Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Russia's Foray into Preemptive Warfare a New Challenge to its Security Establishment

Drafted by Yevgeny Bendersky

Recent pledges by Russia's senior defense ministers that the country will launch preemptive strikes against terrorist bases worldwide comes at a time of intense scrutiny and anger in the aftermath of the bloody hostage-freeing operation in Beslan, North Ossetia. The security services, lacking proper cooperation and coordination on the ground, were not able to free all the hostages, and the resulting shoot-out with the attackers left many adults, children and security personnel dead. Russia's statements about striking terrorists in any part of the world portray a new type of warfare that presents the Russian security establishment with totally new and difficult challenges.

So far, the only country with a true capacity for preemptive strikes against terrorist bases worldwide is the United States. It operates a wide range of military bases in all parts of the world that are augmented by the presence of aircraft carrier groups in all major oceans and seas. This military infrastructure is backed by a high-tech system of "eyes and ears" on the ground, in the air and outer space -- from satellites and unmanned aircraft to various intelligence facilities capable of processing large quantities of imagery and communication from practically any part of the world. The United States expends major funds to maintain its ability to conduct preemptive style warfare, enshrined in its official 2002 National Security Strategy.

But even for such a well-funded and high-tech effort, the results are mixed. Washington's 1998 smart weapon strike at the suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan following the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania did not stop the militants from relocating their efforts to other countries, nor resulted in the actual destruction of the bases in question. One such base turned out to be a fertilizer/pharmaceutical factory, and its actual role in attacks on the U.S. was held in question.

Washington fared much better when it went after Taliban bases and strongholds in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks on U.S. soil, bringing the large network of its army, navy, air force and intelligence agencies to bear on the opponent's forces. Yet, even with the ousting of the Taliban, many of its fighters have reorganized and regrouped for a new round of warfare that is being experienced by U.S. forces today. Still, preemptive warfare will continue to figure prominently in successive U.S. administrations as one of the best ways to combat worldwide terrorism.

- Russia

Russia, on the other hand, lacks the extensive and expensive networks of bases and intelligence-deployment capabilities to actually be true to its word of going after bases "regardless of what region they are located in," according to Yury Baluevsky, Russia's chief of the general staff. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia's external military capabilities have been greatly curtailed, resulting in recalling its personnel and even closing some bases in many parts of the world. While Russian intelligence may be capable of intercepting and deciphering communication traffic between suspected militants and their bases, this effort has not been followed up by quick military action necessary to destroy the threat. The country did have limited success in preemptive strikes against the Chechen leadership in the first Chechen War of 1994-1996; indeed, Russia's missile strike killed the leader and inspiration of Chechen resistance, General Djohar Dudaev, after intercepting his cellular!
phone conversation. But such succe
sses have been few, as Russia is trying to adjust to the geopolitical reality of the new threat posed by the largely-international terrorist efforts.

At present, Russia has a growing network of bases in its near-abroad, in Central Asian and Caucasus countries on its southern borders. Its military presence in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia, as well as Georgia, allows it to launch potential strikes at a number of countries that may have terrorist bases on their territories. Such capability will augment Central Asia's fight against its own terrorist formations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

But Russia has limited military reach beyond its southern rim, and military strikes against other states may invite unwelcome political stalemates. This took place recently with the Republic of Georgia's public stand against the Russian Federation on the question of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, located to the south of Chechnya. The Russian government was convinced that Chechen rebels and terrorists who supported them were hiding out in the gorge, and repeatedly pressured Georgia to allow Russian forces to invade.

The Georgian government rejected such proposals, instead relying on its U.S.-trained troops to conduct a sweep of the area in question. The sweep revealed no threatening presence of guerrillas, and the Russian government accused Georgia of wasting time and allowing the suspected fighters to escape. At question in this scenario was the violation of Georgia's territorial integrity and the potential military conflict that might have resulted between the two countries.

Nor is Russia capable of containing the situation in Chechnya to the levels where military action alone should be enough to limit the rebel activity. The deadly attack on Ingushetian and Russian forces by the Chechen guerrillas this summer underscored Russian forces' inability to identify and interdict the potential threats before they materialize, a crucial factor in conducting preemptive operations. Recent attacks in Beslan once again drove home Russia's need for more capability amongst its various security forces to properly meet the new threats before they occur.

This weakness, according to Russian military experts, stems from the unpreparedness of Russian security forces to combat new threats. Russia's special forces are still using the modus operandi of the Cold War, when they were created for counter-terrorist operations. However, the terrorist threat itself has changed drastically since that time, and the new crop of hostage-takers do not ask for financial compensation, or the ability to escape unarmed to a neutral territory.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S.S.R.'s special forces were trained to act after its government would undertake a major negotiation effort. At present, such conditions no longer apply. As the situation in Beslan showed, fast, coordinated, well-rehearsed action -- the opposite of what actually took place -- by the security forces was necessary to prevent the tragedy.

- Russo-Israeli Cooperation

Russia's new orientation towards worldwide preemptive action presents new opportunities for the country to gain valuable experience in this dangerous endeavor. To that end, Moscow has recently announced anti-terrorist cooperation with Israel. Israel's long history of fighting terrorism and the extensive experience of its security forces will be of crucial importance to the beleaguered Russian security establishment. Israel will benefit from even closer cooperation with Russia on one issue that touches a raw nerve in both countries. But even this logical step towards cooperation has the potential of having only limited success, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov carefully pointed out that any Middle Eastern counter-terrorism alliance would have to include Arab countries with which Russia has already coordinated on security issues, such as Saudi Arabia and Syria.

This presents a challenge to Russia's efforts to act preemptively against budding or mature terrorist threats. Syria, Russia's chief client state in the Middle East and a major purchaser of Russian military hardware, is itself accused by Israel and the United States of harboring and abetting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel has never felt comfortable sharing any security information with Syria or Saudi Arabia. And while Russia's statements on cooperation are a nod to its traditional allies in the region, this geopolitical gamble might have the potential of limiting the open sharing of information amongst the countries in question, limiting the ability to act fast in case of a terrorist threat. Nor is it clear how Syria would respond to cooperating with Israel through Russian third parties on issues other than those discussed in the long Middle East Peace Process.

President Putin, in his address to the country following the Beslan tragedy, said that "weak are beaten by the strong," acknowledging that Russia's security situation have demonstrated dangerous weakness in the face of the Chechen terrorist threat. At the same time, as Russia is not capable of interdicting threats within its own borders, it is also not capable of projecting its preemptive military forces worldwide beyond its sphere of influence in the Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The capacity to engage terrorist threats "regardless of what region they are located in," pledged by General Baluevsky in a recent Russian-N.A.T.O. meeting, requires a major overhaul of Russia's domestic security apparatus, a task made even more difficult by the inability to properly reorient its domestic security forces towards winning the war in Chechnya. While Russia has conducted counter-terrorism training exercises with its Central Asian allies, demonstrating a multinational, high-tech, rapid-reaction effort, the difficult reality of preemptive targeting of terrorists worldwide necessitates an even greater cooperation than its carefully worded statements on working with Israel.

- Russo-American Cooperation

Since the United States is the only country in the world that has the potential to quickly mobilize its security forces for a preemptive strike, Russia may attempt to seek greater cooperation with Washington. The workings of this relationship are already in place. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has discussed anti-terrorist operations with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Since the U.S. has also been the target of a major terrorist attack, Ivanov stated: "it was easier to find grounds for an understanding with the U.S. than with some European states."

The United States alone maintains a major presence in all the world's hotspots, from actual military force deployment to anti-terrorist training in the Pan-Sahel states of Mali and Niger, in the failed state of Somalia, in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the towns of Iraq. If Russia is to be true to its word of "striking on bases without warning and with any means except nuclear weapons," it is very likely that it will come to target countries where the U.S. is already engaged in anti-terrorist operations. Such states may include Afghanistan, the North-West Frontier Region of Pakistan, Somalia or even the Philippines. Greater U.S.-Russian cooperation in any form -- from actual joint military strikes to training to sharing vital intelligence -- could benefit both states.

The U.S. will gain a valuable international player with its own extensive intelligence connections, and Russia might succeed in actually targeting potential threats to its territory with an American anti-terrorist infrastructure already in place. Yet, even this possible level of cooperation carries with it certain geopolitical concerns for America's new sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The United States has actively engaged itself in Georgia, in effect propping up a regime that was hostile to Moscow in many forms since 2001. The U.S. is also involved in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and is considering opening a military base in Azerbaijan.

Closer Russian cooperation with the U.S. security apparatus in the region may have the effect of strengthening Russia's decade-long drive for greater dominance in the above-mentioned states. Thus, while Washington is looking forward to greater anti-terrorist cooperation with Moscow, it will do so by keeping its geopolitical concerns on the forefront of any bilateral efforts.

Of greater uncertainty is Russia's cooperation with specific Arab states while at the same time trying to extensively cooperate with Israel. This would cast its relationship with certain Middle Eastern countries in a new light, for Russia's greatest advantage in its new chapter of anti-terrorist warfare lies in close cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem. In addition, there is an indication that Arab states may react very negatively to Russia's efforts in preemptive warfare. This February, Qatar convicted two Russian security agents of the targeted car bomb killing of a former Chechen rebel leader. In contrast, it is doubtful that Israel would try to convict Russian agents if they targeted a militant in either Gaza or the West Bank who was proven to have connections to Chechen separatists and their supporters.

- Conclusion

Russia's statements of preemptive strikes in lieu of Beslan propel its anti-terrorist efforts on the world arena. Major questions and doubts surround Russia's actual capacity to conduct such operations, following its decade-long inability to defeat terrorist and guerrilla formations on its own territory. Yet, the new efforts on behalf of Moscow to safeguard its population against future threats -- wherever they originate -- will not be lone efforts and will open the door to greater cooperation between states that are most affected by terrorism. While Russia needs to undertake a painful reorganization of its security forces to meet new worldwide challenges, its active work with the U.S. or Israel might contribute to greater security for its territory and its citizens.

- The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to

-Posted on September 20, 2004


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