One of the most interesting - or perhaps “worrisome” is the better word - things about Moscow’s move to increase its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime as it battles to wrest control of large swaths of territory in Syria from Islamic State and other anti-government forces, is that it comes as the conflict in Ukraine still simmers.
Even if, as Bloomberg suggested on Friday, The Kremlin is “leaning on the separatists to limit cease-fire violations and focus on turning their makeshift administration into a functioning government with the help of Moscow-trained bureaucrats,” the issue is far from resolved and if Transnistria is any guide, it may never be.
That of course means the tension between Russia and Europe isn’t likely to dissipate any time in the foreseeable future, a fact that makes Moscow’s overt military support of Assad in Syria seem like a rather risky maneuver. In short, it appears that no matter how one wishes to characterize Moscow’s actions (i.e. irrespective of who the “aggressor” is), the West’s Russophobia as it relates to Putin’s willingness to chance a direct military confrontation with NATO isn’t entirely unfounded and as we’ve been keen to point out over the last several days, what the Russians have done by reinforcing Assad at Latakia is effectively call America’s bluff.
Needless to say, NATO’s actions over the last six or so months have done nothing to de-escalate what amounts to the most intense staring contest between Russia and the West since the Cold War. War games and snap drills conducted along Russia’s border combined with the stationing of heavy weapons in Poland lend credence to the idea that at best, the US isn’t nearly as anxious to re-establish a constructive dialogue with Moscow as Washington would like the public to believe.
It’s against this backdrop that we present the following excerpts from Foreign Policy who reports that “for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia.” Notably, when the Army ran a series of war games to test NATO's preparedness, the results were nothing short of a disaster.
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Via Foreign Policy
The Pentagon generates contingency plans continuously, planning for every possible scenario — anything from armed confrontation with North Korea to zombie attacks. But those plans are also ranked and worked on according to priority and probability. After 1991, military plans to deal with Russian aggression fell off the Pentagon’s radar. They sat on the shelf, gathering dust as Russia became increasingly integrated into the West and came to be seen as a potential partner on a range of issues. Now, according to several current and former officials in the State and Defense departments, the Pentagon is dusting off those plans and re-evaluating them, updating them to reflect a new, post-Crimea-annexation geopolitical reality in which Russia is no longer a potential partner, but a potential threat.
“Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine made the U.S. dust off its contingency plans,” says Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. “They were pretty out of date.”
The new plans, according to the senior defense official, have two tracks. One focuses on what the United States can do as part of NATO if Russia attacks one of NATO’s member states; the other variant considers American action outside the NATO umbrella. Both versions of the updated contingency plans focus on Russian incursions into the Baltics, a scenario seen as the most likely front.
After Russia’s 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, NATO slightly modified its plans vis-à-vis Russia, according to Julie Smith, who until recently served as the vice president’s deputy national security advisor, but the Pentagon did not. In preparing the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s office for force planning — that is, long-term resource allocation based on the United States’ defense priorities — proposed to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to include a scenario that would counter an aggressive Russia. Gates ruled it out. “Everyone’s judgment at the time was that Russia is pursuing objectives aligned with ours,” says David Ochmanek, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, ran that office at the time. “Russia’s future looked to be increasingly integrated with the West.” Smith, who worked on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon at the time, told me, “If you asked the military five years ago, ‘Give us a flavor of what you’re thinking about,’ they would’ve said, ‘Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — and China.’”
In June 2014, a month after he had left his force-planning job at the Pentagon, the Air Force asked Ochmanek for advice on Russia’s neighborhood ahead of Obama’s September visit to Tallinn, Estonia. At the same time, the Army had approached another of Ochmanek’s colleagues at Rand, and the two teamed up to run a thought exercise called a “table top,” a sort of war game between two teams: the red team (Russia) and the blue team (NATO). The scenario was similar to the one that played out in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: increasing Russian political pressure on Estonia and Latvia (two NATO countries that share borders with Russia and have sizable Russian-speaking minorities), followed by the appearance of provocateurs, demonstrations, and the seizure of government buildings. “Our question was: Would NATO be able to defend those countries?” Ochmanek recalls.
The results were dispiriting. Given the recent reductions in the defense budgets of NATO member countries and American pullback from the region, Ochmanek says the blue team was outnumbered 2-to-1 in terms of manpower, even if all the U.S. and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics — including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.
After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”
Ochmanek has run the two-day table-top exercise eight times now, including at the Pentagon and at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, with active-duty military officers. “We played it 16 different times with eight different teams,” Ochmanek says, “always with the same conclusion.”