Beyond the Cold War
America has a problem. As it has occupied itself with the seemingly unending wars in the Middle East, old foes have been stirring. It was during March 2014 that the world was shocked by the very sudden appearance of the so-called “little green men” in Ukraine who swarmed across the Crimean peninsula and toppled the governments regional control in the space of a few weeks. It’s an open secret that the “separatist” forces in Ukraine only succeeded thanks to the continuing extensive military and financial support from the Russian Federation that, decisively, included the deployment of Russian Army troops to blunt Ukraine’s military offensive.
Over the past year we’ve seen increasingly provocative moves from Russian forces, most recently occurring in the Baltic when Russian fighter jets and a military helicopter repeatedly buzzed a U.S.S. Donald Cook. Casting an eye wider, it is clear that President Vladimir Putin has grand ambitions – his sudden deployment of fighter-bombers in Syria was a clear indication that President Bashar Assad’s regime was here to stay in spite of America’s goals to the contrary. Even the Crimea’s not so subtle annexation showed that he was willing to defend Russia’s old sphere of influence by any means necessary from any perceived threat. The rise of a super-power is as much perceived power as actual strength after all.
Of the old guard
Whilst the Russian aligned government in Kiev was toppled in a violent overthrow in 2014, Russia’s forces were discreetly mobilized along the eastern border. The unknowns that a new populist government would present deeply troubled Moscow. It simply could not allow the possibility that another Eastern European state might seek closer ties to the EU or West. Even worse in Moscow’s eyes was the future possibility that such political upheaval may endanger its rented bases in Crimea, an essential staging post for its Black Sea fleets. Or perhaps the unthinkable – Ukraine aligning with NATO and troops being stationed on its borders.
Of course, geopolitics have never constrained Mr. Putin’s ambitions. As an accomplished opportunist, he has never been one to miss a chance at undermining his foes. The reality is probably a mix of all and somewhere in between.
Whilst the world was absorbed by the very sudden fall of Victor Yanukovych’s regime in Kiev, pro-Russian and anti-government separatist forces began demonstrations in the Donetsk and Luhansk region that is commonly called the “Donbas”. Capitalizing on the chaos, “little green men” began to appear across the Donbas, quickly overwhelming the unprepared Ukrainian forces with the backing of Armoured Personnel Carriers and Tanks. In what was to become an open secret, Russian Special Forces as well as regular army units stripped of their unit markings and identification tags, very quickly annexed Crimea and would go on to back the rebels split off into an autonomous region in Eastern Ukraine
The steady escalation of violence paired with the subterfuge and duplicitous actions of the Russian Federation have been dubbed as”Hybrid Warfare”. Through the use of deniable troops, unofficial warfare, and by secretly supplying the rebels and separatists, Russia very effectively dissolved Kiev’s control before it even knew what was happening. Dr. Damian Van Puyvelde explained in the NATO review that “[by exploiting] the full spectrum of modern warfare, [the aggressor] is not restricted to conventional means”. Russia’s ability to successfully subvert Ukraine’s political institutions should be especially worrying for NATO and its allies, and if there’s one thing America’s military struggles with, its learning how to win hearts and minds.
In a frank assessment for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieutenant General H.R. Masters was critical of NATO’s performance during the crisis. “It is clear that while our Army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia has studied U.S capabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort”. He pointed to the cyber and electronic warfare capabilities that crippled the Ukrainian army’s communications equipment, as well as the surprisingly high use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that showed, in his mind, “a high degree of technological sophistication”.
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The fact that NATO was so caught off guard by Russia’s shockingly aggressive deployment of its forces has shaken US high command’s confidence. The abilities of Russia’s proxy “rebel” army in being so effective at dismantling the well-trained and relatively sophisticated Ukrainian army through conventional wisdom on its head. The well-drilled use of combined arms that included tanks, artillery, shock troops as well as UAVs in combination with a sophisticated electronic warfare suite was at a level well beyond what military Intelligence deemed the Federation capable of.
Speaking to Politico, retired General Wesley Clark who served as NATO commander between 1997 and 2000, warned that Russia’s main battle tanks such as the T-90 have been quietly upgraded to the point that they are “largely invulnerable to anti-tank missiles”, as was clearly illustrated during the war in eastern Ukraine.
All of this is a worrying sign for the US Army. Military and Intelligence officials now believe that the conflict underlines how the US Army is now highly vulnerable. Its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a heavy reliance upon light armoured vehicles better suited to urban combat than engaging a similarly armed opponent. What Russia’s efforts in Ukraine have shown is that main battle tanks such as the T-90 are still a decisive weapon in a clash between conventional armies.
The scramble for lost time
Showing the seriousness of the conflicts implications, McMasters will lead a committee tasked with learning from the Ukrainian intervention. This group is likely to shape how the US prepares for future skirmishes with Russia by tailoring what equipment is developed and purchased, and how the Army trains. Their efforts will be split between 20 separate areas that have been identified which includes increasing reconnaissance and battlefield intelligence, guarding against hacking and cyber attacks, adjusting army formations to be better suited to large-scale war and re-assessing the role of helicopters. Such a shake up could drastically change how the Army fights its wars of the future
The United States Senate will now reconsider President Obama’s plans to reduce the Army’s active duty force. Cuts are currently under way that would reduce the Army’s forces from 490,000 by 40,000 soldiers. A bill in the House of Representatives has been presented that would stop the deactivation of an airborne brigade stationed in Alaska. The reason? Increased Russian aggression.
With all the worry over Russia’s actions, you’d be forgiven with thinking that Russia is unstoppable, which is simply not true. Despite its small successes in Crimea, Ukraine and more recently Syria, the Russian military is nowhere near the strength that it held during the heights of its USSR days. Russia’s military has shrunken dramatically in size between 1985 and 2015, and its biggest weakness is the fact that the army remains a largely conscript one with poor morale. Even in during its annexation of the Donbas and Crimea, the Ukrainian army was capable of fighting its forces to a standstill in spite of the rebels technical edge. And, its intervention in Syria has only blunted the immediate dangers to Russia’s ally government rather than lending a distinct edge on the ground.
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