Friday, November 29, 2013

Russia is Not "Back"

Russia is being more assertive but this is a far cry from saying Russian "hard power" has returned.

Russian exercises do demonstrate improved capabilities:

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. ...

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

And I certainly wasn't impressed with Russia's military performance in the Russo-Georgian War as much as I was impressed with Russia's resolve to use what they had to essentially sucker punch the Georgians and achieve a military victory over the poorly equipped and deployed Georgian military.

And note the return to Soviet practices of simply lying about the size of the exercise. That becomes important if Russia really wants to pounce on someone and we fail to detect the true scale of the deployment.

Mostly, the Russians are displaying resolve with these exercises. Which means we need a little more sense of urgency with our eastern NATO exercises.

And more sense of urgency with real plans to defend the region. REFORPOL, anyone?

So Russia could launch smallish fights for a short period of time. Russia still isn't a threat to march west in strength.

Poland could probably hold the line until help arrives.

Sadly for the Baltic states of NATO, they are small enough in territory and armed forces for a smallish fight to actually conquer them before NATO could react to defend them.

It is also disturbing to see how far the Anschluss with Belarus has gone, with Belarus integrated into Russia's defense structure.

(If we're playing the 1930s game here, Ukraine gets to play the role of Czechoslovakia with the eastern portions of Ukraine with its large ethnic Russian population playing the sub-role of the Sudetenland.)

Russia is clawing back some military power and even more fear and respect. But Russia isn't going to restore their glory days as a superpower.

No, they can be a great power again, but one that has such a large territorial expanse that they can never have the ground power to secure their borders without the threat of nuclear weapons; and with both NATO (not an offensive threat) on their western border and China (a growing threat with for-now dormant claims on Russia's far east) on Russia's eastern front. Toss in a turbulent Middle East and Central Asia to their south and for fun a whole new front in the Arctic.

I wouldn't trade places with China's strategic geography. And I bet China wouldn't trade geography with Russia!

So don't panic. Russian hard power isn't back. It is just showing signs of life that Russian leaders are magnifying as much as they can to restore diplomatic clout.

China isn't anywhere near as strong as we are despite their real growth in power--they just have the geographic advantage of being near conflict areas while we are far (advantage in a narrow sense, since strategically I'd rather have conflict areas far from us). And Russia is even farther back in challenging us.

But by all means, don't ignore them. Work the problems, as I like to say.