Russia, Client States and Building Out a 21st Century Strategy


2014-08-10 By Robbin Laird

Vladimir Putin has returned Russia to the world stage in rather dramatic fashion.

The seizure of Crimea from Ukraine is the most obvious statement of Russian power, yet this seizure could obscure the broader strategy and focus of attention.

Putin is really an energy czar, running a country.

The Russian economy and its global significance rest heavily on its energy resources and playing an effective global energy security game.

This means that in addition to the already extensive internal resources, those in the Arctic are crucial to the long-term effort, and engaging in the evolution of the Middle East as an energy ally/competitor is important as well.

The actions in Ukraine have included seizure of territory, the use of special forces, information war, the use of indigenous Russian armed and trained “separatists,” and other techniques well laid out in a thoughtful piece from a Latvian researcher.

In a seminal piece on the Ukrainian crisis by a Latvian researcher, new ground has been laid to shape a clearer understanding of the evolving nature of 21st century military power.

Neither asymmetric nor convention, the Russians are shaping what this researcher calls a strategic communications policy to support strategic objectives and to do so with a tool set of various means, including skill useful of military power as the underwriter of the entire effort.

According to Janis Berzinš, the Russians have unleashed a new generation of warfare in Ukraine. The entire piece needs to be read carefully and its entirety, but the core analytical points about the Russian approach and the shaping a new variant of military operations for the 21st century can be seen from the excerpts taken from the piece below:

The Crimean campaign has been an impressive demonstration of strategic communication, one which shares many similarities with their intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, while at the same time being essentially different, since it reflects the operational realization of the new military guidelines to be implemented by 2020.

Its success can be measured by the fact that in just three weeks, and without a shot being fired, the morale of the Ukrainian military was broken and all of their 190 bases had surrendered. Instead of relying on a mass deployment of tanks and artillery, the Crimean campaign deployed less than 10,000 assault troops – mostly naval infantry, already stationed in Crimea, backed by a few battalions of airborne troops and Spetsnaz commandos – against 16,000 Ukrainian military personnel.

In addition, the heaviest vehicle used was the wheeled BTR-80 armored personal carrier. After blocking Ukrainian troops in their bases, the Russians started the second operational phase, consisting of psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and internet/media propaganda to undermine resistance, thus avoiding the use of firepower.

The operation was also characterized by the great discipline of the Russian troops, the display of new personnel equipment, body armor, and light wheeled armored vehicles. The result was a clear military victory on the battlefield by the operationalization of a well-orchestrated campaign of strategic communication, using clear political, psychological, and information strategies and the fully operationalization of what Russian military thinkers call “New Generation Warfare”…..

Thus, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population.

The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power to the minimum necessary, making the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country.

New Generation Warfare

The key is effective intervention, but without over engagement.

Whether this happens depends up Ukraine and the West, but Putin’s approach is about leverage and effect. But the ability to act, indirectly, is a key element of the approach, notably with the inability of Western democracies and their alliances to deal with indirect action.

The West has alliances designed to protect directly threatened states and interests; Putin’s strategy focuses on the seams; the ability to generate indirect actions, leverage and directly act only when necessary.

The Russians really have no allies; but they do not need them to succeed.They have clients.

Client states and actors are key partners for the Russians in protecting their mutual interests, which are not laid out in alliance agreements, but moving arrangements to meet mutual needs.

The ability to build and deliver arms rapidly is certainly a key aspect of shaping the client strategy. It is a strategy of violence but not about Russian troops on the ground, or the operation of a global Russian air force; it is about delivery to the target of need.

With regard to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the Russians are both building out an infrastructure to operate from in the region over the long run, and shaping an effective arms delivery approach fueling the current conflicts.

Earlier, I argued that an aspect of shaping an effective infrastructure for engagement involved shaping a network of naval bases or support facilities in the region.

It is often noted that the current state of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean is not first rate, and is populated with many aging assets. This is largely true, but misses the point that the Russians have set in motion a major naval and air modernization effort, and by laying down a solid geographical infrastructure, when capabilities are added, then they have tools to go with the infrastructure to shape regular influence in the region.

With regard to the Eastern Mediterranean, two key areas are involved: Syria and Egypt.

With regard to the Western Mediterranean, Cyprus is the key target of the Russian effort. 

And correlated with this effort is the ability to provide and deliver rapidly if needed arms to clients. Unlike the United States, which is incapable of delivering arms rapidly to the region (and Europe even more so), the Russians can deliver rapidly.

A recent example was the delivery of Sukhoi jets to Iraq.

According to a BBC story:

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has told the BBC that he hopes jets from Russia and Belarus will turn the tide against rebels in the coming days. “God willing within one week this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists’ dens,” he said.

He said that the process of buying US jets had been “long-winded” and that the militants’ advance could have been avoided if air cover had been in place. Isis and its Sunni Muslim allies seized large parts of Iraq this month. Mr Maliki was speaking to the BBC’s Arabic service in his first interview for an international broadcaster since Isis – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – began its major offensive.

“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract [with the US],” Mr Maliki said. “We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian to secure the air cover for our forces; if we had air cover we would have averted what had happened,” he went on.

He said Iraq was acquiring second-hand jet fighters from Russia and Belarus “that should arrive in Iraq in two or three days”.

This has been followed by a much larger arms transfer agreement.

According to a July 30, 2014, Kuwaiti news source:

Iraqi government has recently signed a USD 1 billion-worth deal with Russian government to provide Iraqi army with heavy artillery, ballistic missile systems and ammunition.

The Russian Interfax News Agency reported Wednesday that the deal was signed during a recent visit by Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Al-Dulaimi to Moscow.

It added that the deal also includes, among others things, providing Iraqi army with Grad missiles and armored vehicles.

Talks are also underway to sell Iraq ten Su-27 jet fighters, the report disclose.

And one could note that arming the Iranians, the Maliki government and the Syrians has a certain client engagement logic as well.

And in cases like arming Hamas there is clear an interest in testing weapons as well as aiding clients.

The Iron Dome is a threat to Russian offensive weapons, and it is in the Russian interest to seek ways to defeat it, either directly, indirectly, or by information warfare means.

According to a Reuters story published July 24, 2014:

Videos distributed by al-Qassam’s media arm appear to show the strength of the group’s arsenal.

“The demonstrated use of anti-tank guided missiles against small IDF units on foot, rather than against armoured vehicles, shows a clear intent to simply inflict casualties and a recognition of the (Israeli army’s) superior armour defence,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Center in Doha told Reuters.

A senior Israeli intelligence official briefing foreign reporters on Wednesday said “radical axis” countries – Iran, Syria or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon – had provided Hamas with a new generation of ground weapons.

He cited the Russian-made cornet and the shoulder-fired RPG-29 which is “more of a rocket than a missile. You can use it in an urban area when you have to fight against very close forces. This is something you don’t make by yourself.”

Hamas is a useful client, which can test the waters of an evolving 21st century conflict situation.

This is itself a key element of gaining advantage in 21st century global competition.

And of course, energy and arms make a very useful cross cutting capability.

When there was the Soviet Union, the CIA claimed that the Russians were providing arms gratis to allies in the Middle East. But as part of a Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates team in 1983, we were able to prove that the Russians were selling arms to allies and doing so through exchanges in the energy markets.

Clearly, such a possibility is in play once again, although this time Putin does not care so much for allies as for clients. He has little interest in defending clients against direct confrontation with the West, than he is in staying the game and out maneuvering Western states.

This is not the Cold War; this is the engagement of Russia in 21st century conflict and warfare.