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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
February 24, 2016

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Engages in Nuclear Brinksmanship Because His Military is So Backward, Felgengauer Says
Staunton, VA, February 24, 2016 - Vladimir Putin has revived nuclear brinksmanship as a method of statecraft because the Russian military is so far behind the level of NATO forces, according to Pavel Felgengauer. In fact, in any clash between the two, the Russian military would suffer a fate like the Zulus did when they were confronted with the British army.

In an interview with Ekho Rossiya, the independent Russian military analyst provides a devastating portrait of the gap between Putin’s pretensions and Russian military capabilities, a gap that he suggests is so wide that Moscow has no hopes of narrowing it anytime soon. Indeed, it may even grow with time.

No one knows for certain the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and there is no safe way to find out, he continues. But with regard to Russia’s conventional arms, the verdict is clear. “Moscow simply does not have the technological base needed for the creation of a contemporary army and under conditions of sanctions, the situation has become practically hopeless.”

Clear evidence for that, Felgengauer says, is to be found in the Donbass where Russian forces are “fighting in the same way they did 50 years ago.”

“Typically, when a clash occurs between a contemporary army and a backward one, this looks like the confrontation of the Spanish with the Indians or the Zulus with their spears against the English with their guns.” Numbers don’t matter as much, Felgengauer points out, and says that “the gigantic army of Saddam Hussein” suffered a rapid defeat because of its backwardness.

Many talk about Putin’s hybrid wars as if it were an innovation, but in fact, Soviet and Russian forces have used it before. Where there is no resistance as in Crimea, it works; but where there is resistance, it quickly bogs down. Even in Crimea, the Russian forces were armed like something from the past.

A few special forces operatives in the FSB have contemporary arms, all of it purchased from abroad in small quantities; but the Russian military as a whole doesn’t have such arms at any level. Its tanks aren’t modern, its air force is not all-weather capable, and it lacks both radar system and GPS locators on which modern combat depends, Felgengauer says.

Even Russian drones, produced on the basis of an Israeli license, are not the most advanced. “Many countries around the world have them, including Georgia during the 2008 war.” And it doesn’t have the three-dimensional printers that all advanced militaries now use to plot the battlefield. Nor does it have the reconnaissance satellites the US uses.

Until the sanctions regime was introduced, Moscow had been purchasing  US $1.5 to $2.0 billion of military equipment from the United States in an effort to modernize its military, Felgengauer points out; but since then, Moscow has not been able to purchase these things from the US or find alternative sources.

As far as current conflicts are concerned, the independent analyst says, the “proxy” war in Ukraine will be dragged out with an escalation likely at the end of this spring or the beginning of summer. Russia will do whatever it can to ensure that Ukraine remains trapped in a conflict whatever the Kremlin says.

Long term, there is likely to be a conflict with China in Central Asia in the Fergana valley. “The catalyst” for such a conflict, Felgengauer says, “could be the death of [Uzbekistan President] Islam Karimov who does not have [obvious] heirs.” Opposing any successor will be the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan “which is today a branch of ISIS and an extremely serious and underrated threat.”

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Despite His Offensive Moves, Putin is Now Playing Defense in Europe, Oreshkin Says
Staunton, VA, February 24, 2016 - Each of Vladimir Putin’s actions in Europe looks to some observers as offensive moves, Dmitry Oreshkin says; but if one puts them in context and considers how marginal some of them are, it is increasingly clear that he is playing defense there, having “suffered defeat after defeat.”

According to the Russian commentator, two things are now clear in Moscow. First, Russian elites are feeling “a sense of defeat on the European front” and thus are searching for “any allies or even the appearance of allies to concentrate their essentially defensive efforts."

“Hungary is hardly the most powerful member of the European Union, the party of Marin Le Pen is hardly the most influential political force in France, and Giulietto Chiesa is hardly the most respected journalist and politician in Italy,” Oreshkin writes. But Moscow now “doesn’t have any other” allies.

And second, there is a sense that even reaching out to these people is “not a counterattack but a purely defensive” move. It is clearly “an effort to disrupt the unity of the European Union from within, to find some weak link.” But the best Putin can hope for is to “slow the formation” of an anti-Moscow “political front.” He is not in a position to reverse it.

“This is a defensive strategy which to a significant degree is asymmetrical,” Oreshkin continues. Western governments understand that Moscow can always find useful idiots to push its line in second-tier media outlets or second-tier states and thus dismiss them as unimportant. Putin consequently is taking these measures primarily for domestic consumption.

If you are a reader of only the Russian press, he continues, “you see [as a result of such campaigns] that the Dutch are unhappy with Ukraine, that Orban supports and approves of Russia … and that the entire European Union is collapsing because it cannot withstand the influx of migrants.”

The message this sends to Russians is this: “’we are having difficult times, but we are going from victory to victory” abroad.

In reality, Oreshkin says, “the Putin vertical is going from defeat to defeat.” It is losing its ties abroad and respect there as well. And “the country is becoming ever more predictable” as Russia is “isolated to the maximum extent possible.” Russians can see this because the Kremlin’s propaganda line has shifted.

A year ago, they were told that Western sanctions were in fact making Russia stronger and that expanded demand for Russian products would allow the country to stand up. But now “all have forgotten about that.” That will have consequences because Russians “are not idiots” in the way that the powers that be think they are.

Instead, what is growing is a cognitive dissonance in their minds between what they are told on government television and what they see in their daily lives. So far, this trend is only beginning but it will grow ever stronger, Oreshkin says.

As for the West, governments there now know “with whom they are dealing.” They have to continue to talk because Russia is “a major political animal” regardless of who it is acting. Most understand they need to stand up to Moscow, but some think as they did in Soviet times that “the Russian bear will love them if they give it a lump of sugar.

The overall trend is clear: “There will not be a total ignoring of Moscow, but the dominating trend will be its isolation.”

Because the EU operates on the basis of consensus, any one country can block the will of the majority, “but this is a game for marginals. The key players like Germany are hardly likely to go along.” And the Kremlin understands that it can’t buy countries like Germany, Great Britain of France “for Russian money.”

“In the best case, it is possible to buy Marin Le Pen, because she costs nine million euros, which Moscow has given her party as a loan.”