May Be Hampered by Economic Crisis
A Russian soldier in Georgia
The International Herald Tribune has done some of the best reporting about Russia in recent months, including C.J. Chivers recently published analysis questioning many initial reports from the August 2008 war in Georgia. The Georgia War revealed that the Russian military still has sharp teeth - at least when fighting an inferior opponent on its own borders.
However, the war also revealed that even the Russian Army's elite formations were fielding 1980s vintage equipment, and did not have night vision goggles or Global Positioning System (GPS) devices like some of their Georgian opponents. The lack of unmanned aerial vehicles also led to a Russian Air Force Tupolev bomber getting shot down on a routine reconaissance mission over Georgia, with the loss of the entire crew. Russian army commanders, like the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, were reduced to issuing battlefield orders over easily intercepted cellphone lines due to a shortage of secure radios.
In late October the IHT reported on large Russian military exercises then taking place across all eleven time zones of Russia, complete with ICBM tests (hat tip: former Sovietologist and blogger Thomas P.M. Barnett). The IHT added that most American officials in the Pentagon and Bush Administration considered these changes in the Russian military's organization to be routine and not a cause for alarm in the West. If anything, President Medvedev's ambitious plans to modernize the armed forces may have to be scaled back due to a weak ruble, falling oil prices, and declining tax revenues into the Russian federal budget.
Click on the extended post to read an excerpt from the IHT article. Click on the Human Rights section of Russia Blog to read more about the problems of brutal hazing (dedovshina) and low morale in the Russian army.
Russian armored vehicles driving through Moscow during Victory Day 2008
Russia striving to modernize military, U.S. notes with interest, not alarm
By Thom Shanker
Monday, October 20, 2008
WASHINGTON: As they tracked Russian military maneuvers in recent days, the American government's career Kremlin-watchers might have been forgiven for wondering if they were seeing recycled newsreels from the worst of the bad old days.
A huge exercise, called Stability 2008, spread tens of thousands of troops, thousands of vehicles and scores of combat aircraft across nearly all 11 time zones of Russian territory in the largest war game since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There was no specified enemy, but the Russian forces appeared to be enacting a nationwide effort to quell unrest along Russia's southern border Â— and to repulse an American-led attack by NATO forces, according to experts in Moscow and here.
In a grim finale, commanders launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles, the type that can carry multiple nuclear warheads. It was a clear signal of the drastic endgame the Kremlin might consider should its conventional forces not hold. One of the missiles flew more than 7,100 miles, allowing Russian officials to claim they had set a distance record.
If these images of Russian power projection appeared drawn from the dark decades of Dr. Strangelove, the response from Washington was anything but.
When asked to assess what seemed to be a Russian resurgence, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have provided the same sanguine response, echoed down through the ranks of government analysts who have spent years reading obscure Russian military journals and scrutinizing classified satellite photographs.
The Russian military fell to third world standards from neglect and budget cuts in the turbulent years when Boris Yeltsin was president, they say. The new Kremlin leadership is working to create a force that can actually defend the nation's interests.
The military has embarked upon a program to buy modern weapons, improve training and health care for troops, trim a bloated officer corps and create the first professional class of sergeant-level, small-unit leaders since World War II.
Which is not to say that the United States will stop judging Russian behavior in light of what it considers a clumsy, ill-advised and unnecessary invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Yet policymakers also say the Kremlin's efforts at military modernization should not prevent cooperation on mutual concerns, including countering terrorism and halting nuclear proliferation.
Even a high-profile speech three weeks ago by President Dmitri A. Medvedev, ordering a military modernization program and the largest increases in defense spending since the death of the old USSR, was viewed here as short on substance and designed more for a domestic political agenda.
Medvedev declared that by 2020, Russia would construct new types of warships and an unspecified air and space defense system. Military spending, he said, will leap by 26 percent next year, bringing it to 1.3 trillion rubles (about $50 billion), its highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union Â— but still a small fraction of American military spending.
Medvedev pledged that Russia would shore up its nuclear deterrence and upgrade its conventional forces to a state of "permanent combat readiness."
American experts were unimpressed. "Russia is prone to make fairly grandiose announcements about its military," said a Defense Department official who discussed government analyses on condition of anonymity. "These programs have long been in the works. They are not new plans. They are not new programs."
Even so, veteran analysts of Russian military affairs acknowledge that a military renaissance would allow the Moscow leadership to increase political pressure on former Soviet republics, now independent, as well as former Warsaw Pact allies that embraced NATO after the collapse of communism.
"What the Russian leadership has discovered is proof of an old maxim: that a foreign policy without a credible military is no foreign policy," said Dale Herspring, a scholar on Russian military affairs at Kansas State University.
Eugene Rumer, of the National Defense University here, said events of recent weeks were "not a sign, really, of the Russian military being reborn, but more of a Russia being able to flex what relatively little muscle it has on the global scale, and to show that it actually matters."
One example is how Russia's navy is seeking to display global reach. A flotilla of warships, including the nuclear battle cruiser Peter the Great, is under sail for exercises next month with Venezuela.
Russia has also announced more than $1 billion in new arms deals with the Venezuelan president, Hugo ChÃ¡vez.
"This Venezuela adventure is basically Russia's payback for what they consider the humiliation of American ships' operating in the Black Sea during the war in Georgia," said Mikhail Tsypkin, of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. "This is to annoy the United States."
Some of the steps undertaken to wrench the Russian military out of mediocrity resemble changes in the American military over several decades.
Russia plans for its ground forces to move to a system designed for the deployment of brigades, rather than bulkier division or corps headquarters Â— nearly copying the United States Army's approach.
The Russian military also plans to offer pay and housing incentives to attract noncommissioned officers -- the valuable class of sergeants -- to make a long-term career of military service.
While not as drastic as the move by the post-Vietnam American military to switch from the draft to an all-volunteer force, the plan would shift Russia further from reliance on one-year conscripts, who are not in uniform long enough to master even basic skills.
Just last week, the Russian military leadership announced it would further reduce the number of people in uniform, to about 1 million from the current 1.1 million, far below the 4 million-strong military at the end of the cold war.
Most significant, according to American government officials, is a four-year plan to reduce to 150,000 a Russian officer corps that now numbers 400,000, a shrinking that is certain to produce significant opposition within the senior ranks.
The Russian General Staff will be trimmed, and the number of generals is planned to fall to 900 from the current 1,100. But in an acknowledgment that the general officer corps can slow the pace of change throughout the military, most of those reductions will occur through retirement.
The Kremlin knows that its military bureaucracy is riddled with corruption, Pentagon officials say.
Experts here say that audits ordered after Vladimir Putin took over from Yeltsin in 2000 found that 40 percent of the budget for some weapons programs and salaries was lost to theft and waste.
Click here to read the rest of the story over at the International Herald Tribune website.