Putin’s week-long disappearance: checking if Russia can fight two and a half wars at once

Sergei Shoigu, Vladimir Putin
Vida Press

This analysis was provided by defense expert retired Major Daivis Petraitis, who presented his view of the new face of the Russian military at the Ministry of National Defence.

As is known, Russia began to implement reform of its armed forces in 2008.

According to Petraitis, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s week-long disappearance in March was related to the military reform effort. In Petraitis’ opinion, it was during that specific week that the National Defense Coordination Center was going through operational checks. During wartime, the Center would be the control and coordination point for the entire nation, but will be used during times of peace as well.

Copying the US model

According to Petraitis, in actuality, preparations for military reform in Russia started in 2000, although officially the reform started in 2008. An ambition for reform was hinted at in the Russian military doctrine of 2000 as well as within the famous doctrine of Sergei Ivanov.

Ivanov stated in his doctrine what the army of the future should be. The main objective – the ability to fight two and a half conflicts at the same time without any advance preparation. Even during the Soviet period, the huge military of the Soviet Union did not have the competency to fight that many conflicts at the same time.

“Having received that political directive – in supporting two and a half conflicts – the Russian military went to work,” said Petraitis.

There were multiple stages of the reform. In 2005-2008, there began preparations for the reform and elimination of those who opposed it. In 2008-2009 the first phase of tactical reorganization was carried out along with the creation of a new brigade structure. The second phase began in 2010-2012, the reorganization of operational and strategic levels, management of operations and the creation of a joint strategic command. The third phase – optimization of the military structure during 2012-2015 and military resupply of arms 2012-2020.

“The entire military organizational model was being changed, including military concepts and tactics. If stated briefly, Russia didn’t create an original idea, they just copied the US military machine,” said Petraitis.

According to Petraitis, during these reforms Russia oriented itself toward territorial or mission-based command. Therefore, the largest strategic distribution is a joint strategic command, which is responsible for territories or their respective missions, such as nuclear forces or the Rapid Reaction Force.

Creation of a territorial command was easy to develop in Russia, according to Petraitis. It was much more difficult to “break the mentality” and create a mission-based command.

According to Petraitis, the individual who played a vital role during the period from 2007-2012 was Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov: “In one day he had the competency to let go of 142,000 so-called praporshchiks.”

Sergei Shoigu then became the new Defense Minister. Petraitis says he is a person who can get people to work. “This is the man who can fine-tune, lubricate and train any mechanism,” says Petraitis.

“What’s interesting is that Mr Shoigu, before joining the Defense Ministry, became a civilian. He came in as a civilian and stayed a civilian one day. The first thing he did was clean the house and let go of all the people who had to go. Another thing, the next day there were no more civilians left in the Ministry. When I show this to westerners, they say, what’s so special about it? This once again shows how the West does not understand Russia. Imagine the situation: the president orders a war to start at 4 am tomorrow morning,”said the defense expert.

According to Petraitis, in such a situation a civilian minister may say he doesn’t agree and ask for political consultations or offers their resignation. The moment will be gone.

“According to the Russian or Prussian military tradition, a General can say yes or no. If they say no, two options remain – either shoot yourself or be expelled, and a new General will be appointed in half an hour. And so forth with the second, third, fourth General until the order is executed. In the West it is difficult to understand, but in Russia it is the reality, says Petraitis.

The main task for Shoigu

Major Petraitis says that for Russia, the most important thing was to create operational forces and to determine if they were actually able to fight two and a half conflicts at the same time. This required the creation of a National Coordination Center for Defense.

This was the primary challenge for Mr Shoigu.

“The center essentially controls all state activities. According to the approved defense plan, some report 47 or as many as 50 ministries and experts are pulled in to this national defense plan,” said Mr. Petraitis.

The center’s purview includes the senior armed forces leadership, the sphere of the president and the Security Council that conducts political leadership, the control center for all military operations and defense support center which controls day-to-day operations of state institutions that organize national defense.

“The center was quite thoroughly tested and checked,”said Petraitis.

“Those who know history are aware that Stalin created the so-called stavka – the institution that held power over everything and was undisputed in its ruling. After the war, this institution was disbanded as no country can afford to maintain a wartime stance all the time. In the Soviet times, there was a peacetime structure, which in case of mobilization had to be reformed into something similar to the so-called stavka or the High Command. Now the state created the National Defense Coordination Center so that there is almost no difference,,”says Petraitis.

Where did Putin go?

The center’s main task is to ensure the state’s ability to coordinate its political ambition: supporting two and a half military conflicts at the same time.

“We all wondered, where did Putin disappear for a week? I have my own answer to that question. Since most military helicopters were flying to Moscow, I took a look at where the rest of the military leadership was at that time. I believe that during that week, strategic-level questions were being discussed. Perhaps one of the most important: is it worth the risk to check the center’s operations now or leave this for the year’s end as the reform plan had noted for 2015. The decision was made to check it now,” said Petraitis.

To support his conjectures he points to the Russian military exercises in the west and the east. Petraitis recalls that several weeks ago near the Lithuanian borders “there was the noise of airplanes, tanks, all of us were thinking what’s going on here”.

“It is my firm belief, and I have almost no doubt, that what really took place then was testing the Center’s competency and determining if it was possible to support two and a half conflicts at the same time,” said Mr. Petraitis.

According to him, in the west Russia held an offensive simulation. This exercise involved about 40-50 thousand soldiers, five thousand tanks, 70-80 ships and 220 aircraft.

At the same time in the east, there was a defensive simulation, mobilizing 10-15 thousand soldiers, one thousand tanks, up to 10 ships and 4-10 aircraft.

“One of the simple indicators I submit is that if the exercise in the west involved more than 20 war-time command units (brigade level or higher), then the eastern exercise had 30. Reinforcements were to be provided from relevant forces of the so-called Rapid Response Unit,” said Mr. Petraitis.

He adds that this is not all – on the same day in the country’s south, Russia’s only peacekeeping Brigade, the 15th, launched a “peace-keeping operation”. It was a two-brigade operation whose purpose was peacekeeping and security in the region.

“So basically the whole week was an exercise to test the national government’s ability to fight two and a half conflicts. I think that by the end of the week, when the political and military leadership saw that they were successful, they made this unbelievable gesture of inviting every defense attaché and showed them the results. Russia basically said: Look, we have the ability to fight two and a half conflicts in a way no one else can. US now claims that their ambition is one and a half conflicts,”said Petraitis.

The Major notes that Russia essentially created the operational force competent to fight two and a half conflicts but these forces are not yet in the position to actually fight until the reforms are complete.

Petraitis also notes that Russia is completing the first phase of military rearmament; the second phase will be completed when the Russian army is equipped with new-generation weaponry. “If after a month we see parades with this new technology, we will recognize the tremendous efforts Russia expended to stay on schedule with the reforms it announced around a decade ago,” he said.

Using private military firms

Petraitis says that hybrid warfare, of the kind demonstrated in Ukraine, is not a new phenomenon. Essentially, there are no longer any boundaries to war. One won’t know when it starts or when it ends.

“The purpose of these new wars isn’t occupation of territory, but expanding defensive capabilities, breaking down the will of self-defense forces and creating pro-Russian political regime change. The name of the country may not change. National symbols may not change – but the political regime will change,” said Mr. Petraitis.

According to him, Russia understands that future wars will not need a huge force. Moscow, as well as some other countries, started using private military companies.

“Officially, they don’t exist in Russia, these so-called private security firms. One can see, though, that within the existing law they are non-governmental tools the Defense Ministry has at its disposal to use in foreign missions where official state action may not be possible,” said Petraitis.

Petraitis firmly believes that the “polite little green men” in Crimea were from private military companies.

A second important element in hybrid warfare is secret services. People from these services can stir up and cause confusion. “And then will come the special forces. These will be military airborne assault rapid deployment forces. They will call themselves Special Forces, but in reality it will be a rapid reaction force,” says Petraitis.

“In practice, this may be what we have seen in Crimea. There will appear the fifth and sixth columns. There will appear private military firms that will be hired by the fifth column and then the work of the true special forces begins. At the time of conflict, the rapid reaction forces, the airborne-based component of the response, will become operational within 24 hours. True, classic military forces will appear only in the middle of the conflict. After that there will follow de-escalation, once there is a need to stop the conflict. At this point, the nuclear element can be introduced, which can be used for blackmailing or, in the case of defeat, for saving your skin. And at the end of the conflict, one can activate the full spectrum of one’s forces.”

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