Russia’s New Tip of the Spear

What's got the Kremlin so worried that it created a Special Operations Command?


Addressing the Russian National Security Council meeting on May 8, President Vladimir Putin said that the forthcoming departure of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan confronts Russia with a more precarious situation on its southern borders. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff since November 2012, who was also present at the meeting, had announced last month the formation of a Special Operations Command — Russia’s version of SOCOM. According to Gen. Gerasimov, the new command will include a special forces brigade, a training center, and helicopter and air transportation squadrons. These forces will be used exclusively outside Russian territory, including in U.N.-mandated operations. Creation of a separate SOCOM is not a new idea; it had been presented to Anatoly Serdyukov, who retired last fall as defense minister amid allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Defense (MOD), and who rejected it. The new minister, Sergei Shoigu, decided differently. What’s behind this about face?

As Russia proceeds with its defense modernization, it’s following the general trend toward specialization and enhanced mobility. Conflicts that have erupted since the end of the Cold War have put a premium on operations by relatively small and agile forces capable of engaging the enemy at a considerable distance, with no warning and deadly effectiveness. Such units existed in the days of the Cold War, too, but their role in World War III scenarios (that the Russian military is still largely built for) was essentially auxiliary to the tactical nuclear strikes and armored forces operations. With the dramatic change of the enemy and of the combat environment, special forces can play a more central role, critical to achieving success.

Unifying special units in a single command is not anything new. America’s SOCOM is a quarter century old; a number of other countries from France to Singapore have established their own special operations commands. That Russia is doing this only now can be attributed largely to the tardiness of Moscow’s military modernization and the two decades of overall neglect of the armed forces by the Kremlin. With President Putin clearly determined to rebuild Russia’s military power, the formation of a "RUSSOCOM" is a logical step. Moscow has long been looking at U.S. Special Operations forces as a model for its own SOCOM; the Russian MOD takes its cue from the Pentagon — whenever the circumstances and the means allow it.

The circumstances, meanwhile, do not just allow it — they demand it. The shriller voices on Russian airwaves talk about Moscow being the next target of Syrian terrorists, after Damascus. Serious people, including those in the Kremlin, are busy thinking through the implications of the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces from Afghanistan, which is drawing nearer with each passing month. An Afghanistan with a very light Western military presence is likely to be a very different place. How long U.S. trainers will remain there is an open question. Few Russian analysts expect the pro-Western government in Kabul to survive for very long; quite a few fear a Taliban takeover.

The main worry is whether a chaotic and fractious Afghanistan would destabilize neighboring Central Asia. The region will soon go through an additional test of power transitions in its two key countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, still led by their founding septuagenarian presidents. Of the two, Uzbekistan has a record of Islamist militancy and armed revolts, e.g. in the Ferghana valley in 1999 and in Andijan in 2005; Kazakhstan, which had long advertised itself as a model case of ethnic and social stability, experienced domestic tensions in Zhanaozen in 2011 and a palpable rise in Islamist influence across the country. The two smaller countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are perennially rocked by domestic crises. The fifth, energy-rich Turkmenistan, exhibits the kind of stability that totalitarian regimes usually showcase — until it’s too late. Moscow’s security concern is enhanced by the fact that there is not much of a border that separates the Russian Federation from this potentially volatile neighborhood.

Recently, Moscow has been trying to upgrade the security arrangement it built with Central Asian countries at the turn of the century, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In particular, Russia has led the formation of the CSTO’s collective rapid reaction forces, to which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan also contribute some units. The CSTO, however, has turned out neither competent nor capable of intervening — for example, during the ethnic clashes in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh in 2010. As a result, the clashes burned themselves out — with a loss for Moscow’s prestige, to be sure, but without much damage to its interests in the region. Next time is likely to be more serious.

RUSSOCOM’s mission would be to intervene early enough to prevent incipient conflicts from spreading, destroy armed groups before they take over population centers, eliminate terrorist camps, disrupt drug laboratories and drug traffickers’ logistics, and so on. To be able to achieve any of this, the command will need to have its own intelligence-gathering and assessment capabilities and an organic and wholly-owned means of power projection. Of course, to do this effectively, Russia will have to devote much more attention to close interaction with its nominal allies in the region, which it still sometimes treats as ex-provinces of the realm.

Russia’s other smaller neighbors, particularly in the Baltics, may look at Moscow’s SOCOM with a wary eye. To them, this move is but the latest development in a series of military activities suggesting a revitalization of the Russian Armed Forces. Recent provocations include an exercise of the Black Sea Fleet last March in southern Russia practicing amphibious assault (an exercise Moscow neglected to notify its NATO partners of) and maneuvers off the coast of Syria at the beginning of 2013 in which naval ships from all four Russian fleets took part. Russia’s Navy is again putting to sea, its warplanes are flying, and its tanks are rolling — more than in the last two decades. Even though all of this is, admittedly, on a scale incomparable with that of Soviet military exercises, people tend to get worried.

Looking forward, however, it is hard to expect a country of Russia’s size and geographical position to not have a capable military force adequate to the current military environment. With the drawdown of Western military involvement in Afghanistan and, more broadly, the Middle East, regional powers in Eurasia, including Russia, will have to bear more responsibility for security and stability there. This responsibility will be an empty phrase if not backed by relevant means, of which RUSSOCOM could be one — if Moscow follows through on its stated intentions. Right now, Russia has only 3,000 Army troops in Tajikistan and another few hundred at an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. A further 6,000, based inside Russia, are earmarked for deployment in Central Asia. For Mr. Putin and Gen. Gerasimov, this is clearly not enough.  

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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