Red Army

The Return of Russian Hard Power?

As Russia plays war games on imaginary NATO targets and Putin pumps billions into the army, the country’s neighbors grow concerned about the return of Kremlin’s military muscle.


Last Good Friday, two Russian Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Su-27 fighter aircraft, simulated an aerial assault on two military targets in Sweden— the first near the capital Stockholm and the second in a southern part of the country. This was then followed in September by Zapad-13 (“Zapad” means “West”), Russia’s biannual military exercise, which this year was jointly held with Belarusian forces variously in Belarus, along the borders of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and in Kaliningrad, Russia’s non-contiguous seaport territory that lies between Poland and Lithuania.

Though initially billed as a counterterrorism operation targeting “illegal armed groups,” Zapad-13 was very clearly aimed at fighting conventional armies on European soil. Which ones? Stephen Blank of the Jamestown Foundation has noted that the “simulated ‘terrorists’ were apparently Balts intent on mounting operations in Belarus against that government and on behalf of their supposedly oppressed ethnic kinsmen.” (Moscow propaganda usually has it that independent Baltic states with pro-European and pro-American bents are the modern-day embodiment of Nazi regimes insufficiently grateful for their “liberation” and occupation by the Red Army.)

An estimated 70,000 soldiers took part in Zapad-13, three times the number given in advance to NATO by the Russian government, although this year, contrary to reports in the Polish press, Russia did not simulate a nuclear strike on Warsaw, as it has in the past. Seventy thousand troops, however, imply quite lot of “terrorists” in need of vanquishing by land, air or sea. Included in the order of battle were a Belarusian amphibious landing force, Russian paratroopers and Spetsnaz (special forces), and 10,000 paramilitary troops from Russia’s Interior Ministry as well as unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting and damage assessment.

According to Karlis Neretnieks of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, the exercise was intended to put Europe on notice that Russia’s military is vastly improved from its dilapidated state during the 2008 “summer war” with Georgia: “Altogether we see a rapidly increasing Russian capability to mount large scale, complex, military operations in its neighbourhood, coordinated with operations in other areas. It would be a mistake to see this as just a problem for the Baltic States.” On October 28, five more Russian warplanes staged mock bombing runs against Sweden, Poland and Lithuania while en route to an airbase in Kaliningrad, though this time, the Swedish Air Force was ready and dispatched two jets to intercept the Russian bombers. (Colombia and Japan have also recently had their airspaces violated or buzzed by Russian long-range bombers, sending their respective Air Forces into states of alert.)

All of this transpired, it should be noted, at a time when only two countries in NATO —Poland and Estonia, both of which are deeply unsettled by routine Russian mock-invasions of their territories—are meeting their annual defense expenditure requirements for membership in the alliance and when the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski can easily envisage another war fought on the continent, in contrast with the bland reassurances of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that such a contingency is a thing of the past. Try telling that to the other countries that once fell on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. To them, Russian hard power is most certainly “back” and now poses a more immediate threat to Europe than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the margins of the U.N. General Assembly last September, one diplomat confided in the sense of alarm with which Eastern European countries registered President Obama’s claim, in his address at Turtle Bay, that “[w]e’re no longer in a Cold War.” If only Russia agreed.

For one thing, NATO’s own just-concluded war game belied any sense of continental security. Zapad-13 and the other unannounced pretend-invasions were no doubt staged by Russia in pre-emptive response to Operation Steadfast Jazz 2013, the largest NATO live-fire exercise in seven years. It was conducted in all three Baltic states and Poland, from November 2-9, largely to reaffirm the alliance’s commitment to their defense in the event that, as Rasmussen put it, “any country with bad intentions” tries to attack them. He denied, however, that Steadfast Jazz was in any way a rebuttal to Zapad-13. It was a “signal to anyone who might have an intention to attack a NATO ally,” he said, “but I don’t expect Russia to have any intention to attack NATO allies…so you might say it is a signal ‘to whom it may concern.’” In a show of how little Washington, at least under the current administration, seems to fret about its Eastern European allies, a measly 160 personnel out of a total 6,000 came from the United States, while France sent more than 1,000. Sweden, Finland and Ukraine, none of them NATO members, also participated.

Steadfast Jazz didn’t go off without some expected interference from those “whom-it-may-concern.” Before and during the exercise, Estonian and Latvian government websites were hit with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCD COE), which is based in Tallinn, was erroneously linked to the defacement of several Ukrainian government and NGO websites, with forged email accounts from CCD COE claiming that these assaults were all part of Steadfast Jazz. Similar attacks then followed against the Latvian Ministry of Defence and Defence Forces sites. As Piret Pernik at the Estonian think tank the International Centre for Defence Studies writes, what was so extraordinary about these incidents was how the Russian state-controlled press reported on them. On November 4, for instance,, a news service which Estonian intelligence has linked to Russia’s security services, published an article suggesting that CCD COE “accidentally” hit Ukrainian and Latvian portals during Steadfast Jazz’s conventional military operations. Then, on November 6, Voice of Russia, also run by the Kremlin, reiterated these claims with the assessment that NATO was so incompetent in the realm of cyber-security that it wound up attacking itself. Pernik didn’t think this message coordination between “hacktivist” groups and Russian media organs a mere coincidence and neither should you.

NATO has long been the obsession and bugbear of the Kremlin, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Moscow of its Warsaw Pact military counterbalance. And despite the fact that Russian officials have conceded in their more truthful moments that NATO’s planned missile defense shield, which is now being installed in Eastern Europe, poses no real security threat to their territory, they nevertheless characterize the program aimed at intercepting Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles—as hostile. This was exactly what the newly appointed Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, did at the last Valdai International Discussion Club, a yearly chin-wag for regime loyalists and softies marketed as the Russian answer to the German Marshall Fund conferences. Shoigu, who replaced the scandal-plagued and reform-minded Anatoly Serdykuov, helped increase Russia’s military budget this year by 26 percent. He is now viewed as the most popular and recognizable minister in Russia, according to recent polls.

Indeed, Shoigu’s a true man of the times in the sense that he is completely backward-looking. He wants a return to Soviet-era mobilization, a policy fraught with past failures, and, as part of his ambitious ministry overhaul, he’s now overseeing the production of naval ships at a level that is only half of what the U.S. currently spends (just a few years ago, that amount was less than a tenth). By 2020, if current targets are met, Russia will have added 40 new, combat-ready brigades to its army, giving it eight more than what the U.S. is projected to have by 2017. Seventy percent of those forces will be outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. The defense ministry has also announced plans to create a million-man, active-duty army by 2020. As the U.S. languishes in sequestration blues, Putin has unilaterally pledged $755 billion to completely modernizing the Russian army and restoring it to its lost period of grandeur. Two horribly mismanaged wars in Chechnya in the mid-to-late 90s, and a less-than-stellar performance in 2008 against Georgia provided the justification for this mass renovation. Putin has said, with near Five-Year Plan hyperbole, that modernizatsiia can become a catch-all economic reform in its own right, “a locomotive that will pull the various industries: metallurgy, mechanical engineering, the chemical and radio-electric industries, the entire IT and telecommunications range.”

And yet, as impressive as these statistics are on paper, they’re still coming from a state notorious for cooking its books and undershooting the mark across all sectors. They should therefore be assessed with a fair degree of skepticism. To start with, no ambitious state investment scheme in Russia is ever honestly pursued, be it the Skolkovo dot-com village, which former president Dmitry Medvedev wanted to erect on the outskirts of Moscow and which is now a project rife with embezzlement allegations and counter-allegations, or the much-hyped Sochi Olympics, which has already cost some $50 billion. Sochi is not only the most expensive Games in world history but also, as opposition figures Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk have surmised, one of the most excessive self-enrichment schemes in Russian history, with roughly half the inflated budget going to “embezzlement and kickbacks” that have a habit of benefiting Putin’s closest friends. The ruling United Russia party is now, thanks to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, universally known as the “party of crooks and thieves.” In 2011, Transparency International’s Bribe Paying Index ranked Russia as the worst in the world for perceived likeliness for palm-greasing. About 16 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product—$300 billion out of $1.5 trillion—is frittered away annually in corruption schemes.

It seems highly likely, then, that Russia’s military modernization program will similarly devolve into a racket. Though there are also prima facie fudges with Shoigu’s forward-thinking. Alexander Golts, a Russian military expert, has ably dealt with the million-man military myth, citing two clear and insurmountable problems. “The first and most important reason is that the acute demographic decline has resulted in a sharp drop in the number of young men reaching 18 years of age—to 800,000,” he wrote in the Moscow Times recently. “The second reason is that widespread corruption allows thousands of eligible conscripts to receive exemption from service.” Pay a bribe, skip the draft. Nor is contract service a panacea given the strong disincentive for young Russians to want to join the ranks: the especially barbaric hazing ritual known as dedovshchina graduates plenty of body-bags per year in lieu of fit soldiers. My colleague Andrew Bowen has also suggested that lackluster International Monetary Fund forecasts for Russian economic growth will undermine any long-term blue-sky military plans. Finally, manufacturing standards in the military industry are as robust as elsewhere in Russia: ships that do not sail and missiles that do not launch are still a common problem. In fact, when Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed for Syria well over a year ago, a source close to the U.S. Navy told me that the American Sixth Fleet was on hand in case of an emergency. What kind of emergency? “The Kuznetsov might sink.”

One skeptic of this hard-power reassertion theory is Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services who teaches at New York University. He told me that a British Royal Navy officer informed him a few years ago that “if ever it were necessary to deal with the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, NATO could leave it to the Italians to do it without any help.” Galeotti also agrees that military modernizatsiia is a convenient cover for greasing the palms of Russia’s already surfeited officer class. “Efforts to build a million-man army and massive new procurement programs seem to be mechanisms to keep generals in work and transfer tax money to the defense-industrial sector and corrupt managers and middlemen rather than having any bearing on Russia’s genuine security needs,” Galeotti said, citing as the most pressing security need, the rise of a domestic ultra-nationalist far right—which has taken to riots and pogroms against migrant workers in recent months—and a more muscular China.

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But rather than focus on these imminent threats, Russia’s painted a bullseye on the back of another perceived external nemesis, the European Union, which has lately found itself the subject of febrile propaganda campaigns and obnoxious attempts to derail its greater commercial and trade cooperation with former Soviet republics. Notwithstanding the 2008 credit implosion and its continuing knock-on effects in southern eurozone countries, which have threatened a destabilizing “exit” from the common currency, former Easter bloc countries still view the EU as a more reliable partner for international business and trade than they do Russia. That’s why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels’ orbit. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were set to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on November 28-29, which would offer them economic incentives amounting to free trade and possibly pave the way toward full membership later on. Such incentives, however, come with political preconditions related to freedom of speech, human rights and standards of living. Russia not only wants a neo-Soviet protectorate with these countries—one enforced by tariff arrangements instead of tanks—but it also wants them to behave more like Russia, which is to say dictatorially and outside the confines of international legal norms. Armenia, for instance, was going to sign the Association Agreement until Putin brought President Serzh Sargsyan to Moscow for a private conference. Whatever occurred between the two has not been publicly disclosed, although no doubt Russia’s military support, upon which Armenian is heavily dependent (Armenia’s sole air defence is provided by the Russian base at Gyumri), was raised as a reason to resist the westward pull. Armenia has now decided to join the Customs Union.

Russia’s Department of Public Health also proscribed the importation of Moldova’s wine, just it had previously done with Georgia’s, citing a pretext of unmet sanitary conditions—though fermented Moldovan grapes were evidently hygienic enough for Russian consumption before the Association Agreement was mooted. Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Putin, left no room for second-guessing this hostile gesture when he said that Ukraine’s tropism toward the EU was “suicidal,” perhaps only leaving out that the suicide would be assisted. In fact, Glazyev threatened to partition Ukraine as punishment, ominously warning that the Kremlin would be “legally entitled to support” ethnic Russians in the country who did not wish to move closer to Brussels—exactly the kind of language Moscow has used to justify a de facto military annexation of Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So starting in August, Ukrainian goods were halted for a laborious inspections regimen at the Ukraine-Russia border (though no such restrictions apply to Russian goods traveling the opposite direction), creating what Ukrainian officials refer to as a “customs terror” that could cost Kiev as much as $2.5 billion by year’s end. Moscow has also intimated that it will deport the many Ukrainian migrant laborers who work in Russia and who generate billions of dollars in capital. Vladimir Pastukhov, in Novaya Gazeta, described the relationship as a triangle, featuring Ukraine as a cheating husband, the EU as an attractive young mistress and Russia as a bitchy wife. Lorena Bobbitt comes to mind.

What is new in the Kremlin’s bullying of its “near abroad” is also new in Russia. Legalized bigotry, whereby “homosexual propaganda” —purportedly conceived to combat pedophilia but defined so nebulously as to endanger the entire gay population—is now being exported to Ukraine to scuttle Kiev’s lurch toward Brussels. A brilliant piece of investigative journalism, by J. Lester Feder of BuzzFeed, found that Ukraine’s growing anti-LGBT movement, rife with NGOs that equate the Association Agreement with the “homosexualizing of Ukraine,” is largely the work of Russian agitprop. One such group, Ukrainian Choice, Feder writes, is “funded by Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy businessman and former parliamentarian, who is so close to the Russian president that local media routinely allude to the fact that Vladimir Putin is his child’s godfather.” The EU thus faces a dilemma: push back against Ukrainian intolerance on a major civil rights issue and risk driving the country further into Moscow’s embrace; stay silent, and forfeit any economic compact in accordance with the Treaty of Rome’s rules on human rights requirements. It’s a zugzwang because either way, Putin wins. And he just did.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov’s cabinet posted a decree stating that the government was no longer pursuing an Association Agreement with the E.U. and instead prescribed a trilateral commission consisting of Kiev, Moscow and the Brussels to address Ukraine’s faltering economy in accordance with more Kremlin-friendly trade arrangements. Interested onlookers of this affair, such as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, knew Ukraine was headed in this direction for weeks. Among the outstanding quarrels with the E.U. is President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to bend on the politicized incarceration and torture of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was convicted of abuse of office in 2011 and remains the most visible casualty of the wreckage that is Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Yanukovych’s party abstained from a series of parliamentary votes that would have allowed Tymoshenko to be transported to Germany for medical treatment (she was badly beaten by prison guards last year). “Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin,” Bildt tweeted after the cabinet rendered its decision.

Even those countries that Russia doesn’t consider within its own back yard or that it didn’t used to occupy militarily are susceptible to nastiness. The Netherlands, too, has lately discovered the cost of crossing the KGB-czar. When Putin travelled to Amsterdam in April, rather than being greeted as dignified head of state, he found a city justifiably enraged at Russia’s new anti-LGBT law. Amsterdam’s mayor refused to meet him and even flew a rainbow LGBT flag atop City Hall. One Dutch businessman who used to live in Moscow told The Guardian that Putin “was insulted to his core, and for a couple of weeks afterwards there was a non-stop campaign on Russian TV showing Holland to be a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, run by paedophiles and hashish dealers.” Dutch police subsequently arrested at high-ranking diplomat from the Russian embassy in The Hague after neighbors complained that he and his wife were drunk. Little more than a week later, that diplomat’s openly gay counterpart in the Dutch embassy in Moscow had his home invaded by vandals who wrote “LGBT” in lipstick on a mirror. Finally, Russia arrested 30 Greenpeace seagoers—most of them crew, eight of them activists, and two journalists—for scaling an offshore Russian oil rig in the Arctic in protest of the drilling. First charged with “piracy,” each member of the retinue now faces seven years in jail if found guilty of “hooliganism.” Twenty-nine of the 30 have now been granted bailed after spending over two months in jail. Yesterday, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, to which the Dutch government appealed on human rights grounds, also ruled yesterday that the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace boat, Arctic Sunrise, and all 30 passengers should be permanently released.

All of this suggests that the more immediate threat that a re-energized and revanchist Russia poses to the West isn’t advancing armies or aerial assaults but a sophisticated combination of hard and soft power plays that have become something of a Putinist stock-in-trade. These will include new trade wars, cyber attacks, acts of espionage, energy blackmails, and a more updated version of what the KGB used to term “active measures,” that is, the spreading of misinformation and propaganda, designed to make Russia’s enemies—chiefly Washington and Brussels—look bad. So while Russia’s military strives toward great-power worthiness unto 2020, Moscow’s old hostilities will be dealt with using familiar old methods.