by Rob Gill
LIMERICK – Three flash-points along the fault-line in Eastern and Central Europe are causing grave concern in European capitals and Washington among regional analysts: Russian build-up of troops and armour (i.e. ‘punch-through’ units) on the Ukrainian border; the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Polish border (seemingly orchestrated by Lukashenko) and reemergence of Russian-backed Bosnian-Serb secessionists in Bosnia.
While analysts argue whether the crises are connected or whether Putin is the puppet-master; it is clear the Kremlin intends to benefit from the chaos.
It may suit Putin’s image as being the omnipotent grand strategist orchestrating all these crises to rebuild Russian prestige and power, when it may be closer to the truth that Putin is simply an opportunist who benefits from weak Western will. To understand Putin, it is worth remembering his background as a KGB intelligence officer (rather than as a military officer).
Putin spent the early career operating in the shadows and built his political career through his siloviki contacts. While Putin, as Prime Minister and President, has prosecuted brutal conflicts in Chechnya; Georgia; Ukraine and Syria as well as significantly upgrading and reforming the Russian armed forces – his favoured method of power projection is not through large-scale conventional military operations but rather ‘maskirovka’ – deceptive operations giving both he and Russia deniability that ranges from plausible to utterly implausible. All four military operations mentioned have been surrounded by a fog of disinformation, propaganda and outright fabricated casus belli. He is comfortable with wielding brutal violence and deliberately targeting civilians but prefers low-cost (in terms of Russian lives) options – using the threat of force of numbers, but causing real destabilisation through less overt means.
The potential for a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine is the cause of greatest concern for Western leaders today. Analysts remain starkly divided on the probability of all-out war. Russia has previously amassed troops on the border as recently as April of this year – posing an early test for the Biden administration. However, other analysts have argued this build-up is different, with many movements happening at night, rather than in plain sight, a posture more akin to the Russian troop movements prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The U.S., for its part, has shared intelligence (presumably IMINT rather than SIGINT or HUMINT) indicating the similarity with March 2014. This is what is causing so such concern in Washington, D.C, so much so that it resulted in President Biden ordering the CIA Director to Moscow to personally deliver a stark warning to the Putin regime.
However, I would argue the West should be more concerned about Putin’s hybrid warfare in all three flash-points rather than an overt invasion of Ukraine. It should be remembered that the annexation of Crimea was not the result of a large-scale incursion but rather the use of ‘little green men’ and other hybrid warfare techniques. While some intelligence analysts have argued convincingly that those who believe that Putin will not declare total war in Ukraine are repeating the mistakes of history by refusing to contemplate the unconscionable (intelligence failures are often the result of a failure of imagination); it is not Putin’s desire to conquer Ukraine that is lacking, but rather his capability.
It is worth examining the capability of the Russian armed forces to see if an invasion of Ukraine is likely. Shortly after Vladimir Putin was elected President in 2000, the process of reform of the Russian armed forces began. The intention was for the Russian armed forces to be more flexible, with the capability of deploying expeditionary forces – two military conflicts (local or regional war) and one peace support mission.
Reforms begun after the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008 and pushed initially by former Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and continued under current Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, have significantly strengthened the Russian military. The objective of the defence ministry has been to transform the Russian military from a force designed for the long, conventional warfare of the 1980s “into a more compact, high-technology military to engage in swift and intense securing of operational aims in the twenty-first century”, according to analyst Keir Giles.
The reality is that the collapse of the Soviet Union led not only to the disintegration of an economic and political superpower but also to the destruction of a military superpower. The newly established Russian Armed Forces (comprising of Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force, Airborne Troops, and the Strategic Rocket Forces) underwent a manpower cut from 5 million under the Soviet Union to only 2.8 million in 1992. Beyond the manpower cuts, the Russian armed forces faced a massive drop in investment. As the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Russian Armed forces transitioned from being the constituent part of a global superpower to being a mere regional player.
The decline of the Russian armed forces accompanied a decade in which corruption reigned in Russia following the collapse of the centralised economy and the rise of the oligarch and silovik. The military was certainly not immune from the endemic corruption that ran through all sectors of Russian society, with equipment simply ‘going missing’ and the accompanying loss of command and control raising concerns in the West about the security of nuclear weapons.
Consequently, the prestige of the armed forces suffered. The injury was only compounded by losses suffered in the first Chechen war. The Russian army in this period proved to be a conscript army with woefully poor morale and discipline. Troop morale as only further blighted by suicide and draft evasion. In the early 1990s, reports of murder and violence among badly treated conscripts were rampant. Considering that Russia is a martial society, the degradation of the military was a severe blow to the Russian psyche. This dynamic laid the conditions for an unknown ‘strong-man’ leader to emerge – enter Vladimir Putin.
The Russian people, desperate to recover some semblance of pride, gave Putin considerable latitude to rebuild the Russian armed forces and thus the Russian State. The recently memories of the humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, the ongoing Chechen Wars and the Kursk disaster demonstrated the urgent need for reform and investment in the Russian armed forces. With carte blanche authority and control over the budget, Putin went to work reshaping the military and its objectives.
The 2008 conflict with Georgia demonstrated that Russia had become a regional power with no near peer among the former Soviet States. It simultaneously exposed an underlying weaknesses in the armed forces – poor coordination between air force and army; including insufficient communication and UAV ISR capability.
The 2008 Russo-Georgian war became the catalyst for Serdyukov’s reforms and the desire of the Ministry of Defence to create a highly professional and modernised expeditionary force rather than the slow mass mobilisation force backboned by conscripts. Since the conclusion of that conflict, the Russian military have demonstrated a much-improved range of capabilities as observed in the Ukraine and Syria conflicts.
While the Russian armed forces have largely succeeded in its aims of becoming a flexible force, capable of rapid deployment in a variety of scenarios, it still lags behind its NATO adversaries in many areas. This is particularly true in terms of surface ships for its Naval Forces as well the Air Forces continuing to face transport and strategic bombers issues.
Since the 2008 reforms commenced, Russia has been aiming to move away from the conscript model by recruiting professional contract soldiers.
The ministry has set a new target of 476,000 contractors by 2025. It seems that recruitment has become increasingly difficult over the last number of years as the ministry competes with the civilian sector. Consequentially, conscripts still comprise a significant proportion of the manpower for the Russian armed forces. Nonetheless, this emphasis on recruiting contractors has changed the composition of the Russian armed forces, leading to increased professionalism and operational capability. The Ministry has also made considerable efforts in improving the morale of the soldiery – hazing, suicide, violence, and draft dodging have long been problems for the Russian military.
Increased investment and budget appropriation have improved the standard of equipment and allowed for an ambitious rearmament and modernisation programme. Serdyukov had announced in 2010 that defence expenditure would increase from 2.7% to 3.8% between 2010 and 2020. However, the defence budget has fallen since 2016. According to Susanne Oxenstierna of the Swedish Defence Research Agency, “Total military spending in GDP [purple line] has dropped from 5.3 per cent in 2016, to 4.5 in 2017, and 3.8 in 2018”.
The 2020 armament programme set a target of 70 per cent modern equipment by 2020. As, we will see below, a disconnect between the defence ministry’s stated ambitions and reported result attainment are often at odds. Never the less, in certain critical areas the Russian military possesses formidable capabilities not available to it before 2008.
Stand-off strike capability
An area where the Russian armed services demonstrated new and evolved capabilities in the Syrian conflict was its use of cruise missiles. Warships in the Mediterranean assisted by launching cruise missiles on Syrian targets for the first time in August 2016. This was development was as strategic as it was significant. With Russian demonstrating an ability to launch missiles from all directions in that region (from Iran, from the Caspian Sea, its base in the Syrian coastal province of Latakia and from the Mediterranean) Russian military capabilities proved to have a longer and more deadly reach not previously within their capabilities. In 2019, the Russian Armed Forces had more than 1,300 missiles available for initial stand-off strikes. This is a significant increase compared to 2016.
Russia may well be ahead of its adversaries in the area of Electronic warfare. As analyst Keir Giles puts it, “Russia’s intensive application of EW in Ukraine has highlighted another area of comparative neglect by Western militaries that are accustomed to operating across the electromagnetic spectrum without competition”. While Russia’s true EW capability is hard to quantify (and may be exaggerated), its demonstrated success in deploying EW in Ukraine has been shown effective in jamming Ukrainian GPS signals. Russian EW has also proven devastating to Ukrainian troop morale, directing disinformation messages directly Ukrainian troops via mobile networks. Russia has demonstrated how their command of EW and its deployment cyber warfare has given it a decisive advantage in the age of hybrid-warfare and weaponisation of information and communications.
The Continuing Need for Modernisation
This increase in investment hasn’t solved all problems, particularly in the Navy and air forces. The Russian Navy’s sole Aircraft carrier and flagship Admiral Kuznetsov is a running joke, often breaking down and requiring the assistance of tug-boats.
During operations in Syria in 2016, its airwing had to be transferred from the carrier to the Syrian Hmeymim airbase due to a malfunctioning of the carrier’s landing arresting wire system. In December 2019 a fire damaged the carrier. The submarine Losharik lost 14 sailors in July 2019 following a fire.
Likewise, Russia’s air force has endured a high number of accidents over the last few years in Syria and elsewhere. Its strategic bomber force contains Soviet-era aircraft badly in need of modernisation. The long-range Tu-22M3 ‘backfire’ bomber has been involved in three accidents over three years, including in December 2019. There is also some doubt about the effectiveness of Russia’s A2/AD capability after Russian supplied air-defence systems were defeated by Turkish UCAVs in the Idlib province.
Given, Russia and NATO forces have not directly clashed. We were, however, given some insight into the gap between NATO military hardware and Russian supplied hardware in the Idlib province in February of this year. The Assad regime suffered the loss of 102 pieces of armour including Russian suppliedT-55, T-62, and T-72 main battle tanks, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, Pantsir-S1 and ZSU-23 Shilka short-range air defense systems. Turkish UCAVs wreaked havoc among Syrian forces and their Russian equipment.
Having identified a deficiency in the 2008 Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Russia has made considerable use of UAVs in Ukraine and Syria. Albeit, Russia simply does not have the advanced UCAV capability as Turkey, a recognised world leader in UCAV development and manufacturing.
Without doubt, the Russian armed forces have undergone a significant overhaul, reform and modernisation, boosting its capability to engage in multiple low-intensity conflicts. While not yet in a position to challenge NATO in a long-lasting, conventional warfare (given deficiencies in its Naval and Air force in particular) I would argue is it also incapable of holding extensive territory in Ukraine, beyond the Donbas.
Eastern Ukraine and Syria have provided the Russian military with a ‘testing ground’ for new weaponry and tactics. This has proven so against an adversary with similar capabilities (Ukraine) as well as a counter-insurgency foe in Syria. While Russian airpower turned the tide in the latter conflict, Russia’s proxy army in Eastern Ukraine did not meet with complete success. Even the addition of regular Russian troops and Russian military hardware proved insufficient against Ukraine’s defenses.
Russia learned quickly that the Ukraine’s military transformation into battle hardened armed forces made their successes in the Donbas increasingly costly and stopped the Russian advance. Ukraine’s armed forces in 2021 bear no resemblance to the under-resourced force, (supplemented by volunteer militias) engaged in “Anti-Terror Operations” in the Donbas in 2014. Ukraine has also benefited greatly joint NATO training exercises all while it strives to meet NATO standards of equipment and training. Putin’s purported brag to Merkel that Russia could take Kyiv “in a few days” rings increasingly hollow as the conflict has dissolved into a stalemate. Today’s The Ukrainian armed forces are the third largest in Europe, only behind Russia and France, with an estimated 250,000 in uniform (excluding the border Guard and National Guard of Ukraine). These troops are highly motivated and experienced, with a knowledge of both the Russian and Western European way of war.
The cost of an overt invasion of Ukraine by Russia would be a price too high for Putin to bear. It is also worth contemplating what Putin could both gain and lose by such a gamble. A Russian initiated and unresolved conflict in the Donbas (with no annexation) means that Ukraine is unlikely to be admitted to NATO or the EU. At present, the stalemate and political interference in Ukraine’s affairs prevent Ukraine from realising its true potential. Nor is it clear if such reckless action would have widespread public support. Meanwhile, Putin has been very careful to hide the true cost of Russian military action in Eastern Ukraine for both domestic and international reasons. Still, in terms of lives lost and plausible deniability, the involvement of regular Russian military personnel is supported by overwhelming evidence, contrary to Putin’s denials. Reports of widespread casualties would undoubtedly and quickly lead to a weakening of Putin’s grasp on power. Deploying 100,000 troops on the border does not give Putin the overwhelming critical mass that he would require for a major (declared) invasion of Ukraine. Should this number be dramatically increased (i.e. trebled) over the next number of weeks and months; the threat of an invasion and all-out war will have increased significantly.
The Biden administration, NATO and the EU are correct to be concerned about the build-up of Russian armed forces on the Ukraine border. A miscalculation or incident on the border can lead to an escalation of hostilities and total war in the region. Many wars are the direct result of unintended consequences. Putin has long demonstrated little regard for international law and the lives of civilians. To change the paradigm, now is the time for resolve from the West, demonstrating clearly to Putin that the West has Kyiv’s back. The mobilisation of a deterrent force from NATO countries to Ukraine will undoubtedly lead to loud protests from Moscow, with corresponding claims of Western escalation, but ultimately, it would give Putin pause. Such actions, coupled with a strong message delivered to Moscow that any further invasion of Ukraine would lead to more crippling sanctions that would effectively reduce Moscow into an isolated state, akin to North Korea, would demonstrate that the West understands that Putin does not seek normalisation of relations.
As US Defence Secretary Austin said, the West does not know Putin’s intentions. A lack of human intelligence in the inner sanctum of the Kremlin or Russian Security services makes this impossible. He may well be right in thinking there is a lack of real will among the Western powers in providing military support to Ukraine, as an unaligned state, however he would be reckless in the extreme in thinking that an overt invasion of Ukraine wouldn’t come with a huge cost in lives and treasure and may end with Putin on trial in the Hague.
Putin has exploited the information gap previously, through overt and more subtle threats of total war against Ukraine, winning considerable concessions from France and Germany through the Normandy format. However, while Putin possesses the desire to compel Ukraine back into the Russian orbit through the use of force, he does not possess the tools as of yet. The threat Putin poses to the security of Europe remains clear and present. Still, the threat is in the ‘grayzone’ of hybrid warfare; in implausible and plausible deniability, wet-work, electoral interference and other active measures in Europe (low cost, high impact actions, rather than high- risk military operations against a formidable adversary) are immense.
The build-up of troops on the border serves a very real purpose, but whether this is to distract from what we can’t see or not is the question.
Rob Gill is currently a Post-grad student in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College, London, specialising in intelligence and counter-intelligence studies. He holds a degree in Public Administration from the University of Limerick and a Masters in Globalisation from Dublin City University. Rob is the founder of Pegasus Strategic Insights – a risk consultancy. All opinions are his own.