Russian Security or NATO Expansion?
Alexei Arbatov[Editor's Note: This article is adapted from an essay published in Russia in New Times, November, 1993.]
THE PROJECT OF restructuring the European political system after the Cold War is full of contradictions, a source of intellectual confusion and political uncertainty. Radical changes in the military-strategic situation on the old continent have created great temptations for countries to take hasty, short-sighted steps which could permanently damage the development of a new system of collective security. At the same time, those changes have generated new possibilities for more constructive relations between states. How, then, can we take advantage of these opportunities while resisting the temptations?
How Much Is Russia Weakened?The changed military-political realities in Europe are so well-known that it suffices simply to list them: German re-unification; the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia; the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Russia, and other post-Soviet republics; and political instability and economic crisis. These changes have reduced the danger of great power conflict to a theoretical minimum. More immediately, they have -- in conjunction with the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and military reforms in many countries -- radically transformed the military-strategic balance, producing deep cuts in armed forces, massive withdrawals of troops from foreign territories, curtailment of weapons programs, and a reorientation of forces to missions other than a large-scale East-West war in Europe. The CFE Treaty established, at lower levels, parity in conventional offensive weapons between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the zone from the Atlantic to the Urals and in a number of sub-zones within that region. The subsequent dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union destroyed this well-proportioned disarmament structure. It became necessary to reach agreement on national arms ceilings for individual countries, which in the East ceased to be allies. Later, in accordance with the Tashkent Agreement of 1992, the military assets of the Soviet Union were split between Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Together these changes have markedly transformed the balance of military forces and the geo-strategic situation on the continent.
At the end of 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev announced unilateral cuts in the Soviet Armed forces and armaments, the Warsaw Pact had a 2.7:1 advantage over NATO in the main classes of offensive military assets (which were subsequently covered as limited items in the CFE Treaty). The Soviet Union alone had a two-fold superiority on the continent over all 16 NATO countries combined.
The implementation of the CFE Treaty was expected to shift the balance dramatically in favor of the West by the second half of the 1990s, moving the ratio of forces between Russia and NATO to 1:2.8. By adding to NATO the former Soviet allies in the Warsaw Pact, and, for the purpose of strategic extrapolation, the forces of former Soviet republics that are now sovereign states in the European zone, the ratio changes to 1:4.5 to Russia's disadvantage.
From Moscow's perspective, then, the military balance has shifted rapidly from a nearly three-fold superiority to an almost five-fold inferiority. The scale and speed of this reversal and the novelty of the new balance have provoked considerable concern among Russian military planners. Their reaction, despite all the reassuring arguments designed to set their minds at ease, is natural and predictable: they seek to concentrate as many forces as possible in the European part of Russia and to emphasize reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, abandoning (even as declaratory policy) the no-first use obligation assumed in 1982 by the USSR.
How Strong Should or Could Russia Be?Surface appearances are not always accurate, and numbers can mislead. Should the new military balance really be a source of such great concern? Consider the situation from a purely pragmatic, military-political standpoint. The Russian military currently faces a wide range of problems: economic turmoil, the disintegration of military-industrial cooperation with other republics, and the need for military reform. Even without the CFE Treaty, then, Russia would probably not be any stronger by the end of the 1990s.
In 1988, for example, the USSR's land forces comprised 1.6 million men equipped with some 60,000 tanks, produced at a rate of 3,500 a year. The 1992 military reform plans of the Russian Ministry of Defense projected a decline in the entire Russian armed forces to 1.5 million men, including no more than 600,000-700,000 in the ground forces. When and if a professional army is formed by the year 2000, there will no longer be a need for the enormous stockpiles of arms and equipment in cadre divisions which, in the past, were to be complemented by a massive mobilization of reservists in case of war.
The emphasis on lighter mobile forces for rapid reaction in local conflicts further reduces the need for heavy equipment. According to current projections, the new Russian army will need no more than 10,000- 15,000 tanks, mainly for the defense of the southern and eastern borders, with only 40-50% oriented to use in the European theater (mainly for reinforcement and training purposes). The CFE Treaty actually allows a higher ceiling than that. Thus the principal constraint on tank holdings comes from Ministry of Defense reform plans rather than treaty obligations.
Consider the matter from another angle. Since 1988, the production of tanks has dropped fivefold, to 500-700 tanks a year. Even at the much higher rates that previously prevailed, full modernization of the vast tank inventory would have taken 20 years. This was why such a large part of the equipment was always obsolete. The new Russian professional army will be equipped with the most advanced assets which, to military planners, means a complete turnover of the tank inventory every ten to 15 years. If the present annual production rate of 500-700 is sustained, then given the current, huge stockpiles, there will be no near-term problem in maintaining a 10,000-15,000 tank force. The same holds true for the other principal classes of weapon system used by both ground and air forces. Altogether, looking at the main classes of conventional weapons, Russia will be allowed to have nearly 2.5 times those of Germany, 3.7 times those of France, and 5.4 those of Great Britain. In Europe, Russia will maintain twice as many weapons as the United States.
Adding nuclear weapons to the picture serves to underscore Russian military power. Under the START 2 treaty, in ten years Russia would be in a position of parity with the United States, at a ceiling of 3,000-3,500 warheads, five- to seven-fold more than are held by any other nuclear power.
In sum, despite all the recent changes in the military balance, Russia remains the strongest military power in Europe and one of the most powerful states in the world.
To be sure, the Russian army is now in an extremely difficult situation. Troop morale, already low as a result of poor living conditions, has been further diminished by Russia's involvement in ethnic conflicts. The army's role in the October 1993 events in Moscow constituted another serious blow.
These problems and hardships, however, were largely self-inflicted, the result of miscalculations and loss of control brought on by the Yeltsin-Gaidar management of the economy, failures of democratic political reform, as well as blunders in defense conversion, in military reform, and in policies aimed at forming a new commonwealth of nations to replace the collapsed USSR. These reflect Russia's inability either to foresee or to adapt in time to recent social, geopolitical, and geo-strategic changes.
The fundamental shifts in the military balance and the treaties on arms reductions have not, then, contributed to Russia's current weakness and insecurity. Even if the Russian army and weapons stockpiles were to increase five-fold, the situation would not improve. Indeed, a larger military would make everything worse. Russia's problems would become so acute that in the end not only the economy but the state and the army themselves would collapse.
The New Geography of EuropeChanges in the geo-strategic situation tell a similar story. For 45 years, Soviet ground forces stood within two weeks of the English Channel. Soviet aircraft and missile forces, armed with nuclear and conventional weapons, could have obliterated the whole of Europe west of the Elbe in a few hours. Behind the forward-based forces stood another three operational echelons of combat-ready forces in Eastern Europe and the western districts of the USSR. Today Moscow's military power has been pulled back 1,500 kilometers from the center of Europe: from Magdeburg and Prague to Smolensk and Kursk. For the first time in 300 years (in peacetime) the Moscow military district has turned from the deep rear into the advanced defense line of Russia.
It should come as no surprise that this has aroused acute feelings of vulnerability in the military. People accustomed to living under the protection of thick armor feel ill at ease in open air. For decades Western Europeans have been in a much more vulnerable position -- but we considered that to be their problem, not ours.
Nonetheless, at present Russia has a decisive advantage in comparison with post-war Europe. Unlike Western Europe and for the first time in many centuries of its own history, Russia is not threatened by invasion. This in itself is a unique phenomenon in the history of collapsing empires.
The administrative and industrial heartland of Russia is now beyond the operational combat radius of even the most advanced tactical aircraft of the strongest military powers in the west, south, and east. The current 1,500 kilometer corridor puts them out of reach of Western aviation -- on condition, of course, that the military bases of the United States and its allies do not move further east.
In terms of force ratios and geography, then, the radical strategic shifts of the past five years have not worked to Moscow's advantage. So be it. The world is different now, objectively and unalterably. If we stop bewailing the superiority of a past which is gone forever and take a fresh look at reality, the situation does not look so bad. But precisely how good it is depends to a considerable degree on whether current Russian policies manage to make the most of the positive aspects of the new situation. That, in turn, depends on whether new national security policies and concepts are guided by an understanding of recent changes and a series of imperatives that arise from them.
Four ImperativesThe first imperative is to recognize that the implementation of various disarmament agreements (including CFE, START 1 and START 2) is, on the whole, consonant with Russian interests. To be sure, the treaties have their individual shortcomings. But these problems are more than compensated for and not only by the political importance of the treaties. Even without them, Russia would hardly be in a position to attain greater military power in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the opposite is true. Other powers have real underlying advantages, in terms of economic, military-technical, and demographic potential, geostrategic positions, and possibilities of collective defense policy. Given sufficient political motivation, these powers would be capable of a rapid military build-up, thereby acquiring clear-cut military superiority over Russia. It would be extremely shortsighted of Moscow to issue ultimatums or to denounce the treaties, even if in some respects they fall short of what is desirable. To be sure, the quickly changing situation makes parts of the agreements obsolete. But perhaps these problems are not so formidable and can be solved within the framework of the current treaties. The main point is that, given favorable political conditions, we can move ahead and conclude new agreements which take into account and address new security problems. This, in turn, makes sense only if fresh practical ideas are generated by decisionmaking bodies in Russia and if the apparatus is capable of implementing them. The second imperative, then, is to develop such ideas.
The third is determined by certain aspects of the changing strategic balance. Russia remains a leading power in Europe and the world and thus can count on respect and security -- at least to the extent these are determined by a nation's military capabilities. As a state confronting NATO or NATO together with the countries of Eastern Europe, however (to say nothing of the western republics of the former USSR), Russia doesn't stand a chance.
Nuclear first-use cannot address these problems. The issue we must be most concerned with is not so much the possibility of a global war in which the use of nuclear weapons by both sides cannot be avoided, but a renewal of the Cold War with its military-political pressures, attrition of the adversary in local conflicts, economic blockade, geopolitical stranglehold. . . . Under such conditions nuclear weapons cannot serve as an argument. Each side would have more than enough nuclear weapons to neutralize any bluff or blackmail implied by a first-use strategy. The Soviet Union was unable to cope with the full panoply of Cold War pressures. Gorbachev tried to find a way with his "new political thinking," but the internal processes he set in motion finally led to the disintegration of the communist empire.
Post-communist Russia is even less able to hold out. Nor should that be the aim of its foreign policy. The actions that are required to avoid the rebirth of an anti-Moscow coalition of states on an expanded scale are clear enough and can be taken by Russia itself. Russian foreign policy makers have only to establish democratic reforms at home, create good relations with adjoining and more distant foreign states (which does not mean following the United States on every issue), suppress Russian neo-imperialistic ambitions, and defend reasonably-formulated national interests in a consistent and principled manner.
Finally, the fourth imperative. If the withdrawal of Russian military power from the center of Europe brought unaccustomed weakness to Moscow, it also created unprecedented advantages, for it produced a wide separation between Russian forces and those of the great Western military powers. Fortifying and legalizing such a separation is one of the most important tasks of Russian national security strategy.
This means ensuring the neutral and non-nuclear status, and the independence and sovereignty, of the double belt of Eastern European states and western republics of the former USSR. For centuries these countries have served as a bridgehead for Western aggression against Russia and Russian aggression against the West. In the future, Western Europe, the United States, and Russia should become the guarantors of the neutrality and security of these countries. Instead of a military bridgehead, they should be a bridge for economic and political cooperation between Russia and the West, a bridge closed only to military advances either to the east or to the west.
The situation in Moscow after the October uprising remains unstable. But under these circumstances Poland and the West should refrain from actions which could swing the pendulum in the wrong direction. If, in the future, a new Russia's geostrategic offensive against the West becomes a reality, Poland would have sufficient time to take the measures necessary to protect itself (including joining NATO).
From NATO's own point of view, eastward extension would be fraught with trouble. Once such a movement begins, it may be difficult to stop. Including Poland in NATO would immediately raise the issue of including the Czech Republic and Hungary. Extending the NATO frontline to the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania will prompt these countries to ask whether the Alliance is directed against them. If it is not, why not include them, too? Whereupon the same question will arise in Russia as well: denying it membership would suggest that NATO is directed against Russia. And so on, through Central Asia to China and Japan.
Moreover, having proven itself an effective mechanism for collective deterrence of a common adversary, NATO may well be inadequate for coping with the new realities and tasks posed by the end of the Cold War. The tragic events in Yugoslavia have demonstrated NATO's inability (despite recent efforts) to bring about a cease-fire and maintain peace. The main roles there are being played by the UN, the CSCE, and multilateral diplomacy. In addition, actions outside the zone of the Alliance to oppose regional aggression or prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles (for example, in Iraq or North Korea) are being undertaken outside the NATO framework.
This is not to suggest that the time has come to dissolve the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO represents a factor of stability, and without it a dangerous vacuum would form on the European continent, not least because of uncertainty about the role and policy of a united Germany. The armed forces of NATO countries are being substantially reduced and restructured for new missions. The United States is withdrawing a large portion of its troops from Europe. Given their long experience in joint planning and joint actions, NATO's administrative structures and forces could become important building blocks in a future system of collective security in Europe.
We should, however, not be blind to other elements of the situation. For the foreseeable future, the principal reason for maintaining NATO remains the unpredictability of the course of events in Russia and the evolution of its military and foreign policies. That is also why Russia will never be accepted as a full member of NATO. Returning to policies of imperial expansion and authoritarian government would simply revive the original functions of NATO as a mechanism for the geostrategic deterrence of a common enemy. By contrast, enhancement of democratic principles in Russia's domestic and foreign policies would eventually eliminate the need for NATO. It would then be appropriate to replace NATO with a different kind of organization for multilateral security, directed not against an outside enemy, but designed to insure compliance with the norms of a civilized relationship and the peaceful settlement of conflicts among its members. Boris Yeltsin's message last year to the leaders of a number of NATO countries contained the right principle: instead of extending NATO eastward, NATO and Russia should become joint guarantors for the security of the countries located between them. But declaratory statements about guarantees are not enough. What we need is a comprehensive and practical military and political concept for the restructuring of European security.
The withdrawal of Russian troops from foreign territories requires the preparation of infrastructure in the rear. This makes temporary troop deployments in the European part of Russia acceptable. But in the longer term, when the reduction and reform of the armed forces have made sufficient progress, the rear infrastructure should sort the needed deployment of troops and this, in turn, should reflect potential military threats, which emanate mainly from the south and east. Otherwise a vicious cycle will ensue: bases, sites, and facilities built in the past for waging war against NATO would continue to determine the deployment of Russian forces. That deployment would frighten Russia's neighbors into taking countermeasures. The countermeasures would create a military threat which would justify the placement of the troops that provoked it.
The agreements between Russia and the neutral countries should, for greater certainty, be linked to NATO obligations. NATO should take practical measures to prevent its own eastward expansion and the members of the alliance should not deploy their forces and military facilities there. The level of the NATO troops and forces should be further reduced and restructured to accomplish missions for the purpose of peace-keeping and conflict-resolution. It would be useful to limit the development and deployment of highly accurate, long-range conventional weapons of enhanced destructive power. Finally, joint exercises and other forms of interdependence between the rapid deployment forces of Russia and NATO should be encouraged as a way of saving resources and as a reassurance that military actions would not be carried out against each other.
The Russian military establishment, instead of implementing radical reforms and reorienting its defense toward the south and east, would resume its customary task -- planning a large-scale conventional and nuclear war in the European theater.
This would be bad for everybody, but worst for Russia itself, with its economic, political, and military problems. No concentration of military power can diminish the vulnerability of the Russian heartland, resulting from the new geostrategic situation and the changed ratio of forces.
Of course, once an escalating series of threats and countermeasures are in
place, it will be easy to blame Russia's hardships on the other side. But it
would be a mistake not to recognize Russia's responsibility as well: the responsibility
for the uncertainty and fear induced in neighboring states by spasms in the
internal and foreign policies of this enormous nuclear power; the responsibility
for mismanaging its economy, military reforms, and defense conversion; and the
responsibility for failing to pursue a new, realistic military and political
concept for European security. Moscow should submit such a proposal to the West
as an alternative to the eastward expansion of NATO. That would place the responsibility
for Russia's fate squarely in its own hands.