Russia –  Strategic Analysis

March 24, 2015 § 10 Comments

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Much alarm and rumour is spreading these days about Russia’s strategic options and potential next step(s) on the heels of its Ukrainian war – almost as if Ukraine’s defeat is a foregone conclusion. I submit that it is anything but, that Russia is far from capable of projecting itself in any other direction and that Russia’s ambitions against the West is nothing more than a carefully orchestrated maskirovka designed to give it a relatively free hand to deal with Ukraine.

Russian demonstrations – that is, its campaign of smoke and mirrors – against the Baltic States, Finland, Sweden and the Arctic, in addition to Bear flights over Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere, serve to foster a belief that these countries are at risk, imminently or eventually, of Russian invasion and overt force projection.

The trade-off, gladly accepted by Kremlin as a short-term cost, is to heighten awareness of aggressive Russian policy and to drive selected countries closer to Russia’s arch-enemy, NATO. This trade is offset by a not so subtle campaign in media and deniable quasi-diplomatic back channels to dissuade Sweden and Finland from joining ”the American nuclear canopy” as such a move might provoke Russian ire and retaliation. The irony of this interlinked campaigning is strong, yet it is lost on the majority of casual observers and ignored by the useful idiots who act in Russia’s interest through newspaper articles and sponsored media.

Russia’s (in)capability
To better understand what Russia is capable of it is worthwhile to consider Phillip Karber’s, President of the Potomac Foundation, recent address at CSIS’s Russian Military Forum. One picture stands out as stark revelation of the Russian commitment to Ukraine: 66 divisions/brigades from all over the sprawling Russian Federation have contributed to 48 batallion tactical groups (BTG) deployed to the Ukrainian venture, representing the crême de la crême of Russia’s readily available capability. Also overlooked and carefully disguised by Russia, thousands, 5,000 or more, of the best Russian troops have died in Ukraine and four times as many have become casualties, seriously degrading Russia’s combat capability.

Screenshot from Phillip Karber's presentation

Screenshot from Phillip Karber’s presentation

The picture also reveals Russia’s strategic force disposition: a minority of troops and equipment is stationed along the far Eastern border and long south expanse against China and the Orient whereas a majority of forces are allocated to the Caucasus and European vectors. This is unsurprising yet often overlooked: Russia turns its best units against the West while only barely keeping up appearances everywhere else.

Russian Designs
It is safe to say that Russia has no designs against China, Japan or, ludicrously, Alaska, despite deployments, missile tests and occasional demonstrations in the airspace. China has emerged as Russia’s chief financial backer and trade partner, and Russia has little to gain with provoking confrontation in this part of the world. Militarily, Russia is in a holding pattern in the East.

In the Orient, Russia has a safe and dormant front against the ’Stans – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kurgyzstan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan, and no (military) interest whatsoever in Afghanistan. It would be foolish indeed to provoke military action against Iran in a bid to gain access to the Gulf and Arabian Sea, as it would range the entire Muslim world against Russia – apart from the very real islamist threat already present and active in the Russian hinterlands. Thus I submit that Russia is content to keep this area boiling in its own sauce and occupied with hatred against USA and the West in general rather than against Russia.

In the Caucasus, Russia has similar strategic interests as in Ukraine: Kremlin wants a buffer zone against external threats and will continue to hold the area in suspended animation through proxy and allied regimes, such as in South Ossetia and Azerbaijan.

Ukraine or bust
Russia’s considerable commitment to Ukraine means that it has precious little to deploy elsewhere. Should Russia lessen its pressure against Ukraine, or withdraw entirely, Ukraine will most likely succeed in throwing out the ”separatists”, restore its border and continue its alignment with the West. This is wholly contrary to Russian strategy and would make its military and geopolitical sacrifice null and void. Therefore it is safe to say that Russia will continue its path of war and destabilization to produce a collapsed or fragmented state in Ukraine as preliminary to consolidation and further reconstruction of the bygone Soviet empire. Ukraine is critically important and rendering it passive is Russia’s chief objective in the near future.

What about Russia’s threats against the Baltic and Scandinavian States? Is it mere bluster and bluff, or is it real? Do we have reason to fear Russia and must we ramp up our defence budgets to create a credible bulwark against a rejuvenated Russian imperialism? Yes, and no.

Russia’s aggressive stance is very real, yet I submit that an isolated military campaign against Finland and/or Sweden is quite unlikely, and an attempt to break the Transatlantic Alliance by military means against the Baltic States yet more so. I submit that threats thereof and aggressive posturing is a bluff to divert attention from the Ukrainian vector, as Russia needs a direct military confrontation with NATO as much as it needs a hole in the head. Moreover, a direct assault on either Sweden or Finland is only likely if Russia would, presently or eventually, want to engage in direct confrontation with NATO over the Baltic States, to preempt and inhibit NATO’s defence of its Baltic members – which Russia patently does not want.

Crazy or stupid?
Russia is crazy but not stupid. It makes no sense whatsoever for a relatively weak Russia to engage in conflict with a strong adversary – and NATO is strong despite its advertised weakness, far stronger than Russia who wants to make believe that it is strong enough to project itself in any direction. It goes entirely against the grain of military and political thinking to engage where the enemy is strongest: to the contrary, one should always but always attack where the enemy is weakest: with complete supremacy and with full use of the element of surprise.

Thus, while the islands of Gotland and Åland remain at risk as pawns in a non-declared Russian power play, and the Baltic States will continue to live in fear of Russian destabilization, it would seem suicidal for Russia to engage in overt measures in this vector before Ukraine is fully in the fold. What happens then – if it comes to pass – is anyone’s guess.

The case for NATO
I see no precipitate risk against either Scandinavia or the Baltic States in the short term, however, in the long term, it makes a whole lot of sense to increase defence spending and to prepare against Russia’s holistic/amalgamated aggression so as not invite its force projection in the future. Remember that Russia seeks its opponent’s weak spots and loathes its strengths – thus Sweden and Finland should make every effort to join NATO and be prepared to defend core democratic values through application of strength and solidarity.

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