China’s is increasing. Kazakhstan, just like the other states in the region, is quite happy to play off these three powers against each other to preserve its own freedom of maneuver.

Anyone who thinks that the result of the recent Ukrainian elections means that Ukraine is returning to Russian orbit will be in for some nasty surprises in the coming months. As we saw as far back as 1994, Ukrainian politicians who campaign on pro-Russian themes are likely to adopt a more middle-of-the-road foreign policy once they get elected. Yanukovich’s early signals indicate that he is likely to follow the same trajectory as Kuchma did more than 15 years ago. Even analysts who are deeply suspicious of Russia, such as Jamestown Foundation’s Vlad Socor, believe that Yanukovich will try to balance Russia and the West in order to preserve his own freedom of action. In today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Socor writes:

The Brussels and Moscow visits have probably set a pattern for Yanukovych’s presidency. He is moving almost without transition from a pro-Russian electoral campaign to a double-vector policy toward Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovych has no real popular mandate for new policy initiatives, having been elected with less than one half of the votes cast, and lacking a parliamentary majority (although he and Donetsk business may cobble together a parliamentary majority). For all these reasons, the president is not in a position to deliver on any agreements with Russia at this time.

Ukrainian-Russian relations will certainly be less strained than they were over the last five years, but by no means does this mean that Russia is anywhere close to controlling Ukrainian politics.

Overall, I find this analysis puzzling. I can’t imagine that the folks at Stratfor are so clueless that they don’t already everything I wrote above. The only alternative, though, is that they are distorting the situation in the region in order to pursue some kind of political agenda dedicated to resurrecting the Cold War-era confrontation between Russia and the United States. I find this possibility even more disturbing than the possibility that they are actually unaware of the political situation in the region.

Update: I just read part 2 of this series, which includes a section about the Baltics. While I have no desire to go into it at length, the following sentence was just too amusing not to note: “Estonia is also mainly Ugro-Finnish, which means that Russians are surrounded by Ugro-Finns on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.” Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.

Why the Mistral?

I had thought I would be writing this week on what has been accomplished by the December 1 deadline for completing the reorganizational phase of the military reform. But since everyone else is still talking about the Mistral, I’ve inevitably been thinking more about the reasons for the possible purchase.

First of all, there is no reason for panic. This is something both supporters of Georgia and boosters of the Russian shipbuilding industry should keep in mind. American analysts such as Vlad Socor and David Smith are worried that the Mistral will be used to attack Georgia or the Crimea. Setting aside my doubts on whether there is any reason for Russia to undertake such an operation, we should remember that it will take several years after a purchase agreement is completed before any Mistral-class ships actually become part of the Russian fleet. And while we can expect the first one, built in France, to be built fairly expeditiously, the ones that will be built under license in Russia will take quite a while, given the need to refurbish shipyards before construction begins and the general slow pace of ship construction in Russia. I would guess that the political uncertainty surrounding Russia’s relations with these two countries will be resolved before the Mistral comes online.

Russian opponents of the purchase frequently note how this purchase will spell the final doom of domestic military shipbuilding, if not of the entire Russian defense industry. Comments about how this purchase is taking work away from domestic shipbuilding are, oddly enough, immediately followed by statements by the same person arguing that Russia does not have facilities to build Mistrals under French license. If there are no facilities capable of building the Mistral, how can there be facilities capable of building a domestic equivalent?

I would argue that the Russian military shipbuilding industry is more likely to be doomed without such a purchase. Russia’s shipyards have proven themselves virtually incapable of building new military surface ships of any size. (They seem to still be able to build submarines for some reason) Only one new ship larger than a corvette has been completed since 1993. The Admiral Gorshkov frigate keeps getting delayed. The initially highly publicized Ivan Gren LST project has disappeared completely — it may be that it’s failure is the proximate cause for the RFN looking to France for an alternative.

It used to be that everyone blamed lack of financing. But when financing became readily available in the middle of this decade, the rate of ships being completed didn’t increase. By this point, it seems pretty clear that primary blame must be cast on problems at the shipyards themselves, rather than on the government or the Navy. So a license to build a foreign-designed ship may be just the thing to revitalize the Admiralty shipyard in St. Petersburg or Sevmash in Severodvinsk.

Whether this is the ship that should be built is another matter entirely. Various authors have made the case that the Mistral is not the ship that the Russian Navy needs. It may be that at least part of the reason for its purchase has to do with political factors, such as improving Russian-French relations. Or it may be that the Navy wants a versatile ship that can be used in many different ways.

While because of its versatility I don’t think it would be wasted in the Russian Navy, it’s probably not the best use of the limited procurement budget. It might make a good utility ship, good for “conducting independent amphibious operations in distant locales” but is that really going to be a primary mission for the Russian Navy in coming years? It seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the Navy’s main missions will consist of protecting sea lanes and showing the flag. The Mistral could be used for these kinds of operations, but they are not its primary purpose. Given the money that would be spent on this ship, it seems that the RFN might as well get exactly what it needs.

To the extent that Russia needs new ships, it seems that a large frigate or even a destroyer would be more useful than an amphibious assault ship. For the moment, the Udaloys are doing their jobs, and may be considered the workhorses of the Russian fleet. But with one exception (Admiral Chabanenko), they are now all 20-25 years old. It’s time to start thinking about what comes next, especially since the remaining Sovremennyi destroyers are extremely unreliable and hardly ever go far from their home ports. Given the speed with which Russian ships are being built (such as the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, now approaching its fifth year of construction), it may be time to start thinking about building a replacement, so that they are ready in ten years when the Udaloys start to retire.

The Future of Russian Tanks

In the last month, the Russian media has started to cover the equipment modernization aspect of military reform, after virtually ignoring this topic for the previous nine months. I have already addressed the modernization of the Russian Navy. In this post, I want to briefly touch on the significance of the announced changes in the Russian tank fleet.

In July, the Ministry of Defense announced that they will reduce the total number of tanks in active service in the military from 23,000 to 2,000. (And down from an astonishing 65,000 at the end of the Cold War.)  These will be based in two separate tank brigades and more than 20 tank battalions that will be incorporated into other brigades.  The two separate brigades will be located in Siberia and Moscow.

The implication is that Russia has decided that it will no longer seek to be prepared to fight large scale land wars of the kind that formed the core of Soviet military planning during the Cold War. Instead, Russian military planners are planning to develop a rapid response army that is well prepared to fight in smaller regional conflicts, while depending on its nuclear arms to deter any potential aggression from major adversaries.

This means that planners are finally taking to heart some of the lessons that became apparent as early as 1994, at the start of the first Chechen war. This was when a column of unprotected tanks entering Grozny was destroyed by individual Chechen fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades.  While the weakness of  unprotected tank columns facing enemies using guerrilla tactics were recognized by Russian military observers at that point, the military did virtually nothing about it, neither in terms of changing tactics or modernizing equipment, for another 15 years. This continuing weakness became apparent during the war with Georgia, when the 58th army’s tank columns were heavily damaged by Georgian artillery. Some Russian analysts have in fact argued that Georgia’s Soviet-made T-72 tanks, equipped with thermal imaging equipment and superior West European navigation and communications systems, were superior to Russia’s T-72s and were only defeated in battle because the Georgian military could not provide their armored units with close air support. In other words, even the best tanks are largely useless without helicopters backing them up.

Nevertheless, Russia’s tanks do need to be upgraded to improve their communications, targeting, and manueverability. The reduction in numbers makes this modernization possible. The newest T-90s, of which there are around 300 in service, are equipped with thermal imaging sights and superior armor when compared to the T-72, its immediate predecessor. There are also efforts underway to modernize the T-72 to increase its speed and manueverability, though designs aimed at making the T-72 comparable in armor and firepower to the T-90 have not been accept by the Russian military. All of these measures can be seen as interim steps as the Russian military prepares to begin procuring a new generation battle tank in the next five years.

All in all, the announcement that the number of Russian tanks will be reduced by a factor of ten and those remaining modernized is another piece of evidence that Russian military leaders have finally prevailed on planners in the general staff to abandon their focus (left over from the Cold War) on planning to fight major land wars. The Russian military is being redesigned to fight small wars against opponents who may employ guerrilla tactics. Until now, this assessment was primarily based on evidence related to the restructuring of the force as a whole. It is now being confirmed by the choices military planners are making about equipment.