The Madness of Contingency

The other night, while watching Deutschland ’83, I found myself wondering what a 1990s-era Soviet Union – and Eastern Bloc, in general – might have looked like. What a world of possibility! To what extent would the same commercial energies in the west have been poured into monetizing the internet? What would growing digital interconnectivity in the world have looked like with half of it still cut off (and would that still have been the case)?

A Cold War contnuing into the 90s has ominous portents – in what new and exciting ways would have been coupling ever-advanced nuclear warheads (say, the never-built B90) with precision-enabling technologies? What shape would US infrastructure and the built environment have been in without the “Peace Dividend?” Would Martin Marietta still be around? Would a liberalized Soviet Union have helped drag the welfare state into the twenty-first century? Could it possibly have persisted as a nation, or were there insurmountable internal contradictions?

Still from the 2014 Russian TV-3 show “Chernobyl: Zone of Exclusion,” depicting a 21st-century Soviet Union.

But no, Gorbachev’s program of reform led to loosening Moscow’s control over the periphery led to velvet revolutions and Solidarność and the attempted coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contemplating this sequence of events and all the other possibilities it forestalled leaves one with the same feeling of unease that follows a car crash or being on the receiving end of a chewing-out. Which isn’t to lament those lost presents, but one is left with the recognition that everything, in the end, is up to chance. Who predicted the end of the Soviet Union? Who saw these momentous events coming? And if all other alternative action was an attempt to preserve some version of the status quo, it engenders a kind of paralysis; change is coming so why do anything at all?

You could look at Hong Kong as well, and how its return to China was predicated on the fact that while Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, the “New Territories” from southern Guangdong were only under a 99-year lease (99 years being thought “as good as forever” by the lead British negotiator), the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. That measure of the eternal expired in 1997 – hence the handover that year – after the Thatcher Government determined in the 1980s that continued British sovereignty over Hong Kong unviable without the New Territories. For want of an temporal imagination, the pearl was lost.

The number of branching possibilities, of an unending sequence of slightly different parallel universes is enough to drive anyone insane. And seizing on that one lost opportunity, that minor oversight that’s led to a present crisis… I’d never discourage the study of history – or alternate history –  but dwelling on some of those wanted nails can raise impossible questions. Contemplating the infinite can take us to the edge of madness.

But accompanying this is a reason for optimism: if anything at all is possible, that includes good outcomes, so prudence calls for us to prepare to make the most of opportunities. TO seize the moment. What’s possible right now might not be so tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean a different future isn’t worh imaging. But beyond a broad vision of possibility, it’s critical to imagine the details, the causality. How do we get from here to there? Everything is unsettled; no longer does the arc of history follow some predictable trajectory – for better or worse, our destiny is ours to affect, if not define.

What might have been? What could be?

“There is no ‘new way of war’. It is not Gerasimov’s, and it is not a doctrine.”

A brilliant, self-declared “polemic against the use of the term the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ to describe a supposed dramatic turn in Russian strategic thinking.” Mark Galeotti has been writing about the Russian military for some time, and this is a particularly good takedown of all the nonsense swirling about Russia’s “new ‘hybrid war’ doctrine,” when really it is an article describing Russia’s view of Western practices.

In July 2014, I published a partial translation of Gerasimov’s article by Robert Coulsdon of RFE/RL, with my own comments and gloss, on my blog, In Moscow’s Shadows. Looking for a snappy title, I called it ‘The “Gerasimov Doctrine” and Russian Non-Linear War’. Even then, I warned in the text that it was not a doctrine as such, and that this formulation was simply a placeholder for the ideas evolving in Russian military thinking. Having made that disclaimer, I thought no more about it. Big mistake…

Putin’s Kremlin, inspired by a (largely) misguided but genuine belief that it faces Western attempts to marginalise and destabilise it, has moved onto war footing and certainly uses these means with greater enthusiasm and less restraint. However, to present them as unique in their methods, not just compared with the West, but other geopolitical players, such as China and Iran, is hard to sustain. Of course, the sad truth is that you often do not need to argue the case, if instead the assumptions and prejudices come pre-packaged in a nice neologism.

And what a neologism! ‘Doctrine’, a technical term in Russian parlance meaning a foundational strategy document, sounds alien and menacing in English. Redolent of the titles of thick thrillers sitting on airport bookshop shelves, with their predilection for names incorporating words like protocol, codex, and sanction, it immediately evokes not only threat, but a concrete plan and the kind of ruthless and disciplined state machine able to apply it. Today’s Russia is in so many ways a kleptocratic mess of feuding individuals and interests, an adhocracy rather than a militocracy, but nonetheless this is a title that can evoke Cold War stereotypes of serried ranks of soldier-drones, marching in lockstep through Red Square on their way westwards.

See Mark Galeotti, “The mythical ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and the language of threat,” Critical Studies on Security, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/21624887.2018.1441623. Also, Bartels is very good on this too.

A Pretty Prize

This is a portion of a post that had been in the works for some time, but was, as they say, overtaken by events. Today, France announced that it would sell the pair of Mistral-class helicopter carriers/C2 ships to…Egypt. This is one of the more intriguing – though less obvious – buyers, and it’s likely that there was no small amount of Russian lobbying behind the scenes in Paris to ensure that the ships ended up there. But let’s examine how – and why – a pair of Mistrals is headed to Cairo.

The former Vladivostok, now to be purchased by Egypt

While Moscow more or less acquiesced to the cancellation of its Mistral purchase, it continued to try and help select the ultimate buyer (perhaps acknowledging that even if the Mistrals can’t project Russian power directly, perhaps they still can through an not-unfriendly power):

Russian Arabic-language television channel Russia Today quoted presidency spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that his country hopes France, now free to use the ships after settling its dues, would take Russian interests into account when reselling the warships to a third party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Egyptian purchase of the two Mistrals seems to have been be countenanced by Moscow. From the DefenseNews article was a suggestion that Russia might precondition French sale of the Mistrals to Egypt, specifically, on the purchase of additional Russian-made Ka-52 attack helicopters, but it’s unclear what legal grounds they might have had to compel this. Nevertheless, Egypt completed a transaction with Russia in late August, in which it will indeed receive 50 Ka-52s by the end of the decade. It now becomes apparent what this purchase was intended for.

However, given the Mistral class’s weakness at point defense and subsequent requirements for adequate escorts, Egypt might have a difficult go of it with its existing fleet.  While the Egyptian Navy is one of the largest in the world by sheer number of hulls, few are relatively modern. The French-built FREMM frigate Tahya Misr, delivered only this past June, is the mostly likely candidate to shepherd one of the Mistrals. However, the remainder of the Egyptian frigate force is of 1970s vintage and primarily consists of American surplus ships. It’s unclear which would be considered adequate to escort the other carrier.

Egypt is something of a natural for the Mistrals given their Russian fittings. The systems and electronics on the ships were done to Russian specifications, which could mean better interoperability with Egypt’s Russian- and Soviet-designed weapons systems (two frigates, almost a dozen missile boats, a handful of minesweepers). It might also be one of the few buyers who could and would be permitted to retain the Russian systems. Integration could prove tricky; however, Egypt has never been a slave to a single procurement source. Egypt sails ships of French, American, Chinese, Soviet, Russian, Spanish, and British origin, and in fact between the Russian fittings on the ships and recent purchases of French and Russian aircraft alike, Egypt would seem to be pursuing its own hybrid interests..

However, in this regard it might also represent a break with current Egyptian procurement trends, as future naval acquisitions on the books include French, German, and American ships. Furthermore, in terms of a command-and-control role, the backbone of the Egyptian Army is the M1A1 Abrams and F-16, and in large part its forces are equipped with American platforms and other western designs. Moscow’s enthusiasm for Egypt’s purchase of the Mistrals can probably be seen as an inroads into the Egyptian defense market, with the Russian-equipped ships a “teaser” introduction into a more integrated, comprehensive military system that would naturally call for the purchase of complementary platforms and systems from Russian industry. Whether Cairo is willing to humor Russia’s intentions remains an open question.

The role the flattops would play in Egyptian strategy and operations seems relatively limited, but it’s likely that one would operate primarily in the Mediterranean, while the other freely transits the Suez Canal (the Mistral‘s draught allows plenty of clearance) to patrol the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The latter could portend a much more active role for Egypt on the Arabian Peninsula – while occasionally marred by disagreement, for the most part Egypt’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are solid, and represent a clear force multiplier for the Gulf states. Having a forward presence in the immediate area – particularly around Yemen – would allow Egypt to play a much more active role in ongoing operations there (unless, of course, it is already).

A Mediterranean Mistral might have been cause for alarm in Tel Aviv, but since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi seems unlikely to ruffle any feathers. If anything, a Mistral here would probably support Egyptian operations in Libya, or possibly to affect events on the ground in Syria – though operations to counter which side remains unclear.

Egyptian Air Base Locations

Cairo’s impetus for acquiring a pair of Mistrals is presumably less about their helicopter-carrying capabilities and more about command-and-control as well as the power projection that a flattop entails. Such capabilities might be especially helpful should Egypt plan to expand its involvement in the various regional anti-Daesh and anti-Houthi campaigns to include a significant ground force presence. In terms of the perpetual struggle for leadership roles in the region, the ability to project power reinforces Egypt’s status as one of the real players, a top-tier regional power that can throw its weight around.

But hey, if it also turns Egypt into an even bigger market for Russian arms, that’s another win, too.

Lines Drawn, Sides Chosen

One of the more interesting results of last night’s UNSC vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya was the voting pattern of the Council. More specifically, the abstentions.

Look at the countries that decided not to vote:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • Germany
  • India
  • Russia

Two things jump out: all four of the BRIC countries abstained from a vote, and of these five countries, the three which are not already members of the P5 are heavily discussed candidates for membership should the council expand. Do they too see themselves as a bloc? Or was it just coincidence?

So it’s interesting to try and ascertain where this reluctance comes from. One can just throw out some crude snapshots: Germany is wary of overseas military operations. China and Russia see any intervention as an ominous precedent and a threat to their own national sovereignty. India and Brazil don’t want the responsibility, perhaps, and see a vote on Resolution 1973 as a distinct voting record that could come back to haunt them (much like the conventional wisdom explaining why a United States senator would never be electable as president).

Also interesting are the military capabilities of these five countries. All, with the possible exception of Brazil, have formidable land armies, but lack a great deal of expeditionary capacity or any meaningful power projection. China has been making the greatest strides in this area with their naval armament program, but is still a long ways off from being able to physically support operations like a Libyan intervention. Much the same goes for Russia, even if the recent Mistral purchases were an attempt to provide new command-and-control capabilities that would make such a deployment easier.

Despite NATO’s series of capability commitments, developing a true airlift capacity remains stuck. Germany is the European leader of strategic lift, and yet still only operates the woefully outdated C-160. Its replacement, the A400M, has nearly three times the weight capacity – but has been delayed yet again and will not enter service until 2014 at the earliest. So even discounting moral reservations, Germany might have some legitimate tactical concerns about intervention in Libya.

Of course, to have to write something like this implies a great deal of cynicism on the part of the international community. The ‘clean voting record hypothesis’, in particular, is a rather damning indictment of why nothing gets done politically either in the international or domestic realm. No matter the reason, though, it appears as if the BRIC countries are their own power bloc, and they’re not going to help if they don’t want to. Which perhaps then begs the question of why the West has to intervene whenever a dictator starts murdering his own people.

(Of course, as I’m writing this, this article pops up in my Twitter feed.)

Treason Doesn’t Pay

…or so Vladimir Putin reminds us. As the ten accused Russian spies returned home, Putin said that their outing was a “betrayal,” and vowed that there would be “tough times for the traitors,” whose names the Kremlin is apparently well aware of. And he had a word of caution for those who would do the same:

Traitors always end badly. As a rule, they end up in the gutter as drunks or drug addicts.

Take note, would-be Benedict Arnolds or Vidkun Quislings! If you commit treason, you might as well be heating up black tar heroin in a spoon.

Via Bostonist.

Red Menace

One might be forgiven for thinking we’ve been trapped in some sort of time-warp-nexus lately. The Germans have bloodied the English yet again, Paul Krugman thinks we’re doomed to repeat the Long Depression, and now? Russian spies on our shores.

Yes, that’s right, 11 agents of the Kremlin were arrested in Yonkers, NY (where my alma mater is located), Boston (where I live), and northern Virginia (where thankfully I’ve never been to). But what exactly were they trying to do? Nothing less insidious than an “effort to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit people able to infiltrate government policy-making circles.”

Great heavens! The Manchurian Candidate all over again. The Times is unclear on the specific motivations of the suspects, but does point out that while nine of the eleven were charged with money laundering, none were accused of stealing secrets (or presumably, influencing government policy). The real crime, though, was apparently “conspiring to act as agents of a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department.”

Ah, if only they’d bothered to let their local US Attorney they were attempting to influence the government! Then this could all have been resolved without such a fuss.

The Times has the original criminal complaints, which outline the high-tech tools of spycraft like LAPTOPS, AD HOC NETWORKS and MAC ADDRESSES. How dare the Russians outwit us again! Time for a crash program to develop a new, all-American SUPERLAPTOP and beat the Russkies at their game. It should be our goal to do this by the end of the decade.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Last week, Russian defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat announced it had designed a clever new launch system for cruise missiles: the Club-K. Designed in the form of a standard shipping container, the missiles can then be launched from essentially anywhere: on a train, from a ship, from a tractor-trailer in the middle of nowhere. They use satellite guidance systems. And in case this seemed like yet another cute idea the Russians had, the system makes use of the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE missiles – all of which are tested and proven. The missiles come in two flavors: anti-ship and anti-ground.

This is naturally troubling on a number of levels, though actually not quite so many as one might imagine at first glance. The most immediate concern is that this particular style of camouflage allows a merchant ship to carry enough firepower to knock out an aircraft carrier – a continuation of asymmetric warfare at sea that Robert Gates has been acknowledging quite a bit recently. Asymmetric threats in general stand to gain the most from this weapon; the sheer banality that the missiles are hidden behind (the container looks so normal) is a clever disguise. Watching that video definitely provokes one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Iran and Venezuela are already lining up to purchase the Club-K, and others will soon follow suit. Of course, Venezuela is a highly overrated security problem, but the threat posed by the Club-K is not existential; but one of harassment and annoyance. Iran, on the other hand, poses a clearer danger both itself and through intermediaries. And as Al Sahwa points out:

While it is true that al Qaeda won’t buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State’s satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption.

However, seeing as some of the weakest links in American border security are the ports, we’re at huge risk there. Is it just me or does the Club-K look like it could also be a toy for eccentric billionaires?

Victory!

C Company, 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment marches in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square for the first time.

Saturday marked the 65th anniversary of V-E Day in most of Europe, but for Russia – being several time zones removed – Sunday, May 9th was V-E Day.

Throughout the Soviet era, a yearly military parade was held in Red Square to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, but after the Soviet Union’s dissolution these parades were reduced in scope and grandeur. Vladimir Putin restored the Victory Day Parade to its former prominence in 2008, and this year’s parade was possibly the most epic yet.

For the first time, Allied and CIS forces also marched in the parade – an American company from the 18th Infantry Regiment, a British company from the Welsh Guards, a Polish battalion, a French aviation detachment, and troops from nine other countries – commemorating the global effort it took to rid the world of Hitler and Nazism.

French troops march in the Victory Day Parade in Red Square.

While there was certainly some resistance to Western troops marching in the holiest-of-holy Russian secular holidays, it mostly ascribed to the Communists and ultranationalists. Many veterans welcomed the other Allied troops:

“This parade unites all those who participated in the war,” said Iosif Efron, 85, who recalled that his Soviet division encountered American forces at the Elbe River in Germany at the end of World War II. “The invitation was absolutely proper. We fought together, and they helped us.

“Of course, without Russia, no one would have defeated Germany,” he added.

There are a ton of stunning (and not a little bit intimidating) photographs of the parade at Wiki Commons – including a real, live T-34! – and the BBC.

The Mask of the Bear: Soviet Deception in Operation Bagration

German columns advance past immobilized Russian tanks, July 1941.

From the moment the first Wehrmacht tank crossed the Soviet border in 1941 until the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, German victory in World War II seemed inevitable. The fighting on the Eastern Front took place on a scale never seen before or since, a colossal undertaking that consumed three-quarters of all combat forces in Europe, and cost the lives of over twenty-five million Soviet citizens.[1] The war could not have been won without the Soviet front, and even after the Red Army had successfully defended Moscow and Stalingrad, while holding out in besieged Leningrad, victory was far from certain.

The summer offensive of 1943, culminating in the Battle of Kursk—the largest tank battle ever fought by man—finally pushed the Germans onto the defensive. It was not until Operation Bagration, the 1944 summer offensive, that the German ability to conduct offensive operations was curtailed once and for all.

Operation Bagration won the war in the east, and that victory can be attributed to a practice at which the Red Army excelled—deception. The Soviet practice of maskirovka literally translates to ‘camouflage,’ but in the context of military doctrine has a wide variety of definitions covering everything from strategic disinformation to the effective  masking of an individual soldier’s foxhole. The official Soviet definition for maskirovka was:

The means of securing combat operations and the daily activities of forces; a complexity of measures, directed to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, various military objectives, their condition, combat readiness and operations, and also the plans of the command … Maskirovka contributes to the achievement of surprise for the actions of forces, the preservation of combat readiness, and the increased survivability of objectives.[2]

The Soviets invented the art of maskirovka, and perfected it over the course of World War II. By the summer of 1944, it was second-nature, and the operational planning reflected this. In absolute secrecy, the Soviet High Command (Stavka) managed to position over 2.3 million men and the necessary supplies, all the while deceiving the Wehrmacht as to the actual objectives of the offensive.

It is no stretch to say that Operation Bagration would have unfolded far more poorly without the extensive deception operations, and as it marked an end to any chance of a German victory, the maskirovka so skillfully executed in the summer of 1944 in fact shortened World War II by a substantial amount.

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