The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

You can read the rest here.

THE EXPENSIVE PRETZEL LOGIC OF DETERRING RUSSIA BY DENIAL

This article was published on War on the Rocks (June 23, 2016)

The question of how to best deter Russia looms large over the upcoming NATO Summit hosted in Warsaw.  If this week’s news is anything to go by, the annual NATO gathering promises to be an eventful one.  Germany’s Foreign Minister Steinmeier recently ridiculed the alliance’s BALTOPS exercise as “saber rattling,” while U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus defended the event.  The chief proposal for enhancing NATO deterrence on the table this year is the establishment of four multinational battalions to rotate through the Baltics, but NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Soltenberg said there was no “immediate threat against any NATO country from the East,” implying that despite being branded as a deterrent this is more about reassurance.  The past two weeks in the run up to the summit makes one wonder, what exactly are we doing here?

In my critical essay last month, I challenged the current thinking on NATO’s deterrence problems in the East, taking on prominent advocates for deploying U.S. forces in the Baltic in the quest of strengthening deterrence.  Part of that article took aim at RAND’s wargame and similar arguments from deterrence proponents like Elbridge Colby.  The goal of that article was to take one-sided policy advocacy, rarely the stuff of good decision-making, and turn it into a more substantive discussion.  In this essay, I circle back to the problem of fixing NATO deterrence and the policy implications, with a crystallized and hopefully better distilled approach to the argument.

When discussing NATO force structure, it is crucial to decide whether one can truly attain deterrence by denial. I argue that this is a fool’s errand.  The fear of a Russian fait accompli in the Baltic is simply the latest conventional wisdom, following on the foot heels of equally wrongheaded concerns that Russia would create a land bridge to Crimea in 2014 and 2015. In my view, improving deterrence by punishment is not just the smarter approach, but also the only feasible option NATO has available.

So where do we go from here?  At first glance these perspectives are diametrically opposed.  However, a closer reading of deterrence proponents’ arguments reveals to me that we are largely in agreement on the basics.  Proponents of bolstering, enhancing, or increasing the robustness of NATO’s deterrence in the Baltics are fixated on conventional deterrence by denial.  Their intent is in the right place, but their ideas for how to solve this problem are not.  In the process of defending their views, they concede all my principal points on the nature of the fight and its problems.  The difference is then in the analysis and consequently the policy recommendations.

The rest can be found at http://warontherocks.com/2016/06/the-expensive-pretzel-logic-of-deterring-russia-by-denial/

4000 NATO troops in the Baltics? Headlines vs reality.

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If you read the article below, it would seem at first 4,000 troops are being added to those stationed in the Eastern Member Flank States (Poland + Balts)  http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-allies-preparing-to-put-four-battalions-at-eastern-border-with-russia-1461943315

How the news got 4000 from 4 battalions is a puzzle, since battalions are typically not 1000 strong or uniform in size from different countries/service/unit types.  They can range from 600-1000+ depending on the country and type of unit.  In reality it looks like NATO will not be sending 4 separate battalions, but likely forming multi-national battalions, perhaps together with local forces or a mix of European ones.  This would mean a military contingent with political significance, but substantially reduced military value.

With two European (German and French) battalions and two American battalions spread out between Poland and the Baltic states, the likely proposal is really for two solid American battalions to deploy to the Baltic states, perhaps as part of the newly added Armored Combat Brigade Team.  These will not be additional, but part of this third brigade already promised to deploy to Europe.  Meanwhile Germany and France are liable to send company sized elements, mixing in their units with those of others.

Supposedly the defense ministers have approved the proposal in concept, but the details will not be presented and voted on until the NATO summit in Warsaw later this year.  Hence the actual additional force set to deploy to Eastern Europe remains a question mark.  Meanwhile mixing-in and chunking up the forces with Poland makes this of little to no military significance from a Russian perspective.  Indeed it may be difficult for NATO allies themselves to discern what they’re actually getting.  The underlying intent may be to increase the presence of other NATO countries in the Baltic states, particularly those belonging to nuclear powers, but it is not clear how this is tied to any theory of deterrence vis-a-vis Russia.In discussions with Russian experts, it seems Moscow only cares about US forces in theater, finding little to no relevance in the forward deployment of German or French forces.

However, Moscow is concerned about American deployment creep, and the steady drumbeat in D.C. for more boots on the ground to bolster conventional deterrence.  With the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative, the U.S. is now funding three combat brigade teams in Europe, a number which may see an increase.  Where U.S. forces are deployed geographically can have  an impact on Russian vulnerability considerations in Kaliningrad, or in the case of much larger recommendations such as RAND’s proposal for 7 brigades, St. Petersburg as well.