A Ukrainian blitzkrieg, a new arms race with the West, or the selective use of security crises abroad to achieve strategic goals – which scenario will Russia prefer during a time of increasing geopolitical turbulence?
What type of war is the Kremlin actually planning to wage? Photo: AP
In early June, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service published a public report on security threats until 2018. In this document, which comprises more than 100 pages, an important place is given to the threats posed by Russia.
Thus, in the opinion of Canada’s primary national intelligence service, the growing military potential of Russia is evidence of its preparations for a full-scale war, not just a hybrid one. At the same time, the analysts of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service found it difficult to answer the question: What type of war is the Kremlin actually planning to wage?
Historical analogies for Russian military action
Many experts tend to look for historical analogies. “History repeats itself,” they say, while seeking out precedents for today’s events in the past. Thus, a number of Western political scientists actively draw parallels between the strengthening of modern Russia and Germany’s development between the two world wars. They view potential Russian moves on the European continent the same way they viewed Germany’s moves in the late 1930s - with a fair amount of trepidation.
Other experts tend to see today’s confrontation between Russia and the West in accordance with the concept developed by Liddell Hart, the well-known British military theorist. He believes that the two World Wars were a single, multi-level confrontation related to the redistribution of global resources. According to the British political scientist, all phases of that global conflict lasted from 1890 until 1945.
Likewise, the Cold War and the current era in Russia relations with Western Europe represent a single period in which control over spheres of influence and military arsenals are the defining factors. Russia, defeated during the Cold War, has now entered a recovery stage before embarking on a new confrontation. The historical analogy implies that "another war” is inevitable, in which Russia will play the role of main aggressor, having lost, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its sphere of influence and some territories.
According to such logic, Russia might be boosting its military buildup with only one purpose – to regain lost territory, to restore its control over Eastern Europe, and to get rid of the potential threat represented by NATO. That's why a new global conflict is inevitable, and that any concessions to Russia only strengthen the Kremlin’s confidence in its own superiority, as was the case with the policy of “appeasement” towards Nazi Germany.
Since the start of the conflict in the Donbas and Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, a number of Western politicians actively began to play the “Russian threat” card. In fact, Moscow’s modernization of its army and naval forces helped to overshadow other pressing global issues of the Europeans and North Americans – the migration crisis, the expansion of conflict zones in the Middle East, and the growing threat of Islamist extremism. However, do historical analogies actually apply in the current situation?
History does not repeat itself, at least not this time
Let's start with the fact that any global conflict between Russia and NATO would quickly lead to a nuclear exchange. Moreover, the Kremlin has been actively demonstrating the growth of its nuclear capability and the precision of its delivery vehicles.
At the same time, even the most rabid hawks in the Kremlin and NATO military headquarters do not believe that it is possible, in the short term, to build an “impenetrable missile defense system,” which would help destroy the enemy. However, even a “victorious nuclear war” will lead to such public outcry, ecological and economic losses, that is simply cannot be regarded as a real tool of military policy.
What strategic questions can Moscow solve by using its modernized armed forces, while playing its nuclear deterrence card? There are several scenarios, which are at odds with the geopolitical goals of the EU and NATO.
Scenario #1: Ukraine blitzkrieg
At the same time, NATO is stepping up its activities near Russia’s borders with the Baltic States, on the Baltic and Black Seas. Two and a half months remain before the parliamentary elections in Russia, and although the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin is extremely high, after Crimea's incorporation into Russia, his ratings have fallen slightly.
A rapid military operation in Ukraine, which would create a land bridge to Crimea and take the east and south of Ukraine away from the control of Kiev, would certainly contribute to the skyrocketing popularity of Putin. However, such a “small victorious war” is hardly realistic, if one thinks about its economic consequences.
Crimea and support for the unrecognized republics of Eastern Ukraine have extremely high costs for the Russian state budget. Joining Southeastern Ukraine to Russia or bringing it under its sphere of influence would require huge financial investments, something that Moscow simply cannot afford.
Scenario #2: New arms race with the West
The second scenario aims at the resumption of the Cold War. Russia is not only strengthening its army – it is also actively building military infrastructure on the border with Europe, provoking a response from NATO.
With this, the EU countries, primarily in Eastern Europe, will be forced to increase their military expenditures, which, ideally (from a Russian perspective), should lead to socio-economic disruptions, and a certain decline in their economic development and social programs.
On the one hand, such a policy has already started working. As a result, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite recently signed a new law “on the return of compulsory military service” to counter Russia's "threat". This, according to experts, will cost this small Baltic republic 30-35 million euros ($33-39 million) annually.
Scenario #3: Export of security crises abroad
Russian intervention in the civil war in Syria in 2015 within just a few months allowed the country's government troops to begin an offensive against the radical Islamists. Indirectly, these Russian actions also contributed to the successful attacks on the positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, where government forces, with the support of the Western coalition, were able to liberate a number of cities.
At the same time, it is obvious that there are plenty of sources of instability in the modern world, which could well endanger global security. Moscow has shown that it is prepared to effectively counter such challenges, supporting friendly regimes and opposing terrorism.
Moreover, the Kremlin has demonstrated its readiness to cooperate in security matters with any Western power. Although such strengthening of Russia’s position on the world stage is not making Brussels and Washington happy, Moscow’s actions are not only contributing to the strengthening of its own positions, but also to the maintenance of international security.
Potential military cooperation with the West
Thus, out of the three scenarios in which the modernized armed forces of Russia could be used – two are unwinnable propositions. A full-scale military confrontation between NATO and Russia will lead to the obvious destruction of all stakeholders.
The third scenario – in which security crises abroad lead to new geostrategic configurations with the West – is perhaps the most interesting. The main results of the military reforms undertaken by the Kremlin eventually will give Russia the opportunity, if necessary, to ensure the security of its allies, and eliminate hotbeds of tension in Eurasia, as well as the ability to prevent any outbreak of a hybrid war on its own territory.
At the same time, having a strong, battle-tested and mobile army, Russia could become a valuable partner for the West in strengthening global security and stability. Given the growing migration crisis and increasing instability in the Middle East, the growth of military cooperation between Moscow and Brussels and Washington will become increasingly relevant.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.