Russia: Implications for UK defence and security Contents

3Russian military actions


49.Following on from Russian expansion of military capability, this chapter examines Russian military actions in: Crimea and Eastern Ukraine; Syria; the Arctic; the Baltic States, Central Asia and within Europe. Keir Giles, from Chatham House set out five main objectives of Russian military actions:

Dr Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), summarised these objectives as the ambition to restore Russia’s “fair place at the high table of world politics”.72


Crimean Peninsula

50.In February 2014, ‘pro-Russian’ groups seized buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. These troops were described by Russia Today as “similarly dressed and equipped to the local ethnic Russian ‘self-defence squads’,”73 shortly before a Crimean referendum returned 97% in favour of joining Russia—a result condemned by West as a sham.74 It is widely accepted that these groups were composed of Russian Federation Spetsnaz (Special Forces), many of whom are thought to have been stationed in Crimea.

51.On 18 March 2014, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation was formally confirmed by the Russian Parliament. Peter Watkins, of the Ministry of Defence, described the annexation as “an egregious breach of international law” stating that it was “the first time that anything like that had happened since 1945”.75 This contrasted with the views of our interlocutors in Russia who told us that Crimea was Russian, and that within Russia it was now illegal to refer to its annexation. President Putin has commented:

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. […] The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian Empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol—a legendary city with an outstanding story, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of the Black Sea Fleet. […] [It is] dear to our hearts, symbolising Russian military glory and outstanding valour.76

This conformed to James Sherr’s assessment of the Russian perception of the Crimea:

The Russians understand the strategic importance of Crimea and the Black Sea region very accurately. […] Russia makes no distinction between Crimea and any other part of its own territory.77

52.John Lough, of Chatham House, told us that Russia wanted to establish “de-facto recognition”78 of a buffer zone on the periphery of the Russian Federation in which Russian interests exert a status of privilege. When he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Dr Monaghan said that Russia’s actions were also based on a fear that it could lose its military presence in Sevastopol:

The Ukrainian Government in Kiev was renting out the main base at Sevastopol to them [the Russians] at a very, very high fee. One of their main strategic concerns was that the price would be raised yet further or that the deal would be cut entirely, and not only that but then the Ukrainian government might say: “Well, we will have NATO ships”.79

53.Following extensive denial of Russian involvement, in March 2014 President Putin admitted the presence of Russian troops in Crimea prior to its annexation80 and, when challenged in April 2014 about the existence of ‘little green men’, Mr Putin further admitted:

In my conversations with foreign colleagues I did not hide the fact that our goal was to ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will. And so we had to take the necessary measures in order to prevent the situation in Crimea unfolding the way it is now unfolding in south-eastern Ukraine. We didn’t want any tanks, any nationalist combat units or people with extreme views armed with automatic weapons. Of course, the Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defence forces. They acted in a civil but a decisive and professional manner.81

Eastern Ukraine

54.Russian military action in Ukraine is noted to have been exacerbated by the February 2014 Ukrainian move to ban Russian as the official second language in schools. Although this was subsequently overturned, it has been used by Russia as a reason to ‘protect’ ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.82 Russia also objected to the prospect of Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the EU which it saw as a step towards EU membership. While negotiations for an Association Agreement with the EU began as early as 2007,83 they were not finalised until June 2014.

55.Talks between Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU in Geneva to de-escalate the military crisis in April 2014 were unsuccessful.84 As a result, following referendums in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists declared independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. President Putin rejected accusations of Russia “being behind protests in eastern Ukraine”:

Nonsense. There are no Russian units in eastern Ukraine—no special services, no tactical advisors. All this is being done by the local residents. […] So I told my Western partners, “They have nowhere to go, and they won’t leave. This is their land and you need to negotiate with them.”85

However, in August 2014, the Ukrainian government released footage of captured Russian paratroopers as evidence formally identifying Russian involvement.86

56.In September 2014 a peace agreement was signed in Minsk between the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), pro-Russian rebels, Ukraine and Russia. Following the Agreement, Russian troops were reported to have withdrawn from eastern Ukraine later that month.87 Despite this, in November 2014, NATO commander General Philip Breedlove reported that Russian combat troops, and military equipment, had been observed entering Ukraine.88

57.Talks then collapsed in January 2015 due to accusations by both the Ukrainian Government and the pro-Russian separatists of unreasonable ultimata issued by each other,89 only for the Minsk Agreement to be reinstated in February 2015 when Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France formalised a deal to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

58.The existence of Russian ‘military specialists’ in eastern Ukraine was finally acknowledged in December 2015.90 Speaking at the Kremlin’s annual news conference, Mr Putin stated:

We’ve never said there are no people there [in Ukraine] who deal with certain matters, including in the military area, but this does not mean that regular Russian troops are present there. Feel the difference.91

59.Russian actions in Ukraine have created a deep instability within Europe of a type not witnessed since the end of the Cold War. This is a problem for Europe in general and for the NATO alliance in particular. While Ukraine is not a member of NATO and therefore not subject to Article 5 guarantees, it was guaranteed by the Budapest Agreement. Russian military action there thus raises questions over the security of neighbouring countries which fall within Russia’s military reach and which Russia would like to bring into its sphere of influence.

Implications of Crimea and Ukraine

60.The motivations for Russian military actions in Crimea and Ukraine stem from Russia’s fear of an encroaching NATO; resentment at the Ukranian Government’s preference for European links; and a desire to assert control over what it regards as Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. It is playing a game of geopolitics—one into which the West is being drawn. According to John Lough, Russia aims to:

Move the West away from the post-Cold War settlement and encourage us to believe that this set-up is no longer sustainable, and that some division of labour is needed in Europe to manage our overall security.92

61.Several of our witnesses believed that the EU “sleepwalked”93 into the conflict in Ukraine. However, Peter Watkins, Director General Security Policy at the MoD suggested that the UK did not “entirely miss it”.94 Furthermore, whilst the war in Ukraine has been treated by the West as an unexpected, irregular and unconventional conflict, we were told this was simply not the case. Keir Giles argued that Ukraine represented:

A major cross-border invasion of regular, conventional troops which stabilised the frontline in the face of the Ukrainian Government offensive.95

62.Regardless of the level of surprise, the Secretary of State told us that the Government would continue to take an “extremely firm line” on Crimea and Ukraine which he described as “trying to change international borders by force”.96

63.In both cases, the deniable use of Russian Special Forces or Spetsnaz and unconventional warfare was paramount. The speed of their deployment was not anticipated by the West. Mr Watkins argued that for Russia:

Crimea was almost a perfect laboratory for the hybrid approach, which is why it seemed to work rather well and quite quickly.97

64.Ukraine remains in a state of uncertainty, with progress on the Minsk Agreements seemingly stalled.98 Despite stealing a march on the West, we were told that Russia has yet to realise its objectives in Ukraine, and that currently “it has not got Ukraine under its sphere of influence”.99 Mr Lough emphasised this point:

Let us remember that [President] Putin has not finished in Ukraine. […] I would say that what Russia is going to do next will probably focus on issues closer to home.100

65.Robert Pszczel, Acting Director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow agreed:

There was a strong assumption, which the propaganda machine played for a long time: that Ukraine was going to disappear from the map and collapse. Nothing of the sort has happened. The Russians are counting on fatigue and the fact that at some point we just get slightly bored.101

66.One possible Russian goal might be to have a segregated Ukraine divided between East and West. Dr Bobo Lo said this would be a “frankly inevitable” consequence of any potential Ukrainian accession to NATO.102 Dr Lo also emphasised the importance of Ukraine to Russia:

I believe that President Putin is waiting for the Ukrainians to mess up some more, for the Europeans to lose interest and for the Americans to get distracted. Basically, he is waiting for the thing to fall into his hands.103

67.Russia’s actions in Ukraine demonstrated the ruthlessness with which it will assert its plans and its willingness to ignore international law, treaties and agreements. They also demonstrated the speed and agility with which Russia could mobilise its Armed Forces, as well as the effective Russian use of proxy forces, information warfare and plausible deniability. To the extent that the West was taken by surprise, the forthcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw should reassess NATO’s doctrine and capability to respond to both the speed of Russian deployment, and the implications of Russia’s ability to keep the West in the dark until it is ready to initiate military action.


68.The Russian intervention in Syria was the first major display of Russian military intervention outside of the post-Soviet states since the end of the Cold War.104 With the Ukrainian conflict stalling and domestic deterioration continuing, Russia’s announcement in September 2015 of air strikes in Syria reignited domestic nationalism and interest in foreign engagements. It has been argued that it also distracted both the Russian public and the Western world from events in Ukraine.105

69.As much as, if not more than the West, Russia has an interest in reducing Islamist extremism both in the Middle East and from the perspective of domestic security. Russia is also a major source of Islamist extremists travelling to fight in the Middle East. Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB, said that there were 1,700 Russian nationals fighting with DAESH in 2014, a figure double that of the previous year.106 In total it is estimated that there are now 5,000 Russians assisting DAESH, amounting to 20 percent of all foreigners working with DAESH.107

70.In oral evidence, Dr Bobo Lo said that Russia’s objectives for action in Syria are to preserve and extend its influence in the region, to demonstrate that Russia is a global player, and to emphasise the desirability of Russia as a partner, rather than an enemy.108 Dr Sutuyagin added that Russia wishes to ensure the preservation of the Assad regime, as it believes that this will best serve Russia’s strategic interests in Syria.109

71.Russia’s Iranian allies have, accordingly, contributed Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft to Iraq for the purpose of fighting DAESH forces.110 Russia has signed a contract with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi facilitating a contribution of BMR-3M mine-clearing vehicles to Iraq,111 and a preferential agreement to expand cooperation in the area of military technology.112 Russia has also proposed a “coalition of like-minded people” to fight DAESH in ground-based conflict.113

72.Russia holds key military strategic assets in the region. In September 2015, Russian troops were installed both at the Tartus naval base on the Syrian coast and the Khmeimim air base at Latakia. These included a Russian Black Sea Fleet Marines Brigade Battalion.114 It is notable that these reinforcements were active in Syrian regions in which DAESH was largely inactive. This would imply that Russian efforts were primarily in support of the Assad regime rather than against DAESH. In fact, until recently, the vast majority of Russian targets have been opposition groups unaffiliated with DAESH,115 although the extent to which such groups in Syria are, or are not Islamist remains a matter of contention.

73.However, the Russia-US brokered ceasefire between Assad and the non-DAESH opposition in February 2016 demonstrated the possibility of shared interests and actions, after Russian military support for the Syrian Armed Forces made possible the recapture of Palmyra from DAESH.116 Nevertheless, it continues to be reported that Russian airstrikes are still targeting other opposition groups.117

74.In Moscow, we were told that the US had taken the lead in dialogue with the Russians about Syria. We were also advised that Russia was coordinating its air strikes with the US and engaged in daily video conferences with US representatives.

75.By contrast, in October 2015 the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the UK, Dr Alexander Yakovenko, reportedly met Sir Simon Gass, then Foreign and Commonwealth Office Director General Political, and said of the meeting:

I came with two questions: we would like to co-operate with the United Kingdom so we can pick the right targets with ISIS in Syria. I said: you criticise us for hitting the wrong targets in Syria, give us the right ones. He refused.118

The Secretary of State, however, indicated that cooperation between the UK and Russia was ongoing and that the UK was working with Russia in seeking a political settlement in Syria.119

76.Russia’s military intervention in Syria has reduced the likelihood of Assad being overthrown—long a Western objective—but increased the prospect of cooperation with Russia in combating Islamist terrorism. Such cooperation depends upon both the coalition and Russia deciding to make it a shared objective. The UK should assess what it can realistically do to engage with Russia, to test the practicability of working together against DAESH and other extreme groups. In principle, it is perfectly possible to confront and constrain an adversary in a region where our interests clash, whilst cooperating with him, to some degree, in a region where they coincide.

The Baltics

77.The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are EU and NATO members. Because of their shared history—half a century of Soviet occupation from 1940, never accepted by the UK—Russia would like to return them to within its sphere of influence. Russian speakers constitute approximately a quarter of the population in Latvia and Estonia, and Russia has caused alarm by announcing that “whole segments of the Russian world” may need Russia’s protection.120

78.According to the 2016 Military Balance, Russia could deploy both the S-400 long-range air defence system and the MiG-31BM combat aircraft to put pressure on the Baltic States.121 According to Dr John Chipman, Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Russia has military equipment with the potential to “impede access to, and constrain freedom of action in, the Baltic region.”122 Such deployment of equipment extends to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave located between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea coast. In 2014, Russia deployed “nuclear-capable forces in Kaliningrad.”123 Dr Chipman, reported that, during a snap exercise in early 2015, Moscow moved Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles into Kaliningrad which have a reported range of up to 500 kilometres.124

79.The expansion of Russia’s military capabilities in this region has given rise to serious concern among NATO members about the security of the Baltic States. For example, John Lough told us:

It is certainly an area where our resolve is being tested at the moment. The buzzing of the US destroyer in the Baltic Sea a few days ago [11–12 April 2016] is the latest evidence of that.125

80.Mr Lough noted that the response from NATO had been “fairly robust” and had sent a clear message that NATO would defend the Baltic States.126 In evidence, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Baltic States were firmly covered by the guarantee of NATO’s Article 5:

We have seen a pattern of behaviour involving sudden and proactive military action, but an attack on a member of the Alliance, of course, would immediately trigger a response. Before it gets to that stage, we are taking measures to ensure that the Baltic States are properly protected.127

81.A recent RAND Corporation study, however, indicated that if Russia were to enter one of the Baltic States, NATO would, at present, be unable to defend it.128 Moreover, we were told that Russian tactics there might not be in the form of an armed attack:

They do not need to invade the Baltics. They do not need to discredit NATO by putting troops in; they just have to undermine the idea of NATO, through any variety of cyber, information or hybrid operations. They need to subvert the idea of Article 5, not actually take territory.129

82.Russia’s military expansion has included extensive reinforcements in Kaliningrad. While Russia has stated that this was a defensive measure to counter the threat of NATO, the further militarisation of Kaliningrad—which lies between Poland and Lithuania—could equally be considered a threat to the Baltic States.

83.As members of NATO, the Baltic States are covered by Article 5, meaning that NATO would be compelled to respond to an armed attack. However, recent Russian activity demonstrates that it can threaten and destabilise countries without actually engaging in an explicit and open armed attack. NATO must ensure it fully comprehends the nature and extent of threats designed not to trigger Article 5 and develops its strategies to counter multi-dimensional warfare in order to defend the Baltic States from such threats.

The Arctic

84.It has been suggested by the Expert Commission on Norwegian Security and Defence Policy that Russia aims to harness the Arctic as its primary base for natural resources by 2020.130 To that end, Russian military expansion in the region is of significant concern. Russia now has functioning Arctic military bases and two ice-breakers.131 In oral evidence, Dr Monaghan told us that Russia also had “a strategic [Russian] command established there.”132 Russian military expansion is anticipated to extend to nuclear submarines and the Northern fleet.133

85.The melting Arctic ice-cap may have significant defence and security implications for neighbouring states. The receding ice-cap offers significant mining and economic opportunities (the Arctic is rich in oil and gas) which are likely to incite widespread interest, notably from Russia.134

86.Norway, with over 80% of its maritime territory north of the Arctic Circle, also considers this its primary region of strategic responsibility.135 The Expert Commission on Norwegian Security and Defence Policy cites Russia as the “defining factor” of future Norwegian defence planning.136 Norway’s concerns about Russian military action are echoed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland in the form of the recent Nordic military alliance.137

87.At present, the Arctic is not a militarised zone, but increasing tensions leave the future uncertain. Given the increasing Russian military presence in the Arctic, we shall return to this region in a separate inquiry later this year. We request that the Government provides us with its assessment of the implications for UK security of developments in the Arctic when responding to this Report.

Central Asia

88.Russia has actively reinforced its presence in Central Asia over the last two years. In October 2013, Tajikistan confirmed a 30-year extension to house the 201st Motor-Rifle Division, Russia’s largest foreign deployment.138 In January 2013, the Kazakh Parliament confirmed a Joint Air-Defence Agreement with Russia139 alongside an increase in ground attack aircraft at the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan from eight to twelve. By contrast, Kyrgyzstan refused the continuation of the United States Air Transit Center, which closed in June 2014, having supported US operations in Afghanistan for more than 12 years.140 These countries not only occupy strategically important border space, but also possess significant natural resources.

89.Both President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Karimov of Uzbekistan are currently in their 70s. John Lough said that any future political transition, especially a genuine pro-democracy movement, could raise tensions in the region.141 David Clark reinforced that view:

Watch Kazakhstan, particularly when President Nazarbayev goes. There are a lot of very hawkish Russian policy-makers at senior level who eye that quite jealously; that is a potential flashpoint.142

90.While the transition of power will not necessarily provoke a Russian action of the type witnessed in Crimea, if succession is not a seamless process or is viewed as pro-Western in outlook, these regions may provoke Russian intervention of the type previously witnessed in Ukraine. Dr Bobo Lo noted:

We think about the large Russian minority in Ukraine, but that so-called large Russian minority is only 17% of Ukraine’s total population. The Russian minority in Kazakhstan—almost entirely in northern Kazakhstan—is 23% of the total population. So watch out for central Asia.143

The United Kingdom and Europe

91.Russia’s external military activity is also directed at the UK. Russian military aircraft have repeatedly flown close to British and NATO airspace, prompting RAF interception on a number of occasions.144 Russian warships have been observed close to British waters and Russian submarines have attempted to record the ‘acoustic signature’ of Vanguard class submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles.145 The recent sighting of a suspected Russian submarine in UK waters required the engagement of maritime patrol aircraft from France, America and Canada146 in the absence of UK aircraft of this type. Such displays of military potential imply not only an escalation of Russian hostility toward a NATO member state, but a warning to respect and take seriously the Russia of today.

92.Russian disregard of UK sovereignty was also demonstrated in the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, by the reckless use of polonium-210 on British soil. The public inquiry into this concluded that Mr Litvinenko was killed “probably” with the knowledge of President Vladimir Putin. Whilst not a military act, this should not be considered distinct from Russian willingness to perpetrate hostile acts in other countries.

93.More recently, in April 2016, two Su-24 Russian bombers flew extremely close to the USS Donald Cook which was stationed in international waters 70 miles off the westernmost coast of Kaliningrad.147 The Russian ambassador claimed that the Donald Cook’s presence was an attempt to put military pressure on Russia.148 The incident has raised concerns about the likelihood of miscalculation and accidents with potentially significant consequences.149

94.Russia has increasingly demonstrated military aggressiveness in different regions, as well as the ability to create confusion, fear and doubt in others, including NATO member states. Because it perceives these methods as successful, and because they appear to Russia to be unchallenged, it is likely that Russia will continue to use military means and unconventional warfare as ways of reasserting what it believes to be its rightful role on the international stage. Many of the Russian actions outlined in this chapter directly challenge the rules-based international order. Lukewarm responses will not gain respect from Russia, will not improve our relationship with Russia, nor engineer a more palatable environment for European defence. The UK and NATO must employ robust and firm responses. Russia must be certain that Article 5 would be triggered should NATO consider that one of its member states has been the subject of an armed attack and effective countermeasures must be designed to deter potential Russian tactics tailored to circumvent the Article 5 guarantee.

71 Chris Donnelly, (RUS0018)

74 ‘Ukraine crisis: Timeline’, BBC News, 13 November 2014

79 Q19, Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday 3 May 2016, HC 661 [Dr Monaghan]

81 Direct line with Vladimir Putin, Official internet Resources of the President of Russia, 17 April 2014

82 ‘Ukraine Crisis: Timeline’, BBC News, 13 November 2014

85 Direct line with Vladimir Putin, Official internet Resources of the President of Russia, 17 April 2014

91 ‘Vladimir Putin’s Annual News Conference, Internet resources of the President of Russia, 17 December 2015

113 ‘Russia unveils plan for anti-ISIS coalition at Doha meeting’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 4 August 2015

114 ‘Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Mideast’, The New York Times, 14 September 2015

117 Russian airstrikes in Syria’, Institute for the Study of War, 3 June 2016

121 2016 Military Balance, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2016

134 ‘The Melting North’, The Economist, 16 June 2012

138 2016 Military Balance, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2016][

145 ‘Close Encounters: Russian Military Intrusions into UK Air- and Sea Space Since 2005’, Russia Studies Centre Policy Paper No. 7, The Henry Jackson Society, October 2015

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30 June 2016