Whilst the attention remains focused on the US and the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, President Putin of Russia has been having a round of meetings in the Russian resort town of Sochi with his military chiefs.
On 16th November 2016 President Putin met with the high command of the Russian Defence Ministry. On 17th November he met with the heads of Russia’s defence industries – ie. the companies, research institutions and factories which make Russia’s weapons. On 18th August 2016 he held a further meeting to discuss development of future weapons systems.
Sandwiched between these meetings President Putin also met with Russia’s Security Council – Russia’s highest executive body – where the main discussion seems to have been Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Syria
This is an intensive round of meetings by any measure. A sign of their importance is the persons who attended them. Defence Minister Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Gerasimov attended all the meetings – including the National Security Council meeting yesterday. The meetings with the defence industry leaders additionally brought in Prime Minister Medvedev and Deputy Minister Rogozin – the latter is the minister in overall charge of Russia’s defence industry complex.
Since they must have been arranged weeks ago, it is not difficult to guess that they were originally setup to discuss concerns within the Russian leadership at the prospects of a Hillary Clinton administration. The fact that the Russians went to the trouble of setting up these meetings shows how concerned they are about the international situation, and how alarmed they were at the hawkish noises coming out of the Clinton campaign.
What is striking is that despite Donald Trump’s election victory and talks of a rapprochement, the Russians have not called off these meetings. Clearly, they are not taking anything for granted, and are determined to press ahead with their military plans despite whatever favourable music is now coming out of Washington.
Their experience with Obama’s famous reset of relations with Russia, which was supposed to lead to an improvement in bilateral ties, but which instead resulted in the opposite, has taught the Russians to be cautious.
In some ways the most indicative meeting of all was the one which was held with the leaders of the country’s defence industries on 17th November 2016. The purpose of the meeting as explained on the Kremlin’s website was ‘to examine defence industry enterprises’ readiness for mobilisation tasks, bolstering production capacity, and improving the national material reserves’ system’.
In other words it was to discuss plans to put Russia’s defence industries on a war footing in case of a conventional war, which by definition could only be with the US and the NATO powers.
This meeting was complimented with the meeting the following day, which was clearly concerned with enhancing the capability of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.
In other words the Russians are not only talking about the risk of a general war with the US and NATO, they are actively preparing for it.
A few words of caution are in order. The meeting discussions concerned medium to long-term plans. In the short term, Russia’s defence budget is being cut next year as part of the process of fiscal consolidation upon which Russia is embarking as its economy comes out of recession.
A country that expects war next year or which harbours aggressive plans for military expansion would not be cutting defence spending at this time. Rebalancing the economy and putting Russia’s fiscal house in order is still being given the priority.
This probably reflects Russian calculations – now reinforced by Trump’s victory – that even a Hillary Clinton led US was not in a position to start a war with Russia over the next two or three years.
However, it is clear that the Russians are concerned as they see NATO troops being positioned on their borders, and as they note that even a Trump led US appears to be pressing ahead with its plans to site anti ballistic missiles in eastern Europe., and that they are responding as they always said they would.
It is very unlikely that whatever proposals Donald Trump makes to Moscow will cause the Russians to give up on their plans. Having been taken for a ride by Barack Obama – which is how the Russian leadership sees it – the Russians are not prepared to make the same mistake with Donald Trump.
Over the last year it has become increasingly clear that Obama, even more than most US Presidents, cares about his legacy. His recent tour of Europe, which he is quite transparently using to lock Trump into his policies, is a sign of this.
In truth, Obama’s true legacy to the US people and to the world is that he brought both the Cold War and the nuclear arms race back.