Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that should Russian-US and Russian-NATO negotiations fail to address Moscow’s concerns, Russia would undertake a ‘military-technical’ response to what it perceives as the growing threat to stability in Ukraine and along its border and its ally Belarus’s border with NATO. Leaving aside the difficulty of getting inside Putin’s head, it is extremely difficult to understand what Putin has in mind by this term. One can guess that it means a non-kinetic, that is non-combat military response of putting military pieces in a more forward position. There also are less traditionally, more hybrid warfare responses available as well as political options. What are some of the possible options that the Russian General Staff, Defense Ministry, and Security Council are likely to propose?
The obvious political options are breaking off all relations with Ukraine, Washington, NATO, particularly anti-Russian NATO member-states such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In addition, Putin might follow his course in South Ossetiya and Abkhazia and recognize the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) as independent states, something Moscow refused to do in 2014 at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. On the other hand, he might be better off merely threatening such a step, as he should have done with regard to Crimea after the Western-backed insurrection in Kiev. Some of Putin’s military-technical responses would follow from this.
One military-technical option would be to establish a large permanent Western Military District base close to Ukraine’s border with or inside the DNR/LNR or place the base near but only some contingent of troops inside the the Donbass state(s). In conjunction with this, Moscow would likely increase significantly the size of its Black Sea Fleet. One retired Russian officer has recommended doubling the size of the fleet givien rising tensions in the region and the fleet’s responsibilities covering not just the Black and Azov Seas but parts of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well. This would also be a response to increased U.S. and NATO naval activity in the Black Sea and to Turkey, which has stepped up military assistance to Kiev, and has a naval fleet much larger than Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Another military-technical measure would be to send a large military contingent (10-30,000 troops) and drastically increase military assistance to Belarus north of Ukrane and perhaps even increase the forces of the 14th army in Transdnietr, southwest of Ukraine. Moscow might even deploy short- to intermediate range nuclear missiles under Russian army control. Announcement that some target Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, in particular Lvov and western Ukraine. Similar measures to any or all of those above could be taken with regard to Russia’s some 12,000 forces in its Kalaningrad Oblast’ exclave, between Germany and the Baltic states and strengthen the Baltic Sea Fleet. This would have three logical purposes: demonstrate strength and inflict a price in the face of Western intransigence, reinforce the exposed exclave, and buttress the defense of Belarus.
All or some of the above steps can be threatened in order to pressure Kiev to negotiate directly with the DNR and LNR leaderships, as the Minsk 2 accords require and/or to pressure the West to be more forthcoming in the strategic stability talks. Other, more hybrid options include mounting major cyber-attacks on Kiev, Washington, Brussels, and so on, targeting entities that are involved in NATO-tied military and intelligence activities.
One extra-regional or non-local response could be the stationing of troops, weapons, and naval assets — even a naval base — in Cuba, Venezuela, and/or Ecuador. This will demonstrate that if the U.S. can place its and its allies forces on Russia’s borders, so too can Russia place its forces near U.S. ‘borders’. The Monroe Doctrine will be demonstrated to be ’19th century thinking’ focused on establishing a sphere of influence of the kind Russia is denied to have a right to, according to American and Western ostensibly 21st century thinking. Of course, there is no right to a sphere of influence, without the power to establish that right. This the power play and security dilemma we now see Russia and the West confronted with by NATO expansion to Russia’s borders–the inevitable outcome of the decision taken a quarter of a century ago by Democrat U.S. President Bill Clinton to expand NATO to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Russia’s centuries-long nemesis Poland.
Any of these forward-leaning measures will be characterized as Russian threats, preparations for invasion and the like. What they will actually constitute is signaling that Moscow will counter every NATO military-technical measure with one or more of its own. In response NATO will increase military assistance to Kiev. The security dilemma thus ratchets up, as NATO insists on expanding itself as an institution and as a military force, as it has been in positioning Ukraine as a temporarily non-member increasingly equipped more as a member of NATO.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.