Book review: Near Abroad — Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus

Gerard Toal has written an insightful book about the geopolitics of the former Soviet Union. Through case studies of South Ossetia and Ukraine, Toal unfolds the complexities of the geopolitical field and exposes prejudices on all sides.

Title: Near Abroad — Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus
Author: Gerard Toal
Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-0190253301

Near abroad cover

Gerard Toal has written an insightful book about the geopolitics of the former Soviet Union. Through case studies of South Ossetia and Ukraine, Toal unfolds the complexities of the geopolitical field and exposes prejudices on all sides.

Professor Gerard Toal is one of the prominent proponents of critical geopolitics. Through his career, he has contributed extensively to the development of this theoretical framework which places itself in opposition to more traditional schools of international relations theory like realism and liberalism.

His latest book, Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus, is not a book about the theoretical framework. Toal’s intention is to contribute to a scholarly understanding of the unfolding conflicts between Russia, its neighbors, and the West. He does this by examining the conflicts in South Ossetia and Ukraine which erupted into wars in 2008 and 2014 respectively.

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Poland extends service life of Perry-class frigates until 2024

Poland has extended the service life of its two Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates until 2024. That reports Janes.

The prolonged service time has required some additional maintenance work and upgrades of subsystems. ORP General Kazimierz Pulaski has already completed these works during a scheduled docking. This includes the installation of Link 16 and an upgrade to the command system to allow automatic detection and tracking of aerial and surface targets. The 76 mm. gun (Mark 75) has been replaced with a refurbished analogue. Fire control systems, radar, and generators have been updated, and the Mk 13 missile launchers have been upgraded to mod 4 block 6 standards. The SM-1 air defense missiles have been upgraded, and the ship has received more modern electronic warfare equipment and air defense systems.

There is also equipment which is not upgraded, and in order to ensure the prolonged service life of the ships, the use of some systems like the Phalanx 20 mm close-in weapon system has been restricted.

The other frigate, ORP Tadeusz Kosciuszko is expected to receive the upgrades in the second half of 2018.

These upgrades give a substantial lift to Poland’s frigates. However, it is not cutting edge technology, and 2024 is not far away in the grand scheme of things. So Poland will still have to think about possibilities for a renewed frigate capability.

Putin is popular, but his voters don’t necessarily agree on much

There is little excitement about the result of today’s presidential election in Russia, but that does not mean that there is nothing exciting about it. Sam Greene has a sharp analysis on his blog, Moscow-on-Thames:

Vladimir Putin will win today’s elections because he is genuinely popular. We should be clear about that. But we should also be clear about what exactly that popularity means.

The typical political-science view of political behavior holds that preferences – whether expressed at the ballot box or to pollsters – are formed by citizens acting as rational, utility-maximizing individuals. Without wanting to knock the importance of rationality, if there is anything that the events of recent years around the world, from the Euromaidan to Brexit to Trump, should have taught us, it is that politics is fundamentally a social phenomenon. People intuitively and continually read their social surroundings, looking for cues that would convey meaning, solidarity and a sense of inclusion. Nobody votes in a vacuum. …Continue reading

Sailor fell overboard from Russian corvette in Baltic Sea

On Tuesday 13 March a crew member fell overboard from the Russian corvette Soobrazitelny in the Baltic Sea. Eight ships took part in the search-and-rescue operation, but the sailor was not found. That reports

Soobrazitelny. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense

The incident occurred just after midnight, and at 21:00 the search was canceled. With the present water temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius a person without a survival suit will not be able to survive for more than a few hours.

Soobrazitelny is a Steregushchiy-class corvette based in Kaliningrad.

Podcast recommendation: WOTR – A big debate about a little nuke

There is a great discussion about Russia and nuclear weapons in this episode of the War on the Rocks podcast.

The panel is terrific. Olga Oliker is brilliant, Frank Miller is wrong about most things concerning Russia but argues his case very well, and Vipin Narang has deep technical insights. Ryan and Usha do a fantastic job of moderating the discussion between the guests who clearly represent very different views.

The discussion follows up on the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review which has some controversial assumptions about Russia’s nuclear doctrine and on Putin’s announcement of a new suite of nuclear weapons.

If the nuclear discussion interests you at all (and it should), this is a must-hear.

Russia’s new nuclear weapons are about missile defense

Vladimir Putin spent a surprising amount of time in his March 1st speech talking about nuclear weapons. Pavel K. Baev has some interesting considerations in Brookings about the possible motivations for this:

Russia’s economic weakness is so profound that Russia cannot possibly engage in anything resembling a real arms race with the United States and NATO. Putin’s enthusiastic rollout of Russia’s missile program scored many good points domestically but produced a mixed impression among his key international audiences. It doesn’t take a shrewd strategic mind to conclude that Russia can only proceed with these entirely unnecessary weapon programs at the expense of addressing its more pressing economic needs and acute security challenges, including Syria. Putin’s posturing cannot meet many strict reality checks, but it is nevertheless, dangerous because it damages the norm of owning nuclear weapons responsibly.

In essence, Baev focuses on Putin’s need to legitimize the new 2027 state armament program, a desire to divert attention from recent poor performance in Syria, and a general inclination to ‘restoring greatness’.

I will add that Russia is truly concerned about the development of a ballistic missile defense in the West. It is debatable whether this concern is rational, but that has little to do with the affective reactions to it in Russia. The weapons that Putin announced are mostly intended to maintain a strategic nuclear deterrent in an age of missile defense: A missile with unlimited range to circumvent missile defense stations, supersonic missiles that are impossible to intercept, and a nuclear bomb installed in a torpedo.

So even though Putin talked a lot about nuclear weapons in his speech, there is nothing new when it comes to the Russian doctrine for actually using nuclear weapons. The idea from the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review that Russia develops non-strategic nuclear weapons for an escalate-to-deescalate strategy is still a fantasy. Russia’s nuclear development program is focused on strategic missiles, and in the non-strategic realm the goal is to develop more powerful conventional alternatives so they don’t have to use nuclear weapons.

Predator retired

Joe Chapa in War on the Rocks:

Today, the U.S. Air Force “sunsets” the Predator, permanently retiring it from service. Though individual squadrons have been transitioning from the Predator to the Reaper for some time, that transition is now complete. This provides a good opportunity to look back at the Predator to learn what we can of its impact on contemporary war and on future combat.

Few weapons have changed warfare the way the Predator drone has.

Comparison between U.S. and U.K. naval officer training

There is an interesting comparison of U.S. Navy and Royal Navy Officer Training in the March edition of Proceedings. Dr. Anthony Wells has experience from both navies and insights into their training programs.

In short, Wells is not impressed by the U.S. seamanship education. He suggests the U.S. Navy can learn a lot from their British counterparts.

I wholeheartedly agree. My critical review of U.S. warship collisions was far from flattering for the U.S. Navy. It can only be described as irresponsible to have people in charge of large ships without proper education in seamanship and navigation.

My own anecdotal experience with the Royal Navy and the seamanship of British officers is that they are very competent.

The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ doesn’t exist

In the West it is widely believed that Russia follows a specific military doctrine that the current chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov has invented. This alleged Gerasimov Doctrine prescribes a kind of hybrid warfare to undermine the societal structures of the adversary through means of disinformation, deception, subversion, intelligent use of limited force, political war, targeted attacks on democratic institutions, and opening existing fault lines.

In 2013 Gerasimov himself discussed these aspects of warfare in a speech at the military academy, which was reprinted in Military-Industrial Courier. This led Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian defense, to use the term ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’ on his blog, and that proved to be a powerful and sticky idea.

But now Galeotti wants us to stop using the term. In a piece named I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ in Foreign Policy, Galeotti writes:

“A blog is as much as anything else a vanity site; obviously I want people to read it. So for a snappy title, I coined the term “Gerasimov doctrine,” though even then I noted in the text that this term was nothing more than “a placeholder,” and “it certainly isn’t a doctrine.” I didn’t think people would genuinely believe either that he came up with it (Gerasimov is a tough and effective chief of the general staff, but no theoretician), less yet than it was a “programmatic” blueprint for war on the West.”

There are several problems with the idea of a Gerasimov Doctrine. Most notably, Gerasimov clearly does not outline a doctrine for the Russian military in his speech. He makes some observations about modern warfare in the wake of the Arab Spring which from a Russian perspective is considered a successful example of Western hybrid warfare with the purpose of creating regime change. Then he calls upon the academic society to develop theories on the new kind of warfare. If anything, Gerasimov’s speech is a view into the Russian understanding of Western doctrine.

It is true that Gerasimov identified some military and non-military means that characterize modern warfare, and that Russia utilized some of these means in 2014 in Ukraine. But really, the content in Gerasimov’s speech is rudimentary. Many people before Gerasimov have pointed to the same factors in warfare. It would have been strange if Russia had not taken notice of things like information warfare, drone technology, or high-precision munitions, which are some of the characteristics of modern warfare that Gerasimov identifies in his speech.

‘The Gerasimov Doctrine’ as a term has perhaps been useful as a thought experiment about the nature of Russian military strategy. It has helped draw attention to some of the more subversive aspects of Russian information warfare. But it is not in fact a doctrine, and it was not developed by Gerasimov. And it is probably time to leave the term behind because it gives the wrong impression that deception and social engineering is all that Russian military thinking is about.

Kofman’s look at Putin’s new weapon announcements (updated)

Last week, Vladimir Putin held a speech in which he announced some spectacular new weapons including supersonic missiles and an intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear propulsion to give it unlimited range.

Few people are as qualified to comment on the weapon announcements as Michael Kofman. He has just released part 1 in a two-part series about his reflections.

Overall, Kofman’s attitude is that Russia has the capability to develop these weapons, so Putin’s words should be taken seriously:

Mainstream media coverage, and expert opinions have been rather dismissive, and should be taken as cold comfort. Observers are right to say that these technologies will take considerable time to test and deploy, but what many don’t know, because investment in Russian military analysis took a vacation 1992-2014, is actually when testing and development for these weapons began. Since the narrative of a sanctioned, economically weak and decaying Russia tends to prevail, it creates blinders on the issue of military technology. Yes, they can do this, and much of this may become reality in the 2020s. Recall awhile ago when Russian MoD leaked a slide on Status-6 many thought it was a PR stunt, and some kind of joke, until it showed up in the NPR as something less than funny.

In part 1 Kofman looks at:

Kinzhal: An aeroballistic version of the Iskander missile launched from the MiG-31 airplane. It has some remarkable specs. A range of up to 2000 kilometers, a speed of up to mach 10, capable of high-G maneuvers in the terminal phase, and with the option of both conventional and nuclear warheads.

R-28 Sarmat: A liquid fueled heavy intercontinental ballistic missile capable of deploying multiple warheads and penetration aids. It will replace the R-36M2 Voyevoda (SS-18).

Avangard and/or 4202 hypersonic boost glide weapon: A concept involving an ICBM to boost a weapon to a very high altitude from where it glides toward its target and reaches amazing speed (like mach 20).

Kofman has saved the most spectacular of Putin’s announcements to part 2 in his series.

Update on 2018-03-08:
Part two of Kofman’s series is out. In this he looks at:

9M730: An intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear propulsion. This gives the missile practically unlimited range, but it is also an inherently dirty design which spreads radiation during flight. Russia has launched an online contest to come up with a good name for the missile.

Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System: A nuclear powered torpedo with a nuclear warhead. This is intended as a threat toward coastal cities in the United States. It will be difficult to build countermeasures against this weapon which for obvious reasons is immune to a missile defense system. It is not a very practical weapon, however, because it will take days to reach its destination. This makes it impossible to control escalation once the weapon is launched. The weapon must be characterized as a revenge weapon which can be used when the war in general is already lost.

Klavesin-2R-PM Unmanned Undersea Vehicle: An underwater drone system which is an evolution of the 1R variant.

Some laser weapon: A rather mysterious laser cannon thing with an unclear purpose.