Hearing on Russian Strategy and Military Operations; U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a hearing on the development of Russian strategy and military operations and how they’ve shifted the balance of power in the Middle East, the Arctic, and elsewhere. The webcast of the full hearing can be found here.


Witnesses included the following:

  1. John M. Keane, Chairman at the Institute for the Study of War
  2. James L. Jones, Chairman of Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Atlantic Council
  3. Heather Conley, Senior VP for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  4. Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies on Foreign Relations


In his opening remarks, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), SASC chairman, said the U.S. cannot shy away from confronting Russia in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions will influence every aspect of the Syrian conflict, thereby requiring the U.S. to respond more broadly by increasing its targeted sanctions and further isolating Russia.


In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia is hiding its intentions. Fighting ISIL is a cover for propping up the Assad Regime. Russian air strikes have occurred mostly in areas controlled by the moderate Syrian forces that oppose the Assad Regime. On Oct. 7, Russian ships in the Caspian Sea were reported to have launched missiles against a coalition of Syrian opposition forces that did not include ISIL.


Sen. McCain added that Russia is even a challenge in the Arctic region, where it is expanding its outer continental shelf claim, building up naval forces and conducting more naval exercises.


Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict, well beyond its borders, marks a significant departure from Russia’s past activities and suggests that President Putin may attach particular importance to Russia’s access to its Mediterranean base and its overall relationship with Syria.


Witnesses provided their interpretation of the strategic significance of Russia’s decision to deploy military forces in Syria. President Putin chose not to join the international coalition that is fighting ISIL and, instead, aligned with Iran. Russia’s actions will likely only prolong and complicate Middle East conflicts. It has also initiated an intelligence sharing agreement with Iran and Iraq.


According to the witnesses, Russia is clearly challenging U.S. influence and interests in the Middle East while also challenging NATO in Eastern Europe and, possibly, NATO’s existence. The U.S. should not close off communication with Russia, however, and should continue to pursue opportunities on issues of mutual interest.


Conley testified about the evolving nature of Russia’s military threat, which stretches geographically from the Arctic to the Syrian coast. In her view, the Kremlin is reconstructing a 21st century version of the Iron Curtain. The recreation of a Russian sphere of influence has at least several goals:

  1. Deny the West military access by reconstructing and revitalizing Russian military bases.
  2. Ensure the continuous exercise of air, land and sea capabilities at full combat readiness levels.
  3. Provide the ability to mobilize substantial Russian forces in a very short period of time.
  4. Make available a variety of hybrid economic and political tactics.
  5. Employ an effective counterfactual strategic communications campaign.


She noted that the curtain also has a “built-in Kremlin-controlled thermostat.” President Putin can turn the heat up or down when and where he wants, and he can shift efforts to different locations, such as Syria.


The West will continue to react to the Kremlin’s actions instead of proactively preventing and deterring them, she said.


Discussing Russian actions in the Arctic as the perfect example of how the new curtain was constructed, she described Russia’s three major military exercises in the Arctic over the last 24 months.


The first exercise focused on Russia’s western military district, demonstrating a more streamlined command structure, more efficient tactical units, and the ability to deploy on a large scale and coordinate complex military operations with other areas of operation. The exercise fully demonstrated that Russia has a much larger spatial definition extending from the Arctic to the Black Sea.


The second exercise, Vostok 2014—Russia’s largest post-soviet military exercise—was held in the Russian Far East and conducted partly on new Russian Arctic military bases. It involved 100,000 servicemen in a complex display of air, maritime, and land components. Parts of the exercise on Wrangel Island are believed to have simulated action to repel U.S. and NATO forces.


The third was a snap military exercise in the Arctic held in March 2015. It consisted of 45,000 Russian forces, 15 submarines, and 41 warships at full combat readiness.


Russia also announced 14 airfields will operate in its Arctic by the end of this year, and 50 airfields by 2020. Special Forces will increase by 30 percent in the Artic. All these actions underscore the fact that the Arctic is becoming a major theatre of operations for Russia.


The Arctic region was included in Russia’s amended military doctrine in December 2014 and in its new maritime doctrine in July. Its new command is the Russian Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command “North.”


Drawing conclusions from Russia’s military behavior, Conley said the country increasingly projects anti-access, anti-denial capabilities in the Arctic and the North Atlantic and is now expanding them to the North Pacific, demonstrating its ability to rapidly deploy both conventional and unconventional forces. Most disturbing is Russia’s focus on enhancing its nuclear deterrent in the Arctic by simulating massive retaliatory attacks in the Barents Sea.


Conley described the remaining contours of this 21st century curtain:

  1. Russia has reopened an abandoned military base 50 kilometers from the Finnish border and manned it with a Russian infantry brigade of approximately 3,000 soldiers.
  2. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad has missile systems capable of using both conventional and nuclear weapons.
  3. Transitioning from ice to steel on the Polish-Belarusian border, President Putin has ordered Russian officials to work with Belarusian counterparts to construct a new military base in Belarus. This will be the first newly constructed military base outside of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  4. Occupied Crimea contains about 29,000 Russian soldiers.
  5. The substantially increased Baltic Sea fleet will be augmented with 30 additional vessels by 2020.
  6. Russian troops are stationed as peacekeepers in Moldova.
  7. Russia is further augmenting its forces in Armenia.
  8. Russia is increasing its activity in Syria.


To respond to the new curtain, the U.S. and NATO could use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as a point of departure and a source of bipartisan resolve for assessing challenges and identifying critical gaps. For far too long, Conley maintained, Russia’s military capabilities were discounted, and its threats and pronouncements not taken seriously.


Simply assessing the problem is insufficient, she said. The West has forgotten how to conduct effective deterrence in the modern age against a sophisticated adversary.


With a more durable deterrent posture, the U.S. and NATO air and maritime components should increase their presence on NATO’s northern and eastern flanks. The U.S. should seriously consider sending a third combat brigade to Europe to reinforce both flanks while strongly encouraging European allies to increase their force presence as well. Rapid deployment ability is currently insufficient. The time has arrived for a comprehensive review of U.S. force posture in Europe for the next five to 10 years.


At its upcoming summit, NATO needs to launch a long-term strategic adaptation to a long term and highly destabilizing situation, and not fail to address its most significant security challenge since the end of the Cold War.


Conley’s final word of caution was that the U.S. and NATO—as they do more to deter Russian military aggression—must be fully cognizant of Russia’s potentially devastating level of influence inside the NATO countries and its ability to inhibit the allies from taking timely collective action. Russia dominates the media, financial, and energy sectors in some NATO members. This requires as much U.S. and NATO policy attention as the military deterrence effort.


President Putin’s use of energy as a weapon to satisfy his objectives was the subject of Gen. Jones’ testimony. The Kremlin is trying to maintain European dependence on Russian gas and use that dependence as a lever for manipulation. President Putin’s actions in Crimea are consistent with this. Europe is now investing in energy storage facilities to reduce its dependence on Russia.


Gen. Jones believes the U.S. should lead the world with a three-pronged approach that includes economic, political, and security components:

  1. The economic component would sequester Putin’s ability to use energy as a weapon. A key part would be U.S. support for the European Union’s development of an energy, telecommunications, and transportation infrastructure corridor along a north-south access from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea.
  2. The political component would be to strengthen transatlantic solidarity and cooperation, accompanied by a public diplomacy campaign. As part of this effort, NATO’s open door policy should be reopened.
  3. The security component must enhance NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and include American forces.


Answering a question about energy policy, Gen. Jones noted that Russian oil is now priced at $50 per barrel. He said the U.S. needs to think strategically about how the world market can continue to maintain lower prices and deprive President Putin of his ability to be confrontational.


Raising concerns about U.S. energy policies, Gen. Jones said, “I don’t think we’ve fully grasped how the energy situation effects the security balance in the rest of the world.”


Conley said she supports what the Senate is trying to do with the NDAA. She thinks Russia is dialing down its actions in the Ukraine because it wants Europe to lift sanctions. Regarding the NDAA, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) proposed an amendment that addresses the Arctic’s strategic picture and assesses the capability gaps.


Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said he shares Conley’s concerns about the Arctic and current strategic actions. About Syria, he said Russia has a serious fear of ISIL, and perhaps the U.S. and Russia now have an opportunity to make common cause, same as they did over Syria’s chemical weapons.


Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said the current U.S. Arctic strategy is not a serious strategy. Referencing Conley’s testimony about Russia’s massive military build-up in the Arctic, he said the Department of Defense needs to get serious about making an Arctic strategy. He said the strategy needs to address Russia’s four new military brigade teams, new Arctic brigade military headquarters, and 40 in-service icebreakers, some of them nuclear powered. Russia’s three Arctic military exercises were also provocative.


Conley agreed the last exercise was particularly provocative because it was a snap exercise at full combat readiness. The Russians should again follow the transparency rules, which call for five-day advance notification of military exercises in order to avoid misunderstandings and accidents.


Sen. Sullivan commented the U.S. only has two combat brigades on active duty that are trained to operate in the Arctic. One of them, an army airborne brigade combat team (BCT), is the only airborne BCT in the Asia Pacific or the Arctic, and the Defense Department wants to shut it down.


So, as the Russians are building up, the U.S. is “folding in terms of Arctic forces.” Sen. Sullivan said that cutting the U.S. Arctic forces may signal weakness that Russia may try to exploit.


Conley said the U.S. has told the Russians that we view them as partners in the Arctic, which is true related to the Arctic Council, but not from a military perspective, where the U.S. hasn’t fully addressed or understood the shifts over the last 12 to 14 months. She added the situation needs to be viewed in a broader theater, beyond the Arctic, which is what the first exercise signaled.


Noting he had many opportunities in his military career to train in Alaska and in cold weather conditions, Sen. Sullivan asked Gen. Keene if infantry troops that haven’t previously trained in cold weather could be deployed successfully to areas of extreme cold. Gen. Keene said the troops would need special training for those operations.