Time for a Counterattack on the Kremlin

It’s my pleasure to offer an insightful guest post from Johan Wiktorin, former Swedish Military Intelligence and a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences. Follow him on Twitter: @forsvarsakerhet


In Ukraine, the cease-fire is on the ropes with daily reports of artillery-fire and shootings. It is established that the Russian Armed Forces is one of the warring factions. A couple of weeks ago, the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, acknowledged on television that Sweden had verified, supposedly by its own intelligence services, that Russian artillery was firing into Ukraine.

There are other proofs as well. In a long blogpost at Bellingcat a few days ago, journalist Iggy Ostanin showed convincingly that the individual Buk SAM-system that shot down MH17 in July has returned to Russia and resumed its place in the 53th Brigade of the Russian PVO (Air Defense Forces).

In Russia, different numbers are circulating with regard to how many soldiers have died in Ukraine. From members of the President’s Council of Human Rights a number of “more than 100” has been named. Another figure is 140, taken from transcripts with soldiers from the Pskov area, where the elite 76th Airborne (VDV) Division is based. We also have an assessment between 300-400 KIA, but that claim has been rejected by the organization “Soldiers’ Mothers” as being too high. Since we have some experience to lean on, when it comes to losses in combat, it is possible to do a reasonable calculation in reverse.

In Sweden, the calculus for combat losses is around eight percent for a unit’s prolonged heavy combat. The spectrum for the losses themselves are 1/5 KIA, 3/5 WIA and 1/5 WIA with no medical care needed. This would mean that 1.6 percent (0.08 x 0.2) of the troops inserted to combat is KIA, which would mean 8,750 troops participating would result in 140 KIA, for example.

The figure of nearly 9 000 Russian troops in Ukraine can be corroborated by the courageous Valentina Melnikova, head of ” Soldiers’ Mothers” in Moscow, who claims their count is that 10,000 Russian troops have been deployed inside Ukraine, in total.

Not that the Kremlin cares. By using a twofold strategy, Moscow is outflanking one of the most efficient tools in the Western world, the free and credible media. Since the volume of information has been and is rapidly rising in the modern world, and at the same time the human mind’s ability to value information is more or less the same, they are flooding the world with outright propaganda and lies by establishments such as RT outside Russia and Channel One (State TV) inside the country.

For every news article produced in the West, there is one counter-proposal and one hilarious conspiracy produced by Moscow, which slows the information process and decision-making for the Western public and thereby the political base.

On the other hand, there is a concealment strategy as well. By raising the bar to “prove” important facts, the Russians are masquerading in every detail. No patches, no paintings and heavy use by proxies, some of them intelligence officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) or Military Intelligence (GRU) posing as separatists. These steps produce ambiguity, and therefore the established media has difficulty checking facts out, and instead has to be careful in the wording describing the Kremlin’s actions and policy.

Thus, as in guerrilla warfare, the opposition wins by not losing. By overwhelming the Western public information system in terms of both quantity and demands on quality, the Kremlin is producing a counter-narrative powerful enough to reduce Western responses.

Plus Vladimir Putin is playing in other arenas as well. Over the last decade, Russia has refined its overarching strategy to bear upon each and individual European country. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sounds rather similar to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when describing the future for liberal democracies.

In France, the Kremlin has been flirting with the nationalist right, resulting in an open admiration of the Russian leader by the republic’s very possibly next president, Marine Le Pen. The socialists in France for their part are doing everything to avoid a cancellation of the sale of the already ordered two Mistral amphibious ships to Russia: a 21st century version of Lenin’s rope to the capitalists.

In the UK, the government is in a stir and distracted, after the last poll showing a possible independence vote for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. While Prime Minister David Cameron has displayed some leadership qualities regarding the threat from the “Islamic State”, his European policy is in tatters with a promise to organize a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, should the Conservatives win the election next year. Labour, on the other hand, risks losing their most important electoral region, Scotland, which would mean a strong downturn for them in the next election. All this leaves the floor open for the nationalists of UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage often is seen on the TV programs of … RT.

This leaves us with Germany. This economic engine of Europe is the most consistent power with the potential to confront Russia. While Germany has been zig-zagging between a pragmatic conservative, NATO-positve line, and an equally pragmatic line similar to 1970s Ostpolitik, for now Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaning in the former direction. Being raised in DDR and speaking the Russian language, she knows more than most the Kremlin mentality.

Being a strong economy that is treated with respect even in the Kremlin, Berlin is very important for the Transatlantic link to hold together. However, Germany has one disadvantage. Berlin does not want to get involved in an armed conflict with Russia and that is also known in the Kremlin. That line of thinking resonates through German political life, and Vladimir Putin knows that too well, having the former Bundeskanzler Schröder as a close friend.

Such is the state of Europe, which the USA is supposed to lead. NATO just finished its summit in Wales and the spin-doctors were working at double-speed. Now, it was announced, it is the time to form a new force inside the Alliance. Like a Russian doll, obviously, and much drumming was heard for the foundation of NATO’s new mission. Although Russia has broken both the CFE and INF Treaties, invaded Georgia and grabbed Crimea, it was not until this summer the Alliance started to wake up. But 4 000 soldiers will not impress the Kremlin, which can muster tenfold as many on NATO’s eastern borders in a moment.

And just to prove their point, Russian special services snapped a seasoned Estonian counterintelligence officer on duty close to the Russian border. Here, Kremlin rulers displayed outright contempt for NATO by performing this skillful and stunning act just days after President Obama in the capital of Estonia assured everyone in the Alliance that the “Musketeer credo” — all for one and one for all — is still in place. By carrying out this cunning operation the Kremlin has done its best to discredit the US President personally as well as undermining his words.

The truth is that Vladimir Putin and his loyal oligarchs are on their way to outperform Western leaders on the ladder of escalation. Grounded in a solid and proper belief that Western superiority is overwhelming in conventional arms, the Kremlin has admitted that fact and therefore developed a modern concept for warfare below the threshold of ordinary conventional warfare with tanks and artillery. By crafting Special War, as Professor John Schindler coined it, with propaganda, provocations, deception and special forces working under the umbrella of the officers in of Moscow’s security state, Russia does everything it can to avoid confronting Western strengths in the conventional military arena.

The same goes for the nuclear field, where the risk of mutual annihilation by intercontinental missiles with multiple warheads builds a scary ceiling. In contrast, the Russian armed forces are devoting significant resources and thinking to develop a concept for using tactical nuclear missiles on the 21st century battlefield. By building that capacity into platforms such as the SS-26 Stone, they are putting forward two difficult questions to the Western world.

The first is to find these mobile systems in order to engage them. Compared to strategic weapons, which in many cases can be localized and followed, the SS-26 in their mobile missile brigades moves around on the battlefield and can be relatively easy hidden. More important is that the capacity of these weapons drives a wedge across the Atlantic. The strategic message from Russia of having this capability is that they may be ready to use them, but it is not directed at the Continental United States since their range is far too limited.

This puts Washington, DC, in a major dilemma on how to respond, even today. Should the Americans start a rearmament of their own limited-range nuclear capacity and place these weapons on European soil, risking protests from strategically disengaged Europeans? Or should the White House just leave it there and risk a Russian propaganda offensive about how vulnerable and even abandoned Europe is? Thereby the Kremlin is threatening to outmaneuver the West by surrounding the conventional capability both below and over it in terms of escalation. How to break this momentum?

As the great Sun Tzu stated: “Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans.”  It is now time to start acting and not going merely tit-for-tat with Moscow.

One formula to employ, though the techniques required might require deep thinking, is to break the bond between the Farages, the Schröders, the de Villiers alike and the Kremlin on the Western side. That means attacking possible venues of Moscow-funded corruption, which is slow-cooking Western values.

Another angle of attack is much easier to spell out. The time has arrived for some good, old-fashioned treatment of Russian intelligence operatives. We have to expel them from the West. A coordinated US/European counterintelligence operation, in which every suspected Russian operative is sent home, sends a very powerful message into the heart of the security state that Russia regrettably has become. It also disrupts operations going on in our countries, where officers from the FSB, GRU and SVR are directing illegals, trying to influence people in high places while recruiting more to secretly work for Moscow.

This will buy the West some time and space to craft a workable strategy to counter Russia’s powerful propaganda and its tactical nuclear weapons. Not that we should have any doubts that the Kremlin eventually will fail, but it is the potential for great havoc wrought by frightened men around Red Square that we must avert, while there remains time to do so.



11 comments on “Time for a Counterattack on the Kremlin”
  1. Excellent piece.

    An observation on the political connections, in particular breaking the bonds with the Farages, the Schröders, the de Villiers.

    The issue of Kremlin infiltration of European politics appears to be inverted when comparing the UK with Hungary for example.

    It is an observation from direct experience that the depth of penetration of Russia’s propaganda at the grass roots level within the UK is stronger than at party leadership level.

    RT in particular has established loyal audiences on-line, and is regarded as an impartial modern news agency – a mainstream authority – rather than propaganda outlet by many. That is significantly different compared the US experience.

    RT’s coverage of European anti-austerity unrest over the past few years, including the events which took place in Malmo 2013, helped establish RT’s credibility in the minds of many. That coverage was seen as ‘honest’ whilst the lack of coverage elsewhere became regarded as a form of censorship designed to reinforce politically correct beliefs, ‘enforce’ support for the European Union itself, and constituted a deception, calling into question the credibility of traditional outlets.

    RT’s coverage of course was designed to insinuate that there was some sort of politically motivated cover up of events being conducted by member States.

    Irrespective of the actual accuracy of those beliefs, now that credibility has been established and RT’s output trusted, it’s propaganda is now accepted uncritically by many people: A very dangerous situation and one which will be very difficult to reverse.

    Russia is trying to repeat their RT formula in the Spanish sphere at present.

    This impact in at the grass roots level should be of more if not equal concern to the influence that the Kremlin holds over actual party leaders, and is a major hidden component of the special war being conducted to subvert public opinion in foreign nations, mainly with a view to disarming dissent towards Russia’s actions it would appear.

  2. Who is “Nick Farage”? Maybe you’re confusing Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Nigel Farage, of UKIP?

    I also find the notion that America is “supposed to lead” Europe rather interesting… Leading NATO, certainly, but leading “Europe”? That doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

    1. 20committee says:

      Good eye, thanks!

    2. Just a thought says:

      Nick, it has a lot of sense. The current mercantile mediocracy leadership of Europe is too weak and and aimless. If America will not do it, Mr.Putin will.

  3. Want2No says:

    “Such is the state of Europe, which the USA is supposed to lead.”

    Doesn’t sound like a situation that will allow Mr. Obama to “lead from behind.”

  4. Wait&C says:

    How would Putin react if unmarked bombers from an unknown country annihilate a russian brigade on ukrainian territory?

    I guess he would simply stay silent about it because it would prove his troops are actually fighting in ukraine and are no match for western air force. He would rather remove his troops than publically lament about it.

    Actually I guess he already is ignoring similiar events where pro-russian operations where thwarted by ukrainian artillery firing at targets aquired by foreign intelligence. Tom Clancy anyone?

  5. A good memory can beat Google says:

    Russians are more into victory or loss than in finding a compromise. This implies that we should give them losses.

    Expelling Russian operatives is a good idea, but we have to arrest some as well and keep them under investigation, especially since they have kidnapped Eston Kohver and we need something to trade with.

    A suitable day for actions against Russian intelligence is December 20, as a memory of the creation of the Cheka in 1917. However, we can not wait that long, Why not take September 18 the formation date of the SVR in 1991?

  6. davidlevine764797821 says:

    Great post Johan and thanks John for posting.
    Expelling operatives is a great idea. Now we just need Western governments to remember how to do it. Sadly, I think they will find that many of these operatives are deeply embedded and their expelling or surfacing will implicate powerful people especially in Europe.
    Another area that need to be addressed is Russian propaganda.
    Edward Lucas linked to this great blog post on “How Russia Defeated Western Journalism” http://euan-macdonald.blogspot.se/2014/09/how-russia-defeated-western-journalism.html
    What are your ideas for defeating this threat? It feels like there is already a natural process happening in that Western Media has clearly seen that Russia lies and lies again. From Crimea to MH17 to Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, it’s clear they’ve lied.
    Will this progression continue? What if anything can Western governments do to help when it’s far more of a private thing in the West than it is, obviously, in Russia,
    We can expel their intel operatives but propaganda in the age of the internet is borderless.

  7. Airwalk says:

    I thought I share this analysis with you, issued by the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies (Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich): “Is Russia making preparations for a great war?” http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2014-09-24/russia-making-preparations-a-great-war

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