On 4 September, a meeting took place in the office of the Russian Federation’s presidential chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, devoted to the primary themes and structure of an address to be delivered by the President to the Federal Assembly. Journalists from tobtained the final document from the meeting, which had been annotated by chief presidential consultant Dmitri Kalimulin.

The third paragraph of the document provides food for thought for us here in Estonia: “A separate topic is a forthright and candid assessment of the state of the world” ...“Russia will begin referring things by their correct names, without hypocrisy and diplomatic obfuscation.” “The situation in the world is worsening. Conflicts are piling up and there may be attempts to resolve them by force... The analogy to the period of the 1920s and 1930s is becoming clearer.”

Dark clouds on the horizon

The pre-war period theme is not new in Russia. It’s likely that it was first articulated by the current chairman of the Russian Airborne Union, Pavel Popovskikh, who from 1990-1997 was the head of intelligence for the Airborne Troops (VDV). On 19 May 2009, he said in an interview: “The situation is a pre-war state. The NATO bloc is on Russia’s borders in the Baltics, Poland and the Czech Republic and has only become stronger in the last few decades. They are making active preparations for war with Russia. <...> The war, for which the army must be prepared, will start with special operations by special forces, and it is not ruled out that such operations will become its main activities.”

Thus it took just three years for the “pre-war state” meme to make it from a retired colonel’s interview to a speech delivered by the President to the Federal Assembly. There is a huge distance separating a retired colonel and the president of the country. But the mentality of two professional Soviet officers, if it is different at all, is only 25 millimetres. (That is the distance between the little stars on the uniforms lieutenants, captains and colonels.) It is because of this that the last three years have been full of specific episodes relating to the “pre-war” theme.

On 27 May 2009, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov was appointed commander in chief of the VDV. Famously, in accepting his appointment he demanded that Anatoli Serdyukov’s programme for reductions in the VDV be changed. Furthermore, the airborne forces were increased by one attack squad in the Moscow military district and the a third airborne regiment was formed in the Pskov 76th division of the VDV.

September 2009 saw operational and strategic exercises called “Zapad 2009.” The premise was that the Polish army (though pseudonyms were actually used in the exercise) had invaded Belarusian territory in a territorial dispute; altruistically the Russian army rushed to the aggression victim’s assistance. But the Poles were backed by the US. Cooler heads prevailed in NATO and leading European powers France and Germany, which remained neutral. The scope of the exercise was 1,500 kilometres, from Belarus to the Barents Sea, while it ranged over 300 kilometres from east to west.

In 30 October 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev introduced amendments to Section 10 of the federal Defence Act. It allowed the formations of the armed forces to be used for operations outside Russian territory in four cases.

1. Repelling an attack on Russian Federation armed forces abroad.

2. Repelling or pre-empting aggression against another country (if requested by that country).

3. Protection of Russian Federation citizens abroad.

4. Fighting piracy.

Under the legislation, use of the army is decided by the president, but the Federation Council must within two days (i.e. ex post facto) approve the decision.

It is evident that the “Baltic support area” is legally specified for introducing the army (for protecting Russian Federation citizens). Slightly over 100,000 Russian citizens currently live in Estonia.

On 18 December 2009, Vladimir Shamanov announced in an interview: “By 2015, there will be 21 tactical groups in NATO’s rapid response forces, each one with up to 1,500 men. The NATO tactical group is roughly analogous to a Russian airborne regiment. Considering the size of the VDV and units and the squads under the command of the military region, the Russian armed forces have total parity with the NATO – 1:1. Thus our current concern is not sheer numbers, but the equipping the units with modern weapons and vehicles. <...> To significantly increase the army’s mobility, 15-20% of the Airborne’s armoured vehicles are on wheels. In places where there is developed road infrastructure, wheels are to be preferred over caterpillar treads.”

In early June 2010, at an expanded session of the VDV’s War Council, Shamanov attempted to soothe the officers: “Use of VDV units as a preemptive means has not disappeared, on the contrary it has grown.”

April 2012. Soldiers during joint military exercises of Belarusian and Russian paratroopers on the Gozhsky shooting range in Grodno. The Russian 76th Pskov Airborne Division is training with the Belarusian 103rd separate mobile brigade (Vitebsk). Photo: Scanpix

In 2010, at a tactical exercise of the regiment, a massive landing of spetsnaz units on controllable parachutes was staged. The units succeeeded in travelling about 20-30 km after jumping out of the aircraft. Shamanov was not very content – Israeli special forces can travel a distance of 40 km under similar conditions. It is 35 kilometres from Pskov to the Estonian border.

On 3 May 2012, General Staff commander Nikolai Makarov said at a missile defence conference in Moscow: “Russia can pre-emptively attack NATO’s European missile defence systems.” Thereafter experts started talking about GRU spetznaz that was said to have been formed for this purpose. But the discussion was quickly quieted.

On 5 May 2012 the same general Makarov said on a visit to Helsinki that cooperation between Finland and NATO was a threat to Russian security. He then showed a map where the boundary between the zones of interest of Russia and NATO passes through the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia. That would mean Finland and the Baltics would be in Russia’s strategic interest zone.

In mid-July 2012 Col. Gen. Vladimir Tchirkin, commander in chief of the army, announced that the Defence Ministry had decided to put a large part of the armoured vehicles on wheels instead of caterpillar treads. This meant that artillery, zenithal missile batteries and zenithal equipment as well as light tanks would be transitioned to wheeled systems.

At the same time, the VDV armoured vehicle Rys (Lynx) entered testing (a variation on the Italian LMV M65 armoured vehicle, produced in an Russian-Italian joint enterprise in Voronezh). If the outcome is successful, the Rys will begin to be used by reconnaissance and Airborne spetsnaz units, by sub-units in radio electronic operations and regimental antitank batteries. In such a case up to 3,000 Rys vehicles will be purchased in 2013- 2015.

In August and September 2012, joint exercises of units from the Western military district and the VDV were held. Estonia would be wise to pay attention to two particularities of these exercises. First of all, tactical helicopter paratroop landings. From this year on, such landings are practiced at all military exercises. Second of all, for the first time, Western military district intelligence and reconnaissance staff began to be trained using a new methodology. Officers and instructors who have combat experience in the previous decades in local armed conflicts are now teaching the military to operate in behind enemy lines and to make independent decisions if they are not in contact with the CinC staff.

Finally, on 8 August, Vladimir Putin announced that long before the conflict in South Ossetia, Russia had prepared a special plan that was used as the blueprint in August 2008. He said the plan was put in place in late 2006 or early 2007 by the General Staff and approved by himself, Putin.

Prognostications on the basis of the crane flight

In early September 2012, when Vladimir Putin flew a motorized ultralight glider ahead of a small flock of cranes, it was called a presidential PR stunt. But for more insight, one should presumably refer to an interview given by Gen. Shamanov on February 24 this year, where he complained that the VDV had a “major shortage of motorized ultralights. “I am sure the situation will now change.

Thus we see that Russia has new legislation on use of armed forces abroad, that forces exist for this purpose (enlarged and reformed), trained for carrying out special operations behind enemy lines. The Russian leadership has many special services personnel who have an operational, military mind-set rather than a politician’s one. And worst of all, the political leadership subscribes to a “superstate” myth – a myth for which no support exists in the real world. This keeps nerves in a high state of tension.

Military personnel carrier of the Freccia armored company IVECO (IVECO - OTO MELARA) at the opening of the arms exhibition “Eurosatory 2012” in a suburb of Paris. Photo: Scanpix

Intelligence operatives are afoot in Estonia (operating both legally and illegally). Herman Simm is one - the first, but not the last. The FSB is also operating in Estonia (illegally). An example is Aleksei Dressen - the first and probably not the last. On top of it all, a colony of 100,000 Russian Federation citizens is present in Estonia.

Does the Russian General Staff have a special plan for protecting Russian citizens abroad if needed? Certainly. Not for nothing did Dmitri Medvedev organize an expanded meeting on security issues on 11 May 2011, where he assigned the task of developing an algorithm for protecting Russian citizens in case of an extraordinary situation. “In this regard, the level of protection,” stressed the President, “must conform to the level of the threat.” Among others, a task was assigned to Defence Minister Anatoli Serdyukov, FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov and Foreign Intelligence director Mikhail Fradkov.

A mere pretext is enough to trigger Section 10 of the federal Defence Act, and a pretext is just a technicality.

The current situation is unfolding along the lines of the main (peaceful) scenario, which has an historical analogue. In the mid-1930s, the NKVD had agents in place in Helsinki. Up to six local politicians and state officials worked for the Soviet secret police organization. The agents of influence were in the entourage of Prime Minister Kajander. Back then, close to 10 million markkaa was allocated for strengthening intelligence positions and forming a political party (Smallholders’ Party). Some time later, the term Finlandization appeared in political science dictionaries. For this reason the best scenario for the Kremlin would be the rise to power in Estonia of a political party loyal to Moscow.

There is also a worst-case scenario. Yet it is not time to implement this one, nor has a “fuse” or pretext been found. There would be four acts to this play.

1. An operation is launched to destabilize the socioeconomic or international situation in a region with a compact Russian-speaking population, with many Russian citizens. Such a region might be Narva, Estonia or Crimea, Russia.

2. Widespread demonstrations among the Russian speaking community would take place, led by professional provocateurs.

3. In response the government uses force against the demonstrators.

4. A landing of paratroopers would be mounted under the guise of a peacekeeping operation.

NATO or the US would not launch a war against Russia by itself, as the Russian spetsnaz were, after all, carrying out a “humanitarian action”. Perhaps a “Sarkozy” would be sent in with a peace plan. Estonia would become an unstable territory, possibly an autonomous territory.

Why is such a scenario possible?

Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council of Foreign and Defence Policy, said in early September: “Russia has taken a course of strengthening its military. The external threat of war is unprecedentedly low. Yet a number of variations on the course are on-going. This is consistent with the current internal logic of the country’s development.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Foundation for Effective Politics, said in early September: “The extraordinary legislation passed this summer signals that the former course is changing. The role of marginal and reactionary elements in the Kremlin camp is becoming stronger.” 

Vladimir Juškin is the Director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies in Estonia