“The history of war convincingly testifies to the constant contradiction between the means of attack and defence. The appearance of new means of attack has always [inevitably] led to the creation of counter-action, and thus in the final analysis has led to the developments of new methods for conducting engagements, battles and operations (and war in general)”.
Marshal N.V. Ogarkov April 1985
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 August. In April 1985 Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, recently demoted Chief of the Soviet General Staff, published a book entitled “History Teaches Vigilance”. Central to his argument was the idea that emerging conventional military technologies were changing the balance between conventional and nuclear forces and thus rendering ‘warfighting’ in Europe again possible. In essence Ogarkov was following in the tradition of Soviet military thinkers such as M.N. Tukhachevsky and V.K. Triandafillov back in the 1930s who like their German counterparts such as Hans Guderian, focused on how a force that was on paper inferior in terms of mass could achieve a “decisive result” quickly. Their conclusion was an adaptation of ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘Lightning War’ in which technology and manoeuvre was used to exert decisive pressure by a ‘joint’ force at a critical point of weakness in enemy defences. Fast forward thirty years and what might be called the “Gerasimov Doctrine” (after the current Russian Chief of the General Staff) is clearly rooted in Ogarkov’s thinking. Indeed, the now frequent snap exercises around and along Europe’s inner borders might well have be seen by Ogarkov as a fourth Russian military revolution.
Contrast the Gerasimov Doctrine with an excellent paper published this week by the European Leadership Network entitled, “Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe more likely?” (Ian Kearns, Lukasz Kulesa & Thomas Frear) The paper warns that that the “…changed profile of exercises”…is sustaining “a climate of tensions in Europe” and leading to “unpredictability”. To reduce such tensions ELN calls on both NATO and Russia to better communicate their respective “schedule of exercises”, to better utilize OSCE channels to increase military predictability, politicians on both sides to show restraint in terms of the scenarios used in exercises, and for conceptual work to begin on a new treaty to establish “territorial limitations on deployment of specific categories of weapons”. It is a worthy paper. However, ELN completely miss the essential point of Russia’s snap exercises which is precisely create tension across a broad front from the Arctic to the Mediterranean so that Moscow can focus on where if it deems necessary it may exert decisive pressure.
In my May 2015 paper for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, “Countering Strategic Maskirovka” I state, “The Russian use of hybrid or non-linear warfare in Ukraine also suggests the blurring of the traditional NATO distinction between collective defence and collective security. Maskirovka is in fact war that is short of war, a purposeful strategy of deception that combines use of force with disinformation and destabilisation to create ambiguity in the minds of Alliance leaders about how best to respond”. Indeed, it is a theme I repeat in my new book for Routledge, “NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015”.
Moscow shows no signs of demurring from such a strategy. In the 1980s when NATO had a relatively straight border to defend with a ‘correlation of forces’ such that the relationship between conventional and nuclear war made the resort to nuclear weapons almost inevitable in the event of war. However, today NATO must defend a complex set of borders far further to its east than in the 1980s with conventional forces that are at best stretched thin and not just in Europe. Moreover, it is questionable if the political will exists in key Western European capitals to really defend Eastern European allies in the event of Russian ‘aggression’ that would be far more sophisticated than a frontal assault on the North German Plain by Group of Soviet Forces Germany a la late-1970s. In that light NATO’s counter-exercises are as much about forward deterrence as forward defence, demonstrating to Moscow that NATO understands the Russian strategy, and has the means to counter it if needs be…even if that is not the case in certain scenarios.
Thankfully, I do not believe either side is seeking a major war in Europe. However, implicit in Ogarkov’s doctrine was the destabilising political implications of a renewed imbalance in Europe between the offensive and defensive at the decisive moment and point of contact. An examination of the excellent map of Russian snap exercises ELN provide in another of their papers “Anatomy of a Russian Exercise” (Thomas Frear) reveals Moscow’s strategic political imperative; to straighten Russia’s defensive line via an extension of a buffer zone by if needs pushing the current eastern border of the Alliance back to the west. In spite of Russia’s overt use of force in Eastern and Southern Ukraine the main Russian strategy elsewhere is one of political intimidation via military means.
However, were Moscow at some desperate future point choose instead the military option it would mean ‘limited’ conventional war and the threat of the use of both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons as a way to ‘checkmate’ a NATO conventional response. Such a strategy would be very much in line with Ogarkov’s thinking back in the late 1970 and early 1980s. Indeed, the mistake many analysts make is to see the 2014 Russian Military Strategy as a break from similar strategies adopted by broken Russia back in the 1990s. It would be far more useful to see Gerasimov as the heir to Ogarkov and the latter’s idea of the “Independent Conventional Force”, able to operate under the neutralising umbrella of nuclear weapons and reinforced by the use of strategic disinformation fit for an information age.
There is another destabilising factor – the rapid decline of the Russian economy. President Putin sees a strong Russian military and the nationalism it engenders and represents as ‘a’ if not ‘the’ central pillar of his regime. Indeed, Putin has committed vast sums to force modernisation. However, as James Dunnigan points out this week in a piece entitled, “The Red Fleet Returns to the Past”: “The persistent low oil prices and continued economic sanctions have caused the military and political leadership to reassess Russian strategy and procurement policy. GDP is shrinking and the government is having a hard time maintaining the high levels of spending planned to replace Cold War era equipment”.
Russia’s economic and political situation suggests possibly one of two courses of action; either a shift towards a more conciliatory stance of the sort ELN calls for, or a retreat into a ‘use it or lose it’ mind-set. Either way for the NATO Allies history does indeed teach vigilance.