Russian bombers repeatedly fly toward the Arctic and Canadian borders.
Russian bombers plan long flights along the West Coast and to the Gulf of Mexico.
A Russian naval battle group of four warships (cruiser, destroyer, oiler, and sea-going tug to address breakdowns) visit the waters off Australia.
Russian armor and infantry – in transparent “disguise” – invade eastern Ukraine after seizing Crimea.
Except for the final item, this activity is “ho-hum” in politicomilitary terms.
However, it makes for good propaganda. Presumably, it will generate positive Putin PR in Moscow, ostensibly showing Russian citizens the reach of their armed forces, while distracting from economic exigencies. It can also be used as an adroit scare tactic in Europe and North America to suggest that “The Russians Are Coming” (or at least that we need to increase military spending).
But really, these are just show-the-flag exercises with little military meaning.
Essentially, if you have armed forces, you must exercise them. Personnel changes regularly; new soldiers, sailors, and airmen need to become familiar with equipment and tactics. Old personnel require refresher training – or if switched to new assignments, need to learn them with hands-on experience. Missile reliability must be tested – by launching them.
Opposing viewpoint: David Kilgour
And, if you haven’t actively exercised or manoeuvred for an extended period, there are many potential problems with equipment that training brings to light, like maintenance failures. Moreover, if you don’t exercise, it affects personnel morale. Training is always dull, but without going to the field and firing weapons, it is hard to maintain high morale.
Thus the effort to sail four of the Vladivostok fleet several thousand miles to the vicinity of Australia is a “hold your breath” effort by those doing the sailing (and hence the sea-going tug to address catastrophic breakdown). This is not the equivalent of the U.S. “Great White Fleet” 1907-09 global circumnavigation with 16 battleships to demonstrate growing U.S. naval power. It is barely a get-your-feet-wet excursion by Moscow.
Still, the exercises are more than a “feel good” effort – particularly the aircraft excursions.
In large regard, these are back-to-the-future, Cold War activities designed principally to collect intelligence. A country flies in the direction of another’s borders to test its defenses. At what point do radars “turn on”? What is the reaction time for scrambled fighter interceptors? Are there new patterns of radar display or advanced radars operating? Is reaction predictable, perhaps with weaknesses or vulnerabilities that might be exploited?
As for the projected/announced flight to Gulf of Mexico, it also is an effort to determine the effectiveness of aerial refueling over long distances (one of the most difficult activities but one that the USAF demonstrates repeatedly without notice – think B-2 strikes from bases in the United States against targets in Afghanistan). It is difficult to restore technical capabilities once they fall into disuse.
Such Russian activities may be “muscle flexing”, but it is perfectly legal so long as it occurs in international waters or air space. Just as Prime Minister Putin displays his aging physique by stripping to the waist, neither his buff pecs nor his ancient aircraft/warships are terribly imposing.
The West, NATO and Canada might do well to ignore some of these Russian flights. They are provocative only if we choose to be provoked. Don’t bother escorting every Russian aircraft (unless we wish to practice our own training-inceptor techniques). Let them bore holes in the sky while we refuse to divulge current radar and intercept techniques. But we can also make it clear through private, confidential channels that we will shoot down any significant incursion into our airspace. And make the warning a red line that is actually red.
Somewhat more important is Russian expeditionary action in Ukraine. If Putin were confident there would be no Western/NATO reaction, he wouldn’t blithely deny Russian combat presence, risible as his denials are. But the reality is that the 2014 Russian Army is not the 1988 Soviet Red Army that was poised to crash tank armies through the Fulda Gap aiming at the Rhine. NATO spent a generation fearing that it would have to fight outnumbered and win or unleash nuclear war.
The current Russian Army is barely a shadow of the past. To be sure, there are elite combat units able to control local battle space at Ukraine’s border. But Russian numbers are small and properly-trained and equipped Ukrainian forces could hold their own.
If “the bear” is back, it is more akin to a small brown bear than a snarling grizzly.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.