The Great Exception: Russian Civil-Military Relations

By Blank, Stephen | World Affairs, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Great Exception: Russian Civil-Military Relations


Blank, Stephen, World Affairs


On 25 September 2001 President Vladimir Putin addressed the Bundestag and again urged Russia's admission into NATO, this time as part of a global coalition against terrorism. Such membership faces many obstacles. One is that for Russia to join NATO, it must completely transform its system of civilian control over the military. Although the current system is nominally or formally civilian control, it certainly is not a democratic form of control nor does it conform in any way to Europe's emerging normative community regarding civil-military relations. (1) Indeed, Putin has realized the disjunction between Russian and European realities because one month later it was revealed that his government had "discreetly" asked NATO for help with reforming its military and restructuring its armed forces. (2)

That request, while revolutionary in terms of Russian politics, signifies the failure to date of military reform and of the general democratization process. While it is a promising start, that is all the requests to NATO are; the real test comes in the implementation of reforms, whether they originate in Moscow or in Brussels. And the reforms must be across the board, for failure to establish truly democratic and civil controls within and over the armed forces is one of the most basic obstacles to Russian democratization, integrity, and security. Consequently, thoroughgoing reform in this area is a systemic precondition for achieving all of those now insufficiently attained objectives.

Russia's failure obliges us to question the past decade's shibboleths of democratization, especially insofar as civil-military relations are concerned, as well as the notion that democratization and demilitarization of the state also should be defined as a kind of arms control program. Thus the failure of military reform in Russia, while it lasts, also prevents full realization of a truly cooperative security relationship between Russia and both Europe and the United States on the continent. (3) Russia shows that we must stress democracy, not only civilian control over the military and police. Failed democratization and failed military reform are inseparable aspects of the same negative and regressive process, and both entail serious domestic and international consequences. It is also difficult to argue for two different sequences of reform in these processes. Rather they should be coterminous because progress, or failure, in either domain, means the progress or failure in the other. Military obstruction and leadership neglect of reform have fostered overt politicization of the armed forces, even greater corruption than before, a repeated resort to internal war, and thus heightened insecurity. (4)

Boris Yeltsin bequeathed to Putin an unreformed and undemocratic policy process, pervasive corruption, internal war, and military politicization. And at least in Russia's case, the consequences of failure, obstructed democracy, and internal war reinforce each other and are unlikely to be overcome anytime soon. The new minister of defense, Sergei Ivanov, lists improving the flow of weapons to the armed forces, regulating their optimum size and readiness, and increasing defense spending in general, and soldiers' salaries in particular, as the goals of his reform plan. (5) These are worthy goals but are irrelevant to the fundamental issues discussed here.

Russia remains the great exception or antipode to NATO's insistence on a genuine and workable democratic civil-military relationship as a condition of membership. Military reform, as understood here, entails a complete transformation of the entire national security structure from top to bottom It encompasses both the civilian and the military leadership as well as Russia's eleven other armies under government authority, whence the term multiple militaries. Transforming the civilian-military relationship is a major part of the task but not the whole task. If the goal is democratic and civilian controls throughout and not only atop the multiple militaries and police, those forces must be subjected to full legal and institutional accountability to the legislature and judiciary, which must remain truly (and not just on paper) independent of executive interference and restriction within their legally designated domains. …

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