The Ukraine Crisis – New Cold War, Containment, or What?
Even though Putin has promised to pull Russian forces back from the Ukraine border, policy makers are still busy “resetting” relations towards Russia. The generation of friendship has passed and the world is once again looking at an defiant and strong Russia that is feared by its neighbors, carrying out naval and air patrols of NATO countries, and exporting weapons to allied nations.
Unfortunately, many see the new conflict in terms of the old Cold War, with the NATO forces pitted against the Soviet empire and the Warsaw Pact. Such an assumption is misguided and could lead to serious miscalculations.
The best way to view it is first through the eyes of the nation who has the initiative, Russia and its leader Putin.
The Putin Outlook
Russian pride in their country is at a point that it hasn’t seen since the days of the Soviet Union. Russia is expanding and flexing its political and military muscle under the leadership of Putin. Former Soviet satellite nations and former parts of the USSR are looking with foreboding at events in the Ukraine and the potential dismemberment of that country.
For all this joy, Russia is facing serious problems. The Russian bear that is worrying Eastern Europe is not the same as the Soviet bear of 50 years ago.
The rump Russia of today isn’t the vast Soviet Union of 25 years ago. Russia, is smaller, has a smaller economy, fewer industrial resources, evolving strong bureaucracy free of corruption, and an older population than before. Meanwhile, NATO is economically and militarily larger by statistics. Since military might is a reflection of economic power, Russia is clearly outnumbered by NATO.
It’s also important to remember that Russia no longer has the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact to back it up militarily or economically. In fact, the majority of those nations are members of NATO and openly hostile to Russian expansionism.
Although Russia has continued to pursue military technology, they have fallen even further behind the West in many areas. While they have tried to maintain some edges in fighter technology, air defense, and space, they have been unable to invest in other areas. For instance, their Main Battle Tank is the T-90, a modernization of the T-72. Purchases have been limited recently as the Russian Army has decided to save money now in order to invest in the T-99 Universal Combat Platform due to enter service in 2020.
Even, when they have the technology, they have been unable to upgrade due to cost and production issues. The Russian Air Force wanted to upgrade its existing Mig-29 fleet to the modernized MiG-29SMT configuration, but financial difficulties have limited deliveries. Design problems have already forced a two-year delay in implementing a state procurement order for thirty-seven Su-35 aircraft, which will not be fulfilled until 2016. And, there remains the Soviet era issue of quality control.
Another example of Russia’s inability to stay in step with technological development is the list of high tech weapons they must import. These include, drones from Israel, the Iveco light multirole vehicles from Italy, and the Mistral amphibious assault ships from France. These are all weapon technologies that are likely to be unavailable to Russia in the future.
This inability to modernize all parts of the Russian military is compounded by the state of Russian equipment right after the breakup of the USSR. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republics became host to most of the formations with modern equipment, whereas Russia was left with lower-category units, usually with older equipment. As the Russian defense budget began to shrink, the amount of new equipment fell as well, and by 1998, only ten tanks and about 30 BMP infantry fighting vehicles were being purchased each year.
Although defense spending has grown in recent years, much of that money is going to personnel costs as Russia strives to build a professional army. Equipment modernization is failing to catch up. In the meantime, conscripts, who only serve one year, still make up half of the Russian Army.
This lack of modern equipment may be part of the reason for the Russian insurgency operations in the Ukraine. Although Russia has engaged in several invasions, starting with the Russian invasion of Dagestan, the post Soviet army has yet to be seriously tested. And, although modern aircraft can defeat the Ukrainian Air Force, it is the soldier and his equipment that must occupy the Ukraine in order to declare success.
Here Putin faces another problem. Russian conscripts due to rotate back to civilian life this year are due to be mustered out starting this month, which will cause a decline in the quality of Russian Army forces on the Ukraine border. This may force Putin to either react quickly and invade in the next few weeks or wait until the new Russian conscripts are combat ready. Clearly, the lack of modern equipment and battle readiness of much of the Russian Army will give Putin some reason for concern.
In the meantime, Putin is facing a weakened economy. Although Russia has natural energy resources and willing buyers in Europe, the rest of the economy is weak. He is also facing economic sanctions, a declining ruble, money fleeing the country, and a lower credit rating for the type of borrowing that Russia needs to modernize its military. Therefore, a serious military buildup would threaten the economy and damage his popularity at a time, where he is clearly the most popular Russian politician.
What Putin needs is a Ukrainian conquest on the cheap.
Although a conventional invasion of the Ukraine would have been faster, Putin opted for an insurgency campaign that would provide enough political cover to freeze NATO leaders so they wouldn’t take any aggressive action. It relies on a small number of highly professional Special Forces instead of the larger Russian Army, which is made up of 50% conscripts.
Not only is the insurgency operation cheaper than a conventional military invasion, it offers a variety of political and military outcomes that can be modified depending on the need. An insurgency can weaken the Ukraine in such a way that allows a pro-Russian government to take power. It can also force a split of the Eastern Ukraine and leave the pro-European Ukraine a shadow if its former self. It also weakens the Ukraine military in such a way that it would pose less of a threat if an invasion is attempted.
The insurgency war, however, isn’t without its problems. There is a historical hatred between the Ukraine and Russia, which means the Ukrainians might start insurgency operations against ethnic Russians in areas under Russian control. This will be helped by the Ukraine military, which has ample numbers of small arms to smuggle to Ukrainian insurgents.
Such a war would pose major problems for the Russian Army if it decided to move in to “protect” ethnic Russians in the Ukraine. The Russian Army has been equipped for conventional warfare on the open plains of Central Europe. Just as the American Army had problems adjusting to guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq after they had successfully completed their invasion, so, the Russian will find their army bogged down in a war that it is not doctrinally designed or equipped to fight. It is also dogged by poor logistics, which prevent protracted combat operations.
An insurgency war also benefits NATO, who can secretly support it with equipment or special forces. The war would not only tie up and weaken Russian forces, it would buy breathing space for NATO countries to rearm.
If the insurgency option doesn’t work for Russia, it still has the conventional invasion option. It creates a fait accompli to NATO and reduces the risk of the Ukrainian crisis evolving into a more serious international situation.
However, a conventional invasion doesn’t solve all the problems. An insurgency by Ukrainians in the western part of the country is likely, tying down large numbers of Russians. Such operations would force the military to switch its procurement from conventional purchases of tanks and armored vehicles to counter-insurgency weapons, which have marginal use in a conventional military context. And, there is a great likelihood that some NATO countries would actively support such guerrilla activities (there was already a mention of NATO training assistance by the Ukrainian foreign minister a few weeks ago).
A guerrilla war in the Ukraine would also hamstring the Russian military, which relies on Ukrainian parts for its war machine. According to a 2009 survey by Kiev’s Razumkov Center, Ukrainian factories produce the engines that power most Russian combat helicopters; about half of the air-to-air missiles deployed on Russian fighter planes; and a range of engines used by Russian aircraft and naval vessels. The state-owned Antonov works in Kiev makes the AN-70 transport aircraft. These factories could be damaged in combat or sabotaged by Ukrainian insurgents.
A conventional invasion of the Ukraine would also mean more economic sanctions and the loss of international customers who are reticent about dealing with an aggressive Russia. For instance, there is already economic fallout for an international economic conference in Russia. The top executives of such giants as Alcoa, Goldman Sachs, PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, ConocoPhillips and other multinational companies with business in Russia have either pulled out of the conference or plan to do so. Corporate officials predicted that nearly every American C.E.O. will now skip the forum in St. Petersburg.
A conventional invasion would also spark more NATO activity. The forces that have been recently deployed to Eastern European NATO nations would be supplemented. More active patrolling of land, sea and air boundaries would take place. Needless to say, NATO countries would expand their military spending.
The long term outlook for Russia is murky. Its Ukrainian intervention will spark an arms race that it is economically unable to win. Its army is still burdened with outmoded, technologically out-of-date weapons. And, it will not be able to rely upon foreign customers to buy its weapons, which means that costs to outfit its forces will go up (for instance, in 2013, American civilians bought more AK rifles from Russia than the Russian military and police forces combined. This is unlikely to continue in current circumstances).
The NATO Outlook
NATO is currently in a reactive mode, as it models its policy to account for the latest Russian moves. It clearly doesn’t want to return to a Cold War mentality and during the last generation, it has developed economic and technological ties to Russia that it is loath to sever. Europe relies on Russia for a portion of its energy needs. The US relies on Russia to commute to and from the International Space Station. And, the US needs Russia’s logistical help as it pulls out of Afghanistan.
However, as the Ukrainian crisis has grown, NATO has moved to contain the Russian threat. The US has sent F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft to Poland and the Baltic States. They have also sent Marines to Poland and Romania. They have also moved more naval vessels into the Black Sea. The UK, France and Denmark have also contributed aircraft to the Baltic State air defense mission. Although these are not sizable forces, they will act as a tripwire that will discourage Russia from expanding its control westwards.
The US has also stationed paratroopers and C-130 aircraft to Poland, which gives the US a rapid deployment force in the east.
The US has also moved early warning aircraft to Eastern Europe to patrol the easternmost border of the NATO community. And, joint maneuvers with NATO and Ukrainian forces are still scheduled.
Other containment actions will come. The US will be more aggressive in positioning its missile defense ships in order to lessen the threat of Russian missile to NATO countries. This could include the Eastern Mediterranean and Baltic. There will probably be a renewed interest in stationing ABM systems in Eastern Europe as well.
Another important policy move for NATO will be a rapprochement with Turkey, which has been largely ignored as a result of Erdogan’s political moves. Turkey has one of the largest armies in NATO and is the anchor to NATO’s southern flank. Turkey is critical for a continued stationing of naval forces in the Black Sea and offers military bases for the stationing of troops and air assets that will be within reach of southern Russia and the Ukraine.
There are also long term goals for NATO. The first is to economically and technically disengage from Russia. This will hurt a Russia, whose economy needs that money and technology to grow.
In the mid to long term Europe will also move towards energy independence from Russia. This includes larger American exports to Europe and European exploration of the Mediterranean, which has promising energy reserves.
NATO will also increase its defense spending and redirect its focus. While groups like al Qaeda remain a threat, the NATO militaries will move away from a counter-terrorist and counter insurgency warfare focus and look at modernizing and increasing their conventional military forces. They also will refocus on Europe instead of being a worldwide rapid reaction force. Those modernized forces then will be forward deployed into Eastern European NATO countries like the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. In fact, Poland has requested two NATO brigades be permanently stationed in their country.
Another key focus must be an ABM system, which was planned during the Bush Administration, but was downgraded under Obama. Aegis interceptors are scheduled to be stationed in Poland in 2018, but the current crisis may push that date up. An interceptor site will be placed in Romania in 2015. An effective missile defense will greatly enhance European security, not only against Russia, but potential nuclear Iran.
A push for a more aggressive NATO may increase Poland’s stature in the alliance. Poland has one of the larger militaries in the alliance, is strongly committed to its defense against Russia, is contributing a larger portion of its GDP to defense spending, and has deployed its military to Afghanistan and other nations. It also has the largest army in Eastern Europe, with about 900 tanks and over 100 combat aircraft. Although much of the equipment is former Soviet, they are aggressively modernizing with new German Leopard tanks. They also carry out joint exercises with the Ukraine. In a new NATO that is more focused on Russia, Poland is likely to be the cornerstone in NATO’s Eastern European defense.
Although it easy to see the Ukrainian crisis in a Cold War viewpoint, it’s critical to note the differences.
This isn’t a Soviet Empire against NATO. This is a rump Russia against a vastly larger NATO, which contains most of its former Warsaw Pact allies. Russia is clearly economically and militarily outnumbered. The image of a vastly outnumbered NATO alliance facing a horde of modern Soviet tanks in Central Europe is long gone. “It used to be when people talked about the Russian military, the point was it was a steamroller,” Mr. Kipp, of the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office told a reporter. “Got steam up very slowly. It had a capacity to mobilize echelon on echelon. That’s what we feared at NATO: large, competent forces right on the Germany border and then the capacity to mobilize the entire society for a high-intensity industrial war.
“There is no great mobilization capacity in Russia today,” he said. “What that means is, in a crisis, if the military gets into problems, the Kremlin has some very unappealing options.
On the other hand, NATO has more men, tanks, and aircraft. They are also more modern and have the deep industrial capacity to mobilize.
Putin has tried to pick up Ukrainian territory on the cheap, with an insurgency that gives him a degree of political cover. However, insurgency works both ways and an Eastern Ukraine in pro Russian hands could face Ukrainian insurgents. And, that same insurgency problem will be compounded if Russia decided to invade areas inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Putin wants to modernize the Russian military to make it more of a force in international affairs. However, war is expensive and tends to downgrade armies as they wear down current equipment and delay modernization. He also has a military that is relatively untried and any failure on their part would be a major political disaster.
NATO is trying to understand Russia’s weaknesses and exploit them. Russia is in dire straits with a crumbling economy supported only by large energy resources, but hamstrung by pockets of corruption. Putin can only succeed if NATO overestimates his strength and imagines that this is a new Cold War, with two relatively equal rivals.
The Ukrainian crisis is helping Putin’s popularity at home, but it can blow up in his face if NATO can respond as an effective united pact, but there are no strong signs of such reality so far.
Strengthen Bilateral Defense Cooperation with Georgia
By Luke Coffey
May 5, 2014
Issue Brief #4214
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will soon meet with his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Alasania. Georgia has been a steadfast ally of the United States. Thousands of Georgian troops have served alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds have been wounded, and dozens have been killed. This meeting offers an opportunity for Secretary Hagel to thank Georgia for its contribution in Afghanistan, congratulate Georgia on its military reforms, and lay the groundwork for deeper bilateral cooperation. Few countries in the Euro-Atlantic region express as much enthusiasm for NATO as Georgia—even though it is not yet inside NATO. Georgia also welcomes the presence of U.S. forces. Currently, a small detachment of U.S. Marines located at the Krtsanisi National Training Center is preparing Georgian soldiers for combat operations in Afghanistan. In addition, elements of the U.S. Marine Corps Black Sea Rotational Force and U.S. National Guard and reserve units visit Georgia for joint training missions.
The Afghan Civil Transition Crisis: Afghanistan’s Status and the Warnings from Iraq’s Failure
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 6, 2014
For more than a decade, the U.S. and its allies have been issuing claims about the progress being made in Afghanistan, and have tended to focus on success as measured in holding elections rather than the quality of governance and real world economic progress. It is now a matter of months before the U.S. and its allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops from Afghanistan. As yet, the U.S. has no meaningful public plan for transition, has not proposed any public plan for either the civil or military aspects of transition, and remains focused on the quality of the Afghan election rather than the quality of the leadership, governance, and conditions of Afghan life that will follow.
Israel’s missile defense bluff
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
May 5, 2014
Iron Dome has become Israel’s first line of defense against missile attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Hezbollah-run areas of southern Lebanon, and any other potential combatants. On 1 April 2014, however, the Iron Dome system near Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat launched due to a false alarm. The system failure led to a number of Iranian officials ridiculing Israel and publicly questioning whether the Iron Dome system is more propaganda than real. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Ramezan Sharif, for example, told Fars News that not only is Iron Dome unable to provide security for the Israeli “occupiers,” but the system itself also poses a serious threat to the Zionists.
Iranian flotilla docks in Djibouti
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
May 5, 2014
The Islamic Republic continues to expand the operational reach of its navy. Whereas once Iranian ships limited themselves to the Persian Gulf or nearby littoral waters in the Indian Ocean, in recent years the Iranian Navy has expanded its reach, sending ships through the Suez Canal, into the Pacific Ocean, and around southern Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean. The Iranian presence in the Red Sea and off the Horn of Africa has become even more frequent.
What the United States Wants in Egypt
By Thomas Carothers
May 1, 2014
During the last several years numerous Egyptian friends have repeatedly expressed to me puzzlement, regret, and sometimes anger about U.S. policy toward their country. Their complaints are many, but one powerful theme stands out: they are convinced that the United States, both under George Bush and Barack Obama, has favored the Muslim Brotherhood. When I ask people why they think the United States has taken a pro-Brotherhood line, they say the United States wants to weaken Egypt, and that stirring up divisions in the country and having the Brotherhood come to power is a way to do that. They also believe Americans have an Orientalist view of Egypt, one that implies Islamist rule is the country’s natural destiny.
Disclosure: Iran’s New Diplomatic Weapon
By Ilan Berman
The American Foreign Policy Council
May 5, 2014
Give the Iranian regime credit for creativity. In the midst of extensive nuclear negotiations with the West, officials in Tehran have apparently hit upon a new way to play for time. On the heels of the most recent — and largely fruitless — round of consultations in Vienna between Tehran and the P5+1 (the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany), Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has proffered a full tally of the country’s nuclear project. In what is ostensibly intended as a confidence-building measure, IAEO spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi has confirmed that the Islamic Republic is preparing a “comprehensive document” detailing the extent of its quarter-century-old nuclear effort. But the product won’t come quickly; “This is time-consuming, as we need to coordinate with other government bodies, but we hope to have it finished in eight months,” Kamalvandi has maintained. The timing is telling.
Turkish Stakes in the Ukraine Crisis
By Ian Lesser
German Marshall Fund
May 6, 2014
Over the longer-term, a more competitive and conflict-prone relationship between Russia and the West will test the foundations of recent Turkish foreign policy. It will also test Ankara’s cooperation with transatlantic partners. First, the current crisis underscores the return of hard security challenges on Turkey’s borders. Second, the crisis in relations with Russia comes at a time of considerable unease in Turkey’s relations with NATO partners, many of which are not on the same page when it comes to Syria and other questions of deep concern to Ankara. Third, and more positively, the Ukraine crisis is likely to drive NATO strategy and planning in directions Turkish strategists will prefer.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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