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May 17, 2018

Pavel Baev: Russia Still Significantly Behind in Digitalization of the Modern Battlefield

An interview by Erik Eenlo, BNS.

Pavel Baev

Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo

A Pantsir-SA air defense system Arctic edition rides through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017.
A Pantsir-SA air defense system Arctic edition rides through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2017. Photo: AFP/Scanpix

Erik Eenlo: You have been living and working in Norway for over two decades. Norway (NATO member) and Sweden (EU member) have been stepping up their defense spending and Norway is hosting a small unit of US marines. NATO plans to create a new command tasked with defending its maritime lines of communication between North America and Europe. How does the military challenge that Russia poses to the West look from there and how would you describe the state of military tensions in the region?

Pavel Baev: The Nordic countries, with all their community feeling, have very different exposure to security threats emanating from Russia, and very dissimilar options for countering these threats. Norway places emphasis on mobilizing NATO solidarity and aims at increasing its contributions to various trans-Atlantic military initiatives, while Denmark can afford a more relaxed attitude. For Finland and Sweden, the set of questions about expanding their ties with NATO is similar, yet with many different nuances, like for instance the unique Finnish dilemma of strengthening their total defense preparations without provoking Russia. The Nordics have to join their efforts in dealing with the particular set of security challenges generated by Russia’s militarization of the Arctic; yet, at the same time, they seek to explore opportunities for preserving the pattern of cooperation with Russia in the High North.

Armenia is often referred to as the prisoner of Caucasus meaning that a small country bordering Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan and hosting Russian military bases has no chance to escape its geography. Due to its conflict with Baku and hostile relations with Ankara it can be considered a Russian protectorate. Let´s assume the protest movement wins, Nikol Pashinyan becomes prime minister and the forces that are currently in opposition form a new majority after the early elections that will be organized. Will the seeming victory of the revolution change anything in Jerevan´s relations with Russia and Azerbaijan?

I cannot see any prospect for improvement in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations; quite probably, Pashinyan will have to prove that he is as tough in managing the Nagorno Karabakh conflict as Kocharyan and Sargsyan were. There might be, nevertheless, a chance to improve Armenia’s relations with Turkey, which Baku would do its best to block. The key issue is certainly about the pattern Armenia’s relations with Russia, and it is not enough for the new government to assert its commitments to preserving the alliance. President Putin positions himself as a champion in the struggle against revolutions, and not only in the states bordering Russia, but in the Middle East as well. Armenia has set an important precedent of defying this typical authoritarian counter-revolutionary stance, and has also proven that corruption can be rejected and defeated by social protest. This makes it a very awkward and even suspicious ally from the Moscow’s perspective.

(I have just written on Russia’s feeble response to the revolution in Armenia in the Brookings’ Order from Chaos blog)

How are wars in Ukraine and Syria transforming the way Russia conducts warfare? Or are they merely testing grounds for the work done since the reform reorganizing its military began in 2009? Former commander of US forces in Europe general Ben Hodges and the chief of Estonian military intelligence Kaupo Rosin have lauded Russian electronic warfare capabilities.

Every war adds unique experience to Russia’s use of military force as an instrument of policy, and it is useful to reflect on the fact that in the last 25 years, Moscow has accumulated a vast and diverse portfolio of such experiences – and it is learning many lessons that remain foreign and even unacceptable for the West. Complete disregard for civilian sufferings and casualties is one such lesson. The capabilities for electronic warfare are improving; yet in this area, Russia still remain significantly behind – and is not able to address many vulnerabilities in digitalization of the modern battlefield. The experiments in using the long-range cruise missiles in the Syrian war have added one important new capability; yet, in this area Russia is still lagging far behind the USA.

Western sanctions seem to be biting Russia´s military budget. How much can outsiders ascertain about the situation in Russia´s military financing. The chief of Estonian military intelligence doubts claims that the budget has actually shrunk saying that if we add the classified part of its military financing to the published state budget, the proportions probably stay the same.

The macro-data on Russian military expenditures is certainly so unreliable that it cannot give even a general idea about the scale of this effort. Bit and pieces of information, for instance on delays and setbacks in the shipbuilding program, can give some clues about the political decision-making on redistribution of resources. The conclusion about the curtailing of the flow of investment into the rearmament remains tentative, but it is logically sound taking into consideration the economic stagnation – and the remarkably firm control over the inflation.

The big question regarding Russia is obviously what will happen during president Putin´s fourth term. We can probably expect a period of calm during the football world cup in the summer but what will happen afterwards? Ukraine´s SBU fears that Russia will launch a military invasion as soon as autumn. Putin is notorious for his reluctance to back down or make concessions but will the domestic situation force him to change course somewhat and try to come to an accomodation with the West in the hope of getting the sanctions lifted?

The flow of bad news since Putin’s rigidly controlled elections is extremely strong – from new US sanctions to the US missile strike in Syria, and from the deadly fire in Kemerovo to the revolution in Armenia. The response from the Kremlin has been very weak and low-profile, and the need for Putin to re-assert his control and to change this sad agenda will definitely increase already in the autumn. He may be counting on the external events that could get Russia out of this predicament, like for instance, an escalation of tensions around Iran pushing the oil price up very high. Events, however, cannot be planned or controlled, and the urge to regain the initiative may push the Kremlin to make another attempt at projecting power, limited as this power presently is.

Pavel Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Norway).

The views expressed in this interview are the respondent’s personal views, and do not reflect the position or views of his employer.

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