Russia Looks East and Sees Storm Clouds: Part One

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 53

NATO troops in Afghanistan; Army-General Makhmut Gareev, the President of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, sees NATO’s expanded military presence as an emerging threat to China

As Roger McDermott has already noted (EDM, March 16), Army-General Makhmut Gareev, the President of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, recently addressed what he called the “eastern vector” of Russian national security in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 5). He noted the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region to the global economy, the flow of capital to the region, and its emergence as a geopolitical center of gravity. While recounting the US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan after 9/11, and critically assessing the performance of NATO forces there, Gareev turned his attention to what he sees as the single most important shift: the transformation of NATO into a global presence with significant military influence in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region.

This shift in the country’s center of attention from Europe to the east has implications for Russia and China. Gareev admits that the NATO presence in Afghanistan does serve Russian interests. With regard to NATO, he points to other threats by non-military means to undermine Russia’s position by subversion and information warfare in the form of the so-called “color revolutions.” He noted that Russia’s national security strategy states that the government will give priority to non-military means, and then highlights that the state lacks the ability to adequately coordinate it. Gareev sees NATO’s expanded military presence as an emerging threat to China. Given the timing of the article, coming only a few days after NATO emissaries had raised the challenge of China in discussions with senior officials in Moscow, one could conclude that Gareev is predicting greater tension between NATO and Beijing. Such a shift of attention also means that Moscow can assume NATO is not seeking conflict with Russia in Europe, which he calls NATO’s rear. The problem of NATO-China tension is that it affects a region where Russia is itself weak. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been able to assume a benign security environment in the Far East at a time of its own internal weakness in the same region. The globalization of NATO means increased tension in a region where Russia has limited military capabilities. The deployment of naval, air, and ground forces to the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Asia-Pacific region in the context of increased economic rivalry with China and rising regional tensions, would fundamentally alter Russia’s security environment, as Gareev explained.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing are followed closely in Moscow. The recent visit of senior US officials to Beijing was presented as an effort to reduce tension after the flare-up over the sale of aircraft to Taiwan. Beijing has not supported new sanctions against Iran and is concerned about deteriorating economic relations with Washington. It has also responded coolly to the demarche by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s demands regarding internet censorship and Google’s problems in China. Russian commentators believe that the Chinese government wants more than atmospherics and expects real changes in US policy toward China (Kommersant, March 3). Russian media noted in the announcement by the Chinese government that it would increase its defense budget by only 7.5 percent, as opposed to the recent rate of 10 percent annually. However, commentators see the published Chinese defense budget as hardly reflecting the real level of expenditure, and suggest that the current reduction in the rate of growth is both a response to the global economic crisis, where the military will have to tighten its belt along with everyone else, and a signal to the rest of the world that China is engaged in an arms race (, March 5).

Aleksandr Khramchikhin provided a much more in-depth analysis of the Chinese defense budget, and sees China continuing to make gains against the United States because of the great asymmetries in Chinese military procurement. Moreover, he sees US military sales to Taiwan as more symbolic than real in their contribution to that country’s defense capabilities. The Obama administration does not want a confrontation with China. He categorizes the current tension between Washington and Beijing as not serious, because the Obama administration, in fact, fears such a confrontation. The new defense budget in this context, even with a lower rate of increase, is a “budgetary warning” to Washington and elsewhere about the shifting strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, March 9).

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to receive extensive coverage in the Russian military press. The current “Key Resolve/Foal Eagle” exercises being conducted by US and South Korean forces triggered predictable protests from Pyongyang, which characterized the exercise as a “serious provocation.” However, Russian commentators see the current situation as an exchange of threats between the two sides. Viktor Ruchkin states that the core activities of the exercise involve the use of US and South Korean Special Forces for the location, seizure and destruction of WMD systems. The North Korean response at this time of leadership transition, harvest failure and currency crisis has been particularly strident even for Pyongyang. The People’s Army not only raised its alert level, but also instructed its forces to be ready to answer any preventive strike. It announced the creation of a new command for its medium range missile forces, which include weapons with a range of 3,000 kilmeters, capable of striking targets in Japan and American bases in Guam. Ruchkin did not speculate on whether North Korea has achieved the capability of arming such missiles with nuclear warheads, which would give added weight to the seriousness of the current level of tension. The North Korean government did warn that in the face of military provocations and sanctions it would end its participation in the Six-Party Talks and seek to strengthen its nuclear deterrent (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 13).

During the same period, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Chirkin, the recently appointed commander of the Siberian Military District, announced the deployment of two brigades to the Chinese border near Chita. Chirkin stated that the brigades were deployed there to counter the presence of 5 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combined arms armies across the border. From 2003 to 2007 Chirkin commanded an army in the Siberian military district. On the rationale for the deployment, Chirkin stated: “We are obligated to keep troops there, because on the other side of the border are five Chinese armies and we cannot ignore that operational direction.” He added that the defense ministry intended to develop an army headquarters for command and control of the brigades (Voenno Promyshlennyi Kuryer, March 3).

In a related report, Chirkin described the PLA forces across the border as composed of three divisions and 10 tank, mechanized, and infantry brigades, which he said were not small, but also “not a strike force.” As to the role of the new brigades, Chirkin characterized them as part of a deterrent force aimed as a friendly reminder to Beijing: “. . . despite friendly relations with China, our army command understands that friendship is possible only with strong countries, which can quiet a friend down with a conventional or nuclear club” (Argumenty Nedeli, March 4-10). The Siberian Military District is actively preparing for this summer’s Vostok-2010, which will test the combat capabilities and combat-readiness of Russia’s “new look” forces. In preparation for that major exercise, the Siberian Military District will conduct exercises to ensure that rear services will effectively support the combat units (Buriatiia, February 20).