5 December 2016

Russia’s Military Strategy: China’s Partner, Model, or Competitor?

by Alexandre Sheldon-Duplaix

At the time of the Crimean crisis in 2014, an editorialin the Global Times concluded that Russia’s military power is Moscow’s trump card. So, the article suggested that “China should speed up its military modernisation”, because “once the confrontation between the West and Russia goes out of control, it is China that will suffer”. But Chinese authors have various assessments of the real state of Russia’s military strength, and of the degree to which Moscow is prepared to partner or compete with Beijing to achieve its goals.
Is Russia a weak power?

In 2013, China’s Academy of Military Science’s Department of Military Strategy published a third edition of the Science of Military Strategy (战略学, zhanlüe xue). This exhaustive 276-page manual dedicates four pages to a short description and analysis of Russia’s military strategy. In these four pages, the Chinese authors describe the overall transformation of the Russian military strategy since the end of the Cold War. They note a shift from a global military strategy to a regional military strategy focused on the homeland, with new strategic frontlines centred on the restricted corridors of the Baltic and Black Seas.

The Academy of Military Science authors characterise Russia as a “warlike nation … founded and strengthened by war” that has never hesitated to use military force to defend its interests. The authors say that Russian military culture favours defensive and offensive operations in order to seize the initiative. A year before the seizure of Crimea, the authors quote Putin as advocating “pre-emptive strikes” to counter the United States and NATO and to preserve “strategic parity” and “asymmetrical balance” in the peripheral regions.

The authors say that after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Soviet military doctrine was based on five “Nos”: no to being the initiator of military operations; no to being the first to employ nuclear weapons; no to surprise attacks and pre-emptive strikes; and no to large-scale offensive operations. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, needing to compensate for the collapse of its conventional forces, Russia abandoned Gorbachev’s “no first-use” nuclear policy in favour of an “offence and defence strategy”

Vladimir Putin, who became president in 2000, is depicted as having “actively revived national power and military strength”. His policy was that the armed forces should be able to effectively contain any nuclear or conventional threats against the Russian Federation and its allies. The Academy of Military Sciences cites the two Chechen wars and Serbia as examples of Russia’s resilience and initiative: in the Chechen wars, Moscow ultimately prevailed after initial defeat, and in Serbia, Russia mounted the surprise occupation of an airfield in Kosovo in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO campaign that it had opposed. In 2002, Putin said that Russia might “use nuclear weapons to fight back against a large-scale conventional attack”. This statement obviously referred to a scenario in which Siberia was invaded, but the Chinese authors do not make this point explicit.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008-2012), Russia issued its National Security Strategy to 2020 (in 2009) and the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation (in 2010). The Chinese authors say those documents made it clear that Russia considered external threats to be greater than domestic threats, with the US and NATO remaining the primary strategic opponents. To resist aerospace attacks, sea and air blockades, and anti-missile operations, Russia considered that it was essential to be able to deploy joint operations by the navy, the air force, air defence units, and strategic missile forces. In order to facilitate these operations, Russia established four major military area commands – the west, south, central, and east – each with their own joint strategic headquarters. The authors do not endorse Russia’s justifications for the 2008 Georgian War (Russia said the war came as a result of Georgia’s killing of Russian military observers): instead, the Chinese writers describe the war as a Blitzkrieg attack carried out during the Beijing Olympic games aimed at countering US and NATO moves to reduce Russia’s strategic space. Meanwhile, in response to increased aerospace threats – from the US’s Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defence plan and Prompt Global Strike initiative – a new Russian “national aerospace defence concept” established a unified national aerospace defence system, integrating air and space defence.

In 2016, three years after the publication of the Academy of Military Science’s manual, Ma Jiang and Sun Jie also analysed “Russia’s geopolitical and military relations with major powers”. Unlike the Academy authors, Ma and Sun present Russia as a weak power that is challenged by NATO. They say that the West’s attitude to Russia has continued to be characterised by a Cold War mentality, which is why the European Union and NATO sought to expand eastward without trying to integrate Russia into their security architecture. This policy squeezed Russia’s strategic space at a moment when its armed forces were decreasing dramatically, which explains Moscow’s reactions in Georgia and Ukraine. The authors note that “earnings from oil, gas, and mineral exports constitute more than half of [Russian] federal government revenues”, making the country’s economy very sensitive to the world commodities market. Exacerbated by Western economic sanctions, the fall in resource prices has caused economic hardship that is now endangering Russian national security.

With regard to Russia’s military strength, Ma and Sun say that “Russia’s conventional armed forces’ combat capability does not meet the Russian Federation’s national security requirements and can only handle low-intensity conflicts, while Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal is lagging behind because of a lack of sufficient funding”. They agree that Putin has increased investment in and reform of the military – but even so, the US and Japan have gradually increased the asymmetry. Washington is building a sea- and land-based ABM system, from Spain to Romania, Poland, and Japan. And in spite of Russia’s efforts to modernise the Black Sea Fleet, the authors believe that its naval and air forces would be unable to prevail in a large-scale confrontation with Turkey.

On Syria, Bi Hongye disagrees somewhat with Ma and Sun’s analysis. All three agree that Russia’s willingness to send troops to Syria reflects an urge to defend the country’s only strategic asset in a Mediterranean region that is dominated by NATO, along with Russia’s only foreign naval base, which is conveniently located on the route to the Indian Ocean. But Bi downplays the US and NATO threat to Russia, in spite of the Alliance’s decision to reinforce its troops in Poland and the Baltic States. Instead, Bi sees the Islamic State (ISIS) as Russia’s real cause for concern: Bi believes the group could eventually provoke war and havoc in the Northern Caucasus and Volga regions, with a risk of much higher casualties for Russian forces than the risk from intervening in Syria. Furthermore, Damascus is one of Russia’s major trading partners, particularly in weapons and energy. Therefore, Moscow ought to support Damascus, just as Washington would support its partner, Israel. Unlike Ma and Sun, who emphasise Russia’s military weakness, Bi Hongye is impressed by the efficiency of Russia’s air and missile strikes in Syria.

China: Russia’s “natural ally” or a “strategic competitor”?

Liu Fei analyses Russia’s policy in the South China Sea and its influence on China’s maritime disputes. According to Liu, Russia’s policy is a pragmatic effort to strengthen cooperation with China so as to resist pressure from the US and NATO and oppose the US’s strategy of “re-balancing in the Pacific”. Liu notes that Russia’s core principles are “pragmatism with fewer resources to contribute in exchange for larger visibility, in order to secure sound and practical benefits”. Quoting Russian experts from the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Liu believes that China is a “natural ally” for Russia. He points to the joint statement of 2016 signed by the two countries which state that they should support each other “on issues concerning each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, and other core issues”. Liu notes that Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept has “also made it clear that a comprehensive strategy will continue to enhance cooperation with China on an equal footing and with mutual trust … for the maintenance of global peace and regional stability in general”. As a result, Russia has publicly expressed support for China in its maritime disputes, denouncing the US “as a major destabilising factor in the South China Sea”. China and Russia have since 2012 engaged in joint naval exercises, which Russia characterises as a joint maritime defensive action, carried out in in order to “safeguard world peace and stability”. Liu believes that Russia’s top priority is the development of relations with China. It wants to build bilateral military cooperation “to resist the threat from the ocean” – that is to say, from the US.

Nevertheless, Liu sees some limits to Russia’s Chinese policy: he admits that “for Russia, China is to a certain extent a strategic competitor”. In the South China Sea, Russia does not go as far as endorsing China’s claims, even as it aligns itself with China’s approach: “Russia hopes the parties concerned will exercise restraint and resolve their differences through negotiations”. In the East China Sea, Russia de facto recognises China’s “Air Defence Identification Zone”, but it abstains from any further involvement in the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.

Liu also notes that Russia is preparing to export more weapons to other countries in the region, including Vietnam and perhaps the Philippines, both of which are participants in the South China Sea disputes. The volume of Russia’s bilateral trade with Vietnam is over $3.5 billion, five times higher than it was ten years ago. Liu says that by arming Vietnam to counter China’s expanding power, Russia has created a stumbling block for China. The relationship between Vietnam and Russia has been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, to a certain extent renewing the old Soviet alliance that enabled Moscow to check and balance China’s rise. Given Russia’s strategic necessity of getting closer to China, Liu wonders whether the country will have to suspend its cooperation with Vietnam. But he points out that such a move would be very costly, both in terms of image and in terms of contracts worth several billion dollars. The Asia Pacific region accounts for 60 percent of Russian arms exports, and Liu says that Vietnam is one of the two largest importers of Russian arms, along with Venezuela.

Ma and Sun say that in the longer term, Russia will have to contend with the external threat represented by the US’s Prompt Global Strike and the external and internal threat of a Western-sponsored “colour revolution”, which could undermine its domestic political stability. And while Chinese commentators seem wary and even slightly envious of Russia’s ability to use its military forces to support its interests, they also point out that Russia may not have the economic means to support its assertive strategy.

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