Meanwhile, Over at the Massive Russian Military Buildup... (22)

In September, a head of state straddled a bird, as the artist saw Putin's flight. It seemed like a silly PR stunt, but the true meaning may have been more sinister. Detail from "Rodeo Putin" by Toon Vugts
Kristopher Rikken
9/25/2013 8:22 AM
Category: Features

With Zapad 2013, Russia's answer to NATO's Steadfast Jazz military exercise, continuing in parts east, ERR News profiles a piece that originally ran on February 13.  

One year ago, Russia unveiled a new doctrine: then presidential candidate Vladimir Putin openly avowed an intention to radically expand and upgrade the Russian military. As of February 2013, the country continues to pursue the biggest military buildup in years in its western military district, which is flush up against Baltic borders and already easily the country's most powerful in conventional military terms.

These developments mark the culmination of a process going back to 2009, a crucial period in the year after the Russia-Georgia war. While the US pursued a "reset" in relations, Russia made changes in its laws on protecting its diaspora, and generals once known for eccentric pronouncements (General Nikolai Makarov's comment about Finland from last summer being a good recent example) moved into the inner circle of the Putin administration, where their language is increasingly indistinguishable from the official line, say experts. 

Daily life in this part of the EU remains the same, of course, with relations on the external border said to be improving and the main concerns being issues like visa freedom, not the first batch of Iskander missiles that Russia installed in 2011. But government circles in Estonia have taken notice of the movements, such as Russia's improving capabilities for operations in places with developed road infrastructure, such as the Baltics. And there's the big geopolitical fact that Russia chooses to contain much bigger and more militaristic China using traditional nuclear deterrents while arming itself to the hilt against a bloc of democratic nation-states.

It's unclear how much NATO's own actions are driving the escalation, but only one side (Russia) has mentioned a "pre-war state," which has drawn a response. You can't miss the stories in the Estonian media about 10-year defense plans being revised, the emphasis on terms like "total defense" and "primary response" - both of these related to the crucial two days before NATO ground forces can arrive - and plans to increase the number of rapid response Defense Forces personnel to 21,000 and the number of reservists to 90,000 by 2022. The Ministry of Defense has ramped up its public relations efforts, sending out press releases about base renovations and such, all of which presumably is meant to have an added deterrent effect - it's not hard to imagine scenes from the Winter War and a deadly efficient, mobile and responsive Estonian army patrolling the forests and fields.

With a bit of a lag time, even the Latvians, who have been considered much more passive on national defense, are sitting up. reported last week on concerns in their defense ministry over an increase in Russian air force activity. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, in delivering a national defense report to the country's parliament last week, said, no doubt speaking for many in the region: "We've noticed that in the last year, Russian military activity has increased in the Baltic Sea region - both at sea and from the air. It is important that the objectives of Russia's higher military power be transparent."

Gliding in for a landing

As candid as Putin's programmatic articles are, there may be more to transparency than a straight reading of speeches.

Vladimir Juškin of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies in Estonia is probably the local researcher who has shed the most light on -  and through - what Estonia's big, not-technically-an-enemy but gruff bear of a neighbor really wants.

If there's one unit in the Russian military that you should be aware of, according to Juškin it's the VDV - the Airborne Troops - which has proud traditions. At its head is Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov. Since Shamanov was appointed in 2009, a long-running theme in the Kremlin was Shamanov vs Serdyukov - the former pushing for restoring the VDV to its Soviet glory days while Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov argued for cutbacks.

Serdyukov resigned in November. In an interview with ERR News, Juškin relates the reaction, quoting a retired colonel: "On the floors and in the offices of the Ministry of Defense, the news of the resignation Serdyukov was accepted just as our fathers at the time accepted the news of the victory over Nazi Germany."

Remember Putin's flight of the cranes a bit earlier that year? It was widely lampooned as yet another macho feat by Putin, and took on a life of its own on Facebook. But it wasn't about taming the wild, says Juškin - it was really signals about military funding.

"When Vladimir Putin flew a motorized ultralight glider ahead of a small flock of cranes, it was called a presidential PR stunt," he says. "But for more insight, one should presumably refer to an interview given by Gen. Shamanov on February 24, 2012 where he complained that the VDV had a major shortage of motorized ultralights. I am sure the situation will now change."

Gliders are a focus of Russian military innovation. 

In 2010, at a tactical exercise, a massive landing of spetsnaz units on controllable parachutes was staged. The units succeeded in traveling about 20-30 km after jumping out of the aircraft.

"Shamanov was not very happy - Israeli special forces can travel a distance of 40 km under similar conditions," says Juškin.

"It is 35 kilometers from Pskov to the Estonian border," Juškin adds. 

Preparing for 'war with the West'

For a year now, the main theme in the Russian military doctrine has been a "prewar situation."

"It took just three years for the 'prewar state' meme to make it from a retired colonel’s interview to a speech delivered by the President to the Federal Assembly. There is a huge distance separating a retired colonel [Pavel Popovskikh] and the president of the country. But the mentality of two professional Soviet officers, if it is different at all, is only 25 millimeters," quips Juškin, referring to the distance between the little stars on the uniforms of high-ranking officers.

In a piece written for the magazine Maailma Vaade late last year, Juškin identified the key events in the development of the "prewar" theme during the 2009-2012 period. The following are excerpts:

May 2009 - the "prewar meme" is first articulated by Pavel Popovskikh, a head of intelligence for the VDV in the 1990s: "The situation is a prewar state. The NATO bloc is on Russia’s borders in the Baltics, Poland and the Czech Republic and has only become stronger in the last few decades. They are making active preparations for war with Russia. [...] The war, for which the army must be prepared, will start with special operations by special forces, and it is not ruled out that such operations will become its main activities.”

27 May 2009 - Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov is appointed commander in chief of the VDV. Famously, in accepting his appointment he demands that Anatoli Serdyukov’s programme for reductions in the VDV be changed. Furthermore, the airborne forces are increased by one attack squad in the Moscow military district and the a third airborne regiment is formed in the Pskov 76th division of the VDV.

September 2009 - Operational and strategic exercises “Zapad 2009” are held. The premise was that the Polish army (though pseudonyms were actually used in the exercise) had invaded Belarus in a territorial dispute; altruistically the Russian army rushes to the victim’s assistance. The scope of the exercise was 1,500 kilometers, from Belarus to the Barents Sea, and it ranged over 300 kilometers from east to west.

30 October 2009 - President Dmitri Medvedev introduces amendments to Section 10 of the federal Defense Act. It allows the formations of the armed forces to be used for operations outside Russian territory in four cases.

1. Repelling an attack on Russian Federation armed forces abroad.

2. Repelling or pre-empting aggression against another country (if requested by that country).

3. Protection of Russian Federation citizens abroad.

4. Fighting piracy.

Under the legislation, use of the army is decided by the president, but the Federation Council must within two days (i.e. ex post facto) approve the decision.

A “Baltic support area” is legally specified as a place where the army can be introduced (for protecting Russian Federation citizens).

18 December 2009 -  Shamanov says in an interview: “By 2015, there will be 21 tactical groups in NATO’s rapid response forces, each one with up to 1,500 men. The NATO tactical group is roughly analogous to a Russian airborne regiment. Considering the size of the VDV and units and the squads under the command of the military region, the Russian armed forces have total parity with the NATO - 1:1. Thus our current concern is not sheer numbers, but the equipping the units with modern weapons and vehicles. [...] To significantly increase the army’s mobility, 15-20 percent of the airborne’s armored vehicles are on wheels. In places where there is developed road infrastructure, wheels are to be preferred over caterpillar treads.”

3 May 2012 - General Staff commander Nikolai Makarov says at a missile defense conference in Moscow: “Russia can pre-emptively attack NATO’s European missile defense systems.” Thereafter experts started talking about GRU spetznaz that was said to have been formed for this purpose. But the discussion was quickly hushed up.

Two days later, in Helsinki, Makarov says that cooperation between Finland and NATO is a threat to Russian security. He shows a map where the boundary between the zones of interest of Russia and NATO passes through the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia. That would mean Finland and the Baltics would be in Russia’s strategic interest zone.

Mid-July 2012 - Col. Gen. Vladimir Tchirkin, commander in chief of the army, announced that the Defense Ministry had decided to put a large part of the armored vehicles on wheels instead of caterpillar treads. This meant that artillery, zenithal missile batteries and zenithal equipment as well as light tanks would be transitioned to wheeled systems.

August and September 2012 - Joint exercises of units from the Western Military District and the VDV were held. "Estonia would be wise to pay attention to two particularities of these exercises," wrote Juškin. "First of all, tactical helicopter paratroop landings. From this year on, such landings are practiced at all military exercises. Second of all, for the first time, Western Military District intelligence and reconnaissance staff began to be trained using a new methodology. Officers and instructors who have combat experience in the previous decades in local armed conflicts are now teaching the military to operate in behind enemy lines and to make independent decisions if they are not in contact with the CinC staff."

8 August - Vladimir Putin announced that long before the conflict in South Ossetia, Russia had prepared a special plan that was used as the blueprint in August 2008. He said the plan was put in place in late 2006 or early 2007 by the General Staff and approved by himself.

The logical future

Could a similar plan already be in place for the Baltics?

In a way, Juškin says, it is. "Does the Russian General Staff have a special plan for protecting Russian citizens abroad if needed? Certainly," he wrote. "Not for nothing did Dmitri Medvedev organize an expanded meeting on security issues on May 11, 2011, where he assigned the task of developing an algorithm for protecting Russian citizens in case of an extraordinary situation."

"Still, the current situation is unfolding along the lines of the main (peaceful) scenario, which has an historical analogue" in 1930s Finland. "The best scenario for the Kremlin would be the rise to power in Estonia of a political party loyal to Moscow."

There is also a worst-case scenario, says Juškin, though he is quick to caution no "fuse" has been found. There would be four acts to this play, as he sees it. And the last act stars the VDV.

1. An operation is launched to destabilize the socioeconomic or international situation in a region with a compact Russian-speaking population, with many Russian citizens. Such a region might be Narva, Estonia or Crimea, Ukraine.

2. Widespread demonstrations among the Russian speaking community would take place, led by professional provocateurs.

3. In response, the government uses force against the demonstrators.

4. A landing of paratroopers would be mounted under the guise of a peacekeeping operation.

In the interview with ERR News, Juškin seemed less alarmist, and balanced his comments by noting that Russia is cash-strapped and facing the same obstacles to military funding as other European countries. Still, the emphasis on limited special forces operations is a "danger," he said.

"Serdyukov's resignation suggests that dissatisfaction of the generals with the current military reform had come to a dangerous point," he said.

The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters

Message forwarded to the editor

This Ip-address has limited access

See also

There are no comments yet. Be the first!

Reply to comment

Reply to comment

Laadi juurde ({{take2}})
The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters
Add new comment
  • foto
    Gallery: Tartu students mark 97th anniversary of Estonian-language university

    While the University of Tartu in its earliest form was established in 1632, Estonian did not become the official language of instruction until Dec. 1, 1919. Today, the anniversary of the Estonian-language university is celebrated annually with a number of traditional events, the most visible of which is a torchlight procession through town involving dozens of student organizations and hundreds of students and alumni.

  • foto
    Gallery: Tartu students mark 97th anniversary of Estonian-language university

    While the University of Tartu in its earliest form was established in 1632, Estonian did not become the official language of instruction until Dec. 1, 1919. Today, the anniversary of the Estonian-language university is celebrated annually with a number of traditional events, the most visible of which is a torchlight procession through town involving dozens of student organizations and hundreds of students and alumni.

  • foto
    Supposed tourism farm turned country home: Ilves’ Ermamaa builds farm with EU support, never puts it to intended use

    Former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ company received €190,392 in 2006 to turn the family’s country home of Ärma into a tourism farm. Then owned by his ex-wife, it negotiated new conditions in 2012: Even if the farm was never put to its intended use, the company would have to pay back just 10% of the grant.

  • foto
    Feature: Is Germany Estonia’s new benchmark?

    With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Estonia will have to look for a new great partner in Europe. Some have indicated that it could be Germany — yet just at the time it could become more important to Estonia, Europe's economic powerhouse is facing events that may well lead to a much more Russia-friendly course, writes historian Jeroen Bult.

  • foto
    Experts: President Ilves put Estonia on the map

    With president-elect Kersti Kaljulaid’s oath of office at 3:00 p.m. today Monday, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ remarkable decade as Estonia’s head of state will end. ETV’s “Aktuaalne Kaamera Nädal” weekly review asked social scientists and policy experts what would remain of Ilves’ presidency.

  • foto
    Interview with Junior Achievement mentor: On Estonia's student companies

    In a written interview given to ERR News, veteran Junior Achievement student mentor Madis Vodja, a Tallinn native who was most recently mentor to Junior Achievement Estonia's 2016 winning student company Spoony, provided insight into what Junior Achievement is, what the program's mentors do, how Estonian student companies can compete for national and European titles as well as a bit of advice for aspiring student or small business-owners in Estonia.

  • foto
    Estonia's six Paralympians in Rio

    The 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, which also mark the 15th Summer Paralympic Games and the first to be hosted in South America, are drawing to a close on Sunday night after over a week and a half of competition. Estonia was represented in Rio by a six-athlete team which headed to the Games with a number of titles and medals, including Paralympic gold, already under its collective belt.

  • foto
    Interview with Marina Kaljurand: On taxes, corruption, the justice system and refugee policy

    Presidential hopeful Marina Kaljurand told ERR's online news portal in a written interview that she is a liberal in worldview, who supports lower taxes on employment and bigger investments in higher education, is in favor of the state borrowing only if absolutely necessary and with great caution, and does not consider Estonia's current refugee policy to be remotely shameful.

  • foto
    Estonia’s information society development from a privacy and data protection perspective

    Today Estonia has the most technologically advanced government system the world has seen. Even though the small Baltic state yields a population of only 1.3 million, it is known for its e-government system that has everyone applying to be an e-resident of Estonia, even the Japanese Prime Minister.

  • foto
    Original Estonian flag delivered to new permanent home at national museum

    Previously only removed from storage for public display on rare special occasions, the original blue, black and white Estonian flag, consecrated on June 4, 1884 as the flag of the Estonian Students' Society (EÜS), was ceremonially delivered to the new Estonian National Museum (ERM) building on Thursday, where it will be put on permanent display as part of an exhibit on the founding and formation of the Estonian identity and state.

  • foto
    Pealtnägija: Common-sense approach to offering specialized medical treatment could save millions

    ETV’s investigative magazine “Pealtnägija” reported on Wednesday that while there is a gaping hole in the Health Insurance Fund’s finances, millions could be saved by avoiding that specialist medical procedures are performed more often than necessary.

  • foto
    Reflections of an “Esto”: Estonia in 1975 and 2016

    Anne Sarapik, the New York City-born daughter of two war-era Estonian refugees and mother of four Estonian-American children born during the final years of Estonia’s occupation by the USSR, visited her family’s homeland this summer after a long absence, discovering a vastly different Estonia than she remembered from her first visit in 1975.

  • foto
    Margus Laidre: The utopia of peace and the flowers of evil

    Do you believe that if you close your eyes, evil ceases to exist? Although terrorism and war scar our world, many believe that we are nevertheless living in the most peaceful time we’ve known. Historian and diplomat Margus Laidre demonstrates in his essay that this may prove to be a dangerous illusion.

  • foto
    Eight former prime ministers talk about Estonia’s 25 years of regained independence

    A quarter of a century has passed since Estonia regained its independence. On the occasion, ERR interviewed all of the country’s eight former prime ministers: Edgar Savisaar, Tiit Vähi, Mart Laar, Andres Tarand, Mart Siiman, Siim Kallas, Juhan Parts, and Andrus Ansip.

  • foto
    From hobby brewer to brewmaster in Estonia's flourishing craft beer scene

    Not yet even out of his late 20s, up-and-coming Estonian brewer Peeter Kolk made the jump from brewing for fun and for friends to making a serious go of contributing to the country’s ever more popular craft beer scene with the establishment of his own Kolk Brewery in Uuemõisa, just outside of the western coastal town of Haapsalu in Lääne County, in early 2016.

  • foto
    An old publication's new tricks: How an Estonian-American newspaper is compiled from Tallinn

    Over half a century before the arrival of the Internet and social media, it was an Estonian-language newspaper published in Manhattan, the Vaba Eesti Sõna, or "Free Estonian Word," founded in 1949, which kept the Estonian-American diaspora connected and up to date on news from both home and the Soviet-occupied homeland. Nearly 70 years later, the paper's official editorial office remains located on the third floor of the New York Estonian House, but in modern e-Estonia style, editor-in-chief Kärt Ulman has been putting the weekly paper together from her home in Tallinn for three years.

  • foto
    ‘That Dutchman’: Why Peter Kentie’s brand proposal for Estonia should be taken very seriously

    What Estonia has in common with the Dutch city of Eindhoven, why Kentie was the right man to create its new brand, and what will happen if those in charge aren’t kept from bungling it: Here is the long story of “Just estonishing”.

  • foto
    What can Western governments do to counteract radicalization?

    You can’t kill a thought with a bullet. You can only defeat it with a stronger thought. As attacks continue, and the unrelenting effort and billions invested in the global war on terrorism haven’t brought results, the question arises what individual governments can do to curb the emergence of radical Islamism.

  • foto
    Interview: Pavlo Klimkin says Russia at war with both Ukraine and EU

    What got Ukraine where it is today? Who is responsible for the mistakes of the past 25 years? What’s the oligarchs’ role in politics? ETV+ talked to Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin. Here is the full-length video interview in English.

  • foto
    Feature: The world's scariest dress rehearsal

    On Sunday NATO member forces rehearsed for the final staged battle of the 2016 Sabre Strike exercise. The demonstration is to take place today in the Estonian Defence Forces' central training area close to Tapa in Lääne-Viru County. As artillery, anti-tank units, infantry, and air support unloaded their guns, Nicholas Marsh stood on "TV Hill" and watched in awe.

  • foto
    Trust your neighbor, pay less? The future of electricity production in Estonia

    Historically, Estonia has exported electricity. The country’s policy to guarantee production capacity at 110% of its peak consumption as well as the remnants of its formerly state-run production system have made this possible. But the market and its conditions are changing.

  • foto
    Varnja: The people and potential on the shores of Lake Peipus

    In a village of just 250 residents on the western, Estonian shore of the fifth-largest lake in Europe, known as Peipus ('Peipsi järv') in Estonian and Chudskoe in Russian, a mix of old blood and new — Russian-speakers and Estonians, Old Believers and newcomers — live and work side by side. Despite any differences, however, Varnja's residents have at least one thing in common: their belief in the village's potential.

  • foto
    Timmermans: EU needs to show it can deliver

    First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans was a panelist at the 10th Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn that ended on Sunday. In an interview with ERR's Neeme Raud, he said that the EU needed to show that it was making progress, and to explain more, so people could see its value.

  • foto
    Young immigrants' dream to marry European girls harder and harder to realize

    ”Marry a beautiful European girl. I'm planning to do that as well,” Mohammed, a 25-year-old asylum seeker, says to his closest friend as they are drinking tea in the restaurant of one of the hotels turned refugee reception centers in Athens.

  • foto
    May 9: Europe Day for some, Victory Day for others

    While the European Union celebrates Europe Day on May 9, in Russia it is Victory Day. This collision of holidays affects Tallinn, where pro-Putin activists of the group Nochnoy Dozor have called for a march through the city center.

  • foto
    Estonia’s great private schools debate: to fund or not to fund

    A recently submitted letter of appeal co-signed by 75 leading figures of Estonian academia, culture and society in support of the country’s private schools has sparked a fierce new round of debates regarding a stalled bill proposing an amendment to an unconstitutional law which would release local governments from being required to fund the operational costs of private schools.

  • foto
    Estonians host five-day cultural festival in the heart of Manhattan

    The New York Estonian community recently hosted its annual Estonian Cultural Days in NYC (“Eesti Kultuuripäevad New Yorgis”), a multi-day affair with concerts, theater performances, lectures, and other events spanning five days from March 23-27 and featuring Estonians from both the local diaspora and abroad.

  • foto
    National Language Day celebrated by Estonian youth around the world

    Despite differences in number of students, fluency, budget, distance, and other constraints, Estonian Schools as well as kindergartens, children’s hobby groups, and other youth organizations around the world have made a point to celebrate Estonia's national language, whether on National Language Day or all year round.

  • foto
    Small islands get €640,000 to develop priority services

    Starting today, funds can be applied for that will support projects to improve services for the inhabitants of Estonia’s small islands. The program includes 13 islands and total funds amounting to €640,000.

  • foto
    Eri Klas' funeral service

    Composer and musician Eri Klas' funeral service took place in Estonia Concert Hall on Wednesday. Anyone who wanted to attend was welcome.