Russia will still need external enemies to explain the deteriorating economic situation of its citizens.
In this interview with Diplomaatia, one of the best-known Russian military analysts, Pavel Felgenhauer, talks about the reasons behind the occupation and annexation of Crimea and Russia’s potential future.
A year ago, troops with unmarked uniforms appeared in Crimea and the annexation of the peninsula was carried out with disguised assault rifles. In your opinion, when was it decided to undertake this operation; who made this decision and why? Who were the main figures in this drama?
The Crimea operation had been prepared for many years. The preparations probably began during the Orange Revolution (2004). The significant strengthening of the infrastructure and bases of the Black Sea Fleet began then. It continued after the signing of the Kharkiv Pact. The Russian leadership feared losing the military presence in Crimea, which was deemed unacceptable.
The Crimea operation itself depended on Russia’s military presence there. Spetsnaz, marine infantry and troops, who were located in bases at the time, were used, plus all kinds of volunteers and Cossacks. The Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was not directly involved. By the beginning of the operation, the Russian presence in Crimea was increased to 10,000–20,000 solders, and equipment and weapons were also stored: it was a large-scale logistics operation, without deploying troops by rail, as is traditional.
The political decision on the annexation was probably made shortly before the referendum, although at first it was planned to give Crimea a status somewhat similar to Hong Kong: de facto under the control of Russia, de jure part of Ukraine. The annexation was President Vladimir Putin’s personal improvisation. Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin confirmed that Crimean deputies were first forced to vote for greater autonomy, but then the date of the referendum was changed twice, and eventually they voted on the issue of separation from Ukraine. All of this happened in parallel with Russia’s military operation.
The Crimea operation cannot be viewed separately from the extensive “exercises” on the Russian–Ukrainian border, during which Russian troops were deployed near the border to secure the Crimea operation. Thus it can be said that approximately 100,000 Russian soldiers were involved in the annexation of Crimea.
In Russia, the annexation was seen by many, including some in the top echelons of power, as a political mistake that the West simply cannot accept.
How would you characterise the actions of the Ukrainian authorities and military during the annexation of Crimea? Would the war in eastern Ukraine have been avoided if Ukrainian troops had shown resistance in Crimea?
Ukrainian troops were not ready for military confrontation with Russian troops, which had been preparing for this operation for a while. All the key Ukrainian military structures were flooded with Russian agents: among the defectors were two admirals, the commanders of Ukraine’s Black Sea Fleet. In such conditions, organised resistance was practically impossible. It was an Anschluss.
If Ukraine had shown resistance in Crimea, then Russia would have not acted so confidently in the Donbass. In the absence of resistance, the Kremlin was convinced that the other regions would follow easily in Crimea’s footsteps. This was a miscalculation. Crimea painted a false picture for Russia, so no one seriously prepared for war in the Donbass. No one could have foreseen that the Russians in the Donbass and its Russian-speaking community would provide determined armed resistance. Instead of preparing for the operation, there were disputes in the Kremlin whether Novorossiya should remain as a part of Ukraine or should be cut off and integrated with Russia. As a result of all this, they had to improvise and the crisis started to escalate even more.
In Russia’s view, what is the military importance of the Crimean peninsula for Europe, the Mediterranean and Ukraine?
Russia kept its military bases in Crimea and even got a couple more. A strategic Air Force Regiment has already been deployed there; however, the use of Iskander missiles in the western part of the peninsula can be used to neutralise elements of the US missile shield that is going to be located in Romania. Crimea has become an unsinkable Russian aircraft carrier, and a strong part of the protective perimeter that defends Russia from foreign military invasion. However, the Kremlin considers a future war against Russia inevitable, whether over resources or influence.
After the annexation of Crimea, a full-scale destabilisation began in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian media and experts spoke about putting the final touches to the plan for Novorossiya. However, this has yet to happen. Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses that became apparent during the military action in eastern Ukraine, and how could the situation have been be affected by sending Western defence weaponry to Ukraine?
The involvement of Russian troops in Crimea was eventually much more public: the Cossacks and the volunteers were for decoration, but in the Donbass, the opposite is the case. Despite the fact that the Federation Council approved the use of the Russian army in Ukraine, it has only been used in small doses to achieve decisive results in sections of key importance on the front in eastern Ukraine. About twelve tactical battlegroups were used in the battles of Ilovaisk and Savur-Mohyla and approximately 1,000 soldiers were among the forces in the battle of Debaltseve. During the entire conflict, the Russian artillery, anti-aircraft forces and scouts (including the use of Israeli-made drones) have provided separatists and “volunteers” with information and firepower support.
Russian military equipment is more modern, although not as modern as the West’s. For example, the war is still being fought with modified D-20 cannons from 1947.
In any case, it is not a modern war, but a clone of the Second World War only without the air force and a continuous front line, and with many times fewer human resources. Usually, among others, the newest weaponry is used in guerrilla wars (Vietnam and Afghanistan), but this is not the case in the Donbass.
Of course, the world’s best portable anti-tank missile system, Javelin, would help Ukraine, but more crucial than the weaponry is coordination, and the opportunity to use protected channels of communication and to get real-time operational information from the battlefield; Russia has these. With adequate management and modern military training, Ukraine could be at least on the same level as the Russian army when military action continues.
Will the salami tactics combined with potential de facto amputation of Debaltseve, Mariupol, Odessa, Kharkiv and other areas under Ukrainian control continue until Ukraine has met all Russia’s demands?
In the military sense, Donbass is not that important, but Odessa and especially Mykolaiv—as a port specialised in the export of Soviet and Russian military products to the Middle East, as well as a possible land corridor to Transnistria—have some importance. The railway is needed to supply Crimea, but in order to capture it, one must move towards Dnieper, not towards the sea. The military value of Mariupol is questionable; moreover, a long and bloody siege would be needed to take it, during which the city would be completely destroyed.
A more likely direction is towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, and during a large-scale military operation Mariupol might fall more easily.
In Soviet textbooks, it was once claimed that the annexation of independent Poland and the Baltic States was inescapable for the Soviet Union, something like a pre-emptive strike, which was supposed to defend the Soviet Union from an unavoidable attack. Today, the Afghanistan war is discussed in the same terms. Is this all Russia’s attempt to legitimate the past in order to justify its current activities (among others in Crimea and eastern Ukraine), or is it an archetype of Russia’s current military thinking—or both?
It is both. The Kremlin would prefer a new comprehensive agreement something similar to Yalta in 1945. Russia’s objective is to isolate the US and come to an agreement with Europe—after all, dividing territories as spheres of influence is still considered completely legitimate in Russia. This is exactly why President Putin is ready to play with open cards if sanctions are removed.
In December, an updated version of Russia’s military doctrine was published, the end of the second part of which is dedicated to the specific characteristics of today’s military conflicts and describes in some detail so-called “non-linear war”, which is believed by many to be exactly what we first saw in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine. What do you think is the nature of this doctrine and what place will it have in Russia’s political life?
The doctrine is a reflection—even if a distorted one—of top secret military-strategic documents, i.e. the plan for defence and the use of military force. This document, which is consistent with the Russian constitution, is rather meant for domestic consumption and for the West, where people are trying to find a point in it that actually does not exist.
With regard to non-linear or hybrid war, it has always existed: Austria’s Anschluss, the Sudetenland, the occupation of the Baltic States, etc. A hybrid war is a prelude to a real war. At the same time, there is nothing hybrid about the situation in the Donbass anymore; a real war similar to the Second World War is taking place there, and even taking place on the same territory, just with fewer soldiers fighting and many fewer casualties. For example, in Debaltseve, both sides lost approximately 1,000–1,500 people.
Recently the chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said that the priorities of the Russian army’s military structure and preparation for 2015 are Crimea, Kaliningrad and the Arctic. The answer might be obvious, but still, why these three in particular?
From the military viewpoint, the Baltic direction and Crimea do seem to be the greatest threats. However, the threat from the Transcaucasus has not disappeared. Once again these three directions must be looked at in the broader context of protecting the perimeter of the whole of Russia, which is done by having bases in Belarus, Kaliningrad, Crimea, the Arctic, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Vladivostok etc.
So far the Russians have insisted that cutbacks have not affected the military, although the budget has been reduced and some social expenditure will be frozen. What is the relationship between Russia’s deteriorating economic situation and the plan to modernise the military, and what do you think is the country’s real military budget?
Formally, the military budget has remained untouched. However, taking inflation into account it has actually decreased and might be reduced even more. In current circumstances, purchasing necessary foreign parts with an expensive currency will be very costly, and thus the so-called military inflation will always be higher than the official inflation rate.
The military budget accounts for 4.5% of gross domestic product, which in Russia’s circumstances is actually about 20% of the state budget. This is more than in any European country or the US. This year’s budget cannot be increased in any way, and it is probable that it will also negatively affect the stated priority to rearm the Russian army by 2020.
Threats of war, including nuclear war, by Russian propagandists have increased as the Ukraine conflict has developed. What are the main purposes of these threats, and what is the ordinary Russian citizen’s attitude towards the deterioration of welfare due to the announced necessity to confront the West and modernise the army?
People have been frightened, just like during Soviet times. The West, especially Europe, is being blackmailed with real war, and at the same time, the Russian population is rallied to support the authorities. The scare tactics have already led to the Minsk II Agreement, even though President Putin failed to achieve all his goals there. During the Cold War, this type of policy was called brinkmanship—who would get scared first and back down. Blackmail, including nuclear blackmail, is used to force the West to back off over Ukraine and make it more prone to compromise—it’s a classic tactic, designed to scare their own people as well as foreign forces. Balancing on the edge of war is the most probable tactic for Russia in the coming years, and I would not be surprised if they soon start conducting air-raid drills for their residents so that they develop a reflex to find the bomb shelter, if the need should arise.
Conservative circles and propagandists repeat incessantly that by its actions in Ukraine the Russian leadership is protecting itself and Russia from the fate of Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi. Hence it can be concluded that Ukraine is not an objective in itself but rather a sort of tool, a last frontier for protecting Russia and the so-called Russian world. In this context, what do you think are the Russian leadership’s real strategic objectives, including towards the US and Europe, and where does Ukraine stand in them?
The Russian leadership’s strategic interest is to break transatlantic unity and establish on their own terms something from Vladivostok to Lisbon, but certainly not to Vancouver, and without the United Kingdom. Russia is interested in Western technology and tourists and the fact that the West buys gas and oil. Moscow really doesn’t know why Europe cannot understand its role. It is also believed that, in fact, no one cares about Ukraine and that it is only used as a launch pad for attacking Russia. As early as 2008, Dmitry Medvedev presented a new security system plan and Moscow continues to seek a big new deal that would legitimise its “exclusive” rights in the post-Soviet space.
Will the so-called vital interests of Russia be limited to Ukraine and the post-Soviet space? On how many fronts is Russia capable of conducting non-linear war at the same time?
The question of whether the Baltic States are part of the Kremlin’s current interpretation of the post-Soviet space is not clear when you take into account how many Russian-speaking residents live here. As is known, President Putin sees the Russians as a divided nation, in the same way as the Germans were considered divided before the Second World War. The seizure of some city or region, for example Riga or Narva, with the help of friendly segments of the local population is of course possible, but Russia would not be able to keep them, so why do it? Simultaneous military operations in Ukraine, the Caucasus and in the Baltic States are not feasible for Russia: as long as the eye of Mordor is watching Ukraine, it is unlikely that you will be threatened by anything there. Moreover, a Stalinist foreign policy would require resources similar to the Stalin era, which Russia does not have.
One of the declared threats (inter alia in the military doctrine) is the approach of the Alliance’s infrastructure to the Russian border. Does the Russian leadership understand that they can “thank” themselves and their activities, for example in Ukraine, for this or is such a cause-and-effect relationship ignored?
The Russian military is pleased with the opposition: We told you that NATO was approaching the Russian border—and, behold, here it is. Today’s leaders in Russia and the West are people from the Cold War era and thus a return to the confrontation of that time is not unnatural for them. Besides, the military’s interests are always very material: a predictable situation with a predictable opponent is satisfactory to all, because it allows the military industrial complex to be expanded instead of being replaced, and a bigger budget to be requested to develop new equipment rather than maintaining and continuing to use the old. I believe that the Russian General Staff and the Pentagon, who once claimed “an eye for an eye”, are happy, because the new nuclear submarines and missiles are certainly not directed against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In what context should the increasing violations of the airspace of the Baltic States and other countries by the Russian Air Force and flights with transponders turned off be addressed?
This is not an axiom—the violations are deliberate, because the air corridor over the Gulf of Finland is very narrow. Turning off the transponders while practising Soviet-style sorties is logical, but taking into account civil aviation, the volume of which compared to the Soviet era has increased multiple times, it is indeed extremely dangerous.
If one were to assume that in European–Russian relations there are, at least theoretically, a number of possible scenarios from returning to business as usual and stagnation to military confrontation, what are your short- and medium-term assessments?
Due to external and internal political factors in Russia, it is highly probable that the confrontation between the Kremlin and the West will escalate. If the economic circumstances of Russian citizens deteriorate further, then there will be a need for external enemies.