The Russian military is now a sharpened policy tool of choice for an emboldened but strategically defensive regime that relies on preemption.
In mid-September, Russia will conduct Zapad “West” 2017, a major quadrennial military exercise that takes place near the borders of the Baltic States and Poland as well as inside independent Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Not since the end of the Cold War has a modern-day military exercise prompted as much speculation and concern as this Western-oriented display of Vladimir Putin’s machines of war.
The prospect of Zapad 2017 raises tantalizing and worrisome questions. Will it turn out to be a traditional preparedness operation, in which a wide array of heavy, light and specialist forces train for higher readiness? Or, will it prove to be a well-calculated first step toward inserting Russian forces permanently into its prickly ally Belarus? Or, could it be, as some fear, the dark prelude to a surprise invasion of neighboring NATO’s Baltic States?
Four years ago, I witnessed Zapad 2013. I was the senior U.S. Military Attache to Russia and part of a large contingent of Moscow-based international military attaches who were invited to observe the proceedings by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
After flying from Moscow in an aging Ilyushin aircraft, our attaché group arrived in tiny Kaliningrad, the former East Prussian Konigsberg, a militarized wedge of Russia between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania. There, we settled into bleachers overlooking broad beaches to watch the grand finale of Zapad 2013—a large “anti-terrorist” amphibious operation.
President Vladimir Putin in black raincoat arrived in an armada of black SUVs, accompanied by Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Kolya. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also attended. The men sat in the glassed-in VIP gallery above us. Both Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, had been in their roles for less than a year, a result of major shake-ups in the Russian defense structure in late 2012. Tellingly, they both remain in place today.
The exercise began. In the distance, large indistinct gray forms on the water slowly approached us, veiled by early morning Baltic mists. Suddenly, red-starred fighter-bombers screamed past us overhead, followed by swarms of missile-laden helicopter gunships. “Terrorist” positions on the beach and behind were bombarded with firepower of all types. The air was filled with fiery flashes and ear-splitting booms. By then, the mysterious gray forms had revealed their identity: Polish-built “Ropucha” amphibious assault ships, Cold War holdovers. Near the shoreline, the ships rapidly disgorged amphibious armored personnel carriers laden with Russian marines who dismounted in the shallows and stormed the beach. Air transports flew high overhead loaded with paratroopers who did not jump due to the blustery winds.
Then, on the horizon, appeared the world’s largest military hovercraft, shrouded in a giant cloud of foam and mist, like some Mesozoic sea monster. The huge Zubr-class air-boat roared up onto the beach and disgorged more marines and vehicles. We gaped at the hovercraft’s immensity and its menacing array of weapons. After this memorable spectacle, President Putin popped out from the elevated command center above us, leaned over and said in English to our throng of attaches below, “I am glad you could come.” After shaking hands with a few Russian commanders, he was whisked away in his cavalcade of SUVs.
The carefully scripted display that morning was the culmination of a century’s worth of refinement of Russia’s traditional firepower-centric warfare. The muscle-flexing was meant to impress not only those of us on hand, but also Russia’s domestic population and the wider world. The exercise also was designed to intimidate Russia’s regional neighbors; I can only imagine what the Baltic, Polish and other eastern European attaches standing among us thought.
Yet even as we climbed down from the bleachers and waited for our ears to stop ringing, the deep-thinkers working for Russia’s general staff and intelligence services were already hard at work on a brand-new way of war. The world’s first glimpse of Putin’s new approach came just four months after Zapad 2013, in February 2014, when the collapse of the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime triggered a fast-moving chain of political and military events over a scant three years that shook and ultimately cracked the global post–Cold War order.
During that short period, the world witnessed a Russian military revolution on the same scale as our own U.S. “Revolution in Military Affairs” of the late-twentieth-century. In our revolution, technology was harnessed to sharpen and amplify the effects of firepower. We refined killing techniques, believing they would lead, inevitably, to victory. The new approach successfully deterred the late–Cold War Soviets and climaxed in the Desert Storm operation in Iraq a quarter century ago.
Unsurprisingly, the post-Soviet Russians intently studied our impressive performance on the battlefield and also watched carefully as we retooled for dealing with difficult counterinsurgencies. What they learned from us, and their own difficult experiences, led to a revised and nuanced approach to warfare—an approach used very effectively-in a “troika” of military operations between 2014–2017 in Ukraine’s Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.
The Russians began by rethinking the concept of victory, and then worked backward to devise methods to achieve it. The result is an arsenal of asymmetric “influencers” that are difficult for free, open societies to combat in peacetime. The weapons range from a ruthless application of special operations through economic subversion, to cyber-assaults; from manipulated elections to the extensive use of disinformation and old-fashioned assassinations. Whereas the United States had the luxury of thinking in brilliant operational parts, the Russians—with far fewer resources—focused on the strategic whole to get the most bang for the buck.
Failure also played a role in Russia’s military reset. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was not the Russian military’s finest hour, and only succeeded due to massive advantages in manpower and firepower. Russia’s traditional military structures, leadership and training failed dismally. Vladimir Putin, the “new” Czar, already in power for eight years, was not happy. He brought in new leaders, and supported their “New Look” reforms, which ruthlessly cut and streamlined Russia’s bloated and largely Soviet-era military. The only assets left essentially unchanged were Russia’s formidable nuclear-capable forces, the key ingredient maintaining Russia’s superpower aspirations.
The first of the three applications of Putin’s new warfare approach was on display in the rapid and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March 2014. The move came on the heels of the Sochi Olympic Games and the bloodbath in Kiev’s Maidan Square that led to pro-Russian President Yanukovych’s hasty flight from Ukraine. The stealth operation was a major departure from what we had just witnessed at Zapad 2013. Aggressive and measured deployment of “little green men”—well-armed, nonattributed Russian special operations troops supporting local proxies—rapidly paralyzed Ukrainian resistance in Crimea and kept local ethnic Russian hotheads from fighting their Ukrainian and Tartar counterparts. Ukrainian governmental centers were seized without bloodshed while military bases were sealed off and allowed to peacefully surrender.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, my colleagues and I saw Russian state-owned television play patriotic movies about the Victorian-era Crimean War and World War II’s “Hero City” of Sevastopol. A coordinated disinformation campaign spewed forth invective about a (faux) NATO threat to the Crimea, planting the notion among the Russian populace that Putin’s preemptive invasion was justified.
Buoyed by success in Crimea, Putin’s second application of the new approach to warfare showcased the blending of special operations and conventional forces to support ethnic Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine. The “hybrid” technique initially suppressed key ethnic Russian-heavy Ukrainian governmental and population centers. Major Ukrainian cities with large Russian populations such as Kharkiv, Mariupol and Odessa almost fell to Russian-steered “separatist” assaults. But the operation hit a major bump when separatists found themselves in unexpectedly tough and bloody fighting with a determined hodge-podge of Ukrainian government and volunteer forces. And many ethnic Russians in Ukraine refused to join Putin’s Russia—a miscalculation that took Moscow by surprise.
After a long summer of combat during which Russia never acknowledged its own forces fighting inside sovereign Ukraine, resurgent Ukrainian forces pressed the separatists into increasingly compressed pockets around Donetsk and Lugansk. In late August, undeclared main-force Russian units rolled across the border into eastern Ukraine to stave off an imminent separatist collapse and a colossal political setback for Putin. (His regime was already reeling from the ghastly, inadvertent separatist shoot down of a packed civilian Air Malaysia jetliner in mid-July 2014.)
Using much improved command and control, combat intelligence using drones and electronic warfare enabling precision fire strikes, Russian fires shattered the counter-attacking Ukrainian spearheads near Ilovaisk and restored a much diminished Russian separatist enclave. Throughout, the Russians maintained the somewhat inconvenient fiction that only volunteers were fighting, no main force units. In spite of less than perfect execution, the Russian campaign in eastern Ukraine marked the second major operation in which a wide range of Russian forces experimented with different tactics and techniques, gained valuable experience and combat-tested their equipment.
The third application of Putin’s new approach was Russia’s sharp-elbowed intervention into Syria in late September, 2015. Here, unlike Crimea or eastern Ukraine, Russian forces and firepower—for the first time since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan—rapidly, robustly and unabashedly deployed outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
Equipped with increasingly well-coordinated command-and-control, intelligence and surveillance, joint air-ground operations, logistics and precision weapons (including strategic air platforms and long-range, air and sea-launched cruise missiles) Russia, despite some setbacks, deftly showed off its new-and-improved capabilities to a watching world. These have included a capacity to wage coalition operations with partners Syria, Iran and Hezbollah—a partnership that culminated in Syria’s bloody Grozny-style destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo, in full defiance of international law.
Although high-casualty “dumb” bombs and shells are still being heavily used in a way that ultimately may boomerang on the Russians, Syria remains the most visible application of the regime’s “New Generation Warfare,” employing a full spectrum of tactical-to-strategic nonnuclear capabilities, with assets that proudly, and loudly, carry Russia’s white, blue and red tricolor.
Especially worrisome for the world, the much-improved Russian military is now a sharpened policy tool of choice for an emboldened but strategically defensive regime that relies on preemption. A key danger is the country’s robust nuclear capability, which the Russian leadership may believe can be threatened tactically to intimidate some potential opponents into acquiescence.
Even so, Russia struggles to fully man a professional million-man standing military that competes with the nascent National Guard and robust security services for resources. Draftees still make up over a third of the force. Deploying social-media savvy draftees into questionable and extended cross-border actions is difficult. The nation is vast geographically, relatively sparse demographically, and currently hampered by high costs exacerbated by sanctions on its weak oil-based economy. Russia is also hampered by thousands of miles of inhospitable borders carved out of the hide of other nations and civilizations, as well as a small and diverse population of about 144 million citizens, most of whom are concentrated west of the Urals. Current and future Russian defense planners face a daunting challenge to create and sustain Eurasia-wide security.
To cope with manpower limits, more and more second-tier forces are being trained as well—buttressed by a growing pool of combat veterans and honed by an aggressive program of short notice “snap” and programmed readiness exercises. The Russians are increasingly taking a “whole of society” approach for their military exercises and overall defense preparedness. This includes stressing the country’s rail, road, port and aerial infrastructure, as well as its economic and banking sector. The Russian leadership seems to be psychologically and materially mobilizing their population for what some see as an inevitable war with the United States and its Allies. This does not mean the Russians want war, but it signals that the United States must do its utmost to recognize, limit and defuse Russian opportunism before it is harmful.
As Zapad “West” 2017 quickly approaches—with all its military eye candy and pyrotechnics—we must not be distracted from the long view. Developing a pragmatic dual-track policy toward the Russian Federation is paramount.
First, the United States must continuously and unambiguously underscore that it will always stoutly defend the sanctity of NATO, the core alliance of our civilization. The United States must also firmly support worldwide allies and partners while always upholding cherished U.S. principles. This is nonnegotiable and includes being ready, along with allies and partners, to respond globally to a possible worst-case scenario in which Russia invades the Baltics States or somewhere else along its long borders. Fortunately, Putin likely recognizes that it would be pure folly to commit naked aggression with his ultimately outmanned, outgunned, out-financed and “out-allied” nation. Putin and the moneyed interests of Russia know that a globally-condemned attack, even against non-NATO members, would be “bad for business” and could ultimately bring down a Russian regime that needs credible relations with the west to survive for future generations.
Instead, an emboldened Russia could choose to launch a stealth offensive by probing and non-attributable “gray zone” activities, particularly if it senses an exploitable division in NATO cohesion. More likely, such a tremendous gamble would be a preemptive reaction to what the Putin regime perceives as a serious existential threat, such as a collapse of a geographical buffer like Belarus, or suspicion that one or more foreign elements are trying to instigate regime change in Russia.
The greater risk for the world is a major accident or incident that somehow rapidly escalates into cyber-fast brinksmanship before cool heads can prevail. Such an event could happen anywhere, not just in the Baltic region or over Syria. That is where the second track of a dual-track policy is critical. Without ever condoning malign actions or acceding on sanctions, senior political and defense links between our countries need to be reinforced. We must better understand each other’s tautly stretched threat perspectives. We need to reenergize atrophied deconfliction conduits between U.S. and Russian global operational level commands, while reenergizing the withered arms control regime arms that should now include cyber constraints. Without these and other confidence-building measures that through contact seek a convergence of interests amidst today’s well-documented divergences, the dangerous trust-deficit between our two nuclear-tipped nations only increases.
The West—both NATO and the European Union—must prepare for the type of worst case, all-guns-blazing scenario that Zapad showcases every four years, but we must not stop there. It is Russia’s deceptive, stealthy and highly imaginative array of corroding, subverting, non-attributed operations that is every bit as dangerous as old-fashioned battlefield weaponry. When combined with Russia’s resurgent conventional capability, the full bag of tricks at Putin’s disposal shows a country preparing for potential conflict in ways difficult for our western societies to fathom.
Brigadier General Peter Zwack (ret.), former 2012-2014 U.S. Defense Attache to Russia, writes as the senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow within the Institute for National Security Studies at the National Defense University. These are his own views and not that of the U.S. government.