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Tag: "russia"

Getting to the Second Shot

[ 23 ] June 22, 2013 |

Very interesting video demonstrating the maneuver capabilities of the Su-35S.

Bonus footage of Bill Sweetman talking about what that maneuverability means in a tactical context, especially in terms of fighting against stealth aircraft.


Able Archer

[ 4 ] May 22, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat talks a bit more about Nate Jones’ work at National Security Archive:

Like in the United States, the political and military elite of the Soviet Union disagreed on the likelihood of war, and on the predisposition of the new administration in Washington. Soviet hawks took the exercises as evidence of American aggression,focusing on the parallels between the German attack in 1941 and NATO preparations in 1983.  It didn’t help that US-Soviet relations were already at a low in the wake of the September 1983 shoot down of KAL 007.

According to Nate Jones, the editor of the series, the documents indicate that Able Archer included several non-routine elements that could have alarmed the Soviets (or at least given ammunition to the most hawkish elements in the Kremlin). These included a massive, silent air-lift of U.S. soldiers to Europe, the shuffling of headquarters command assignments, the practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures,” and various references to B-52 sorties as nuclear “strikes.” It wasn’t entirely clear to the U.S. policymakers how the Soviets were interpreting the exercises; Robert Gates, among others, argued that the Russians were taking them very seriously indeed, while Reagan wondered whether ” Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?”



Sunday Book Review: Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov

[ 60 ] April 28, 2013 |

Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov- RIA Novosti, Commons: RIA Novosti, P. Bernstein

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov is a new biography of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov from Geoffrey Roberts. The book is interesting, but ultimately disappointing to most audiences with a taste for Zhukov. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the re-emergence of a popular(ish) taste for Soviet military history in the West.

Product of a not-too-prosperous-but-not-altogether-impoverished peasant family from Strelkovka, Georgy Zhukov joined the Tsarist army in 1915 (age of 19), seeing his first action in the form of a German air attack on Russian rear positions. Zhukov did well for himself as a non-commissioned officer, displaying a flair for combat leadership.  He became a committed Bolshevik shortly after the Revolution, fighting on several fronts during the Russian Civil War. Because of other commitments (as well as bout of typhus), Zhukov missed the Russo-Polish War.

In Roberts’ account, Zhukov does not play much of a role in the intellectual life of the Red Army, especially during the particularly fertile inter-war period.  Zhukov never posted to the armor school at Kazan, or had much of an input into the development of Deep Battle.  On the one hand this isn’t terribly surprising; the intellectual core of the Red Army was decapitated in the great purge of 1937.  On the other hand, the experience of cavalry warfare in the Russo-Polish War and and the Civil War helped informed Deep Battle; it’s interesting that Zhukov managed, as a significant cavalry officer, not to have any impact on the constitution of Soviet military doctrine.

Roberts’ account of the purge isn’t terribly satisfying.  We learn that Zhukov escaped the Great Purge (just by the nape, by his own account), but we get little sense of how this affected the general.  He lost friends, teachers, students, colleagues, and subordinates; there’s very little to indicate how Zhukov felt about any of this. It doesn’t appear that Zhukov ever harbored any serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, or Josef Stalin; his willingness to overtly display this loyalty may explain his ability to survive three purges.

Zhukov’s first great success (beyond avoiding the purge) was the victory over the Japanese at Khalkin-Gol.  With the advantage of numbers and technology, Zhukov methodically destroyed the Japanese incursion, remaining on site for several months in order to oversee truce negotiations.  Fortunately, this allowed Zhukov to miss the Soviet-Finnish War, which set back the careers of several senior Red Army commanders.  The availability of Zhukov for Finland presents an interesting counter-factual; had he become associated with the failure, he might not have been in line for command in early 1941. Conversely, the Soviet High Command did enough wrong in Finland, from poorly understanding its own capabilities to gravely misjudging the Finns, that you don’t have to imagine any genius stroke to see how Zhukov might have helped. Rather, you can imagine offensives more competently planned and executed, with a leadership more firmly in grip of the situation, leading to victory in shorter order and with far fewer casualties.  Of course, it’s possible that both of these would have been the case; Zhukov could have led the Red Army to a victory over the Finns that was simultaneously quicker than the historical victory, but that still left the USSR humiliated and Stalin deeply unhappy with his senior commanders.

Another way of putting it is to suggest that Zhukov is the sort of commander you would want to fight a war that you should win. Conversely, Zhukov as commander would have been out of place in the Russo-Polish War, where the pursuit of victory demanded the kind of innovative, high risk performance that was more characteristic of Tukhachevsky.  Roberts paints a portrait of Zhukov that makes him very much  Grant, and not a Lee.

It’s hard to pin down the role he played in the major Soviet operations of WWII. Zhukov had formal responsibility for most of the important Soviet victories on the Eastern Front, including the relief of Leningrad, the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, Kursk, Operation Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin. He also experienced some notable failures, including Operation Mars (the northern counterpart to Stalingrad), and some defeats in the early months of 1941. The Red Army was such an immense creature, with such a large staff system and bureaucracy, that it’s not possible to assess Zhukov’s input into particular decisions in the same way that we accord responsibility to Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee, or even Patton. Complicating matters further is the collective nature of Soviet strategic decision-making; Stalin consulted closely with Zhukov and his other senior commanders in development of war strategy. When we think of Zhukov’s contribution, it is perhaps most appropriate to say that he was the “lead architect” of Stalingrad, Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin, with all that does and does not entail. The Zhukov that we’re offered here lacks the dash of Patton, or the intellectual flair of Tukhachevsky or Guderian.He won because he took calculated, high-reward risks, and he felt secure in taking those risks because he did not fear Stalin. Indeed, part of the underlying story of Zhukov is the willingness of Stalin to allow him to fail.  The relationship between the two reminded me (again) a bit of that between Lincoln and Grant in the last two years of the American Civil War.

This should not take away from the following fact: Georgy Zhukov was the greatest general in the largest army in the biggest conflict the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see. On such a scale, “lead architect” of such a succession of victories is, indeed, a magnificent achievement.

Zhukov’s post-war career was, given the arc of Soviet politics, predictable.  He returned to Moscow the conquering hero, but soon came under fire from other senior commanders of the Red Army, almost certainly with Stalin’s assent.  He found himself exiled to several trivial positions, before returning to the capitol shortly before Stalin’s death.  In the disordered period before the rise of Khruschev, Zhukov became Minister of Defense, only to fall to another purge in 1957.  This final purge effectively pushed him out of Soviet public life, leaving his remaining years for writing and compiling his memoirs.

Zhukov was, by Roberts’ account, never anything but loyal to the Soviet state, and the communist ideal.  He harbored no ambitions beyond the position that he had reached, and was always willing to bend the knee to constituted Soviet authority. It is surely worth lingering over this point; Zhukov lived through (and participated in) the worst crimes of the Soviet regime. When we evaluate German generals such as Rommel, Beck, and Guderian, we invariably ask about their relationship to Hitler and the Nazi Party; Zhukov’s complicity most certainly bears mention.

Roberts includes a few personal details, including those of Zhukov’s relationships with his wives, daughters, and mistresses. And of course, Zhukov is the sort of person that his opinion of Bridge on the River Kwai is automatically interesting: “too pacifist for me.  I prefer something with shooting like the Guns of Naverone.” Roberts’ account of Zhukov’s last purge is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.

I was determined not to be a victim, not to break down, not to fall apart, not to lose my will to live… Returning home, I took a sleeping pill.  I slept for several hours. I got up. I ate.  I took a sleeping pill. Against I fell asleep. I got up again, took a sleeping pill, and fell asleep.  This went on for 15 days… In my dreams I relived everything that had been tormenting me… I disputed. I proved my point. I grieved- all in my sleep.  Then, after 15 days, I went fishing.

This is great, both as a anecdote and coping strategy, but Roberts doesn’t leave us with much to evaluate whether it’s true or not. It’s certainly possible that a 60 year old Russian General took sleeping pills for fifteen days in order to deal with his purge, but I’d say it’s also possible that he drank himself into oblivion for a good two weeks. Having read a book about the man, I’d like to think that I’d have some sense of whether he’s telling the truth about this incident, but the picture Roberts paints is so shallow that I really don’t.

This is a good discussion of Roberts’ lack of detail, although I’d suggest that Roberts commits errors both in overestimating and underestimating his audience; appreciation of Zhukov’s achievements requires more knowledge of the Red Army and of the campaigns that Roberts is willing to grant. Then again,  the history of the Red Army as an institution may have seemed difficult to place, because oddly enough, Zhukov doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in the development of its doctrine or culture.  Frunze, Tukhachevsky, and Voroshilov are much more important figures in this regard. Williams wisely refrains from giving deeply detailed account of Stalingrad, Moscow, Bagration, et al, in part I suspect because it’s hard to nail down precisely what contribution Zhukov made; excellent management is excellent, in some ways, because it’s boring.

But this is part of a problem; I came away from this book somewhat more familiar with Zhukov’s career path, but without any very good sense of what the man would be like in a conversation.  We’re told that he was an authoritarian and a womanizer, which distinguishes him from senior military officers through history in no particular way. It may seem trite, but reading a biography I like to have some theory of who might portray the subject on film.  In this case, I’m left with a blank. This is a great book for people who are kind of interested in the career of Georgy Zhukov, but who don’t really have that much of an interest in either the Red Army or World War II.  As such, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers.

Jets! Possibly Also Sharks!

[ 43 ] February 16, 2013 |

FILE: August 7, 2008: A Russian officer takes a picture of a Tu-95 bomber at a military airbase in Engels, roughly 559 miles south of Moscow. (REUTERS) Via Fox News.

Gonna give everyone the opportunity to contrast this picture with this headline “Air Force confirms Russian jets circled US territory of Guam.”

You Say Proliferation, I Say Diffusion

[ 18 ] January 16, 2013 |

I have some thoughts on the diffusion of anti-access military technology over at The Diplomat

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong political incentive to maximize diffusion of its military capabilities.  Proxies with Soviet technology could fight the United States and its proxies on their own. Consequently, states from North Korea to Vietnam to Cuba to Syria, Iraq, and Egypt gained access to the many of the most advanced Soviet fighter, submarine, and missile systems. Often, these systems overwhelmed the capacity of recipients, with buyers lacking the ability to put pilots in planes, sailors in subs, and mechanics in either. Nevertheless, these systems still forced the United States to act cautiously; the combination of a couple Nanuchka class missile boats, some Foxtrot subs, a few MiG-23s and a reasonably sophisticated air defense system could give the US Navy or Air Force a bad day.

Russia doesn’t see much of an upside in this kind of diffusion today.  States get the equipment they can pay for, without political subsidy . China has displayed little interest in developing proxy relationships of the type seen in the Cold War. Moreover, few states have an interest in devoting resources and attention to making life difficult for a superpower.  Still, given the rapidly advancing capabilities of China’s anti-access forces, questions of diffusion and proliferation bear consideration.


Foreign Entanglements: Russia, Syria, and R2P

[ 1 ] August 23, 2012 |

Dmitry Gorenburg and I chat about Russian foreign policy on the latest episode of Foreign Entanglements:

Unfortunately we lost the last forty minutes of the video, which included discussions of Sino-Russian relations, Sino-Indian relations, Russian views of the US election, and Russian rearmament.

Intervention and Uncertainty

[ 13 ] July 17, 2012 |

Was on the Alyona Show last night with Ali Gharib.  I had lighting issues.

Human Sacrifice, Dogs and Cats Living Together…

[ 25 ] July 5, 2012 |

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind:

In spring of 2012 it became known that the Russian Air Force is to participate in the Red Flag training exercise in the fall of 2012 together with Americans. From 8 until 19 of October, Red Flag Air Combat Exercise 13-1 will be held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada (the exercises are numbered in accordance with the fiscal years, and exercise in the fall will be number one in the 2013 fiscal year). Like India, who participated in the Red Flag several years earlier using its Russian-made SU-30 MKI, Russia will get a chance this year to test its aircraft in realistic combat maneuvers with USAF aircraft. This chance is very important, since up until now the only Russian aircraft of the fourth generation which fought in a real combat situation against western aircraft has been the MIG -29, but the possibility of deploying it in the conditions of very specific wars of 1991 and 1999 was limited. Under such circumstances, the chance to test modernized Russian aircraft such as the SU -27 SM, SU-30M2, MIG -29SM and other strike aircraft – despite simulations, they are still against real western aircraft and pilots – is too attractive to be miss out on.

I miss the Cold War.

….sadly, it was not to be…

TNR vs. RT

[ 26 ] March 27, 2012 |

Jesse Zwick at TNR engages in some policing of the left side of the political discourse:

What is surprising, however, are the number of decidedly non-crazy American experts and journalists who appear regularly on the channel’s news programs as guest analysts. Indeed, whether it’s playing host to contributors from respected outlets like The Nation or Reason or the Center for American Progress, RT has excelled in cultivating American liberals and libertarians eager to criticize the United States for its adventurism abroad and sermonizing posture toward other nations.

Between the outrage following allegations of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections last December and the country’s more recent veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria, it’s clear why RT would want Americans to supply a counter-narrative that makes the United States look out of line for lecturing Russia. The bigger mystery is why American journalists and academics continue to go along for the ride.

I’ll take this seriously for a second, given that some commenters here have also raised eyebrows about my own appearances on RT. Some thoughts:

  1. Although Zwick doesn’t frame it precisely in these terms, part of the issue clearly lies with a discomfort for standpoint journalism, resting on the notion that otherwise accurate observations about American foreign policy run the risk of taint due to the clear biases of RT’s funding sources. Beyond that, however, there’s a clear sense that RT represents the wrong sort of standpoint; Russia is a semi-authoritarian country, and de facto facilitation of Russian criticism of US foreign policy helps undercut American criticism of the Putin regime, or something. However, since I strongly doubt that anyone who watches RT doesn’t appreciate what RT is, it’s hard for me to take this very seriously. It’s also worth noting that there aren’t a lot of American networks that offer the same standpoint as RT, or really any at all. Even on MSNBC serious leftish critique of American foreign policy is limited in both space and scope. And of course, it’s rather rich for the organization that provides a platform for the international politics musings of Marty Peretz and Leon Wieseltier to criticize…. well, anyone or anything.
  2. Zwick points out a number of problems with RT’s international coverage; they’re sometimes a bit given to conspiracy mongering, they reflexively defend Russian foreign policy decisions and the Putin regime, they draw unflattering (and sometimes inaccurate) comparisons between the US and Russia, and so forth. Having seen Fox News now and again, it’s hard for me to take these criticisms seriously. If there’s a difference between RT and Fox, it’s only of the mildest degree. I didn’t watch RT during the South Ossetia War, but I did read TNR, which set an astonishingly low standard for fair and accurate reporting. Moreover, the Alyona Show is genuinely good, comparable to news/talk programs on respectable stations.
  3. That said, I haven’t been pleased with all of my appearances on RT; in a couple of cases I just haven’t been happy with the direction that the conversation has gone.  I suspect, however, that this is true of any set of media appearances on any network. For my part, I prefer to stick to questions of American foreign policy or of general international interest, and would be uncomfortable talking about Russian foreign policy. An American criticizing some aspect of US foreign policy on a Russian-funded station feels to me wholly unproblematic; an American defending Russian foreign policy to an American audience feels more sketchy, depending on the foreign policy in question. But then I don’t recall that they’ve ever asked me to do so.

Overall, I’m pretty comfortable in saying that RT enriches the American marketplace of ideas, and provides space for political voices that would otherwise never be heard. I hope that RT builds in the right direction, allowing for editorial independence while also maintaining a distinct identity. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with making a Russian view of American politics available to a US audience, especially given the nature of extant media offerings in the United States.

Foreign Entanglements

[ 1 ] February 17, 2012 |

Mark Leon Goldberg and myself talked Russia-Syria on Wednesday:

Triangle Trade

[ 22 ] January 4, 2012 |

This week’s Over the Horizon column suggests that the Russian arms industry is in for some long term trouble:

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex sustained the massive Soviet military institution, which regularly gobbled up 15-25 percent of the nation’s GDP. In an odd and unexpected twist to the end of the Cold War, the Russian arms industry has turned to sustaining itself by arming a pair of Asian giants: Arms exports to China and India have proven lucrative for Russia — and have even had a synergistic and competitive quality. The unease each country has felt due to the other increasing its military capability has led to higher revenues for Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned arms exporter. For the post-Cold War Russian arms industry, this trade has represented a boon, helping to replace lost customers in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Russian military itself. However, this situation is almost certainly unsustainable in the long run, as both China and India appear to be outgrowing their dependence on the Russian military-industrial complex. This will spell trouble for Russia, which has had great difficulty developing exports based on anything other than arms or energy.


Russia-India Cooperation

[ 8 ] December 29, 2011 |

Finishing a book manuscript, and so haven’t had much time for serious blogging recently.  Nevertheless, would like to drag everyone’s attention to Dmitry Gorenburg’s excellent series on Russia’s military relationship with India.  First part examines naval, second part ground and air, third part joint projects.

There’s a lot of interest here.  From a strategic point of view, the Indo-Russian relationship suggests that there’s something wrong with geopolitical scenarios that don’t take balance-of-power considerations between the three Eurasian giants seriously; I’m not looking at any one in particular, of course, but… From a technical point of view, I think it’s interesting how dependent both China and India continue to be on updated Soviet technology. I think that Feng might have more to say on this, but there’s a fascinating contrast between India and China as customers of Russian military tech.  India is a better international intellectual property citizen than China, and also lacks any serious security flashpoints with Russia.  On the other hand, China seems to be interested in pushing beyond what Russian technology can offer, even if major questions about the quality of the product of the Chinese military-industrial complex remain.

Cross-posted at ID.

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