Russia’s Regional Power

On 8 April, the HASC explored Russia’s military development and its strategic implications.  The second of two witnesses was the U.S. Joint Staff J5, Vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe.  Here’s the public opening statement to his testimony [emphasis added].

“Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member Smith, and distinguished Committee Members, good morning.  Thank you for this opportunity to update you on Russian military developments.”

“You just heard [from Mr. Chollet] a review of actions taken by the United States, the NATO Alliance, and the international community in response to Russia’s unlawful military intervention in Ukraine. Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a flagrant violation of international law, and it reintroduces into Europe the threat of external aggression.  By doing so, Russia set back decades of international progress.”

“The United States military and the wider NATO Alliance have supported our response to this unwarranted intervention:”

“- We have given support to Ukraine by way of material assistance, defense consultations, and the offer of enhanced training.”

“- We are reassuring our NATO Allies, with whom we have Article V security guarantees, by sending additional air power to the Baltic States and Poland, increasing our surveillance over Poland and Romania, and sending naval ships into the Black Sea.”

“- And we are helping to impose costs on Russia by halting all bilateral military-to-military interaction.  However, as noted by Mr. Chollet, we are keeping open channels for senior leader communications, to help deescalate the crisis.”

“I would now like to widen the focus of my remarks beyond Ukraine, to discuss the evolution of Russian conventional military power, thereby providing context to today’s events.”

“At the height of its military power, the Soviet Union was truly a global competitor.  With millions of people under arms, vast numbers of tanks and planes, a global navy, and an extensive intelligence gathering infrastructure, the Soviet military machine posed a very real and dangerous threat.”

“Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, that arsenal fell into disrepair.  Starved of funding and fragmented, Russian military capabilities rapidly decayed throughout the 1990s.  From the start of his term in office in 2000, President Putin has made military modernization a top priority of the Russian government.  When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, a number of shortcomings were noted in its military performance.  This led the Russian government to further increase investment in its military services.”

“Since 2008, those efforts have had some success. Russian military forces have been streamlined into smaller, more mobile units. Their overall readiness has improved and their most elite units are well trained and equipped.  They now employ a more sophisticated approach to joint warfare.”

“Their military has implemented organizational change, creating regional commands within Russia.  These coordinate and synchronize planning, joint service integration, force movement, intelligence support, and the tactical employment of units.”

“Finally, the Russian military adopted doctrinal change, placing greater emphasis on speed of movement, the use of Special Operations Forces, and information and cyber warfare.  They instituted ‘snap exercises.’  These no-notice drills serve the dual purpose of sharpening military readiness while also inducing strategic uncertainty as to whether they will swiftly transition from training to offensive operations.”

“Today, Russia is a regional power that can project force into nearby states but has very limited global power projection capability.  It has a military of uneven readiness.  While some units are well trained, most are less so. It suffers from corruption and its logistical capabilities are limited.  Aging equipment and infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and demographic and social problems will continue to hamper reform efforts.”

“The United States, in contrast, employs a military of global reach and engagement.  The readiness of our rotationally deployed forces is high and we are working to address readiness shortfalls at home.  And we operate within alliances; the strongest of which is NATO.  Composed of 28 nations, NATO is the most successful military alliance in history.  Should Russia undertake an armed attack against any NATO state, it will find that our commitment to collective defense is immediate and unwavering.”

“Russia’s military objectives are difficult to predict.  But it is clear that Russia is sustaining a significant military force on Ukraine’s eastern border.  This is deeply troubling to all states in the region and beyond, and we are watching Russian military movements very carefully.”

“I spoke with General Breedlove, the Commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, last Friday.  He is formulating recommendations for presentation to the North Atlantic Council on April fifteenth.  These recommendations will be aimed at further reassuring our NATO allies.  As part of this effort, he will consider increasing military exercises, forward deploying additional military equipment and personnel, and increasing our naval, air, and ground presence.  He will update members of Congress on those recommendations at the earliest opportunity.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this opportunity to address your Committee.  I look forward to your questions.”

According to Defense News, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) asked Vice Admiral Pandolfe about reports from “senior U.S. commanders in Europe” that up to 80,000 Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine.  Pandolfe demurred, saying he would answer in closed session.

Other than that, we don’t know much about what was said or asked.

Pandolfe’s opening statement is a pretty accurate, albeit brief, description of what’s happened with Russia’s military, its progress and limitations, in recent years.

But it’s a little off-the-mark.  Regional power, not global reach, is the critical issue today.  Ukraine is a prototypical regional crisis. The kind of regional crisis for which Moscow has tried to prepare its armed forces.

In contrast to what Pandolfe said, Russia’s military objectives are pretty easy to understand.  

The ultimate Heartland of geopolitics, Russia sees itself hard-pressed by a Rimland alliance [NATO] expanding deeper into eastern Europe.  Now Moscow feels it’s imperative to push back.  Unfortunately for Ukraine, it is the object of contention.

Russia has marshaled an ominous, overweening force to influence the situation just over the border in Ukraine.  Moscow can let events in Kharkhiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Slovyansk unfold, perhaps with some provocation by intelligence operatives, special forces, and agents of influence.

As Mark Galeotti concludes:  

“The forces massed on the border (ranging from low-end estimates of 40,000 to 80,000 upwards), combined with dire warnings to Kyiv about the risk of ‘civil war’ if it uses force against the paramilitaries represent a formidable political cover, which is deterring the [Ukrainian] government from using the full means at its disposal.  Moscow is a past master of fighting its battles with proxies, agents, allies and dupes.  Whether or not there are many actual Russian soldiers and agents in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s role is clear and, if anything, increasing.”

So Ukraine is damned if it responds to Russian-orchestrated unrest in the east, and damned if it doesn’t.

And Russia still holds the high card because it can still intervene with more “little green men” — Russian Army forces without insignia.  Or it may just want to keep Ukraine off-balance and unstable.  But events on the ground sometimes create their own dynamic.

Unlike Russia, for America, Ukraine is neither close nor vital.  Washington has already indicated it will not respond with military force, but only with support to its frontline NATO allies, and with MREs, consultations, and training for Kyiv. The Kremlin’s one fear might be that, under certain circumstances, the unpredictable Americans could change their minds about what’s at stake in Ukraine.

Paul Goble captured commentator  Georgiy Mirskiy’s insights last week, noting [emphasis added]:

“Neither [Russian President Vladimir] Putin nor [U.S. President Barack] Obama wants to go into history as the politician who ‘lost’ Ukraine, although [that country] does not belong to either the one or the other.”

“What is going on in Donetsk and Kharkhiv, [Mirskiy] continues, is ‘a Maidan in reverse,’ backed by a powerful neighboring state that is interested in destroying Ukraine.  Local support for these ‘people’s republics’ is not that great, but the Ukrainian authorities are ‘afraid’ to use force lest they ‘provoke the introduction of Russian forces’ as Putin has promised to do.”

“Given this fear, it may also be the case that ‘perhaps in the depth of their souls,’ some in Kyiv may ‘prefer to lose several unstable and hostile eastern oblasts’ in order to ‘keep firm control over a ‘mini-Ukraine,’ including Kyiv, Lviv, and so on.’”

“If that is so, then a repeat of the Crimean scenario is possible, although in any referendum there, support for joining Russia will be 60 percent at most and not 97 percent as it was on the peninsula, [Mirskiy] suggests.  Because Moscow won’t have introduced troops, ‘the West will again swallow everything.’ After all, ‘what is left for it to do?’”

In the strategic and ultimately cynical sense, maybe it wouldn’t be bad to watch while the Russian snake tries to swallow something it probably cannot digest.  This comes from the “worse is better” school of thought.

Trying to absorb Crimea and eastern Ukraine might worsen Russia’s domestic political and economic circumstances.  It will certainly refocus NATO on reinforcing Article V security guarantees (against Russia).  Thus, the Kremlin will have succeeded in creating the threat to which it has constantly pointed.  It will isolate Russia further, and possibly even hasten the end of the Putin era. Some foundering future Russian government may even one day have to relinquish occupied territories to Ukraine as a condition for international acceptance and assistance.

Ambitious Sub Building Plans

This news is dated, but wasn’t picked up widely (if at all).

Sevmash is a Busy Place, Likely to Get Busier

Sevmash is a Busy Place, Likely to Get Busier

Russia will start construction on eight nuclear-powered submarines in 2014-2015, according to the chief of Sevmash.

In 2015, Russia will lay the first sections of two Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and three Yasen-class attack submarines (SSNs), Sevmash General Director Mikhail Budnichenko told ITAR-TASS on 7 February.

Speaking at Defexpo 2014 in New Delhi, Budnichenko indicated that Sevmash will begin construction on two Borey SSBNs and one Yasen SSN in 2014.

The Borey SSBNs will be modernized Proyekt 955A submarines, reportedly stealthier than the first three Proyekt 955 boats. The Yasen SSNs will be improved Proyekt 885M submarines.

If Russia keeps to the schedule outlined by the Sevmash chief, it will put all remaining units of eight planned Borey SSBNs as well as seven Yasen SSNs into build.

The total number of Yasen-class submarines has been reported at six or seven at various times. They would include Severodvinsk (Proyekt 885) and either five or six Proyekt 885M boats.

Promotion List

Time for an update . . . a 22 February (Defender’s Day eve) decree from Russia’s Supreme Glavk promoted a raft of officers, mostly from O-6 to general-major or rear-admiral.

One exception is Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s long-time military assistant, Yuriy Sadovenko, who became a three-star general-colonel.  He came with Shoygu from MChS.  He’s a deputy defense minister and director of Shoygu’s apparat.  That is, chief of Shoygu’s personal staff and organizational elements reporting directly to the defense minister. 

Some significant personnel were elevated, including chiefs or commanders of:

  • the Genshtab’s CCP;
  • a regional nuclear weapons storage facility;
  • the MOD’s Main Missile-Artillery Directorate;
  • an airborne division;
  • Pacific Fleet submarine forces;
  • a submarine division;
  • a surface ship division;
  • Novorossiysk Naval Base;
  • the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan;
  • two VKO brigades.

This iteration should be a little easier to read in Google.

Putin’s Arctic Chimera

Pronouncements on plans for stronger Russian military forces in the Arctic have been studiously ignored on these pages.

For two reasons . . . first, one can’t write about everything, and second (because of the first), one has to focus on a few significant topics.

The Russian military in the Arctic hasn’t been one of them.

Putin on Franz Josef Land in 2010 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

Putin on Franz Josef Land in 2010 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

President Vladimir Putin’s interest in the Arctic made news in 2007 when a mini-submarine planted a Russian flag on ocean floor under the North Pole.  The Kremlin wanted to stake a symbolic claim to the lion’s share of the Arctic’s potential underwater wealth.

The vast, frozen region may indeed have large percentages of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and oil deposits.

More than a few observers see Putin’s concern with the Arctic as an effort to extend Russia’s hydrocarbon export-based model of economic growth.

The friend-of-Putin state oligarchs running Gazprom and Rosneft would certainly like the Russian treasury (and military) to underwrite their efforts to get at Arctic resources and line their pockets with more cash.

But the capital investment and technology required would be staggering. Canadian expert Michael Byers has been widely quoted:

“We’re talking about the center of a large, inhospitable ocean that is in total darkness for three months each year, thousands of miles from any port.”

“The water in the North Pole is 12,000 feet deep and will always be covered by sea ice in the winter.  It’s not a place where anyone is going to be drilling for oil and gas.  So it’s not about economic stakes, it’s about domestic politics.”

It’s an easy place to show Russia’s leader defending national sovereignty and interests.  The news stories and press releases track with an established Kremlin narrative about hostile Western powers trying to grab Russia’s natural bounty.

All of which brings us back round to the military in the Arctic.

During  Serdyukov’s tenure, the Ministry of Defense first raised the prospect of basing two army brigades there.  In September, Kirov-class CGN Petr Velikiy and other ships sailed the Northern Sea Route into the eastern Arctic.  And late in the year, Putin himself was prominent in giving the order to build, or re-build, various Russian military bases in the Arctic.

But things have a way of taking ridiculous turns.

On 17 February, an unidentified source told ITAR-TASS that the MOD and Genshtab have proposed forming a new Arctic unified strategic command with the Northern Fleet as its basis.  The source claimed this Northern Fleet-Unified Strategic Command (SF-OSK or СФ-ОСК) would be a new de facto MD, even if it isn’t called one.

The Northern Fleet and major units and formations based in the north would be taken from the Western MD, and put into new groupings deployed in the Arctic, including on Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Franz Josef Land.  Ouch.

SK-OSK is supposed to be inter-departmental too, with FSB Border Guards added.  The whole thing would report to the MOD, Genshtab, and, at some point, the NTsUOG.

The proposal is reportedly with Putin now, and a decision is expected in the coming months.

To make matters more interesting, Western MD Commander, General-Colonel Anatoliy Sidorov was cool, perhaps even balky, when confronted by the possibility of an “Arctic OSK.”

He told media representatives last Friday that his troops need no additional knowledge, and his equipment no additional preparation, for service in Arctic conditions.  He would not comment on possibly losing a large part of his current command.  According to RIA Novosti, he said only, “When there are directives, we will fulfill them.”

ITAR-TASS last week also reported on a company-sized anti-terrorist exercise in the Northern Fleet.

Northern Fleet Anti-Terrorist Training (photo: Mil.ru)

Northern Fleet Anti-Terrorist Training (photo: Mil.ru)

But there’s no “Al Qaida in the Arctic” yet.  Only Greenpeace.

Russia’s Arctic is enormous, and it is likely to be increasingly important, but not necessarily as the next big theater of war.  Naturally, Moscow wants to prepare for contingencies, but it’s already prepared and positioned as well as the few other regional players.  The money, time, and attention might be better spent on more palpable threats.  But, as Byers pointed out, the Arctic seems to be good politics.

Overfulfilling the Plan

News on the Russian military of late carries a distinctly positive tone.  The army is always receiving new weapons systems, completing major training evolutions, and signing up thousands of new contractees.

A contrast from years past when there was either no news or bad news about the military’s development (or lack thereof).  Probably neither editorial line accurately reflects, or reflected, reality.  Things are never as good, or bad, as they’re presented.

Ever an honest contrarian on the widest range of issues, Nezavisimaya gazeta now asks, somewhat obliquely, whether the frenetic activity of Russia’s Ministry of Defense is outrunning its financial support.

In an editorial last Thursday, NG wonders if the MOD can accelerate completion of many tasks without additional financing.

It isn’t the first time financial flags have been raised.  Several times over the last year, reputable media sources asserted that Sergey Shoygu’s MOD would face sequestration soon.  It hasn’t happened yet.  Maybe the possibility is more pregnant given that Russia’s economy is flatlined right now.  In some ways, worse than flatlined (e.g. the ruble exchange rate).

But we digress . . . .

NG reports that Shoygu, at last week’s collegium, reiterated the impermissibility of falling off a single task in the MOD’s “Action Plan 2020.”  The reports of MOD officials said there have been no failures, only many impressive figures about the “thoroughly dynamic process of perfecting the state’s defense system.”

General Staff Chief, Army General Valeriy Gerasimov reported the facts to the assembled generals and high-ranking civilian officials.

To wit, by year’s end, 580 modern bunkers and storage facilities will be built in 15 arms depots as well as 160 facilities for RVSN ground-based strategic nuclear weapons, Ground Troops missile brigades, pre-fab radar stations, Borey and Yasen submarine bases, and new airfields.

NG concludes:

“The fact is the scale of construction is grandiose, fully speaking for those amounts of financing the state is directing at the needs of the Armed Forces.”

The paper gives examples of hardware being acquired . . . 27 BTR-82As for the Western MD in January alone, 12 Su-35S fighters for the Eastern MD in February, 220 aircraft, 8 ships and submarines, 14 SAMs, 50 air defense radars, and more than 200 armored vehicles in 2014.

Meanwhile, the MOD’s capital construction chief Roman Filimonov reported a decision to move deployment of a pre-fab radar in the east up a year to 2014, outfitting of five VDV military towns up two years to 2014-2015, and quicker completion of a host of other projects planned for the more distant future.

Again NG concludes:

“The intentions, of course, are good.  It just pays to remember that last December the parameters of the military budget for 2014-2016 were specified. And no one promised the army any additional money.  And without it hastening fulfillment of plans appears highly problematic.”

An NG news story the following day added:

“We recall that the Minfin came out categorically against any increase in the military budget.  More than this it insisted on moving ‘to the right’ the terms for implementing several defense projects.  It seems in the Armed Forces they agreed with the financiers’ demands.  In the event that directors of central organs of the military command, in whose interests recalculation measures are planned, don’t know how to find sources of financing for new work, they’ve been promised a forced redistribution of resources from facilities already in the plan to facilities appearing with the changes introduced.  The collegium agreed to proposals voiced by Filimonov.”

So what do we take from this?

There’s no imminent threat to funding a rejuvenated Russian military.  The current pace of development, achieved in 2012, will continue while Russia’s economic and political system can bear it.

But the NG articles may foreshadow even tighter budgets.  Independent media are debating how to lift a stagnating economy still based on hydrocarbon rents.  The Sochi Olympic hangover may have just begun.  Government (and military) budget parameters are set, but they never really feel firm.  The MOD  just focuses on the money it has now.

In Soviet central planning, overfulfillment usually meant sacrificing quality to meet quantitative targets and time schedules, to make careers, and to earn bonuses.  Today it means more demand, less supply, tighter markets, and rising prices.  And even in the post-Serdyukov MOD, it means more opportunities for corrupt scheming.

The Next S-400 “Regimental Set”

On 14 February, Krasnaya zvezda covered the arrival of a new Pantsir-S battalion in VVKO’s 4th Air Defense Brigade north and west of Moscow.

In a bit of sidebar, the brigade’s commander indicated the next S-400 “regimental set” (sixth overall) will be deployed in his formation. Recall at the end of 2013, Russian media reported two “sets” (six and seven) were delivered to the military.

Pantsir-S (photo: Krasnaya zvezda)

Pantsir-S (photo: Krasnaya zvezda)

The new two-battery unit of six Pantsir-S vehicles came from Ashuluk, following its first live fire exercises.  Before this, the battalion was in Gatchina, near St. Petersburg, for initial training.

Colonel Valeriy Varentsov (photo: Krasnaya zvezda)

Colonel Valeriy Varentsov (photo: Krasnaya zvezda)

According to its commander, Colonel Valeriy Varentsov, the 4th Brigade has four SAM regiments deployed in Yaroslavl, Tver, Kaluga, and Moscow regions.  It received its first Pantsir-S battalion a year ago, and it is part of the S-400-equipped SAM regiment at Dmitrov.

Colonel Varentsov notes the Pantsirs remain under factory warranty, so Tula-based developer KBP maintains them.  His troops will take that responsibility at some future time.

Varentsov expects another two-battalion “regimental set” of S-400 SAMs, which just performed live firings at Kapustin Yar, to arrive in his brigade soon.

One might guess the new S-400s will deploy with existing regiments northwest of Moscow near Klin or Solnechnogorsk, or southwest near Naro-Fominsk.

Varentsov said, for the first time, his brigade is getting S-400s on the MZRT-7930 8-wheel chassis from the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory, instead of the previous tractor / trailer configuration.  Its prime mover was apparently built by the Bryansk Automobile Factory.

The brigade expects S-500 deliveries in 2015, and a fully new inventory of armaments by 2020.  Varentsov hinted he’d like Baykal-1M command post vehicles.

SIPRI’s List

Always worth looking at SIPRI.  On 31 January, it released its list of the Top 100 arms producers worldwide in 2012 and 2011.

SIPRI observed a small global decline in arms sales over the past two years.  But Russia bucked the trend as “arms sales by Russian companies increased sharply, by 28 per cent in real terms.”

SIPRI provides the context for increased arms production by Russian companies that’s worth quoting in toto:

“Rapid rise in Russia due to domestic procurement plans”

“Russian companies saw a particularly large increase in estimated arms sales in 2012. Of the 6 Russian companies in the Top 100, all except United Aircraft Corporation saw increases in excess of 20 per cent, and Almaz Antei—with a 41 per cent rise—now stands in 14th place in the Top 100, the highest position taken by a Russian company since data became available in 2002.”

“Russian arms companies continue to maintain high export levels, but the increase in estimated arms sales in 2012 mainly reflects large and growing domestic sales, as part of Russia’s $700 billion 2011–20 State Armaments Plan. While there remains widespread scepticism as to whether the aims of the plan can be fully achieved, it is clear that a major increase in Russian military equipment procurement is taking place.”

“‘The Russian arms industry is gradually re-emerging from the ruins of the Soviet industry’, said Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, Director of SIPRI’s Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme. ‘Nonetheless, the industry is still plagued by outdated equipment, inefficient organization and widespread corruption, which will continue to limit Russia’s ability to compete technologically with the West.’”

So, it’s not just that Rosoboroneksport’s order portfolio is stuffed full.  But SIPRI sees both good and bad news for Russian defense industry and production.

The top Russian firms on this year’s list are:  Almaz-Antey, UAC or OAK, Vertolety Rossii (Oboronprom), Sukhoy (UAC / OAK), United Enginebuilding Corporation, UEC or ODK (Oboronprom), USC or OSK, and Uralvagonzavod.

Falling off from 2010′s list are Irkut and MiG (UAC / OAK) and the Tactical Missile Weapons (TRV) Corporation.

Some changes may be the result of data collection problems SIPRI faces.

Here’s SIPRI’s data on arms sales by Russia’s top producers.

SIPRI Data on Arms Sales by Top Russian Producers

Pretty interesting stuff.  Strong and stable growth by Almaz-Antey.  Steady growth for UAC / OAK and Sukhoy.  Remarkable growth by Vertolety Rossii — quadrupling its sales in three years.  Ditto for UEB / ODK — nearly quadrupling.  Even Uralvagonzavod doubling its sales over the same period.