Eurasian disunion – Russia’s vulnerable flanks - Part Seven

Analysis 12 June 2018
Eurasian disunion – Russia’s vulnerable flanks - Part Seven

The think tank Institute for Strategic Analysis continues publication of excerpts from a book “Eurasian disunion-Russia’s vulnerable flanks” to keep English-language readers informed of new trends, developments and analyses of President Vladimir Putin’s policies in former Soviet nations during his reign over Russia.

Part VII


Security Entrapment: Moscow established the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) in April 1994 as a political-military structure of former Soviet republics and has forged asymmetrical bilateral military agreements with a number of CSTO states, including Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These arrangements enable Moscow to control the air defenses and borders of neighbors and to establish Russian military bases. Moscow pushes the idea of “equal security” to try and equalize NATO with the CSTO.

At the same time, it calls on Ukraine and other countries to renounce their NATO aspirations, thus violating the principles of “equal security” in which every country presumably possesses the right to decide on its international alliances. To help defend its new security dominion, in 2009 Moscow initiated the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (KSOR) within the CSTO whose avowed purpose is to “preserve the sovereignty, protect the constitutional order and restore the territorial integrity” of CSTO member states. In effect, the Kremlin reserves the right to intervene militarily in the internal affairs of each CSTO member by mobilizing a collective assault that echoes its deployment of the Warsaw Pact against wayward allies during Soviet times.

Military Threats: These are periodically issued in response to policies pursued by neighbors but opposed by Moscow, such as NATO expansion or the installment of a NATO anti-ballistic missile shield. According to its military doctrine, Russia reserves the right to conduct a preemptive military strike if it perceives a “distinct and inevitable military threat” to the country, or if Moscow feels threatened by reduced access to regions where it possesses “crucial economic or financial interests.” Russia is also empowered to use its military within the former Soviet domain if a “complex and unstable situation develops” or if there is a direct threat to Russian citizens or ethnic Russians.

Close Military Encounters: Moscow uses its military to engineer close encounters with several Western states, especially NATO members, to raise levels of threat and tension and test the military and political responses of rival capitals. This can include aircraft overflights or navy incursions. Such threats are in themselves a form of psychological influence designed to demonstrate that the adversary is either weak or unprepared for a Russian offensive. They are deliberately confrontational to increase alarm in NATO capitals that an accidental crash or collision with Western aircraft or seacraft could result in loss of civilian life and even provoke an armed conflict, thus encouraging Western concessions to pacify Russia.

In the Baltic region in particular, Moscow conducts unscheduled combat alerts to test the reaction speed of Baltic units and has stationed missile systems that will affect the military balance of power: the Iskander-M ballistic system and the S-400 long-range anti-aircraft system. Moscow has built up its military capabilities in the Baltic Sea to be able to stage a rapid assault by regular forces, block air traffic, especially the arrival of support units from NATO, and hit the majority of land targets to deter the Alliance from intervening in a regional conflict.

Active Provocations: These may include personnel abductions, sabotage operations, acts of random terrorism, assassination of targeted officials, and other diversionary activities in order to promulgate public fear in pinpointed states and destabilize incumbent governments. Ukraine has been subjected to such attacks since the start of Russia’s offensive in early 2014. It can also include intimidation and bribing of military and police officers, with the objective of making them abandon their duties, as was evident in Crimea during Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s peninsula in early 2014.

Intimidating Exercises: Russian military exercises are notable for their magnitude and the frequency of “spot” exercises, involving the sudden and unannounced deployment of forces. Since 2012, Russia has conducted six major military exercises assembling between 65,000 and 160,000 personnel, dwarfing the size of all NATO maneuvers. After launching its attack on Ukraine, Russia enhanced its capabilities in moving around sizable numbers of troops and equipment.

The exercises have developed in quality, and the armed forces can perform increasingly complex joint operations. Moscow has also modernized its electronic and technical capabilities, enhanced command and control, and improved the use of a digital operational-tactical command system. Current reform and modernization programs are focused on developing a capability to intervene quickly and decisively in neighboring states by allocating resources to a small number of elite units, primarily airborne and special operations forces, that constitute the core of Russia’s emerging Rapid Reaction Force.

Conjuring Confrontation: A major military exercise in March 2015 assumed an especially threatening posture. It covered several regions, including the Arctic, Baltic, and Black Seas and simulated a full-scale confrontation with NATO through the forward deployment of nuclear-armed submarines, theater ballistic missiles, and strategic bomber aircraft. Strategic weapon systems were also located near NATO’s borders. By deploying Tu22M3 bomber aircraft, Russia invoked the threat of nuclear confrontation and asserted that this was a response to potential military support from the West to Ukraine and in reaction to NATO beefing up its presence in the Baltic states.

Nuclear Blackmail: Kremlin officials have regularly warned that they will suspend various nuclear and conventional arms-control agreements and maintain tactical nuclear missiles along Russia’s western borders. Such threats are combined with regular military exercises, including the annual Zapad maneuvers that have involved the simulated nuclear annihilation of neighboring capitals. Russia’s military doctrine provides for the first use of nuclear weapons under threatening circumstances. Such a posture also serves to divide the Alliance, as Europe, unlike the US, would be directly affected by the use of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. Russia uses the propaganda potential of its weapons deployments, snap exercises, and the destructive capabilities of newly developed weapons to induce anxieties among neighbors.

For instance, the periodically announced deployment of Iskander tactical missiles in the Baltic Sea and in Kaliningrad and Crimea are intended to demonstrate preparations for the use of nuclear delivery weapons. Moscow has also violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar program for reducing nuclear threats. In June 2015, Putin announced that Russia would procure 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) “capable of penetrating any possible enemy missile defense.” NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, responded by accusing Putin of “ratcheting up nuclear tensions.”

Tactical Compromises: Russia’s leaders seek advantages by partially stepping back from an initially aggressive stance and enticing Western concessions in accepting some of Moscow’s gains. Western leaders then trumpet their evident success at averting a larger international crisis. The invasion of Georgia in August 2008 can be seen in the light of such calculations, where EU attention was riveted on dispatching monitors to the “buffer zones” carved out by Russian forces deeper in Georgian territory rather than to the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow recognized as independent states and where it emplaced its military units. Such a “stick and carrot” approach is also evident in Ukraine, where Russia’s preparations for military action against Kyiv are interspersed with ceasefire initiatives to legitimize the separatist enclaves in the Donbas.

Unconventional Offensives: Russian analysts assert that the lines between war and peace are blurred. General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Military General Staff, describes how Russia can subvert and destroy states without direct, overt, and large-scale military intervention. The Special Operations Forces of the Russian Federation (SOF) were established in March 2013 as a highly mobile group of forces of the Ministry of Defense designated for specific tasks abroad. In addition to sabotage operations, the SOF creates, train, and supervise foreign guerrilla movements. They were used during the seizure of the Crimean parliament on February 27, 2014, and subsequently in Ukraine’s Donbas. Moscow is working to develop within a few years the capability to threaten several neighbors simultaneously on the scale of its operation in Ukraine. This would give Russia the ability to carry out three such operations during the same timeframe without a major military mobilization that would allow the West time to respond.

Disguised Subversion: One overarching component of Moscow’s unconventional assaults on neighboring states is its use of maskirovka, or disguised offensives. This combines several elements including surprise, camouflage, maneuvers intended to deceive, concealment, the use of decoys and military dummies, and disinformation to dupe the adversary. Moscow’s role in such low-scale military operations can either be denied altogether or depicted as a humanitarian or limited peace-making mission. This was evident in eastern Ukraine during the spring and summer of 2014 when Moscow dispatched hundreds of unchecked trucks allegedly to provide food and medical aid to the local population.

Proxy Wars: These are intensive operations against neighboring states designed to seize territory or topple national governments. Moscow engages in covert offensives in support of separatists. It creates fake insurgencies by financing and arming front groups; infiltrating the foreign territory using Russian special forces, mercenaries, and volunteers; corrupting local law enforcement bodies; inciting civil unrest; seizing public buildings; setting up road blocks and other barricades; disabling the functioning of police or military units; and declaring support for alternative authorities and security forces. Assistance to irregular fighters is designed to subvert and destabilize targeted countries and undermine the authority of the local and central governments.

Sponsoring Separatists: Even if majorities in targeted states do not support secession, local discontented individuals can always be found and funded by Moscow as new ethno-national leaders. The Kremlin relies on the passivity and fear of the silent majority in a specified region, while rebels are provided with weapons, recruits, finances, and media exposure. Russian specialists are infiltrated to provide leadership, weaponry, and organization, while crippling the capacity of national governments to protect the population. Moscow can also deploy a large conventional force along the borders to dissuade large-scale state action against the separatists that it has incited and supported.

Conventional Intervention: Regular forces can be deployed against neighbors in order to supplement unconventional or proxy wars, as witnessed in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014– 2015). Moscow may engage in a large-scale and direct military intervention to defeat or dislodge the military of a nearby state from a region that it has earmarked for partition or annexation. Russian forces frequently train to increase the speed of their military actions so that the West has little time to implement a coherent response. Subsequently, the focus is on peace talks rather than reversing Russia’s territorial advances. Moscow’s involvement is preceded by the pretext that the local population is in danger of genocide and is desperate for military protection. This can be accompanied by armed provocations to elicit government retaliation, which in turn precipitates Russia’s intervention, as was the case in Georgia in August 2008.

Territorial Fragmentation: This entails the invasion, occupation, and partition of neighboring states, the recognition of separatist entities as autonomous units or independent states, or Russia’s outright annexation of conquered territories. In the case of Moldova and Ukraine, Moscow has been pushing its own version of federalism: in each case, the secessionist regions that Russia has nurtured are seeking a confederal arrangement with the central government and veto powers over the country’s foreign and security policies in line with Kremlin interests.

An inadequate Western response to the partition of Ukraine and Georgia simply encourages Moscow to continue the process in other parts of the Wider Europe. In some cases, Moscow has pressed for territorial revisions by claiming that regions such as Crimea should be considered traditionally Russian and whose inclusion in a neighboring republic during Soviet times Russia denounces as unlawful. An additional underhanded method is the creeping “borderization” of neighboring countries. This has been evident in Georgia where Russian units have demarcated the border with Russian-controlled South Ossetia deeper into Georgian territory. Such actions are intended to demonstrate that Moscow can act with impunity in seizing nearby lands.

Exploiting Frozen Conflicts: Moscow supports the creation of “frozen conflicts” and the maintenance of “frozen states,” as this paralyzes the central government and prevents Russia’s neighbors from joining Western institutions. The Kremlin seeks international legitimacy for separatist enclaves that it has overtly or covertly sponsored and it acts as a mediator in avowedly resolving disputes with the central government that, in reality, are never resolved. This has been evident in several secessionist conflicts in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. Moscow indefinitely maintains several unresolved conflicts and prevents their resolution. It also holds in reserve the prospect of unfreezing these conflicts and unleashing further instability through renewed insurgency, intensified armed conflicts, and potential direct Russian military intervention. Such a threatening posture serves to convince Western governments to make compromises that favor Moscow.

(To be continued)

Republished from a book "Eurasian Disunion Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks".