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Prejudice Blinds Western 'Experts' to Russian Military Prowess

Constant denigration of Russian military performance has ideological origins and accounts for continuous Western surprise at effective performance of Russia's military

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The military performance of Russia’s Syrian strike force has come as a surprise to Western analysts.

The Russians have demonstrated that they possess precision guided weapons - including advanced satellite guided weapons - contrary to Western assumptions that they did not, or that they did not have them in any significant quantity.

The Russians have shown that they have long range cruise missiles capable of hitting targets from thousands of kilometres away.  

This was a capability only the US was previously known to possess. 

Moreover the Russians have launched their cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea from small warships - smaller than any warships capable of launching cruise missiles possessed by any Western navy - which are capable of launching such missiles from inland rivers, something no Western warship can do.

The number of air sorties the Russians have launched from their base in Latakia have far exceeded Western expectations, confirming that the Russians have a well-run logistical operation to support their strike force.

What is surprising about all this is that Western analysts are surprised.

The Russians have never hidden the existence of a single one of the weapons they have used in Syria.  

The missiles, the aircraft, the precision guided bombs, the ships, and the GLONASS satellite array, are or ought to be matters of public knowledge.

As for the effectiveness of the logistical operation, anyone who has followed Russian military operations in the Caucasus and Georgia knows or should know that logistics are the Russian military’s strong point, not its weakness.  

The Russian military has repeatedly shown it can move large numbers of troops and equipment very rapidly - far more rapidly that the US has ever managed to do - and that having moved these troops it is able to support them in combat operations.  

In 1999, in the middle of an economic crisis, the Russian military put together a force of 100,000 men to defend Dagestan and counter attack the jihadi rebels in Chechnya within just a matter of weeks.  

In 2008, the Russian military carried out a bewilderingly complex operation attacking the Georgian military from all directions and defeating it in just five days, rapidly ferrying in troops from central Russia, and using their fleet to impose a naval blockade.  

Operations of that size and complexity cannot be carried out without thorough staff work and a well-organised logistics chain, and in that the Russians excel.

Why then the Western surprise?

The short answer is that what passes for analysis of the Russian military in the West is today blinded by prejudice and complacency.

It is simply taken as read that the Russian military is corrupt and incompetent, and that it cannot remotely compare in quality or sophistication to that of the militaries of the West.

The capabilities of Russian weapons systems are always discounted. If their effectiveness is ever admitted - which is rarely - Western analysts reassure themselves that the Russians lack the financial and industrial resources to produce them.

According to this view, the Russian military is nothing more than a “Potemkin village”, a Wizard of Oz structure, whose boasting and bluster conceal weakness.

This picture has a long history extending far back into the Cold War and beyond.  

Many of the military related publications that proliferated in the West during the Cold War used to routinely deride the effectiveness of Russian weapons.

This was combined with a popular image of the Russian army of the period as brutalised and incompetent, riddled with graft and hazing, poorly trained and poorly led, and lacking initiative.

These stories were brought together in 1981 in a famous book, The Threat, written by the journalist Andrew Cockburn.  

It is testament to the enduring power of this myth that 34 years later this book - written by a journalist with no military qualifications or background - is still on sale, and is still viewed by many people in the West as an authoritative account of what the Russian military is like.

As with all myths it contains a grain of truth.

The Russian army has had a longstanding problem with hazing (“dedovshchina”), though the extent of it is not easy to assess, and lack of mention of it recently may mean the problem is subsiding.

Much Russian weaponry was designed for use by a large conscript army and is therefore rugged and simple instead of being technologically sophisticated as many Western weapons are.

The myth also received massive reinforcement from the Russian military's disastrous performance during the First Chechen War of 1994 to 1996.

The Russian military of that time was severely demoralised by the fall of the USSR - the state its officers had sworn an oath to serve - and by the collapse of the country’s economy, international standing and defence budget.  

Many officers relocated from eastern Europe were forced to live in severely substandard conditions, whilst the military’s leadership of that period had become highly politicised and commanded little respect.

There was a general - and justified - perception within the military that the liberal politicians who at that time dominated Russia’s government disliked the military and wanted to dismantle it.

These profound problems were made worse by Yeltsin’s use of the military to settle a political crisis in 1993.  

The Russian parliament objected to some of Yeltsin’s policies, and he responded by changing the constitution and dissolving the parliament, using the army to disperse it, in a way that was bitterly resented by many of the army’s officers.  

The result was that in the 1990s discipline and morale within the Russian military sunk to appalling levels, and the military did for a time approximate to the standard Western stereotype. The military’s appalling performance during the First Chechen War was a reflection of this.

The problem is that blinded by prejudice Western analysts take the chaotic period of the 1990s to be not the exception but the norm.  

Whatever has happened to the military since  - and whatever it does - never seems to shake this belief, which has now become in the West the accepted wisdom.

The result is that whenever the Russian military performs successfully, as it did during the Second Chechen War, the 2008 South Ossetia War, the 2014 Crimean operation, and now in the Syria campaign, Western analysts are taken by surprise.

During the Cold War this prejudice was held in check by the need to form an accurate assessment of the USSR’s military capabilities. 

As a result the West acquired a large body of highly professional and capable intelligence analysts, who looked at the Russian military without blinkers. This meant that in private Western assessments of Russian military capabilities differed significantly from those that appeared in public in popular publications like The Threat.

The end of the Cold War however led to a major downsizing of the Western intelligence operation in the former USSR, and many of the highly professional veteran analysts lost their jobs and were forced into retirement.  

Their successors lack their experience and training. One gets the impression that the criteria for their selection emphasises ideological conformity and political loyalty over skepticism and objectivity. The result is they tend to share the political attitudes and prejudices of their political masters.

These prejudices are reinforced by a class of writers who did not exist during the Cold War. 

These are Russian writers on military affairs who write from within Russia but who have strongly liberal anti-government and pro-Western views. 

The outstanding example is Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian writer on military affairs with no background or connection to the Russian military, who writes extensively on Russian military affairs, doing so in a way that simply copies the prevailing Western views.

The result is the most dangerous sort of feedback loop. Because people like Felgenhauer repeat things Western analysts say, they are instantly believed, and because they write in Russia what they say is taken as proof coming from Russia that what Western analysts say about the Russian military is true.

These Western myths about the Russian military are so strong no amount of facts can shake them.

That this is so is shown by the Western response to the 2008 South Ossetia war.  

By any objective measure it was a brilliantly planned and executed military operation, carried out in difficult mountainous country at lightning speed from a standing start against what was on the ground a well-equipped and numerically stronger enemy.  

No Western military has achieved such a rapid and overwhelming victory in so short a time for decades - not since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War.

Once Western analysts recovered from the shock, their response was not to undertake a radical reassessment of their view of the Russian military in the light of its victory.  Instead their response was to deny the Russian military's success by belittling its victory.  

Seizing on the Russian military’s habitual self-criticism of its performance  - something which should be taken as a sign not of weakness but of strength - and certain reconnaissance and communications failures, which were probably inevitable in such a rapid campaign fought in difficult country, Western analysts have constructed an entirely bogus narrative of the Russian military’s “poor performance” during the war.

Sometimes the criticism is so harsh that one is left wondering how the Russian military won at all.

The result is that a Russian military victory which ought to have disproved Western assumptions about Russian military incompetence is instead taken to prove them.

That in turn has set the scene for the Western “surprise” at the quality of Russian military performance in Crimea and Syria.  

Of course if Western analysts took their information about the Russian military from reliable Russian sources - as Russia Insider does - they would not be surprised.

It would be good to think that the experience of Crimea and Syria will force a rethink.  

The depressing reality is that that almost certainly will not happen. 

On past experience Western analysts will continue to look for ways to rationalise Russian success in a way that "proves" their assumptions of Russian incompetence, leaving their prejudices about the Russian military intact.

By doing so all they achieve is to set themselves up for more surprises to come.

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