Underestimate Russia and be surprised

These pieces are papers that I believe to be still relevant; they were published earlier elsewhere under a pseudonym. They have been very slightly edited and hyperlinks have been checked.

I originally wrote this in November 2015. It seems appropriate, around Victory Day, to republish it. The manufacturers of Nazi battle standards would have been surprised had they known where they would end up. Likewise French cannon foundries. As there is more and more war talk in the West, it is as well to remember that, while you can easily start a war with Russia, it probably won’t be you who finishes it.

The USA/NATO has been surprised – or is stunned a better word? – by the Russian operation in Syria. The fact that it intervened; the speed with which it did it; the secrecy with which it did it; the numbers of sorties being flown; the accuracy and effectiveness of the strikes. But especially by the discovery that insignificant boats in the Caspian Sea – of all places – have a surprisingly long reach. McCain’s gas station or Obama’s negligible Russia couldn’t possibly be expected to do such things. And, if half the rumours about Russia’s “A2/AD bubble” are true, there’s another huge surprise as well.

Russia, over its millennium of history, has been usually successful in war, and especially so when defeating invaders. The Mongols were eventually seen off, the Teutonic Knights sent home, the Polish-Lithuanian invaders driven out, the Swedes defeated and Napoleon and Hitler were followed home by avenging armies. The West is only faintly aware of this record: it tends to remember Russia’s rare defeats like the Japanese war or World War I and, when Russia (or the USSR) wins, the common opinion in the West is that victory was really owed to factors like “General Winter” or endless manpower. In short, the Western meme is that Russia doesn’t really win, the other side loses.

This is, to put it mildly, incorrect. Dominic Lieven’s book “Russia Against Napoleon” destroys the meme. The author establishes the case that the Emperor Alexander and his government foresaw that war with Napoleon was inevitable, studied how Napoleon fought and made the necessary preparations to defeat him. And defeat him they did. Fighting an army as big as the one that invaded in 1812 led by as brilliant a commander as Napoleon is never going to be easy and Alexander probably didn’t envisage a battle as bloody as Borodino, so close to Moscow, to be indecisive. I’m sure nobody planned for Moscow to be occupied and burned. But, even so, Alexander held to his purpose. He knew that Napoleon’s typical campaign was a swift battlefield victory, followed by negotiations, perhaps the loss of a few bits of territory, a relative or two being made into a prince, and then the gathering of the defeated power into the French camp. In short, Napoleon expected that he and Alexander would meet again when Alexander had been taught a lesson: Russia would then rejoin the “continental system” and its navy would keep the Royal Navy out of the Baltic. Something limited like that. But Alexander was fighting a different war and never came to him. Moscow burned and Napoleon gave up waiting and went home. Certainly, “General Winter” played his part, but the French retreat turned into a rout as they were driven faster and faster by the menacing proximity of the rebuilt Russian Army, harried by warmly dressed Cossack raiders with endless remounts and enraged partisans roused into the first Great Patriotic War. This famous graph tells the story: four hundred thousand went in, ten thousand came out and the Russian army followed Napoleon all the way back to Paris. Lieven explains the planning and the enormous logistics operation which sustained a large army all the 1500 miles from Moscow to Paris. Very far indeed from the Western story of masses of men hurled at a freezing enemy.

In short: Alexander understood how Napoleon did things and surprised him with proper preparation and a full strategy. This, I believe, is the essence of the “Russian way in warfare”. Know and understand the enemy and surprise him. We have just seen this again in Syria. And, for that matter, over and over again in the Ukraine crisis where nothing has gone the way Nuland & Co intended. And in Ossetia in 2008.

While the First World War was a disaster for Russia, surprise and intelligence was present. Germany’s plan to deal with enemies both east and west assumed Russia would take so long to mobilize that the bulk of the German Army could be sent west to knock France out quickly – as it had done in 1870 – and return in time to meet the Russians. The Russians, who perhaps knew this, attacked early and threw the Germans into consternation. Their attack, however, went wrong: the Russian commanders were incompetent, the German commanders weren’t and the Germans were saved. Intelligence and surprise were there, but the execution was bungled. A second intelligence/surprise was the Brusilov Offensive in 1916 (again something not much known in the West). The attack was notable for two innovations later adopted in the Western Front: a short, intense, accurate artillery bombardment immediately followed up by attacks of small specially trained shock troops. Very different indeed from the synchronous Somme offensive on the Western Front with its prolonged bombardment and the slow advance of thousands of heavily burdened soldiers. But, in the end, Russia was overwhelmed by the strains of the first industrial war and undermined by German and Austrian subterfuges and collapsed. Intelligence and surprise weren’t enough.

Intelligence and surprise returned in the Soviet period. In the Far East we saw the perfect combination of surprise in 1939 with the annihilation of a Japanese army at the battle of Khalkin-Gol and intelligence in 1941 with Richard Sorge‘s discovery that Japan was turning south. This intelligence allowed Stavka to transfer divisions, that the Germans had no idea existed, to Moscow and surprise them with the first Soviet victory at the Battle of Moscow. Certainly Hitler surprised Stalin with his attack (although he shouldn’t have because Soviet intelligence picked up many warning signs) but that appears to have been the last German surprise of the war. From then on it was the Soviets who foresaw German plans and surprised them time and time again – the counter attack at Stalingrad and the entire Battle of Kursk being two of the most dramatic examples of the Soviets preparing for what their intelligence told them was coming and achieving complete surprise with their counter-attack. [And, as I have just learned today, the Soviets knew the details of the final German thrust on Moscow]. Again, surprise and intelligence, almost all of it on the Soviet side. (Which should make one wonder what Reinhard Gehlen, head of the German Army’s Soviet intelligence section had to sell the Americans in 1945, shouldn’t it?)

So then, Syria is just the latest example of something that has been present in Russian and Soviet war-fighting doctrine for at least two centuries.

A good piece of advice, then: if you are contemplating a war (even a non-shooting war) against Russia you’d better assume that they have a pretty good idea of what you are doing but that you have very little idea of what they are doing.

It’s much more likely that you will be surprised than you will surprise them.

Lots of people in lots of places over lots of years have underestimated Russia. Most of them have regretted it.

Is there anything in the last couple of years in the West’s anti-Russia campaign that would cause anyone to think otherwise?

Why Russia Ran Rings Around the USA in the Obama Years

These pieces are papers that I believe to be still relevant; they were published earlier elsewhere under a pseudonym. They have been very slightly edited and hyperlinks have been checked.

Originally written in October 2015 but I don’t see much to change my opinion about. When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the West had it all – prestige, success, power, a winning example. It is astounding how much it has thrown away in the succeeding three decades.

Admittedly, there is a new Administration in the USA with new promises to mind its own business:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.

We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.

Can Trump get the USA to stop its (wasteful, destructive, murderous and counterproductive) meddling and can he, as he has promised, find a better relationship with Russia? Can he emplace a better, more coherent, more intelligent, more focussed team than the arrogant incompetents of the last eight years? It is the biggest question today.

The anti-Russian hysteria gripping the chattering classes shows that Trump’s up against a lot of opposition.

But I don’t believe the story is over yet.

Despite its “failing economy“, “isolation“, “ancient weapons“, “instability” and all the other tired (and ageless: Russia was “failing” in 2005 and in 2000) tropes, time and time again, Moscow confounds, surprises and outmanoeuvres Washington. How does it do it?

Moscow has a competent team; Washington has ??? Putin, Medvedev, Ivanov, Shoygu, Lavrov. On the other side… well, you fill in the names. [Note Apr 2017: There is a new Administration and we will see what difference that makes.] The proof is that Russia has risen from a negligible position in 2000 to one that sets a lot of the agenda.

Moscow stays at home; Washington goes abroad. John Quincy Adams advised the young American republic not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But today…. US special forces deployed to 150 countries in the past three years; hundreds and hundreds of foreign military bases. Not even the most dedicated anti-Russia conspiricist could name 15 countries he thought Russian special forces had been deployed in nor more than a handful of foreign bases. And so, while Moscow sticks to its own interests, Washington sticks its interests into everything and everywhere.

Moscow is grounded in reality; Washington grounded in illusion. I don’t think we could have a better illustration than the two leaders’ speeches at the UNGA [in 2015]. In which, together with all the hypocritical piffle about “we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law”, “fidelity to international order”, “basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce”, “helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant” is the meat: “I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.” As this writer put it, the schoolyard bully condemns bullying. Putin stuck to his themes of multilateralism (and so did Xi Jinping; something to be noticed: that’s two nuclear powers, two UNSC permanent seats and the first and fifth economies (World Bank, PPP) agreeing that “The future of the world must be shaped by all countries. All countries are equals.”). Putin asked “do you at least realize now what you’ve done?” and answered his question realistically “But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.” And finally: “Gentlemen, the people you are dealing with are cruel but they are not dumb. They are as smart as you are. So, it’s a big question: who’s playing whom here?” Who, indeed? (One of the top ISIS commanders was trained by the US back when it was thought useful to have jihadists it “controlled” fighting Russia. Who was playing whom then?) But Obama’s still rearranging the li-los in cloud cuckoo land: Putin went into Syria out of weakness and he’s only got Syria and Iran while the USA has the rest of the world.

Moscow plans; Washington assumes. It seems that Israel got more than the brusque one-hour announcement the US received of the coming strikes. A coordination centre is operating in Baghdad. There are constant stories that China is on board (I don’t believe Debka’s reports that Chinese military assets are already there but China may well appear in some way). [Note Apr 2017: not militarily but it will likely play a part in rebuilding Syria]. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and the Kurds are all on board. Obviously this was carefully planned over some time. In short, Putin & Co got their ducks in a row and moved very quickly. [Note Apr 2017: and so it continues]. Compare the light-hearted way in which the Ukraine disaster began: cookies and cell phone chats, the premature US Navy bid for Sevastopol, the silly confidence that it would be all wrapped up soon. To say nothing of the “surprising” fallout from the Libya and Iraq wars. Of course if the aim of Washington is to create chaos, as some wonder, then it has been all carefully thought out. And chaos it has.

Moscow has consistency; Washington has confusion. Take Syria for example. The Russian policy is to fight ISIS and its attachments; it supports Assad because it saw in Libya and Iraq that overthrowing the incumbent leads to worse. The only way to do this is by supporting the forces that are actually fighting ISIS on the ground. As well there is the principle that Assad is the recognised government of the country. And so Russia has forged agreements with the forces actually fighting ISIS. The US policy is to attack ISIS (but not very effectively) but also to attack Assad using its “four or five” moderate rebels. Oh, wait, you tell us there’s a CIA-trained group we haven’t heard about before somewhere? Or should Washington ally itself with Al-Qaeda? ISIS has a lot of US weapons: accident? Intention? some secret operation? who knows? No consistency or coherence there.

Moscow has a united team; what does the USA have? As I have written earlier, I suspect that the US intelligence community has been shut out of Washington’s decisions and now wants to clear itself of blame for the ever unrolling disaster. We won’t hear anything from Moscow like that; and it’s not because Putin’s a “dictator”.

So it’s not that complicated: competency, attention to first principles, reality, planning, consistency of purpose and unity of execution beats incompetency, interfering in everything everywhere, illusion, sloppy assumptions, confusion and disunity.

Obama changes his mind on Russia

It’s been quite a progression, hasn’t it?

Part One: Weak, Regional, Failing

Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.

Netherlands, 25 March 2014

But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.

Economist interview, 2 August 2014

Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.)

State of the Union Address, 20 January 2015

Part Two: Maybe not

The bottom line is, is that we think that Russia is a large important country with a military that is second only to ours, and has to be a part of the solution on the world stage, rather than part of the problem.

Washington, 18 October 2016

Part Three: Powerful, Worldwide

With respect to Russia, my principal approach to Russia has been constant since I first came into office. Russia is an important country. It is a military superpower. It has influence in the region and it has influence around the world. And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.

Berlin, 17 November 2016

“constant since I first came into office”

The Greatest Kremlinological Theory Ever: Bald and Hairy

Note: a version of this appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1996 and I am amazed to see it preserved on the Web. I think I originally wrote it for the now-defunct Moscow Tribune about that time.

It was delightful to read Jennifer Rossa’s piece in the Moscow Tribune on 29 February 1996 resurrecting the greatest of all Kremlinological theories. What is known among the professionals as the Hirsute Analytical Tool – the alternation of bald and hairy Soviet leaders – was greatly relied on after its discovery in 1955. A theory of great predictive power, it was the crown jewel of the science of Kremlinology.

However, the HAT has greater power yet: as it survived the communist period so it pre-dated it. Alexander I (1801-1825) was balding; Nicholas I (1825-1855) was also balding. But then the cycle settled down: Alexander II (1855-1881) had a full head of hair, Alexander III (1881-1894) was balding and Nicholas II (1894-1917) had hair. Note, however, the Imperial Corollary: emperors are balding, communists are fully bald.

Unnoticed by other researchers, and here presented for the first time, is the Facial Fur Addendum. Facial fur started gently in the 19th century, rose to a crescendo, died away among the communists and bald faces have been the rule ever since. Alexander I was clean shaven, Nicholas I had a moustache, Alexander II had mutton chops, Alexander III and Nicholas II had full beards. Lenin had a beard, but only a goatee, and Stalin, the last in the series, had a moustache.

The HAT refers only to male rulers of course and Russia had several female rulers in the eighteenth century but not since. Tentative analysis suggests the existence of a long term cycle – possibly involving Big Hair (which Catherine certainly had). The return of women rulers is indicated for the next century.

The HAT is worthless at predicting length of term. For example, Stalin, a Hairy Guy, was in power for nearly 30 years while Chernenko, another Hairy Guy, was in power for only eighteen months. Therefore, it is quite wrong to suggest that the HAT predicts that President Yeltsin will lose the June election. The Hat was discovered in an imperial period when rulers tended to hold office for life. It may not apply to a republican, democratic Russia. If it is still valid, all it predicts is that President Yeltsin’s eventual successor will be a Bald Guy, possibly with a neat moustache.

Note: I was greatly amused to see, when Putin re-appeared as President, that the HAT has lost none of its power. And here is the latest version:

bald and hairy

The August 1991 Coup Attempt and Me

David Jones (who just died the other day. RIP) organised an annual meeting at his ancestral home in Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Purpose to talk about all the stuff that was going on in the USSR. I was one of the participants (greatly outranked by most of the others. Thank you David).

So, down I went to Halifax in August 1991 by car with my wife for the latest. We have the meeting; serious bunch of people, knowledgeable and informed. I remember, on the last day, having a debate with one of the participants on the subject that the Soviet Armed Forces had more power than ever before; I argued no, they were just as divided on perestroyka, glasnost, Gorbachev and what was happening as any other part of the USSR and could not be considered as monolithic at all. Anyway, after convivial discussions boozing chatting and so on, we get into the car to drive back to Ottawa on Sunday. Overnight somewhere in Vermont.

Turn on the TV in the motel Monday 19 August and there’s the news of the coup – tanks on the street, Gorbachev overthrown, lots of people saying “told you it wouldn’t last”. Sinking feeling in the stomach – it always hurts to be proved wrong. Here I am saying no coup and I’m instantly contradicted by the facts. And will probably get home to be fired (I heard years later that one senior had been joyfully saying that at least we’ll never have to hear from Armstrong again.) But tank crews arguing with citizens is not the sign of a successful coup I think as I drive. As the day wears on and we listen to whatever we can get (no Internet then, boys and girls, only what we now scornfully call the Lame Stream Media; so you had to listen carefully through the piffle and bias and deduce heavily) it occurs to me that this coup really isn’t working out very well. In short, coups have to be fast and total (or at least look that way) or they trickle away.

So Tuesday, into the office. Get some intelligence that confirms my suspicion that the coup isn’t really working and won’t take. (And also do some thinking; two things are missing: nobody from the CPSU in the Extraordinary Committee and where are the planes flying low and loud? In short, not everyone is on board.) Get a phone call from the Globe and Mail. Tell the reporter (I was new to the business then – I trust reporters a lot less now) that the coup is a bust and will fail.

Wednesday. Front page of G&M – Foreign Affairs says um ah maybe yes maybe no; so-called Defence Department “Expert” by name (sneer sneer) is so inexpert (sneer sneer) as to say no one expected the coup attempt and it will fail (hah hah, what a doofus!) Even made Quote of the Day: if the coup succeeds I will eat my hat. On my desk a stack of telephone messages. Phone the Director, phone the Director General, phone the ADM, phone the Minister! But, by Wednesday, it was clear that the coup had failed and that it was wrapping up. So I phone nobody.

Thursday lots of phone calls from various media outlets asking for interviews because I’m the only (later learned that I wasn’t actually the only) “expert” (not so sneery now) in the whole Canadian Government to have got it right. Asked my boss what to do. He said (wisely) that, since the then foreign minister had said that Canada would probably have to recognise the junta, I would be smarter, from a career perspective, to keep my mouth shut.

So, dear comrades, that’s why

  1. I’m not world famous today but
  2. I am living happily on a solid government pension.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for you younguns but I don’t know what it is.

(Pre Internet so I can’t find the Globe and Mail reference. Have the cutting somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it.)

Russia the Eternal Enemy Quotations

Note July 2016. A favourite quotation. Of course, it wasn’t “Trotskiy’s” Red Army: the Soviet takeover of Georgia was orchestrated by the two Georgians in the Bolshevik government: Stalin-Jugashvili and Orjonikidze. And Abkhazia these days is predominantly Christian. And Georgia is still independent today. An early example of the Economist’s anti-Russia at any cost editorial policy.

An independent state of Georgia existed for 2 1/2 years, until Trotsky’s Red Army snuffed it out in 1921. Mr Yeltsin has given its successor exactly the same amount of time. More or less secretly, Russian forces have backed rebellions by Muslims in the Abkhaz region and by Georgian followers of the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In this squeeze the current president, Eduard Shevardnadze…despairingly appealed to Moscow for help, and got it on terms that in effect mortgage his country’s independence.

The Economist 13 November 1993

Today’s Putin Quotation

There would not have been a second campaign, if we had not been forced to undertake it. This is apparent. Independence was the point at issue during the first so-called Chechen campaign and eventually Russia accepted this formulation. I would even dare say now that the price was Russia’s national shame, yet we accepted it.

And what did we get? We got not an independent Chechen Republic, but a territory occupied by bandit groups and religious extremists, a territory that was used as the bridgehead for attacks on our country and for rocking it from the inside.

Putin interview with journalists from Nezavisimaya Gazeta, ORT and RTR. Interview 24 Dec 2000. Text published Nezavisimaya Gazeta 26 Dec 2000. Reprinted here.

Worthless Values


Fifteen or so years ago, when I was still working, I gave a presentation at a conference on my usual subject which was that it was not actually a very good idea to turn Russia into an enemy. In the discussion, one of the audience – who I later found out was the retired head of a very important pillar of the NATO intelligence apparat – objected, saying that the Russians didn’t share our values.

“Our values” – usually called “European values” – were a staple of discussions in the 1990s. NATO, in those days, was proudly said to be an alliance of common values, “European values” to be specific. (Still does today, not quite as loudly perhaps.) I remember a Spanish Eurocrat lecturing me about those values. (Think about it: a Spaniard who had grown up in the Franco days thinking he could tell a Canadian about democracy and freedom. But such were the conceits of the time).

I found this very tiresome indeed. For one thing, Franco, Hitler, Marx, Engels, Mussolini, Robespierre, Napoleon, Quisling and so on and on were all Europeans. Every single one of them based his ideas and political views on sources deeply rooted in European thought and experience. And, for damned sure, had it not been for the Soviets and the Anglosphere, the “European values” Eurocrats and their flunkeys would have been boasting about in 1995 would have involved a lot more leather, jackboots and stiff-armed salutes: the French, Spanish, Belgians, Danes, Dutch and Italians didn’t liberate Europe from the Nazis, did they? Added to which NATO was a military alliance; it had happily cruised through Salazar in Portugal, the colonels in Greece and various military coups in Turkey. It did hesitate to swallow Franco, but the US had so many arrangements with Spain that formal NATO membership was irrelevant. In those days, when NATO was a defensive alliance, real estate and a common enemy trumped “values”. Nonetheless, t’was all the fad in the 1990s to gas on about “common European values”.

Now I will admit this was not entirely meaningless. I disliked the sanctimonious word “values” but I did think that the fall of the USSR had demonstrated something rather important. Contrary to the fears of some people in the 1970s and 1980s that the apparently unbending Soviet system would triumph over our slipshod stumbling, it was the Soviet system that fell apart. The lesson to me was not “values”, it was that the West had made a discovery and that discovery was pluralism. Simply put, since the future is unknown, the system which preserves many possible solutions will endure, because today’s answer will not be tomorrow’s. We see this in nature – there isn’t only one kind of tree, there are many; and so, there will always be trees. Democracy is political pluralism, freedom of speech is mental pluralism and free markets are economic pluralism. The Soviet system, and the Nazi system, had One Big Answer for all questions; it worked until a problem came up that its Big Answer had no answer for. I believe that Putin understands this, by the way, even if few in the West still do, and we see him saying it here:

History proves all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient. Only democratic systems are intransient. (История убедительно свидетельствует, что все диктатуры, авторитарные системы правления преходящи. Непреходящей оказываются только демократические системы.)

So, it seemed to me that there were conclusions that could be drawn and lessons that could be learned. But they weren’t. Instead we got the pharisaical and complacent glorification of “European values” that had, apparently, descended from Heaven on our heads. But not, apparently, on their heads: we had ’em; they didn’t. And that was that: they either learned from us (if, indeed, that was even possible), or they went down.

So where are we today two decades later? Not looking so good it seems. Political parties that stray from the prescribed view are swiftly demonised: read this, all it tells you is that the Front National is “far right” and it tells you that seven (seven!) times. So you know it’s bad without having to learn anything about it. A volley of adjectives kept in the ready round box are immediately fired at any party or individual who threatens the established order: Donald Trump is “racist“, “fascist“, “stupid“, “homophobe” and “anti-women“. Freedom of speech is greatly constrained by speech codes, hate speech laws and political correctness. Government eavesdroppers are everywhere. Death by drone is routine. As to market freedom, the world now seems to run by and for financial prestidigitators. Pluralism is decreasing and the fabled “European values” look rather tattered today.

Listen to some ancient Europeans on where this leads: “Divine Justice will extinguish mighty Greed the son of Insolence, lusting terribly, thinking to devour all.” Our triumphant “values” have morphed into hybris, the genitor of koros and today ate rules us.

Then comes nemesis to execute vengeance and restore balance.

Russia Prepares for a Big War: The Significance of a Tank Army



Picked up by


People who already understand how armies are put together should skip Part 1.

Part 1. How armies are put together

One of the things that I find irritating about battles in movie is that the director seems to think that battles are about getting an inchoate mass of soldiers together, giving a rousing speech and yelling “Charge!” That is absolutely not how it works nor ever has worked. Real armies are assembled out of groupings made from smaller groupings, themselves made from still-smaller groupings and so on down to the smallest group.

The smallest group is about ten soldiers. This is the fundamental bonding size – these are your buddies, the people you will really remember, the ones you depend on and who depend on you and for whom you will fight and sacrifice. Yes, you’re fighting for Freedom or some other Large Cause, but it’s really your buddy you’re doing it for. So we start with about ten soldiers.

In the Roman Army this was the contubernium – a corporal, seven legionaries plus two servants who shared a tent and ate together. The fundamental tiny piece out of which everything else was constructed.

The next thing to know is the span of command or control. The commander of each level, is trying, in very difficult circumstances, to get his subordinates to do something they would never do in their right minds. They know perfectly well that the first guy in the house, the lead guy attacking the machinegun post, the first guy out of the trench, the first guy out of the landing craft is almost certain to be killed or injured. It is very difficult to get people to do this and long experience shows that a commander can only control three to five elements.

The next principle to remember is square or triangular. Armies are usually constructed by making the next level of organisation out of three or four of the lower level. Why? With three, you can have two engaged and one in reserve. (A great deal of the problem of a commander, once battle is joined, is knowing where and when to commit his reserves). The “square” structure allows two in contact, one in reserve and one resting, or two up, one in reserve and one manoeuvring. Five or six are too many but two are too few. This introduces the fundamental principles of “fire” (applying the destruction to the enemy) and “movement” (moving so as to apply that destruction most efficaciously). (Movie battles have lots of the first, but little of the last.)

Finally, we have the combat arms – infantry, armour (cavalry in its time) and artillery – and supporting arms. “Combat arms” because they directly apply the violence. Other specialities assist them: engineers help them move, transport moves them, medical patches them up, signals communicate, logistics supplies them and so on. No army can function without them.

In what follows I will discuss infantry organisations because they are the purest soldier – the other two combat arms are machines, whether tanks or guns, and the support arms are functions. But, the principles of infantry organisations are followed in the other components. It should be noted that different military traditions have different names for some of these things but it’s all the same principle.

Three or four “tents” (sections) make a platoon; three or four platoons a company; three or four companies a battalion. At battalion level some specialisation will appear: it may have a mortar platoon, or a machinegun platoon, there will be a simple first aid element, some light engineers, communicators, headquarters and so on. But they are all capable of being ordinary riflemen if needed. The battalion is the first construction that is capable of some sort of independent action – it has enough companies to provide fire and manoeuvre and reserves, its machinegun or mortar elements give it some support. But it is still infantry and still pretty “light”.

The next level is a brigade of three or four battalions. But there is a decision point here: do you envisage this brigade being an “independent brigade” or a sub-division of a larger formation? If the former we introduce the other arms, if the latter it remains all infantry.

An independent brigade, or brigade group, will have, in proportions depending on what you want to do, infantry, tank and artillery battalions from the “combat arms” as well as “support” elements: like combat engineers, medical and dental, post offices, laundry facilities, possibly a helicopter battalion and on and on. It is an independent military town of 4000 to 6000 people which needs almost everything a civilian town needs while also being capable of moving anywhere at a moment’s notice. This formation is intended to carry out military tasks by itself with help from the air forces.

The brigade that is intended to be a piece in the next largest structure would have three or four infantry battalions and would still be mainly riflemen with very little added from the other arms. Next level is the division made of infantry, tank and artillery brigades in the proportion thought useful. In the Second World War divisions were usually the smallest thing one would see on the battlefield that could be given an independent task.

A tank division would be constructed the same way except that the basic “tent” is tank itself, three or four make a platoon, and then companies, battalions and brigades. Artillery would only rarely be organised into independent structures because while it has fire, it does not have much movement. The supporting arms – engineers, signals, logistics, medical and so on, because they exist for support, rarely appear as independent structures. In short “divisions” are infantry-heavy or tank-heavy (bitter experience has taught and re-taught that none of the combat arms can function alone).

Moving up, three or four divisions make a corps; two to four corps an army and a couple of armies make an army group.

So, a whole gigantic army group is assembled, step by step, out of our little “tents”.

Part 2. What’s All This Mean?

How big a war do you anticipate? A smallish one, a bigger one or a really big one? Your answer will determine the formations that you construct.

An important decision point, which reveals your answer, is whether you add in the other combat arms and specialised support elements at brigade (ie 5000 or so troops) or at division (10,000 or so)? If at brigade, you have made a decision that you expect your future wars to be rather small and that all-arms formations of 5000-or-so soldiers is as big as you need. If on the other hand, you decide to create divisions – formations about three times as large – you are showing that you are expecting a larger war. If you then start combining these divisions into corps, armies or even army groups, you are expecting a really big, all-out war against a first-class enemy. Something the size of World War II in fact. In 1945, for example, the Western Allies entered Germany with three army groups, totalling eight armies, totalling 91 divisions: about four and a half million soldiers.

It is possible to have a bit of both, but it’s only a bit. You may decide on independent brigades but also have a divisional headquarters. But, unless the brigades routinely exercise under the command of a standing divisional headquarters, and that headquarters controls assets, only the idea of divisional operations is kept alive.

In short, if you stop at independent brigades, you are telling the world that you expect, and are planning for, relatively small wars. If you go to divisions you are expecting something larger and if you construct a corps (or army in Russian terminology) you are telling the world that you are preparing for a big war.

And so, an observer who knows how armies are put together, can tell a lot about what kind of war a country expects by understanding how it has put its “tent groups” together.

Part 3. The Russian Army

The Soviet Army was organised for a huge war: it had divisions, organised into armies (corps in Western terminology) which were organised into fronts (armies in Western terminology) and further grouped into TVDs or Theatres of Military Activity (army groups in Western terminology) all backed up by a conscription and reserve system, immense stocks of weapons and gigantic pre-positioned ammunition dumps. This time, the Soviets did not intend to fight the decisive battle an hour’s drive from Moscow. When the USSR collapsed, so did that structure. The most ready elements were based in the Warsaw Treaty countries; Russia took responsibility for them and they were hurriedly moved back, shedding conscripts as they went. The formations which would have been filled up and then supported the ready elements were in Ukraine and Belarus and lost to Russia.

For some years the management of the Russian army did not appear to have understood that everything had changed – that the huge Soviet forces were gone and would not magically fill up with hundreds of thousands of conscripts to fill up the “empty formations”. But, they didn’t know how to make them smaller either: we were always told in talks with the Russian General Staff that the state could not afford to pay the officers the pensions and housing allowances they were entitled to. And so this once mighty army decayed.

Perhaps it was failure in the First Chechen War that finally convinced headquarters that the Russian army was not a temporarily shrunken big war army. We started being told that they were re-designing their army around independent brigades. It was clear from reading the periodic military and strategic doctrine documents that the wars that Moscow foresaw were smaller wars, on the scale of border infractions or a Chechen-sized war in which the enemy would be small agile lightly-armed groups. For such conflicts, anything larger than independent all-arms brigade-sized formations would be too large and complicated.

And, gradually, between the two Chechen wars, “divisions” (which our inspections had shown to be empty of soldiers but full of poorly-maintained equipment and under-paid dispirited officers) disappeared and were replaced by “storage bases”. We assumed these to be a way of avoiding the huge retirement bill while giving officers something useful to do. At the same time independent brigade groups began to appear, with the first ones in the south where trouble was expected. This is one of the reasons why the second Chechen war was a victory for Moscow.

At this stage, (I’m looking at the 2002 CFE data now) there were entities called “divisions” and “armies” (corps) but they were very understrength – apart from the North Caucasus, there were perhaps two divisions in the western area worthy of the name; neither of them deployed to the west. The real force was in the North Caucasus: three divisions, fully staffed and an army (corps) headquarters. But the future was there too with the first two independent brigade groups setting the pattern for the rest.

In short, by the turn of the century, in their published doctrine, in everything they told us in meetings, in deployments and in their formation structures the Russians were showing us they had no offensive designs against NATO and they expected no attacks from NATO. The south was where they saw danger.

The CFE Treaty showed us all this: the Russians were obliged to give us a list of elements showing their precise location and relationship to other structures with the number of soldiers and major weapons; we could go there and check this out at any moment. Thanks to the Treaty we always knew what they had, where they had it and how it was organised. Our inspectors found no discrepancies. But the NATO member countries never ratified the Treaty, continually adding conditions to it and, after years, Russia, which had ratified it, gave up and denounced it. And so we all lost (because it was reciprocal) a transparent confidence building mechanism based on full disclosure with the right to verify.

All this time the Russians told us that that NATO’s relentless expansion, ever closer, was a danger (опасность) although they stopped short of calling it, as they did terrorism, a threat (угроза); “dangers” you watch; “threats” you must respond to. NATO of course didn’t listen, arrogantly assuming NATO expansion was doing Russia a favour and was an entitlement of the “exceptional nation” and its allies.

It is important to keep in mind with the everlasting charges that Russia is “weaponising” this and that, threatening everyone and everything, behaving in an “19th century fashion“, invading, brutalising, and on and on, that its army structure and deployments do not support the accusations. A few independent brigades, mostly in the south, are not the way to threaten neighbours in the west. Where are the rings of bases, the foreign fleet deployments, the exercises at the borders? And, especially, where are the strike forces? Since the end of the USSR they have not existed: as they have told us, so have they acted.

They planned for small wars, but NATO kept expanding; they argued, but NATO kept expanding; they protested, but NATO kept expanding. They took no action for years.

Well, they have now: the 1st Guards Tank Army is being re-created.

This army, or corps in Western terminology, will likely have two or three tank divisions, plus a motorised rifle division or two, plus enormous artillery and engineering support, plus helicopters and all else.

The 1st Guards Tank Army will be stationed in the Western Military District to defend Russia against NATO. It is very likely that it will be the first to receive the new Armata family of AFVs and be staffed with professional soldiers and all the very latest and best of Russia’s formidable defence industry. It will not be a paper headquarters; it will be the real thing: commanded, manned, staffed, integrated, exercised and ready to go.

It should be remembered that the Soviet Armed Forces conducted what are probably the largest operations in the history of warfare. Take, for example, Operation Bagration which started shortly after the D Day invasion. Using Western terms, it involved eleven armies, in support or attacking; recall that the Western allies entered Germany with eight armies – five American, one each British, Canadian and French. Tank corps (armies in Soviet/Russian) are the hammers – either they deliver the decisive counter-attack after the defence has absorbed the attack (Stalingrad or Kursk) or they deliver the offensive strike. The decision to create a tank army (armoured corps in Western terminology) is an indication that Russia really does fear attack from the west and is preparing to defend itself against it.

In short, Russia has finally come to the conclusion that

NATO’s aggression means it has to prepare for a big war.

As a historical note, Dominic Lieven’s book shows the preparations Emperor Alexander made when he realised that, sooner or later, Napoleon was going to come for Russia. And everyone knows how that ended. As Field Marshal Montgomery, who had more experience of big war than anyone in the Pentagon or White House today, said: “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: ‘Do not march on Moscow’.”

This is what the light-hearted decision to expand NATO, “colour revolutions”, regime changes, cookies on the Maidan and incessant anti-Russian propaganda has brought us to.

And it won’t be a war that NATO will win.