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Monday, June 15, 2015

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part I

Image 1: US carrier group crossing the Atlantic. Image Credit: US Navy.

The past few years have made it glaringly apparent that the United States does not have the luxury to focus its military exclusively against non-state actors and low intensity conflicts which ultimately bear little economic and geopolitical consequence for the United States. The rise of China and Russia's increasingly belligerent behavior constitute a substantial threat to the post-World War II liberal international order. The United States military is desperately seeking to reassert many of its capabilities which were systematically neglected during the 1990s and the War on Terror including: anti-submarine warfare, fleet air defense, all domain access, counter intelligence, offensive electronic warfare, and nuclear deterrence. As the DoD moves forward to confront new great power threats, the political leadership of the United States must recognize the distinct capabilities and intentions of Russia and China. Most importantly, Congress and the Obama Administration must not superficially judge Russian revanchism and saber rattling as indicators of Russia's strength. Rather, Russia's belligerent behavior is a consequence of Russia's status as a declining power attempting to reassert its traditional sphere of influence. While China's incremental and steady effort to challenge the United States rarely makes news headlines, it ultimately constitutes a far more serious long-term threat to global US primacy when compared to Russian revanchism. The distinct challenges from both Russia and China will be discussed in terms of objectives, capabilities, and the efficacy of the US' current response. A series of recommendations will subsequently be provided within the context of America's historical grand strategy towards great powers.

Russian Military Capabilities & Intentions

Image 2: T-14 Armata tanks preforming in the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade

Since the seizure of Crimea last year, many geopolitical commentators have heralded a new Cold War between the West and Russia. President Putin has resumed many of the hallmarks of Soviet brinkmanship including: a 50% increase in Russian submarine patrols, bomber patrols off the coast of California, Alaska, Guam, and the Gulf of Mexico, a surge in Russian espionage and intelligence collection activities against the West, etc. Washington has clearly taken notice and former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers announced last year that monitoring Russian revanchism is the greatest priority for the intelligence community behind monitoring the Civil War in Syria and Al Qaeda and its affiliates (note Vicker's remarks were made prior to the fall of Mosul to ISIL). In contrast, China appeared as the seventh and last priority discussed by Vickers (Clark, 2014). Russian objectives and methods will be assessed prior to determining an appropriate US foreign policy response.

A strong consensus exists among Russian foreign policy experts that President Putin seeks to maintain Russia's influence in Ukraine in the wake of the ousting of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych (Gates, 2014). Ukraine is the most important state in the near abroad, a region encompassing former Soviet states where the Russian Federation is attempting to assert a new sphere of influence through economic and military coercion. Asserting regional hegemony is among the three greatest enduring Russian strategic priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union:
"Much in Russian foreign policy today is based on a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse, this consensus ranges across the political spectrum — from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: that Russia must remain a nuclear superpower, a great power in all facets of international activity, and the hegemon — the political, military, and economic leader — of its region. This consensus marks a line in the sand, beyond which Russia cannot retreat without losing its sense of pride or even national identity. It has proven remarkably resilient, surviving post-revolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin". - Leon Aron, 2013  [emphasis mine]
In order to maintain Russia's status as a nuclear power and attain regional hegemony, Vladimir Putin pledged in 2010 to spend $650 billion on a massive modernization program that would aim to replace 70% of the Russian military's old Soviet hardware through 2020 (Gady, 2015). However, it was apparent that Russia's defense industry would be unable to meet Putin's demands even during times of relative economic prosperity. Incompetent and corrupt state institutions, a weak commodity dependent economy, and the scale of obsolescence among much of Russia's equipment - e.g. the Russian Navy will nearly have to be rebuilt from the ground up - will force future Russian military to reassess its modernization effort.

Image 3: SU-24 equipped with civilian GPS unit fixed in place with a rubber band. More information available courtesy of Tyler Rogoway's Foxtrot Alpha article "Check Out The Walmart-Grade GPS Systems In These Russian Attack Jets"

There are already indications that Russia is scaling back its most modern equipment and is choosing to re-manufacture incremental improvements of Soviet era systems instead. For example, Russia cut the number of fifth generation T-50s it planned to produce by 2020 from 50 to just 12. Russia will continue to produce upgraded fourth generation aircraft such as the Su-35S, Su-30SM, and MIG-29 SMT. While these aircraft compare favorably to many Western fourth generation designs such as the F-16C and F-15C, they will be outclassed by the F-22 and F-35. Similarly, the new stealth PAK DA bomber will almost certainly be delayed if the T-50 program is any indication. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced their intent to re-manufacture 34 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers for a total fleet size of 50. Despite being Russia's most modern strategic bombers in service, the current 16 aircraft fleet has been plagued by maintenance and engine reliability issues (Johnson, 2013). This is not to say Russia's conventional military little threat to the United States, but the notion that Russia is producing vastly superior military equipment to the United States and NATO is detached from reality. The conventional Russian military is more than capable enough to threaten states in the near abroad, particularly those without NATO membership such as Ukraine and Georgia. Given the constraints of Russia's domestic arms industry and economic factors, Russia is producing equipment - when used under Russia's current force doctrines, has the highest "bank per buck" relative to the quality of their conventional military personnel, which suffers from significant systemic shortcomings.

The Russian Military fields 308,100 conscripts which each serve a minimum 12 month term (Global Security, 2015). Given the diverse security concerns across Russia's immense geographic borders, even with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, units are typically understaffed and only brought up to full strength during times of war:
"...the conventional Russian military continues to be influenced by the old Soviet structure of numerous under-manned units, pre-positioned with equipment to be brought up to full staffing levels during times of conflict. The drawbacks of this design were laid bare during the 2008 war with Georgia, where airborne units (VDV) were able to deploy faster from interior Russia than those units stationed in the Caucasus...Complementing plans to increase units to permanent readiness status have been efforts to increase the level of professional troops, kontrakniki. These efforts have fallen considerably short (the retention rate for kontrakniki remains unacceptably low, and recruitment targets are struggling to keep up with the attrition rate). Slightly increased housing, pay and status have remained unconvincing to most of Russian society. Efforts to recruit kontrakniki were also designed to create an NCO corps that the Russian military never had (not to mention never having a professional recruiting corps that has also limited the recruitment of professional soldiers). NCO roles in western armies are filled in the Russian military by lower level officers, contributing to a bloated officer corps."- Andrew S. Bowen, 2015 
In summary, the cost to modernize its conventional military force near Western standard as originally proposed would be disproportionately more expensive than nuclear modernization in concert with developing Russia's asymmetric capabilities; the bottom line is Russia's economy cannot sustain Putin's grandiose military aims. Russia will be able to much more easily meet its objective of asserting regional hegemony and its nuclear status through acquiring asymmetric capabilities and continuing its nuclear modernization program. The use of special forces, intelligence services, cyber attacks, and paramilitary units enables Russia to coerce nearby states below the Article 5 threshold - the point at which the US military would be obligated to respond. Both the efficacy of Russia's asymmetric capabilities and its willingness to employ them represent a far greater practical threat to US interests in Europe than Russian's conventional  military.

Image 4: "Green Men" from the seizure of Crimea, most likely members of the GRU 45th Spetsnaz Regiment.

Former NSA counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler describes the process of Russian forces coercing nearby states without overt conflict as "special war":
"'special war,' an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims...It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting." -  John R. Schindler, 2013
Despite Putin's initial failure to keep Yanukovych in power and cement economic ties with Ukraine, the GRU  skilfully carried the seizure of Crimea. Russian intelligence agencies continue to supply, equip, train, and advise separatists in eastern Ukraine. Eastern European NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, are concerned Russia may use special war tactics within their own countries (Grady, 2015).

Part II will examine the efficacy of the current US response towards Russia and list a series of recommendations.

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part II

  1. China and Russia vs. America: Great-Power Revisionism Is Back, Thomas Wright, 2015.
  2. The United States must resist a return to spheres of interest in the international system, Robert Kagan, 2015.
  3. Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Confronts Great Power Challengers, Robert Farley, 2015.
  4. Bill Seeks Info on Russian Missile Sales, John T. Bennett, 2015.
  5. Russian Navy Chief: Submarine Patrols Up 50 Percent Over Last Year, Sam LaGrone, 2015.
  6. Stop calling Russia weak, Sergey Aleksashenko, 2015.
  8. US Army Eyes Ukraine Conflict for Intel on Russian Military Technology, Brendan McGarry, 2015.
  9. USDI Vickers’ Top Threats: Terrorists, Syria, Russian ‘Revanchism’, Colin Clark, 2015.
  10. Further delays for modernisation of Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers, Reuben F Johnson, 2015.
  11. Overblown: Russia's empty nuclear sabre-rattling, Steven Pifer, 2015.
  12. Russia's Deceptively Weak Military, Andrew S. Bowen, 2015. 
  13. Russian Military Personnel, Global Security, 2015.
  14. A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia, Andrew Monaghan, 2015. 
  15. Russian and Chinese Assertiveness Poses New Foreign Policy Challenges, Robert Gates & Council on Foreign Relations, 2014. 
  16. An Assessment of Russian Defense Capabilities and Security Strategy, Paul N. Schwartz, Clark A Murdock, Andrew C. Kuchins, and Jeffrey A. Mankoff, 2014.

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