Monday, October 29, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Militarist Rhetoric Not Just about Defense Budgets, Analysts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 29 – Much of the militarist rhetoric emanating from the Russian armed forces and their political allies is little more than an effort to justify calls for increased military spending, but some Moscow analysts say that Russia does face some serious threats and could be involved in one of five possible wars in the coming years.

            In a survey of such thinking posted on the “Nasha Versiya” portal today, Aleksandr Stepanov considers the five cases, identifying the reasons Russian commanders identify particular sources of danger, Russia’s capabilities in the event of conflict, and the probabilities of such clashes in the opinion of experts (

            First on the list is a war with China, a perennial obsession with the Russian military given China’s growing population, need for agricultural land and resources, and its actions, such as the construction of six to eight lane highways near the border, on which the worst possible construction can be placed, Stepanov suggests.

            “It is no secret,” he continues, that China’s defense budget is increasing with each year.” And he notes that “in the event of war, the Peoples Liberation Army of China in the most modest estimates could put under arms more than 200,000,000 soldiers,” a figure fifty percent larger than the entire population of the Russian Federation.

            If China attacked along the entire Sino-Russian frontier, it could achieve “a rapid victory” and seize all the Asian territories of the Russian Federation up to the Urals. Russia lacks the conventional resources to counter such an attack, having dismantled its special military regions along that border over the last two decades.

            Moscow must thus rely on its much larger nuclear arsenal, Stepanov reports that experts say, with many viewing that as “a panacea,”but he notes that China has a nuclear arsenal as well and has better delivery capacity for such a war.  Consequently, some Moscow commentators like Aleksandr Khamchikhin think such a war is “probable” in ten to fifteen years.

            The second war in which Russia might find itself would be a repetition of the August 2008 fighting in Georgia.  Stepanov says that the recent change of leadership in Tbilisi “sharply reduces this possibility” as does the change in the military balance. Georgia is much weaker than it was, and Russia’s positions in both Abkhazia and South Osetia are immeasurably stronger.

            The third military conflict in which Russia could find its forces committed would be a renewed war over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Russia has a military base in Armenia and is committed to defending that country from any outside threat, Stepanov notes, but Moscow is not committed to defending the Armenian positions inside Azerbaijan.

             But if a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan does break out, the analyst continues, the presence of the Russian base would allow Armenia to direct all its forces against Azerbaijan, something that would allow Yerevan to “more effectively” use them in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere in Azerbaijan.

            Russia would thus be involved, but the experts Stepanov surveyed said Moscow would be unlikely to “openly act on behalf of Armenia” against Azerbaijan unless Turkey or some other third country were to get involved.

            Moscow faces a fourth possible military conflict in the Middle East.  Russia has actively backed Bashar Asad of Syria because it has a clear interest in his rule: “the last Russian military base in the far abroad is located in Syria.” That has led to Russian declarations and leaks about what Russia will do, including using arms to defend its base, but these remain unconfirmed.

            Shows of force are one thing, Stepanov says, but Moscow does not want to get involved in an open clash with NATO.

            The fifth and last of the five possible “wars” Stepanov considers would be in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Western forces.  Afghanistan represents a problem for Moscow because it is a source of both Islamist influence in Central Asia and drugs that flow into and through the Russian Federation. 

            That is why the Russian leadership has devoted so much effort to ensuring that Moscow retains its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but according to the experts with whom Stepanov spoke, “Russian forces would cross into Afghanistan only in exceptional circumstances,” at least in part because Moscow has some earlier and unfortunate experiences there.

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