By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia's geostrategic environment
What we see happening today is that the growing rift between Western and Central Europe currently leads to a crisis as the Central European countries try to avoid serving as a buffer zone between Russia and the West.
The Russians can’t avoid trying to reassert power, and the United States can’t avoid trying to resist. But in the end, Russia can’t win. Its deep internal problems, massively declining population, and poor infrastructure ultimately make Russia’s long-term survival prospects bleak. And the second cold war, less frightening and much less global than the first, will end as the first did, with the collapse of Russia. To deal with its vulnerabilities, Russia expanded in three phases. In the first, Russia expanded not toward the invasion corridors to establish buffers but away from them to establish a redoubt. In the late 15th century, under Ivan III, Russia did creep westward somewhat, anchoring itself at the Pripet Marshes, which separated Russia from the Kyiv region. But the bulk of Russia’s expansion during that period was north to the Arctic and northeast to the Urals. Very little of this territory can be categorized as useful, most was taiga or actual tundra and only lightly populated, but for Russia, it was the only land easily up for grabs. It also marked a natural organic outgrowth of the original Muscovy, all cloaked in forest. It was as defensible a territory as Russia had access to and their only hope against the Mongols.
The Mongols were horsemen who dominated the grasslands with their fast-moving cavalry forces. Their power, although substantial, diminished when they entered the forests and the value of their horses, their force multipliers, declined. The Mongols had to fight infantry forces in the forests, where the advantage was on the defender’s side.
The second phase of Russia’s expansion was far more aggressive and risky. In the mid-16th century, Under Ivan IV, Russia finally moved to seal off the Mongol invasion route. Russia pushed south and east, deep into the steppes, and did not stop until it hit the Urals in the east and the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains in the south. As part of this expansion, Russia captured several strategically critical locations, including Astrakhan on the Caspian, the land of the Tatars, a longtime horse-mounted foe, and Grozny, which was soon transformed into a military outpost at the foot of the Caucasus.
Also with this expansion, Ivan IV was transformed from Grand Prince of Moscow to Tsar of All Russia, suggesting the empire to come. Russia had finally achieved a measure of conventional security. Holding the northern slopes of the Caucasus would provide a reasonable defense from Asia Minor and Persia, while the millions of square kilometers of steppes gave birth to another defensive strategy: buffers.
Russia, modern, medieval, or otherwise, cannot count on natural features to protect it. The Pripet Marshes were small and could in many cases simply be avoided. No one might wish to attack from the Arctic. Forests slowed the Mongol horsemen, but as Muscovy’s predecessor, Kievan Rus, aptly demonstrated, the operative word was “slowed,” not “stopped.” The Mongols conquered and destroyed Kievan Rus in the 13th century.
That leaves buffers. So long as a country controls territory separating itself from its foes, even if it is territory that is easy for a hostile military to transit — it can bleed out any invasion via attrition and attacks on supply lines. Such buffers, however, contain a poison pill. They have populations not necessarily willing to serve as buffers. Maintaining control of such buffers requires not only a sizable standing military for defense but also a huge internal security and intelligence network to enforce central control. And any institution so key to the state’s survival must be very tightly controlled as well. Establishing and maintaining buffers not only makes Russia seem aggressive to its neighbors but also forces it to conduct purges and terrors against its institutions to maintain the empire.
By the end of World War II, the Soviet Union — a constitutional assembly of socialist republics in existence since 1922 — had come to encompass a massive amount of territory. Covering what would later be known as the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet counter alliance to NATO), the Iron Curtain fell across a vast swath of Eurasia, providing Moscow with immense strategic depth, more than it had ever controlled before, or has controlled since.
To the south and southwest, the Kremlin commanded critical geographic buffers like the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains, and to the west, where there were no such mountain barriers, the North European Plain offered an effective defense in depth. Moscow was more than 1,000 miles from NATO’s front lines, and these geographic circumstances, along with the long-standing realities of Russian geopolitics, favored land forces. Hence the Red Army, in its many forms, has traditionally been the pre-eminent branch of the Russian military.
At the end of World War II, the Soviets commanded a vast wartime industrial machine. The demographic, agricultural, and industrial strengths of the western Soviet republics and Eastern Europe meant that Moscow was positioned to sustain an enormous military well after the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War, and it proceeded to do just that.
These two factors, geography, and industry were deeply interrelated and interdependent. The vast territory required a vast military to defend it. The perennial Russian problem of long, indefensible borders had not been solved by the creation and expansion of the Warsaw Pact; the borders had simply been pushed out to a more comfortable distance from Moscow, to include actual geographic barriers to invasion, such as mountain ranges. Further complicating matters was Russia’s second perennial problem: poor transportation infrastructure, not just bad roads and a limited rail network, but the terrain on which it was difficult to build infrastructure and the lack of a river system conducive to commerce.
These problems continue to plague Russia. Unable to quickly move large forces and their equipment across the country, even today, Russia spans nearly the entirety of the Eastern Hemisphere, Russia must disperse large, standing military units around the country. While Russia’s focus has always been westward, it maintains a significant, if at times neglected, presence in the Far East. Meanwhile, the territory that provided Moscow with the strategic depth required extensive internal security apparatuses to quell dissent. These widely dispersed forces depended on the people, agriculture, and industry of the newly acquired territories for sustenance.
Nevertheless, by the end of World War II, it looked as though the stars had finally aligned for Russia. The Soviet Union would become so militarily powerful that Europe, and the combined forces of NATO, trembled at the prospect of a Soviet invasion from Russia, rather than the reverse (which had historically been the case).
Naturally, this newfound power made deep and lasting impressions on military thinking in Russia. It reinforced deep-seated Russian conceptions of strategy that figured in terms of overwhelming numbers, where quantitative superiority compensated for qualitative inefficiencies. The military continued to be organized to carry out large, coordinated maneuvers that demanded strict adherence to higher command. Quantitative superiority dictated a large, conscripted force of necessarily young, poorly educated soldiers with limited training, and equipment and organization had to account for this.
At the same time, the military continued to be the primary, privileged beneficiary of the entire Soviet economy — and remained so for the remainder of the union’s existence. This put immense resources at the Kremlin’s disposal, so immense that military thinking began to be taken to a perverse extreme. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Moscow had more than 50,000 main battle tanks deployed west of the Ural Mountains, so many that it is doubtful the Soviet Union could have provided sufficient gasoline to fuel the much-feared invasion of Western Europe. But even then, in terms of the size of the military and the territory it occupied, Soviet military strength was very real.
When the Berlin Wall came down, the floor collapsed under the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist in 1991. Soviet territory contracted to the borders of Russia proper. On the North European Plain, the border retreated from the Elbe River in Germany to a point less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. Moscow found itself 250 miles from an independent Belarus and less than 300 miles from an independent Ukraine. Russia also lost the demographic, agricultural, and industrial capacity of Eastern Europe and the western republics that had helped sustain the enormous Soviet war machine.
But this was only the beginning. In 1991, the utter devastation of Iraq’s military at the hands of U.S. and NATO forces undermined the credibility of the Soviet military model. At the time, far from the weak military for which Iraq has come to be known, the Iraqi military was among the largest in the world. Its troops were battle-hardened from nearly a decade of war with Iran — and they were equipped with Soviet hardware and followed basic Soviet doctrine. Desert Storm called into question the central tenets of Soviet military thinking, leaving a Russian military awash in problems and uncertain of even its most basic assumptions.
Meanwhile, then-President Boris Yeltsin began to build inefficiency and incoherence into the Russian military to forestall a military coup (though he was hardly the first Russian leader to do this). Decay and disarray gripped all of Russia. The military itself began to rust and atrophy, even as it entered into the first bloody and protracted civil war in Chechnya. The ruble experienced what can only be described as a free fall. Birth rates declined dramatically. Former Warsaw Pact allies, and even former Soviet Socialist Republics, began to be accepted as full members of NATO. Everything that had made the Soviet Union geographically secure, and much of what had made the Soviet war machine possible, was no longer Moscow’s.
Thus, the perennial Russian problem of insecurity and vulnerability to the invasion was profoundly complicated by the rapid retraction of territory at the same time that basic subsistence for the military was becoming a problem. The Russian military was simply no longer capable of defending what limited (yet still vast) territory it was responsible for, to say nothing of meaningful offensive or expeditionary capability.
This situation was not just a massive blow to the Russian military — it also imposed a strange new reality for which long-standing Soviet military doctrine was completely unprepared. The underlying structure of the military, in other words, was in complete disarray just at the moment when the military, as an institution, had to grapple with completely new circumstances and challenges.
In dealing with the situation, the Kremlin came to rely increasingly on its nuclear arsenal as the guarantor of territorial integrity. Observers of Russian training exercises began to note the simulated use of nuclear weapons to stem the tide of an invasion. In these scenarios, Russian forces fight qualitatively superior forces in a slow retreat culminating in the use of tactical nuclear weapons to hold the line.
Weak points in the Russian deterrent certainly remain — its ballistic missile submarines hardly ever conduct patrols, and the bulk of its deliverable warheads are carried aboard aging Soviet-era heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles. But there is also little doubt that Moscow retains a modern nuclear capability. Russia continues to field a very sizable arsenal that includes established missile designs that work, even as it continues to toy with maneuverable re-entry vehicles and penetration aids to improve its capability against ballistic missile defenses.
Russia’s nuclear posturing, especially its defensive exercises, was thus a message to the West to not try anything, even though the conventional Russian military appeared weak. But it was also a warning of how Moscow would be forced to escalate matters if it felt threatened. The nuclear arsenal became the trump card that the Kremlin clung to in an increasing number of defensive scenarios. In reality, the Kremlin no longer had any offensive scenarios.
This was not a tenable position for Russia, and the need to reconstitute conventional military forces was clear. But this would take time. It was only when Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999 and began to consolidate control over the country that the Kremlin could stop fretting about a military coup and begin to think seriously about meaningful military reform. In other words, the power of Putin allowed the Kremlin, for the first time since the Cold War, to begin strengthening the military. Soon, however, the process of reform began cutting against the grain of the military’s old guard, so the challenge was to strengthen the military from the outside despite the best efforts of the military itself.
Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, Russia will never rebuild the Soviet army. The Kremlin cannot simply sustain an army large enough to compensate for the profound geographic disadvantages Russia faces in the 21st century. Although a mass military is no longer feasible, however, Russia’s borders and transportation constraints are even more problematic than they were during the Soviet era. The only rational solution is to push for increasingly mobile and agile military units.
Russia will not embrace this reality completely; it will likely retain some semblance of a large military, including a great number of conscripts. But Russia is attempting to build more agile units, to be known as “permanent readiness forces” (PRFs), trained to be poised and prepared for quick deployment in a crisis.
The concept of “permanent readiness” is very Russian. History and geography have informed how Russia conceives of military operations. Russia has long had forces located geographically and equipped to fight a specific type of war, namely, heavy armored combat with NATO on the North European Plain. By comparison, the United States has been conducting expeditionary overseas operations for almost its entire existence. The U.S. military has long been intimately familiar with the logistical requirements of overseas deployments, and the rotations and training cycles required for sustaining expeditionary forces.
Only about a quarter of the Russian military is expected to fall under the PRF umbrella. Manned by professional contract soldiers and with a presence in each of the six military districts, such units will form the vanguard of the army in those regions and will be trained to quickly react to any contingency. Missions can range from humanitarian and disaster relief to counterterrorism, or even military intervention along Russia’s periphery in operations akin to the August 2008 invasion of the breakaway Georgian enclave of South Ossetia.
But as we will see, while this is an attractive concept in the abstract, there are numerous obstacles to achieving a new military paradigm in Russia.
The third expansion phase dealt with the final invasion route: from the west. In the 18th century, under Peter and Catherine the Great, Russian power pushed westward, conquering Ukraine to the southwest and pushing on to the Carpathian Mountains. It also moved the Russian border to the west, incorporating the Baltic territories and securing a Russian flank on the Baltic Sea. Muscovy and the Tsardom of Russia were now known as the Russian Empire.
Yet aside from the anchor in the Carpathians, Russia did not achieve any truly defensible borders. Expansions to the Baltic and Black Seas did end the external threat from the Cossacks and Balts of ages past, but at the price of turning those external threats into internal ones. Russia also expanded so far and fast that holding the empire together socially and militarily became a monumental and ongoing challenge (today Russia is dealing with the fact that Russians are barely a majority in their own country). All this is to achieve some semblance of security by establishing buffer regions.
But that is an issue of empire management. Ultimately the multi-directional threat-defined Muscovy’s geopolitical problem. There was a constant threat from the steppes, but there was also a constant threat from the west, where the North European Plain allowed for few natural defenses and larger populations could deploy substantial infantry (and could, as the Swedes did, use naval power to land forces against the Muscovites). The forests provided a degree of protection, as did the sheer size of Russia’s holdings and its climate, but in the end, the Russians faced threats from at least two directions. In managing these threats by establishing buffers, they were caught in a perpetual juggling act: east vs. west, internal vs. external.
The geography of the Russian Empire bequeathed certain characteristics. Most important, the empire was (and remains) lightly settled. Even today, vast areas of Russia are unpopulated while in the rest of the country the population is widely distributed in small towns and cities and far less concentrated in large urban areas. Russia’s European part is the most densely populated, but in its expansion, Russia both resettled Russian ethnics and assimilated large minorities along the way. So while Moscow and its surroundings are certainly critical, the predominance of the old Muscovy is not decisively ironclad.
The result is a constant, ingrained clash within the Russian Empire no matter the time frame, driven primarily by its size and the challenges of transport. The Russian empire, even excluding Siberia, is an enormous landmass located far to the north. Moscow is at the same latitude as Newfoundland while the Russian and Ukrainian breadbaskets are at the latitude of Maine, resulting in an extremely short growing season. Apart from limiting the size of the crop, the climate limits the efficiency of transport — getting the crop from farm to distant markets is a difficult matter and so is supporting large urban populations far from the farms. This is the root problem of the Russian economy. Russia can grow enough to feed itself, but it cannot efficiently transport what it grows from the farms to the cities and the barren reaches of the empire before the food spoils. And even when it can transport it, the costs of transport make the foodstuffs unaffordable.
Population distribution also creates a political problem. One natural result of the transport problem is that the population tends to distribute itself nearer growing areas and in smaller towns so as not to tax the transport system. Yet these populations in Russia’s west and south tend to be conquered peoples. So the conquered peoples tend to distribute themselves to reflect economic rationalities, while the need for food to be transported to the Russian core goes against such rationalities.
Faced with a choice of accepting urban starvation or the forcing of economic destitution upon the food-producing regions (by ordering the sale of food in urban centers at prices well below market prices), Russian leaders tend to select the latter option. Joseph Stalin certainly did in his efforts to forge and support an urban, industrialized population. Force-feeding such economic hardship to conquered minorities only doubled the need for a tightly controlled security apparatus.
The Russian geography meant that Russia either would have a centralized government, and economic system, or it would fly apart, torn by nationalist movements, peasant uprisings, and urban starvation. Urbanization, much less industrialization, would have been impossible without a strong center. Indeed, the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union would have been impossible. The natural tendency of the empire and Russia itself is to disintegrate. Therefore, to remain united it had to have a centralized bureaucracy responsive to autocratic rule in the capital and a vast security apparatus that compelled the country and empire to remain united. Russia’s history is one of controlling the inherently powerful centrifugal forces tearing at the country’s fabric.
Russia, then, has two core geopolitical problems. The first is holding the empire together. But the creation of that empire poses the second problem, maintaining internal security. It must hold together the empire and defend it at the same time, and the achievement of one goal tends to undermine efforts to achieve the other.
To secure the Russian core of Muscovy, Russia must:
· Expand north and east to secure a redoubt in climatically hostile territory that is protected in part by the Urals. This way, even in the worst-case scenario (i.e., Moscow falls), there is still a “Russia” from which to potentially resurge.
· Expand south to the Caucasus and southeast into the steppes to hamper invasions of Asian origin. As circumstances allow, push as deeply into Central Asia and Siberia as possible to deepen this bulwark.
· Expand as far west as possible. Do not stop in the southwest until the Carpathians are reached. On the North European Plain do not stop ever. Deeper penetration increases security not just in terms of buffers; the North European Plain narrows the further west one travels making its defense easier.
· Manage the empire with terror. Since the vast majority of Russian territory is not Russian, a very firm hand is required to prevent myriad minorities from asserting regional control or aligning with hostile forces.
· Expand to warm water ports that have open-ocean access so that the empire can begin to counter the economic problems that a purely land empire suffers.
Given the geography of the Russian heartland, we can see why the Russians would attempt to expand as they did. Vulnerable to attack the North European Plain and from the Central Asian and European steppes simultaneously, Russia could not withstand an attack from one direction — much less two. Apart from the military problem, the ability of the state to retain control of the country under such pressure was dubious, as was the ability to feed the country under normal circumstances, much less during the war. Securing the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia was the first, and easiest, part of dealing with this geographic imbroglio.
The western expansion was not nearly so “simple.” No matter how far west the Russians moved on the European plain, there was no point at which they could effectively anchor themselves. Ultimately, the last effective line of defense is the 400-mile gap (aka Poland) between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. Beyond that, the plains widen to such a degree that a conventional defense is impossible as there is simply too much open territory to defend. So the Soviet Union pressed on to the Elbe.
At its height, the Soviet Union achieved all but its final imperative of securing ocean access. The USSR was anchored on the Carpathians, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Urals, all of which protected its southern and southwestern flanks. Siberia protected its eastern frontier with vast emptiness. Further to the south, Russia was anchored deeply in Central Asia. The Russians had defensible frontiers everywhere except the North European Plain, ergo the need to occupy Germany and Poland.
Thus one could also say that the Russian military will always be a product of Russian history, Russian geopolitical imperatives, and Russian thinking. It will never be measurable entirely by Western military standards. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the realities of the 21st century demand some of the most radical military reforms in Russia’s modern history. And this reform is not simply a matter of getting a fresh start. To build a new military, Moscow must also deconstruct what remains of the Soviet military structure and organization. It must push past much of the Soviet-era thinking that has governed the Russian military for the better part of a century. And it must do so while working against the grain of profound institutional inertia.
Incidentally, because Moscow held tightly to the reins of the Soviet military in the days of the Soviet Union, the majority of officers were Russian. When the union collapsed, a disproportionate number of enlisted personnel, conscripts, and volunteers alike, from the western Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics were lost while the vast majority of the officers remained part of the Russian military. The result was that the ratio of officers to enlisted personnel in the Russian military became extremely high.
Deliberately, because every Russian or Soviet leader before Vladimir Putin was concerned about the military consolidating against the Kremlin, even though Russia has not faced a successful military coup in over two centuries. As a result of this paranoia, various inefficiencies have been deliberately and systematically built into the military by many leaders to keep the officers too numerous and disorganized to ever achieve such consolidation.
Indeed, future President Boris Yeltsin helped turn the tide against a 1991 coup supported by rogue elements of the military against former President Mikhail Gorbachev. Upon becoming president, Yeltsin greatly increased the number of officers both to keep the military in disarray and to insert political allies into the military.
In large part due to Yeltsin’s efforts, the officer corps today remains immense, with over 300,000 members, tipping the scales at more than 30 percent of the total force (including conscripts). As a point of comparison, commissioned officers in the U.S. Army amount to 15 percent of its personnel, a percentage far more commensurate with modern, Western models. Although the Russian military cannot be judged or understood entirely through the prism of Western military thought, it is a bloated, top-heavy, and ultimately unsustainable force structure, even for Russia.
The current goal of reduction to 150,000 officers by 2012, a cut of more than 50 percent, is nothing if not ambitious, but even getting in that range would be an enormous step for Russia’s military because it would free up resources and help increase the institutional agility of the armed forces as a whole. Indeed, the reduction in the senior officer ranks is even more dramatic than the 50 percent cut suggests, since the Kremlin hopes to dramatically expand the ranks of junior officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs).
For the remainder of the Russian military, there are two broad issues: culture and demographics. The new “permanent readiness forces,” poised and prepared for quick deployment in a crisis, will be smaller and more agile, with different chains of command. This will necessarily increase reliance on junior officers and NCOs. By pushing command down to the lower levels, the demand for initiative and small-unit leadership will rise accordingly. But there is a little tradition in the Russian military for either, and it is not clear how well young officers and NCOs will cope, even though an expanded training pipeline is in the works.
There is also a culture of violence and leadership through brutality in the Russian military. The heart of this problem is the conscription program, which remains an enormous embarrassment for the Kremlin. Rampant brutality and hazing are known as dedovshchina (formerly practiced by those in their second year of conscription before the two-year term of service was reduced to one year) and often result in serious injury and death, including suicide. (Dedovshchina reportedly resulted in the loss of several hundred conscripts in 2007, several years after the problem had been identified and reforms had begun to be implemented.)
Not unrelated is a culture of drunkenness, drug abuse, and desertion, not only among conscripts but also in the ranks of professional contract soldiers. As the U.S. military found after Vietnam, this sort of cultural affliction can take a decade or more to remedy, and unlike the U.S. military in Vietnam, Russia hosts major heroin smuggling routes from Afghanistan. Black-market alcohol, as well as illicit drugs, are coursing through Russia’s veins, reducing alcoholism, drug abuse, and corruption even more complicated for the Russian military.
A far more concrete problem is demographics. Junior officers, NCOs, professional soldiers, and conscripts are all going to come from essentially the same pool (even with some variation in age and educational achievement). By cutting the conscripted service period in half, Russia has effectively doubled the number of youth it must conscript each year. While eligibility for the draft runs for nearly a decade, technically, the vast majority of youth are conscripted at age 18, and Russia is now attempting to conscript young men who never knew the Soviet Union. The 1990s were not a particularly buoyant time for Russia in terms of the birth rate, and the number of Russian men turning 18 each year is declining, just when the Kremlin needs to press more and more of them into service. Although there will be a small rebound starting in 2017, according to birth-rate projections, nearly a decade of dramatic population decline will occur before then, and long-term prospects are much worse.
The declining youth population is a reminder that Russia is approaching a much more problematic demographic crisis beyond 2025, namely, the decline of Russian society as a whole. Birth rates are not sufficient to sustain the population, infertility, AIDS and alcoholism are rampant and the Russian people are growing increasingly unhealthy with diminishing life spans.
The other major problem is money. Awash in cash during Putin’s presidency due in large part to high commodity prices, Russia was able to sock away some US$750 billion in total currency reserves. This sum has begun to erode because of the invasion of Georgia and the ongoing financial crisis and is already down to around US$370 billion. Russia still enjoys vast reserves, but the ruble continues to tumble as the financial crisis works its way through the Russian economy. Russia may be able to sustain some planned increases in military spending by tapping its reserves, but the implications of the financial crisis on Russian military reform remain to be seen.
The global financial crisis comes at a particularly difficult point in Russian military modernization. Increases in defense spending and procurement had been talked about before, but the confluence of a flood of petrodollars and the successful transition of power to President Medvedev in 2008 held the promise, at last, of the actual implementation. Then came the onslaught of the worldwide recession. While the Kremlin may continue to sustain military spending out of its reserves, its budgets will undoubtedly be tighter than anticipated for the duration of the crisis.
First, Siberia. There is only one rail line connecting Siberia to the rest of the empire, and positioning a military force there is difficult if not impossible. The risk in Russia’s far east is illusory. The Trans-Siberian Railroad (TSR) runs east-west, with the Baikal Amur Mainline forming a loop. The TSR is Russia’s main lifeline to Siberia and is, to some extent, vulnerable. But an attack against Siberia is difficult, here is not much to attack but the weather, while the terrain and sheer size of the region make holding it not only difficult but of questionable relevance. Besides, an attack beyond it is impossible because of the Urals.
East of Kazakhstan, the Russian frontier is mountainous to hilly, and almost no north-south roads are running deep into Russia; those that do exist can be easily defended, and even then they dead-end in lightly populated regions. The period without mud or snow lasts less than three months out of the year. After that time, overland resupply of an army is impossible. An Asian power can't attack Siberia. That is the prime reason the Japanese chose to attack the United States rather than the Soviet Union in 1941. The only way to attack Russia in this region is by sea, as the Japanese did in 1905. It might then be possible to achieve a lodgment in the maritime provinces. But exploiting the resources of deep Siberia, given the requisite infrastructure costs, is prohibitive to the point of being virtually impossible.
Second, Central Asia. The mature Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were anchored on a series of linked mountain ranges, deserts, and bodies of water in this region that gave it a superb defensive position. Beginning on the northwestern Mongolian border and moving southwest on a line through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the empire was guarded by a north extension of the Himalayas, the Tien Shan Mountains. Swinging west along the Afghan and Iranian borders to the Caspian Sea, the empire occupied the lowlands along a mountainous border. But the lowlands, except for a small region on the frontier with Afghanistan, were a harsh desert, impassable for large military forces. A section along the Afghan border was more permeable, leading to a long-term Russian unease with the threat in Afghanistan, foreign or indigenous. The Caspian Sea protected the border with Iran, and on its western shore, the Caucasus Mountains began, which the empire shared with Iran and Turkey but which were hard to pass through in either direction. The Caucasus terminated on the Black Sea, totally protecting the empire’s southern border. These regions were of far greater utility to Russia than Siberia and so may have been worth taking, but for once geography helped Russia instead of working against it.
Finally, there is the western frontier that ran from west of Odessa north to the Baltic. This European frontier was a vulnerable point. Geographically, the southern portion of the border varied from time to time, and where the border was drawn was critical. The Carpathians form an arc from Romania through western Ukraine into Slovakia. Russia controlled the center of the arc in Ukraine. However, its frontier did not extend as far as the Carpathians in Romania, where a plain separated Russia from the mountains. This region is called Moldova or Bessarabia, and when the region belongs to Romania, it represents a threat to Russian national security. When it is in Russian hands, it allows the Russians to anchor on the Carpathians. And when it is independent, as it is today in the form of the state of Moldova, then it can serve either as a buffer or a flash point. During the alliance with the Germans in 1939-1941, the Russians seized this region as they did again after World War II. But there is always a danger of an attack out of Romania.
This is not Russia’s greatest danger point. That occurs further north, between the northern edge of the Carpathians and the Baltic Sea. This gap, at its narrowest point, is just under 300 miles, running west of Warsaw from the city of Elblag in northern Poland to Cracow in the south. This is the narrowest point in the North European Plain and roughly the location of the Russian imperial border before World War I. Behind this point, the Russians controlled eastern Poland and the three Baltic countries.
The danger to Russia is that the north German plain expands like a triangle east of this point. As the triangle widens, Russian forces get stretched thinner and thinner. So a force attacking from the west through the plain faces expanding geography that thins out Russian forces. If invaders concentrate their forces, the attackers can break through to Moscow. That is the traditional Russian fear: Lacking natural barriers, the farther east the Russians move the broader the front and the greater the advantage for the attacker. The Russians faced three attackers along this axis following the formation of the empire, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, and Hitler. Wilhelm was focused on France so he did not drive hard into Russia, but Napoleon and Hitler did, both almost toppling Moscow in the process.
Along the North European Plain, Russia has three strategic options:
1. Use Russia’s geographical depth and climate to suck in an enemy force and then defeat it, as it did with Napoleon and Hitler. After the fact, this appears the solution, except it is always a close run and the attackers devastate the countryside. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened in 1942 if Hitler had resumed his drive on the North European Plain toward Moscow, rather than shift to a southern attack toward Stalingrad.
2. Face an attacking force with large, immobile infantry forces at the frontier and bleed them to death, as they tried to do in 1914. On the surface, this appears to be an attractive choice because of Russia’s greater manpower reserves than those of its European enemies. In practice, however, it is a dangerous choice because of the volatile social conditions of the empire, where the weakening of the security apparatus could cause the collapse of the regime in a soldiers’ revolt as happened in 1917.
3. Push the Russian/Soviet border as far west as possible to create yet another buffer against attack, as the Soviets did during the Cold War. This is an attractive choice since it creates strategic depth and increases economic opportunities. But it also diffuses Russian resources by extending security states into Central Europe and massively increasing defense costs, which ultimately broke the Soviet Union in 1992.
As we have seen in p.1 and 2, The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 hit the defense industry particularly hard. Once the premier sector of the Soviet economy, with immense production capacities, the defense industry suddenly found itself without a market. The economic paradigm that supported it was broken and the customers it existed to serve (the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact) were no longer buying.
For a while, the industry was able to sustain itself by feeding off Soviet-era stockpiles of raw materials. But this was hardly a sustainable solution, and as the industry began to consume those stockpiles, it soon had to confront the realities of a completely new economic paradigm: the market economy. The centrally controlled Soviet economic system did nothing to prepare the industry for working in a modern business environment.
That the Russian defense industry has survived at all is not because of military procurement investment but because of foreign sales. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, China became the principal financier of the Russian defense industry, though Chinese purchases have dropped off significantly. Having learned much from imported Russian military technology, Beijing is becoming quite capable of making its military equipment. India, Algeria, Venezuela, and Iran are picking up the slack as importers of Russian military hardware (and thus financiers of the defense industry).
The bottom line is that the Kremlin, since the end of the Cold War, has yet to invest enough in its defense industry to sustain it. The new 2011-2020 procurement plan will likely try to do that, but only time will tell whether a reasonable degree of implementation can be achieved.
Meanwhile, Moscow is attempting to eliminate corruption and incompetence and consolidate successful industries under unified aegides like the United Aircraft Building Corporation and the United Shipbuilding Corporation. While much of the defense industry is as bad off as the Russian military during the dark days of the 1990s, certain sectors are nonetheless cranking out quality hardware.
At times, Russian military hardware is still derided by Western analysts who inappropriately hold it to Western standards. This is to misunderstand Russian military hardware. Even the best Soviet equipment was designed with lower quality control, mass production, particularly rugged operating conditions (even by military standards), and crude maintenance in mind.
In fact, the Russian defense industry has made incremental and evolutionary improvements to the best of late-Soviet technology and is able to produce the results and sell them abroad. The Su-30MK-series “Flanker” fighter jets are highly coveted and widely regarded as extremely capable late-fourth generation combat aircraft. The industry is already working on not only a more refined Su-35 but a larger fighter-bomber variant known as the Su-34.
Russian air defense hardware also remains among the most capable in the world. The Soviet post-World War II experience greatly informed the decades-long and still vibrant Russian obsession with ground-based air defenses. The most modern Russian systems, specifically the later versions of the S-300PMU series and what is now being touted as the S-400 (variants of which have been designated by NATO as the SA-20 and SA-21), are the product of more than 60 years of highly focused research, development and operational employment. Though the S-300 series is largely untested in combat, it remains a matter of broad and grave concern for American and other Western military planners.
That this production capacity has endured through the hardships of the post-Soviet era is simply remarkable, and it represents a solid technological footing for Russian military reform.
While certain Russian products, night and thermal imaging, command, control, and communications systems, avionics and unmanned systems, are neither as complex nor as capable as their Western counterparts, they are often more durable and more user-friendly in the hands of poorly trained troops. Products from the T-90 main battle tank to the new Amur diesel-electric patrol submarines are still extremely capable, as are supersonic anti-ship missiles like the SS-N-27 “Sizzler”.
Some of these products come from a Russian design heritage specifically tailored to target American military capabilities (read: U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Groups) and are attractive to a number of customers around the world.
There are two caveats to this. The first is that Russian military hardware is increasingly competing directly with the products of Western defense companies in places like India. Not only is Russian after-market service reputed to be abysmal, but high-profile problems with quality and on-time delivery (though hardly unique) give pause to potential customers with viable alternatives.
The second caveat is that even the newest Russian products have their roots in incremental and evolutionary upgrades from late-Soviet technology, though this is not as problematic as it may seem. Much of the military hardware close to being fielded when the Soviet Union collapsed was quite capable and continues to have very real application and relevance today.
This incremental and evolutionary progression continues, even as Russia’s industry begins to venture into less familiar territory, such as stealth and unmanned systems. These are areas that will require more innovation and present greater challenges and for which there will be less foundation from Soviet days.
This is where the industry’s prospects become particularly cloudy. Declines in both the Russian population in general and intellectual talent in particular have been profound. From software programming to aeronautical engineering, what native talent Russia does possess has been finding work abroad. Those who remain are not attracted to the defense sector, which has done a terrible job of recruiting bright, young employees.
And what expertise the industry does have is nearing retirement age. The youngest engineers with meaningful design experience during the thriving Soviet era (i.e., who were not hired the year before the entire apparatus came crashing down) are already in their 50s, and even those without Soviet experience will be that old within a decade. The financial crisis of the late 1990s prevented the hiring of new workers and the transfer of institutional knowledge.
While Russia recognizes the problems inherent in the defense sector, the window is closing for the transfer of knowledge and experience to a newer generation. Manufacturing can always be outsourced, but without the ability to innovate and move beyond the legacy of late-Soviet designs, the Russian defense industry will be hard-pressed to keep from becoming irrelevant (though it would likely retain some prominence as a small-scale provider of specific, if impressive, niche products like fighter aircraft, air-defense equipment and anti-ship missiles).
To compensate for the erosion in broad capability, the Russian defense sector has occasionally cooperated with foreign countries, notably India and China. Most recently, work on the Brahmos supersonic cruise and anti-ship missile combined Soviet-era research and development with Indian intellectual capital to produce a successful product. Moscow is attempting to replicate this experience with the Sukhoi PAK-FA program to build a modern, stealthy, fifth-generation fighter (though the long-anticipated prototype may prove to be little more than a modified airframe with the engines, avionics and subsystems of the Su-35).
Countries like India and China have essentially used Russia to gain access to late-Soviet design work and to learn all they can in order to create independent domestic defense industries. Some Russian defense equipment is among the best in the world today and, with even moderate upgrades, will remain relevant for a decade or more. But the Russian defense industry has yet to demonstrate the ability to make a bold generational leap in terms of technology. This does not bode well for the industry’s long-term competitiveness and viability.
In conclusion we will now also examine the role of the Russian economy
Russia’s geography is the polar opposite. Hardly any of Russia’s rivers are interconnected. The country has several massive ones, the Pechora, the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena and the Kolyma, but they drain the nearly unpopulated Siberia to the Arctic Ocean, making them useless for commerce. The only river that cuts through Russia’s core, the Volga, drains not to the ocean but to the landlocked and sparsely populated Caspian Sea, the center of a sparsely populated region. Also unlike the United States, Russia has few useful ports. Kaliningrad is not connected to the main body of Russia. The Gulf of Finland freezes in winter, isolating St. Petersburg. The only true deepwater and warm-water ocean ports, Vladivostok and Murmansk, are simply too far from Russia’s core to be useful. So while geography handed the United States the perfect transport network free of charge, Russia has had to use every available kopek to link its country together with an expensive road, rail and canal network.
One of the many side effects of this geography situation is that the United States had extra capital that it could dedicate to finance in a relatively democratic manner, while Russia’s chronic capital deficit prompted it to concentrate what little capital resources it had into a single set of hands — Moscow’s hands. So while the United States became the poster child for the free market, Russia (whether the Russian Empire, Soviet Union or Russian Federation) has always tended toward central planning.
Russian industrialization and militarization began in earnest under Josef Stalin in the 1930s. Under centralized planning, all industry and services were nationalized, while industrial leaders were given predetermined output quotas.
Perhaps the most noteworthy difference between the Western and Russian development paths was the different use of finance. At the start of Stalin’s massive economic undertaking, international loans to build the economy were unavailable, both because the new government had repudiated the czarist regime’s international debts and because industrialized countries, the potential lenders, were coping with the onset of their own economic crisis (e.g., the Great Depression).
With loans and bonds unavailable, Stalin turned to another centrally controlled resource to “fund” Russian development: labor. Trade unions were converted into mechanisms for capturing all available labor as well as for increasing worker productivity. Russia essentially substitutes labor for capital, so it is no surprise that Stalin, like all Russian leaders, before ran his population into the ground. Stalin called this his “revolution from above.”
Over the long term, the centralized system is highly inefficient, as it does not take the basic economic drivers of supply and demand into account, to say nothing of how it crushes the common worker. But for a country as geographically massive as Russia, it was (and remains) questionable whether Western finance-driven development is even feasible, due to the lack of cheap transit options and the massive distances involved. Development driven by the crushing of the labor pool was probably the best Russia could hope for, and the same holds true today.
In stark contrast to ages past, for the past five years foreign money has underwritten Russian development. Russian banks did not depend upon government funding, which was accumulated into vast reserves, but instead tapped foreign lenders and bondholders. Russian banks took this money and used it to lend to Russian firms. Meanwhile, as the Russian government asserted control over the country’s energy industries during the last several years, it created a completely separate economy that only rarely intersected with other aspects of Russian economic life. So when the current global recession helped lead to the evaporation of foreign credit, the core of the government/energy economy was broadly unaffected, even as the rest of the Russian economy ingloriously crashed to earth.
Since Putin’s rise, the Kremlin has sought to project an image of a strong, stable and financially powerful Russia. This vision of strength has been the cornerstone of Russian confidence for years. Note that we say “vision,” not “reality.” For in reality, Russian financial confidence is solely the result of cash brought in from strong oil and natural gas prices, something largely beyond the Russians’ ability to manipulate, not the result of any restructuring of the Russian system. As such, the revelation that the emperor has no clothes, and that Russia is still a complete financial mess, is more a blow to Moscow’s ego than a signal of a fundamental change in the reality of Russian power.
So while Russia might be losing its financial security and capabilities, which in the West tend to boil down to economic wealth, the global recession has not affected the reality of Russian power much at all. Russia has not, currently or historically, worked off of anyone else’s cash or used economic stability as a foundation for political might or social stability. Instead, Russia relies on many other tools in its kit. Some of the following six pillars of Russian power are more powerful and appropriate than ever:
1. Geography: As we have seen, unlike its main geopolitical rival, the United States, Russia borders most of the regions it wishes to project power into, and few geographic barriers separate it from its targets. Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states have zero geographic insulation from Russia. Central Asia is sheltered by distance, but not by mountains or rivers. The Caucasus provide a bit of a speed bump to Russia, but pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia give the Kremlin a secure foothold south of the mountain range (putting the August Russian-Georgian war in perspective). Even if U.S. forces were not tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would face potentially insurmountable difficulties in countering Russian actions in Moscow’s so-called “Near Abroad.” Russia can project all manner of influence and intimidation there on the cheap, while even symbolic counters are quite costly for the United States. In contrast, places such as Latin America, Southeast Asia or Africa do not capture much more than the Russian imagination; the Kremlin realizes it can do little more there than stir the occasional pot, and resources are allotted (centrally, of course) accordingly.
2. Politics: It is no secret that the Kremlin uses an iron fist to maintain domestic control. There are few domestic forces the government cannot control or balance. The Kremlin understands the revolutions (1917 in particular) and collapses (1991 in particular) of the past, and it has control mechanisms in place to prevent a repeat. This control is seen in every aspect of Russian life, from one main political party ruling the country to the lack of diversified media, limits on public demonstrations and the infiltration of the security services into nearly every aspect of the Russian system. This domination was fortified under Stalin and has been re-established under the reign of former President and now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This political strength is based on neither financial nor economic foundations. Instead, it is based within the political institutions and parties, on the lack of a meaningful opposition, and with the backing of the military and security services. Russia’s neighbors, especially in Europe, cannot count on the same political strength because their systems are simply not set up the same way. The stability of the Russian government and lack of stability in the former Soviet states and much of Central Europe have also allowed the Kremlin to reach beyond Russia and influence its neighbors to the east. Now as before, when some of its former Soviet subjects, such as Ukraine, become destabilized, Russia sweeps in as a source of stability and authority, regardless of whether this benefits the recipient of Moscow’s attention.
3. Social System: As a consequence of Moscow’s political control and the economic situation, the Russian system is socially crushing, and has had long-term effects on the Russian psyche. As mentioned above, during the Soviet-era process of industrialization and militarization, workers operated under the direst of conditions for the good of the state. The Russian state has made it very clear that the productivity and survival of the state is far more important than the welfare of the people. This made Russia politically and economically strong, not in the sense that the people have had a voice, but in that they have not challenged the state since the beginning of the Soviet period. The Russian people, regardless of whether they admit it, continue to work to keep the state intact even when it does not benefit them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia kept operating, though a bit haphazardly. Russians still went to work, even if they were not being paid. The same was seen in 1998, when the country collapsed financially. This is a very different mentality than that found in the West. Most Russians would not even consider the mass protests seen in Europe in response to the economic crisis. The Russian government, by contrast, can count on its people to continue to support the state and keep the country going with little protest over the conditions. Though there have been a few sporadic and meager protests in Russia, these protests mainly have been in opposition to the financial situation, not to the government’s hand in it. In some of these demonstrations, protesters have carried signs reading, “In government we trust, in the economic system we don’t.” This means Moscow can count on a stable population.
4. Natural Resources: Modern Russia enjoys a wealth of natural resources in everything from food and metals to gold and timber. The markets may take a roller-coaster ride and the currency may collapse, but the Russian economy has access to the core necessities of life. Many of these resources serve a double purpose, for in addition to making Russia independent of the outside world, they also give Moscow the ability to project power effectively. Russian energy, especially natural gas, is particularly key: Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas for a quarter of its demand. This relationship guarantees Russia a steady supply of now-scarce capital even as it forces the Europeans to take any Russian concerns seriously. The energy tie is something Russia has very publicly used as a political weapon, either by raising prices or by cutting off supplies. In a recession, this lever’s effectiveness has only grown.
5. Military: The Russian military is in the midst of a broad modernization and restructuring, and is reconstituting its basic warfighting capability. While many challenges remain, Moscow already has imposed a new reality through military force in Georgia. While Tbilisi was certainly an easy target, the Russian military looks very different to Kyiv, or even Warsaw and Prague, then it does to the Pentagon. And even in this case, Russia has come to rely increasingly heavily on its nuclear arsenal to rebalance the military equation and ensure its territorial integrity, and is looking to establish long-term nuclear parity with the Americans. Like the energy tool, Russia’s military has become more useful in times of economic duress, as potential targets have suffered far more than the Russians.
6. Intelligence: Russia has one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful intelligence services. Historically, its only rival has been the United States (though today the Chinese arguably could be seen as rivaling the Americans and Russians). The KGB (now the FSB) instills fear into hearts around the world, let alone inside Russia. Infiltration and intimidation kept the Soviet Union and its sphere under control. No matter the condition of the Russian state, Moscow’s intelligence foundation has been its strongest pillar. The FSB and other Russian intelligence agencies have infiltrated most former Soviet republics and satellite states, and they also have infiltrated as far as Latin America and the United States. Russian intelligence has infiltrated political, security, military and business realms worldwide, and has boasted of infiltrating many former Soviet satellite governments, militaries and companies up to the highest level. All facets of the Russian government have backed this infiltration since Putin (a former KGB man) came to power and filled the Kremlin with his cohorts. This domestic and international infiltration has been built up for half a century. It is not something that requires much cash to maintain, but rather know-how, and the Russians wrote the book on the subject. One of the reasons Moscow can run this system inexpensively relative to what it gets in return is because Russia’s intelligence services have long been human-based, though they do have some highly advanced technology to wield. Russia also has incorporated other social networks in its intelligence services, such as organized crime or the Russian Orthodox Church, creating an intricate system at a low price. Russia’s intelligence services are much larger than most other countries’ services and cover most of the world. But the intelligence apparatus’ most intense focus is on the Russian periphery, rather than on the more expensive “far abroad.”
Thus, while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on and has shored up where it can, six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.
What Russia will want in future negotiations with the USA is a disarmament in regards to American plans for placing ballistic missile defense installations in Europe, and the position of the United States, and the rest of NATO, on what remains of Russia’s periphery, particularly Georgia and Ukraine.
Although American uncertainty about the future strategic environment remains deep, everyone on the American side also believes that enormous reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are in order. The immense stockpiles on both sides are exceedingly expensive to maintain and keep deployed; both the White House and the Kremlin would like to lower the costs to a more reasonable level through extensive reductions.
As Europe and the United States appear headed toward a period of prolonged confrontation with Russia, a new status quo is forming.
Confrontation with the West continues. The refusal of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to provide “security guarantees” prompts Russia to escalate the situation in Ukraine by launching widespread cyberattacks and intensifying support to separatist forces in the Donbas, where fighting intensifies along existing battle lines. Russia’s activities remain below the threshold of outright aggression, complicating a united Western response and resulting in the uneven application of sanctions and other punitive measures. Meanwhile, the Kremlin applies sufficient pressure to compel the Ukrainian government to implement certain unpopular political aspects of the Minsk agreements (e.g., providing limited self-rule to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, offering amnesty for former fighters), triggering a wave of unrest in the country but providing Russia with a lever of influence over decisionmaking in Kyiv. Russia retains a heightened force posture along the Ukrainian border, in Crimea, and Belarus for an extended period, because it must maintain an elevated state of readiness in case the situation spirals out of control.
Satisfied that Ukraine’s path toward Western integration is effectively blocked, Russia declares victory in the standoff. Russian attempts to exert influence in other regions—such as the Western Balkans—and unresolved divergent views on the European security order create lingering concerns about the potential for future conflicts between Russia and the West, undermining investor confidence in Russia. The Kremlin propagates an old narrative of Western encirclement of Russia, fueled by an increase in NATO forces’ presence on the eastern flank of the alliance in response to events in Ukraine. Political incentives remain in place for the Kremlin to stoke tensions, ensuring that the Baltic and the Black Sea regions remain active zones of contestation where fly-bys and at times dangerous sea maneuvers become the norm. With Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko isolated internationally and dependent on Russian aid to maintain domestic control, the Kremlin facilitates (and pays for) closer political and economic integration with Belarus, even establishing a permanent military presence in the country. It stops short of establishing a fully-fledged political union in favor of maintaining a client state that can “independently” apply pressure on Western Europe when needed.
Russia’s relations with China deepen but become more uneven. China’s share of Russian foreign trade continues to grow, reaching 30 percent by the end of the decade (from 18 percent in 2020), driven primarily by the sale of fossil fuels and heavy machinery to China. The Kremlin’s attempts to counterbalance relations with China through a foreign policy concept of Greater Eurasia, emphasizing active diplomatic engagement with India, Iran, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Turkey—are half-hearted and lack substance, limited to a variable troika of state visits, weapons sales, and low-impact trade deals that fail to meaningfully offset Russia’s growing dependence on China as a source of economic growth. Despite their close economic ties, ideological alignment, and growing security cooperation, however, neither Moscow nor Beijing takes measures to formalize their relationship with a military alliance.
Russia arms itself to operate in a more proliferated world where it is in open competition with the West. Arms control talks between the United States and Russia stall during the height of tensions over Ukraine but eventually produce limited, non-binding agreements prohibiting the use of cyber weapons against nuclear command and control systems or health infrastructure. Flare-ups of tensions with the West lead Russia to negotiate limited conventional arms control measures, resurrecting aspects of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and modernizing the Vienna Document. However, they produce no significant reduction in nuclear stockpiles or formal treaties governing the persistent sources of destabilization: missile defense, non-strategic nuclear weapons, conventional strike systems, and hypersonic missiles. Russia continues to emphasize the development of exotic new systems but is forced to abandon its most ambitious projects due to financial constraints amid a sluggish economy. Russia continues to rely on its exceptional cyber capabilities to advance the Kremlin’s national security goals. Fierce competition in cyberspace sees Russia probe and penetrate U.S. systems using increasingly sophisticated methods and deniable third-party actors. Where attribution to the Russian state is possible, the United States responds in kind, but no manner of sanctions or cyber responses dissuades Russia from relying on this cost-effective and generally deniable tool to weaken its adversaries. Russia’s militarization of the Arctic accelerates as the balance between economic development and defense interests tips in favor of the latter. Naval activity, including training exercises and missile testing, increases in the more remote areas of the Arctic (e.g., the Bering Sea) as Russia seeks to project dominance along its long northern border and deter challenges from both the United States and China.
In today’s global strategic environment, Russia is one of the international system’s major players along with the US and China. Its national power encompasses formidable military, intelligence, and technological capabilities, as well as the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and an assertive diplomatic projection that relies on asymmetric equalizers and force multipliers. Likewise, the Kremlin has also mastered the esoteric art of hybrid warfare. Plus, it contains vast deposits of natural resources, including fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, metallic minerals, uranium, gemstones, freshwater, and timber, amongst others. Moreover, although its outcome is still unclear at this point, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that Moscow is willing to use military might to restore its status as a major force to be reckoned with.
The populations of Belarus, Eastern Ukraine ‒ often referred to as ‘Novorossiya’ ‒ Armenia, Kazakhstan, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia harbor Russophile sentiments, but other groups (Western Ukrainians, Georgians, and the non-Slavic peoples of the Baltics) are deeply reluctant to find themselves again under Russian suzerainty. On the other hand, the Azeris, Uzbeks, and Turkmens have embraced an orientation of strict strategic neutrality, but they are fiercely protective of their independence and identity. Places like Transnistria are not even contiguous to Russian territory, so their eventual absorption seems unlikely, at least for the time being. Thus, to enhance the attractiveness of its gravitational pull, Moscow can resort to the generation of shared economic incentives, the Russification of non-Slavic populations so that they feel like they belong to a ‘Greater Russia,’ and the acceptance of immigrants willing to assimilate.
The achievement of regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space is the cornerstone of contemporary Russian grand strategy and the realization of this ambition would be a major geopolitical accomplishment that could bring demographic benefits. Yet, as Machiavelli observed, in the sphere of high politics, nothing of importance can be attained without exposure to a substantial amount of danger. In this respect, the risks associated with this project include the foreseeable intensification of geopolitical rivalries with NATO on multiple fronts, toxic fallout derived from the Ukraine War, the prospect of awakening local frozen conflicts, more ‘color revolutions,’ tensions with regional powers such as Turkey and Iran, centrifugal forces ‒ like separatist militias or jihadist insurgencies ‒ and the counterproductive effects of using too much hard power. Hence, Moscow needs to chart its course carefully. The plan can be derailed as a result of miscalculation or hostile intervention. Under these circumstances, resorting to sheer military coercion on a large scale could backfire, since it would portray Moscow as an illegitimate and heavy-handed imperial conqueror and also because a high number of casualties in a war could make Russia bleed badly, accelerating further the very process that the Russians are desperately trying to avoid.
The Quest for Lebensraum in the Arctic
Far from being neutral, climate change is a phenomenon that entails political implications, especially in a zero-sum system in which relative gains are the rule rather than the exception. Therefore, even if it will unleash a negative impact on several countries, it could also represent a beneficial externality for others. It must be noted that, since geography shapes the behavior of states in international politics, a tectonic environmental transformation will likely act as a geopolitical game-changer regarding the realities associated with the strategic control of physical space and the global balance of power.
In this case, Russia is well-positioned to harness the advantages derived from increasing temperatures in the Arctic. The proximity of the Siberian coastline to the North Pole, the availability of gateways ‒ like the ports of Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Vladivostok ‒ its unparalleled fleet of nuclear icebreakers, and its scientific expeditionary expertise give Moscow a leading edge in the race for the conquest of the world’s northernmost corner. Melting ice sheets would eventually provide a window of opportunity to tap the vast deposits of natural resources found there (fossil fuels, metallic minerals, freshwater, and fisheries) in the coming decades, as well as to pursue an imperial ambition that has remained unsatisfied since the time of the Czars: acquiring access to warm water ports to develop the ability to turn Russia into a world-class maritime power. The Russian Federation would finally have the unrestricted chance to engage in international trade and to dominate ‒ militarily and geoeconomically ‒ the Arctic Ocean. The materialization of this scenario could render Siberia inhabitable for the very first time in modern history as the deep tundra recedes. Its economic revitalization could generate incentives to attract settlers from other parts of Russia in search of better opportunities and willing to start new lives there in communities of frontiersmen and pioneers. Therefore, the expectation is that the resulting bonanza could act as a catalyst for demographic growth.
Accordingly, this “cryo-political” quest for Lebensraum in the Arctic holds a promising potential to boost the overall vital strength of the Russian state as a living organism. Moreover, in this undertaking time is on Moscow’s side. Plus, Beijing’s plans to create a ‘Polar Silk Road’ as a geoeconomic corridor that connects Asia with Europe through shipping lanes across the Arctic can also be helpful for Moscow’s interests since they contemplate the upgrade of existing infrastructure, the creation of new transportation channels, the flow of investments and trade, the extraction of raw materials, and the generation of lots of profitable business opportunities.
Nonetheless, the future is not written in stone. The Kremlin is going to need assertiveness, close coordination with Beijing to forge a win-win framework, a meticulous formulation of sound policies that align available means with the intended outcomes, and a lot of resources to make it happen. Otherwise, the opportunity will be missed. However, there is an important catch that cannot be overlooked. Considering the far-reaching significance of what is at stake, other circumpolar states ‒including the US, Canada, and Scandinavian countries ‒ will try to curtail Russian ambitions there to advance their geopolitical agendas in the far North. Keep in mind that, as a by-product of the Ukraine War, both Finland and Sweden will likely join NATO. Accordingly, these clashing interests will fuel an intense strategic competition between the Eurasian powers and the West, opening yet another front in the new Cold War. In short, this road can be simultaneously rewarding and hazardous.
Upgrade Technological Capabilities
Perse, technological progress does not have the power to stop a demographic crisis, but innovations like the automation of systematized industrial processes, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence can perform tasks traditionally undertaken by human operators in business activities and battlefields. Others like quantum computing and nanotechnology can exponentially enhance the ability to deliver outcomes of high added value with fewer resources. Hence, it represents an asset that can compensate for shortages of labor and soldiers. Moreover, even if the overall availability of manpower decreases, the quality, competitiveness, and comparative advantages of specialized human capital can still be fostered in high-tech professional environments. Hence, cutting-edge technologies can diminish the detrimental effects of depopulation on national power and economic productiveness.
Since the early 20th century, the Russians have certainly been aware of the growing strategic significance of technology. Under Stalin’s draconian rule, the Soviet Union carried out an ambitious plan of accelerated industrialization as a priority for closing gaps that could compromise national security. Unsurprisingly, nowadays the Russian Federation has the globe’s fourth-largest number of STEM graduates. Nonetheless, regarding technological capabilities, Russia is in a paradoxical situation. It has a military-industrial complex that manufactures state-of-the-art weaponry and it is one of the leading powers in the field of aerospace. Nonetheless, such advantages rarely transcend the domain of defense, national security, and intelligence. In contrast, the civilian and commercial sectors of the Russian economy are badly outdated, underfunded, and underdeveloped. Notably, Russia has established research and development sites ‒such as Zelenograd and the Skolkovo Innovation Centre‒ whose projects would be useful to generate advanced technological inventions that can harness the market potential of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Hence, these clusters can support the diversification of the structural profile of the Russian economy, which is still highly reliant on the exports of commodities as a source of hard currency.
Furthermore, a demographic benefit of reindustrialization is that, since it increases wealth and development, the process can bring favorable conditions that encourage people to have kids based on the assumption that prosperity can provide a bright future and rewarding opportunities for their offspring. Nonetheless, lack of credit, the imposition of economic sanctions (like the restrictions of Western exports of high-tech items to Russia), financial instability, deficient internal economic interconnectedness, and limited access to international trade as a result of Russia’s condition as a de facto landlocked country represent powerful obstacles that cannot be easily overcome. Thus, the pursuit of this course of action would require a much greater effort. Otherwise, stagnancy will not trigger the industrial boost that is needed to counter the pernicious ramifications of a sharp demographic downturn. As the race for global technological superiority intensifies, the accomplishment of this imperative becomes even more pressing.
Thus Russia’s demographic crisis represents a problem that could unravel its position as a great power in a foreseeable future. The clock is ticking and if this structural weakness is not effectively addressed soon, it is a matter of time before a point of no return is reached. However, it is premature to assume that Russia is already doomed no matter what. The population is certainly important and inertia could very well lead to the demise of Russia as a functional national state, but the course of history is determined by a myriad of factors.
Since inaction is not an option, several strategies are being implemented to prevent such catastrophe or ‒ at the very least ‒ diminish its most corrosive consequences, but none of them can be seen as a silver bullet. Therefore, even if approaching these challenges is an uphill battle, Moscow has no choice but to double down and muster every resource, capability, and instrument at its disposal to avert the threatening prospect of depopulation and come up with countermeasures. The testament of history dictates that when the very survival of a nation is at stake ‒ particularly if that nation happens to be a major power ‒ there is a determined resolve to act aggressively in an attempt to reach a more secure destination.
Regardless of whether the Russian gamble is successful or not ‒ it could lead to either disastrous ruin or enhanced safety ‒ the shockwaves of the aftermath will resonate for decades to come. Since this is a matter of life and death, all bets are off.
When the ice melts
At the same time, the land grab for resource extraction, agro-industry, and real estate development will accelerate. The Inuit and Sami people already subsist precariously off the land and sea as the ice melts. A new commercial influx may further force them onto reservations, as with Native Americans in the US and aboriginals in Australia. This would be a reversal for Canada, given the First Nations' significant autonomy in recent decades. Mining companies, billionaire environmentalists, and indigenous peoples may battle in courts and on the ground over sovereignty.
Arctic geopolitics may also further heat the already warming northern cone. New shipping routes allow North Americans, Europeans, and Asians to evade traditional bottlenecks such as the Suez Canal or Strait of Malacca. At the same time, Russia is deploying armored icebreakers and nuclear submarines to assert its territorial claims as mineral deposits are discovered. Once Arctic states disputed claims on the ice sheet, they’ll now do so on the ocean floor. Given the lucrative resources and trade routes, the Arctic represents, perhaps piracy will migrate north too.
China has taken a growing interest in the Arctic, declaring it a “polar Silk Road.” Chinese investors have sought to buy strategic tracts of land in Iceland and Norway, but Nordic democracies have rebuffed offers that don’t involve full local control and democratic scrutiny.
This inertia is embodied in the upper echelons of the officer corps, leaving much of the old Soviet mindset still firmly entrenched. Not only is this cadre of senior officers the intellectual product of Soviet military education, but the upper echelons in which they reside were both incidentally and deliberately overloaded.
So far, progress in reducing the number of officers has been stop-and-go. But the transition of presidential power has now been completed, which could position the Kremlin to challenge the entrenched interests of more than 1,100 generals and admirals. These general officers have also been an expensive financial burden since they occupy the most senior and well-paid positions with the most assistants and perks. Efforts are underway to shrink their ranks by some 200, bringing the figure closer to, though still greater than, the U.S. military’s general-officer ranks (fewer than 900).