Black Sea helicopter forces drill in Crimea. (c) Vasily Batanov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.The drums of war are beating. Earlier this year, a controversial (and critiqued) study by the RAND Corporation claimed that Russia could essentially overrun the Baltic states in three days, and there was nothing NATO could do about it.
This month, a Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) report warned that Russia “is modernizing conventional military capability on a large scale; the state is mobilizing for war.” Meanwhile, as NATO beefs up its conventional and anti-missile defences on its eastern flank, Moscow conducted a snap exercise of its mobilisation capacities and its ability to call up thousands of reservists. Are we sliding to war? Of course not. Almost certainly.
But the tone of the debate in both Russia and the west, and the willingness of both to build up an image of military confrontation, sheds depressing light on the current state of relations and raised risks that remain serious.
The real point of armies
On one level, the CSIS report, especially given the Russian exercise, sounds alarming. But what does “mobilising for war” mean in practice? The whole point of armies is to fight if they must, deter if they can. That means acquiring, maintaining and, importantly for the latter, demonstrating military capability: mobilising for war in hopes of not having to fight it.
Any country willing to envisage anything more than a purely defensive campaign within its own borders must equip and train its forces for deployment beyond them.
The US Marine Corps practices opposed landings on hostile-held beaches all the time. This month’s Anakonda-16 exercises in Poland include joint helicopter and parachute assaults. Yet despite the lurid claims of some Kremlin-friendly propagandists, this does not demonstrate NATO plans to strike into Russia in the near future.
The military is the state’s final “just in case” option
Rather, these exercises reflect sensible and prudent preparations: the military is the state’s final “just in case” option — and in war, offensive and defensive operations are often intertwined and indistinguishable.
The crucial ingredient, after all, is intent. In that context, while Russia is clearly mounting a much more aggressive challenge to western will and morale, and indeed the credibility of the international legal and political order, this does not translate into a willingness to start a war it could not possibly win. Deploying airpower in Syria against rebels largely without any meaningful anti-air capability is one thing. Tangling with the most powerful military alliance in the world — one that has outspent Russia by an order of magnitude for the past twenty years — is something else entirely, and Russia’s soldiers, at least, understand that very well.
Furthermore, let’s not get carried away by the smooth seizure of Crimea or the dramatic parades held on Red Square. Russia’s army is more formidable now that at any point since the Soviet collapse. However, reform is very much a work in progress, and demographic and economic declines alike will make further modernisation incrementally harder.
Beyond the relatively elite forces of the Spetsnaz commandos, paratroopers, marines and a few select army units, much of the Russian military is still is poor shape. Syria and the Donbas are soaking up a significant proportion of their more able and professional troops, and neither conflict looks like ending imminently.
Moscow continues to talk up a storm, threatening unspecified acts against Romania for deploying anti-ballistic missiles, announcing the creation of new divisions and promising to modernise its weapons. But this is an army still largely deploying Soviet-era weapons, coping with cuts in spending certainly greater than the 5% admitted, and frankly running out of men.
Russia’s latest snap mobilisation drills, after all, reflect recognition of these problems as much as anything else. Under Putin, strides had been made moving the military from a Soviet-style mass army, with many units little more than empty shells waiting to be filled with reservists during national mobilisation, to a leaner and more professional standing army. By the beginning of this year, volunteers outnumbered conscripts.
This is no bad thing. Conscripts serving just one-year terms acquire only rudimentary skills, and cannot be used in military adventures. This is why the units sent to the Donbas are Frankenstein forces, ad hoc “battalion tactical groups” — companies stitched together from a variety of parent units. However, as defence minister Sergei Shoigu starts talking about creating new divisions and armies, if they are to be real new forces, then they will have to depend more on calling up reservists.
Today’s Russian military should be considered part fighting force, part marketing gimmick (Tweet)
And there’s the problem. Russia’s reserve system is broken. Former national servicemen largely never take the refresher training meant to be obligatory. Records are patchy and out of date. Stocks of weapons and uniforms have not been inventoried properly, so who knows how much is now unusable or stolen. These new drills are as much as anything else an effort to find out just how broken the system is as to demonstrate any terrifying military power.
But that’s not how the Kremlin sells them, and it’s not how the west takes them, so everyone knowingly or unknowingly connives at building up Moscow’s martial myth. This is why today’s Russian military should be considered part fighting force, part marketing gimmick.
Lest this sound too much like a counsel to complacency, there are four particular risks associated with the current situation, even if they aren’t the risks that so excite RAND war-gamers and western defence manufacturers.
The first risk is that the west — or at least some nations and leaders in the west — are cowed and offer Putin compromises that would only encourage further adventurism. The Kremlin’s intent is, after all, that the loud rattle of the sabres distracts observers from noticing the rust and bluntness on the weapons themselves.
NATO has responded robustly as an institution, not least by deploying forces into the Baltics. But not all its members are quite so comfortable and may be more willing to take a softer line with Moscow over Ukraine in the hope this will ratchet down the perceived threat.
The second risk is that the west becomes obsessed with a mythical military threat and thus distracts itself from the real ones already in play — those from Russian espionage and influence, subterfuge and subversion.
Reaching the NATO goal of spending 2% of national GDP on the military is all very well (at present only five of the alliance’s 28 members do: Greece, Estonia, Poland, the UK and USA), but arguably for some building up greater capacities in counter-intelligence, financial monitoring, even media regulation would actually better defend them against Russian challenges.
The third danger, of course, is the nightmare scenario, that either side overreacts or misreads the situation, sees a direct military threat where none exists, and responds in kind.
It is far more likely that Russia will make such a blunder: Putin is subject to no meaningful constitutional checks and balances, has a taste for the coup de théâtre, sees a hostile and conspiratorial world, and is fed politicised intelligence that reinforces his prejudices.
Behind the furious rhetoric, Moscow responded with surprising level-headedness after Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian bomber
Nonetheless, it is not impossible that NATO could react to a feint in such a way that, when viewed through the distorting glass of the Kremlin’s window, it looks to Putin like a genuine attack. In fairness, behind the furious rhetoric, Moscow responded with surprising level-headedness after Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian bomber. But we can hardly assume that this means there is no potential for future flare ups.
Fourth and final is the possibility that this confrontational situation becomes an end in itself.
Putin appears to have internalised a Manichean, zero-sum sense of his relationship with the west, and this drives so much other policy, from counter-sanctions to political repression. Many in the west likewise embrace — with near-relief — a return to the comfortingly simplistic dualism of the us-and-them mindset of the Cold War.
Even if Russian and NATO forces never draw down in anger, international politics could easily find itself locked into an inverse Clausewitzian role — as war by other means.