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Guest opinion: Proposed Russian military deployment in Iraq fraught with consequences'

Over the last several months, political discussion has centered on the rumored deployment of up to 40,000 Russian troops to either Iraq or Afghanistan in order to help the United States fight the "war on terrorism" and to provide much-needed relief to Washington's forces. While there are no final details yet on whether or not the deployment will actually occur, the idea itself raises a number of strategic concerns for the Russian Federation as it tries to re-establish its influence in world affairs.

Positive Effects of Deployment

The proposed deployment would have positive aspects to both Moscow and Washington. For the U.S., a major deployment of an international military force to either Iraq or Afghanistan means a much-needed foreign policy victory for President Bush in the closing months of the presidential election campaign. Such a sizeable deployment means much relief for the American forces that have been fighting nonstop since the end of major combat operations in the spring of 2003. Washington will also be able to dilute a strong French-German-Russian quasi-alliance that defied the United States prior to and during its war in Iraq.

For Russia, the future benefits of such an overseas military deployment mean a greater economic stake in Iraq, especially for its oil and gas companies, and a possible membership in the World Trade Organization. While the benefits of this possible deployment are significant, questions still remain over whether Russia will indeed be able to pull off such a large deployment of men and materiel to major military hotspots.

Moscow attempts to strengthen its regional influence

Since the end of the Cold War, Moscow has tried to reassert its military weight in world affairs, and is bent on regaining influence amongst its former satellites, most notably in Central Asia. It already maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan and restive Georgia, helps to protect the borders in Tajikistan, and has a very strong military alliance with Armenia. All signs point to the increase of such activities in the years to come, as the Russian Federation will compete with the United States and China for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Over the years, Moscow has been holding military exercises in order to strengthen influence in its near abroad and to re-orient its military towards the new challenges of the 21st century. Two such recent exercises are useful tests of whether or not Russia will be able to successfully deploy a large contingent and maintain its military edge in the Middle East or Afghanistan.

This summer, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik special forces and Marine detachments - comprising a thousand soldiers - have engaged in a mock battle with a "terrorist" contingent of several hundred fighters in the "Frontier-2004" exercise, conducted on the border region between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. On June 21-25, Russia conducted the "Mobility-2004" exercise in the Far East region, preparing for a possible deployment of a rapid reaction force from one part of the country to the other. As the coalition forces battled the "insurgents" during "Frontier-2004," they had to first deploy the troops around the suspected "rebels" via newest and upgraded helicopters and under cover of close-support aviation, and then fight their way into a village taken over by the retreating "enemy." Coordinated actions of this multinational force finished off the "insurgents" in just several hours.

While this type of operation might be exactly the kind of warfare Russian troops will be experiencing in possible conflicts in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and even Iraq or Afghanistan, the success of the exercise was almost guaranteed by the presence of Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and a large number of Russian and Central Asian military and political representatives. To hand a defeat to this coalition force or to suffer a setback would have embarrassed the generals and ministers present, all of whom wanted a victory - even if somewhat scripted - in order to declare preparedness to fight new types of wars against terrorist- and religious-fundamentalist formations.

Russia's second exercise, "Mobility-2004," involved 3,000 troops, several hundred armored vehicles and artillery pieces and several dozen support ships and aircraft. This particular exercise was held in order to simulate the deployment of a marine-type military formation to an unfamiliar environment in order to conduct short- and long-term operations. To the Russian military, which has been based for decades on the offensive-defensive Cold War-style warfare, this type of deployment is a new and untested territory. It will call its forces to act on local conflicts happening either deep inside another country or within its coastal regions, demanding mobility and rapid reaction to the constantly changing battlefield environment.

While "Mobility-2004" was a worthy attempt at simulating this type of warfare, the exercise was handicapped by a small number of troops and materiel present. Essentially, Russia was capable of "deploying" only several battalions into the "unfamiliar" territory - while the real battle scenario might call for thousands more troops. The total number of marines in Russia is currently a fraction of its equivalent force in the United States - the country Russia tries to imitate through its military reforms. Nor does Russia have enough equipment to support a deployment in excess of its recently conducted exercise.

Negative effects of deployment

The proposed deployment of Russian forces to either Iraq or Afghanistan will expose them once again to the very environment that is painfully familiar to the entire country. From 1994 to 1996, and from the fall of 1999 to the present day, Russian forces are fighting a bloody and difficult war in its restive republic of Chechnya. Officially, the Kremlin keeps assuring its people and the international community that it has full control over the republic and only few pockets of resistance remain. Thousands of Russian soldiers have lost their lives in quelling the Chechen rebellion, and thousands more have been wounded. Russia has expended enormous resources in order to sustain its military operations there, and nearly all of its combat-ready troops are located there or in the surrounding territory.

Chechen warfare is eerily similar to what is happening in Iraq at the moment, especially in Najaf and the Sunni Triangle. Even as Russian forces brought overwhelming military superiority to bear on the rebels, no clear end is in sight for this war that is straining Russia's patience and is a constant source of embarrassment for the government. And while in "Frontier-2004" Russian and allied forces have been able to successfully defeat the enemy troops that resemble Chechen fighters, the unscripted reality is a much darker and bloodier picture.

In June of this year, for example, a large rebel formation of between several hundred to more than a thousand men attacked Russian military positions and installations in Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighboring republic. Russian forces were caught by surprise, and nearly a hundred perished in one night of fighting. The Russian military was not able to mobilize close support in time to beat back the attack - the insurgents simply melted away, either retreating back into Chechnya or disappearing amongst the local Ingushetian population. To this day, no perpetrators or ringleaders have been found, prompting a government shake-up at the highest levels of power, including the dismissal of the Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin and head of the interior ministry forces Vyachesalv Tikhomirov.

This latest round of violence resulted in more troops to be stationed in Chechnya. As the Russian military continues its long campaign in the republic, major questions remain if the country will be able to sustain a second Chechnya-style war conducted overseas. Even well-equipped, well-motivated and well-trained American forces have not been able to put an end to the insurrections in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While Russian and American troops have a lot in common as they counter guerrilla-style warfare, Russian forces display their combat inability to win this type of war in Chechnya, and offer only limited level of success in their military exercises designed for combating possible Iraqi- and Afghan-style warfare.

In addition, Russia's deployment to either Iraq or Afghanistan has profound consequences for its relationship with Arab and Muslim countries. Long a patron of Middle Eastern and South Asian states, it might find its support slipping in exactly the area where Russia still can exercise some international clout. The Soviet Union, and later, Russia, have been able to provide support to a wide range of countries, from Algeria to Indonesia, acquiring favor amongst the millions of Muslims around the world.

Russian companies have been active in Iraq all the way prior to the U.S. invasion. Even during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Russia was able to sell weapons to both countries. Russia currently is one of the strongest supporters of the Iranian nuclear program, long a source of agitation and discomfort in Washington. Furthermore, Russia is often perceived as a counter-balance to U.S. influence in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Thus, the military deployment to the areas which remain an active source of discussion and unrest in the Muslim world can turn the "Arab street," long the tacit supporter of Moscow's policies, against Russia proper.

The prospect of major fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan would mean that Russian troops will be equal to the American forces in the eyes of the world's Muslims, who perceive U.S. actions in both countries as unjustified and detrimental to the region. The turning of the Arab tide against Moscow itself might exacerbate the volatile situation in Chechnya, where most of the rebel fighters come from Arab countries and are known to have connections to al-Qaeda.

Russia's return to Afghanistan or Iraq might give more strength to al-Qaeda, which has been negatively affected by U.S. counter-terrorism operations. The return of a once-vanquished "infidel" power to the old battlegrounds of Afghanistan might generate a new wave of enlistment to the ranks of the mujahideen, in turn leading to renewed attacks on Russian territory and worldwide targets.

Russia's war in Chechnya and American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that this type of warfare couldn't be achieved without significant battlefield losses. The Russian public has been angered by the military losses in Chechnya, prompting a rise of powerful grassroots movements that even advise Russians to avoid military service. Even if the tightly-controlled Russian media carefully filters information about its overseas deployments, news of the combat losses - which inevitably will be in the hundreds and thousands - will reach the Russian people who see Iraq and Afghanistan as America's war, and not their own.

The fact that the Russian government did not expressly rule out such deployments might indicate that Moscow, for the time being, has largely conceded to Washington its once formidable influence in the Muslim world. With an American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Egypt and Jordan in the U.S. sphere of influence, with Libya re-establishing diplomatic relations with Washington, with the American Pan-Sahel initiative achieving success in the Western Saharan countries, and with U.S. forces present in Somalia and Central Asia, Russia might see its deployment as an attempt to regain trust with its former Muslim clients. However, it is wrong for Russian policymakers to think that the presence of their soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan will be met with less resistance than given to the American forces. The rebels in both countries will meet Russian troops with just as much antagonism as is currently directed at U.S. soldiers.

Russia's deployment can also be perceived as an attempt to catch up to its former satellites, who now receive significant favors from Washington. Poland has sent thousands of troops to Iraq. Tiny Georgia, locked in an antagonistic and currently escalating relationship with Russia, will be sending a battalion of its U.S.-trained forces to Iraq. In light of its former clients receiving benefits for their support of U.S. military operations, Russia might want to gain even more from its evolving relationship with Washington by also sending its military contingents.

Conclusion

As the military exercises discussed earlier have shown, Russia is capable of deploying and maintaining a limited military force - not the 40,000 troops discussed in previous months - in order to properly manage its combat operations. Furthermore, given the Russian government's insensitivity to combat losses in order to achieve objectives, a military force might indeed be sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Russia has been trying to build its relations with the United States on an equal footing, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks. One of the ways America might concede a greater role in world affairs to Russia is to ask it to step up to the plate -- to deliver a military force in order to assist Washington in its endeavors. To do so would mean a greater role for Russia, with which it is possible for the United States to agree on many issues -- in contrast to the current deadlock in relations with France and Germany.

Yet, there has not been a single major overseas deployment of Russian forces since the fall of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, only Korea and Afghanistan were the major arenas of fighting for Soviet forces -- its troops acted mostly in an advisory capacity in the world's other hotspots. The proposed military deployment is truly an untested territory for the Russian armed forces that are currently taxed to the limit by lack of funds and necessary reforms, as well as by the war in Chechnya. Russia's possible deployment to either Iraq or Afghanistan is fraught with consequences, which will shape its position in world affairs for decades to come.

Yevgeny Bendersky,
PINR