Don't Be Fooled By Russia's Latest War Games


This exercise is part of what I have called “heavy-metal diplomacy”: Russia’s use of its military to overawe and misdirect the West. We’ve seen this kind of undiplomatic diplomacy at work in Europe, where Moscow has responded to debates in Sweden and Finland about joining NATO with war games simulating Russian invasions. We also see this sort of diplomacy at work in the numbers game Putin plays. In last year’s Zapad war games, Moscow low-balled the number of soldiers participating (in order to keep it below the ceiling at which Western countries would be able to send inspectors under OSCE rules). This time around, the Russians seem happy to play up those numbers. But the much-hyped “300,000” figure involves much false accounting—in practice, the real figure may well be closer to 150,000, which is admittedly still an impressive tally. Judging from past examples like Zapad, many of these soldiers are unlikely to leave their barracks. They’ll be “involved” in exercises at the command post, not ones out in the field.

More to the point, as defense analyst Michael Kofman has noted: If even, say, only one regiment of a brigade is actually involved in Vostok, then Russia will include the entire brigade in its tally. This helps explain how the Russian army was able to reassure a population angry over proposed pension age hikes that no extra money would be spent on the war games. Moving what amounts to a third of the entire Russian armed forces around Siberia and the Russian fear east isn’t cheap.

The bottom line is that Russia lacks the cash and the transport capability to move this many troops without causing disruption. But Russia is happy to see the world swallow that 300,000 figure because, like an animal puffing out its fur and baring its teeth when faced with a predator, it wants to look as formidable as possible. As an authoritarian nation, it spends more than it should on its military—more than a third of the total federal budget goes on security, broadly defined. Putin has certainly managed to turn the demoralized and depleted armed forces he inherited into a capable, competent army.

Yet Putin is aware that the objective indicators do not help him make his case that Russia, with an economy smaller than that of Texas, should be treated as one of the great world powers. Instead, he relies on bluff and bluster, theater and shadow-play. He wants to project an image of a dangerous yet confident country, one that should be placated, not challenged. Hence, the pictures we’ll soon see of tanks rumbling across the steppe, as rockets, drones and gunships roar overhead, are part and parcel of a campaign to make Russia (look) great again. That campaign also includes Putin’s claims that Russia  will soon deploy nuclear-powered cruise missiles. (Prototypes have been tested four times in the past year and crashed every time.) It’s good to be strong, but it’s more important to be seen as strong.



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