Back in the early ’50s, Winston Churchill described U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as “a bull who carries his own china closet with him.” NATO heads of state must be thinking the same thing about Donald J. Trump after his recent performance at the NATO summit meeting in Brussels. There, the American president spent more time badgering his allies over inadequate defense spending than discussing what must be done to check Russia’s continual political warfare campaign against NATO, and the Western alliance generally.
Apprehensions are running high among NATO defense ministers as to what Trump may concede to Vladimir Putin in their July 16 meeting in Helsinki. Putin is expected to ask Trump to withdraw the United States from upcoming NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, and the president hasn’t ruled out agreeing to do so. He continues to describe Putin’s Russia as a “competitor,” not an adversary, which is bizarre, to say the least, as the latest (December 2017) iteration of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, the U.S. government’s definitive statement about threats to the nation and how to combat them, describes Russia and China as the most serious threats to American power, influence, and interests, surpassing global terrorism.
After a long hiatus, the U.S. national security establishment is placing top priority on identifying the warfighting capabilities and intentions of both of those nation states, and reconfiguring American military doctrine, training, and organizational structure to meet future challenges.
Of the two rising powers, most defense experts see Russia as by far the more menacing threat, at least in the short term, despite China’s far greater economic resources and military spending. It isn’t hard to see why.
Over the last decade Russia had demonstrated a marked proclivity to use, or threaten to use, military force to achieve its foreign policy goals, particularly when it comes to ensuring compliance among regimes within its own sphere of influence. Vladimir Putin, in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, “has anointed himself the leader of a renewed nationalist conservative movement fighting a decadent West,” and is determined to re-establish his country as a leading player in international politics. The Kremlin has invested billions in sophisticated social media networks and information warfare techniques, and employed them in an “active measures” campaign to de-stabilize relations between members of the Western alliance, and shape political developments within their societies in a manner congenial to Russian interests.
Without question the most prominent active measures campaign to date has been the effort to shape the U.S. presidential election of 2016, but Western defense experts have identified a long and growing list of other, similar efforts in Europe and the Balkans.
By intervening in the Syrian War, Russia has successfully shifted the strategic balance in favor of the Assad regime, and there’s little doubt that Moscow intends to remain a major player in the Middle East for a long time to come.
In its hostility to the United States, Western Europe, and democratic ideas and institutions, Putin’s foreign policy bears an uncanny resemblance to that of his Soviet forebears. At the heart of Putin’s view of world affairs is what George Kennan, the father of America’s containment policy during the Cold War, called “Russia’s traditional and instinctive sense of insecurity… They have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the world within. And they learned to seek security only in the patient but deadly struggle for… destruction of rival power, never in compacts or compromises with it.”
No wonder there is so much talk about “Cold War II” in the international affairs journals.
Under former KGB officer Putin, the Russian state had developed a truly formidable capacity to integrate multiple instruments of hard and soft power in pursuit of its goals, often at the expense of the United States and NATO. “Hybrid warfare” is perhaps the best name for the Kremlin’s current geopolitical strategy, which combines conventional military operations and military intimidation, political front movements, multi-media propaganda campaigns, fake news, cyber warfare, traditional diplomacy, and economic threats. When intervention beyond Russia’s borders is called for, Moscow likes to employ local proxies to create a veneer of legitimacy for its actions, as they did in the Crimea and Ukraine.
Hybrid warfare, which blurs the line between peace and war, is nothing new. What is new, or at least unusual, is the skill and boldness with which Moscow has implemented it. In March 2014, right after the successful annexation of Crimea, the Russian Army provided logistical and intelligence assets to local Russian-speaking separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russians conducted large-scale military exercises right on the Russian-Ukrainian border, in addition to jamming the communications of Ukrainian Army units in the vicinity, in order to discourage a counterattack.
It worked brilliantly. So, too, has the Russian campaign to sow turbulence into American and European politics and society.
Russia’s hybrid warfare operations are now coordinated at a new National Defense Control Center in Moscow. This headquarters houses some fifty senior officials in the police, infrastructure, transport, information technology, and military sectors under the stewardship of the armed forces general staff. By all accounts the new control center has reduced administrative infighting among the various agencies of the Russian state, and significantly ratcheted up the speed and level of coordination of operations.
Effective hybrid warfare operations, and Russia’s quest to regain great power status, ultimately rest on the capabilities of its conventional military forces. That’s why Putin refrained from undertaking provocative foreign interventions and political warfare against the West until his armed services had been thoroughly revitalized in a sweeping reform and reconstruction program.
At the end of the Cold War, Moscow had to undertake one of the largest demilitarization programs in world history. Between 1988 and 1994, Russia’s forces shrank from five million to about one million personnel. The Soviet Army of the late ’80s was a bloated and ineffective institution beset by decay, corruption, and demoralization. Astonishingly, the Russian Army that had done the lion’s share of the work in defeating the Nazis in World War II was defeated by a tough, ramshackle force of Chechen separatists in 1994.
Some reforms were carried out after that humiliation, but the top-heavy senior officer corps prevented the kind of sweeping changes that were necessary if Russia was to regain its status as a great power. In August 2008, the Russian Army defeated forces loyal to Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-American president of Georgia, in a five-day war, but it was obvious to Putin and his defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, that their army still had glaring deficiencies in logistics, communications, and the training of enlisted men. Commanders had to use civilian cell phones to give orders, and it was clear that man to man, the American-trained Georgian troops had outperformed their Russian counterparts in several battles.
Shortly after the war’s end, the Kremlin announced an ambitious restructuring of the military procurement process, long afflicted by waste, redundancy, and corruption, and a top-to-bottom reform of armed forces organization, doctrine, and training. This program, still continuing, will have cost about $700 billion by the time it is completed in 2020.
The new Russian military, then, is still a force in transition, but it is a formidable adversary, and becoming more so. “Slowly but surely, writes military analyst Michael Kofman in Foreign Affairs, “the Russian military is adapting to a more information-driven battlefield, attempting to incorporate technologies effectively demonstrated by U.S. forces over the past fifteen years.”
The Russian Army has come long way from the slow-to-mobilize, conscript-dominated force of the early ’90s, which was trained pretty much exclusively for mass armored warfare. The basic building block is no longer the 10,000-man division, but the more nimble and flexible brigade of 3,800 troops. While it took the Army about three weeks to mobilize 40,000 troops to respond to the rebellion in Chechnya in 1994, it took only a week to mobilize the same number of troops on the Ukrainian border in March 2014.
About half the personnel in the ground forces, which number about 350,000, are now professionals, and combat readiness has improved in most units substantially. While many conventional brigades have yet to be fully modernized, Moscow has an impressive array of elite units that, as of 2018, are trained and equipped close to the same standard as American elite forces. These include the Air Assault troops, with a distinguished heritage as intervention forces going back to the Soviet era, including the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the incursion into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to bring down the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek. The AA troops are expert at operations behind enemy lines, but were used most often in Russia’s Afghanistan War as mobile helicopter assault troops, much like the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam.
Russia’s Naval Infantry—its marines—took the lead in the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Each of Russia’s five naval fleets have between two and four maneuver battalions of marines. They are sure to be the spearhead ground force in any future intervention outside Russia’s sphere of influence on the Eurasian landmass, and have made quite a name for themselves for their ruthless treatment of Somali pirates.
The Spetsnaz, Russian special forces, are exceptionally well trained for long-range reconnaissance and sabotage operations, but they also perform well as light infantry, much like the U.S. Special Forces’ 75th Ranger Regiment. In 2012, Moscow established its own version of the U.S. Special Operations Command, and Western military analysts rate Spetsnaz as among the very best special operators in the world.
NATO strategists are not anticipating a full throttle conventional cross-border attack on a NATO country in Europe, even in the Balkans, where the conventional balance of forces favors Russia. Rather, the worry is that Russia might seek to “nibble away” at its neighbors, seizing enclaves such as Crimea, where there are significant numbers of Russian speakers, or that it will subvert pro-Western regimes in Eastern Europe through a combination of economic pressure, political subversion, and military intimidation. Belarus may well be a target on the Kremlin’s hit list.
The Russian Army’s most ominous capability in the eyes of NATO’s command may well be in air defense. Its “anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)” air defense systems are very robust, and getting more sophisticated all the time. Western forces have come to take air superiority for granted wherever they deploy. No longer. Since 2008, Russia has developed new air defense systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels that pose significant obstacles to NATO aircraft.
According to the U.S. Army’s Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook, “Russia uses a very dense network of air-defense systems that overlap in layers to increase their protective capabilities. Gaps in coverage can … be filled by new [electronic warfare] systems that confuse incoming missiles … or cause premature detonation of electronic fuses.” In actual combat, Western forces may be able to achieve “only brief or momentary” air superiority. The placement of S-400 air defenses at Kaliningrad and Crimea—that is, on both flanks of Europe—would pose a serious problem for NATO aircraft operating in those crucial areas. And the Russian Army successfully tested an even more capable system, the S-500, earlier this year.
Russia lagged significantly behind Western armies in deploying drones, but it is catching up fast, say defense analysts. It has used drones effectively to jam communications and as artillery spotters in Ukraine and Syria, and has a program underway to develop swarms of armed drones that are directed by artificial intelligence.
A new family of combat vehicles—tanks, armored personnel carriers, and mobile artillery platforms--have already entered service with some elite units. These new vehicles have a great deal of firepower and mobility, but they lack the precision sighting capabilities of their NATO counterparts. It remains to be seen whether Russia can afford to provide all of its ground forces with the new generation of vehicles.
What has been the response of the Western alliance to the resurgence of Russian ambition and power? The consensus among the experts is that it has been lethargic, inept, and confusing—a patchwork of sanctions, threats, and bluster that lacks coherence. The Trump administration’s bizarre ambivalence toward the Russian government—indeed, toward NATO as well—ranks high among the causes of that incoherence. The president seems to admire the man responsible for Russia’s political warfare campaign against his own country, which is, well … odd, to say the least.
The rising tide of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist sentiment that has afflicted American and European political discourse over the past several years is an also a major stumbling block to formulating sound defense policy.
Nonetheless, the American armed forces, particularly the Army, is now revamping its training, equipment, and schools curriculum, turning away from counterinsurgency, and toward the kinds of operations it is likely to face in a confrontation with Russia or China.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis had displayed none of the ambivalence of his boss concerning the seriousness of the Kremlin threat. In early 2017, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia was “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” and that “there’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage [Russia] cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we are going to have confront Russia.”
In early June 2018, Mattis presented the “30-30-30-30” plan to fellow NATO defense ministers in Brussels. It called on the NATO alliance to be able to deploy 30 warships, 30 maneuver battalions, and 30 squadrons of aircraft in the vicinity of any crisis within 30 days, by 2020. This “readiness initiative,” which puts strong teeth in NATO’s first response to Russian adventurism, was fully approved at the July 11-12 meeting of NATO heads-of-state.
Meanwhile, NATO member Poland has expressed keen interest in hosting an American armored division permanently on its soil, and bilateral negotiations with Washington on this possibility are in motion.
But what the Western alliance really needs badly, and soon, is nowhere in sight: An American president fully committed to working with European allies to develop a grand strategy for dealing with Russia’s multi-pronged assault on Western power and interests.