hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Deep Battle and the Russian Bear Trap

“Tukhachevsky hid Napoleon’s baton in his rucksack”.
Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky

Riga, Latvia. 4 October.  Can Russia reform before it starts a war? The Riga Conference is one of Europe’s top security conferences. It is excellent not just because of the quality of the organisation by the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation, but because the conference takes place on the front-line of freedom, and thus concentrates the minds of all present.  This year was no exception. Not surprisingly, the Russian bear loomed large, with the conference reinforcing a dangerous reality.  Russia is in desperate need of economic and social reform, but any such reforms would sweep away the Putin regime. Ergo, no reform.  So, how can the regime stay in power without reform?  Easy, Moscow creates artificial grievances with the West, manufactures a non-existent threat from the West, and then appeals to the deep, deep wells of Russian patriotism for support against an enemy that ‘threatens’ to surround Mother Russia.

On Saturday, I went with a small group of distinguished colleagues to visit the Latvian Land Forces Base deep in the woods at Adazi close to the strategic road between Pskov in Russia and the Latvian capital, Riga.  The group was hosted and briefed by the extremely impressive Latvian Land Forces Commander, who has some 3000 men under his direct command at the headquarters. Also present were some 1200 Canadian, Italian, Spanish, and other Alliance forces, that comprise the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) Battlegroup, Latvia. Now, my criticisms herein in no way imply criticism of my host. They are doing their level best with what they have to achieve what they can.

The collective mission of both forces (there is no single, unified command structure), in parallel with that of partner forces stationed in Estonia and Lithuania, is to deter Russian forces from invading the Baltic States.  It is a serious mission. Just across the Russian border there are some 120,000 of Russia’s best troops, including the famous 1st Guards Tank Army.  Most of these forces are centred on Pskov, some 50 miles/80 kms from the Latvian border, with a significant portion of the land in between given over to military exercising.

One of my jobs is to ask tough questions and crash-test thinking. I am good at it. They are the kind of questions that politicians, bureaucrats, and often military commanders, find inconvenient. My purpose is not to trip them up, but to make them look up and think ‘outside of the box’, to employ that vastly over-used, but rarely acted upon military metaphor.  So, bear with me (no pun intended) whilst I unfold the logic of the unease I felt as I was driven away from Adazi. 

Let me start with President Putin’s dilemma. What matters to Moscow is the appearance of strength beyond Russia’s borders, to reinforce the strength of the regime within Russia’s borders. Russia today is a toxic mix of economic decline, military expansionism, strategic paranoia (‘encircled by enemies’), and self-reinforcing nationalist assertion.  The implication being that if Russia really is unreformable, then the Russian state really is on the road to collapse.  That was certainly the message of an excellent panel at the Riga Conference. Now, a caveat is needed at this juncture.  Western Europeans (in particular) often under-estimate the toughness of the Russian people, the willingness of an awful lot of them to accept far less freedom and prosperity than other Europeans, and their passionate love of country (something for which I admire the Russians, and which not many other Europeans seemingly understand these days).  For all that Moscow clearly has a problem or two it is failing to address, and clearly has little idea how to.

Given that, what are Russia’s regional-strategic policy options? First, there is no reason to believe Russian policy will change. President Putin has already shown in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and indeed Syria, that he is willing to use political and military adventurism to shore up his domestic position. Second, there is no reason to believe Russia’s leadership will change. President-for-Life Putin will ensure his ‘victory’ in the March 2018 presidential elections.  Therefore, and in all likelihood, President Putin will continue his efforts to ‘change facts on the ground’. Specifically, that means Russian will continue to try to force the Baltic States to look to Moscow, as much as they look to Berlin, Brussels or Washington.  Still, only in the Kremlin worst-case would Moscow consider a direct attack on the Baltic States, although it is not inconceivable. 

It is to counter the worse-case that the impressive Latvian colonel and his team, plus the NATO battlegroup that share his headquarters, are doing what they are doing.  And, as I saw from the briefing I was given, they are very serious about their work, and clearly very good at it. But, is it enough? My problem, or rather my problems, with the EFP is that it is a bluff, and the Russians know it.  The forces that would block/harass Russian forces in extremis are too few, too light, and have too little support to stop a determined Russian thrust.  Worse, the command chain is fractured and unclear, particularly the relationship between Latvian forces and their NATO counterparts. NATO forces under current rules of engagement would only be able to fight back if they themselves were attacked.   There are also problems of communications between the deployed Allied forces, and a lack of any real deployed force protection.

If the Russians did attack they would have (at least) two options. First, they could isolate the Latvian forces from their NATO Allies, using Spetsnaz and other specialised and irregular forces, to ‘neutralise’ NATO. However, given the close proximity of Latvian forces and their NATO allies that would require of Russian forces real operational finesse, something for which they are not known.  Second, they could simply take out the main concentration points of all NATO forces in the Baltic States with a surprise strike. One senior diplomat told me not to worry because Russia has always provided indications of an attack. This is wrong. History suggests the greater the strategic gamble, the less warning there would be. And, even if there were such warnings, would Western politicians really be willing to ‘see’ what they are seeing? They refused to do so during the early phases of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis.

My analysis of Zapad 2017, the massive and recently-concluded Russian military exercise, plus my understanding of the writings of Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, lead me to a very sobering conclusion.  General Gerasimov and his team are successfully adapting the 1930s thinking of Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky and his concept of ‘deep battle’.  Deep battle a la Gerasimov involves getting an enemy used over time to large-scale Russian troop movements close to their borders and then, suddenly, and with as little warning as possible, using Special Forces in concert with large-scale combined forces to strike deep behind enemy lines to cripple the latter’s capacity to resist or defend.

To my trained eye I am watching just such a strategy unfold. What’s new? General Gerasimov is layering and combining disinformation, deception, and military doctrine as part of a new concept that entangles deep battle with deep chaos to keep the enemy (that’s us) permanently strategically and politically off-balance.  These efforts, which are happening now, are not-so-much a prelude to imminent attack, but rather designed to create the space for a quick and decisive victory should President Putin will it. 

Furthermore, looking at the nature and strength of Russian forces it is clear that in the event of a conflict, the timing and launch location of which Russia would choose, Moscow could unleash a coherent set of strategic and military operations in pursuit of limited, but dangerous objectives. However, it is also clear Russia would be as yet unable to sustain a long war, or possibly even a war lasting more that 60 days if things did not go Moscow's way immediately.  Therefore, the political aim would be to force the major European powers to make a hard, under duress and quick choice between a nuclear war with Russia, or some form of Russian-dictated peace in which the Baltic States are lost.

Now, again, I am not suggesting Russian tanks are going to drive down the road from Pskov to Riga tomorrow. And, there will be a lot of scenario-planning being undertaken of which I am not aware. However, Russia is cleverly creating the conditions in which such an attack would be a serious policy option for a Moscow in extremis. The first sign of such an attack? A nuclear mushroom cloud over Adazi. The greatest ally of this plan in the rest of Europe are leaders who continue to live in denial about just such a possibility.   

What to do? Napoleon, once said that one should never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake. For all the impressive efforts of my Latvian colonel friend and his team, plus the forward deployed NATO battlegroups that form the EFP, deterrence and defence will only be served by extending and accelerating major and urgent reforms across the entire NATO command structure. Such reforms would need to include the following essential elements: delegation of far more strategic and operational discretion to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; establishment of a far more ‘granulated’ set of indicators and early-warning ‘sensors’ across the conflict space; acceleration of the Notice to Move of all NATO forces; eradication of all road, rail and legal blocks that prevent the freedom of movement of NATO forces within the NATO Area of Operations; establishment of far more resilient (and far more) logistical hubs to enable NATO forces to conduct an extensive land, air and sea campaign. 

My aim is to stop a war not to fight it.  Even a clear, declared commitment to such reforms would reinforce NATOs defence and deterrence posture.  Fifty years ago in December 1967 Pierre Harmel published a report entitled “The Future Tasks of the Alliance”, which called for a dual-track approach to Russia – détente and defence.  That dual-track is as relevant today as it was then. However, there is a problem – too many Europeans seem to have forgotten that Harmel called not only for sound dialogue with the Russians, but sound defence.  Given my genuine respect for Russia (and I am no Russo-phobe) I am saddened that all and any analysis of Russian policy and strategy today suggests the Alliance has no alternative but to communicate to Moscow a real determination to deploy credible, legitimate and strong forces in defence of all the Allies.

In certain dire Russian circumstances (and Russia is pretty good at creating dire circumstances) Moscow may simply be unable to stop itself from attacking the Baltic States given the train wreck course upon which Russia is now embarked. Therefore, if NATO forces in the Baltic States focus too much on the concentration of limited firepower they may well be walking straight into a Russian bear trap. And, at some point, Moscow may be unable to resist springing it. 

The best way for Russia to prove me wrong is to talk. I am ready to listen.

Julian Lindley-French

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