Generals Want Money for Yesterday's Cold War

(Bloomberg View) -- U.K. and U.S. generals have good reasons to be grateful to Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the first time since the Cold War, Russia serves as a compelling argument in the budgetary tug-of-war and a focus of military strategies -- a far easier one than the non-state threats that confounded military thinking for the last quarter of a century. The problem with the generals' take on the Russian threat, though, is that they want more money for old-school kinetic might and military bases when the actual Russian threat is elsewhere.

Monday's speech by Sir Nicholas Carter, chief of the U.K. General Staff, the country's top general, was aimed at supporting the military establishment's push for more military spending -- they are seeking closer to 3 percent of economic output than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 2 percent commitment. In the speech, Carter made much of the Russian threat: As he put it, the threat is the "most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the Cold War."

That's consistent with the new U.S. National Defense Strategy, which speaks of "strategic competition" with Russia and China as countries seeking to undermine the international order and asserts that it requires "both increased and sustained investment." You can almost hear the relief in the Western military community: Finally, it's not fighting guerrilla bands or terrorist organizations but competing powers, like in the good old days of the arms race.

Consciously or not, however, the generals are employing a bait-and-switch tactic in the most significant battle they're fighting so far -- that for funds.

Carter's presentation of the Russian threat included a 2013 propaganda video about the Russian military's rearmament program, which has since been cut and reworked, without translation ("Just simply listen to the tone of the commentary," Carter said). "It's all new stuff," he assured his audience at the Royal United Services Institute. But even without the dramatics, Carter's speech was self-contradictory.

The strategic competitors to the Western alliance, such as Russia, "have become masters at exploiting scenes between peace and war," Carter said. "What constitutes a weapon in this gray area no longer has to go bang," he added. "Energy, cash as bribes, corrupt business practices, cyberattacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda and, indeed, military intimidation are all examples of weapons used to gain advantage in this era of constant competition." 

Russia, Carter said, probably isn't about to start a war in a traditional sense. If it initiates hostilities, it will "use nefarious, sub-NATO Treaty Article 5 actions to erode the capability of NATO." "I don't think it'll start with little green men," Carter said in a reference to the soldiers in unmarked uniforms who took over Crimea in 2014. "It'll start with something which we don't expect."

So far, so good in terms of the analysis. But when it came to describing the desired response, Carter reverts to traditional solutions, like putting more boots on the ground in NATO countries bordering Russia and keeping the U.K. military base in Rheindalen, Germany, that was slotted for major cuts. 

How does a base in Germany or an extra platoon of soldiers in Poland help fight off a cyberattack or avert a bribery campaign? To avoid answering this question, Carter resorted to the tired idea that "Russians respect strength." He claimed that Russia wanted to seize more territory in Ukraine but was surprised by the Ukrainian resistance and had to limit itself to smaller gains. In fact, Russia's outright land grab was always limited to Crimea and it hasn't moved to recognize the pro-Moscow "people's republics" of eastern Ukraine as it did with the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, much less to annex them as it did with Crimea.

It's a dangerous myth that Putin has been in any way deterred by Ukrainian military strength. He's simply not interested in massive territorial conquests that would require great expense to hold and which would provide no advantages. His main goal in Ukraine is destabilization, and the "people's republics" get the job done for him. So do frequent cyberattacks, subversion and corruption.

That sort of hostile action cannot be defeated or deterred by keeping a British base near Germany's border with the Netherlands. There's nothing Putin wants in that area or anywhere near it. He's not sending "little green men" to take over the mayor's office in Moenchengladbach. Nor is he worried about another NATO battalion or two in Poland. His paranoia -- and the scenario of last year's Zapad military exercise, which Carter repeatedly mentioned in his speech -- is all about fighting off a massive NATO conventional attack, for which the Western alliance has sufficient strength regardless of how much the U.K. spends on defense this year. The U.K. alone, without its allies, will outspend Russia on defense in 2018 no matter what Carter achieves in funding terms. Its planned defense budget of 36 billion pounds ($50 billion) is some 16 percent higher than Russia's predicted expenditure of $43.1 billion.

Putin would gain no strategic advantage by invading Europe: Unlike Stalin at the end of World War II, who invaded with his Western allies' approval, he'd have no chance of building and holding a network of satellite states there. So arming for the eventuality that he'll send tanks or missiles to Germany is, at best, misguided.

Carter is probably right to expect more Russian propaganda, disinformation and cyberattacks to sow political instability and confusion. But these efforts are cheap. Fighting that kind of sub-warfare doesn't require a bump to the generals' budgets -- or, indeed, their help. With all due respect to their combat skills, soldiers are not good at attack-proofing government and corporate computer networks, and they're wholly unsuited to providing the only possible answers to propaganda campaigns -- honest journalism and media literacy training. It's not the military's job to combat corruption, either.

What Western militaries, intelligence communities and societies in general need is more understanding of Russian methods and motivations, something Carter admitted in the speech is lacking today. If one wants to throw money at that problem, however, academic institutions and diplomatic and intelligence services, not the military, should be the recipients.

Fighting yesterday's wars with more spending on boots and hardware is a reflexive temptation now that the Cold War is back. It should be resisted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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