Are Russian military provocations sabre-rattling or a prelude to war?

(Photo: REUTERS)

BY LUKAS PILZ, Eastern Europe Editor

Over the last three years, the number of military incidents with and provocations by Russia has been at unprecedented heights with details still emerging to the present day. These incidents range in severity from violating air traffic rules by not filing flight plans, staying in contact with civilian air traffic control and flying without using the onboard transponder to outright aggressive actions. In February 2018 for example, 11 SU-24 strike aircraft staged a mock attack after jamming the Norwegian GPS. They accelerated towards the Vardø radar station in attack formation and only veered away at the last second. Another incident occurred in November 2018. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan was deployed to the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea, where it was swarmed by 17 Russian fighters and fighter bombers, which repeatedly flew over the ship at very close distance. The situation was judged to be one of the most significant military incidents of the past 25 years. Labelled an ‘act of brazen hostility’ by UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williams, it constitutes the culmination of Russian provocations and displays of power in recent history. In parallel, Russia’s nuclear rhetoric towards the US has escalated severely over the past months, boasting their new hypersonic missiles and threatening to turn major cities into radioactive wastelands.

To determine whether this is mere posturing or something rather more serious, one has to look at concrete Russian policy. Indeed, while Western societies have largely continued on their long-term trend of demobilisation, the term mobilizatsiya – mobilisation – features prominently in policy discussions in Russia. It took a central role in the 2015 anti-crisis plan, explained “as the means to consolidate society, improve state administration and respond to a challenging […] international environment” but was explored as policy at least as far back as 2010. This almost certainly stems from the events leading up to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, namely the wave of colour revolutions.

Colour revolution is a term used to describe the usually non-violent uprising of large parts of a population to overthrow undemocratic regimes. The term itself came to prominence in the early 2000s, however the concept was already all too familiar to the Russian government elite. Indeed, one can see the so-called Autumn of Nations, the wave of revolutions of 1989 leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a precursor to these colour revolutions. Dmitri Furman, a preeminent Russian political scientist, described what happened next as the emergence of ‘imitation democracies’. These regimes, he said, are characterised by “shame-faced authoritarianism of societies that could not live democratically, but also could not confess the fact, generating systems that pretended otherwise”. He finds their origins “in a widespread fear of anarchy across the space of the former USSR, generating an anxious popular demand for the reimposition of order” which brought about authoritarian strongmen. They employed a range of techniques to retain their power including measures like electoral manipulations. When, over time, these became too blatant and the state was not strong enough to repress, it was toppled by popular discontent fuelling mass demonstrations. A wave of these regime changes rocked the former Soviet republics in the 2000s including the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

After Russia initially moved closer to the West with suggestions around the millennium even including its eventual joining of NATO, relations quickly chilled in face of the colour revolutions. Russia reacted harshly, calling them illegitimate and accused the US of meddling in these countries using NGOs and covert operations. To underscore this rhetoric, it was accompanied by government policy. While focussing initially on providing additional funding for the security services in order to clamp down on domestic protests, it subsequently grew into a comprehensive programme of state mobilisation. The government defined this as a “complex of state measures for activating the resources, strength and capabilities for the achievement of military-political aims”. Notice here the unity of military and political aims, which is a theme running through all of Russian (foreign) politics. In general, this programme can be split in economic and military mobilisation, although they display considerable overlap and interdependency.

The two most important attributes of a mobilised economy in the face of crisis are resilience and self-sufficiency. Russia achieves resilience by keeping strategically important sectors like defence, energy and even media under tight state control. This gives the government the option of quickly intervening in case of economic or political problems and reduces the amount of unknown variables in crisis situations. A recent development to that end is the planned isolation of the Russian part of the internet from the global net. Not only does this enhance the country’s resilience against cyber-attacks, it also increases the level of government control over its citizens. Self-sufficiency on the other hand is a longer-term goal and much more difficult to obtain nowadays. Paradoxically, the Western sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass conflict supported that development to a degree. Even though the Russian GDP took an estimated 5% hit, the government was forced to speed up the process of import substitution and invest considerable sums of money into the domestic, especially agricultural, market. Finally, large and sustained investments in the military itself and the military-industrial complex in general were made. Russian defence spending has increased from 3% of GDP in 2011 to 5.4% in 2016 and has been largely shielded from general economic volatility and sanctions at the cost of much needed, large-scale economic reform.

To decide what strategy of military mobilisation to pursue, the government needed a comprehensive vision. For the better part of three centuries, different schools of thought existed as to how best to defend a country as vast as Russia and balance the need for a large army with its economic sustainability. In tsarist times, two separate armies, one in the west and another in the east part of the country, were maintained. The Soviets scrapped this idea and introduced cadre mobilisation, where a skeleton army was filled from a massive conscript reserve in times of need. This, however, required a partial mobilisation of the army even for dealing with small conflicts which repeatedly led to rioting. Reforms in the post-Soviet era yielded a mix of professional army and large mass-mobilisation force, which was obsolete and of limited usability. Putin recognised this and introduced a reform plan in 2003 named ‘Urgent Tasks for the development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation’ which, however, was obstructed by the military itself due lack of will to reform and a perceived lack of urgency.

When the Russian army found itself significantly outnumbering Georgian troops in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, yet was still struggling to achieve its strategic goals, sweeping structural reforms were finally deemed to be necessary. To say the changes were drastic would be to run the risk of understatement. Scores of soldiers, especially officers, were cut. The hierarchies were flattened, units aggressively consolidated and investments made to modernise the still largely Soviet-era equipment. Within three years the Ground Forces were to reduce from 1890 to 172 units, the Air Force from 340 to 180 units whilst cutting back the number of air bases from 245 to 52, the Navy from 240 to 123 units, the Strategic Missile Troops from 12 to 8 missile divisions and the Space Troops from 7 to 6 units. These cuts increased the percentage of combat-ready units (gauged by staffing levels) from 13% to over 75%. Coupled with a R20 trillion investment and arms-procurement programme in 2010, this was a significant step towards a modern military.

The reform targets were further specified in the May decrees Putin signed in 2012 after returning to power. Their stated aim was to transition the army to a pure volunteer army by phasing out the draft and recruiting 500,000 professional soldiers until 2020. Reasons for this can be found in part in the superior morale and efficiency of a volunteer army, domestic protests against mobilisation and the demographic crisis facing Russia, which is set to reduce the number of 18-year-olds from 1.306 million in 2005 to 328 thousand in 2049. Along with the hierarchies’ reorganisation, snap inspections became commonplace. Exercises designed to test and improve command and control capabilities are now frequently scheduled, increasing efficacy and versatility. They grew in scope and scale, now involving all levels and branches of the Armed Forces as well as the security services and local administrations, culminating in manoeuvres like Zapad 2017 or Vostok 2018.

These recent material improvements coupled with the aforementioned provocations and rhetoric have caught the eye of Western observers. Thus, trying to understand the Russian government’s actual stance towards the West is regarded as a priority. The question, however, is not whether the elite actually believe their propaganda themselves, it is whether they can afford not to act as if they do.

As outlined above, the government’s largest fear is a colour revolution-style democratic uprising. This fear comes from the fact that corruption is rife in the Russian elite, the stealing of state assets funding huge private wealth. Since this would almost certainly be prosecuted under a democratic government, it adds the fear of personal repercussions to the general fear of loss of power. To retain public support in times of economic hardship, the government propaganda apparatus consisting of multiple TV stations, newspapers, news agencies and radio stations has turned up the heat. Russia is being portrayed as an imperial superpower surrounded by enemies, under attack by the West from outside and within, by means of a fifth column. Importantly this not only unites the regime’s supporters, it also gives legitimacy to increased repression of opposition members. In light of the propaganda’s intensity and success, it now seems nearly impossible for the regime to just walk away from this narrative without undermining its own position of power. Some kind of victory over the West would have to be presented to and accepted by its supporters before relations could begin to normalise. For now, however, this aggressive stance seems to be a comprehensive and lasting shift in foreign policy.

The probability of this leading to a military conflict with NATO, however, is low. Russia’s economy is much more integrated into the global markets than the USSR’s ever was. Especially its enduring dependency on hydrocarbon exports to mainly Western European countries makes a deliberate escalation very unlikely. Even shifting yet more of their exports to China would only allay this problem in the short term as the Chinese economy is itself extremely dependent on access to the global markets and thus very susceptible to economic pressure. First and foremost, Russia faces internal problems. While import substitution reduced Russia’s exposure to the global markets, it increased its vulnerability to internal volatility. The recent increase of VAT has sparked inflation exacerbating the already existing strain on household budgets due to falling incomes. On 22. March 2019, newspapers were reporting about price hikes of 51.8% for cabbages and 33.7% for tomatoes in the space of under three months. And in the coming months, prices for produce and pork are expected to rise another 5%.

Putin’s steadily declining approval ratings reflect a people which is tired of conflict and suffering from economic downturn, corruption and increasing international isolation. This is why restricting the Western dialogue with and about Russia to the military component would be a mistake. Not only does this severely overestimate the Russian position, it also prevents a holistic assessment of Russia in a globalised world and thus limits the diplomatic tools available to Western governments. So while yes, it is necessary that NATO adapts militarily to the new Russian challenge – after all nuclear and conventional deterrence are as of yet still indispensable for a strategically stable security environment – this should be far from the only dimension of Western policy towards Russia.

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