Kristopher Rikken, ERR News
In September, a head of state straddled a bird, as the artist saw Putin's flight. It seemed like a silly PR stunt, but the true meaning may have been more sinister
One year ago, Russia unveiled a new doctrine: then presidential candidate Vladimir Putin openly avowed an intention to radically expand and upgrade the Russian military. As of February 2013, the country continues to pursue the biggest military buildup in years in its western military district, which is flush up against Baltic borders and already easily the country's most powerful in conventional military terms.
These developments mark the culmination of a process going back to 2009, a crucial period in the year after the Russia-Georgia war. While the US pursued a "reset" in relations, Russia made changes in its laws on protecting its diaspora, and generals once known for eccentric pronouncements (General Nikolai Makarov's comment about Finland from last summer being a good recent example) moved into the inner circle of the Putin administration, where their language is increasingly indistinguishable from the official line, say experts.
Daily life in this part of the EU remains the same, of course, with relations on the external border said to be improving and the main concerns being issues like visa freedom, not the first batch of Iskander missiles that Russia installed in 2011. But government circles in Estonia have taken notice of the movements, such as Russia's improving capabilities for operations in places with developed road infrastructure, such as the Baltics. And there's the big geopolitical fact that Russia chooses to contain much bigger and more militaristic China using traditional nuclear deterrents while arming itself to the hilt against a bloc of democratic nation-states.
It's unclear how much NATO's own actions are driving the escalation, but only one side (Russia) has mentioned a "pre-war state," which has drawn a response. You can't miss the stories in the Estonian media about 10-year defense plans being revised, the emphasis on terms like "total defense" and "primary response" - both of these related to the crucial two days before NATO ground forces can arrive - and plans to increase the number of rapid response Defense Forces personnel to 21,000 and the number of reservists to 90,000 by 2022. The Ministry of Defense has ramped up its public relations efforts, sending out press releases about base renovations and such, all of which presumably is meant to have an added deterrent effect - it's not hard to imagine scenes from the Winter War and a deadly efficient, mobile and responsive Estonian army patrolling the forests and fields.
With a bit of a lag time, even the Latvians, who have been considered much more passive on national defense, are sitting up. Uudised.err.ee reported last week on concerns in their defense ministry over an increase in Russian air force activity. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, in delivering a national defense report to the country's parliament last week, said, no doubt speaking for many in the region: "We've noticed that in the last year, Russian military activity has increased in the Baltic Sea region - both at sea and from the air. It is important that the objectives of Russia's higher military power be transparent."
Gliding in for a landing
As candid as Putin's programmatic articles are, there may be more to transparency than a straight reading of speeches.
Vladimir Juškin of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies in Estonia is probably the local researcher who has shed the most light on - and through - what Estonia's big, not-technically-an-enemy but gruff bear of a neighbor really wants.
If there's one unit in the Russian military that you should be aware of, according to Juškin it's the VDV - the Airborne Troops - which has proud traditions. At its head is Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov. Since Shamanov was appointed in 2009, a long-running theme in the Kremlin was Shamanov vs Serdyukov - the former pushing for restoring the VDV to its Soviet glory days while Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov argued for cutbacks.
Serdyukov resigned in November. In an interview with ERR News, Juškin relates the reaction, quoting a retired colonel: "On the floors and in the offices of the Ministry of Defense, the news of the resignation Serdyukov was accepted just as our fathers at the time accepted the news of the victory over Nazi Germany."
Remember Putin's flight of the cranes a bit earlier that year? It was widely lampooned as yet another macho feat by Putin, and took on a life of its own on Facebook. But it wasn't about taming the wild, says Juškin - it was really signals about military funding.
"When Vladimir Putin flew a motorized ultralight glider ahead of a small flock of cranes, it was called a presidential PR stunt," he says. "But for more insight, one should presumably refer to an interview given by Gen. Shamanov on February 24, 2012 where he complained that the VDV had a major shortage of motorized ultralights. I am sure the situation will now change."
Gliders are a focus of Russian military innovation.
In 2010, at a tactical exercise, a massive landing of spetsnaz units on controllable parachutes was staged. The units succeeeded in travelling about 20-30 km after jumping out of the aircraft.
"Shamanov was not very happy - Israeli special forces can travel a distance of 40 km under similar conditions," says Juškin.
"It is 35 kilometres from Pskov to the Estonian border," Juškin adds.
Preparing for 'war with the West'
For a year now, the main theme in the Russian military doctrine has been a "prewar situation."
"It took just three years for the 'prewar state' meme to make it from a retired colonel’s interview to a speech delivered by the President to the Federal Assembly. There is a huge distance separating a retired colonel [Pavel Popovskikh] and the president of the country. But the mentality of two professional Soviet officers, if it is different at all, is only 25 millimetres," quips Juškin, referring to the distance between the little stars on the uniforms of high-ranking officers.
In a piece written for the magazine Maailma Vaade late last year, Juškin identified the key events in the development of the "prewar" theme during the 2009-2012 period. The following are excerpts:
May 2009 - the "prewar meme" is first articulated by Pavel Popovskikh, a head of intelligence for the VDV in the 1990s: "The situation is a prewar state. The NATO bloc is on Russia’s borders in the Baltics, Poland and the Czech Republic and has only become stronger in the last few decades. They are making active preparations for war with Russia. [...] The war, for which the army must be prepared, will start with special operations by special forces, and it is not ruled out that such operations will become its main activities.”
27 May 2009 - Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov is appointed commander in chief of the VDV. Famously, in accepting his appointment he demands that Anatoli Serdyukov’s programme for reductions in the VDV be changed. Furthermore, the airborne forces are increased by one attack squad in the Moscow military district and the a third airborne regiment is formed in the Pskov 76th division of the VDV.
September 2009 - Operational and strategic exercises “Zapad 2009” are held. The premise was that the Polish army (though pseudonyms were actually used in the exercise) had invaded Belarus in a territorial dispute; altruistically the Russian army rushes to the victim’s assistance. The scope of the exercise was 1,500 kilometres, from Belarus to the Barents Sea, and it ranged over 300 kilometres from east to west.
30 October 2009 - President Dmitri Medvedev introduces amendments to Section 10 of the federal Defence Act. It allows the formations of the armed forces to be used for operations outside Russian territory in four cases.
1. Repelling an attack on Russian Federation armed forces abroad.
2. Repelling or pre-empting aggression against another country (if requested by that country).
3. Protection of Russian Federation citizens abroad.
4. Fighting piracy.
Under the legislation, use of the army is decided by the president, but the Federation Council must within two days (i.e. ex post facto) approve the decision.
A “Baltic support area” is legally specified as a place where the army can be introduced (for protecting Russian Federation citizens).
18 December 2009 - Shamanov says in an interview: “By 2015, there will be 21 tactical groups in NATO’s rapid response forces, each one with up to 1,500 men. The NATO tactical group is roughly analogous to a Russian airborne regiment. Considering the size of the VDV and units and the squads under the command of the military region, the Russian armed forces have total parity with the NATO - 1:1. Thus our current concern is not sheer numbers, but the equipping the units with modern weapons and vehicles. [...] To significantly increase the army’s mobility, 15-20 percent of the airborne’s armoured vehicles are on wheels. In places where there is developed road infrastructure, wheels are to be preferred over caterpillar treads.”
3 May 2012 - General Staff commander Nikolai Makarov says at a missile defence conference in Moscow: “Russia can pre-emptively attack NATO’s European missile defence systems.” Thereafter experts started talking about GRU spetznaz that was said to have been formed for this purpose. But the discussion was quickly hushed up.
Two days later, in Helsinki, Makarov says that cooperation between Finland and NATO is a threat to Russian security. He shows a map where the boundary between the zones of interest of Russia and NATO passes through the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia. That would mean Finland and the Baltics would be in Russia’s strategic interest zone.
Mid-July 2012 - Col. Gen. Vladimir Tchirkin, commander in chief of the army, announced that the Defence Ministry had decided to put a large part of the armoured vehicles on wheels instead of caterpillar treads. This meant that artillery, zenithal missile batteries and zenithal equipment as well as light tanks would be transitioned to wheeled systems.
August and September 2012 - Joint exercises of units from the Western Military District and the VDV were held. "Estonia would be wise to pay attention to two particularities of these exercises," wrote Juškin. "First of all, tactical helicopter paratroop landings. From this year on, such landings are practiced at all military exercises. Second of all, for the first time, Western Military District intelligence and reconnaissance staff began to be trained using a new methodology. Officers and instructors who have combat experience in the previous decades in local armed conflicts are now teaching the military to operate in behind enemy lines and to make independent decisions if they are not in contact with the CinC staff."
8 August - Vladimir Putin announced that long before the conflict in South Ossetia, Russia had prepared a special plan that was used as the blueprint in August 2008. He said the plan was put in place in late 2006 or early 2007 by the General Staff and approved by himself.
The logical future
Could a similar plan already be in place for the Baltics?
In a way, Juškin says, it is. "Does the Russian General Staff have a special plan for protecting Russian citizens abroad if needed? Certainly," he wrote. "Not for nothing did Dmitri Medvedev organize an expanded meeting on security issues on May 11, 2011, where he assigned the task of developing an algorithm for protecting Russian citizens in case of an extraordinary situation."
"Still, the current situation is unfolding along the lines of the main (peaceful) scenario, which has an historical analogue" in 1930s Finland. "The best scenario for the Kremlin would be the rise to power in Estonia of a political party loyal to Moscow."
There is also a worst-case scenario, says Juškin, though he is quick to caution no "fuse" has been found. There would be four acts to this play, as he sees it. And the last act stars the VDV.
1. An operation is launched to destabilize the socioeconomic or international situation in a region with a compact Russian-speaking population, with many Russian citizens. Such a region might be Narva, Estonia or Crimea, Russia.
2. Widespread demonstrations among the Russian speaking community would take place, led by professional provocateurs.
3. In response, the government uses force against the demonstrators.
4. A landing of paratroopers would be mounted under the guise of a peacekeeping operation.
In the interview with ERR News, Juškin seemed less alarmist, and balanced his comments by noting that Russia is cash-strapped and facing the same obstacles to military funding as other European countries. Still, the emphasis on limited special forces operations is a "danger," he said.
"Serdyukov's resignation suggests that dissatisfaction of the generals with the current military reform had come to a dangerous point," he said.
Meanwhile, Over at the Massive Russian Military Buildup...