Pavel Felgenhauer, Russian military analyst
Russian forces fought in the Donbas the way Soviet forces fought “50 years ago,” a reflection of their lack of contemporary equipment and training and that they are so “unprepared for modern war” that in a war with NATO, they would suffer much the same fate as the Zulus against the British army, Pavel Felgenhauer says.
“That does not mean,” the independent Russian analyst says, that Russian forces cannot conduct another campaign like the in Ukraine. They can if the enemy resembles one in Ukraine. Instead, it means that Russian forces are not in a position to defeat modern NATO armies on the field of battle.
But Russia is rapidly rearming and updating its training programs, and as a result, by 2025, a decade from now, Felgenhauer says, the world must be “prepared for a world war” between Russia and the West “or for a series of major regional conflicts” over natural resources and spheres of influence.
By 2025, a decade from now, Felgenhauer says, the world must be “prepared for a world war” between Russia and the West “or for a series of major regional conflicts” over natural resources and spheres of influence.
Although there are some modernized units in the Russian military and the success of certain FSB units in Crimea, the Moscow analyst paints a devastating picture of the overall state of the Russian armed forces:
“The arming and equipment of the soldiers does not correspond to contemporary standards. They do not have the arms, the protection, or the communications” that modern armies do. “Nothing has changed in principle.” Russia doesn’t produce “contemporary rifles or normal bullets, or artillery shells” and consequently “shoots with the old ones.”
“There are no sniper rifles and no snipers,” he continues. “There is a clutch of specialists in the FSB who have foreign arms and bullets. Russian tanks are antiquated and poorly armed, and they are “willingly purchased only by those countries which do not have any problems with their birthrates.”
Russian aviation, Felgenhauer continues, “cannot effectively support ground forces, in any case, at night or in bad weather.” Russian avionics are antiquated. And radars of the most advanced kind are produced only in the US. “We used to purchase them, but we can’t get them anymore.” Russia can’t produce equivalents.” And it lacks the GPS guidance systems that make modern armies so effective.
All this means, he concludes, that Russia’s armed forces currently “are at the level of Pakistan’s. Of course, [Russia] has nuclear weapons, rockets, and submarines,” although “how many of them really are suitable for use in the event of a nuclear war, no one knows for certain or will specially seek to find out.”
Changing that, Felgenhauer says, will not be easy because “all serious modernizations in Russian history have relied on Western technology,” and now it is going to be more difficult to gain access to it.
Moreover, he points out, “Russia in general is a very provincial country situated to the side of progress in the world and especially with regard to its armed forces.” It was “isolated already in tsarist times,” and its commanders and political leaders “do not understand what contemporary war is.”
Russia’s goal is obvious: “the reestablishment of control over Ukraine.” And that means it is interested “not in Debaltseve but in Kyiv.”
“They know that there are new technologies” and tactics, Felgenhauer says, but up to now, they train their officers to fight the way they did in World War II, even though the advanced world has moved on. And it will be a real tragedy if they conclude that they achieved some great new success in Crimea. That is “an invention and a scarecrow,” not a reality.
Given that, it is “of course, possible” that some in Moscow may think they can fight and win a major war. But that is a delusion, Felgenhauer says. What would happen then is what has happened before when there have been clashes between “contemporary armies” with those of a more antiquated kind.
Indeed, the independent analyst says, such a war might look like a clash “of the Spanish and the Indians or the Zulus with spears against the English with machine guns” or of Saddam Husseyn with his gigantic army against the much smaller but much better armed and led forces of the American led coalition.
Emblematic of this old-fashioned approach in Russia, he continues, is the belief among many Russian commanders that the economic crisis will make it easier for them to fill the ranks because those who can’t find jobs in the private sector will be happy to become soldiers. That is not how a modern army is complected.
Moscow’s current military thinking reflects the notion of “a Malthusian trap,” the view that there will necessarily be a fight for resources and that Russia must expand to have more and be ready to defend itself against others who will be interested in gaining access to the resources on its territory.
Moscow views the US as “the main opponent,” with China a distant second, Felgenhauer says. It is thus building a peripheral defense, in the first instance in Ukraine. “Losing Ukraine” would thus be a breakdown in that perimeter,” and consequently, he says, Moscow will work to “hold Ukraine at any cost.”
It would have been easier for Moscow to do so if it were further along on its rearmament campaign, perhaps in 2018-2020, but that doesn’t mean it won’t do what it has to do in order to prevent Ukraine from becoming part of the West.
Not surprisingly, NATO views what Russia is doing as something which means the Western alliance “will prepare for a war with Russia.” Two weeks ago, the alliance’s defense ministers, including those from Greece and Hungary, voted for that and voted to create a rapid reaction force in Poland to be prepared to deal with any Russian move against the Baltic countries.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, it will develop as “proxy wars” typically do because what is taking place in the Donbas is “a proxy war like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Near East conflict. The Cold War has returned, and the tactic of the Cold War has returned as well.” Those like Putin who began their careers in the 1970s “understand this quite well.”
In the coming weeks, there will be “an unstable armistice” because both sides need “an operational pause.” But it won’t last long and the fighting will intensify again in the late spring or early summer, Felgenhauer says. Russia’s goal is obvious: “the reestablishment of control over Ukraine.” And that means it is interested “not in Debaltseve but in Kyiv.”
Until Moscow achieves that goal, the conflict will continue, and everyone should remember that ‘proxy wars can last for decades,” Felgenhauer warns in conclusion.