Is Russia Preparing for War with NATO and the West?
Analyzing Discourse, Russian Military Exercises and Troop Movements Domestically and in Russia’s “Near-Abroad”
A question facing foreign policy experts the world over is whether or not the Russian Federation is preparing for war. The query involves a consideration of how the movement of Russian troops, currently and historically, may lend insights into the intentions of Moscow when it comes to the question of military action in or against other nations.
Is the Crimean Annexation a Harbinger for Further Russian Aggression?
The Russian Federation and its predecessors have long been involved in military action involving Crimea. The first major military operation occurred in the last century of the Russian Empire and was aptly named the Crimean War, lasting from 1853 to 1856. The rationale Czar Nicolas I utilized in trying to militarily seize Crimean territory in the middle of the 19th century was quite like the argument advanced by Russian Federation President Putin in the 21st century. Both leaders contended individuals of Russian descent living in the Crimean Peninsula needed to be protected.
Since the Crimean War, the peninsula has been in and out of Russian control, including being fully engulfed into the now-defunct Soviet Union. The Crimean people gained independence from the Soviet with the liberation of Ukraine from the USSR with the Declaration of State Sovereignty on July 16, 1990, by the newly constituted Ukrainian Parliament.
Full Crimean integration with Ukrainian State following the declaration of independence from the USSR lasted about 15 years. On February 23, 2014, Russian President Putin initiated steps to annex the Crimean Peninsula, using the Russian military. In contemplating whether the events in the Crimean Peninsula serve as a harbinger of what may occur in the not too distant future, a look at Russian military troop movements after February 23, 2014, is illustrative.
The first step President Putin took to annex the Crimean Peninsula was the movement of Russian maritime forces from the naval base at Sevastopol to what international observers considered provocative positions in the Black Sea, which surrounds much of the peninsula. The second step of President Putin in the annexation process was to infiltrate not only the Crimean Peninsula but other Ukrainian territories as well with unmarked Russian ground and special forces, in addition to a number of intelligence officers from GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the FSB/FIS (the domestic and foreign intelligence services that succeeded the Soviet KGB).
Within a matter of a couple of weeks of the Russian Army advancing notoriously into the Crimean Peninsula, a hastily called referendum was called among the Crimean population. On March 16, 2014, an announcement was made that a fully 97 percent of voters in the Crimean Peninsula voted to join the Russian Federation. A so-called treaty of accession was executed bringing the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian Federation over the objectives of the Ukrainian government and the United Nations, NATO, and a multitude of individual nations.
The Baltics in the Aftermath of the Crimean Annexation Into the Russian Federation
In the immediate aftermath of the Crimean annexation into the Russian Federation, the trio of leaders of the Baltic nations sounded alarmed. The leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all stated without equivocation that they anticipated the Russian Federation making military moves into their territories in the future. The leaders of Baltic republics were united in announcing they, in fact, believed Russian military aggression in Ukrainian and Crimean territory was, in fact, a harbinger of war to come throughout the Baltics.
The Russian Federation and Former Warsaw Pact Nations
Following Russian military action on the Crimean Peninsula, some leaders of former Warsaw Pact nations expressed alarm that they believed that their countries were to be targeted by the Russian Federation, and its leader, President Putin. The government of Poland was particularly strident in voicing its concerns about the potential for Russian military action against its frontiers.
Many analysts attribute the alarms that sounded in some former Warsaw Pact national capitals to the removal by the United of defensive armament systems out of nations like Poland and the Czech Republic by order of the Obama Administration. The fact that many Warsaw Pact countries had actual experience with Soviet tanks rolling across their borders during the Cold War added to the heightened sense of apprehension across much of Eastern Europe.
As will be discussed more fully later in this analysis, the so-called Russian Reset of the Obama Administration, coupled with the theory of “lead from behind,” left Eastern European leaders feeling more vulnerable to Russian military excursions, or even widespread war, than at any time since leaving the Soviet orbit.
In fact, Russian military exercises did not focus with any great specificity on any former Warsaw Pact nation. On the other hand, the rhetoric of President Putin about reintegrating former Soviet Republics back into the Russian sphere started to extend further to encompass the idea of restoring Warsaw Pact nations into a Moscow lead alliance.
The tensions involving Eastern European, or former Warsaw Pact, nations eased a bit when the Obama Administration took steps to replace defensive weapons systems back in some of these countries during the latter years of President Obama’s second term. In addition, the seemingly more hardline approach to military excursions by different nations of U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have calmed nerves in Eastern European capitals, at least for the time being.
The Russian Federation and Syria
The actions of the Russian Federation in regard to the civil war in Syria and terrorist infiltration in that Middle Eastern country does provide clues on whether Moscow is preparing for war. Overall, Moscow has ignored admonitions regarding its involvement in Syria, including the manner in which it is using its own military and intelligence forces to support the Syrian regime.
Some analysts have concluded that the Russian presence in Syria is designed in part to bring that nation into its sphere of influence or even control. However, many of these same analysts also contend that Syria is serving as something of a proving ground in which Moscow is testing the extent to which it can act militarily in another nation without a counter-push from other nations, specifically the United States.
On some level, this is a reexamination of the Soviet foray into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Initially, the Soviets acted with little response from the United States, or any other nation, in Afghanistan. In the end, surreptitious U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, through groups like the Mujahedeen and nations like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, resulted in the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
The Russian Federation and Iran
A similar proving ground for the Russian Federation is also in place in Iran, some analysts would argue. The Russian Federation was highly influential in forcing the conclusion of the multi-state nuclear agreement.
In point of fact, the content of that agreement, to which the United States via the Obama Administration, became a signatory party. The Russian Federation is now positioned to use that same agreement, and Iran more generally, as means of testing U.S. resolve in light of the new presidential administration.
The Russian Federation and the United States
In the current geopolitical climate, the posture of the United States vis-à-vis the Russian Federation remains the primary blockade to further Russian military aggression. The Russian Federation has been engaged in measures designed to test the resolve of the United States regarding desired military adventurism, or regional war, on the part of Moscow.
The reality is that many foreign policy experts expressed surprise that Moscow did not push further into Ukrainian territory, and perhaps even move into the Baltic States, while Barack Obama was in office. The Russian Federation overall faced little meaningful opposition from the United States when it claimed the Crimean Peninsula, acted in Syria militarily and engaged in extensive machinations in regard to the Iranian nuclear deal.
With the accession of the Trump Administration in the United States, the Russian Federation is forced to test the boundaries again of what it can and cannot do with impunity when it comes to military action and blowback from the United States. Presently, it is the perceived unpredictability of the Trump Administration that may be giving the Russian Federation pause when it comes to military adventures in limited theaters.
As an aside, Moscow appears to be testing these boundaries through the use of both its Navy and Air Force. Moscow has engaged in somewhat provocative encounters with U.S. military forces with Air Force flybys and naval exercises.
Russian Snap Military Exercises: The Dangers of Whole Government Drills
The actions of the Russian Federation concerning the Crimean Peninsula are not seen as the only signs that Moscow may be laying the foundation for a broader war. Contributing to this concept that Moscow may be preparing for war is also found in the ever-increasing number and size of Russian snap military exercises. Snap military exercises are those that are called without any sort of real warning.
What is most troubling about Russian snap military exercises since the Crimean annexation is not just the increase in their frequency nor the ever-enlarged number of troops of all types being involved in these exercises. The major red flag regarding Russian military intentions is the fact that these snap exercises have become whole government exercises. In other words, these snap “military” exercises have become something far more intensive and all-encompassing. They have become designed to place the entirety of the Russian military and government on a war footing for the purposes of these drills.
Historically, this level of military focuses, war focused, exercises that involve a nation’s government more fully tend to be indicative of a regime intent on mounting an offensive attack in the not too distant. Historically, whole government military exercises were seen with increasing regularity on the eves of the First and Second World Wars.
As an aside, few foreign affairs analysts believe that even if the Russian Federation is moving towards even more of a war footing that the regime headed by President Putin intends anything like a globalized conflict. Rather, most analysts conclude that the Russian Federation under President Putin has its sights on the Baltic states, Ukraine, and perhaps some other former Soviet Republics.
Why Moscow Would Launch a Military Strike
President Putin has made it clear that he supports the proposition that the Russian Federation expand and incorporate former Soviet Republics into a sphere of control under the heels of Moscow. The Russian Federation President has made this clear both in his rhetoric and in his military forays, particularly in the Ukrainian theater and on the Crimean Peninsula.
In the final analysis, Moscow may strike militarily if two conditions are met. First, the target of military action must be in the sights of the Russian Federation President himself. Second, there must be some assurance in Moscow that other nations, and particularly the NATO alliance and the United States, lack the resolve to take on the Russian Federation militarily in limited theater military conflicts.
How Moscow May Strike
Moscow is not likely to wage a widespread battle of any sort. Rather, if the country moves forward with military action, it will be sharply focused on specific theaters. These theaters are likely to be Ukrainian territory, the Baltic States, and perhaps in the Middle East.
What to Reasonably Expect in Regard to Russian Military Action in the More Immediate Future
Russia garners significant military advantages through the warm water ports of the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian Republic. Similarly, the Russian Federation collects definite strategic advantages if it were to take direct control over the Baltic States.
Should Moscow elect to seize political control of the sovereign baltic states, the result would be significant international instability. For example, the movement of the Russian Federation into the Baltic States would—theoretically—trigger a response from the NATO Alliance as required by article five (5) of the North Atlantic Treaty; an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all members. The same treaty obligation does not exist in regard to Ukrainian territories because that nation is not part of NATO.
When it comes to the likelihood of the Russian Federation going to war, the likelihood of further military action by Moscow in Ukrainian territory is likely. In fact, some well-regarded foreign policy analysts actually express some level of surprise that President Putin has not made further, more blatant military moves within Ukrainian territory.
The Baltic States present a bit of a different story when it comes to evaluating whether, when, and where the Russian Federation may elect to go to war or engage in more overt military action. The potential for NATO response has already been noted. In addition to that, the newly-elected U.S. President presents the Russian President and military leaders with something of an unknown.
Despite social media being ablaze with allegations of collusion between Trump advisors and Russia, actual facts supporting much of anything in that regard is largely circumstantial, at least thus far. In any case, it is clear that the Russian government really cannot know what to expect from President Trump when it comes to any campaign to incorporate the Baltic States into a larger Russian Federation.
The early days of the Administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon are illustrative concerning the Russian Federation, military action, and the Baltic States. Not long after President Nixon took office, his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger met with him in the Oval Office. Kissinger advised President Nixon that many world leaders, including the leadership of the Soviet Union, thought President Nixon was unpredictable, if not crazy.
President Nixon is said to have smiled at his National Security Advisor, and responded “good.” President Nixon believed that foes of the United States who were uncertain about how the new President would respond to military aggression because he was considered unpredictable, actually played in favor of the United States and overall world peace.
The same sense of uncertainty is in the air when it comes to President Trump and many world leaders, including President Putin. There simply is no clarity on how President Trump might respond to even some type of limited offensive movement of Russian troops. This may serve as a sort of military aggression breakwater, at least for the time being.
Moscow’s Pursuit of Limited Theater War
In the final analysis, Moscow likely is preparing for limited theater war. This includes planning for further military action in the Ukrainian theater. Such action in the Ukrainian theater might include a direct more by Moscow on the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which is the greater Ukrainian theater. It might also include a similar Russian military movement into Donbas, which is also part of Ukrainian theater. The Russian Federation could engulf these areas in much the same way it took the Crimean Peninsula, slowly eating away at Ukrainian sovereignty.
Moscow’s thirst for limited theater war also includes planning to move on Latvia, Lithuanian, and Estonia. Finally, but less certainly, is the potential for more active military action by the Russian Federation in the Middle East. NATO, the United States, and European powers are not legally obligated to intervene as elements of the military, criminal, and security services of the Russian Federation violate the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, any attempted Russian military offensive on one or all of the three Baltic states would likely lead to the invoking of Article 5. As such, an appropriate and overwhelming response by NATO, the EU, and the United States is essential. It is necessary to demonstrate the integrity and resolve of the NATO alliance, the European Union, and the United States.