In today's FAZ, on page 1 and 2, there's an article that Russian military strategy is changing.
Russia is, as far as its military is concerned, a catastrophe: they know that their weapon systems lag those of the West significantly (with a few exceptions); they know that they need to have highly trained professional soldiers, but cannot abandon the draft because of the very poor demographic developments; they have extremely long borders to protect with significant disparities between the resource-rich but thinly populated Siberian countryside and the resource-thin but heavily populated countries of North Korea and China.
A fair assessment of the situation is that Russia can easily throw its weight around with someone small, like Georgia; it lacks both the troops and the tail (logistics, etc) for any large-scale conflict.
What makes this bitterly ironic is that the Russians are, strategically, where NATO was in, say, 1955 or so. Facing a potential enemy much larger and better equipped, NATO's policy back then was to initiate use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict to ensure that both sides would lose, rather than allowing the option that one side could win.
I'm going to provide a brief translation (mine) that won't cover everything, but will give the gist of the story:
The Secretary of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patruschew, former head of the FSB (the former KGB), spoke in Wednesday with Isvestia about the changes from the last doctrine, which was established in 2000. The trigger levels for possible preventative usage of Russian nuclear weapons are going to be lowered: as the former head of the General Staff, Yui Balujewski, has said, Russia is prepared to protect its large territory with preventative attacks, if need by with nuclear weapons. This now extends to both regional and local conflicts that Russia sees as being a threat to its territories.
At the same time, nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are to be modernized, parallel to the the US-Russian talks about the quantitative limitations to strategic weapons (the follow-on talks to START). This points to a Russian unwillingness, at least in the mid-term, to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons, currently estimated to be 2050. Despite the headline articles about plans to reduce strategic weapons, Russian security policy appears to becoming increasingly "nuclearized", and this new military doctrine underscores this.
The reason for this is the status of conventional Russian forces, which have been in continuous decline since the 1990s. The Russian army can, based on its size, still beat smaller enemies with its large amounts of artillery and tanks, as was the case with Georgia. However, a large-scale attack could not be stopped.
In the unofficial scenarios to conventional threats, NATO and the US are increasingly not the potential opponents. Instead, conflicts in Siberia and the Far East have replaced them. Both North Korea and China have large standing armies, and on the Russian side of the border, the country is thinly populated and the Russian military forces there, if attacked, would have a very difficult time defending the country. Russian military commanders in these areas find the Russian worries about the US to be very short-sighted.
Vitaly Schlykow, one of the Russian thinkers behind the planned nuclear forces reform, puts it bluntly: the Russian Army is in an incredibly bad condition, desperately in need of modernization, but even if this happens, defending against a very large conventional attack, say from China, would be impossible without nuclear weapons.
According to Schlykow, the fighting in Georgia showed to Russian leadership, especially the civilian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, that the Army must be reformed and modernized. According to a study by the Berlin think tank "Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik" (Science and Politics), this conflict showed that the old-style Russian combat units failed to show the mobility needed: further, modern military operational command and high-tech weapons were not used because the Russian units did not have them.
High-level Russian military officers and politicians called attention to other failings: there was a desperate search for competent commanders, as the vast majority of Russian officers had no battle experience and indeed virtually no leadership experience, but rather managed their units that more often than not only existed on paper. Part of the reason was that most of the Russian military is made up of reserve units that depend on training that more often than not dated back decades. While this means that the Russian military can theoretically call up 20 mn soldiers, the reality is much more sobering. Russian military strategy was trapped in the policies that helped win WW2, which was expected to be the strategy to be used to defeat NATO if it came to a military confrontation.
This is changing: the Russian Army is to be reduced to 1 mn soldiers, down from 1.3 mn currently, with 700 000 Reservists, The number of officers is to be reduced, especially in the higher ranks, by 55%, and 200 000 non-commissioned officers are to build the backbone fo the new Army, this for the first time ever (these jobs were done by officers in the old Russian/Soviet Army). These non-coms are to be trained for 34 months and include new high-tech weapons. This reform is to be completed in 2016.
A further reform is to change the organization and leadership structure of the Army, away from the classic military districts and the organization with regiments, divisions and armies. There are to be only three structures: brigades, operative commands and military districts. Heavy divisions, useful for large operations on a front with hundreds of kilometers, are to be abandoned, as brigades are much more flexible and capable of handling lower-intensity operations. They are to be fully staffed as well, with a high degree of readiness and armed with modern weapons. Each military district is also to receive air mobile units as well. The number of tanks is expected to be reduced from 23 000 to around 2 000.
What makes this ironic is that it is Russia which is now the underdog, as it were, conventionally.
What makes this so bitter is that any lowering of the nuclear threshold is A Very Bad Thing. The problem here is the believability of the Russian threat: are they going to use nuclear weapons to solve a local conflict? Someone will call their bluff, and unless the Russians actually do use them, their believability disappears (and hence the ability to dissuade conflicts!).
This isn't your grandfather's deterrence strategy: this is a new one that really is not going to be a step in the right direction...