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Russia: An army at war with itself
By Stephen Blank

Russia's recent announcements that it would obtain and rebuild bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan represents a significant move in its overall military strategy and policy. Certainly it also represents a fundamental aspect as well of Russian policy in Central Asia. That policy has acquired a steadily more integrated character under President Vladimir Putin's leadership. Putin is increasingly using all the instruments of power available to him to try to limit the other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) governments' room for maneuver in both security and economic policy.

Clearly his objective is to create a ring of pliant client states around Russia, all of whom enjoy nominal sovereignty but which in fact have severely circumscribed capabilities for exercising it. These bases are intended to house Russian fighter planes, specifically five Su-25 fighters each at first. But if fighters are to be based there, that raises the question of what kind of air defenses will protect them. Presumably, those air defense capabilities will be part of the CIS-wide air-defense system that has yet to be tested and that one suspects has multiple problems. That system has been a focus of Russian and CIS policy and exercises, suggesting that despite rhetoric to the contrary about terrorism and insurgency being the main threat, in fact the United States remains the main enemy. Other Russian exercises would also lend themselves to that conclusion.

Moreover, the Russian Ministry of Defense has advertised that these bases and their associated air capabilities are to serve as the basis for a CIS Rapid Reaction Force (RRF). While the creation of this RRF follows contemporary international trends, it remains unclear just how much Russia has learned from recent wars and how much of these lessons it is able to implement with its own still unreformed and desperately underfunded forces. Certainly examination of Russian military literature suggests that its commanders could not begin to imagine what the United States achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq, let alone implement those lessons and synergies of men and weapons systems in modern war.

Certainly, there is no sign as yet, for example, that the Russian military can perform synchronized air-ground operations, as do the US armed forces, or that it can create a truly effective RRF that can rapidly reach a theater and sustain operations there effectively. On the other hand, Moscow long ago announced plans to create a special 50,000-man force for deployment in and around the Caspian Sea and has consistently augmented the Caspian Flotilla. Thus these bases may represent steps toward executing the strategic vision inherent in the proclamation of this special force or a recalibration of those earlier plans. At the same time, it is also clear that these bases represent the Russian government's and the military's profound suspicion of US intentions and capabilities revealed in those two wars, as well as their fears about US unilateralism, willingness to disregard Russian interests, and supposed designs, on Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.

Undoubtedly, the United States' capabilities for long-range strikes and for projecting and then sustaining forces far from home must generate considerable anxiety within the Ministry of Defense and government. Thus these bases represent a strategic counter to those US capabilities. But here lies the quandary for Moscow. The announced force deployments for these bases are not power-projection forces. The Su-25 is not a long-range fighter, nor can it synchronize with the ground forces to provide the kinds of joint operations that were a hallmark of the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cannot produce air cover for ground forces and take out enemy forces at the same time. What these deployments do represent is a determination to stake a claim to "Eurasia", that is, the former Soviet empire, and to build on it in the future.

However, what Russian planners clearly fail to realize is that by virtue of the capabilities and presence they now possess, US forces have utterly undermined the concept of Eurasia as some unique theater off-limits to everyone else. And they have certainly shown long ago the limitations of the Soviet model of force building, which still grips Russian commanders. Not only can the United States project and sustain power into this theater, its victories have led to a situation whereby the entire trans-Caspian region can be considered, at least for some strategic operations, as part of a single Greater Middle Eastern theater. Whereas in both these wars US planners not only transformed the strategic landscape, they also developed novel operational concepts and military organizations to conduct operations. None of this appears remotely possible for Russian planners. One need only look at their entrenched and quite public refusal to entertain ideas of military reform or their inability to develop new tactical or operational concepts to understand that the cognitive gap between them and Western militaries is growing by leaps and bounds.

Military reform is essential to the creation of armies that can wage contemporary wars successfully and both develop and use modern technology. Failing that, a pre-modern relationship between officers and soldiers remains the norm, and that entails all the forms of the czarist "regimental economy", dedovshchina (the violent and cruel treatment of young recruits in the Russian army), etc. Certainly, no innovative operational concepts or the means to train soldiers in them will develop out of that kind of army. Neither will it be able to engage effectively on its own, either in counter-terrorism or other kinds of operations associated with the threats it will face in and around Central Asia. Worse yet, nobody should think that counter-terrorism entails strictly small-scale operations. That is emphatically not the case, as the US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq show conclusively. In contemporary war, forces must be able to dominate across the entire spectrum of operations because contemporary and future war will increasingly present what perhaps the most innovative Russian thinker, retired General M A Gareyev, called "multivariant" challenges, often at the same time in the same engagements.

Under present conditions, and as Chechnya indicates, Russia's military is simply unable to live in the same conceptual and operational universe as Western militaries do. And what Moscow intends to enforce in Central Asia by reserving command of these putative CIS forces is those areas' military backwardness. This is unlikely to be an acceptable alternative for many of these states. Georgia and Azerbaijan already want to be in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or to enjoy its protection. Other states seek to learn from Western models and tactics. Neither is it clear that Russia can even afford to sustain the forces it hopes to build.

Still, none of these considerations has deterred the military, the most unreformed institution in Russia and one that remains in thrall to atavistic visions of the old machtpolitik. There is no doubt that Russia will remain a significant, and possibly the major, player in Central Asia. But if it hopes to achieve that position it will have to reform both its policies and the way it thinks about war and peace. And whether it has the will, the skill, the resources, and the understanding needed to do so still remains a very open question.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Sep 27, 2003

Moscow marches into Kyrgyzstan
(Sep 24, '03)

Central Asia: Impact of siding with US
(Sep 12, '03)



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