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By John Helmer, Moscow

“There is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line.” That was President Vladimir Putin’s declaration on March 18, 2014, when he addressed a special assembly of the Russian parliament before the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation was enacted.

It is likely to be the most consequential line in this century’s history of Russia – the rest of the world, too — because it marked the end of a half-century of peaceful co-existence between Moscow, Berlin, London and Washington; a quarter-century of the end of the Cold War. That’s to say, the limit reached, the line crossed, mark the start of a state of real war.

As this year’s celebration of victory over Germany and the end of the war in Europe passes, it’s time to recall how that victory was achieved. Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s ride on the white horse is a symbol to celebrate, but it’s not an answer to the question. Zhukov was as keen on the personality cult as Stalin. Watch again.

The war which started two years ago may be waged with Zhukov’s tenacity and some of his tactics, but command has passed, not to a Zhukov, nor to a Stalin, but to the Stavka. If you don’t know what that was, and is, now is a good time to ask. But the answer is a secret. The war the Stavka wages will be a surprise.

The first surprise is that there will be no announcements of Russian strategy, operation directions, targets, or battle concepts. The concept most often associated in western military thinking with Zhukov, and also with Stalin, is that the best defence is always attack. Stalin himself said it in his graduation speech to the Red Army’s staff academies on May 5, 1941: “The policy of peace is a good thing. We have up to now…carried out a line [based on] defense. And now…when we have become stronger, it is necessary to go from defense to offense. Defending our country we must act offensively. From defense to go to a military doctrine of offensive actions….The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army.”

For offense to succeed, intelligence on the enemy’s readiness and vulnerabilities must be good. Counter-intelligence, concealment of preparations, deception, maskirovka are also required.

The obvious and catastrophic fact is that at the very moment Stalin was proposing to surprise with attack, he was contradicting his own doctrine; rejecting the conclusions of his intelligence services, including military intelligence (GRU), that Germany was about to attack; and refusing to implement the plans proposed by his generals to counter the German attack by moving pre-emptively. Six weeks after his offense speech, on the morning of June 22, 1941, Stalin woke up to Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion.


When Putin announced that “everything has a limit” and “our western partners have crossed the line”, he was acknowledging that he had just had his own Barbarossa wake-up. So far as is publicly known, noone at GRU, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Defence Ministry, or the General Staff has been blamed, punished, scapegoated, or shot for the Russian failure to anticipate, deter, or neutralize the US Government’s putsch in Kiev of February 21-22, 2014. The Crimean move which followed was classic defence by offense – and its swift effectiveness a strategic surprise.

Three years earlier, in March 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev had had his Barbarossa moment. This came after he had ordered the Russian representative at the United Nations Security Council to accept the no-fly zone over Libya which started the US and NATO war against Libya, the assassination of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the movement of armed forces and flight of large populations to the east, west, south, and north, including Malta and Italy.


Source: National Geographic -- Interactive Map on Irregular Migration Routes and Flows in Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean Region: http://news.nationalgeographic.com

Compare Putin’s “crossing the line” declaration with Medvedev’s remark:“Unfortunately, we see from the developments now unfolding that real military action has begun. This is something that cannot be allowed to happen… Russia did not use its power of veto for the simple reason that I do not consider the resolution in question wrong. Moreover, I think that overall this resolution reflects our understanding of events in Libya too, but not completely. This is why we decided not to use our power of veto. This, you realise, was a qualified decision not to veto the resolution, and the consequences of this decision were obvious. It would be wrong for us to start flapping about now and say that we didn’t know what we were doing. This was a conscious decision on our part. Such were the instructions I gave to the Foreign Ministry, and they were carried out.”


Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/10701

Medvedev might have said Libya was of next to no value to Russia’s defence. He didn’t. He could have mentioned that Russia opposes foreign intervention in the internal affairs of states. Instead, he declared Russia’s Operation Kibbitzer – Russia would look over the shoulders of the other powers, while they applied their forces for regime change, advising them: “any use of force should be in proportion to events.”

Study the Zhukov papers, the biographies, the open Soviet archives, and the historians’ debates today, and something is still missing. The record is full of what Zhukov said, did, achieved, based on battle reconstruction maps, personal diaries, and official documents. There is also the testimony of his daughters, his driver, rival generals, jealous politicians. Still, absent from all this is how Zhukov assembled his situation appreciations, what he did with the intelligence and operations reports that came to him, how he made up his mind, changed it, or reflected retrospectively. In short, we don’t know how Zhukov used to think; only what he wanted us to think he thought.

GOLIKOV_Filipp_Ivanovich8The most recent biography, for example, and best in English, Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov, fails to mention a single intelligence source or officer on whom Zhukov admitted depending for his operational information. In Harold Shukman’s earlier compilation, Stalin’s Generals, only one of the 26 profiles is of a military intelligence officer, General Filipp Golikov, (right) the GRU chief in 1940-42. Zhukov attacked him mendaciously at the time, and in retrospect.

Intelligence gives anticipation and surprise; lack of it, or the failure to understand it, causes surprise. Roberts has opened the Russian military archives for his account of Zhukov. Oddly, he didn’t look at the assessments on the other side – the German military archives.

According to this NATO military officer, writing anonymously to protect his pension, there was nothing novel about Zhukov. Surprise “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.” For more examples from the same military assessor of why Russian tactics usually won NATO war games, read this.

So, Zhukov had his predecessors. Also, he has his aspiring successors.

What is known of the headquarters command, the collective known as the Stavka, started in the 19th century when inside the battlefield tent, as the original Russian term referred, was the field general, his principal unit commanders and staff advisors. During World War II, the Stavka was the 10 to 20-man group Stalin trusted most. It was the final headquarters which took in intelligence, appraised situations, decided strategy, ordered operations, coordinated forces, fronts, armies. The officers despatched by Stavka to supervise each of the war directions were marshals, so they outranked the commanders of the line. This is the org chart of those days:


Source: Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s General: the Life of Georgy Zhukov (2013), page 109: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stalins-General-Life-Georgy-Zhukov/dp/1848315171

Officially, there is no Stavka today. The Security Council, which convenes roughly every week with the defence minister in attendance but no military officers, is not the Stavka.


Latest official meeting of the Security Council, April 26, 2016:To Putin’s right is Prime Minister Medvedev; to his left, Federation Council Speaker, Valentina Matviyenko.

If command by surprise is the strategy, employing the standing forces required can be very expensive. One way to keep surprise but cut costs is to let the enemy know that there are red lines, and if he threatens to cross them, he will be attacked, without further warning.

A few days after Putin’s Crimea-is-the-line-speech, an elegant analysis of the Russian red lines was published by Yevgeny Krutikov, head of investigations at Versiya, columnist for Vzglyad, and a former serving military officer. On the map, Krutikov identified solid red lines for US and NATO approach at Georgia, Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden. Also, dotted red lines. “Unfriendly actions of Lithuania and Poland concerning the Kaliningrad region and navigation in the Baltic will be one more absolutely unacceptable circumstance.”

In the Arctic, Krutikov reported, “recent activation of disputes around access to Arctic territory is connected generally with the development of energy stocks on the [continental] shelf, and also with the commercial prospects of the Northern Sea Route during the era of global warming. From here there is also the lawlessness of Greenpeace, and unexpectedly tough statements from the eternally sleepy Canada; reanimation of Bellona-type organizations; and trips to ecological conventions in Murmansk by high-ranking staff of the American Embassy in Moscow; their antecedents worked as spotters of gun-fire in Afghanistan… The Arctic ocean space, especially its subglacial part, is considered in strategic military plans of the US and NATO as almost the ideal of all available bases for launching a first strike, both by nuclear weapons, and high-precision, strategic non-nuclear arms.”


A 1987 Canadian military map of the Arctic showing “possible Soviet submarine routes” for attack on North America. Source: http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo8/no4/lajeunes-eng.asp

Krutikov was writing in March 2014. In the two years since, Syria — a sideshow in his assessment then — is now a war front stretching across the border with Turkey to include Turkish operations under NATO cover at bases like Incirlik. In due course, it will be clear whether the US-Turkish attempt to install a NATO base in northern Cyprus has become an extension of the front.

How have the red lines changed? “The lines marked in 2014 haven’t disappeared,” Krutikov answers. “There is some unauthorized strengthening by NATO in the Baltics – yes. There is some real advance – the delivery of long-range missiles and air defense systems. But it’s obvious this is a situation that is not tied to Syria. If there is an attempt to establish some new weapons reaching the Russian region, this will also be a change in the balance of power in Europe. These lines do not change depending on whether a settlement is reached in Syria. These things are stable. But so far now no new red lines have appeared in Syria, thank God.”

There are a couple of riders to the Zhukov guide to aspiring Russian soldier strategists. One concerns the self-serving vanity to which Zhukov was prone, as have been some of his post-Soviet successors in command. Don’t expect to keep your reputation intact, among your peers or the public, if you try getting away with the Zhukov haul from Germany — 70 pieces of gold jewellery, 740 items of silverware, 50 rugs, 60 pictures, 3,700 metres of silk, 320 furs, foreign antiques, and 20 British and German hunting guns. Under investigation by a party commission, Zhukov claimed he had bought the loot with his own money, or been given them as war trophy gifts. Noone believed that.

The second rider is that the Stavka is a collective, whose members must remain anonymous, and avoid riding white horses in public. Stalin, according to a claim by his disaffected son Vasily, planned to ride the stallion in the 1945 parade, but he fell off in a rehearsal on Khodinka Field. In the saddle Putin is more stable.


Kremlin photograph: July 26, 2002

Krutikov proposes this conclusion: “the red lines are breeding in large numbers. Yet nobody is formulating them clearly, the more so that nobody is going to cross them. Of course, there is Syria. But in the situation in Syria over the past year, during those months when there was a Russian military operation there, the red lines were changed every day. In fact, there is no well-fixed system. Figuring where the red lines are can depend on mood and emotion. There was the time when the figure of Bashar al-Assad was by himself a kind of red line – ‘he must go’. It was the mandatory position the West and US could not abandon. Now, as it turns out, they can quite suffer Assad.”

“The same applies to the use of force. Like the destruction of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey . It’s a red line by itself, an extraordinary event, after which certain individuals must bear responsibility. But still global war did not happen. Russian military losses can be regarded as a red line. But these processes are constantly in motion, as the parties constantly change their positions. Maybe it’s just as well that noone has decided and put down the red lines in such and so place, or declared that nobody should cross them. Maybe this is for the best.”

If it is, it’s a military secret.

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