A guest post from Mark Wilcox . . .
A Paragon of Openness and Transparency?
When one thinks of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, it’s a safe bet that “openness and transparency” are not the first words that comesto mind. Over the past months, however, the Russians have displayed sensitivity to the concept and have even staged a campaign in one forum to demonstrate that they’re good citizens when it comes to providing information about their armed forces.
The large-scale unannounced exercise the Russian armed forces staged in and around the Black Sea at the end of March highlights the issue. The lack of prior notification caused angst on the part of some neighboring states. Quoting Russian television network RT, one source reported that the exercise was a surprise to the Russian armed forces and “for neighboring countries’ militaries as well, which were forced to rub sleep from their eyes and rush to their duties as up to 30 Russian battleships [sic] left port.” (29 March 2013). While the Russians might not have been particularly concerned about how some countries viewed the exercise, they took pains to point out their awareness of existing obligations to provide advance notification of certain exercises. According to a translation by the Open Source Center, a spokesman from the Russian Ministry of Defense originally reported that more than 7,100 troops were participating in the exercise. In a later report carried by Interfax, also translated by the Open Source Center, the Ministry of Defense reported that the exercise involved “about 7,000” troops. Of particular note, President Putin’s spokesman Dmitriy Peskov explained that the exercise was not subject to notification to other countries, since only up to 7,000 personnel were involved.
Why the revision of the number of troops involved in an exercise? And why would the president’s spokesman take pains to send the message that Russia was meeting its commitments with reference to the prior notification of military activities (which, by the way, are set out in the Vienna Document 2011 on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures in Europe and the Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures in the Naval Field in the Black Sea)?
Going back to January 2013, one finds a pattern of Russian attempts at good citizenship in this area. In a series of statements and a presentation to the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russians have aimed to set the bar for openness and transparency in military affairs. On 30 January, for example, “in keeping with…established good practice,” the Russian delegation described the results of the armed forces’ 2012 training year and outlined the goals and major training events for 2013. A week later, “[i]n line with the established tradition and as a sign of goodwill,” the Russians, to borrow an expression from Soviet times, overfulfilled the plan (the plan, in this case, was the Vienna Document 2011, which contains no provision for reporting on naval activities) by reporting to the FSC about the activities of the Russian Navy during an exercise in January 2013 and throughout 2012. The Russians continued this pattern of reporting on military activity that fell below the threshold for reporting under the Vienna Document 2011 on 20 February, when “on the basis of information from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and as a sign of goodwill” they described a series of exercises in 2013 in which the Russian armed forces and foreign forces participated. On 13 March, again based on information from the Ministry of Defense and “as a sign of goodwill,” the Russians offered a lengthy account of the expanded meeting of the Collegium of the Ministry of Defense that had occurred on 27 February. The Russians really went over the top, however, on 15 May, when “as a sign of good will, our delegation [continued] to inform our distinguished colleagues about the day-to-day activities of the Russian armed forces.” In addition to informing the FSC about a joint naval exercise with the Norwegians and reorganization within the Airborne Forces, the Russians provided a report – by military district – on the participation of the armed forces in parades commemorating Victory Day. By the Russians’ reckoning, “More than 38,000 military personnel, around 850 pieces of military equipment and 68 planes and helicopters were involved in the parades.”
What’s going on? Why the charm offensive with regard to openness and transparency on military affairs? Several complementary explanations come to mind. First, the Russians have been pushing for years to expand the regime of confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) beyond what is already captured in the Vienna Document 2011, for example, to apply specifically to so-called rapid-reaction forces. Given the deadlock over the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and conventional arms control in general, Moscow likely views CSBMs as a way to push for greater transparency –perhaps leading to new limitations – regarding the forces of the United States and NATO nations. Second, the deliberate highlighting of the activities of naval forces supports a long-standing Russian quest to include such forces in arms control regimes and CSBMs–a campaign the United States has consistently resisted. While this effort goes back many years, the Russians have tried over time to ratchet up the pressure on naval measures, for instance by circulating a food-for-thought paper at the 2008 OSCE Annual Security Review Conference that laid out the specifics of “fairly simple measures that would encompass the largest-scale planned naval activities conducted within the limited area of waters around Europe.” Third, the Russians might be conducting a strategic communications offensive to convey two messages: the Russian armed forces are serious about military reform, especially in light of the shortcomings that were apparent in the war against Georgia in 2008; and no one should doubt the ability of the Russian armed forces to carry out their tasks in defense of the country.
Notwithstanding the Russians’ eagerness to share their story in a diplomatic forum in Vienna, however, it remains to be seen whether they’ve overcome old habits on the ground back home. In September 2012, during the conduct of exercise Kavkaz-2012 in the Russian Southern Military District (one of the exercises the Russian delegation so proudly described to the FSC on 30 January 2013), a team led by the United States, acting under the provisions of the Vienna Document 2011, was stymied in their effort to carry out an inspection of the Kapustin Yar training area, this despite the fact that the Russians had notified the OSCE states that Kavkaz-2012 would be taking place there. Perhaps, then, good citizenship has its limits. It remains to be seen whether Russia’s wave of openness and transparency will spread beyond the halls of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna to the territory of the Russian Federation.
Note: For those interested, the aforementioned statements by the Delegation of the Russian Federation to the OSCE can be found on the website of the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation.
Mr. Mark Wilcox is a PhD student in the Security Studies Program at Kansas State University and an Assistant Professor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. Mr. Wilcox’s views are his alone and do not reflect those of the Command and General Staff College, the United States Army Combined Arms Center, or the United States Army.