Small Wars Journal

The Matroyshka is Still Empty

Mon, 04/04/2022 - 7:39pm

The Matroyshka is Still Empty

By Robert Alan Murphy

“Russia is strong because Europe is weak.” – Robert Murphy, 2016


            Russia has exposed itself as a martial charlatan; possessed of a third-rate military whose only claim to military vigor lies in its nuclear inventory. In 2022, as in 2016, The Matryoshka is empty. Putin’s ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine has not only bared the depths of Russia’s incompetence, it has shaken America’s normally ambivalent European allies back into acquiescence with NATO’s defense spending guidelines. The US is presented with the opportunity to disencumber itself from forward deployed forces and shift European security back to Europeans, while simultaneously reallocating resources to more valid security concerns. Russia is depleted, Europe is invigorated, and America can refocus.

            The Russian military of 2022 is a mechanized, wire guided reincarnation of the Tsar’s military of 1914 and every Russian military before and since then. Like its forebears, it is led by a cadre of politically striving and craven oligarchs and generals, terrified of crossing their autocratic master. It is poorly maintained, ineptly unsupported in the field, and incapable of the kind of combined arms warfare waged by its adversaries. From Tannenberg in 1914, to Grozny in 1994, to Kharkiv in 2022, Russian despots have driven their proletariat-based armies into one meat grinder after another. A consistently accurate image of Russia’s culture of warfare is a starving, bedraggled and unmotivated conscript unsure of where he is or what he’s really fighting for.


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The Russian way of war, 1917 to 2022


            While Ukraine’s ability to defeat and counterattack their Russian invaders has been astonishing, Germany’s reversal of its defense policy and spending has equally staggering. Due in large part to the unilateral drive of its newly elected prime minister, Olaf Scholz, Germany has not only embarked on an overdue plan to revitalize the decaying Bundeswehr, but he has also risked Germany’s energy security by halting its $11 Billion Nord Stream 2 project, a joint venture with Russia which delivers almost half of the natural gas Germany requires. This reversal is even more remarkable considering that despite the exhortations of one US president after another, Europe’s most powerful economy has spent the barest minimum to keep its armed forces marginally equipped, poorly trained, and unready for action. It has done so while enriching itself as the one of the worlds’ most prolific exporters of cutting-edge military equipment. The good news for the US is that while Germany’s transformation is the most astonishing, it is not the only one of America’s NATO allies to step up its commitments.

The framework of Russian incompetence and renewed European vigor creates the opportunity for America to shift its attention and resources from rotating armored brigades to Europe and devising methods for defeating air defense batteries in Kaliningrad, to how to mitigate threats from other, more existential global threats. Furthermore, the damage Russia has done to its own economy and diplomatic standing virtually ensures that it’ll will be quite some time before it can reconstitute its land and air forces or leverage its scant alliances in any meaningful way.

As America casts about looking for new monsters to slay, the conventional wisdom would be to shift to China’s burgeoning influence in the Pacific. However, China may not be the competent adversary we’ve been led to believe they are either, and the solution in the Pacific, like in Europe, lies with demanding more from America’s network of allies. The collapsing façade of Russian military prowess ought to inspire reconsideration of the conventional wisdom about China’s military. Have the same indices that led to the gross miscalculation of Russian competence been applied in America’s assessment of China? China, like Russia, has been a useful boogeyman for scaring congress into funding billions of special defense projects. Every hypersonic missile launch is an opportunity for a pet pentagon project to receive a supplemental budget boost.

China shares many of Russia’s worst military characteristics; despotic strategic leadership; generals vying for political advantage; apathy regarding the welfare of individual troops, no experience in the conduct of combined arms warfare, a penchant for and history of throwing masses of ill equipped, ill-led and largely ignorant members of its lower classes against a more competent adversary. China’s military remains untested in combat. It has struggled to get its military to the scene of domestic disasters and has struggled to sustain the troops it has in static positions opposite its Indian adversaries. While the safe thing to do is to not underestimate them, the smart thing to do is to re-examine the Chinese military against a new set of metrics steeped in Russia’s failure.

Whether China is the threat it’s been depicted as or not, Germany’s example makes it clear that America cannot tolerate allies who consume rather than contribute to American security. While both Japan and Australia have acknowledged the Chinese threat and are increasing their security investments, neither are contributing enough to either deter or address a Chinese threat. Our allies in South Korea must evolve beyond being a one trick pony and diversify their capabilities to assist the US in more theaters than their own border. More can be expected from the world’s 10th largest economy.

Transnational terrorism is the most persistent threat and the least subject to deterrence. No strategist or student of history can realistically describe a future in which terrorism doesn’t exist or present a direct threat to American interests. The identification and mitigation of terrorist attacks should assume the highest priority for America’s defense and intelligence communities. It remains the only realistic threat with the expressed desire and capability to kill Americans where they live. For the cost of a Columbia class submarine, or a B-21 bomber, the US’s intelligence and defense communities could refine and deploy truly interoperable capabilities to destroy terrorists where they plan and thwart the plots that make it within America’s borders.

The matryoshka is empty. Russia’s conventional military is not a threat to US security, and Europe is rapidly approaching the military readiness to defend itself from any threat a reconstituted Russian military might present. The combination of these two realities provides the US with the opportunity to focus its resources on the most existential and relentless threat facing it: Terrorism. America must drop its parochial pretensions, pass the Russians off to the Europeans, the Chinese off to the Asians and stop the next 9-11.



About the Author(s)

Robert Alan Murphy is a retired US Army Infantry Officer and Strategist. He commanded a rifle company and served as a division chief of plans in combat in Iraq. He has served as a strategist and military assistant in the Offices of the Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense. He is currently a strategy consultant serving clients in the National Security sector. Patrolled with an ‘elite’ Russian unit while in Kosovo in 1999, he interacted frequently with Russian soldiers and their leadership. It formed an enduring, negative perception of Russian military professionalism. He found their officers to be pathologically deceitful, unjustifiably proud, and boastful in the manner of a deeply insecure teenager. He found Russian soldiers were starving, poorly equipped and completely incapable of thinking for themselves unless it involved planning or executing the theft of food, alcohol, or cigarettes. Both officers and men were drunk more often than sober, unhealthily groomed and hostile to all their foreign partners.