The Crimea Factor-Establishing Context

Old Techniques within New Context/Terminology: The perception by Western analyst of Russian actions against the Ukraine in 2014 as a new style warfare is one that is misplaced. In fact these are old Soviet style/previously dormant foreign policy techniques that include disinformation and subversion.

Steady Re-Emergence of Regional Dominance: There has been a steady process by Russia to dominate neighbors running in parallel with its confidence, initially derived from energy revenues during the 15 years of rising oil prices from 1999 onwards. Indicators to this approach includes a series of pressures applied on newly independent states at the periphery of western Europe like; energy cut-offs, economic warfare, cyber offensive as well as financial/social destabilization.

Georgia Conflict-August 2008; This conflict which involved Russian forces temporarily occupying the Georgian cities marked a swift return to business as usual of using force against neighbors to achieve strategic gains at little political cost. The conflict also highlighted deficiencies in Russia’s armed forces, which provided political impetus for a thorough military overhaul.

Applying Context to Conflict in Crimea: The seizure of Crimea and subsequent intervention in eastern Ukraine should NOT be viewed in isolation but rather in a context of a set of well established Russian principles/assumptions pertaining to International Relations as described by Mr James Sherr specialist on Russian Foreign Policy & Military Affairs;

“Today’s Russian state has inherited a culture of influence deriving from the Soviet and Tsarist past. It bears the imprint of doctrines, disciplines and habits acquired over a considerable period of time in relations with subjects, clients and independent states.”

Russia’s Intervention in Syria: The terms of the February 2016 ceasefire in Syria confirm once again that direct military action overseas which substantially alters situation in Moscow’s favor strategically represents best method for achieving key objectives with little adverse consequences-something if left unchallenged would only encourage the continuation of  Russia’s military adventurism.

Hybrid Warfare-A Historical Perspective

Part of Historical Landscape: Hybrid warfare has been an integral part of the Historical landscape since ancient time-with a more recent example being Israel’s 2006 war. In this conflict Hezbollah’s applied the simultaneous use of a conventional arsenal, irregular forces, guerrilla tactics, psychological warfare, terrorism and even criminal activities, with support from a multi-dimensional organization capable of integrating very different sub-units, groups or cells into one united, large force.

Hybrid Warfare in the Soviet/Russian Military Doctrine: Many of the elements used in Hybrid war have been part and parcel of the Soviet/Russian military doctrine for generations. Some of these tactics include;

  • Subversion
  • Physical & Informational Provocation
  • Economic Threats
  • Military posturing
  • Use of Special Forces
  • Military Intelligence coordinating paramilitary groups & political front organizations like the United Front of Workers (OFT)

Operational Grey Zone: The blurring of the line between traditional and unconventional warfare have pushed the boundaries of military operations where they are now conduced in the grey zone between war & peace where new elements of warfare are employed.

A Perception of the West Promoting Regime Change: In the Russian mind-set the West by its actions (an inactions at times) fosters/facilitates regime change with examples in Georgia, the Middle East/North Africa and more recently in Ukraine. The approach followed by the west in achieving this change is the direct intervention in internal affairs of states, exacerbating instability by engendering ‘color revolutions’ in those that resist US hegemony while financing and supplying weapons to rebel groups and mercenaries.

It is certainly difficult to refute that narrative in its entirety particularly without constraint on time and an objective case-by-case review. But as we know political narratives by and large are not constrained by any form of evidence/analysis but more on existing perceptions/convictions.

The Evolution of Warfare: In a public statement by Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov in February 2013 he concedes that combat operations are evolving such that combat is moving away from traditional battlegrounds towards aerospace and information as illustrated in the Middle East & North Africa.

Russia embraces asymmetric responses using a combination of political, economic, information, technological and ecological campaigns in the form of indirect actions and non-military measures to level off enemy superiority. Through powerful information technologies at its disposal it is capable of involving public institutions in the country targeted by the attack, particularly the mass media.

The operations in Crimea marked a shift in emphasis of the armed forces from straightforward destruction of the enemy through military power to campaigns focusing on achieving the same effect through influence, necessitating cooperation between different arms of the state machinery.

The new Russian army: Though seizure of Crimea did not test Russian Troops in combat it demonstrated a significant improvement in the armed forces on multiple levels towards achieving foreign policy aims. Areas of improvement include;

  • Discipline
  • Effectiveness
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Scalability

Russian servicemen-not just the elite units-now resemble those of a modern military in of itself a symbol of a much deeper transformation in the last decade and of readiness to change even further.

However, it is important to emphasize once again that the Russian Military Doctrine has not changed from the one employed during the Soviet era-what has are the methods applied.  As explained by Kristin Ven Bruusgaard Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense who has done extensive research on  The New Russian Army & Its Transformation:

“Although Russia demonstrated new principles of war-fighting in Crimea, most of the tactics and doctrine displayed represented traditional Russian (or Soviet) war-fighting principles refitted for modern war.”

Restoring Credibility/Influence after False-Start Reforms: The primary aim of this invigorating change in the Russian military is to reduce Russia’s perceived vulnerability to a devastating first strike and restore the Military’s credibility as a deterrent factor and tool of influence particularly in foreign policy matters. This provides an unlimited freedom of movement globally as a match for the United States and demonstrates how close Russia is in reaching the 2020 strategic horizon defined in the National Security Strategy. It is therefore clear that prioritizing military over other economic considerations is expected to be maintained.

Throughout the 1990’s the Russian Military suffered a series of chaotic/counterproductive false starts. It was not until oil revenues began to drift in and after military failings in the Georgia campaign that real achievements began to be made under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. By 2011 the new Russian army began to take form. This while noting capabilities demonstrated in the Crimea campaign in 2014 were NOT representative of the mass of Russian ground troops but were special forces drawn from the Southern Military District, Airborne Assault Troops and marine infantry. Furthermore, the uniquely advantageous circumstances that Russian troops enjoyed in Crimea – especially basing and transport rights, and the presence of forces already in place before the start of the crisis – are unlikely to be replicated in future operations.

Developing Troop Capabilities & Rearmament Programmes: A programme of major exercises and ‘snap inspections’ continued through 2013 developing the military’s experience in deploying large numbers of troops briskly. Strategic mobility from across Russia was executed at an impressive scale, using both rail and air movement, and the forces were then sustained in the field for several months with no obvious deterioration in their capability.

In terms of armament currently much of the equipment is outclassed by latest western equivalents by considered adequate for dealing with opponents in the near abroad. Other areas of deficiency include Electronic Warfare & the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Applications of EW include: electro-optical, infrared and radio frequency countermeasures, communications jamming, radar jamming and anti-jamming functions.

Changes in Conscription: There has been an introduction of a modern personal kit accompanied with a huge increase in pay and allowances since 2005. The marked increase has been earned through a much increased workload. The army has also witnessed a shortfall in personal due to reduced conscription period from 2-1 year in 2007. To compensate for this shortfall the focus has been recruiting ‘contract’ professional servicemen as of 2014 were more soldiers have been recruited with competitive salaries.

Rearmament Challenges: Due to the collapse in the price of oil during 2014-15 and the associated economic/financial challenges Russia faces difficulties in achieving military aims and an assessment that current spending levels provides short boost to economic performance but are unsustainable long term. So at a time where there is little balance between falling income/living standards and a military that remains to be well funded it is interesting to see how this plays out with the rising criticism of this imbalance in expenditure prioritization.

Contributing to these economic challenges are the economic sanctions against Russia impeding purchases of electronic components and advanced production equipment required for the rearmament programme. In addition the aspect of no access to Ukrainian industry means that Russia has to source key components for its warships, aircraft and weapon system elsewhere or develop them internally though a difficult scenario to follow with the economic challenges mentioned.

Beyond all the challenges mentioned above Professor Julian Lindley-French reminds us; “The Russian military weaknesses would likely be less critically decisive at the point and moment of engagement than NATO military weaknesses.”

Implications to Russia’s Neighbors & Beyond (lessons in Intimidation)

The Tactic of Military Intimidation: Russia is more than happy at least for the moment, to avoid mounting a full invasion and resorting to intimidation tactics instead and using parts of the military it considers fit for purpose. Throughout 2014-15 the main forces opposite the Ukrainian border served as distractions from actual operations within Ukraine while keeping western governments/intelligence in a perpetual state of speculation-an example of Russian assets causing problems just by being there.

Aerial Provocations: Within Europe, exhibiting a presence in a region is a role filled primarily by Russia’s Long Range Aviation, with flights towards the airspace of NATO allies and other nations. The perception that these are significant actions is one that is decades out of date considering the normality of these events given current capabilities to carry out intelligence or strike missions at ranges into the hundreds of kilometers. Critically, such reporting obscures the equally significant Russian submarine activity, at times supported by these same aviation missions. It is also important to note that long-range patrols by Russian aircraft have constituted a valuable training program since their resumption in 2007.

For countries physically closer to Russia, the increase in air activity presents direct security concerns simply in terms of airspace irrespective of military implications with incidents reported in Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania among others. This is compounded with the fact that provocative or irresponsible behavior by Russian aircrew continues to show lack of respect for airspace boundaries and safety norms.

Playing the Nuclear Card: Aggressive air movements by Russia align with the new emphasis on the potential for use of nuclear weapons in statements by President Putin and other officials which suggests a serious proposition of differing views between Russia and the West of when, if ever, such weapons may be employed. As an example; for the United Kingdom, nuclear weapons are not linked with Foreign Policy but rather used as a security deterrent. Russia, however, uses their possession as an integral part of its means to constrain adversaries. “Though I see it more as rhetoric rather than real contemplation of using them”. Deployments of missiles in and of themselves may NOT indicate little beyond the overall posturing patterns we’ve see often from the Kremlin. Yet they invariably receive a gratifying response in the form of substantial Western media attention, and so continue to be repeated thanks to the lack of institutional memory in the West. May I also add here that the lack of expertise/historical awareness of some of the news anchors/presenters in popular media channels like CNN when interviewing members of the Russian propaganda machine feeds into the Russian narrative of events due to the inability to effectively challenge it. This based a recent program I watched discussing potential Russian hacking related to the  US elections where the presenter seemed completely out of her depth in discussing the issue. 

The use of Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (NSNW) as a Deterrent: It is recognized that in Russia the concentration of population and infrastructure along its southern fringe makes it close to indefensible – especially since almost all major transport links there at some point pass within artillery range of the Chinese border. This situation, and the limited options available to Russia to defend this territory, contributes to the strong relative weight accorded to the role of tactical nuclear weapons as a deterrent in Russian military thinking. On the other hand limited availability of NSNW in Europe constrains responses to Russian potential use, and this lack of a direct answer encourages Russian posturing and threats.

Russia’s Military Outlook

Russia’s intentions have been consistent, but the military capabilities to achieve them are only now developing to the point where – at least in part – they can be used particularly when the capabilities appear to be unswayed. It is therefore clear that Russia is in a position to leverage tactical advantages to offset strategic disadvantages due to 2 key force multipliers;

  • Political will to resort to military force, which is entirely absent among Russia’s European adversaries
  • Successful integration of other strategic tools, reflecting the new doctrinal attention to influence rather than outright destruction

The Russian National Defence Control Centre: By combining 49 military, police, economic, infrastructure and other authorities under the stewardship of the General Staff the centre helps bring together the tools of power available to the Russian leadership required new capabilities by :

  • coordination between arms of the state
  • forcing through of leadership decisions despite administrative obstacles

It is an mechanism that blurs the line between peace and war which is one of its defining factors, demands a whole-of-government approach.

The next part will highlight aspects related to the Information Warfare by Russia and will be published on the site on the first week of January 2017 (delayed to this date from original date of 25th of December due to holidays and amount of content that needs filtering).

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