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Military analysis of what Russia really wants

reveals nuclear dangers

sian amphibious vehicles drive in formation during celebrations to mark Navy Day in the far eastern Russian port of
Vladivostok, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

By Commodore Philip Thicknesse- March 10, 2015

While it is immensely difficult to place oneself in Russian President Vladimir Putins

position and to see the world as he and Russia undoubtedly see it, there are things
that we do know.
The first is that Russia has always seen itself as encircled and threatened, a condition
exacerbated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent
expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A simple exercise with a globe
can help to demonstrate this. Rotate it until Moscow is in the center and then scan the
points of the compass. To the north, over the pole, is the United States; to the east,

China; to the south, Islam, and to the west, Europe, the European Union and NATO.
Second, over the past 20 years, Russia has shrunk, physically and conceptually. The
Soviet Union was, in all but one way, a force to be reckoned with. It was able to hold
the world hostage and force it to focus, above all, on the maintenance of an uneasy but
mostly stable peace. The Soviet Unions Achilles heel was its economy; NATOs Cold
War victory was essentially an economic one. The West defeated the Soviet Union by
fielding more, and better, military technology with fewer, but infinitely better-trained
personnel, funded by economies that worked.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed a number of its republics, which functioned, in
part, as buffers between mother Russia and the encircling threat. They also provided
vital access to the sea. A sympathetic observer might note that Russias only
guaranteed ports are on its north coast, all of which have, in recent human history,
been accessible only in the Arctic summer months. Even now with the ice receding,
the Northern Sea Route is a far from reliable route into either the Pacific or Atlantic and
therefore strategically unsatisfactory. In the Baltic, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad
serve well, though Russia must be concerned for the long-term stability of Kaliningrad
because the city has a long German history as Koenigsberg. This stability should also
concern Europe: arguably, as long as Kaliningrad is secure, the threat to the other
Baltic ports and countries is reduced. To the east, Vladivostok serves the Pacific but, in
extended living memory, has been directly threatened (and occupied) multiple times,
by the Japanese in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War by the United
This brings us to the south and
the Black Sea and the Russian
ports on the Crimean peninsula.
The southern access to the
Mediterranean has always been
problematic because of the
Dardanelles, which has forced
Russia to find staging posts in
the Mediterranean from which
to sortie. Throughout the Cold
War, the Russian fleet could be
found in anchorages all around
the eastern Mediterranean,

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a welcoming ceremony as he

inspects the Vice-Admiral Kulakov anti-submarine warfare ship in
Novorossiysk, Sept. 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA

which helps to explain Russias interest in the Syrian port of Tartus. The port is now
unavailable as a result of a civil war made infinitely more complicated by a West that
had not taken the time to weigh the true factors and factions, which always included
Russia (the leadership of which may, actually, have been right all along in siding with
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).
When Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean
peninsula became a significant strategic problem and, almost certainly, the subject of
contingency planning: The naval ports and other military bases had to be accessible.
The matter of which way Ukraine faces is not simply, for Russia, a matter of either lost
trade or a lost buffer state, both of which are important, but also of lost oceanic access.
If this is the case, the West needs to think, with great clarity and caution, about what is
actually happening in Ukraine to understand the nature of Putins problem. The need
for assured oceanic access at each point of the compass may be so deeply engrained
in the Russian psyche as to significantly affect his decision-making and risk appetite.
So what? A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by enemies is one thing.
A Russia denied what it believes to be its birthright unfettered oceanic access and
secure land borders is another. The West has learned to live, uncomfortably, with the
first, just as one learns to accommodate a paranoid neighbour. But it has also learned
the consequence of unnecessary needling, which invariably ends in tears. Sometimes
it is necessary, for the greater good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The
wrong thing, in this case, is to persuade Ukraine to cede the peninsula, and a land
corridor, to Russia. Access to EU markets is a possible compensation but not, at any
price, membership in NATO. Buffer states are a tragic necessity in an uncertain world
and as important for NATO as for Russia.
Why would the West, and especially Ukraine, do this? Because Russia is on its knees,
for three reasons. The first, and most immediate, is the price of oil, which is far below
what Putin requires to make the country function. Second is that Russias political
system looks unlikely to survive in the long term. Only a North Korean or a young
Saudi would see Russia as a political paradise. One suspects that many Russians, if
they had the economic wherewithal, would choose to live in a liberal democracy, for all
its faults. The third, and most telling, reason is that the population is in long-term,
possibly accelerating decline, with a birthrate way below replacement levels and falling
life expectancy in the ethnic Russian population. Current predictions put Russias
population, in 2050, at 118 million, a loss of 16 percent to 19 percent in 50 years.

At the moment, it would appear that Putin has the upper hand because he is able to
take a longer view than any of his fellow leaders, almost all of whom are time-limited,
or time expired, and most of whom are, at best, tacticians, not strategists. The
evidence seems to indicate that the West could regain the upper hand by opting to play
a very long game: Russia, as currently constituted, is itself time-limited. Yet the
personalization of politics and leadership in the West has increasingly led to tactical
behavior driven by short personal horizons as short as 60 days in the case of the
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is facing a serious reelection challenge.
Maybe proper statesmanship requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than
individuals, capable of thinking beyond an opponents horizon?
The alternative approach is to learn to deal with the nuisance and uncertainty of
continued ambiguity. Airspace incursions make for good photographs and alarmist
tabloid headlines but are mostly an expensive inconvenience. Submarine incursions,
such as those off Scotlands coast, designed to test Britains resolve to protect the
submarines carrying Britains nuclear deterrent may be of a different order. During the
Cold War, there were well- established protocols for close encounters, which by and
large worked well. But they required well-practiced and well-equipped military services
that, through their actions, acquired a familiarity with their opponents and an
understanding not just of their capabilities and limitations but also their methods.
What does this mean for the NATO Baltic States, which are seen as being as
vulnerable as Ukraine? First, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad provide access to the
Baltic Sea, so there is no pressure on Russia to find another port. Why would Putin
test NATOs resolve through an action against one of the Baltic States? Protecting the
Russian minorities was a convenient lie used in Ukraine to cover the real reason for
intervening to secure the naval and military bases in Crimea.
And what of the barely veiled
threats of lowered thresholds
before involving nuclear
weapons? Most Cold War
veterans were at least passingly
familiar with Herman Kahn and
his ladder of escalation. He
described advancement on the
ladder toward war as a series of
deliberate choices, the results
Russian warships are seen during a naval parade rehearsal in the Crimean
port of Sevastopol, July 25, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

of which determined the direction of travel. We practiced at every level, from decisionmaking in Whitehall to the delivery of the weapons and then the whole grim business
of operating in an environment partly demolished by biological, chemical or nuclear
weapons. I think we came to appreciate that the conduct of nuclear deterrence was a
deeply skilled and intelligent business; it demanded very high levels of familiarity. The
current risk seems obvious: an oversupply of unpractised tacticians in power in
Western capitals, and an absence of strategists.
Finally, then, what should the West do in Ukraine? To fuel a proxy war by supplying
materiel and trainers would be foolish, nave and wilfully escalatory. Surely the better
approach is to use proper, powerful economic sticks and carrots to bring Ukraine and
Russia to the negotiating table, with the United Nations in place to keep the peace.
At the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom commemorated the 50th anniversary
of the death of Winston Churchill, a man widely seen as the greatest Englishman in all
history. He would have seen the strategic need to treat with the new tsar, whether we
like him or not.
It is much better to have Putin if not actually inside the Western tent then at least not
outside it pulling out the guy ropes and causing chaos. Russia ultimately has a far
greater problem with militant Islam than the West, it understands Iran and Syria better
than the West and has to deal with China in quite a different way. For all concerned,
better a messy peace than a nasty descent into a wider and wholly avoidable conflict,
be it long and ambiguous or short and horrific.
The piece appears here courtesy of Project for Study of the 21st Century. You can find
more information about the group, as well as other commentaries
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