In the wake of Putin’s article on national security for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, there has been renewed interest in Russia’s ambitious military modernization plans for the next decade. I am not a specialist in this (unlike Dmitry Gorenberg and Mark Galeotti, whom I highly recommend), but I do think I can bring much-needed facts and good sources to the discussion.
1. This is not a new development. In fact, the massive rearmament program was revealed back in 2010 (I wrote about it then). Russia’s armed forces were neglected in during the 1990′s and early 2000′s, and enjoyed only modest funding until now; relative to Soviet levels, they are now far degraded. The main goal is to create a mobile, professional army equipped with modern, high-tech gear by 2020.
2. To recap. With oil prices high and Russia’s fiscal situation secure, it IS affordable; it’s not like the old USSR (or today’s US for that matter) spending money it doesn’t have. I also don’t necessarily buy the argument that most of the additional funds will be swallowed up by corruption or inefficiency. Massive new procurement can create temporary bottlenecks, which raises prices, but on the other hand it also allows for economies of scale. The real question is whether Russia absolutely needs to retain the hallowed One Million Man Army, which would appear far too big for the modest anti-insurgency or local wars it may be called to fight in the Caucasus or Central Asia. (There is no possibility of matching NATO or Chinese conventional strength in principle, so that consideration is a moot point).
At least, surely more so than Obama, winner of 2009′s Nobel Peace Prize.
Let’s do it by the numbers. Russia under Putin fought one war, in response to Georgian aggression against Ossetians with Russian citizenship and UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers. In contrast, Obama has participated in two wars of aggression: the Iraq War he inherited from G.W., and a new one in Libya. The latter is a war of aggression because NATO clearly exceeded its UN mandate to protect civilians, instead conducting a campaign clearly aimed at regime change. So Obama has presided over two more wars than Putin, and crucially, has participated in two wars of aggression to Putin’s zero.
If you insist on counting the Second Chechen War, then one must also tally the dozen or so countries in which the US is currently waging shadow wars involving drone strikes on terrorists – or to be more accurate, suspected terrorists. But at least Chechnya was an internal affair and presented a truly direct threat to Russia, with armed bands raiding over the borders. There is far less of a case to be made why the US has the right to prosecute an international “war on terror.”
This is why the adjudicators of the Confucius Peace Prize, in awarding it to Putin, proved themselves far less dishonest than the Nobel Committee. The ridicule they have been subjected to by the Western media is a compliment to their integrity.
Though I originally meant to write my own analysis of what the Wikileaks cables have contributed to our understanding of the 2008 South Ossetia War, I realized that I would essentially be trying to duplicate the excellent efforts of Patrick Armstrong. (See also the New York Times article Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts). Patrick’s article for Russia Other Points Of View is reprinted below:
I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.
My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Sonmez – thank you): (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).
Truly, if Willian Burns were to issue an anthology of his Moscow cables during his 2005-2008 ambassadorship, I’d seriously consider buying it. Just consider this cable from May 2006, on Chechnya’s “Once and Future War”, a nuanced US view of that conflict and the cynicism and corruption it engendered amongst all its parties.
What struck me first was its reminder of the awesome magnitude of corruption and state dissolution during the 1990′s. Though Transparency International might claim that nothing much has changed in the past two decades (or even regressed), it is belied by Burns’ vision of a ”military-entrepreneurial” officer corps that proclaimed President Yeltsin’s “business” was to “sit in Moscow, drink vodka, and chase women” while they did “[their] work” in the Caucasus region. And profitable work it was too. Due to post-Soviet Russia’s low domestic energy prices, it was highly lucrative to launder oil it through Chechnya, sell it on foreign markets, and make big dollar on the difference. Army officers profited from the racket; their Chechen partners spent their cut of the gravy to arm themselves for war. One of the primary causes of the First Chechen War, apart from the state’s usual hatred of separatism, was a specific desire to reassert control over Chechnya’s oil and arms bazaar.
Every so often there appear claims, not only in the Western press but the Russian one, that (rising but overpopulated) China is destined to fight an (ailing and creaking) Russia for possession of its resources in the Far East*. For reasons that should be obvious, this is almost completely implausible for the next few decades. But let’s spell them out nonetheless.
1. China regards India, Japan, and above all the USA as its prime potential enemies. This is tied in to its three geopolitical goals: (1) keep the country together and under CCP hegemony – an enterprise most threatened by its adversaries stirring up ethnic nationalism (India – Tibetans, Turkey – Uyghurs) or buying the loyalties of the seaboard commercial elites (Japan, USA), (2) returning Taiwan into the fold and (3) acquiring hegemony over the South China Sea and ensuring the security of the sea routes supplying it with natural resources. The major obstacles to the latter two are the “dangerous democracies” of Japan and India, with the US hovering in the background. In contrast, the northern border is considered secure, and more generally, Russia and Central Asia are seen as sources of natural resource supplies that are more secure than the oceanic routes.
As you may have noticed, posting has slowed down in the past few days, mostly thanks to a combination of (1) Kindle, (2) 中文 and (3) the natural periods of apathy that afflict most non-pro bloggers. I don’t really see that changing until the end of the year…
1. Sayonara, Luzhkov. Props to Jesse Heath for predicting it, Patrick Armstrong for IMO the best summary, and STRATFOR for the most bizarre interpretation (they think Luzhkov was dismissed because the Kremlin no longer needs him to control the Moscow Mob). The best way of viewing this is not as a struggle between the tandem, or even Medvedev asserting himself, but as the latest stage in the campaign to replace entrenched regional barons with civiliki that are closer to the Kremlin. This appears to be part of the overall Kremlin drive towards greater centralization and technocratic management.
2. Structural Remilitarization? Of far greater long term import than the political scuffles around the Moscow mayoralty is the gigantic, even prodigal, plans and figures are being bandied around by senior members of the Russian leadership for the 2011-2020 rearmament program (1, 2, 3). The main points of the program are to spend 22 trillion rubles (c. $700bn) over the next decade to modernize Russia’s increasingly obsolete military hardware, complementing domestic items with imports from foreign countries like Israel, France and the US*.
За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! I would like to start off by expressing my deepest respects to the Red Army veterans who fought and died so that (literally) hundreds of millions of their Slavic brethren could live. Вечная слава героям!
Last year I discussed four myths about the Eastern Front, and Fedia Kriukov unraveled a fifth in the comments. This year, I’m going to comment on one of the most contradictory, even harrowing, debates in Russia. How to reconcile Stalin, the despotic Messiah, and Victory 1945, now emerging as the primary national myth consolidating the Russian nation-state. I don’t intend to resolve this debate (I don’t believe that’s even possible), but I do believe it is necessary for people on all sides – Westerners, ordinary Russians, Russian liberals, and Stalinists alike – to understand it a bit better. This is my humble hope in writing this.
First, the facts. Russians are not hardcore Stalinists. Neither is the Russian government. President Medvedev unequivocally condemned Stalin, saying there is “no justification for the repressions”, and spoke out against Moscow mayor Luzhkov’s initiative to publicly display a few Stalin posters (amongst thousands) during the Victory celebrations. He was backed in this sentiment by 51% of Russians, while only 12% fully supported Luzhkov. Today, most Russians are either conflicted on or indifferent to Stalin. Neither for, nor fully against. Ambiguous.
I have long noted Russia’s resurgence back into the ranks of the leading Great Powers; I predicted that the global economic crisis will not have a long-term retarding impact on the Russian economy; and within the past year I have bought into Stratfor‘s idea that the defining narrative now in play in Eurasia is Russia’s intention to reconstruct its empire / sphere of influence / call-it-what-you-will in the post-Soviet space. This “resurgence” is advancing along several major fronts: geopolitical, economic, demographic, military, and ideological. In this post I will cover recent major news on the first four.
Ukraine Returns to the Empire?
The most consequential big event is the electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych (35%) in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko (25%), Serhiy Tihipko (13%), Arseniy Yatsenyuk (7%), and Viktor Yushchenko (5%) – a result that I called 100% accurately. Disillusioned with the incompetence, economic decline, and “anarchic stasis” of five years of Orange rule, polls indicate three times as many Ukrainians now favor a “strong leader” over a “democratic government”, so no wonder that the liberal ideologue Yushenko, though the only major Ukrainian politician who is consistent and sincere in his views, suffered a crushing defeat as the last true representative of the Westernizing “Orange” movement. This marks a threshold in the accelerating “regathering of the Russian lands”*.
Below is an electoral map of the first-round Ukrainian presidential elections. As is always the case, the urban, Russophone / Surzhyk-speaking, Russian Orthodox Church-affiliated south and east voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych, head of the Party of Regions, while the more bucolic, Ukrainian-speaking, Kyiv Patriarchate-affiliated / Uniate center and west favored Tymoshenko.
Werth, Alexander – Moscow War Diary (1942)
Category: history, Soviet Union, WW2; Rating: 4/5
On 22nd June 1941, the armed columns of Nazi Germany began rolling into Russia, heralding the start of the Great Patriotic War. For Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the British Sunday Times paper who had spent his childhood in imperial Russia, this was a deeply emotional event, stirring him ‘perhaps more deeply than any event since the war began’. Spurred by these sentiments and realizing that with the bulk of the Wehrmacht diverted to the USSR, how ‘the Russian people would resist Hitler’ would determine the outcome of this ‘totalitarian war’, he decided to go to Moscow. There, he observed how the military and the material, the media and the morale, aspects of the war interacted, wrote articles about it for readers in Britain (and occasionally the USSR) and recorded his impressions in a diary at ground zero that he edited for readability and published early 1942.
Werth considered the attitudes of some of his fellow journalists towards this war as just another ‘big story’ detestable. ‘Even more irritating, for its cold-hearted non-belligerent objectivity’ – for instance, the intention of an American journalist, Angelina, to remain in Moscow even should the Germans capture it, justifying it with, “You bet I’ll stay here; don’t you think it’ll be a swell story? Who’s to stop me? Aren’t we nootrals?” [sic]. He also lambasted another American journalist, Ingersoll, for whom the ‘war is an opportunity for a scoop’, as opposed to the ‘millions of Russians’ for whom it is a ‘matter of life and death’ .
Whispers of war are heard in the Caucasus, as the anniversary of last year’s South Ossetian War approaches. Will the guns of August be fired in anger to mark the occasion?
Here are some things we need to keep in mind when analyzing this:
It was Georgia that attacked South Ossetia last year, mere hours after Saakashvili promised them peace and eternal friendship and candy. The Georgians proceeded to indiscriminately bombard Tskhinvali, a densely populated town full of civilians, with Grad missiles. They also attacked UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, which constitutes a clear casus belli. Russia’s response was just and proportionate.
In reality there is much evidence, including the testimonies of former Georgian cabinet members, to the effect that Saakashvili was planning to retake the “lost territories” months beforehand.
Since then the media retracted their most sensationalist claims in a bid to reinforce their (questionable) reputations for objectivity. Many media outlets now acknowledge the reality of Georgian aggression and war crimes. Amongst those who looked at the issue in detail, only the most diehard neocons and Russophobes still deny that it was Georgia that was primarily responsible for the war. In their circles, the idea of Russian war guilt is almost an article of faith. Applying Occam’s Razor would suggest they are wrong.
Nonetheless, the US continues to unconditionally support Saakashvili, even under the Obama administration (whether this is because of American geopolitical interests, or because they really are hoodwinked by Georgian PR, is an exercise I leave to the reader). In doing so they turn a blind eye to Saakashvili’s repression of the opposition. This only serves to further reinforce the Russian conviction that the West cares about democracy only in so far as it advances its geopolitical interests. Far from pressuring the Russians to cease and desist, the West’s hostile rhetoric, encroachment on Russia’s security space and dismissal of Russian protestations will only reinforce Russia’s disillusionment with the West and make it ever more unwilling to consider Western interests.
This disillusionment is especially prevalent amongst the Russian elites and younger people with Internet access. Thanks to the West, they are coming to the conclusion that no matter what their country does – right or wrong – it will be condemned by the champions of Western chauvinism regardless. The only way to make them the West happy would be to lie down and lick its boots, but few peoples anywhere think this way, let alone in a nation as proud as Russia. Though Georgia struck first, this war marked the most significant Russian retaliation to years of humiliations yet; it sent a message that it would no longer passively resign itself to Western imperialism.
All this may lead to a growing preference for Realpolitik over “liberal internationalist” solutions to Russia’s geopolitical problems, which will go in tandem with an internal power shift towards the hardliners. They are interested in more than just responding to external aggression against the Russian Federation; they want to redefine Russia itself.
As I pointed out in my previous post Reconsidering Parshev, the weight of history is forcing Russia back to its future, the desires of its leadership regardless (let alone the desires of Westerners). This past-and-future is a Eurasian empire based on economic autarky, political sovereignty and spiritual sobornost. Amongst many other things, this implies control over the Caucasus.
Georgia is the linchpin of the Caucasus. Securing a Russian-friendly government there will reinforce Russian control of gas flows from Central Asia to Europe, extend its influence over the Black Sea region and allow it to link up with its ally Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base. Nabucco will turn into a pipedream, at least as long as relations between Iran and the West remain strained.
As Stratfor points out in Georgia: Left to Russia’s Mercy?, Georgia is not a strong nation. It is riven by divisions that could be exploited, e.g. separatist-minded Adjara and Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti. Its economy is dependent on agriculture and the government budget relies on pipeline rents. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s brand of market fundamentalism may have provided a temporary boost from efficiency gains, but the attendant deindustrialization now limits its longer-term prospects.
“Soft” measures failed to topple Saakashvili in the past year. He retains the approval of perhaps half the population, crushed an attempted military coup (or set it up himself) and now appears to be more secure in his position than he was in months.
Another important point is that many elements of the Russian military were disappointed at being ordered to stop before overthrowing Saakashvili. They would love to finish the job (and furnish the excuse).
That said, Saakashvili is hardly a peacenik either. According to Kirill Troitsky’s “War taught them nothing” in Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, the Georgians have been rapidly rearming since 2008. Regaining control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains a strategic goal of the Georgian regime.
Russia is upgrading and expanding its forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is renovating Soviet-era air and naval bases in Abkhazia, deploying its own border guards to the region (which increases the chances of an incident), kicking out foreign observers, and equipping the 131st Motor Rifle Brigade in Abkhazia with the latest T-90 tanks. Below is a photo of a Russian soldier in Abkhazia posing in front of his new kit, first posted to the social networking site Odnoklassniki (the Russian Facebook).
The focus on Abkhazia suggests that any Russian offensive would be focused on the west of the country, bypassing urban quagmires in Tbilisi. This would cut Georgia’s links to the Black Sea and sever the gas pipelines running across its territory. The Armenians may be persuaded to join in the dismembering of Georgia through the “liberation” of their compatriots in Samtskhe-Javakheti, through which Georgia would be cut clean in half. Azerbaijan would be cornered into quiescence. The main uncertainty is how Turkey would respond to such developments; it is not as pro-NATO and pro-West as it was a decade ago.
That said, Felgenhauer is not a reliable military analyst. He predicted the Georgians would humiliate the Russian Army in a war.
In conclusion, though innocent of starting last year’s Ossetia War, Russia made significant geopolitical gains and its elites became more disillusioned with the West. Control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia now make an invasion much easier to carry out than in 2009. The troops in the region conducted military exercises in July, they are being equipped with modern armaments and Russia’s naval forces in the region are recently very active. The main question is, are these forces meant to deter Georgia from another military attempt to reintegrate its “lost territories”, or are they to be the spearheads of a pre-meditated Russian aggression?
I think somewhere in between, as is usually the case. Russia still respects its foreign relations enough, if not with the West then with the rest, to pay lip service to international law; however, it won’t hesitate to exploit any serious Georgian provocation. I don’t think Saakashvili is a complete idiot, so barring independent lower-rank Georgian military adventurism (or very skilled Russian feigning of said adventurism), the chances of war breaking out this August must be rather small. Perhaps 10-20%. We’ll see. In any case this August is going to be a tense and potentially very fun time in the Caucasus. And that’s not going to change any time soon, because based on current trends the reassertion of Russian power over the Caucasus is almost inevitable this decade.