Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, USA (Ret.), recently retired as Director of Defense and Intelligence Projects at Harvard's Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served as Senior Regional Director for Slavic States in the Office of Secretary of Defense and as Defense Attaché to Russia. Brig. Gen. Ryan was Chief of Staff for the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command and founded the Elbe Group, a forum of former U.S. and Russian military and intelligence officers to discuss bilateral challeneges and opportunities. He recieved his masters degree in National Security Strategy from the National War College. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen talked with him in August.
inFOCUS: Let’s begin with the Russian military build-up, what have they been doing?
BG Ryan: Russian conventional forces today are much better than they have been since the end of the Cold War. They are bigger, they are a bigger threat to neighboring countries – Russia’s so-called “near abroad” – and in limited regions abroad that are farther away, such as Syria. But those forces are not capable of true, long-distance power projection like the United States military. Those forces are not a threat to invade Europe proper, overrunning major countries. Keep in mind, though, that the Russian military is a threat to neighboring countries, so portions of countries or small countries could be overrun by Russia.
iF: What is the likelihood that the Baltic countries could be snatched? Would NATO go to war for Estonia?
BG Ryan: There’s very little possibility that Russia wants to invade and occupy and then own Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia. Those countries are not Slavic by nature and culture, although they have large Russian populations in them from the Soviet days, but Russia doesn’t need or want those countries to be under its military occupation.
The real danger in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia is that with the large buildup of Russian forces on their side of the border, and the large and increasing build-up by the NATO forces on the other side of the border – they increased patrolling and flights – there will be an accidental clash, a shoot-down of an American or a Russian aircraft over disputed boundaries. The ramming of a ship, soldiers on patrol who get lost in the woods and end up across the border. And that this accidental clash could then escalate and spiral into a conflict.
A shoot-down along a border that has a lot of aircraft flying along it is not an unreasonable thing; in fact, I think it’s just a matter of time. Do you know how many times the Russians, the USSR, the Soviets, shot down American airplanes along their border during the Cold War? Thirty-nine times; that includes famous shoot-downs like [U-2 pilot] Francis Gary Powers [in 1960]. It includes many U.S. spy missions that were secret at the time, so the United States didn’t talk about them. And the Soviet Union didn’t like to talk about clashes and its actions along its borders, so both sides had a vested interest in keeping these things quiet. But in today’s world, keeping such a thing quiet would be impossible.
When the Turks shot down a Russian aircraft along the Syrian-Turkish border, there were videos in the media almost immediately purporting, if not actually capturing the shoot-down and the parachuting of a Russian pilot and so on. So to think a shoot-down along the Baltic border today somehow could be kept quiet and not escalate is a fantasy. We don’t want to put our president, or the Russian president, in the position of having to make a snap judgment on partial information because of an accidental clash.
And this is the real danger in the Baltic region: That an accident will lead to escalation, which will draw us into a war that none of us wanted in the first place.
iF: So that relies on everybody keeping their cool, but NATO escalates together. how likely is it that Germany would agree to any retaliatory activity against the Russians?
BG Ryan: This is a very important question and one that I don’t think anybody knows the answer to because the possible different circumstances of an attack, let’s say on Estonia. You could have a cyber attack. You could have an uprising of ethnic Russian citizens in the Estonian country who have no visible, or at least provable, immediate connection to Russia but are destabilizing the country and may very well be supported by Russia.
Under these kinds of varying circumstances, the question is very valid. What will each of the NATO countries believe is in their interest and how do we interpret what’s going on there? Some countries may feel that an uprising inside Estonia is an internal matter for Estonia, whereas other countries may immediately decide it is a Russian provocation and an attack on Estonia. So while it’s important for NATO countries to prepare for this kind of decision, I think a more likely outcome would be that at least some NATO members would view this as an attack, view some Russian provocation as an attack, and would come to the defense of Estonia in the form of forces, money, ammunition, material, and so on.
I think the United States, with or without NATO, would support Estonia if Russia clearly engages Estonia.
iF: Is the current Russian military build-up sustainable for the long run? Russia has had some good economic times and bad times, and mostly it relies on the export of oil and natural gas, the prices of which are low. How are they going to sustain what they’ve got going?
BG Ryan: They’re not. Let’s call it military reform and really it’s the return of a credible Russian military because Russia’s military during the 1990s and early 2000s was not credible. They were under such economic and demographic pressure that they were not able to train above the battalion level or meet their requirements for recruiting and draft. They could not keep their ammunition safe and stored properly. They couldn’t drive their tanks to the firing range to practice tank gunnery. These are things the Russian officers told me directly and that I saw with my own eyes in Russia during the 1990s and early 2000s. So that’s an unstable and bad Russian military.
It may seem odd that an American would say this, but a country that is not competent in its own military is an unstable and dangerous partner for anything that we would want to do. So it was a very bad situation for the United States for Russia’s military to be in that situation, because it made Russian leaders very nervous. They’re a dangerous actor in the international arena because they’re uncertain of their own security. The United States would rather have a country like Russia be certain and feel confident of its own security so they would act as a stable, confident partner whether we’re talking about European security or Syria or anything else.
iF: Is there a place where confidence rolls over into aggressiveness?
BG Ryan: Yes. And today, Russia has solved that problem at the basic level. Let’s say its conventional army is once again a capable force. They are at about 95 percent manning. They have about half or more of their forces, contract or professional builders now as, what we call volunteers. They have a much reduced officer corps but a much better one. But, they still have many problems. They still combat and struggle with the what we call hazing, or dedovshchina in Russian. But their military is much more capable and we’ve seen that exercised in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria. Today that Russian military is much more capable. The country’s leaders are much more confident of their own security. And the question is whether or not they take that confidence and continue to antagonize and meddle in neighboring countries or whether they stop there and are satisfied. They do not feel secure in their own borders, so they want a buffer region.
iF: Moving beyond their buffer region, talk about grand strategy and Syria. If you were looking at President Putin in Syria, where clearly he has benefited with two naval bases and an air base, is he working from grand strategy or is he an opportunist who’s taken advantage of the parts of the world that are falling apart?
BG Ryan: Putin is much less strategic than we give him credit for. I think he is an opportunist first. Where he can be strategic he will attempt to be, but in the case of Syria, you had a situation in which his hand was forced. The Syrian regime and Bashar al-Asad, his client were about to fail. The rebels were about to divide the western part of the country in Idlib province and near Latakia. And this was the homeland, this was the heartland of Bashar al-Asad’s support. If the rebels had taken this, divided the province, and begun to break it apart, they estimated, and I think it was the correct assessment, that Asad would fall.
So they did again here what they attempted to do in Kosovo and Serbia during the Kosovo War. If you remember back to that war, they saw their client Serbia about to fail. The Kosovo War was going to be won by NATO and the West. And what did they do? They attempted to establish an air bridge by sending aircraft and troops in from Russia, but Bulgaria, Romania, and other countries did not allow them passage. So they sent a Special Forces unit from Bosnia, and they drove from there to Pristina, the airfield and capital of Kosovo. That almost started a war between the United States and Russia.
General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander there at the time, wanted to attack that Russian column, but a British general, Sir Michael Jackson, refused to do that. Instead we gave the Russians part of Kosovo. We allowed them to patrol and to do that in conjunction with Western nations.
The Russians failed in Kosovo because they were too weak and they worked too slowly. So when Russia had a similar situation with Syria a decade and a half later, it was a stronger military and Putin did not want to make the same mistake, ending up with no say in what was going on, as Russia did in the Balkans. So he moved into Syria strongly and with a good, confident military force. And he turned the table.
iF: A great analogy. So the question becomes, is he planning to turn it over to Iran?
BG Ryan: I think Russia always had a military presence in Syria and it will continue to have one there. So I don’t know they will turn Syria over to Iran. They will remain a player in Syria.
But the thing about Russians – and they know this better than anyone – is they cannot solve the situation in Syria; they don’t have the money and the military power. At the same time, no solution in Syria can happen without Russia’s support; Russia has a spoiler position. It must be included in any solution by the West, and will have the ability to help us. But if we don’t include them, they will certainly scuttle any attempt by us to settle it in a way that’s favorable to the West.
iF: So if the United States says that Iran cannot have a long-term role in Syria, which the president had said but he says less often these days, do you think it’s possible that the Russians would work with us to limit the Iranian influence or do you think they would work with Iran to limit our interest?
BG Ryan: I think Russia will work to maximize its interests and to prevent the United States from having any, I don’t know what you call it here, controlling interest in Syria. Which probably means that Russia will not support a complete separation between Iran and what’s going on in Syria.
iF: That, of course, is what the Israelis worry about, Iranians near their border.
BG Ryan: Nobody knows this place better than the Israelis.
iF: True. And this goes hand-in-hand with Israel’s relationship with Russia, which has been quite good over the last five years. So the Israelis have a great interest in where the United States and Russia and Iran go in terms of settling Syria.
BG Ryan: Yes. I’m not an expert on Iran, but I can tell you that Russia can be leveraged to help us get a situation in Syria that is at least acceptable, say, to the West.
iF: Then let’s move back, to Russia and a Russia-Russia question: Nuclear modernization. How have the Russians been dealing with nuclear modernization? Are they doing it and doing it well?
BG Ryan: Both the United States and Russia need to modernize to keep their nuclear forces current and capable. America has started on so-called nuclear modernization because our ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] force is decades and decades older than it was originally intended to be. And the same goes for Russia. Steven Pifer did a great article a couple a years ago about, the sine/cosine wave of American and Russian nuclear modernization. When we’re modernizing, Russia is finishing its modernization, and when our modernization is finished, Russia looks over and sees that we’ve modernized and it begins one of its own. But that’s not just an arms race. It’s not just that they got better so we’re going to get better. But it’s also a question of modernizing to keep the force from falling apart.
And I go back to my comment earlier about if you have a military capability but you’re not sure that it will work, that makes you an unstable actor. So I think both countries have the right and, in a way, the obligation to keep their nuclear forces credible, safe, secure, capable.
iF: Where do missile defenses fit in here? President Trump has ordered increases in our missile defense spending. How do the Russians do on that? Are they working on it?
BG Ryan: The Russians, to my knowledge, don’t have or did not have this hit-to-kill technology, and they did not have the money to engage in a major research and development effort to proliferate a missile defense system that the United States is moving toward. So they see our missile defense as a diminishing of their nuclear deterrent. Which they cannot match. So this is a new factor that makes calculating whether or not a deterrent is working or will work difficult.
This is the kind of thinking that results when one side is not sure that its nuclear deterrent is effective. The solution is to establish mechanisms or treaties or agreements that would give each side some level of confidence that the other side does not plan to gain an advantage so that it can launch a first strike. At the moment our missile defenses are not developed enough that Russia has to worry about an American first strike, but they see the day coming and they, they’re nervous about that future date.
iF: And that will be particularly true if the president does what he says he’s going to do, which is improve our missile defenses. That’s going to add some tension to that relationship.
BG Ryan: Exactly. And I want to see the United States build missile defenses, but we have to understand the impact on Russia. We don’t want to create the war that we’re trying to avoid.
iF: There comes a question as to what we think Russia is. If we see it in some parts of the world as a competitor, but not an enemy, some conversations about missile defense and reassurance and stability become easier. If we see Russia as an enemy, it makes those conversations harder. How do you see Russia?
BG Ryan: I think we should take a very strong position against Russia militarily right now. Russia has shown itself adventurous in the near abroad. It has projected its power into the Middle East. It has been threatening in its rhetoric about its own nuclear capabilities. So I think that Russia responds best to a clear and unambiguous military strength. Where we show our strength, Russia will recognize that and generally will not challenge it. So I think the United States needs to take a strong military position. We need to modernize our nuclear force. We need to ensure that our conventional capabilities in Europe are sufficient to deter Russia from further advances or assaults or attacks, whether they be military or non-military means. With respect to hybrid warfare, especially in Europe, we should see Russia as an adversary. They certainly have portrayed themselves that way.
iF: You mentioned hybrid warfare, what advantages do the Russians see with it and what they might want to do with it?
BG Ryan: Hybrid warfare is not new; it has been practiced by everyone, including the United States. It means using all the levers of power, diplomatic, economic, military, informational and intelligence, cyber. It uses all these elements of power in order to protect and advance our interests. Or in the case of Russia, their interests. So where they can move militarily and say, occupy Crimea, they will do that. But where they are deterred from using their military, they will use other forms of power. And the other aspect of hybrid warfare is that the Russians believe we’re already in a war. We’re constantly in a struggle. And these levers of power are constantly being used. So there is no true state of peace between the West and Russia. In a way this is very similar to Marxist-Leninist thinking and it sees the world as being in constant struggle and conflict.
iF: We discovered at some point that our assessment of the Soviet Union was somewhat overblown. How good do you think Western intel is now and how good are our judgements of their capabilities?
BG Ryan: I think our intelligence is pretty good, but we live in a different time and age now. Russia is much more open. Whether or not American spies can get physically to an objective in Russia is not as important today as it was during the Cold War. Today Russians themselves are writing about what’s going on in their military, what’s going on in their country. We just have to read what they write. Of course, it’s not quite that simple – the role of traditional espionage remains important. But I can sit here at my desk in New Hampshire and use Google to find out many things that were secret, highly secret during the Cold War in Russia. I think our ability to assess and understand the capabilities of Russia are much better today. What I’m not sure we understand are the intentions of Russia or the intentions of the ruling elite in Russia. And there are two components of a threat. The capability to do harm or to injure us, and the intention of the adversary, whether or not they intend to do harm.
I think we see the capabilities very well. We don’t have a good insight into all the time into the intentions.
iF: this might be a place for me to promote the Elbe Group. Are those kinds of non-official links another way that we can maximize our understanding of what they think and how they think? Which goes along with the question of how honest do you think they are when you meet?
BG Ryan: Well, to your first point, absolutely. This is the hope and the benefit of groups like the Elbe Group – that we will have a better understanding of the intentions or the thinking of the other side. And, at the same time that we can use these groups to relay our thinking and intentions to create transparency about how our side looks at the actions of the other side. This is what’s lacking most at the moment. And what could lead to a miscalculation and to an error that can lead to a conflict.
iF: How honest do you think they are? And how honest are you?
BG Ryan: I think both sides of the Elbe Group are open and frank. By the nature of our background – military and intelligence officers – we are very conservative. We’re patriots to our countries. We largely support the policy positions of our own country, so we don’t find ourselves often disagreeing with our own national positions. And so when we say what we say, we not only are reflecting the national position but we’re saying what we believe.
However, there are times during our discussions when members of both sides have disagreements. Maybe the most interesting times at the Elbe Group is when Russians argue with Russians and Americans argue with Americans about situations that we’re discussing. At least in the Elbe Group, what you’re getting is a good understanding of what the Russian security elite thinks, which is important by itself. And you’re getting the best advice and commentary from security professionals from both countries.
iF: Have you discussed Syria?
BG Ryan: We’ve been discussing Islamic extremism since our very first meeting in 2010. When Syria became an issue we began discussing it. So after Russia had deployed forces into Syria in September 2015, we talked a lot about Syria. The Russians were clear that they thought that the United States had no strategy there and that we were supporting rebel groups which included al-Qaeda and its associates.
iF: You have had in the Elbe Group more than one comment about nuclear terrorism. And on your website was a statement from the un that basically said bad actors don’t necessarily have to steal things, but can hack things, making nuclear terrorism simpler. If you don’t need to actually acquire the weapons, only a cyber capability, what does that do to the security of our weapons?
BG Ryan: Nuclear terrorism was our initial and original reason for meeting. We created the Elbe Group to pull experts together to discuss the threat of terrorists getting nuclear weapons. And getting nuclear weapons doesn’t mean just getting a nuclear bomb that’s already made, say, by the United States or Pakistan. It means making a nuclear weapon. And that terrorists in a country like Afghanistan or Pakistan up in the mountains could make a nuclear device – not just a dirty weapon, but one that would implode and give a nuclear yield. This idea is still difficult for many people to accept and support. And we felt that it was a threat that was being underrated. That is the nuclear terrorist threat we were concerned about.
That is not the only threat. There is a threat if they acquire one. Or if they can hack into a nuclear power station and create some sort of nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl. We’re looking at different kinds of nuclear threats. And the terrorists do have an intention to get these kinds of weapons and to use them.
iF: That won’t make us sleep better. But on behalf of the members of The Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, Thank you.