The Return of Russia and the Challenge to European Defense: The Italian Contribution


2014-05-14 By Robbin Laird

Since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defense of Europe has been largely a politically managed affair. 

The business at hand was shoring up the European Union and NATO arrangements to deal with the new situation, and to expand East as the Soviet Union mutated into the truncated state of Russia.  The West also increasingly shared the assumption that war in Europe was inconceivable and that Russia would eventually be integrated into a European normative and political order. 

Therefore, the West could afford to (put it bluntly) neglect and run down its defenses in the direct defense of Europe.

The Decline and Return of the Direct Defense of Europe

NATO and the EU also struggled to sort out a new approach to “European Defense” whereby the EU would play a greater role, and soft power was ascendant with hard power playing a role in the chorus of the march of Europe forward into the 21st century. 

NATO now fought for its continued existence.  How could an alliance shaped to defeat a power at the heart of a divided Europe become something else?

It did so by reconfiguring its forces and its mental furniture to what have been called “out of area” threats, such as the focus upon global terrorism and piracy.  For such threats, forces needed to be rebuilt to become more agile, with greater reach, and new command and control capabilities.  Things like tankers, and lift aircraft become crucial and are at a premium.

The direct defense of Europe largely became an historic memory; as the US and its allies fought land wars first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and then the US pivoted in the Pacific, Europe downsized its forces and reconfigured them for “specialized” roles in “out of area defense,” the configuration of forces for its direct defense became a second order issue.

As a Danish colleague commented on the challenge:

This is actually poking the finger on the center of NATO’s problems, which coincidentally is even more the case for Denmark: NATO is now World champion in Out of Area Operations (Denmark is probably one of the most specialized in sending battle group size contingents to Afghanistan…), but has very little capacity if any to defend own territory…

There is a core problem of the impact of policy fatigue associated with continuing Euro crises which is significantly reducing the political ability of Continental European governments to respond to other global challenges. Credit Image: Bigstock
There is a core problem of the impact of policy fatigue associated with continuing Euro crises which is significantly reducing the political ability of Continental European governments to respond to other global challenges. Credit Image: Bigstock

With the Euro crisis, and the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 the possibilities of redrawing the map of Europe became real.  

Yet the West has steadfastly refused to  realize the dangers to the historic project of European integration posed by a resurgent Russia.  

The Euro crisis is defining the end of a period of history. The era since 1991 has been defined by the expansion of Europe, the consolidation of NATO, and America as the hinge that held much of the strategic map together.

At the heart of these convergent developments is the idea that a European currency would be combined with a European foreign policy and a European defense. Security, defense, a common currency and convergent development and growth paths would create a new global entity, a new Europe.

But now, new centrifugal forces are widening political, social, and economic and security differences within the EU and among its neighbors. The deepening recession is increasing differences among citizens and encouraging nationalism and political localization.

This crisis comes as new dynamics are emerging and rewriting the map.

The Russian Map-Maker

The Arab Spring, the rise of Iran, the Syrian crisis and the operations against Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi are raising the global profile of the Middle East. The Russians are focused like a laser beam on an energy policy that will enable them to play a key role in Europe and Asia and prevent further progress in European integration. The Arctic is one of the centerpieces to Russian strategy. And the Chinese are leveraging their global economic assets to find a new place in Europe and the Middle East.

Enter the Russian mapmaker as a key element in recalling the need for the direct defense of Europe.

Putin has never really accepted that Russia should be a truncated state at the margins of Europe. He sought in 2008 in Georgia and in the Crimean crisis to redraw the map and begin a Russian resurgence. Such map redrawing on top of one generated by the Euro crisis, does pose the question of the defense of Europe once again.

Added to that are the dynamics of change in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  The crisis in Iran and Syria are leading to significant change in the alliance structures in the region.  The Russians have positioned themselves as key players in shaping any outcome, have gained solid access to Syrian ports, and due to the Euro crisis have expanded their influence in Cyprus with potential consequences for their naval forces as well.

At least ten Russian battleships arrived in the eastern Mediterranean for war games. Photo: Today's Zaman, July 22, 2012.
At least ten Russian battleships arrived in the eastern Mediterranean for war games. Photo: Today’s Zaman, July 22, 2012.

The inclusion of Crimea within Russia now provides a solid basis for Russian naval and air expansion in the Mediterranean.

The Russian naval treaty allowed use of the Ukrainian facilities but the Ukrainian government exercised a veto power on Russian naval expansion in Sevastopol.  Now that veto power is gone, and the impetus to build a fleet appropriate to the region – diesel submarines and frigates – can move forward. 

And linking an evolving air capability with the subsurface and surface fleet will expand the ability of Russia to play its allied role in the region. 

It is not about preparing for the return of the Soviet Union; it is about shaping capabilities to play a key role in the 21st century with both hard and soft power means.

And these means clearly converge on Russia’s energy role, which will expand as it aggressively expands its Arctic capabilities and presence.

What this means for Italy is clear: Russia will build out its naval and air presence in areas close to Italy and to expand outward into the Mediterranean theater of operation.  

Russia is in the process of negotiating air and naval access in Cyprus and a naval base in Syria and is probably exploring another one in Alexandria.  The Russians hope to be able to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean, and use their various energy and arms sales tools to augment relationships as well in the region. 

And Russia will certainly to continue to play the role it played throughout the Soviet period, of playing one nation off against the other, an opportunity which will expand as the Euro crisis continues and the US sorts out its various global roles.

The Russians are focused; the West is not. 

The Challenge for Italy

For Italy, this means that Italian interests will not be met simply by being members of alliances, whether European or Atlantic. 

Italy will need to ensure that it has tools for the direct defense of its territory and its interests.  Indeed, in an environment where Western states are taking care of their “domestic” needs as a priority over defense, the challenge for any state is to assure that its ability to defend itself is solid and its ability to operate effectively in coalitions which can act rapidly are enhanced. 

The coalitions which the EU and NATO have built are least common denominator and very slow to coalesce to defend any one’s interests and leave Europe and the West exposed to the kind of meddling which a determined state like Russia can do.

There is a clear need to augment air and naval power, and to enhance the flexibility of both working together to provide for both a deterrent and influence role in the region. 

Connectivity among the national forces and interoperability with allied forces will be a key aspect of building an effective and best value force appropriate for 21st century challenges.

As French Air Force General Paloméros, the head of Allied Command Transformation put it recently:

We have to take care of legacy investments, but we also have to look into the future.

What I know is that we have to make the best out of any single dollar, so we have to find new solutions.

There are solutions which can help the Allies to mitigate defense budgets reduction.

In that sense it is a key role for NATO and SACT to aim at full interoperability.

We should train for that and that is why exercises are so important: optimizing the resources to train people at the standards of NATO. Technology is useless if you don’t train people to use them.

 By ensuring that Italian forces are interoperable with their European and American allies allows them to operate lego-like and able to combine into forces appropriate to the mission.

Combining flexibility and connectivity to shape for scalable capability is the core challenge of building and buying forces going forward. Enhancing the ability to be scalable with the US, Arab and European allies in dealing with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern challenges is a core objective of force modernization for the period ahead.

Lt. General Preziosa, Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, seen after the SLD interview Credit: SLD
Lt. General Preziosa, Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, seen after the SLD interview Credit: SLD in the Fall of 2013

Clearly, Italy’s engagement in the F-35 program is part of an effective way forward.  The Italian fleet of F-35s will be part of a global fleet; European, American and Asian and as such able to operate locally, regionally, and globally as the requirement requires.  It is part of a global enterprise whereby the leading states are investing in a long-term modernization process via the software upgradeability in the aircraft, and Italy will benefit from the global investments to get a plane being upgraded over time with the ability to tap into those investments.

The F-35 provides a unique opportunity to partner with other Euro states as well as with the three services of the United States.  It fully integrates across those forces and will be kept up to date with software changes will be migrated across the global fleet. The F-35 from this standpoint as the I-Phone was to MS-DOS.

In Cameri, Italy has leaned forward and laid the foundation for regional support structure for its allies in doing joint operations in the defense of allied interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  In effect, Cameri is to airpower in the 21st century as to what Naples was for allied naval power in the 20th. 

The ability to integrate the Italian navy and air force is ramped up by the joint deployment of the F-35 as well.  As the USMC – which is the lead force getting ready for deployment in 2015 in Asia – clearly is focused upon, the plane is to support its joint force structure, which is a Marine Air Ground Task Force, and able to operate from  ships and off of land. 

The response to the Russian challenge requires a “holistic” response.  Resources are a key part of the conflict, notably with regard to energy. 

The Russians have not only significant indigenous energy resources, but will expand those resources with access in the Arctic. 

And the re-configuration of their position in the Middle East is designed in part to align their interest with other energy providers.

A Way Ahead

Dealing with a challenge is not simply about prevailing in a direct military conflict; it is having the spectrum of tools to work alliances in the region to protect one’s interest, and having access to hard power is part of the ability to do so.

For the USMC, the reach of the F-35B is even more significant than its range. The ability to share data among the fleet, provides for the kind of reach, the Marines now get with Ospreys flying at great distance to deliver an insertion force.  Speed, reach and range are the motifs for the 21st century USMC, and makes a great deal of sense with its brothers in the F-35B program, the UK, Italy and soon Singapore with Japan a likely partner in the F-35B program in the future.

F-35B coverage from the allied fleet in the Mediterranean. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense
F-35B coverage from the allied fleet in the Mediterranean. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense

In short, the return of the direct defense of Europe, the resurgence of Russia, the Arctic opening, on top of a Euro crisis, and the reconfiguration of NATO forces to deal with “out of area” threats means that an effective hard power needs to be shaped to go along with 21st century soft power. 

As the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force commented about the F-35B, “it can fly to the mission, not the airfield,” and as such is part of the modular capability to engage in a national or coalition scalable force.

The Russians are posing 21st century challenges; and do not require 20th century responses.  But building out to ensure that the diversity of threats in the Middle East and Mediterranean do not overwhelm Italy and its allies, and to ensure that the Russian map makers put down their pens, 21st capability matters.  And a plane, which anchors a 21st century global enterprise, makes a great deal of sense.

For background stories to this one see the following:

For a Special Report on Italy and the F-35 see the following:

For an interesting look at the augmentation of Russian sea and airpower to the Med and the Middle East see the article The Russian Navy ‘Rebalances’ To the Mediterranean  from which an excerpt appears below:

The Russian naval movement back into the Mediterranean can be explained by a number of rational calculations; however, no one of them is either conclusive or persuasive.

This realignment is perhaps best understood by a simple confluence of supply and demand. From a supply perspective, after talking about rebuilding its defense forces for many years, Russia has finally begun to do so.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Russia at a comfortable third in global defense spending, behind the United States and China, with an impressive 113 percent growth over the past decade. The Russian Navy shipbuilding and modernization account is receiving an increasingly large share of national defense appropriations, amounting to more than $132 billion between now and 2020, according to Reuters .

Med as seen from space. Credit: NASA
The Mediterranean chessboard as seen from space. Credit: NASA

Additionally, Russian shipyards are finally delivering vessels to the fleet.

Russia has reported that the “Navy will receive 36 warships in 2013, an unprecedented number in Russia’s history.” 7 This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, because it includes a large number of very small craft, yet one cannot deny that larger ships— Yasen -class submarines, Steregushchiy -class frigates, Gorshkov -class corvettes, Ivan Gren –class amphibious ships, Dagestan -class gunships, and Borei -class ballistic-missile submarines—are also beginning to become operational. Russia’s desire to expand its fleet has also resulted in the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, a dramatic increase in Russian naval-school enrollment, and significant growth in cruise-missile production. All told, the Russian Navy is showing signs of growth in geographical deployments, inventory, and sophistication.

On the demand side, Russian President Vladimir Putin insistently asserts that the drastic upgrade in Russia’s defense forces is a logical response to U.S. and NATO efforts to “tip the strategic balance,” while making pointed reference to the new NATO missile-defense system in Europe. Putin further contends that Russian military responses must be “well calculated and quick.” Any responsible Russian naval adviser would naturally point out that “quick” suggests the need for forward presence.

Why does the Mediterranean—a body of water with no Russian seacoast—qualify for this even more aggressive response? Firstly, Russia’s only exit to the open ocean for its Black Sea Fleet is the Mediterranean. Russia also has long-standing economic ties to many regional states, including Greece, Libya, Cyprus, and Algeria, and is buying or selling arms with a number of the Mediterranean littoral states, including France and Algeria.

Another consideration is the logistical node in Tartus, a location of increasing strategic importance during this period of ongoing Syrian conflict, especially if Russian citizens need to evacuate the country. Finally, the Russian Navy would be able to increase its readiness and develop more sophisticated training by operating in the Mediterranean during the winter months.

However, no one of these is sufficient to invite a ten-ship Russian armada to set up a permanent presence.

The most likely logic behind this naval movement to the southwest is probably the iron law of power politics: Nature abhors a vacuum.

The regional NATO navies have been suffering an inexorable decline for years. The French and Italian naval orders of battle are shadows of their former selves, while NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups are spending less time in the Mediterranean.

This is partly attributable to diminishing inventories, and also to NATO’s counterpiracy Operation Ocean Shield, conducted in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

America’s European allies are more willing to leave the theater simply because NATO proclaimed that the European theater has diminished in strategic significance.

In effect, the West has placed a low-cost “for rent” sign on very valuable property, and Putin has responded like any canny investor.

It should be noted that this USNI piece was finished in the Fall of 2013, prior to the events in Crimea, Syria and Egypt in 2014.