Countering the NATO Threat: A Look at Russia’s Military Advancements and Challenges to Future Defense (Part 1)

By: Caroline Griesemer

Estimated Reading Time: 15 Minutes 

Executive Summary
The sharp escalation of tensions between Russia and Western nations is reaching levels not seen since the height of the Cold War. Moscow’s increasing boldness in executing military intervention operations in neighboring states elevated fears in the West of a return to Russian expansionism, and spurred NATO to increase its military posturing along its eastern-most members’ borders. The Baltic states and Poland fear a similar Russian intervention experienced by Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Russia’s fostering of pro-Russian separatist movements, and look for tangible reassurances from NATO. Yet it is precisely this expansion of NATO to encompass nations along Russia’s border that causes Russia to declare it is acting in a defensive manner. In the most recent National Security Strategy, published in 2015, NATO is identified as a major threat to Russian security:

“The buildup of the military potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the endowment of it with global functions pursued in violation of the norms of international law, the galvanization of the bloc countries’ military activity, the further expansion of the alliance, and the location of its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders are creating a threat to national security.” – Russian National Security Strategy 2015

This declaration indicates an abrupt change from previous warming relations during the Yeltsin period of the 1990s and the Obama/Medvedev “Reset” of 2009. Russia’s changing security priorities and aggressive military actions in neighboring countries resulted in a countering buildup of NATO forces.

To counter the perceived military threat from NATO, Russia must ensure it exhibits enough of a credible military deterrence. Whereas the US and NATO maintained combat experience in the First Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, then fairly constant engagements in the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 onward, the Russian armed forces did not engage in full-scale conventional combat since the Afghan wars in the 1980s. This fact was made painfully evident in the 2008 Georgian War, where the degraded state of Russian military capability was exposed. Russian military interventions since – in Ukraine beginning in 2014 and Syria beginning in 2015 – provided a space to refine its military capability and test new weapons systems and tactics, techniques and procedures with relatively little repercussions. Each operation has increased confidence in a formidable military deterrence.

This article will explore whether the Georgia, Ukraine and Syria conflicts developed Russian military competence to provide a sufficient deterrence for future NATO aggression or increased military activity on its border regions. Drawn from the identified threat of NATO expansion into Russia’s “sphere of influence” – the states comprising the former Soviet Union – a major goal of the Russian National Security Strategy is to counter such a threat. Russia is interested in its “near abroad”, and seeks to be the dominant power in its own region without Western and more specifically US interference. Finally, the economic downturn Russia is currently suffering from fluctuating oil prices and subsequent sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, calls into question the feasibility of Moscow continuing its military expansion. Rather than slow its pace, military advancements have arguably increased through Russia’s exploration of alternative markets to Europe, and its blossoming rapprochement with China, Turkey, and major Middle Eastern powers. Moscow may also overcome slowed advanced weapons acquisition through its expanded use of non-conventional means, such as informational warfare, to achieve strategic military objectives.

Russian Military Advancements
The 2008 Georgia “Five-Day War”
The Russian intervention in Georgia in August 2008, while meeting Russia’s objective and lasting only five days, exposed many inefficiencies and weaknesses of the Russian armed forces. The operation was the first conventional war Russian troops engaged in since the Afghan war in the 1980s. “Despite the Russian victory in its war with Georgia, the campaign was viewed as a disaster for a Russian military that lacked unified command, sufficient situational awareness, and even suffered heavy friendly-fire losses in the air force.” The Russian military still experienced systemic corruption at the top levels and endured excessive redundancies. The Russian military, as a remnant of the Soviet past, bloated its officer corps, failed to establish an adequate NCO corps, and hampered its operational effectiveness by a general lack of discipline among the conscripts. Apart from antiquated general military structure, the operation also uncovered the use of equipment dating from 1980. “Some 60-70 percent of its tanks broke down along the north–south route linking South Ossetia and Gori.” Problematic tactics aside, Russia won the battle mainly from a numbers perspective, overwhelming the Georgian army. Despite the outcome in Georgia, Russia used lessons learned in Georgia to continue its military advancement.

Notwithstanding deficiencies in conventional military capabilities, the Georgian war provided an opportunity for Russia to test its ever-burgeoning Information Warfare capabilities. The Russian military employed an amalgam of cyber attacks, press manipulation, and psychological warfare to prepare the battlespace and ensure full control of the outcome. The first such employment of cyber attacks linked to Russia was in Estonia in 2007. The Kremlin denied directing such attacks, and the difficulty in tracing the origins of cyber attacks coupled with the fact that such attacks were carried out by young “volunteer” hackers, provided convenient plausible deniability for the Kremlin. In the Georgian conflict, the Russians employed an expanded cyber repertoire. Moscow used the opening provided by a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks shutting down the Georgian government websites as well as news and financial websites during the first hours of the invasion to launch its own messaging campaign. Thus Russia was able to control the narrative transmitted to the international community and Russian public, as well as the Georgian population who were denied access to their own news sources. This tactic was highly successful in the first days of the conflict, as international organizations hesitated to come to the aid of the Georgian government upon hearing reports of genocide against Russian citizens in South Ossetia. Russia’s use of cyber warfare clearly enhanced the capability of its conventional forces in the Georgia invasion.

The operational employment of Russian conventional forces for the first time in almost 20 years showcased the immediate need for reform. Just several months after the conclusion of the operation, Moscow implemented a massive overhaul of the armed force structure. Reforms for the military had been announced in February of that year under the title of “New Look”, but had been fiercely resisted by senior leaders in the military. The weaknesses highlighted by the operation, such as missed targets, aircraft downed by Georgian air defenses, and the inability for commanders to communicate with troops, spurred the Russian government to push through the “New Look” reforms rapidly. Russia significantly reduced redundant units, cutting the strength of the armed forces by one million. Additionally, Russia moved away from the employment of unprofessional conscripts to a volunteer force, established a professional NCO corps, and streamlined officer training. Russia also underwent significant modernization of its weapons and equipment, developing new systems such as the S-400 advanced surface to air missile system, the Su-35 air superiority fighter and the T-90A main battle tank. With operations in Georgia as a catalyst, Russia began a complete overhaul of its military capability.

The “five-day war” in Georgia demonstrated the woeful state of Russia’s military, and impressed upon its leaders the need for reform to present a credible deterrence against NATO encroachment into the Russian “sphere of influence”. However, the remarkable success of the use of cyber attacks and informational warfare “demonstrated the value of information control during conflict”, and opened the door for an inexpensive alternative to conventional warfare. The massive restructuring of the armed forces and modernization of its weapons systems set Russia on a path to meet the identified national security issue of NATO expansion and defend the traditional Russian “sphere of influence”. Subsequent conflicts would provide the much-needed experience for its professional military members; the incursion into Georgia acted merely as a “rehearsal” for what was to come. The Russian military overhaul following the Georgia conflict benefited from the successes of cyber and information warfare, both capabilities tightly integrated into the new Russian military structure, and capabilities to be employed in the follow on Ukraine and Syrian conflicts. 

The 2014 Intervention in Ukraine

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment
OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

The Maidan revolts in Kyiv beginning late 2013 and the ensuing ouster of pro-Russian President Yanukovych in February 2014 created a highly chaotic and volatile situation in Ukraine. The mainly pro-Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine and Crimea feared heavy retaliation by the new government put in place by Maidan protesters, and ignited the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and in Crimea. With mass confusion in Kyiv and the fear of Ukraine continuing on a pro-Western trajectory toward EU membership, coupled with the prospect of NATO basing adjacent to its prized Black Sea Fleet, Russia made its move to annex the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. To address the unrest in the eastern Ukrainian provinces, rather than absorb those areas into the Russian Federation or assist separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk achieve independence, Russia determined it advantageous to ensure those regions remain in Ukraine but on terms favorable to Russia. While it initially hesitated throwing its full weight behind the rebellion, Moscow eventually intervened crossing the border in August 2014.

The operations undertaken in March and August 2014 in Ukraine provided an opportunity for the newly modernized force to achieve what it was lacking in 2008 – experience. The Russian military showcased a number of new tactics, techniques and procedures; in particular expanded use of UAVs in support of the new Battalion Tactical Groups , employment of the Spetsnaz (Special Forces), and further refinement of the non-linear warfare methods such as disinformation campaigns. Arguably, President Putin ensured preparation of the battlespace for unencumbered Russian operations through a series of propaganda messaging, denial of official Russian action, and other deceptive narratives and actions. While Russia “could take Ukraine by force, it could not succeed in a conventional war against the West.”  Russia’s best chance of success is a limited operation in order to avoid a protracted conflict. The use of cyber warfare enhanced the prospect for a rapid victory in Crimea, thwarted full entry of NATO forces into eastern Ukraine, and provided a relatively inexpensive alternative to full-scale conventional war. The Ukrainian intervention also served as the debut of the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG), a more highly-mobilized and versatile force to achieve swift gains. This more tailored force improved coordination capability between units and facilitated the use of UAVs to support strikes and increase intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) on the battlefield.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment


OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

In light of the main security interest of preventing NATO encroachment into former Soviet territory, Russia succeeded in Ukraine, as the ongoing conflict and lack of territorial integrity disqualifies Ukraine for NATO and EU membership. Russia also probed the West to determine what level of response a Ukraine invasion would incur. Moscow confirmed that the West would not engage Russia with direct military action, and the most severe response mustered by Western nations consisted of sanctions targeting President Putin himself and his inner circle. However, Russia and its supported groups in Eastern Ukraine are in a deadlock with the Ukrainian government, as neither side is willing to compromise and the ruling government in Kyiv remains friendly to the West and hostile to Russia.

The 2015 Entry into the Syrian Conflict
On the heels of the invasion into Ukraine, Russia commenced combat operations in Syria marking the first major intervention in a state outside its border region since the fall of the Soviet Union. The crisis in Syria began during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, with popular uprisings against the sitting Assad regime, which had been in power 40 years. Protective of Russia’s oil interests and leery of the West’s penchant for regime change among authoritarian rulers, Putin defended Assad and managed to prevent any UN resolution authorizing major interventions. However, by 2014 President Assad was rapidly losing territory to the declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), spurring Russia to formally enter the conflict with airstrikes in late September 2015 to aid the Assad regime and “to fight international terrorism.” Russia’s engagement in Syria, although not seemingly in line with Russia’s previous border country incursions, provided an opportunity to challenge the West.

While Putin desired to maintain a strong ally in Syrian President Assad, the survival of the Assad regime was not the primary purpose of Russia’s intervention. Rather, Russia was acutely aware of the dangers that regime change posed in Islamic nations, and maintaining the status quo was the least dangerous option. Key interests for Moscow also included ensuring access to their two military bases in Syria, Tartus and Latakia, Russia’s only direct access to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. By engaging in military operations, Russia thrust itself onto the geopolitical stage and world powers, that would have otherwise preferred to isolate Russia in the wake of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, were now forced to include Russia in negotiations. Russia achieved a status as broker in the region, directly challenging the US’s monopoly and networking in the region and ultimately reducing the influence of the West. In addition to the political benefits of entering the Syrian War, Russia once again was able to test new equipment and create invaluable combat experience for their military members.

There is no substitute for actual combat experience, and the conflict in Syria provided Russia an opportunity to test its new air and air defense systems. Systems such as the Su-57 PAK FA, fifth generation stealth fighter, and S-400, advanced surface to air missile system, were not yet declared fully operational. The Russian military garnered important lessons such as the need for coordination with ground troops and the actual combat capabilities of newly fielded equipment. An added benefit to the immediate deployment and demonstration of these new modern weapons systems in action was advertising for foreign arms sales. Egypt has recently signed a contract for new S-400s, India has purchased T-90 tanks, and China has purchased Su-35 advanced fighter jets as well as S-400 defense systems. Russia benefited significantly from its engagement in Syria, both testing new capabilities and showcasing capabilities for foreign military sales.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Due to Moscow’s limited engagement of airstrikes, the Kremlin explored the use of Private Military Companies (PMCs), otherwise known as professional mercenaries, to advance objectives on the ground. This enabled Moscow to avoid the necessity of reporting on troop movements or providing official ceremonies for members killed in action. This is another area where Russia desired to play “catchup” with the United States, who uses PMCs like Blackwater and Triple Canopy extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan; albeit only in support roles like convoy defense. Russia’s PMC in Syria, Wagner, is used more often for frontline assault missions. Russia must balance the benefit of deploying a non-Government ground force it can officially deny as sanctioned by Moscow, with the cost of not actually deploying government military forces and gaining combat experience, which the Russian population would not support.

The operation in Syria afforded Russia significant gains in national defense, extending beyond that of regional power and back onto the international stage as a major global force. Now that the force restructure after the 2008 Georgian War was successfully implemented in two major conflicts, ground tactics supported by aerial reconnaissance refined in Ukraine and new air and air defense systems fielded in Syria, along with mastering informational warfare, Russia has achieved the deterrence capability against NATO it desired. Whether this new streamlined, competent and capable force actually acts as a deterrent against increased NATO activity in the traditional Russian space remains to be seen.

Caroline Griesemer is a graduate student in International Relations, Europe/Eurasia Concentration at Troy University. She is a Reserve Air Attaché at the Defense Intelligence Agency and previously served Active Duty as an Intelligence Officer with assignments in US European Command and US Northern Command. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.


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