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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May 29 2013

A Paragon of Openness and Transparency? Russia and Reporting

Published by DStone under Uncategorized

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.

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Feb 29 2012

Remarkably Dumb Journalism

Published by DStone under Uncategorized

While my post has little to do with Soviet military history, this does touch on Poland and on Harvard, so I can claim some relevance to the region and to higher education.

CNN Money this morning had the latest example of a remarkably stupid journalistic trope that never seems to die: that “Company X is worth more than Country Y.” In this particular case, it’s the claim that Apple is worth more than Poland, based on the idea that Apple’s market capitalization is greater than Poland’s Gross National Product. Both come to about $500 billion at the current Polish exchange rate, though Poland’s almost 50% better off if we use purchasing power parity.

Gregg Easterbook of ESPN likes doing the same thing for higher education, noting that Harvard, or rather Harvard’s endowment, is worth more than Kenya, or more than Iceland and Honduras combined.

Here’s the basic problem: comparing GDP to market capitalization or to endowment confuses what a what a country PRODUCES, the goods and services it makes, with what a company is WORTH, or what it would cost to buy it. Those are two entirely different concepts: comparing GDP to market capitalization or endowment is like comparing apples and apple trees. Take a bond: it might produce $5 in income a year, but cost $100 to buy.

The stock market says Apple is worth about $500 billion. So let’s see what we think Poland might actually be worth. Put another way, what would it cost to buy Poland? All these calculations are rough, back-of-the-envelope figures, but I think they illustrate the point.

Why don’t we start with industrial plant? An IMF working paper by Doyle, Kuijs, and Jiang puts Poland’s capital stock as of 2000 at about 200% of GDP, which would suggest that buying all the capital goods of Polish businesses would cost us about $1000billion.

Now agriculture. Poland’s largely agricultural: 40-50% of its land is farmland. Let’s say 40% of Poland’s 300,000 square kilometers is productive farmland, in order to be conservative. That makes 120,000 square kilometers, or 12,000,000 hectares. Let’s go with a conservative valuation of $4000 per hectare. That gives us $50billion for Polish farmland. That’s a substantial bargain, the result of legal obstacles to foreign ownership.

What about real estate? Poland’s got about 12 million households. Let’s take conservative estimates of a value of $1000 per square meter for residential real estate, and average property size of 60 square meters. That gives us $720billion for housing stock alone, not counting commercial property.

So leaving out all the malls and office buildings going up in Warsaw, and all those cows and pigs in the Polish countryside, we find it would cost at least $1770 billion to buy Poland, making it worth at least three times as much as Apple.

My question is why professional financial journalists make basic mistakes like this.

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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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