Professor Stephen Blank on Eastern Flank in A2/AD age

Professor Stephen Blank on Eastern Flank in A2/AD age

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow for Russia at American Foreign Policy Council

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Stephen Blank

Washington DC, United States

Interview with Stephen Blank

Please explain to our readers, what are these access-denial capabilities and what is their purpose?

Anti-Access and area denial capabilities (A2/AD) are military capabilities that would deny an attacker the opportunity of projecting military power by air, sea or land into your territory.  They would comprise air defense systems, anti-ship attack capabilities (from land, sea and air) and coastal defenses as well as potentially nuclear weapons that would deter an invasion.

Up until recently, in international affairs discussions, anti-access/area-denial capabilities used to refer to a growing strategic trend localized mainly in East Asia. Are A2/AD capabilities proliferating? What is the relevance of these maturing capabilities for NATO and the Eastern Flank?

To be frank it wasn’t even the first region. The first region with anti-access area denial capabilities used to be Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe because of the nuclear deterrence. The ultimate A2/AD weapon is a nuclear weapon because it deters anyone form attacking you or at least is intended to do so. The Russian military strategy has been first and foremost nuclear based with every other component – air, space, maritime, cyber and ground forces – following that. Nuclear weapons perform a deterrent effect until you could bring the conventional weapons online. In South East Asia, the Chinese have never given so much priority to the nuclear umbrella, but they’ve learned from the Operation Desert Storm and the Taiwan crisis from 1995/96, that they had to invest in an access-denial posture. And they have been doing it for 20-25 years and now possess a very sophisticated conventional A2/AD system. Arguably Iran is trying to do something similar. This has already become a ubiquitous framework for analyzing military developments in these regions.

Is it an accident that these counter-intervention capabilities are primarily developed by powers that display anti-status-quo ambitions towards their neighborhoods?

Their revisionist intentions precede the acquisition of A2/AD capabilities. It is not just about buying advanced weapons systems. These powers have a strategic objective which is clearly the revision or the transformation of the status-quo that has been dominated by the United States (U.S.). The minute the Cold War ended, and having observed all the subsequent crises, they assessed the strategic environment and concluded that they wanted to revise it. But the only way they could revise it was by denying access to the U.S. military. The key question for them became – what are the capabilities that would deny access to the U.S. over time? This is a long-term strategy. It is not something that you can do overnight. It is very clearly a long-term strategy to enhance the capability of a state to withstand the American pressure and to force a revision of the status-quo.

Do you see Russia as aiming to develop a counter-intervention capability able to keep at bay NATO expeditionary reinforcements from the Eastern Flank, to force a keep out zone on the Eastern Flank?

That is the fundamental objective of the Russian military procurement and of the Russian military strategy. Russia believes itself to be permanently if not preeminently under attack from NATO, especially the U.S. They are spending a fortune on both nuclear and conventional because they believe themselves at risk perpetually from NATO and they have always aimed to keep U.S. and NATO from getting access to the post-Soviet space. And I am referring to any access not just military, but political access as well. The nuclear weapons are obviously a deterrent, not only against nuclear, but against conventional attack. Russia knows that they cannot match U.S. and NATO conventional system for conventional system. They can deter the U.S. using their nuclear shield and by their willingness to suffer in order to prevail. Moreover, it is the Russian belief that it was their possession of nuclear weapons that kept NATO out of Georgia in 2008 and out of Ukraine in 2014.

How feasible is a Russian sub-conventional non-war intervention scenario waged under a conventional A2/AD umbrella somewhere in the Baltic States?

It is entirely feasible. It is possible. I don’t think it is likely right now because of the potential of a protracted war with NATO. If you look at the old Soviet tactics, it is what the Egyptians did in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They crossed the Suez Canal, into the Sinai Peninsula under this huge air-defense umbrella, which inflicted serious casualties on the Israeli forces. They achieved an operational and tactical success for a while which led to ultimately a political outcome at Camp David that was satisfactory to them. This has already been done. It is not something new. We may see a new combination of tactics, but the concept is there in the sense that you can create an anti-air and anti-sea barriers with conventional assets and under the cover of that move forward with either naval or ground forces. In some way, it is what China is doing in the South China Sea.

Do you see the Wales summit initiatives – overwhelmingly based on expeditionary forces – enough to reassure the Eastern Flank?

The Wales reassurance package was too little, too late. Recently the forthcoming Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, a Czech general, said that the Russian military could occupy the Baltic States in 2 days. Putin said that it could do it in a week. There are also informed assessments that point out that NATO would not be able to get there and project its power in time to do anything anyway. NATO still doesn’t have a proper sense of urgency as to what it needs to do. To save Ukraine and strengthen the Eastern Flank, NATO needs to project a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-alliance approach and get serious about deterring Russian threats and regaining the strategic initiative from Putin so that he is worrying about what we might do rather than we worry about his next move. What we have is a lot of talk, but really no significant action.

Russian strategy is not hybrid war. In Crimea there was no war. It was an Anschluss. That’s the closest historical equivalent – the 1938 Nazi Anschluss of Austria.  People should remember that, because the Nazi takeover was extensively prepared over a long time from within to destabilize Austria. The Donbass is anything, but hybrid. It is a very conventional fight. If we want to use this hybrid term, we need to apply it to what Russia has been doing over the past 15-20 years in Europe. The most important component is not military, but it is political, comprising intelligence, subversion of governments, cyber propaganda, relentless economic pressure, etc.  During peacetime, the Russian military has only a limited impact as a standing threat not as an operational force. In this respect, the Russian strategy is a whole of government strategy.

What is the impact of Crimea’s annexation on the balance of power in the Black Sea region? It seems that Crimea is becoming an A2/AD foothold. Is the Black Sea becoming a no-go area?

The Russian conventional and possible nuclear capabilities in Crimea are a threat to all the Balkan states and to the entire Caucasus region. In this context, Black Sea also becomes a base for Russian power projection into the Middle East which historically has been the case going back to Catherine the Great. The American leadership matters greatly, but the Black Sea countries need to cooperate among themselves because it is obvious that the Russians want to transform the Black Sea into a Mare Nostrum, a no-go zone and deny access to them.

Beyond the Wales Summit, how should NATO revise its regional posture in order to credibly respond to the Russian moves?

NATO and U.S. forces in Europe were set-up many years ago for two purposes: deterrence and reassurance. They are failing at both right now. NATO and Eastern allies should invest and prepare for territorial defense. They need to spend more money, more intelligently and more efficiently. If possible, they need to spend together, combine and find synergies. All the NATO members should contribute more on defense, permanently station forces in the Baltic, Poland and the Balkan states, intensify cooperation with Sweden and Finland. We also need to finance and design a robust information strategy for reaching out to the Russian speaking population in Eastern Europe and Russia. In other words, you take the information war back to Putin. This requires fundamentally a change in mentality first of all in Washington, but also in Europe. We need a fundamental re-orientation of perspectives, change of mind and the development of the will to counter the Russian aggression.

Interview conducted by Octavian Manea

June 7, 2015

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