By Donald L. Sassano
Russia’s brisk and efficient annexation of Crimea has resulted in an ongoing reassessment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The operation was undoubtedly the brainchild of President and Supreme Commander in Chief Vladimir Putin. Given the plaudits he had already received from U.S. commentators from staggeringly diverse ideological backgrounds, it’s not too surprising that his Crimean fait accompli has been routinely awarded a big two thumbs-up, at least operationally. The blogosphere is fairly abuzz with military affairs analyses praising Russia’s battle performance, its new found professionalism, even its ability to win over hearts and minds (admittedly supported by a friendly population that seemed more or less predisposed to acquiescence).
Yes, we saw a kinder, gentler effort in Crimea, nuanced and brutally effective as opposed to merely brutal. This time around the Russian military refrained from smash mouth tactics and overwhelming use of force without regard to civilian casualties. We witnessed that sort of behavior in Afghanistan and Chechnya, less so in Georgia in 2008, until Crimea the most recent venue where Russia’s military transgressed sovereign borders.
According to analyst Dmitry Gorenburg, Russian operations in Crimea were marked by the use of diversionary tactics, preemptive action and rapid deployment. Moreover, Russian aggression appears to have been planned well in advance and also well beyond the reach of Western intelligence services. Gorenburg notes that the military vanguard of the operation, Russia’s special forces, were disciplined and well trained, and possessed the wherewithal to carry out sophisticated special operations. And unlike Georgia, Russian soldiers were equipped with cutting edge equipment including advanced body armor, electronic jamming apparatus and encrypted communications devices.
Russia’s new sophistication and adroitness was therefore surprising, but also ominous because the strategy it employed is also suited to future operations aimed at “protecting” Russian ethnic enclaves within its near abroad – Moldova, the Baltic States, perhaps Central Asia – and pushing back against the interests of roughly 80 million souls who have chosen alignment with the West within former Soviet minions along NATO’s eastern frontier. And remember, unlike Ukraine the United States maintains treaty obligations with many of those nations who feel newly threatened.
Where Have I Seen This Before?
But before becoming too verklempt about Russia’s new found sophistication we would be wise to remember that heralding Russian military reforms has already seen the light of day. Strategist Edward Luttwak wrote that “for the first time Soviet leaders old and new have operational confidence in their armed forces, specifically that they now have good reason to believe that the Soviet Armed Forces can execute offensive operations with speed and precision, to win clean victories in short order against a variety of potential enemies in a variety of settings – so long as the risk of a nuclear reaction by the victim is low, and the Soviet forces themselves do not need to employ nuclear weapons to accomplish their goals. This great change alone suffices to increase the risk of war by choice, which is inherent in a great military empire that rightly sees itself encircled by enemies, some of which are very vulnerable.”
The preceding paragraph was published in 1983, four years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a mere eight years prior to its formal dissolution. Luttwak could have been analyzing the events of March 2014 by merely changing the name of the country. Operational confidence, the ability to execute with speed and precision, low risk of a nuclear response, vulnerable neighbors, wars of choice by an empire seen as being encircled by enemies…been there, done that, but to what result?
Given the changes Putin has wrought, what should the United States and its NATO partners do? Simply, take the long view. Think restraint, containment, engagement when warranted, but certainly not rollback. Use Crimea as a wake-up call to strengthen the Atlantic Alliance and blunt European free riding. Be cognizant that Russia is battling trends that do not augur well for its long term future, including a steep demographic decline and an economy almost wholly dependent on energy exports. Finally, remember that neither the United States nor any of its Western partners would swap their long term security positions for that of Russia. If history has taught us anything, let’s all think George Kennan, not John McCain.