Russia has big ambitions and growing opportunities
Early in the morning of September 30, a Russian three-star general approached the American embassy in Baghdad and passed by well-armed security marines to personally present an ultimatum to the US representatives, which became a diplomatic demarche. His statement was sharp and direct: after an hour, Russian troops begin air strikes in neighboring Syria — and the US military must immediately clear the area.
It was a fight from the level of balancing on the brink of war between two nuclear giants, which the world has not seen for decades. She revived the suspicions, antagonisms and intrigues characteristic of the Cold War era.
Starting air strikes in Syria, President Vladimir Putin inspired an indirect war with the United States. As a result, the powerful armies of the two countries found themselves in the role of assistants to opposite sides in a multipolar conflict. For Moscow, this is a very risky adventure, experts say. “It will be very difficult for them. This is difficult in terms of logistics. Russians don’t have so many forces, means and capabilities to project power over long distances, ”said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security from New York University.
Russians in their military campaign in Syria are very dependent on supply routes that require air corridors that pass through Iranian and Iraqi airspace. The only alternative is maritime communications coming from the Crimea. For such sea transportation at two ends, it takes up to 10 days. It is not clear how long Russia will be able to withstand such tensions.
This and other questions about Russian combat potential and goals come to the center of the stage at a time when Putin is showing unshakable readiness to use military force in his clumsy foreign policy aimed at reviving Russia's status as a world power. Speaking in this crusade, he gave new life to the ghosts of the resurgent military power of Russia - from Ukraine to the Baltic states, and from Syria to the Middle East as a whole.
Russia's increasingly aggressive operational-strategic plans have caused a flurry of assessments and feedback from US military strategists on the topic of US military policy and action plans in the event of a conflict with the former Soviet state. The high-ranking Pentagon leadership begins to ask questions that for more than 20 years lay under the cover:
- What are the real combat capabilities of the Russians?
- Where exactly can a conflict with Russia occur?
- What will the war with Russia look like today?
The following should be extremely clear. Experts agree that the US forces capable of operating on a global scale in a war using conventional means will utterly crush the Russian army. But modern wars are unusual, and geography, politics, and terrain conditions inevitably give advantages to one side or another.
Today, the United States spends almost 10 times more money on national defense than Russia. The United States has 10 aircraft carriers in the ranks, while Russia has only one. In addition, the US military has great technical advantages, and they far surpass Russia in its ability to transfer forces and assets to one or another point in the world.
Russia is still weak by many traditional criteria. But at present, it is developing some extremely important technologies and models of technology, a new tactic of combat operations and an arrogant geopolitical strategy that undermines the US claims to be the only truly superpower in the world. As a result of all these actions, Russia unexpectedly again became the main military opponent of America.
Watching what is happening, American leaders “are clearly concerned that Russia is at least able to create superior forces at the regional level,” says former Pentagon employee David Ochmanek, currently a military analyst at RAND Corp. And Russian-American relations gloomily hang over their nuclear arsenals. Russia has maintained and even modernized its “triad” of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nuclear equipment, a large fleet of long-range bombers and fleet nuclear submarines, which are becoming more modern and advanced.
“The Russian military industry has risen from the ruins,” said Vadim Kozyulin, a military expert from the Moscow PIR Analytical Center. “The military balance can be ensured only by Russian nuclear power, which is not as expensive to maintain as it seems to many”.
But although Russian conventional forces do not produce the impression of nuclear forces, there are some areas in which Russia is superior to the rest. Among them - aviation, air defense, submarines and electronic warfare.
Weapons Soviet-era design bureaus are still well known throughout the world. The Russian aviation industry, for example, benefits greatly from exporting its products to non-Western countries, which buy efficient fighters from it cheaper than Western models. China today spends more on defense than Russia, but still buys equipment and modern weapons from it.
According to many experts, attempts to compare the US and Russian armed forces are similar to the comparison of apples and oranges. The Russians have completely different strategic goals, and the structure of the Russian armed forces is being built accordingly. Russia considers itself a land power, affecting vast territories stretching from the interior of Eurasia to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and possibly to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. It has good opportunities for the implementation of the military concept, known as “blocking access / blocking the zone”.
“The United States and Russia are striving for different things,” says Galeotti. “Russians do not intend to compete with us on equal terms.” The main thing for them is prohibition. ” For example, he continues, “if you look at the US Navy, they are in many ways superior to the Russian navy. In Russian, the majority of ships - the Soviet legacy. But in a certain sense it does not matter, because Russia is not going to send them to different parts of the world’s ocean. ”
This fact is reflected in the fact that Russia has only one aircraft carrier, and the US has 10, and they are constantly located in different parts of the world. Instead of aircraft carriers, which are offensive means of projecting force at sea, Russians invest in expanding their submarine forces that make up the nuclear triad and are capable of creating a threat to the enemy’s surface fleet in nearby waters, say in the Black, Baltic or Mediterranean seas.
Russia's airspace is also well secured. In quality, Russian stealth aircraft are much worse than American ones, but Russia has the most advanced systems for detecting and destroying such unobtrusive aircraft, and it is investing heavily in creating reliable anti-aircraft missile systems, deploying them so that they cover their border regions well. . “The static picture of the air force is clearly in favor of the Russians, because they have a serious air defense potential and a diverse arsenal of tactical, cruise and ballistic missiles,” says military analyst and Russian expert Paul Schwartz, who works in the center Strategic and international studies (Center for Strategic and International Studies).
Russia's ability to conduct electronic warfare also poses considerable threats to the Pentagon’s military planners because it is unclear to what extent Russia can interfere with American radars and electronic intelligence assets that form the basis of American air power. It will not be easy for Americans and their allies to penetrate Russian airspace, Schwartz says. “They will be seriously opposed there. But I think that in time we will be able to weaken these systems. The problem is that when there are nuclear forces, full-scale hostilities must be avoided. ”
Meanwhile, Russian ground forces, consisting mainly of draftees, are increasingly becoming a professional force, similar to the American one. In fact, Russia has two armies: about two-thirds of the 800th ground forces are non-motivated and poorly trained draftees, but one third are subunits and units equipped with the most modern equipment, including Tanks T-14 Armata.
By and large, the Russian military is no match for the US. But the distance between them in recent years has been reduced.
Syrian forward operational base
How quickly the Russians created the forward operational base in Syria impressed many American leaders. In just a few weeks, the Russian military erected a capable base to become a permanent base in Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. They transferred dozens of combat aircraft there, reinforced their object with tanks and assembled houses for several hundred servicemen.
Russia recently announced plans to hold naval exercises in the eastern part of the Mediterranean this fall, but did not specify when its ships would be transferred to this region. The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser "Moscow", as well as several patrol and large landing ships, as reported by the Russian news agency TASS, will take part in the exercises. Some military people ask themselves: will these exercises become a cover for the transfer of additional troops and equipment to the coast of Syria?
The new advanced base will give Russia the opportunity to make combat missions, conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as launch unmanned aerial vehicles throughout the Middle East, including Iraq, whose leadership asked the Russians to help it in the fight against the "Islamic state" in its territory.
This base will help ensure the security of the logistics center of the Russian Navy, which has long been located in the Syrian port city of Tartus and is of great importance for the transfer of Russian forces and assets to the Mediterranean. According to incoming reports, Russia is expanding its presence in Tartus.
On the whole, Moscow is signaling its long-term interest in opening an umbrella of access / blocking of the zone in the Middle East. The Russians are allegedly transferring their most modern air defense systems to Latakia, which causes concern at the Pentagon, since these actions contradict Russia's assertions that it will limit its combat activities to strikes against Syrian rebel groups such as Islamic State or ISIL.
“We see very modern air defense systems being transferred to these airfields; “We see very modern airplanes being deployed at these airfields to conduct air combat,” commander Gen. Phillip Breedlov told NATO 28 on September 10 in Europe. - I have not seen a single aircraft from ISIS, for the destruction of which you would need SA-15 or SA-22 anti-aircraft systems ("Thor" and "Armor"). These modern air defense systems are not for fighting ISIS ... they are for fighting something else. ”
In fact, Russians can challenge the superiority in the air that the 20 has been supporting (and taking for granted) the United States for more than 10 years by controlling large areas of the Middle East. The most important factor in this equation is the Russian alliance with Iran - another key Syrian ally. Russia needs Iran’s airspace to secure flights of its aircraft to Syria, and it is ready to support the Iranian ground forces, acting in concert with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian experts believe that the invasion of Syria, coupled with Putin’s aggressive speech at the UN 28 September, signal that he intends to become a key player in the region for a long time.
“It became clear that Russia intends to pursue a more ambitious policy in the Middle East. “The Russian president has clearly said that the Western model of democracy and Western methods of conflict resolution in the region are not working,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow expert on Middle Eastern politics and on Russian foreign policy. “It is doubtful that Russia will soon be able to become the leading power in the Middle East, since its presence in the region is limited compared with the United States.”
But some people see a larger geopolitical gambit in the Syrian maneuvers of Putin, the purpose of which is to conclude a deal on Ukraine. Russia is currently occupying some areas of Ukraine, but the United States still considers the March 2014 invasion of the year illegal, and Moscow’s power over these areas is illegitimate. “The US is more important here than Syria and Assad,” says Galeotti. “Let's be honest: if Washington made it clear that it was possible to achieve some kind of deal, in which he would tacitly recognize the positions of the Russians in Crimea and in some areas of Dobrunsk, they would not fight for Asad” .
New type of "hybrid war" in Ukraine
The conflict in Ukraine and the American mission to train the Ukrainian military gives the Pentagon new opportunities to assess the enemy, which it may encounter in battle in other places in the not too distant future. However, critics say that America’s shy reaction to Russian aggression — in the Crimea, in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions — did nothing to deter and intimidate Moscow. In Ukraine, Moscow demonstrated a new type of “hybrid war”, in which non-state forces of its henchmen, heavy military equipment, artillery, drones, EW tools, and aggressive information operations are conducted to ensure victory on the battlefield.
“It’s good that we know how they are fighting,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Evelyn Farkas told 10 in an interview with Military Times on September 9. “We do not conduct wars as they lead them in the conditions of urban and rural areas with the use of UAVs and active radio-electronic suppression measures.”
At the end of October, Farkas left his post after working for five years in the Ministry of Defense. It is not clear who will take its place and become the key creator of politics on issues relating to Russia.
According to the few military professionals who work with the Ukrainian armed forces, the fight against Moscow-supported rebels is very different from the experience they have gained recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We got a great experience of conducting low-intensity warfare, counter-guerrilla warfare, but in Ukraine we are dealing with an almost equal opponent from the 21 of the 20th century,” said the lieutenant colonel of the 2 battalion of the 503 battalion of the 173 airborne brigade Michael Kloepper. This brigade has recently begun the third stage of training the Ukrainian armed forces.
Such work is part of the American military strategy of providing security assurances to NATO allies, alarmed by Russia's actions. However, the Obama administration does not want to provide Ukraine with more effective support, and it seems determined to avoid an indirect war against Russia.
The Russians advanced thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border, as well as large tank and artillery units and units. These troops are constantly shelling the border cities and towns, as well as raiding the Ukraine, where they fight together with the rebels. So far, the administration has promised Ukraine only “non-lethal assistance” in the form of training and supplies of equipment like “Hummers”, small UAVs and radar stations.
Washington imposed economic sanctions against Russia, sent troops to train the Ukrainian forces and intensified military exercises throughout Eastern Europe. But he does not supply offensive weapons and ammunition there, and does not threaten Russia with military actions. Since March, 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine, the United States allocated 244 million dollars to Kiev in the form of non-lethal military aid and training. For comparison, this is the amount spent for three weeks of fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The Ukrainian leadership in Kiev constantly asks for more help. "We need Javelin anti-tank systems, reconnaissance and combat drones ... fighters, helicopters, electronic, radio and radio intelligence systems, radar stations and reliable intelligence systems" to counter Russian military equipment used by pro-Russian separatists on the eastern front, said the commander-in-chief armed forces of Ukraine, Colonel-General Victor Muzhenko. Ukraine also asked for anti-aircraft guns and additional equipment to neutralize enemy snipers, he told the Military Times.
In eastern Ukraine, fighting from 30 000 to 35 000 Russian-supported militants. Muzhenko estimates that 9 is about 000 of them from the Russian side. They use modern military electronic equipment, with the help of which they interfere with Ukrainian communication systems, radars, GPS systems and early detection equipment, said Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense for European Integration Igor Dolgov.
This is a unique fighting space, and the Americans, who are training the Ukrainian military, are eager to collect intelligence information about new methods of warfare by the Russians. “It’s interesting to hear what they have learned,” Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, commander of US land forces in Europe, told Defense News. “None of the Americans came under fire from the Russian artillery and volley fire systems, not a single one experienced the effects of the Russian EW facilities, electronic suppression, at least at the tactical level.”
The outlook for the Ukrainian conflict is unclear. In late September, the parties agreed to withdraw tanks and heavy artillery from the front line in the east. It seems that the ceasefire conditions in the eastern regions are respected, although the parties behave cautiously, and pro-Russian separatists, intent on holding their own elections, may not recognize the elections to the Ukrainian parliament, which must pass October 25.
So far, Obama does not show willingness to give Russia control over the regions that have belonged to Ukraine for decades. “We cannot be indifferent when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country is grossly violated,” Obama said speaking at the UN General Assembly. - This is the basis of the sanctions that the United States and its partners have imposed against Russia. And this is not a desire to return to the cold war. ”
Predicting new hot spots
For over a year, the United States and its European allies have re-assessed the military balance on the eastern borders of NATO, where the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union are located. The result was Operation Atlantic Resolve, in which the United States rotates its troops into Eastern NATO countries, such as Poland, the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria.
Putin and his military threaten the Baltic countries, which only recently became part of the North Atlantic Alliance and are its weakest members. Russia has repeatedly sent its combat aircraft to the airspace of the Baltic States, allegedly carried out cyber attacks, and its submarines patrol the Baltic Sea. And Russian officials are expressing support for Russian-speaking minorities, which is even more alarming.
The aggression in the Baltics, especially in Estonia, where a large Russian-speaking minority lives, is carried out by Moscow in greater secrecy than its blatant actions in Ukraine and Syria. It is argued that Putin is using methods of hybrid warfare practiced in Ukraine to rally the Russian population in the Baltic to support the Russian special forces, or the so-called "little green men."
This raises concerns in the West that Putin’s ultimate goal is a power split of NATO in the event of failure of the methods of threat and intimidation. NATO is trying to figure out how to respond to this without much success, and its member countries put forward different opinions about the case in which Russia crosses the red line with its actions. “We must decide at what point the correct answer will be a military response,” said London-based analyst Nick de Larrinaga, who works at the IHS Jane's Defense and Security Group. “A hybrid war raises questions about when there should be a military response, and whether this is a civilian problem that local law enforcement officers should solve.”
Of course, Russia has another option - go to the usual hostilities. An analysis of the balance of military forces in the Baltic theater points to Russia's initial advantages in the case of an air campaign against NATO, if the political goal of Moscow is to drive the North Atlantic alliance from the Baltic states.
According to a recent report from the Chatham House Royal Institute of International Relations, in the Western Military District Russia has a land force of 65 000 people, 850 artillery shells of various calibers, 750 tanks and 320 combat aircraft. There are other assessments that give much larger numbers, but in general there is a great uncertainty about the question of how much of these forces exist only on paper, and which one is really ready for combat operations.
Another aspect of the Russian military power, which is overestimated too much, is the Baltic Fleet - the smallest of the main fleets of Russia and the pale shadow of its Soviet past. After the collapse of the USSR, its coastal infrastructure, stretching from Kaliningrad to Leningrad, became the property of the Baltic states that gained independence.
Today, this fleet is divided between Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, which is why it is difficult to maintain in its composition large forces. The Baltic Fleet today consists of only two small diesel submarines of the 877 “Halibus” project, one of which is used mainly for training, as well as several destroyers of the “Modern” type, a patrol ship, four corvettes and several support vessels.
For the conduct of hostilities in the Baltic, Russia can also attract the naval personnel of the Northern Fleet, since its ships are often in combat service in the North Atlantic and are able to come to the rescue if large-scale operations are deployed at sea.
Such a threat can become quite serious if the true goal of Russia in the Baltic States is to show that NATO does not comply with Article 5 of its statute, which is a key element of the North Atlantic Treaty and states that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on everyone and will be met with a collective and immediate response total alliance.
Matthew Bodner contributed to the article.