Russia Military Force Changes To Add Border Strength, U.S. Says

WASHINGTON, DC -- Russia is reshaping its ground forces into a structure that would enable it to “militarily dominate” most of its neighbors, the head of U.S. intelligence said.

Russian ground forces in Georgia in August, 2008.

The changes would allow a rapid deployment of forces along Russia’s borders and ensure superior military strength except against China, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in unclassified written answers given to the Senate Intelligence Committee on April 24. Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are among the countries bordering Russia.

The repositioning of Russian forces may pose a dilemma for the Obama administration as it talks of abandoning what officials describe as outmoded Cold War thinking in favor of improved relations with Russia.

While Russia’s military is a “shadow of its Soviet predecessor,” the country draws strength along its periphery from its air defenses, space warfare capability, nuclear weapons and geographic advantages, Blair said.

Blair didn’t speculate on Russia’s intentions in the responses to the panel, which were obtained July 30 by the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Still, the buildup in part is a response to “restoring some of the military capabilities it lost” after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Blair wrote.

Blair pointed to “considerable readiness improvements” in the past decade that gave Russian forces an edge in both the second Chechnya conflict and in Georgia.

Georgia Conflict

Relations sank to a post-Cold War low last August when Russia routed neighboring Georgia’s U.S.-trained army in a five- day war over the separatist region of South Ossetia.

Officials in Moscow have since granted recognition to South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as sovereign states, and deployed more than 2,200 soldiers in the two areas. Russia expelled international monitors in June.

In recent days, Russia has raised the readiness of its troops in response to what it called Georgian “provocations,” which officials in Georgia denied.

Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, told reporters in Moscow yesterday that his military has no plans for a massive troop increase in the two Georgian regions.

Russia has the ability to “rapidly deploy several heavy brigades and several hundred combat aircraft and helicopters to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia or its Far East in a matter of several days,” Blair said in his responses to the intelligence committee.

‘Formidable’ Foe

The benefits “make the Russian military a still formidable hypothetical opponent in scenarios where U.S. or other NATO forces would challenge Moscow militarily near its territory or against Russia proper,” Blair wrote.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s reluctance to move faster on admitting Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, last year raised concerns from central and eastern European members that the alliance wasn’t as committed as it should be to defending all members from a Russian attack.

Russia doesn’t pose a significant threat to central and western Europe, Blair said, without defining the geographic boundaries he referred to.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell yesterday reiterated President Barack Obama’s stated intention to drop Cold War assumptions in relations with Russia.

Responding to questions about a report in the New York Times that two Russian submarines were patrolling off the U.S. East Coast in recent days, Morrell said the vessels were “several hundred miles” offshore.

No Concern

“While it is interesting and noteworthy that they are in this part of the world, it doesn’t pose any threat and it doesn’t cause any concern,” Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon. “We don’t look at this action and automatically see threatening motives.”

Blair wrote that Russia’s high-profile naval deployments to the North Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans are “traditional ‘show the flag’ operations intended to support Russian foreign policy and probably do not reflect wartime operational planning.”

Blair also assessed the effect of the global economic slide on Russia’s finances.

Russia can continue to rely on its reserves to fund its budget deficits this year, he said. The country’s longer-term viability depends on the global economic recovery and an increase in oil prices to the range of $70 a barrel, Blair said. Crude oil has traded higher than $70 a barrel this week.

That level would let Russia balance its budget without making “deep cuts” in social programs and military spending, Blair wrote.

Russia’s economy is projected to contract 6.5 percent this year and grow 1.5 percent in 2010, according to an International Monetary Fund forecast issued last month.

Source: Bloomberg