“The USA prefers to follow the rule of the strongest and not international law. They are convinced that they have been chosen and they are exceptional, that they are allowed to shape the destiny of the world, that it is only they that can be right. They act as they please. Here and there they use force against sovereign states, set up coalitions in accordance with the principle of, ‘who is not with us is against us.’” The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s annual report on Russia’s military potential starts with these words of Vladimir Putin, spoken to the Russian Federal Assembly on March 18, 2014, regarding the referendum for the annexation of Crimea. The report was published this past June.
The DIA is one of the most powerful security and intelligence agencies in the world. Since 1981, it has published a detailed report each year on Russia’s defense policy to inform both the government and the American public about the latest news of Moscow’s military armament and policy. This year, reading it is like winding back the years to the Cold War. The agency’s director, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, does not beat around the bush when talking about Russia. In fact, according to Stewart, Moscow's return to the world stage poses an inherent challenge for the United States, given that the Kremlin continues to aggressively pursue its foreign policy and security objectives, using the full spectrum of the state’s capabilities: from military force to data manipulation. He says that within the next 10 years, an even more confident and capable Russia could emerge, which is why the United States needs to anticipate rather than react to Russian actions, and also pursue a greater awareness of Russian goals and capabilities to prevent potential conflicts.
The document begins with a brief but exhaustive treatise on the state of the Russian Armed Forces. From the breakup of the Soviet Union to the first decade of the 2000s, it reveals how the dramatic lack of funds, personnel and operational readiness greatly damaged its capability and how this situation set up the fundamental need to reform and modernize the entire Russian military bureaucracy. This need was only partially resolved in the late 1990s to the early 21st century with a series of announced attempts at reform, discussed but only futilely implemented. The turning point was evident with the Georgian crisis of 2008. Under the leadership of Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, the “New Look” program was launched in order to effectively and incisively change the structure of the Armed Forces from its Cold War style to a modern one: professional and able to meet the demands of a 21st-century conflict (speed, asymmetry, power projection, cybernetics and communication efficiency at all levels) and above all, to weaken Russia’s heavy dependence on its nuclear arsenal. The program involves the reorganization of the Soviet-style divisions, paring down forces and likewise increasing the number of career soldiers, while also maintaining the annual draft requirement. The headcount of officials was cut from 350,000 to 150,000 (although it later went back up to 220,000) and, most importantly, the influx of professional staff was built up with the final target of 425,000 units by 2017. The six Soviet-era military regions were redefined and reduced to four interactive headquarters (East, West, Central and South), each of which controls all military arrangements within its jurisdiction. However, this revolutionary reform has reached full momentum only under the current Defense Minister, Army General Sergey Shoygu (in charge since late 2012), who has been able to perfect the core of the program and has been able to test the new model in a series of medium to low-level active operations: Crimea, the Donbass and Syria. So, according to the report, Russian military power is growing but not yet at the level of the Soviet era. It is dependent on large, heavily-equipped units, but amounts to a smaller, more mobile and balanced force that is quickly becoming capable of leading the full range of modern war scenarios.
What is the Kremlin’s policy? Since his return to power, Vladimir Putin has sought to return Russia to the role of a superpower on the world’s stage and to restructure the global order that Moscow believes to be too unbalanced in favor of the United States. Therefore, the goal is to promote a multipolar world based on the principles of respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs and to also promote the primacy of the United Nations and a careful balance of power in order to prevent a state or a group of states from dominating the global order. Now, let’s digress into a topic aside from the treatise in the DIA report. In light of everything happening in North Africa and the Middle East, such goals can also be shared, but it is clear that Moscow is cleverly playing the balance-of-power card through the use of its growing military bureaucracy in low-intensity operations (Crimea, Donbass), and especially through soft power by pursuing its own interests, mainly linked to strengthening its economy. Still, they are too tied in with energy sources and their fluctuating prices on the international markets.
Secondly, Moscow deeply resents its age-old fear of invasions related to the geography and morphology of its land. The heart of Russia, namely its industrial, economic, political, cultural and demographic center, is located on the low-lying plane of ancient Sarmatia, a flat region with no natural barriers that is almost completely enveloped by the western borders of Russia and the Ural Mountains. The very nature of this large stretch of land has always made it vulnerable to invasions: from the Teutonic Knights who launched what became known as the “Northern Crusades” against Alexander Nevsky in the 13th century, to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion during World War II.
Consequently, since the times of the Czar, Russia has been able to do only one thing to defend its western borders: try to expand them. That was the vision of Catherine the Great and also the success of Stalin at the end of what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” The countries of Eastern Europe that were subjugated under the Warsaw Pact supplied the Soviet Union with the “buffer states” that protected it from possible invasions. With the collapse of “real socialism” at the end of the Cold War, Moscow suddenly found itself with potentially hostile governments much closer to the heart of its territory. Except for Ukraine and Belarus, almost all the countries of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic republics, rightly developed anti-Russian sentiment. Though in that particular historic moment, the Russian Federation had become a second-rate power with its armed forces falling into disastrous conditions, therefore incapable of carrying any kind of political weight in the international arena. From this perspective, one can understand how Moscow recently began political and military interference in Ukraine, thanks to the new stimulus given to Putin's military sector, with its de facto annexation of Crimea and instigation of the revolt in Donbass.
The Kremlin cannot afford for Kiev (which has always been a center for economic strategy and a main conduit for invasions) to end up under the influence of NATO, and therefore America. In fact, the Russian military has played a fundamental role (as can be seen in the DIA report) in the annexation of Crimea and the revolt in Ukraine, thus diverting Kiev's aspirations to join NATO and therefore achieving a significant tactical result. It turns out, however, that it only seems to be briefly postponing the entry of Ukraine into NATO, given the latest developments. Therefore, this could be further destabilizing to peace in the area.
The armed intervention in Syria has also played a key role in the global theater: Beyond having radically changed the course of the conflict through reinforcing the Assad regime, it has ensured that any resolution of the conflict is impossible without Moscow’s agreement. Furthermore, it has transformed Turkey from a hostile power to a privileged partner at the negotiating table; a significant result in the international arena.
According to the report, all these actions are contextualized in Moscow’s deep sense of insecurity toward the United States, which it believes to be advocating a policy meant to undermine Russia in both its foreign and domestic affairs. Moscow, according to the report, undoubtedly sees the U.S. and its NATO partners as the main threat to its security, geopolitical ambitions and most importantly, to the continuation of its power. As affirmed in the Russian National Security Strategy of December 2015, the United States and NATO are Russia’s main threat. They are deliberately pursuing a policy of containment in order to maintain their dominance in the post-Cold War era and therefore deprive Moscow of its right to a leading role on the world’s stage. In this document, Moscow also mentions the deployment of the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe (Poland and Romania) and the growing pursuit of non-nuclear strategic weapons as a notable threat to its borders. For example, the Massive Ordinance Air Blast weapon was recently dropped in Afghanistan as a warning to Moscow.
Russia additionally has little faith in American efforts to promote democracy throughout the world, which it perceives as an attempt by Washington to globally impose a single set of values. In fact, Moscow fears that this threatens the foundations of the Kremlin’s power by allowing foreign interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Thus, Russia’s National Security Strategy warns of the importance of protecting Russia’s traditional spiritual and cultural values against Western ideas and influences that weaken Russia from within. According to the DIA, the Kremlin is therefore convinced that the United States is laying the foundation for a regime change, a conviction reinforced by everything happening in Ukraine and everything that happened during the Arab Spring, in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and also during the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan back in 2003-2005.
To resolve this possibility of regime change, the National Security Strategy establishes a six-year plan centered on eight key points to strengthen the country’s defense and Russia’s status as a world power, ensure political and social stability and improve the economy. They are: implementation of a national defense, heightening state and public security, pledging economic growth, pushing for education in science and technology, healthcare, culture, setting up a rational use of natural resources and safeguarding living ecosystems and, finally, the pursuit of strategic stability and an equal strategic partnership.
It is therefore evident how Moscow seeks to strengthen its armed forces in order to become a global player again and, most importantly, rebuild credibility: The role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining for the Kremlin. Russia’s new strategy reiterates the old doctrine from 2014, which outlined the importance of conflict prevention, nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence and the need to improve the mobilization process of the Russian armed forces.
Therefore, according to the United States, Russia is more self-confident of its ability to defend its sovereignty, resist Western pressure and contribute to the resolution of conflicts abroad. Hence, it is once again a threat to the United States, forcing Washington’s international policy 30 years into the past.