Russian military: “Unpredictability is part of the strategy”


As of: 01/18/2022 5:56 p.m

Putin is “neither a strategist nor a mere tactician,” says military expert Klein in an interview. Russia is militarily superior to Ukraine – but given the current threat scenario, that’s not all that matters. Ukraine is currently fearing an imminent Russian invasion of the country, and NATO and EU leaders are taking these concerns very seriously. Politically, this threat situation has long played a role – but is it also justified from a purely military point of view? Would Russia be able to invade and defeat Ukraine?

Margaret Klein: The deployment of about 100,000 men within 300 kilometers of the Ukrainian border that we are now monitoring would be militarily sufficient to intervene in the Donbass – but probably not to be victorious quickly in other parts of Ukraine. Of course, Russia could reinforce its troops in the western military district with additional forces from other military districts and move more troops to the northern border with Ukraine in order to threaten an invasion beyond the Donbass. The fact that Russia is now planning an exercise with Belarus shows that this threat is currently being intensified.

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Margarete Klein is the research group leader Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. She researches Russia’s foreign and military policy, Moscow’s relationship with NATO and the development of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). What strengths can the Russian military draw on to maintain this threat?

Margaret Klein: Russia’s military reform, which began in 2008, is the most important reform project to date that has been carried out with the necessary financial resources and political will. As a result, the armed forces have been able to significantly modernize their armament, with the strategic missile forces and the air force in particular having been modernized, and the army least so. We are also seeing a significant improvement and expansion of rapidly deployable units such as the Airborne Forces and significantly increased exercise activities in terms of their scope, complexity and frequency. Large sections of the Russian armed forces have also been made more operational, for example in the Syrian conflict.

It is important, however, that we do not only consider the regular armed forces when considering the Russian military potential: This also includes quasi-military equipped structures from other ministries and authorities, such as the National Guard, FSB border troops and the so-called deputies – i.e. irregular fighters who provide support for the armed forces can carry out, but from which the political leadership can distance itself. This includes private military companies – i.e. mercenaries, which are still illegal in Russia – but also Cossacks or so-called volunteer fighters, as we saw in Donbass and Crimea.

“Increased willingness to defend” Such irregular combat units play a major role in the scenarios currently circulating, and there is talk of a so-called hybrid threat. From a military science perspective, how real is the cause for concern?

Margaret Klein: Scenarios based solely on para- or irregular violent actors are certainly conceivable – for example, if they were used for acts of destabilization in Ukraine while the Russian leadership distanced itself from these actors. If it were about an intervention by Russian forces in other parts of Ukraine beyond the Donbass, Russia would encounter a much smaller but thoroughly reformed Ukrainian army – and above all a population in which the willingness to defend the country has been evident since 2014 has increased. Any intervention scenarios that extend beyond the Donbass would likely be more protracted and costly for the Russian leadership. The number of well-trained Ukrainian soldiers who are ready for action has increased over the past seven years of the war, and volunteers for territorial defense are currently being trained in Ukraine. Would Ukraine now have significant resources to oppose Russia at the military level?

Margaret Klein: Russia is clearly militarily superior. But the Russian leadership is also concerned with maintaining its narrative that Russia and Ukraine one be a nation. Even if Ukraine were militarily inferior in an open confrontation with Russia, there would be a risk of partisan fighting or acts of sabotage.

In addition, Russia would then have to justify itself from the role of the occupation regime – and that would undermine the narrative. In addition, we have seen so far that Russia has always tried to get the most out of military interventions with minimal means, and has never used all its strength.

Threat or intervention plans? The approach taken so far has already paid off for Russia: They have made their voices heard by demanding security guarantees and are back at the negotiating table with Washington – many observers believe that the Kremlin is not interested in more than that…

Margaret Klein: At the moment we do not know whether Russia’s leadership is just creating a threatening backdrop with the troop deployment in order to emphasize its maximum demands for security guarantees or whether it is actually pursuing the goal of an intervention in Ukraine, for which the failure of talks with the USA and NATO is only a justification are. Because Russia plays with strategic ambivalence: They deny intentions to intervene, but at the same time threaten military answers. So unpredictability is an important part of Russia’s strategy. The NATO countries cannot and do not want to intervene directly. The USA and Great Britain, for example, are sending armaments to Ukraine, and the debate is ongoing in Germany. Can arms shipments really intimidate Russia – or, as proponents argue, prompt a reassessment of strategic costs?

Margaret Klein: If we assume that the Kremlin will intervene with minimal means to get maximum benefit from the situation, then substantial supplies of defensive arms would make a difference. Because the costs of a military nature for Russia would be higher. In the short term, a commitment to Ukraine would not help militarily, because first the weapons would have to be delivered, then the soldiers would have to be trained. But they would be a strong signal of political support to Ukraine.

“Kremlin has overriding goals” Does the Kremlin even know what it wants in this power game – and how far it would be willing to raise the stakes?

Margaret Klein: It’s difficult for us to judge from the outside because the decision-making structures are not transparent. Vladimir Putin is neither a strategist nor a mere tactician. The Kremlin has major overriding goals that it has formulated consistently and coherently for a very long time, such as with regard to the European security order. The only thing that is relatively flexible is the choice of instruments. At the moment, attempts are being made to build up military pressure in order to get a negotiation result that meets Russia’s key demands – for example a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion.

In order to improve its negotiating position, Russia is also toying with the possibility of military escalation. However, the fact that Russia’s leaders are making maximum demands in the draft treaties with NATO and the USA, which it does not want to back away from, also entails a risk for Moscow: it can no longer get out of the situation face-saving – the danger then is that it may unintentionally end up in a military escalation is coming.

The conversation was led by Jasper Steinlein,

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