On 8 April, the HASC explored Russia’s military development and its strategic implications. The second of two witnesses was the U.S. Joint Staff J5, Vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe. Here’s the public opening statement to his testimony [emphasis added].
“Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member Smith, and distinguished Committee Members, good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to update you on Russian military developments.”
“You just heard [from Mr. Chollet] a review of actions taken by the United States, the NATO Alliance, and the international community in response to Russia’s unlawful military intervention in Ukraine. Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a flagrant violation of international law, and it reintroduces into Europe the threat of external aggression. By doing so, Russia set back decades of international progress.”
“The United States military and the wider NATO Alliance have supported our response to this unwarranted intervention:”
“- We have given support to Ukraine by way of material assistance, defense consultations, and the offer of enhanced training.”
“- We are reassuring our NATO Allies, with whom we have Article V security guarantees, by sending additional air power to the Baltic States and Poland, increasing our surveillance over Poland and Romania, and sending naval ships into the Black Sea.”
“- And we are helping to impose costs on Russia by halting all bilateral military-to-military interaction. However, as noted by Mr. Chollet, we are keeping open channels for senior leader communications, to help deescalate the crisis.”
“I would now like to widen the focus of my remarks beyond Ukraine, to discuss the evolution of Russian conventional military power, thereby providing context to today’s events.”
“At the height of its military power, the Soviet Union was truly a global competitor. With millions of people under arms, vast numbers of tanks and planes, a global navy, and an extensive intelligence gathering infrastructure, the Soviet military machine posed a very real and dangerous threat.”
“Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, that arsenal fell into disrepair. Starved of funding and fragmented, Russian military capabilities rapidly decayed throughout the 1990s. From the start of his term in office in 2000, President Putin has made military modernization a top priority of the Russian government. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, a number of shortcomings were noted in its military performance. This led the Russian government to further increase investment in its military services.”
“Since 2008, those efforts have had some success. Russian military forces have been streamlined into smaller, more mobile units. Their overall readiness has improved and their most elite units are well trained and equipped. They now employ a more sophisticated approach to joint warfare.”
“Their military has implemented organizational change, creating regional commands within Russia. These coordinate and synchronize planning, joint service integration, force movement, intelligence support, and the tactical employment of units.”
“Finally, the Russian military adopted doctrinal change, placing greater emphasis on speed of movement, the use of Special Operations Forces, and information and cyber warfare. They instituted ‘snap exercises.’ These no-notice drills serve the dual purpose of sharpening military readiness while also inducing strategic uncertainty as to whether they will swiftly transition from training to offensive operations.”
“Today, Russia is a regional power that can project force into nearby states but has very limited global power projection capability. It has a military of uneven readiness. While some units are well trained, most are less so. It suffers from corruption and its logistical capabilities are limited. Aging equipment and infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and demographic and social problems will continue to hamper reform efforts.”
“The United States, in contrast, employs a military of global reach and engagement. The readiness of our rotationally deployed forces is high and we are working to address readiness shortfalls at home. And we operate within alliances; the strongest of which is NATO. Composed of 28 nations, NATO is the most successful military alliance in history. Should Russia undertake an armed attack against any NATO state, it will find that our commitment to collective defense is immediate and unwavering.”
“Russia’s military objectives are difficult to predict. But it is clear that Russia is sustaining a significant military force on Ukraine’s eastern border. This is deeply troubling to all states in the region and beyond, and we are watching Russian military movements very carefully.”
“I spoke with General Breedlove, the Commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, last Friday. He is formulating recommendations for presentation to the North Atlantic Council on April fifteenth. These recommendations will be aimed at further reassuring our NATO allies. As part of this effort, he will consider increasing military exercises, forward deploying additional military equipment and personnel, and increasing our naval, air, and ground presence. He will update members of Congress on those recommendations at the earliest opportunity.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this opportunity to address your Committee. I look forward to your questions.”
According to Defense News, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) asked Vice Admiral Pandolfe about reports from “senior U.S. commanders in Europe” that up to 80,000 Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine. Pandolfe demurred, saying he would answer in closed session.
Other than that, we don’t know much about what was said or asked.
Pandolfe’s opening statement is a pretty accurate, albeit brief, description of what’s happened with Russia’s military, its progress and limitations, in recent years.
But it’s a little off-the-mark. Regional power, not global reach, is the critical issue today. Ukraine is a prototypical regional crisis. The kind of regional crisis for which Moscow has tried to prepare its armed forces.
In contrast to what Pandolfe said, Russia’s military objectives are pretty easy to understand.
The ultimate Heartland of geopolitics, Russia sees itself hard-pressed by a Rimland alliance [NATO] expanding deeper into eastern Europe. Now Moscow feels it’s imperative to push back. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it is the object of contention.
Russia has marshaled an ominous, overweening force to influence the situation just over the border in Ukraine. Moscow can let events in Kharkhiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Slovyansk unfold, perhaps with some provocation by intelligence operatives, special forces, and agents of influence.
As Mark Galeotti concludes:
“The forces massed on the border (ranging from low-end estimates of 40,000 to 80,000 upwards), combined with dire warnings to Kyiv about the risk of ‘civil war’ if it uses force against the paramilitaries represent a formidable political cover, which is deterring the [Ukrainian] government from using the full means at its disposal. Moscow is a past master of fighting its battles with proxies, agents, allies and dupes. Whether or not there are many actual Russian soldiers and agents in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s role is clear and, if anything, increasing.”
So Ukraine is damned if it responds to Russian-orchestrated unrest in the east, and damned if it doesn’t.
And Russia still holds the high card because it can still intervene with more “little green men” — Russian Army forces without insignia. Or it may just want to keep Ukraine off-balance and unstable. But events on the ground sometimes create their own dynamic.
Unlike Russia, for America, Ukraine is neither close nor vital. Washington has already indicated it will not respond with military force, but only with support to its frontline NATO allies, and with MREs, consultations, and training for Kyiv. The Kremlin’s one fear might be that, under certain circumstances, the unpredictable Americans could change their minds about what’s at stake in Ukraine.
Paul Goble captured commentator Georgiy Mirskiy’s insights last week, noting [emphasis added]:
“Neither [Russian President Vladimir] Putin nor [U.S. President Barack] Obama wants to go into history as the politician who ‘lost’ Ukraine, although [that country] does not belong to either the one or the other.”
“What is going on in Donetsk and Kharkhiv, [Mirskiy] continues, is ‘a Maidan in reverse,’ backed by a powerful neighboring state that is interested in destroying Ukraine. Local support for these ‘people’s republics’ is not that great, but the Ukrainian authorities are ‘afraid’ to use force lest they ‘provoke the introduction of Russian forces’ as Putin has promised to do.”
“Given this fear, it may also be the case that ‘perhaps in the depth of their souls,’ some in Kyiv may ‘prefer to lose several unstable and hostile eastern oblasts’ in order to ‘keep firm control over a ‘mini-Ukraine,’ including Kyiv, Lviv, and so on.’”
“If that is so, then a repeat of the Crimean scenario is possible, although in any referendum there, support for joining Russia will be 60 percent at most and not 97 percent as it was on the peninsula, [Mirskiy] suggests. Because Moscow won’t have introduced troops, ‘the West will again swallow everything.’ After all, ‘what is left for it to do?’”
In the strategic and ultimately cynical sense, maybe it wouldn’t be bad to watch while the Russian snake tries to swallow something it probably cannot digest. This comes from the “worse is better” school of thought.
Trying to absorb Crimea and eastern Ukraine might worsen Russia’s domestic political and economic circumstances. It will certainly refocus NATO on reinforcing Article V security guarantees (against Russia). Thus, the Kremlin will have succeeded in creating the threat to which it has constantly pointed. It will isolate Russia further, and possibly even hasten the end of the Putin era. Some foundering future Russian government may even one day have to relinquish occupied territories to Ukraine as a condition for international acceptance and assistance.