Facing an Arc of Crisis
No. 1 2016 January/March
Andrew Monaghan

А senior research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, and a visiting fellow at the Changing Character of War Program at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Russia Prepares to Mobilize?

In NATO and some Western capitals, there are those who point to Russian aggression, neo-imperialism and even militarization, thanks to the sharp increase in Russian defense spending. Russia is seen to be part of an arc of crisis around the alliance, “tearing up the international rule book” and threatening Euro-Atlantic security. Seen from Moscow, however, the picture appears rather different. Indeed, official Russian documents and speeches also point to a wider international environment that is seen to be increasingly unstable, even threatening; indeed it can be said that Russia also faces an “arc of crisis” around it.

Moreover, rather than showing confidence in a system that works, it appears that the Russian leadership is attempting to execute emergency measures anticipating that Russia would not cope with sudden external and internal challenges—in effect, understanding that if war is a test of society, it is one for which Russia is not ready. Observers and officials alike have referred to these emergency measures in terms of “mobilization”—mobilizing society and economy, and reshaping and refitting the military. Building on the depiction of “militant Russia,” a state that acts in defense of its own interests and goals, aiming at independent statehood while strengthening a sense of patriotism and socio-economic security, this article examines this sense of mobilization, first by exploring this Russian arc of crisis and the contours of international instability, before turning to reflect on the emergency measures being implemented by the leadership.

View from Moscow: Contours of International Instability

There is much debate in Russia about the emergence of a “Cold War 2.0” and a new confrontation between Russia and the West. But at the same time, there is also much discussion on the possibility of wider instability leading to an outbreak of a major war. Izborsky Club authors, for instance, posit four scenarios, three of which are depicted as either negative or very negative (“very bloody”), and only one more positive scenario with a way out of the crisis with “much less blood spilt.”

Other observers have also pointed to a dramatic deterioration in the international environment in the last eighteen months. Ruslan Pukhov, a defense analyst and director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, for instance, notes that four years ago, Russian concerns were about potential Islamic insurgency in the south, or a re-ignition of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, or even a second war with Georgia—while at the same time being cautious about China. Now, he argues, there is also concern about potential conflict in the Arctic, and an already open conflict on Russia’s western borders, which has led to hostile relations with NATO. Thus there are threats all around Russia’s borders, and it is not surprising that the Chief of the General Staff “should be having nightmares” in trying to prepare defense in this situation.

Official documents and statements suggest that such concerns are shared by the leadership, indeed that they reflect longer-term perceptions that predate the war in Ukraine. While the recent Military Doctrine, published in December 2014, suggests that the prospect of a major war involving Russia is small, it notes that more broadly the security environment has deteriorated and points to NATO as a powerful competitor and as the source of most military risks and threats. The National Security Strategy to 2020, published in 2009 (and currently under revision) depicts an enduring series of concerns that relate to increasing competition not only over values but also energy resources, which may lead to the use of military force. This has been reiterated by senior Russian military officials: Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov suggested in 2013, for instance, that Russia may become drawn into military conflicts as powers vie for resources, many of which are in Russia or in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. By 2030, he suggested, the levels of existing and potential threats will considerably increase, as powers struggle for fuel and energy resources.

Speaking in 2014, President Putin pointed to a range of more immediate potential threats. He stated that “new hotspots” were appearing across the world, and that there is a “deficit of security in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Asia Pacific region, and Africa,” combined with an increasing intensity of conflict and competition, military and economic, political and information, throughout the world. He stated that “changes in the world order, and what we’re seeing today are events on this scale, have usually been accompanied if not by global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive low-level conflicts,” and “today we see a sharp increase in the likelihood of a whole set of violent conflicts with either direct or indirect participation by the world’s major powers.”

There appears to be a sense, shared by observers and officials alike, therefore, of a compound of international instability that poses an immediate threat to Russia and its interests and the looming prospect of possible strikes on Russia over the longer term, as the international environment is increasingly shaken by competition, conflict and, perhaps, war. These would be traditional multinational conflicts for regional dominance, and internal conflicts that endanger state stability, particularly when states are located at the intersections of geopolitical interests. In these latter conflicts, internal instability poses dual problems: the actual fighting, and because terrorism and criminality thrive in the consequent loss of law and order.

This instability is particularly dangerous because of the wider international context. First, in Moscow’s view there are important shifts in global power, and while the West’s (and particularly Anglo-Saxon) influence is seen to be in decline, other power centers in the world are rising and vying for resources—in other words, a multipolar world is by its nature more competitive. Second, at this time of increased competition, Moscow sees an arms race underway as the major powers are investing in modernizing their armed forces. Third, this is all taking place when the traditional strategic balance of power no longer works, and arms control agreements are ineffective.

At the same time, there are oft-stated and well-known concerns about the destabilizing role of the West, particularly the United States, both in international affairs more broadly, and also more directly regarding Russia. Notably, some depict the growing encirclement of Russia, emphasized by NATO expansion and by U.S. deployments around the world: the West is causing an imbalance in Euro-Atlantic security through the expansion of exclusive organizations such as NATO (and the EU), a process that creates divisions in European security while failing to resolve old problems, and also brings NATO closer to Russia’s borders. At the same time, Western powers, and the U.S. in particular, are seen to intervene in the internal affairs of states, exacerbating instability by engendering “color revolutions” in states that resist U.S. hegemony and indiscriminately supplying weapons to rebel groups. This sense of U.S. intervention has its roots in the Kosovo campaign in 1999 and war in Former Yugoslavia. Most notably, though, Moscow points to the disruption of regional stability caused by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the “color revolutions,” especially the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, the so-called “Arab Springs,” the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, and Western support for rebels in Syria.

Thus in the summer of 2015 the Russian Security Council summed up Moscow’s view of the threats that the U.S. and its allies pose to Russia in its reply to the U.S. National Military Strategy. Stating the attempt by the U.S. to establish wider global dominance and push for the political and economic isolation of Russia, it noted both the important role of military strength in the protection of U.S. interests and also the ongoing likelihood of the U.S. continuing to use “color revolutions” against states that oppose it.

Indeed, the Russian leadership has often pointed to the threat posed by “color revolutions.” In December 2012, the head of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, expressed concern about regime change through color revolutions. “Events are in motion in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Ukraine, we are dealing with it every day. Are they a danger for us? Yes,” he suggested. Similarly, the revised Foreign Policy Concept, published in 2013 and in the context of the so-called Arab Spring, pointed to the “illegal use” of soft power and human rights concepts to put pressure on sovereign states, intervene in their internal affairs and destabilize them by manipulating public opinion. Subsequently, Putin himself pointed to the lessons that should be learnt from “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space, and stated that all appropriate measures should be implemented to prevent one from taking place in Russia.

In many ways therefore, as seen from Moscow, the war in Ukraine is just part of a wider arc of crisis, one that has been evolving for some time, even since the late 1990s, but at the same time, it has served to confirm and accelerate concerns about wider negative international trends. While Western observers and officials might suggest that Moscow overlooks its own role in international instability, three important points stand out.

First, concerns about international instability are justified. Tensions and conflicts abound, from the civil war in Libya to the conflict in Yemen, from the uneasy ceasefire in Ukraine to instability in Afghanistan and tensions in the South China Sea and between North and South Koreas. These form a series of concentric circles around Russia’s borders while having the potential to be imported into Russia (such as those Russians who have fought in Iraq and Syria returning to Russia). Because Russia is a ubiquitous state that stretches across many regions, it is unlikely to be able to avoid the ramifications of one of these erupting into a major war, possibly being drawn into it.

Second, the nature and range of possible conflicts and wars have evolved substantially, and Moscow sees the need to meet a variety of potential challenges, from major war between states, to an outbreak of low-level conflict near Russia, to the possibility of unrest within Russia. Gerasimov has noted that the modernization of Russia’s strategic deterrent and the possession of state-of-the-art weaponry are a priority. Nevertheless, he also suggested that combat was evolving away from “traditional battlegrounds” such as land and sea, “towards aerospace and information,” and the roles of non-state international organizations and non-military instruments were increasing. Thus he emphasized the emergence of information wars, secret operations, as illustrated by developments in Syria, Ukraine and the activities of Greenpeace in the Arctic, and the “protest potential of the population.”

Third, the Russian leadership recognizes that Russia is not ready to meet these challenges. The economy is stagnating, the vertical of power does not work effectively, such that the plans, instructions and reforms of the leadership are not effectively implemented, and responses even to crises and security threats can be slow and incomplete. Furthermore, the military have endured many years of very limited investment and incomplete reforms.

Organizing for Mobilization

As a result of the combination of this “arc of crisis” and lack of readiness, there are increasing indications that Russia appears to be implementing emergency measures, in effect moving towards mobilization. For some, the exploitation of a “besieged fortress” or “foreign threat” narrative to mobilize popular opinion to maintain longer-term support for Putin in view of presidential elections scheduled for 2018 has turned into a matter of “patriotic mobilization.”

There are also economic and financial aspects to this mobilization. Thus Vedomosti reported in September 2014 that the Ministry of Finance had prepared a “mobilization” budget for 2015-2017, drafted in view of falling oil prices and budget shortfalls. There also appears to be an emphasis on maintaining the prioritization of defense expenditure and investment in the military-industrial complex, even to the extent that it becomes an engine for the economy.

At the same time, there are measures being conducted by the leadership to strengthen and consolidate the political system and ensure that the 2012 May Presidential Decrees are implemented. Striving to implement fully these Decrees the leadership has sought to improve direct and indirect manual control. Micro-management has been reflected in Putin chairing a regular series of expanded government meetings to monitor implementation. At the same time, the leadership has conducted an ongoing rotation of personnel to provide a better functioning and alignment of power. In strategically important regions, there is now an alignment of presidential plenipotentiaries, ministers and regional governors.

Additionally, the leadership has established a number of “para-institutional” bodies such as the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF) to create a direct link between the authorities and society. Established in May 2011 as a civil volunteer organization, the ONF appears to have gained strength and its role has significantly evolved. It enjoys the direct support of Putin, is directed from the Kremlin, and now stretches across the country with members occupying important roles. The ONF’s remit has broadened considerably. It contributes to the formulation of plans and monitors their implementation, and is conducting an anti-corruption campaign with oversight of municipal and state property divestment. It has also played a noteworthy role in the “patriotic mobilization” since 2014, for instance organizing the “We’re Together” demonstrations.

There are also preparatory measures being implemented in the military and security spheres. Security and defense expenditures have been significantly increased since 2011, and targets set in the May Decrees indicate the scale of investment that is necessary. The spending program envisaged, for instance, that 70 percent of military equipment should be modern by 2020, with an extensive and ambitious “shopping list,” as well as provision for the improvement of conditions of military service and the modernization of the defense industry. Despite problems caused by sanctions, economic stagnation, corruption and limited capacity in the defense industry, at the end of 2014 official statements suggested that 30 percent of the armed forces inventory had been modernized. 

The Russian leadership has also sought to test and improve the system through an extensive series of reforms and exercises. On the one hand, measures to prepare the Interior Ministry to deal with internal threats have been implemented, including large-scale exercises. In April 2015, a strategic level exercise (Zaslon-2015) of police, Interior Ministry troops, and other paramilitary forces was conducted in six federal districts to prepare in case of a deterioration of the situation in Russian regions and to cope with new threats to Russian internal security. This included joint operations with the police to seal the borders and ensure law and order, participation in territorial defense, counterterrorism and the protection of strategic sites. A particular focus was on addressing civil disobedience and an attempted “color revolution.” Indeed, according to the Ministry of the Interior, the exercises were “based on events that took place in the recent past in a neighboring country,” and included “all the attributes of those events.” Notably, the exercises took place shortly after major military exercises which had simulated an escalation of the Ukrainian situation into a wider European and then global nuclear war.

Mobilization measures are most visible in the military and security spheres, with the focus on coordination, monitoring and control. According to Gerasimov, for instance, in January 2014 the Russian General Staff received additional powers for the coordination of federal bodies and, “just in case,” a range of measures have been developed to “prepare the country for the transition to conditions of war.” A new National Defense Center has also been built. Opened in December 2014, the Center is meant to monitor threats to national security in peacetime, but would assume control of the country in case of war. Designed to control in real time Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces, the Center also monitors Russian military assets, including arms procurement and communications. Lt. Gen. Mizintsev, who heads the Center, stated that the closest analogy to the Center in recent times was the Commander-in-Chief Headquarters during the Second World War, which “centralized all controls of the military machine and the economy of the nation in the interests of the war.” The military have also been put through numerous no-notice exercises, from the tactical to strategic levels, to test readiness and responsiveness and coordination between the military and federal and regional authorities.

From Principles to Practice: Mobilizing Russia

Combining demands for patriotic service with economic and military security to assert international independence, the idea of “militant Russia” suggests a nation conscious of its own interests and goals and describes well what the Russian leadership has sought to implement over the last decade.

At the same time, it appears that the perception of an arc of crisis surrounding Russia is driving the country to rehearse mobilization in case of war. In a number of ways, “mobilizing Russia” keeps many of the same features as “militant Russia,” in that it portrays a state that is seeking to consolidate itself and enhance resilience in preparation to defend its interests. But this occurs now in an increasingly threatening international environment. It suggests the execution of emergency measures to meet the range of threats and concerns, an attempt to make the system more effective, self-sufficient and more resistant to external and internal shocks. This is not a traditional form of mobilization—that of a “nation in arms,” which is no longer politically sustainable—but represents more a “nation armed” to face the problems of the 21st century.