Archive for the 'Contemporary' Category

Mar 24 2014

Zombie ideas: Russia and a warm-water port

Published by DStone under Contemporary

“Zombie ideas,” as explained by economist John Quiggin, are discredited concepts that simply refuse to die, and continue to walk the earth. It’s a slightly more elaborate version of the more prosaic “factoid,” an oft-repeated claim that’s just not true.

One idea about Crimea, repeated by lots of people who really ought to know better, is that Crimea provides Russia with its only warm-water port or, alternatively, its only warm-water naval base. This can take two forms: the more benign form is just wrong–a bald statement of (non-)fact explaining why Russia cares so much about Crimea. This easily verges, though, into an explanation and justification of Putin’s conduct in Crimea: something like “Putin really had no choice, since Crimea’s warm-water port is just too important.” This last idea actually reared its head in my local paper just this week.

It’s not hard to find lots of people talking about Russia’s only warm-water port. Some of them are just random people expressing opinions, and other are from new media of various kinds, but others come from long-established old media outlets or big organizations with reputations to protect. That includes Greg Astell in Forbes, Katherine Jacobsen for Al Jazeera, Jim Sciutto for CNN and Steve Huntley for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Here are the problem with all of this. First thing to get out of the way: none of the seas around Russia are precisely what you’d call “warm.” The Black Sea might at least be swimmable for a few months in the summer. What we’re really talking about here are ports and naval bases that are ice-free year round.

More seriously, Crimea, and more specifically Sevastopol, do NOT provide Russia its only ice-free port. St. Petersburg and other nearby terminals are on the Baltic, which does freeze, but Novorossiisk on the Black Sea and Murmansk in Russia’s far north DO NOT FREEZE. The Black Sea doesn’t get that cold, and the Gulf Stream keeps the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula relatively warm. Vladivostok in the Far East likewise is kept open year-round (though that seems to require icebreakers.

Naval bases? Both Murmansk
and Novorossiisk
have them.

Ukraine’s most important port is Odessa and its close neighbors. Though the good people of wikipedia (as of 24 March 2014) claim that Sevastopol is the second largest port in Ukraine, in actual fact its 600,000 ton capacity is dwarfed by other ports in the Crimea (almost 15 million tons combined), which are dwarfed by Odessa (nearly 50 million tons capacity–leaving aside the other ports in its immediate vicinity), which is in turn dwarfed by Russia’s own Novorossiisk’s 152 million ton capacity.

What’s the point of all this? First, Russia has no need for Crimea in order to possess ice-free ports or naval bases, so let’s not make excuses on those grounds for Putin’s conduct. The Russian government is putting out enough disinformation about events in the Crimea. Let’s not make things worse by mouthing myths and factoids as result of reluctance to do a little research.

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Mar 01 2014

Treaties Governing the Black Sea Fleet

Published by DStone under Contemporary

IF Vladimir Putin is smart, Russia is at present limiting its actions in Crimea to personnel of the Black Sea Fleet, or at the very least claiming to do so. The presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea means that Russia legitimately has a large number of military personnel already in the region; Putin doesn’t need send troops across borders to seize airports and government buildings. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Putin’s not violating treaty obligations with Ukraine.

The operations of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet are governed by a series of agreements signed in 1997. A number of them are technical: dividing the Fleet between Russia and Ukraine, specifying which facilities Russia can use, payments for use of facilities, and so on. One key point: the Agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the Parameters of Division of the Black Sea Fleet gives Russia permission to have 25,000 personnel in the Fleet (end of Appendix 2), including almost 2000 marines and 132 combat vehicles (Article 7). That’s plenty to do what we’ve seen so far: Simferopol is only about 40 miles from the Fleet’s main base at Sevastopol.

The broad outlines of the relationship are set out in a different document: the Agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the Status and Conditions of the Presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the Territory of Ukraine.

Since my guess is that we’re going to be hearing a lot about claimed violations of that Treaty, I offer here my own translation of the most relevant points:

Article 4/1: “The general number of personnel, contingent of ships, boats, armament, and military equipment of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation located on the territory of Ukraine cannot exceed the level specified in the Agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the Parameters of Division of the Black Sea Fleet of 28 May 1997.”

Article 6/1: “Military formations will carry out their activities in their basing areas in correspondence with the laws of the Russian Federation, respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, observing its laws and permitting no interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine.”

Article 13/1: “Individuals joining the personnel of military formations cross the Russian-Ukrainian border on presentation of military identification proving their identity.”

Article 25: “The current Agreement is concluded for a period of 20 years, beginning with the date of its temporary application [1997] The term of action of the Agreement will be automatically extended for additional five-year periods, unless one of the parties informs the other in writing of the cancellation of the Agreement no later than one year prior to the expiration of its term of action.”

That deadline was later extended by a 2010 treaty. The Ukrainian text is available here. A Russian translation is available here, though it’s not clear if that’s the official Russian text or a translation of the Ukrainian text. Under those terms, the agreement is extended by twenty-five years from the 2017 expiration, with automatic extension in five-year increments unless denounced a year before expiration.

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Feb 28 2014

Guest post: What’s Wrong With This Picture? Well-Dressed Defense Ministers

Published by DStone under Contemporary

A guest post from Mark Wilcox:

What’s Wrong with This Picture?
Promotion opportunities within the upper ranks of the Russian Ministry of Defense must be very good these days. Witness Deputy Minister of Defense Anatoliy Antonov, whose portfolio includes international military cooperation and contacts between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) and foreign military forces. He must be doing something right, because he’s earned the right to wear four stars, not to mention a chest full of ribbons, as one can see in a video posted on the MOD website on 27 February 2014 (screen shot below):


What’s especially interesting about Antonov’s “star status” is the fact that he’s a diplomat, not a military officer. According to his official biography, he accumulated over 30 years of diplomatic service in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being appointed to the MOD in February 2011. The more intriguing question concerns the timing of Antonov’s wardrobe change. This video appears to be the first one in which the MOD has shown Antonov in uniform. The standard file photo, which appeared as late as 26 February, showed him wearing a suit with the top button of his shirt undone and his tie slightly askew (see “Zamestitel’ Ministerstva oborony Anatolii Antonov proinformiroval voennykh attashe o vnezapnoi kompleksnoi proverke boegotovnosti voisk i sil ZVO i TsVO.” Why the military shtick now? Is this part of Defense Minister Shoigu’s image improvement campaign for the MOD? Perhaps Antonov has enthusiastically thrown himself into the ongoing no-notice exercise in the Western and Central Military districts. Or could he be sending a not-so-subtle message to the interim government or the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine?
Maybe this is much ado about nothing; but, after all, clothes do make the man.

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Jan 19 2012

Kommersant on Russian Arms Imports

Published by DStone under Contemporary, Foreign Policy

Kommersant is usually a quite good newspaper, but published an article on Russian military purchases abroad that makes a serious historical mistake (partial English version here). Ivan Safronov is the reporter, but may not be responsible for the error. The article as a whole is an excellent survey of the issues surrounding the import of munitions, but its teaser paragraph claims “For the first time in the history of the Russian military, it had begun the purchase of weapons abroad.”

This neglects, of course, the imperial Russian army’s extensive purchases of weapons, particularly during World War I. It neglects the extensive Soviet purchase of systems, models and designs from abroad during the interwar period. The Soviet tank industry, for example, was essentially founded on designs from Vickers, Carden-Loyd, and Christie: the T-26, the T-27, and the BT series. And, of course, the Soviet Union used Western weaponry extensively during World War II as part of Lend-Lease.

In an accompanying survey of expert opinion, the Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen quite rightly points to World War I and Lend-Lease, though not the interwar period closest to my heart. Sergei Maev, though, claimed that “During the First World War, tsarist Russia paid in gold for ten million rifles, but the rifles never reached our borders until the end of the Civil War.” In actual fact, looking just at the United States (I don’t have figures for other suppliers at hand), Russia ordered 3.6 million rifles, and had 400,000 delivered by the February Revolution. While I would never claim that as a sterling performance by American industry, it’s a long way from nothing. Maev, who’s head of DOSAAF, Russia’s chief voluntary organization supporting the military, and a former director of Rosoboronzakaz, really ought to know better.

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Dec 21 2011

Nikolai Vatutin: An Inconvenient General?

In keeping with the Soviet tradition of marking the birthdays of important historical figures, the Voice of Russia (Russian text here) marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of General Nikolai Fedorovich Vatutin. While the profile is in general terms a good one, several things about it struck me as more representative of the current state of Russian military historiography than of the actual historical record.

Vatunin isn’t as well known in the West as he ought to be. His record at the 1943 Battle of Kursk and the subsequent liberation of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine from the Germans is an impressive one. Vatunin’s problem is that he died during the war, and as a result left no memoirs and played no role in the shaping of the war’s history in the way that comparable figures like Aleksandr Vasilevskii or Sergei Shtemenko could.

What the article focuses on, though, is Vatutin’s role as an “inconvenient [neudobnyi] general,” one who stood up to the country’s misguided political leadership on the eve of war. While this is an interpretation with obvious resonance in current circumstances of Russian military reforms that are opposed by the bulk of the high command, it’s not clear to me what grounds there are for this judgment in the historical record.

Vatutin’s rise to prominence postdated the 1937 purges, and so he didn’t have much opportunity to say anything especially controversial until 1938. While he did participate in the Main Military Council (the Soviet military’s collective deliberative body) in the pre-war years, it’s not clear that he said or did anything especially noteworthy. The Voice of Russia article cites Mikhail Miagkov to claim that Vatutin, not Georgii Zhukov, was the major force behind the May 1941 idea of a spoiling attack to disrupt Hitler’s obvious preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union. This likewise seems to me to lack much foundation. Vatutin here seems to be useful as a man who spoke truth to power, and then conveniently died. To credit Zhukov as the real force urging more active measures against the Germans would bring in all sorts of complications with Zhukov’s subsequent political career.

What struck me, though, was how little the article made of the circumstances of Vatutin’s death. He was ambushed by Ukrainian nationalist partisans in early 1944, and died of his wounds in hospital. While the article certainly mentions this fact, it does little with it. Given the Kremlin’s current preoccupation with East European nationalist movements, and its tendency to label as “falsification” any history that sympathizes with them against the Soviets, this was a missed opportunity to lambast the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

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