Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Russian Bear Cometh!

Or not, as the case may be.

The recent events in Ukraine have caused a lot consternation in the west that Russia is on the rise again. The annexation of Crimea and the support for the rebels in the East is certainly a very worrying development, not least because all of this is taking place right on NATO's border. 

But I do wonder if people aren't getting just a little too excited by it. 

It seems the actions of Russia are being used by a lot of people as a rallying cry for massive defence spending. It depends on who you listen to, but I've seen calls for the UK to acquire additional aircraft carriers (beyond the two planned), additional armoured divisions, a doubling of the Typhoon fighter fleet, a doubling of the SSN fleet, and even calls to build or acquire something similar to the American B-2 Spirit as, and I quote, "a firm symbol of detterence[sic] against Russian aggression".

I have to say this smacks of opportunism, jumping on the crisis in Ukraine to try and peddle a very bizarre set of scenarios with a view to justifying significant increases in defence spending. None of which really have much basis in reality.

While the Ukraine crisis may seem like the resurrection of the Russian Black Bear, really I think it just demonstrates how much of a teddy bear Russia has become. While it managed to pull off the seizure of Crimea easily enough, largely due to the Ukrainian military being unprepared, it has struggled to achieve its aims in the east despite funnelling large numbers of equipment and personnel over the border.

Indeed the situation on the ground at the minute looks very bleak for Russia. Now that the Ukrainians have had time to recover from the initial shock and start to organise themselves, they've systematically pushed the rebels back towards to the border and begun to isolate many of the larger strongholds from their supply lines with Russia.

This despite all the time, energy, manpower, resources and political risk that Russia has invested. And all the while economic sanctions continue to slowly bite on the Russian economy. All the while Russia loses allies and credibility on the international stage. It has done practically everything possible short of actually invading Ukraine with its regular ground forces, and so far all this effort has been for nothing.

That to me does not convey a sense of being an all powerful force rising up to oppose NATO. Rather it conveys a sense of a bungled campaign that was always going to be difficult to pull off, along with Russian timidity to push NATO beyond a certain point lest it provoke a more active response that would see NATO forces deployed to Ukraine. 

The last thing Russia needs is NATO strengthening the eastern approaches to Europe (putting NATO forces close to the Russian border) and resolving politically to isolate Russia - at least from an economic stand point - at a time when the Russian economy (like many) is struggling. 

Russia has spent the last decade talking about programs to upgrade its armed forces and spend more money on things like training, logistics and maintenance. The fruits of this investment, or even just the investment itself, appear to be taking a very long time to actually materialise.

This is not to say that NATO shouldn't sleep with one eye open, or that NATO should stop investing in its collective defence. Vigilance is the first stage of preparedness after all. But to say that Russia is an imminent threat to NATO is over egging the pudding I feel.

NATO's combined forces in Europe, even excluding US contributions, represent a formidable obstacle. We often think of Russian equipment as being cheap and numerous, but the reality is that NATO's European powers alone possess enough aircraft to match the entire Russian Air Force head to head, even though the Russians have to spread their aircraft across a whole nation. Almost all of these European aircraft are from the latest generation of designs and are due to be replaced over the course of the next decade with the next generation of aircraft such as the F-35. More importantly, NATO can actually afford to train all of its pilots to a high standard.

At sea, the Royal Navy alone can match the Russian fleet in the north ship for ship. With allies added into the mix it's fair to say that the Russian fleet begins to pale into insignificance. On the ground the combined European regular armies plus reserve out number even the higher estimates of the combined Russian regular and reserve forces. And again, this a Russian force that has to defend the whole of Russian territory from one end to the other.

Suffice to say then that NATO is already in a strong position. The affirmation made recently by NATO members that they will each spend 2% of GDP on defence only makes this force stronger. By comparison Russia looks like many things, but a looming threat to European security it is not.

In summary, while taking reasonable measures to ensure the safety of NATO members makes sense, I do not believe that the Russian operations in the Ukraine represent the resurgence of a major power threatening the UK, and nor do I think they warrant a significant leap in defence either.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Chris that the usual suspects are trying to exploit a crisis for more military spending even though the EU even without American and Turkish allies utterly outspends the Russians and Belorussians.

    My info on what's happening in the Eastern Ukraine doesn't quite agree with his description, though. I think the news indicated this sequence
    (1) Crimea grabbed while Ukraine is unprepared, some units such as a para outfit effectively disbanded for disloyalty
    (2) Almost no pro-Russia Ukrainians in East turn violent
    (3) Russia inserts pseudo-insurgents into Eastern Ukraine, they grab territory and form gangs
    (4) Ukraine counterattacks (in part with lots of warbands and some oligarch's private militia) and pushes the infiltrator-insurgents to the brink of collapse
    (5) Russia intervenes more openly with cross-border artillery and air defence fires, more weapons deliveries
    (6) Russia intervenes with direct incursions and suffers some heavy losses to Ukrainian artillery etc., some pro-Ukraine units in despair
    (7) - don't know last week's events