September 14, 2012

Two articles, four years and Russia’s war plans

Over the last four years, two significant articles have been published in the Russian media. The first one appeared in April 2008, predicting the Russian-Georgian war; the second one came out this June, announcing President Putin’s order to start preparations for military operations outside Russian borders. The two articles share a number of similarities, but also diverge on some points.

Over the last four years, two significant articles have been published in the Russian media. The first one appeared in April 2008, predicting the Russian-Georgian war; the second one came out this June, announcing President Putin’s order to start preparations for military operations outside Russian borders. The two articles share a number of similarities, but also diverge on some points.

The year 2008. Less than two weeks after the NATO Bucharest Summit, a Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article with a telling title: ‘Moscow will respond to NATO with Abkhazia. Putin is ready to sign a decree on unrecognised republics’ (“Москва ответит НАТО Абхазией. Путин готов подписать указ по непризнанным республикам,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 14, 2012, ).
Nezavisimaya Gazeta has a reputation of regularly serving as a channel for Russian officials to gauge public reaction to ‘authorised leaks’.
The article quotes Russian foreign ministry officials specifying the methods Russia would be willing to use to thwart Georgia’s transatlantic ambitions. “The most serious instrument would be [Russia’s] direct military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
The Bucharest Summit had brought the already tense West-Russia relations to a new low due to a promise included in its final declaration: “We agreed today that these countries [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO” (Bucharest Summit Declaration , April 3, 2008, ). In essence, the Allies had decided that Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession was not a question of if, but when.
Moscow’s response was not long in coming: on April 8, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that Russia will do “everything possible to prevent the accession of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO.”
The sources of Marina Perevozkina, a Nezavisimaya Gazeta journalist who wrote the article, put their cards on the table when describing Russia’s future ‘game plan’:
first, during his last days in office as president, Vladimir Putin will issue an order to forge official legal ties with the de facto authorities of the two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia;
it is possible that Russian military presence will be unilaterally increased in both enclaves that legally constitute Georgia’s sovereign territory;
the conclusion of agreements on mutual military assistance with the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been taken under consideration.
Last but not least, Russia will officially recognise Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence if Georgia` accession to NATO will become a reality – or if the breakaway regions come under military attack.
The article set all alarm bells ringing in Tbilisi, although its publication received relatively little attention from audiences worldwide.
The prevailing reaction among those who did notice it was scepticism. After all, Russia’s new liberal president Dmitry Medvedev, a man who had grown up listening to Deep Purple, was soon to take office.
People were waiting for a thaw in Russia, for the triumph of democracy in Moscow, for a long-awaited and now finally arriving breakthrough in its relationship with the West.
In reality, however, things turned out differently. During his last days in office – on April 16, to be precise – Putin issued an order to establish official relations with the breakaway republics.
What followed was a rapid escalation of tensions in Georgia, a five-day war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August and by the time grapes were harvested Moscow had officially recognised the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The strategic game plan presented in Nezavisimaya Gazeta had largely been implemented.
The year 2012. Published in early June, the second Nezavisimaya Gazeta article states: on the personal order of President Vladimir Putin, the elite units in the Russian armed forces have started preparations for a possible military intervention outside the borders of the Russian Federation, Syria being a potential target country for Russian soldiers (“Сирийское направление российских десантников” [“The Syrian direction of the Russian paratroopers”], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 6, 2012, ).
The article claims that Putin’s order concerns inter alia:
•the 76th Air Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Troops (based in Pskov);
•the 15th Motorised Rifles Brigade (based in Samara);
•GRU (the main directorate of military intelligence) special forces – spetsnaz –units including those manned by ethnic Chechens (formed on the basis of the GRU spetsnaz battalions Zapad and Vostok, which by now have been disbanded);
•naval infantry/marines.
The article by Sergey Konovalov, a Nezavisimaya Gazeta journalist, includes extensive quotes by Nikolai Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the so-called military wing of the CIS), stating that “judging by everything, a peace enforcement operation must be conducted in Syria directed primarily against the insurgents.”
In the Russian official jargon, the 2008 August War was also called a ‘peace enforcement operation’ – back then, ‘peace’ had to be enforced upon Georgia.
The end of July and the beginning of August saw a considerable Russian naval strike force assemble on the Mediterranean close to the Syrian shores – in total, 13 vessels with 500–1,000 marines aboard.
However, after some cruising hither and thither the Russian navy vessels returned to their base ports.
In the English-language media, Pavel Felgenhauer was the first to turn the spotlight on Konovalov’s article (“The Russian Military Prepares Expeditionary Forces, Allegedly for Deployment to Syria,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 14, 2012, ). From the very beginning, Felgenhauer was sceptical about a possible unilateral intervention by Russia in the Syrian civil war, claiming that although the logistical, military and political drawbacks of the operation would be significant, the accompanying political and military risks would be extremely high.
In Felgenhauer’s view, however, the Kremlin needs a small victorious war to humiliate the West in the eyes of Russians, to unite the nation through a massive surge in patriotism and, finally, to help crush the Russian pro-democracy movement (“Хотят ли русские маленькой победоносной войны?” [“Do Russians want a small victorious war?”], Novaya Gazeta, June 16, 2012, ).
An intervention in Syria would not contribute in any way to the achievement of these goals, claims Felgenhauer.
Felgenhauer has somewhat controversial reputation, but on the other hand he was the man who warned about the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, being one of the lone voices in the wilderness – a warning which most Western policy-makers ignored.
To sum up, there are at least five reasons why close attention should currently be given to any information about the preparations made by the Russian armed forces for possible military operations abroad:
1) Tensions between Russia and the West have increased constantly since last year’s Libyan operation by NATO – the 2008 August War was preceded by a similar general escalation of tensions.
2) The current Russian administration, headed by re-elected President Putin, has very clearly opted for a more rigid stance in both domestic and foreign politics.
3) If the Syrian civil war intensified (e.g. as a result of the use of chemical weapons or a direct military intervention by the West) or if a military operation were carried out against Iran – or both – it could spark chaos in the Wider Middle East, directly affecting the South Caucasus.
This could provide the Russian authorities with a pretext to demand the opening of a land corridor for their troops through Georgian territory to Armenia, so that Russia could guarantee the security of its ally – Armenia. It is unlikely that Georgia would voluntarily agree to transit of Russian troops through its territory.
4) Reports on ‘terrorist’ bases allegedly located on Georgian territory started to re-appear in the Russian information space already last spring. Couple of weeks ago an armed group comprising a few dozen fighters from Dagestan, Russia, entered Georgian territory, forcing Georgian special forces to carry out a days-long military operation close to the Russian border for their elimination.
If these kinds of incidents become more frequent, this could trigger – in the worst case scenario – a cycle of escalation between Russia and Georgia. In addition, Dagestan will host a significant part of activities during a grand-scale Kavkaz-2012 military exercise starting next Monday, September 17th .
5) So far, the military reform and armaments modernisation efforts launched in 2008 have prioritised the strengthening of the Russian Joint Strategic Command “South”. JSC “South” largely covers the former North Caucasus Military District that spearheaded the military operations targeting Georgia.
Over the last four years, JSC “South” units have been given preferential treatment as they have been allocated large amounts of equipment and weaponry necessary for a full-scale conventional war.
JSC “South” is responsible for the most volatile regions in Russia – Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, etc. – but a significant and rapid boost in conventional military capabilities there does not contribute to suppressing the guerillas in the North Caucasus.
However, these capabilities would constitute a necessary precondition for engaging in a regional conventional conflict if the Russian leadership saw fit to do so.

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