There are a billion of us. Putin knows this
General Petr Pavel | Russia won’t get involved in a conflict that will bleed it dry economically. It will gain more by dividing us, says the Chairman of NATO Military’s Committee.
“Rzeczpospolita”: Russia is boosting its armed forces on NATO borders, significantly increasing the number of soldiers, and is installing S400 systems and Iskanders missiles in the Kaliningrad region. Why is Vladimir Putin doing all of this?
Petr Pavel: This is a good question, which should be posed to President Putin. Threats are always a combination of capabilities and intent. And when it comes to capabilities there can be no doubt about them– we can count the number of soldiers, tanks, missiles but we can’t be sure of intentions. We also can’t calmly observe as new forces are being deployed on our borders and as exercises consisting of hundreds of thousands of soldiers take place, exercises targeted against NATO member states. That is why we need to take deterrence measures, the aim of which is to, on one hand, reassure our societies that NATO is determined to take action if necessary and, on the other hand, to send a message to Russia that aggressive measures against any member will be met with a response in line with Article 5 of the Alliance treaty.
According to a report by the RAND Corporation, an influential American think-tank, it would take the Russians between 48-60 hours to take control of the capitals of the Baltic States. Do you agree with this opinion?
One needs to take many factors into consideration. If we limit our focus to technical aspects then our conclusions could be deceiving. That is why I don’t want to speculate about where exactly Russia will be and at what time. We have to consider the combination of all factors. Russia has substantial armed forces, this is true. It is also has many means of transport and it is able to make long-term tactical and strategic plans. But the question is to what degree will it reach its strategic objectives and will it be able to maintain this level of military engagement for a while. In this respect, there are many different opinions. We can speculate about how many divisions or missiles NATO should have in the Baltics, but this is only part of the equation – we have many more tools at our disposal, not only purely military ones.
This means that the three battalions in the Baltic States, each consisting of one thousand soldiers, is from a military perspective basically nothing compared to the strength of the Russian divisions in the region?
If we applied this logic then we would have to talk about numerous divisions. This would be impossible to do as well as to maintain economically. It is difficult to imagine the deployment of two-three divisions in each Baltic country. What we want to achieve is a deterrence effect. It is not based only on military means. The battalions have military significance and are meant to counter hybrid threats, as seen in the Crimea, rather than prevent a full-scale attack. They are meant to give us time to reinforce. However, it is mainly meant as a political deterrent as the presence of multi-national forces consisting of the most important NATO members sends a clear signal that the Alliance is on the ground and will take action if necessary. It would be naïve to assume that NATO has sent one battalion to stop a whole Russian division. Of course not. We are saying that our response to the build-up of Russian forces is defensive in nature and is proportional. We are linking these deterrence measures to a political message, that we will not tolerate an attack.
However, if Russia were to be that foolish as to attack these states despite deterrence measures then it is thought that it would take control over the states and NATO will have to win them back. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Warsaw that the spearhead force would take a few days to be strengthened. But by then Russia would already be in Riga. He literally said that it would take a few days for it to be ready, for it to dispatch, but it would take longer until it reaches the spot.
Again, this is speculation. From a technical perspective, if Russia –as you put it – is foolish enough to attack, then the proportions will be to its advantage.
What are these proportions? The president of Lithuania said that they’re one to ten.
Such estimates have indeed probably been made. We haven’t made such calculations. We have never planned to have the same number of troops as Russia on our border. This wouldn’t help and would cause an escalation.
So one would need to win back the territory over which Russia assumed control?
If deterrence proves not to be effective then we will have to defend ourselves. However, we cannot create total deterrence, this would mean concentrating forces close to the border that match the number of the potential attacking force. Following the line of thinking that you have suggested would require us to mobilise a proportional force each time that Russia carries out military exercises close to our borders. Because only then would we be able to avoid any sort of surprise.
There is no basis on which to assume that Russia would make any strategic gains by invading a NATO member state. From its point of view, it could gain much more by dividing us, showing us that we are unable to speak with one voice; demonstrating that the foundations of the international security system are inadequate and need reshaping. This is Russia’s goal, not getting involved in a dispute which will bleed it dry economically very quickly. The Russian economy is currently not able to carry the burden of a large operation in the long term. Having a contingent of 5,000 soldiers in Syria is completely different to leading a large-scale war against NATO. And Russia is very aware of this.
Spain is currently in command of the spearhead force, NATO’s high-readiness unit. This is 4,000 kilometres away from the most likely point of possible aggression. How long would it take for the spearhead force to reach, let’s say, Estonia?
Plans envisage that it would take from five to seven days.
Would the whole spearhead force be there within this time?
Some of its elements could reach there later. But it is not so important if its five, seven or eight days. The first line of defence is carried out by regional, national, forces. They are on their own territory, they are constantly in a state of high-readiness and the first response is up to them. This in line with Article 3 of the NATO Treaty. Every country is responsible for its own defence and only later relies on its allies. No conflict takes part without preparations being made. There is always some sort of scenario of events that lead up to the conflict. Therefore there is always a moment of warning, a time when the level of readiness is increased or when additional troops are brought to the region of the potential conflict.
Will the battalion in Poland under American command be stationed close to the Suwalki Gap?
This is something that Poland has to decide.
You don’t know if this will be the case?
No. We only know that the battalion will be in a concrete country. Issues regarding location and the composition of the battalions will be decided by framework countries and host countries: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This of course depends on existing infrastructure.
Would it be best to station the battalion in northeast Poland?
To be honest, in the case of Poland it doesn’t really make a difference. Because from a military perspective, Poland is one of NATO’s strongest countries. Polish armed forces are effective enough to cope independently with this phase of the conflict. One multi-national NATO battalion wont significantly strengthen Poland’s military capabilities.
So Poland would be able to defend itself longer than it did in September 1939?
(laughs) In 1939 no country was in possession of a nuclear weapon. Today, however, several countries have tactical nuclear weapons. In its military doctrine, Russia openly declares the continuity of use of nuclear weapons after conventional weapons. The Russians have thousands of tactical nuclear missiles. It is very difficult to predict how such a conflict would pan out.
As this is the case, Russia’s economy would not have a problem with supporting a far-reaching offensive against the West? Firing off nuclear missiles does not cost that much. Meanwhile, our countries are bound by mutually assured destruction. This is what nuclear deterrence is all about.
Even if the Russians only use tactical nuclear weapons, without coming into contact with the territory of the United States?
Every single use of a nuclear weapon marks the crossing of a red line. In such a case, NATO would immediately respond with a nuclear attack, immediately.
However, the Americans would be tempted to refrain from using a strategic nuclear bomb, in order to prevent the Russians from acting in kind. They will be tempted to stay out of the conflict, in order to save their country.
I don’t think that this would happen. The whole of NATO is connected through transatlantic ties. The United States feels just as responsible for the security of the entire territory of the Alliance as any other country. If Estonia is attacked, the United States will intervene. President Obama said very clearly in Warsaw recently that in the case of aggression against the Baltic States or any other NATO member state, the United States would respond either within the framework of the Alliance or unilaterally. This is no doubt a much more principled stand than that of any of the European allies.
Is the development of its tactical nuclear weapons a priority for Russia at the moment?
I don’t think so. The forced modernisation of the Russian armed forces has been underway for ten years, the planned reforms stretch to 2020. By that time, 70 per cent of military equipment will be exchanged. For Moscow, strategic nuclear force and strategic aviation makes more sense than tactical nuclear forces. Because it is after all modernising just about everything and even the latter will be modernised.
What state is the Russian Armed Forces in? Some people seem to think that only part of the army is functional, while others say that it is the best army in the world.
The Russian army today comprises 950,000 soldiers, next year it will be a million. When one looks at how they carried out their last military operations, it is clear to see that they have drawn many conclusions from the past, that they have changed many procedures, changed tactics and the way in which they use weapons. Do not underestimate Russia, it is a very strong player. They have all the criteria to be a big, global military power. When it comes to this, there can be no doubts. It would be a serious mistake for NATO to underestimate the Russians. But at the same time it would also be a mistake to overestimate Russian capabilities. Because a military power is composed of many different parts. Not only the military but above all economic factors as well as other elements. In Russia, the military element has become the power’s most important element. This distinguishes Russia from other countries but also makes it vulnerable. Russia is alone, it does not have allies, although at this stage it probably doesn’t need them. At the same, it does not have an economic base for it to be able to pursue a lengthy and comprehensive military operation. NATO with its 28, soon to be 29, countries has almost a billion people and half of the world’s national income, has incredible potential – not only in terms of the military, but also financial, economic and political potential. This always needs to be kept in mind. I am sure that President Putin takes this into consideration.
In Warsaw, Jens Stoltenberg announced that the Alliance would assume control over the American missile defence system and, in the future, also the base in Redzikowo. Who will decide about its use?
It was already decided at the NATO Summit in Chicago that the missile defence system would be built using American infrastructure. That is why the U.S. has provided various elements of the anti-missile shield to its allies.
So NATO will be the one to decide about the use of the missile launcher in Redzikowo?
After consultation with 29 countries?
This means that an enemy rocket will have flown over Redzikowo long before a decision is made.
No, we have the necessary procedures in place, several levels of decision-making. In the case of a sudden threat, the commander of the unit pushes the button.
So an American after all?
Not necessarily. These are multi-national structures. And depending on the threat level, the commander of the appropriate rank will make the decision.
For Poland this is important as Putin has said he would aim Russian atomic missiles at our country should Redzikowo be activated.
These are political declarations. NATO never said that this system is aimed at Russia. Anyway, technically this doesn’t make sense. Russians claim that the shield will alter the strategic nuclear equilibrium, however it is not aimed at Russia’s strategic missiles – rather at short and medium range missiles.
How safe is the building by Russia of the global air defence A2/AD (anti access – area denial) system in the Kaliningrad region?
This is not a new solution, but rather an integrated system of missiles shot from the air, sea and land linked in one, very refined system. It is a sort of bubble, so to speak, which goes beyond the Kaliningrad region and encroaches on a large part of Poland as well as the Baltic States. In the Crimea the range of the A2/AD system, built by the Russians, reaches the whole of the Black Sea.
Polish F-16s won’t be able to break through this bubble?
The A2/AD system is not offensive in nature, it is aimed above all at defending Russia. But if Russia activated this system and started using it, then it could indeed shoot down planes over our territory. But we can do the same, because we have similar systems covering Russia’s territory. It is a reciprocal arrangement, although any use of these elements by Russia would signify the start of an open conflict. If Russia shoots down a place that is flying over Polish territory or the Baltic States, it will mean war. However, until someone actually uses A2/AD, we are safe, although we remain within the range of the system. We can follow this logic even further: we are all within the range of some weapon, because nowadays strategic missiles cover the whole globe. There is no escaping this fact.
Have the Russians already installed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region?
As far as I know, Russia has installed Iskander missiles there…
And nothing else? Do they have atomic missile heads?
Are there NATO member states that are not taking part in creating the four battalions on the Eastern Flank?
One needs to take into consideration not only the degree of the multi-national nature of the battalions, but also how effective they will be. One can of course build a battalion composed of soldiers from 28 countries, but its effectiveness will be close to zero. It will be impossible to use it in military operations. After all, we want such a unit to be effective. That is why we decided to go for a rotational system, within which the framework country provides 60-70 per cent of the battalion’s personnel, its basic structure. At the same time, it reaches out for support to those Allies that are able to provide a company for many years. However, there are not many countries that are able to do this. For example, if Slovakia were to maintain a company in Lithuania for five to six years, it wouldn’t be able to do anything else.
Maintaining such a rotational system depends on the political good will of the leaders of NATO member states. Are you not afraid that this might disappear?
This is always a problem, political will can always disappear. But it will always depend on security conditions. If the threat will require maintaining these means, then it will be maintained. But if the situation improves and politicians decide that there is no longer a need for additional forces on the Eastern Flank, then they will change their decision.
Interviewed by Jędrzej Bielecki and Jerzy Haszczyński
General Petr Pavel, the Chairman of NATO Military’s Committee