Tanks, Tanks and More Dirty Tanks

Mark Galeotti, who always has great nuance and insight to add to the cipher that is the Russian police state, has this to contribute to the discussion of the week: What The Hell Are Three Aging T-64 Tanks Doing Meandering Around Eastern Ukraine?

NATO, and the State Department, have reacted predictably with a mix of hysterics and less-than-nuanced statements and warning. NATO trotted out photos of tanks… on the Russian side of the border, which was sorta, kinda helpful. The US State Department’s statement seemed to suggest the tanks were an indication that the Russian invasion had finally begun in earnest.

Galeotti’s central point, it would seem, is don’t take Washington and Brussels’ assertions as gospel. They have their agenda.

Seems to me tanks are less worrying than things like Grad mobile rocket launchers and Iglas shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which have the ability to inflict sufficient devastation on the ground in quick order and neutralize any air superiority that Ukraine might have in its own airspace. All the more so when we’re talking old T-64s, which are formidable but in many ways a weapon for another war in another century. It’s like cavalry charges by the Poles against the Wehrmacht; it’s just not the way 21st century conflict are fought anymore (Iraq included).

(NB: my understanding is that the Polish cavalry charge story may be more apocryphal than anything, but still, you get the point)

The larger, more impenetrable question is the coherence of strategy among the Russian military/security/intelligence apparatus. The appearance of the Vostok Batallion a few weeks ago was eyebrow-raising, because of its storied history in the Chechen wars, but also because of that fact that it was widely believed to be a construct of the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. And they were running around Donetsk, attacking the airport, doing little to hide their identifying insignias. The tanks, by all accounts, didn’t have any identifying marks, according to NATO.

The point is that both the FSB and GRU and other smaller agencies have been wholly reconstituted and revitalized under Comrade Putin, and have massive resources — human, technology, weaponry– under their disposal now. And the top-down nature of Russian administrative structures (hell, the entire freakin’ state) means that autonomy just doesn’t happen at the lowest, platoon-levels. Decisions to, say, assassinate high profile investigative journalists who are critics of the Chechen wars don’t happen in a vacuum. GRU-linked military units don’t just appear across a foreign border, in the midst of a geopolitical insurgency crisis, without any forethought or knowledge by the topmost generals and first secretaries.

Galeotti himself makes this point in an earlier posting here, about how Moscow has a long tradition of utilizing local proxies, mercenaries and other non-state actors to achieve policy goals without having to commit actual state-sponsored forces. (Moscow isn’t the only one who does this, of course). At some point, though, a non-state actor taking orders from a state actor eliminates any sort of legal or political distinction.

The Russian security apparatus is unified in its thinking, vertical in its administration and highly innovative in executing policy. Tanks and Chechen battalions running around eastern Ukraine is but one manifestation of this phenomenon.