Russia, Australia and the Changing Strategic Environment


2016-03-21 By Robbin Laird

I had a chance to meet with students and to give a presentation at the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies which is part of the Australian Defence College.

I made a presentation last year to the Williams Foundation, and this discussion was a follow on to that.

Russia seems a long way away when you are in Australia although Russia has gotten Australian attention in many ways, such as showing up in Syria with the Australian Air Force participating in coalition operations in the area or bringing warships off of the coast of Australia.

In a press roundtable with the Australian media, the head of the Royal Australian Air Force noted that although the RAAF has flown from time to time into Syrian air space, they had no real problems with Russian aircraft.

But he seemed happy to have done these flights with the support of their E-7 air battle management and surveillance aircraft to sort out various players in the airspace.

And in November 2014, the Russians showed up with warships off of the coast of Australia.

Pride of Russian fleet bound for Brisbane ... The Russia Navy’s guided-missile cruiser, The Varyag.Source:AFP
Pride of Russian fleet bound for Brisbane … The Russia Navy’s guided-missile cruiser, The Varyag.Source:AFP

The Australians sent out some warships to sort out what was going on, but I am sure they were reassured by the Russian answer concerning why the Russian navy had shown up near Australia.

RUSSIA has for the first time explained the presence of a fleet of warships off north-eastern Australia, saying that the ships are testing their range capability, in case they have to do climate change research in the Antarctic.

The Russian embassy also said the fleet could, if necessary, provide security for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrives in Brisbane for the G20 tonight.

The four Russian warships are conducting exercises in international waters around the Coral Sea in a move that has been interpreted as a show of force by M. Putin.

Moscow’s explanation comes as Defence said a third Australian naval ship has been deployed to monitor the fleet, with a fourth nearby.

Our discussion focused largely on the interaction between Russia and the evolving strategic context, in which Putin can be seen as a reshaping force.

Russian Navy Off of Australia, Nov 2014

Putin clearly is using force in ways to support Russian national objectives and in dividing when he can democratic states over key objectives.

He has brought Russia back into the game, and has done so in a way that has combined several elements of power.

He shapes convergence among information warfare, force packages and an ability to set specific objectives, rather than having vague long term military engagements set prior to sending the military on overseas operations with end date in sight.

What he has demonstrated is that the military trend to shape more effective intervention forces needs to be combined with a civilian capability to set limited objectives which allow the state to succeed up to the level of those objectives.

The experience of using Russia’s combat aircraft in Syria inspires optimism, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at a meeting on the development of the country’s combat aviation on Wednesday.

“I want to say at once that the experience of the combat use of our aviation in Syria testifies to the high mastership of the design potential and our designers and technologists,” Rogozin said, adding that the skills and courage of Russian combat aviation pilots should be added to this.

This is in stark contrast with the democratic state’s ability to send force, but not to set limited objectives and seemingly unable to withdraw without the specter of failing to have mission success.

We have written about shaping 21st century intervention forces and the setting of limited objectives to be met with such force and then to withdraw.

Ironically, the only political leader who seems to get this is Vladimir Putin.

And pushing up to the edge and using various tools to achieve objectives was recently focused upon as well by James Durso.

The Russians are masters of hybrid warfare.

As Chairman of NATO’s military committee Petr Pavel noted, they “…create an influence that is strong enough, but below the threshold of Article 5, so they achieve the goals without provoking the enemy or opponent to initiate a defense response.”

A question was raised by one of the students at the College with regard to migration issue and Russian involvement.

The issue was the statement by SACEUR with respect to Russian actions in the Middle East.

The exchange between what SACEUR said and how the Russians responded is instructive of how the Russians use Information War very effectively.

US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, Commander of the US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO, said that the migrant crisis facing Europe is allowing terror elements into the continent undetected, with actions by the Islamic State (IS), Moscow, and Damascus pushing people out of Syria and Iraq and into the European system.

“Europe faces the dawning challenge of mass migration spurred by state instability and state collapse, a migration that masks the movement of criminals, terrorists, and foreign fighters,” Breedlove said at a Pentagon press briefing.

“Within this mix, [IS] is spreading like a cancer, taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own with terrorist attacks.”

Breedlove also said that his information suggests that radical foreign fighters have left from Europe to join groups like IS and subsequently reentered unchecked.

“As many as 9,000 fighters have gone, and as much as 1,500 fighters have returned back to Europe,” he said, adding that they bring with them the potential for future terror attacks.

Breedlove also had strong words for Russia, saying that its recent actions have placed it in opposition to US and NATO goals in the region, and that the Syrian government and its ally are “deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

And the Russian response?

Moscow was amused by the top NATO General’s claims that it is using the refugee crisis as a “weapon” against the West, with the Defense Ministry’s spokesman saying such rhetoric reaffirms concerns of Breedlove’s apparent dislocation of memory.

“Taking into account that such recurrence of the ‘sunshine of the spotless mind’ appeared right before the scheduled meeting of the Armed Services Committee, there is no wonder that a decision has been made by the US congressmen to replace him on his post of the Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Joint Force in Europe,” Konashenkov said.

Su-35 Over Syria.
Su-35 Over Syria.

Konashenkov once again pointed out that Moscow could not have possibly been the reason for the refugee crisis, which began long before Russia launched its anti-terror operations in Syria. And unlike the anti-ISIS coalition, Russia’s operations in Syria have alleviated the refugee crisis in the country and led to the first step of the establishment of a peace-making process, Konashenkov added.

“Essential is the fact that as a results of the Russian operation, the UN is registering the reduction of refugee flows from Syria and a process of reconciliation has been initiated, which is something the Western so-called “anti-ISIS coalition” has been unable to achieve over the previous three years of their “fight” against terrorism,” Konashenkov stated.

 Responding to the “indiscriminate” and “non-precision” bombing claims, Konashenkov reminded the NATO general that precision of airstrike depends not only on smart weapons, but also on proper intelligence, pilot’s skills and aiming systems of the aircraft.

“Sole reliance on ‘supersmart’ or ‘superprecision’ weapons leads American hawks to tragic mistakes with fatal consequences, as it was repeatedly observed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and since recently – in Syria,” Konashenkov said.

Given this exchange – advantage Russia.

The reality is that the Russians have not taken any real responsibility for sorting or solving the migrant crisis.

But they certainly have not caused the crisis, nor or they especially supportive of terrorists moving throughout the region and coming among other places into Russia itself.

The blunt fact is that Russia has taken some degree of responsibility for Syria and should be brought into the effort to deal with the migrant crisis as part of their Syrian engagement.

European institutions and resolve are under stress and threat due to internal reasons, notably the Euro crisis, the pressures on security structures in the European Union and many other factors, and one could certainly argue that Russia is doing precious little to help this process and could be viewed as exacerbating it.

But they are not CAUSING it.

Turning the migration issue into a Russia versus the West issue is not going to do much to sort out the crisis.

One way to deflect Putin’s efforts is to hold him partly accountable for the future of Syria.

That would then take his limited objectives in Syria to a level where he would find a level of discomfort.

And if he responds well, that is good thing; if he does not then he has been exposed to be doing something perhaps short of Breedlove is saying, but moving in that direction.

Secretary Kerry once accused Putin of being 19th not 21st century in character.

Unfortunately, Putin is very 21st century but remembers some of the lessons of the powers of the late 19th century in terms of how to achieve limited objectives.

And in some ways, he is using 21st century means to pursue 19th century objectives as well.