There has been much sabre-rattling by Moscow recently. Russian military activity has increased markedly since the Maidan events in Ukraine in early 2014. Russian troops initially massed on Ukraine’s borders in what was ostensibly a scheduled military exercise, but which was also clearly a means of applying psychological pressure on Kiev. Then the situation worsened as Russia annexed Crimea without a shot being fired. This was a very skillful operation involving the Kremlin’s now well-refined information-warfare techniques integrated with the activities of a limited number of special forces. This was followed in eastern Ukraine by the appearance of the ‘little green men’ (who may or may not have been Russian troops) operating in support of the rebels seeking autonomy from Kiev. It may be taken as read, though, that there are, indeed, Russian troops operating today over the border in Ukraine. Equipment has been seen there that is only possessed by the Russian army and which can only be operated by Russian service personnel.
Beyond Ukraine, other instances of what might be called aggressive behaviour have been evident. Russian aircraft and naval vessels are – on a global scale – fraying nerves with their incursions or near incursions into someone else’s territory. Evident also in the last month or so has been a spate of major, and provocative, military exercises unrelated to the Ukraine situation – in, for instance, the Arctic and the Southern Military District (near Georgia). Additional excitement has been caused by an exercise in March involving the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range missiles into Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. Such a deployment brings several NATO countries within range of these missiles.
The Russian military seems to be very busy. But what are we really to make of all this? How worried should we be?
Well, the first thing to do is to take a step back and look at the nature of the recent Russian military modernisation process. On the back of oil money, the Kremlin has, over the last few years, been moving its military into the 21st century. This process has concentrated, in terms of the army (i.e., the Ground Forces and the Airborne Forces), on recruiting more professional soldiers, creating greater mobility and improving niche capabilities. In essence, the thinking was very much asymmetric – how to leverage a small number of assets so that they could create major strategic effect. Hence, a significant investment has been made in terms of special forces. Today, these forces are designed to work in tandem with Moscow’s newly enhanced information-warfare capabilities. The idea now, based on hybrid war principles, is that a target country (e.g., Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic States) can be forced either into surrendering territory or into outright submission using nothing much more than information-warfare attacks and the activities of a few highly-trained special forces. This combination was seen to work very well in the Crimea and may yet be seen to work very well in the Baltics.
However, while there has been significant investment in certain areas, the Russian defence establishment – regardless of any extra funding – cannot make up for the fact that there has been hardly any R & D investment since the end of the Cold War. The likes of Russia’s main battle tanks, fighters and bombers are more-or-less exactly the same models as those present in 1989. In many ways, Moscow thus feels weak: its conventional forces are no match for those of the United States and NATO. Moreover, the Russian army is also actually short of numbers. Several years ago, Vladimir Putin, in a search for domestic popularity, brought the basic term of conscript service down from two years to one. But if conscripts serve for only one year instead of the previous two then, using basic maths, the Russian army is roughly half the size it was under the two-year term. Then throw in the fact that Russia has a falling population and that there exists any number of deferral possibilities and the number of conscripts will be falling year on year. And, of course, conscripts who serve for just one year (including training time) are not really going to prove effective in any modern, high-tech military.
The shortage of troops has become evident as Moscow tries to maintain its current pressure on Ukraine. As units in its ‘vicinity’ need to be rotated off operational duties, new ones have to take their place. But they are simply not there. Units are now even being transferred from the likes of Tajikistan to plug the gaps – leaving that region more vulnerable to Islamist incursions from Afghanistan (one of Moscow’s major fears).
The issue now for Russia is that it has a military focused, at one end of the scale, on special forces for use in hybrid warfare and, at the other end, on a still reasonably effective nuclear capability. Russia continues to maintain, at huge expense, a triad system of nuclear weapons (i.e. delivered from air, land, or sea). But there is no balance; in the middle there is a relative lack of standard conventional forces.
Russia’s principal deterrence capability thus has to come from its nuclear missiles and not from its conventional forces. Given this situation, it might be expected that Russia would rattle its rockets along with all the other available sabres: it would want to scare the US and NATO over nuclear attack as well. That is, Moscow would want to change its military doctrine to reflect the fact that it was more ready to use such weapons if threatened. But this has not happened.
In the run-up to the publication of Russia’s latest military doctrine in December 2014, there was much dark talk of the fact that it would name-names in terms of just who Russia saw as its enemies and define the conditions for a Russian pre-emptive nuclear strike. Military doctrines of the Soviet Union/Russia have traditionally stated that nuclear weapons would only ever be used in response to a nuclear attack against itself, or if the state was being put in mortal danger through a conventional attack. It was mooted that the new doctrine would change this and lower the threshold of use. As it turned out, though, the doctrine did not name the US as an enemy and the threshold was not lowered. The new doctrine was thus quite conciliatory.
So, it is not all gloom and doom. Yes, Moscow is rattling sabres, but not as many as it might.
Image: “Modern T-90 tank of the Russian Army” by Vitaliy Ragulin – Репетиция парада.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.