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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/16/16

The Roots of The Russian Purge of the Baltic Fleet Admirals

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Putin And The Military

Putin has always had a difficult relationship with the military. Putin's career was nurtured in the KGB. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was briefly in counter-intelligence (Second Department) before moving on to the Fifth Directorate where he monitored Soviet dissent. He transferred to the First Department when he was offered a post in East Germany where he spent five years essentially looking into the opinions and actions of fellow Soviet officers and officials. He monitored the loyalties and actions of Soviet military and diplomatic officers. He ran numerous "stukachi" (informants) throughout the embassies and military garrisons and dealt with the offending officers accordingly. He was as well-loved by the military as the members of the police love their internal affairs departments. When the Soviet Union collapsed Putin was transferred to Leningrad where he spied on student movements and dissidents and the local garrisons of the military.

On 25 July 1998 Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB and, in August 1999 he was named a Deputy Vice President of Russia. Later that same month he was elected Prime Minister of Russia. On New Year's Eve 1999, Yeltsin resigned his post as President which left Putin as Acting President. Putin's first decree as Acting President was to issue a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to the Yeltsin 'Family'. This decree said that corruption charges against the outgoing President and his relatives would not be pursued. Like Gerry Ford in the U.S. taking over after agreeing a pardon for Nixon, Putin took over Russia after promising a pardon for Yeltsin.

When he took power, Putin brought in his allies, the 'siloviki' (the powerful ones) from the group of 'Chekists'. A 'Chekist' is a general, if pejorative, term for those who are or once were employed in the security operations of the Soviet state- KGB, GRU, MVD, FSB etc. (the 'Organs') Dzerzhinsky's original agency was the Cheka. Under Putin, these new 'siloviki' have been firmly installed in the corridors of power. These Chekist siloviki, primarily the St. Petersburg flavour of Chekist, openly took power as ministers, government advisors, governors, bankers and politicians. There were more than six thousand of these Chekists in powerful positions in the Russian state after Putin took power. They are still there supporting Putin.

The siloviki have had little time for the military. Under the Soviet system there were three sources of power: the Party; the KGB; and the military, especially the GRU (military intelligence). Along with a supine civil administration they ruled the USSR. After the chaos of 1990 the KGB was best prepared to take over the reins of government. Their abortive coup against Yeltsin left the KGB in disgrace, the Party banned, and the military in a much stronger position.

When, on 20 August 1991, the KGB plotters attempted their coup against Gorbachev Yeltsin moved to protect the White House (the national assembly). The KGB in Moscow called for troops to attack the White House and to arrest Yeltsin using KGB troops (the Dzerzinksky Division), MVD troops, along with Alexander Lebed's Airborne troops. The Minister of Defence ordered General Valentin Varennikov to order the attack. Varennikov passed on the order to General Grachev who refused to obey the order to attack. General Lebed removed the Airborne troops from the area of the White House and General Yevgeny Ivanovich Shaposhnikov ordered his men to take up positions around the White House to protect Yeltsin and to shoot down any helicopters flying near the White House and to destroy any tank attacking it. The army was the saviours of democracy in the Battle of the White House and Pavel Grachev, Boris Gromov, Alexandr Lebed and Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov the heroes. The KGB was disbanded (later to re-emerge as the FSB), but the leaders of the KGB never forgot that it was the Army which saved democracy for Russia. When they returned to power as the siloviki under Putin they remained determined to starve the Army of weapons, power and resources. It was no accident that Putin intervenes in military leadership conflicts. It is habit.

Special Problems In The Baltic Fleet

So, in addition to the dissatisfaction of the Russian military with its political masters there are also some historical problems which beset the Baltic Fleet in particular. With the collapse of the USSR many Russian ports and export channels were lost. The dismemberment of the former USSR into its several constituent parts left the warm-water ports of the Baltic largely in the hands of the newly independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Black Sea ports were largely incorporated into the new Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The capacity of the remaining Russian ports after the breakup of the Soviet Union was about 187 million tons per year or a reduction of about 58% of the USSR's former capacity. This reduction in its port facilities meant that, even at current volumes of trade, Russian ports could handle only 54% of this trade. The balance of Russian trade (46%) had to travel to and through other countries. These shipments via foreign ports cost Russia dearly as this trade took place in hard currency; at 1992 rates these transfer payments amounted to about $2.3 billion per year and, in terms of a rapidly declining rouble, made up a geometrically-escalating cost for Russian commerce.

The loss of access to Russia of its former ports was qualitative as well as quantitative. The loss of the Baltic ports meant that Russia lost modern transhipment complexes it had built for potassium salt (8.8 million tons per year); petroleum products (39 million tons per year); chemical wet cargoes and compressed gas (1.3 million tons per year); grains and pulses (5 million tons per year); perishable goods (0.5 million tons per year); as well as a key train ferry reloading facility for Germany (5.3 million tons per year). The main grain port and grain silo area in Novo Tallinn, only operational in 1986, with over 370,000-ton grain storage space was lost. The major Soviet oil export terminal at Ventspils was lost as was the modern container port at Riga. In the south, Russia lost port facilities for handling black oil and light petroleum products (1.7 million tons per year); chemical wet cargoes and condensed gas (3.6 million tons per year); urea (1.5 million tons per year; grains (9 million tons per year) as well as six major grain elevators in the port, especially at Odessa, the major grain port. Special port handling complexes for ore and coal reloading were lost (10 million tons per year) and a train ferry for handling cargo to Bulgaria (4.8 million tons per year). The last loss was compounded by the fact that its loss denied Russia direct access to the newly-opened international trade channel of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

Western Russia has only shallow depth, highly congested ports with little capital infrastructure to handle the bulk of its trade. Russia now had only one port grain elevator and one import complex for raw sugar; at Novorossisk. The sugar facility had a capacity of 0.8 million tons a year although Russia urgently required an import of sugar of about 4 million tons a year at current levels of consumption. On the Azov Sea there is only the shallow water port of Taganrog; and on the Caspian Sea only Makhachkala with a maximum of 7.0 million tons per year capacity. Over 60% of Russian ports are shallow depth ports incapable of handling modern vessels. Northern ports are frozen for large periods of the year and are kept open only by expensive nuclear-powered ice-breakers. Western insurance companies didn't approve regular trade to these ports like Archangelsk or Murmansk. Also, in many ports like Makhachkala, Poti, Baku and others, there were civil wars and ethnic strife where rail lines had to pass through such troublesome areas as Chechnya, 'Free Georgia', etc. where the security of goods in transit could not be guaranteed.

The Baltic Fleet has its headquarters in Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg), where it is defended by a naval infantry brigade. Kaliningrad fleet headquarters controls naval bases at Kronstadt and Baltiysk. The breakup of the Soviet Union deprived the Baltic Fleet of key bases in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, leaving Kaliningrad Oblast as the Fleet's only ice-free naval outlet to the Baltic Sea.

Unfortunately for the navy, Kaliningrad is separated from Russia by the nations of the "Pribaltika" (Baltic States) A number of other ports along the Baltic coast were lost to Russia when the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania withdrew from the USSR. These include Tallinn, Riga, and Liepaja, which reduced Russia to only two locations for construction, repair and operational capabilities, namely St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. Much of the Northern Baltic Sea, including the Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Riga, and Gulf of Bothnia, is frozen over during the winter months. In addition, operations in this region are also limited during the autumn months due to low clouds and dense fog.
The Baltic States
The Baltic States
(Image by Shutterstock)
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Access to the Baltic is severely restricted at the western margin by the intrusion of the Danish peninsula and a series of narrow straits, which themselves are interrupted by several islands. Strategically, this region is of prime concern to Russian military planners. From east to west and from south to north several significant areas deserve mention. First, the island of Bornholm represents a major control point to the Danish straits system, Denmark proper, and as a defensive position at the "mouth" of the Baltic. Second, is the Kiel Canal which traverses the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein from the city of Kiel on the Baltic westward to the mouth of the Elbe River on the North Sea, just northwest of Hamburg. While small, the canal is capable of handling warships up to Krivak class size.
The Batic Sea
The Batic Sea
(Image by RB-Deskart)
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Between the offshore islands lies a series of small straits, only one of which is passable by deep draft vessels. This is known as the Great Belt (Store Baelt) lying between Fyn and Sjaelland islands. Finally, to the north lies the bulk of the Danish peninsula, whose tip is called The Skaw, and which controls access to the entire region via the Kattegat and Skagerrak (straits), which are some 20 and 60 nautical miles wide, respectively.[iv] So, to a large extent, the Baltic Fleet is, or can be, bottled up by NATO warships. This has tended to make the Baltic Fleet less confrontational than the Northern or Pacific Fleets.

The Use of The Russian Military As A Political Lever

Despite the poor and rundown state of the Russian military the government decided to use its strength in pursuit of its political ambitions. In August 2008 the Russians sent in its army into Georgia where it met stiff resistance and served to boost the fortunes of the U.S. neocons associated with Dick Cheney. The will was there but the equipment sent to Georgia was in a poor state of repair and mechanical and logistical failures were the rule. The Russians succeeded in splitting off parts of Georgia but failed to cow the Georgians. The army was too feeble to make a lasting impact on the Georgians. It was clear that the army needed upgrading but the reforms suggested by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov were ineffective and badly implemented. "Reconfiguring the basic structure of the Ground Forces (from the battalion-regiment-division to the battalion-brigade order), then deemed a remarkable success, was achieved in parallel with the disbandment of hundreds of quarter- and half-strength units that were the heritage of the Soviet "mass army" construct. The price for this success was the forced retirement of thousands of officers, which bitterly alienated the officer corps."[v]

With the onset of hostilities of the Russians in the Ukraine Putin announced massive sums for the modernisation of the Russian military by 2020.Unfortunately this was hampered by the dramatic collapse of the price of petroleum in the world market and the loss of the military facilities in Eastern Ukraine. While some progress has been made in upgrading the Russian military a great deal of the funds is no longer easily available from the budget and some items required for modernisation have been banned under the sanctions program. The Russian military soon recognised that they had been sold a kukla (in Russian slang kukla is a wad of paper with large denomination bills on the outside to suggest a wad of real money. Inside this roll of bills is only scrap paper).

This didn't impede Putin's use of the military to provoke a response from NATO. Like the Wizard of Oz, he shook the curtain to look as if he were a powerful force. However, for the most part, this was an exercise in building Potemkin villages of military might to frighten the natives. Most of the success of these enterprises ("little green men", barrel rolls over U.S. ships like the Donald Cook, and buzzing US fighter planes) were achieved by the supine nature of the Western response to these provocations and the lack of a common will by the NATO states in confronting the Russians. This only encouraged Putin and led to the expansion of the Russian presence in Syria.

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Dr. Gary K. Busch has had a varied career-as an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political intelligence consultant. He was a professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii and has been a visiting (more...)
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