On May 4, 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia planned to form 3 new military divisions to counter NATO’s growing military presence in Eastern Europe. These new military divisions will consist of 10,000 troops deployed on Russia’s southern and western frontiers. In addition, Shoygu pledged to improve military training for Russian troops and upgrade Russia’s military hardware production to combat the “NATO threat.”
Moscow’s military buildup has increased fears of an imminent Crimea-style Russian military intervention in the Baltic States. These concerns are likely misplaced, however. Even though Putin’s military modernization efforts after the 2008 Georgian War laid the groundwork for the 2014 annexation of Crimea, there is evidence that Russia’s latest military buildup is primarily for domestic consumption.
By demonstrating Russia’s ability to project military power on the world stage, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rallied nationalist sentiments around his government. Kremlin policymakers have also successfully framed Russia’s military buildup as a defensive reaction to NATO and Ukrainian aggression. Putin’s creation of a perpetual external enemy construct has allowed him to maintain consistently high approval ratings during a period of economic recession.
How the Kremlin’s Military Buildup Appeals to Russian Nationalists
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict and the imposition of sweeping sanctions against Russia, Kremlin policymakers have used Russia’s growing military power to rally pro-government nationalism. Immediately after the US and EU banned arms sales to Russia, the Russian government expedited its military modernization efforts. Putin hoped that showcasing Russia’s military strength would rally economic nationalist sentiments around his rule.
As Eugene Rumer and Rajan Menon note in their 2015 book Conflict in Ukraine, Putin’s focus on creating economic nationalism has encouraged the Russian military to produce arms domestically without regard for cost. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin claimed that Russia’s defense industry has been strengthened by protectionist policies that were adopted in response to Western sanctions. In 2014, Putin asked the Russian military to domestically manufacture 90 of Russia’s 200 most frequently imported weapons systems by 2020 and to transition towards complete self-sufficiency as soon as possible.
Putin’s ability to foment pro-government nationalism has been strengthened by increased international recognition of the Russian military’s global power projection capacity. The Russian state media prominently featured US President Barack Obama’s February 2016 description of the Russian military as the “second-most powerful military” in the world.
Obama’s statement contrasted markedly with his 2014 description of Russia as a regional power that invaded Crimea out of weakness. Russian elites have used Obama’s striking change of opinion as proof that Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria have boosted Russia’s international status.
To bolster perceptions of Russia as a great power, Putin has made a concerted effort to expand the Russian military’s global reach. The globalization of Russia’s military capabilities has allowed Moscow to expand its military presence in areas outside its sphere of influence, like Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
As Russia-West relations have become increasingly strained, the Russian Defense Ministry has held diplomatic negotiations with countries like Venezuela, Algeria, Vietnam, Singapore and Seychelles to gain access to their port facilities. The creation of a globalized Russian military combined with Moscow’s extra-regional power projection in Syria has increased public perceptions of Russia as a great power and rallied Russian nationalists around Putin’s government.
How Putin has Framed Russia’s Military Buildup in Defensive Terms
Even though NATO policymakers view Russia’s military buildup as aggressive posturing, Kremlin policymakers have insisted that Russia has expanded its military capabilities for defensive purposes. By depicting Russian international conduct as defensive, Putin has been able to rally nationalism around popular opposition to two external actors: NATO and Ukraine.
US policymakers have insisted that NATO’s expanded presence on Russia’s borders makes Eastern European countries more secure from Russian aggression. Russian policymakers have shunned this logic. Kremlin officials believe that NATO’s growing presence is proof of Washington’s covert attempts to undermine Russia’s international influence. This position has been advanced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who alleged in November 2015 that NATO invented Russia as an enemy to remain relevant after its failed mission in Afghanistan.
Putin has also repeatedly emphasized that NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are a threat to Russia’s national security. To demonstrate that Russia is merely responding to NATO “aggression,” Putin claimed on July 1, that NATO flies planes without transponders over the Baltic States twice as often as Russia does. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that NATO has doubled its military presence on Russia’s borders and has used NATO’s escalation as a justification for its military buildup.
The Russian government’s strident anti-NATO rhetoric has rallied anti-Western nationalists around Putin’s rule. Kremlin policymakers have used multilateralism to demonstrate the growth of Russia’s international status to nationalist constituencies. The increased frequency of CSTO bloc anti-NATO drills, demonstrate to the public that Russia’s leading role in combatting the “NATO threat” is expanding Moscow’s influence.
Russia’s recent military buildup on the Crimea-Ukraine border has fomented anti-Ukrainian nationalism. Kremlin policymakers have become increasingly vocal about the threat posed by the Ukrainian government to Russian and European security. On August 19, Putin declared that the Ukrainian government was sponsoring anti-Russian terrorism and had rebuffed diplomatic negotiations with Moscow. Russian officials have also insisted that the Ukrainian government’s refusal to hold free elections in Donbas is a violation of the Minsk Accords.
Putin’s incendiary rhetoric towards Ukraine is closely linked to his desire to rally pro-government nationalism ahead of the September 2016 Russian legislative elections. Russia’s mobilization of 40,000 troops on the Crimea-Ukraine border has rallied nationalist sentiments around Putin’s rule.
Putin’s defensive posturing is aimed at reframing Europe’s perceptions of the Ukraine conflict. Putin has attempted to prove that the Ukrainian government is stoking the Crimea crisis and that Russia is not a unilateral aggressor in Ukraine. If Putin is able to make a convincing Ukrainian culpability case to Western policymakers, EU sanctions against Russia could be lifted. The removal of sanctions on Moscow’s terms would be a major diplomatic victory for Putin that would rally nationalist sentiments around his government for years to come.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Western policymakers have assumed that Russia’s military buildup is a harbinger of neo-imperial expansion. However, this perspective mischaracterizes Russian foreign policy, as it neglects the importance of domestic politics in Putin’s strategic calculus. The increasingly prohibitive costs of territorial expansion suggest that Russia’s military buildup is primarily aimed at rallying pro-Putin nationalist sentiments and distracting the public from Russia’s economic malaise. Barring a massive change in the dynamic of Russia-West relations, Russia’s fast-track military modernization will likely be an enduring feature of the CIS security landscape for years to come.
This post was originally published by the Huffington Post.