Sunday, April 01, 2018

Being Russia

Strategypage takes a tour of Russia, which pretty much explains why #RussiaCan'tHaveNiceThings.

Do read it all, from corruption and demographic weakness to military and economic weaknesses, you'd be forgiven for wondering just what the Russians are thinking threatening their western neighbors. And why we should worry about Russia rather than laugh at their antics.

Yet Russia remains a threat in Europe as ongoing aggression against Ukraine and Georgia demonstrate. They are a threat because they have so many nuclear weapons (and we can't afford to assume that enough to destroy us don't work) and there is a widespread desire to reclaim the empire they lost and reclaim the fear-based respect they once had when their power extended to central Europe.

And yes, I will not argue with this:

Russian military experts, and those of European neighbors, agree that the American and NATO military superiority over Russia is greater than it was during the Cold War.

Yes, America alone is superior to Russia. And with the rest of NATO, the superiority is great. But Russia has two actual advantages and may believe they have a third key advantage that could bring them victory.

One advantage is that Russia can mobilize superior military force on the eastern edges of NATO from Norway down to Lithuania.

I'd include Poland in that arc, but I'm not sure how quickly Russia could project power through Belarus or through Lithuania to reach Poland. The Russian Kaliningrad exclave bordering Poland is not an offensive threat. And Poland has a credible military for its size.

One reason for the edge is that Russia is a unitary actor while NATO is a multi-national alliance of sovereign states that must decide to act together and then gather their scattered units under a central command--something Russia starts with.

So NATO in contrast would take a long time to mobilize and move their scattered forces to the east--especially the bulk of combat power that lies in the continental United States.

The second Russian advantage is that their military is mostly heavy and mechanized with a lot of artillery and air defenses while much of European NATO is dominated by lighter infantry forces.

So Russia could mass superior mobile heavy forces and take NATO territory in the NATO eastern arc before NATO can reach the front in force to stop the invasion. If Russia then digs in, waves their nukes around, and calls for talks before things escalate to ugly planet-destroying levels, Russia might hope to win cheaply despite their overall inferiority.

The problem for Russia is two-fold.

One, NATO really is superior to Russia. Given time, NATO can mobilize superior ground and air power to grind down the Russians and counter-attack.

And two, the reason NATO can take the time to mobilize and counterattack is that the geography of the expanded NATO doesn't put a key objective within range of Russia's armies.

In the Cold War, a Russian advance of about a hundred miles or so on the central front would put their troops on the banks of the Rhine River. West Germany would be occupied and the best NATO troops would have been defeated. While the Russians would have problems going beyond that and holding it--other than bits of land they may have taken from Norway, Denmark, Greece, and Turkey on the flanks--with West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg largely conquered, NATO might have sued for peace. Especially if France--then out of NATO's military command--sued for peace to keep the Russians east of the Rhine, thus denying America a staging area to counter-attack.

Today, a Russian advance through the relative vacuum of NATO power in the small Baltic NATO states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania would be bad for the locals, of course, but would not threaten any objective that would cripple NATO's ability to continue fighting. Even a Russian advance that pushed into Poland would not cripple NATO's ability to fight a longer war.

So Russia is both relatively weaker than NATO now than in the Cold War; and Russia has far less ability to seize a critical NATO objective to win a short war today because today--unlike in the Cold War--NATO can trade space for time.

But Russia really wants their empire back.

And Russia could talk themselves into believing that Russians are so much tougher than soft Americans and Europeans that a hard blow with that initial superiority and opportunity will scare NATO into retreating and giving up.

I noted the dangerous belief expressed by a Russian mercenary:

"If we have to fight with America, we will win," he said. "They don't know how to fight. As Putin said, you can invent all sorts of missiles, but you can't invent people like we have. Our people -- they know how to sacrifice themselves."

And in that gap between beliefs and capabilities, if believed by enough leaders in Russia, a dangerous war could begin.

It is depressing when I consider how I dearly wanted Russia after the Cold War to join the West on the polite fiction that Russia too was a victim of Soviet communism.

Instead, Russia has decided to continue being Russia. Despite their problems and relative weakness.

So we pay attention to Russia again and must figure out how to reduce the appeal of a Russian offensive by reducing the dangerous gap that tempts Russia.

And do it without being an offensive threat to Russia which will stoke Russian paranoia.

We have enough problems with a rising revisionist China, nuclear Iran and North Korea, and an Islamic civil war where we are collateral damage, without dealing with Russia being Russia.

But here we are. Even as a rising China with claims on Russian Far East territory is the true threat to Russian territorial integrity.

UPDATE: And seriously, the Russians are just annoying:

How far a row escalates between Moscow and the West over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain does not depend on Russia, its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing on Monday.

Yes, Russia would prefer business as usual--where Russia does what it wants and the West does nothing to stop them.

I just thank God that Lavrov can no longer rely on the personification of "flexibility" who was happy to go along with that plan.