The following political landscape piece is a part of Eurasia Daily Monitor’s special quarterly series of strategic assessments of developments across Eurasia. These pieces examine recent important developments and trends in the region, particularly since this past summer, and anticipate where those trend lines may lead over the coming months.
Russia’s relations with the United States and its Western allies deteriorated dramatically over the course of 2016. A Syrian ceasefire agreement that Moscow hammered out with Washington this past September to avoid a bloodbath in the besieged Aleppo fell apart amid renewed Russian bombardments and mutual bitter incriminations and accusations of war crimes. A large Russian naval task force has been assembled in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria. And Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has lambasted Western countries for refusing to allow these Russian ships to dock in their ports to resupply: “You must decide, are you fighting international terrorism or Russia? Maybe you forgot who was killing innocent people in Belgium, France, Egypt, Iraq and other places?” According to Shoigu, there is no such thing as a “moderate Syrian opposition”—it all must be suppressed by force, “by working together, instead of hampering our efforts” (Mil.ru, November 1).
Moscow is implying Washington is in cahoots with jihadists and the Islamic State. The Russian primetime mass TV agitprop is reporting that, in the US, “state administrative resources, oligarchic corporations, the mainstream press, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and other US special services” are working to falsify the November 8 election to prevent [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump from winning. Russian domestic propaganda predicts that US citizens dissatisfied by mass vote falsification will launch a “colored revolution” or Maidan in Washington—a frightening prospect for a nuclear-armed country (Vesti.ru, October 30). Jingoistic talk of war and possible overall confrontation is deafening: Almost half of the Russian population (some 48 percent, according to a recent poll by the independent pollster Levada-Tsentr) fears that confrontation with the West over Syria may escalate into a nuclear World War III. Despite this fear, about half of all Russians support their country’s bombing of Syria and believe it must continue; less than 30 percent are against (Levada.ru, October 31).
The Russian war effort in Syria is impressive. The so called “Syrian express” supply conveyer of Russian ships continually passes through the Bosporus, from Black Sea ports to Syria, to support the Russian and allied war effort. These ships—some old rusty freighters purchased abroad—fly the Russian naval ensign to avoid possible inspection by Turkish authorities. According to Shoigu, each day some 2,000 tons of military supplies and hardware are being delivered to the Russian bases at Khmeimim and Tartus (Mil.ru, November 1). But the number of Russian military personnel on the ground in Syria is limited, reportedly less than 5,000 (see EDM, September 22).
The Russian deployment in Syria is only part of a much larger picture of a military buildup in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. Shoigu has announced massive strategic military exercises Zapad 2017 (West 2017), scheduled to take place in September 2017. It will be the “main military event of 2017” and will be held jointly by Russia and Belarus to counter the Western threat: “The US and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” According to Shoigu, Russian borders are threatened, and adequate defensive measures will be taken (RIA Novosti, November 2).
Last August, Shoigu disclosed plans to build a Pacific defense perimeter from Chukotka to Vladivostok in the south. New bases and military garrisons will be deployed on the Kuril Islands by 2020. By 2018, an entire coast guard division will be deployed in Chukotka, facing Alaska over the Bering Strait. According to Shoigu, these new deployments will deny access of enemy forces through the Kuril Island chain and through the Bering Strait to guarantee “the stability of deployment of Russian strategic nuclear and naval forces” (Interfax, August 23). This monumental deployment may turn the Sea of Okhotsk into a fortress, in which new Russian Borei-class strategic nuclear submarines may target the continental United States. The coastal defense division in Chukotka, with its long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, may deny the US Navy access through the Bering Strait to the Arctic, where nuclear strategic naval assets may be deployed.
The Russian navy has deployed three newly built Borei-class strategic nuclear submarines: one in the Barents Sea and two in Kamchatka for combat deployment in the Sea of Okhotsk. Four more Borei-class subs are under construction. A number of nuclear and nonnuclear attack submarines are being built, as well as surface warships (Militarynews.ru, October 30). A number of new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are also being developed: the railroad-mobile Barguzin, the heavy silo-based Sarmat, and the land-mobile Yars and Rubez (Militarynews.ru, November 3). By 2020, Russia may have more than ten types of land-based deployed ICBMs and up to five different sea-based ballistic missiles—a very costly endeavor. Russia is mass-producing new Su-34 bombers (at present used in Syria), and it plans to procure 200 overall (Militarynews.ru, October 31). More conventional weapons are planned for mass production. The Russian military is building up its capabilities, assuming a worst-case scenario framework and exaggerated threats to help expand the defense budget.
The Russian General Staff envisages a rapidly growing external threat of war and foreign invasion coming from all directions; and the Kremlin has fully accepted this threat assessment. The coming threat is being referred to as “the resource wars”—a possible future world war or a series of major regional conflicts, predicted to occur sometime “before 2030.” The Russian high command apparently believes that an acute resource crunch will soon overtake the world, as serious shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources cause their prices to skyrocket. Outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade Russia’s massive landmass from different directions to physically grab territory and its resources. These assumptions seem to form the backbone of the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, signed into law by Putin on January 29, 2013. On February 14, 2013, the chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov, publicly disclosed that “before 2030,” all major world powers will be fighting for control of resources and living space (RIA Novosti, February 14, 2013). In anticipation of imminent war, defense spending in 2016 has exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent of GDP.
Massive military spending plans were initially approved when the price of oil was way over $100 a barrel and Russia was awash in petrodollars. At present, the price of oil is low and the “resource crunch” seems a remote fantasy. Meanwhile, the finance ministry is pressing for overall sequestration of spending to balance the budget. A new rearmament program for 2018–2025 is being put together and must be fully approved in July 2017. But the Russian military has locked horns with Putin’s liberal financial establishment, led by former finance minister Alexei Kudrin. At a meeting with Putin in the Kremlin last September, Shoigu reportedly yelled at Finance Minister Anton Syluanov, accusing him of undermining efforts to modernize the military and of threatening national security. The military initially asked for 55 trillion rubles (about $1 trillion dollars) for the rearmament program until 2025, then cut more and more to arrive at 22 trillion (about $330 billion); but Syluanov announced he has only 12 trillion ($200 billion) to spend on rearmament (Kommersant, September 17).
The military believes a drastic cut in defense procurement will curtail its ambitious expansion plans and send the Armed Forces into a state of degradation, like after the Cold War. The Russian military seems ready to fight for its money with everything at its disposal. The best way to keep defense spending high at the expense of the civilian population is to beef up the threat of war and increase international tensions—which has indeed been happening in the second half of 2016. This warmongering will continue into 2017. A distinct possibility exists of provocations and local clashes between Russian and Western (US) militaries in Syria, in the Baltic, in the Black Sea or elsewhere. The defense ministry’s goal is to increase international tensions without causing a major (nuclear) war, and thus domestically defeat Syluanov and marginalize Kudrin.