Countering the NATO Threat: A Look at Russia’s Military Advancements and Challenges to Future Defense (Part 2)

By: Caroline Griesemer
Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes 

Countering the Threat of NATO Encroachment
Returning to the 2015 identified threats to Russia’s national security, specifically “the further expansion of the [NATO] alliance and the location of its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders”, Russia has significantly advanced its military capability and shown itself as a major adversary. The former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia, courting EU and NATO membership, are now off the table for the foreseeable future. Russia was able to conduct operations relatively uninhibited in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, indicating their ability to shrug off the West’s preference of containment with regard to Russia. Furthermore, Russia overcame the imposed isolation by the international community in response to its annexation of Crimea in 2014 through its action in Syria, forcing its way to a place at the negotiations table.

One strategy Russia is using to increase regional security is to reduce Western influence in the region, mainly through soft power tactics. Here Russia has been remarkably successful through its employment of informational warfare techniques. It is not too far of a stretch to envision Russia’s calculated bombardment of Syrian cities as a means to increase the number of refugees flooding Europe, thereby drawing attention inward and wreaking havoc on European stability.  Russia also successfully prevented the West from achieving its desired end state in Syria of regime change, as Assad is still in power. Thus Russia blocked unilateral American action in the Middle East and increased its foothold to pursue Russian interests.

However, Russian engagements in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria to counter the NATO threat appear to have backfired. The threat to Russia has increased even further, as NATO increased troop deployments to the Baltic States and conducted multiple exercises in preparation for a potential confrontation with Russia. Alarmed by Russia’s invasion into a sovereign nation in 2008 and again in 2014 coupled with a land-grab of the Crimean peninsula, NATO moved to a heightened alert posture to assure members on the Eastern border; notably the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Poland and Hungary. The United States has increased its supply of arms to the Ukrainian government and provided assistance in surveillance of rebel-held areas. The United States is acting more boldly in clashes between American and Russian troops and aircraft in Syria, with US attacks on Russian positions in the wake of the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on civilians in 2016 and the killing of 10 Russian citizens operating as part of the Wagner group. To counter Russia’s increased aggressiveness and newly fielded advanced weaponry, NATO seeks to assure its members on the eastern front through a rotating deployment of “about 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic States and Poland, and have stationed several thousand other armored troops mostly in Eastern Europe as a deterrent to Russian aggression”. Additionally, Poland has gone even further to announce their willingness to fund construction of a US base in Poland. Russia is in the midst of a security dilemma, with each move to increase its own security, it inevitably decreases it.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Future Prospects for Military Expansion
Russian external military action in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria and major advances in its military readiness raise the question of whether Russia also seeks to increase in capability to match that of the United States, and ultimately project power for global influence on par with the United States. The consensus among leading observers suggests Russia is not interested in global military reach, but rather consolidating power regionally and reversing the influence enjoyed by Western nations in Russia’s perceived “sphere of influence. However, maintaining a foothold in the Middle East is a major goal for Russia, and the dispute between Turkey and the United States regarding the rebellious Turkish religious leader Gulen provided an opening for Russian influence. Moscow entered into rapprochement with Turkey seeking to “create a zone of ‘privileged control’ around the Black Sea.” Furthermore, the reforms made under “New Look” provide a deterrence while reducing the potential for a protracted conventional war with the west, and Russia has developed a “rapid, coordinated coup de main attempting to achieve campaign objectives in a very short period of time”. This streamlined version of Russian armed forces is then well suited for the types of “near abroad” battles Russia has engaged in since 2008.

Russia also experienced other limits to its expanding military activity. In particular, the downing of a Russian fighter over Turkey in November 2015 challenged Russia’s unchecked use of airpower over Syria. Additionally, the US directly targeted Syrian government forces, Russia’s ally, on two occasions in response to alleged chemical attacks on civilians, an attack that Russia was unable to avert. Furthermore, even with increased arms sales to Middle Eastern nations, there remains reluctance on the part of these states to follow Russia’s lead, frustrating Moscow’s realization of their goals in the region. Thus, unlike the freedom of maneuver enjoyed in Georgia and Ukraine, other major powers involved in the Syrian crisis have been able to block unilateral Russian action. The operation in Syria, while providing an opportunity for Russia to test its military capabilities, also exposed limits to Russia’s military operations.

It appears that the intervention in Syria was an exception, as Russia’s priority remains states in its “sphere of influence”. In this manner, Russia’s position in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan raises the prospect for another “Crimean-type” scenario. Ironically, Russia’s aggressive moves to ensure stability on its borders and maintaining governments favorable to Moscow have increased the security dilemma. Belarus and Kazakhstan, normally bedrock allies of Moscow, are asserting their independence and working more cautiously with Russia for fear of similar interference. Thus, Russia will most likely not pursue global reach on par with the United States and NATO. On the other hand, Russia has been largely successful in its goals of limiting US influence in the Middle East with its gains in Turkey and the fact that Assad is still in power in Syria. Furthermore, Russia seems to be successful in consolidating regional control, as NATO is still reluctant to throw the full weight of its support behind Poroshenko’s government in Kyiv to end the conflict in its eastern regions. 

Economic Impacts
The surge in oil prices in the early 2000s filled Russia’s coffers and provided the means for massive military reforms and extensive upgrades to military equipment. However, the financial crisis of 2008-9 and ongoing sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea has put into question Russia’s ability to sustain its burgeoning military costs. Despite the diminishing budget, both increasing Russia’s influence in its “near abroad” and reducing the soft power of Western nations remain a top priority. Russia will continue to find the means to maintain its military capabilities and successfully mount a defense against a NATO threat, using non-linear warfare, arms sales of new weapons unveiled in the Syria conflict, and increasing partnerships with China.

The expanding use of non-linear warfare provides a means “on the cheap” to achieve Russia’s goals. Globalization and the use of the internet brought millions of people around the world online, and the exponential rise of social media use creates a ripe environment for Russian cyber teams to exploit. By fronting operations with false messaging and fomenting discord, Russia steadily degrades the trust of citizens in target countries and their governments. This significantly reduces the physical effort required on the part of the advancing Russian forces to achieve their strategic objectives; amid the ensuing confusion, countries are less willing to invade Russia. Contrasted with the high costs of moving ground troops and their associated heavy equipment, along with the high price tags associated with modern aircraft and air defense systems, information warfare requires only a few trained operators behind a computer spreading false information. As seen in past conflicts, the cost of cyber warfare is further reduced by Russia’s sponsorship of “hacktivists” or “online trolls”, individuals with a passion for Russia or against its enemies (or more simply, criminal organizations), and the skills to carry out a cyber-attack.

The solid foot Russia seeks to maintain in the Middle East as a stabilizing power opens doors for business with Turkey and other wealthy Gulf nations. The successful implementation of its new advanced fighters and air defense systems has raised the prospect of arms deals with the Gulf States. Arms deals such as the S-400 advanced surface to air missile system sales to Egypt and Turkey are highly protested by the United States and other NATO allies. Russia is also seeking lucrative sales to Asian nations. By increasing its economic activity in the Middle and Far East, Russia plans to “build a ‘sanction-proof’ economy.” Using relations with Middle East and Asian nations provides Russia the ability to capitalize economically and counter impacts of western sanctions.

Increasingly looking east for allies to balance against Western power, Russia has found China a willing partner in not only multi-lateral organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but also for financial support. “Chinese banks have provided lavish loans for large Russian state-owned companies and the members of Putin’s entourage who are on various sanctions lists.” China also provides a ripe market for Russian exports. While sanctions hit Russia’s economy hard and severely hampered their ability to purchase more expensive weaponry, Russia will continue to find cushions to sanctions and cheaper alternatives to conventional warfare that still advance the objective.

In its 2015 National Security Strategy, Russia identified the encroaching infrastructure of NATO and the US to Russian territory as a major threat to its security. Russia has pursued a build-up of forces and increasing military activity in its near abroad as an objective to halt or even reverse what it sees as the growing NATO threat. The engagement to support the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia achieve independence from Georgia in 2008 succeeded; however, it highlighted major deficiencies in the Russian armed forces capabilities, from communications issues between echelons, to dilapidated equipment and lack of discipline among troops. Major reforms were undertaken to modernize the force to make it a competent deterrent against NATO aggression, and subsequent engagements in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 provided opportunities to refine tactics, test new weapons systems, and build experience among its officer corps.

Although the Russian military improved its capability immensely, its desire to push back on NATO encroachment and the placement of ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic has, up to this point, backfired. NATO now added deployments to the Baltic States in a show of support, and Poland even proposed to build a permanent US military base in Poland to deter Russian aggression. Russia’s build-up of its own forces escalated a return to the security dilemma of the Cold War. Considering the military advancements made to improve its own defenses, Russia has not succeeded in stopping NATO and now faces ever greater threats to its security.

Efforts by the West to punish Russia for its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty from its annexation of Crimea enacted crippling effects on Russia’s economy. However, Russia cushioned the impact to its military through the expanded use of non-linear and informational warfare, as well as arms sales to the Middle East and China, not to mention China’s sizeable loans to Russian oligarchs. This gives a significant indication that Russia will continue developing methods to counter the threat from NATO and avoid direct confrontation.

Considering the openly aggressive actions taken by Russia against neighboring states, Russia’s actions threaten weaker eastern European states. Sanctions placed by western nations on Russia may unintentionally improve Russia’s security standing by temporarily halting Russia’s conventional military advancements and expanding use of non-linear warfare. The highly visible nature of troop movements and the latest modern fighter aircraft and air defense systems spur Russia’s neighbors to increase their own visible defenses. Yet Russia already has a game-changing weapon in its toolkit –cyber warfare. Even if disinformation campaigns are linked back to teams of Russian hackers, the damage to the domestic affairs of the target nation will have already been accomplished, and the seeds of discontent are sewn. Russia may well achieve its goal of removing NATO firepower from its borders through influencing domestic dissatisfaction with national leaders and encouraging promotion of leaders more sympathetic to Russia’s interests.

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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