In the two Chechen wars of the 1990s, Russian forces killed thousands of civilians as they used relentless firepower to crush nationalist insurgency in its southern province. The wars' destructive and bitter legacy partly explains the ability of the Caucasus Emirate insurgents to pursue its activities today.
At the time, Russian military thinking was dominated by the environment of the cold war which had only recently ended. A decade on, the brief conflict with Georgia in August 2008 revealed Russia's armed forces to be in a state of near collapse. In terms of sheer brute power, Moscow (as in Chechnya) "won" its war, but the military's lack of battle-readiness meant it could barely achieve any of its aims. Indeed, there were so few pilots with enough flight-time that in the Georgia combat Russia's air force was obliged to use test-pilots and flying-instructors to undertake individual attacks.
The Crimea operation in 2014 appears to show a marked change. In the rapid annexation of Ukraine's southern province, Russia's army was able to deploy elite special forces in sufficient numbers and with a speed which caught most of Nato by surprise. A combination of better equipment and training, far greater flexibility of planning, and rapid improvement in logistics was far ahead of those Caucasus precedents (see Michael R Gordon, "Russia Displays a New Military Prowess in Ukraine’s East", New York Times, 21 April 2014).
A western shiver
All this sent a shiver through Nato. Several partners in the twenty-eight-member alliance - especially those geographically close to Russia - responded by calling for an immediate strengthening of Nato's reconnaissance and rapid-deployment capabilities.
Poland is most prominent here. It has sought far greater Nato troop-basing in the country and a deployment of allied aircraft to supplement its own. Nato has tripled the size of its Baltic air-policing mission, using British and Danish contingents based respectively at Siaulani in Lithuania (alongside the Poles) and Amari in Estonia (see Gareth Jennings, “NATO to significantly bolster Baltic Air Policing Mission”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 16 April 2014).
The Nato reaction is not without contradictions. Just as it seeks to underline its commitment on its eastern flank, France continues to build two large Mistral-class helicopter carriers for Russia. 80% of the work is being done in France, the remainder by a Russian associate; Russia has an option to build two after the initial contract - worth $1.6 billion - ends (see Pierre Tran, “NATO treads carefully on French deal with Russia”, Defense News, 14 April 2014).
The first ship, the 22,000-tonne Vladivostok, is now four-fifths complete. An attraction for Russia is that it will be highly automated; its crew of 177 compares with around 1,000 for a much less sophisticated Russian version. Thus, buying French gives the Russian navy a real boost in terms of making its overall naval management more efficient. So far, Nato has not pressed France to cancel the deal, which would mean a great setback for French arms exports. But the affair - in which a major state is in effect standing on both sides in a dispute - illustrates how contradictions are often embedded in international crises.
An eastern worry
The unfolding crisis contains other uncertainties. Russia's military advance is put at risk by its domestic economic troubles. Its economy, after all, is smaller than that of Britain or France, much smaller than Germany, Japan or China, and far exceeded by the United States. A current downturn is characterised by stagflation and a rapid rise in import prices, while low unemployment may owe more to a declining and ageing population than to an abundance of opportunities.
Russia's overall demographic and economic trends are negative; the cost of integrating the Crimean economy, as well as the $50 billion bill from the winter Olympics in Sochi, will not help. On the surface, Russia may be making progress in its aims for Ukraine, but the long-term impact could be very different.
A revived project
A factor on the United States side will help shape the outcome. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev is said to have told Ronald Reagan that he would do the worst thing possible to the United States - take away its enemy. Vladimir Putin seems to be repudiating these words - perhaps much to the relief of the western military-industrial complex. Already, recommendations to arm Ukraine, and reverse planned defence cuts, are heard in the US. These are likely to presage a determined effort by the Republican right to portray Barack Obama as a weak president whose administration lacks any capacity for international leadership.
In the late years of the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, the ideological momentum was seized by the Project for a New American Century. Its ideas acquired huge influence once George W Bush came to power. Its agenda was made clear as early as June 1997:
“As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favourable to American principles and interests?”
That rhetoric, and more like it, is set to revive in the period until the next presidential election in 2016 - with many old ideas reclothed and updated. Putin's popularity in Russia may be high, but it is no less so among those in the west - defence lobbyists included - who stand to gain from another perilous cold war.