Academic journal article Policy Review

Resurgent Russia? A Still-Faltering Military

Academic journal article Policy Review

Resurgent Russia? A Still-Faltering Military

Article excerpt

IN THE PAST few years Moscow's increasingly assertive foreign policy posture has been underscored by signs of improvement in the military realm. Several pundits have argued that the Russian army is "back," that it is once again an effective force, having endured humiliating conditions through much of the post-Soviet period. Some recent developments have undoubtedly supported this contention. After all, in 2007 alone Russia resumed regular long-range bomber missions after a 16-year hiatus, conducted a military exercise with the People's Republic of China and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a.k.a. "The Dictators' Club") that included 6,500 troops and over 100 aircraft, increased defense spending by more than 30 percent, announced a new rearmament program, and began planning the reclamation of the old Soviet naval base at Tartus, Syria in order to reestablish a Mediterranean naval presence.

These events are in concert with the longstanding Soviet-Russian tradition of emphasizing the armed forces as the state's most important foreign policy instrument while designating lesser roles to diplomatic, economic, and other means. Still, those familiar with the magnitude of the Russian defense establishment's post-Cold War privations cannot but wonder whether it could have recovered quite so quickly. To be sure, the military's situation has improved in some respects in the past several years. At the same time, reversing the army's decline and regaining its former might will take many years, and the Russian armed forces will not be able to challenge America's military supremacy for decades. Indeed, my main argument here is that reports of the Russian army's imminent resurgence, like those of Mark Twain's death nearly a century ago, have been greatly exaggerated.

I will focus on three closely related aspects of Russian defense policy--reform, manpower, and expenditures--under Vladimir Putin's reign to show that the U.S. and the West have no cause for alarm in the foreseeable future. Before proceeding further, it ought to be acknowledged that reality remains often at odds with the propaganda emanating from the Kremlin. "Soviet statistics" was an oxymoron, as "hard data" originating from the USSR were notoriously unreliable. Though matters have improved somewhat since then, Russian figures, particularly on defense and security issues, should still be treated with caution. A recent example should suffice. In a January 11, 2006 Wall Street Journal article then-Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov boasted that in the armed forces "the number and level of large-scale exercises ha[d] grown to more than fifty" in 2005. In fact, only 31 of these were held at the regimental level and just one involved an entire division, even though the Russian military contains more than 20 divisions and hundreds of regiments. (1) The point is that, given the authorities' full control of television--the news source for most Russians--and their expanding grip on radio and print media, the information for domestic public consumption, let alone that intended for foreign audiences, is routinely manipulated and distorted.

The contradictions of defense reform

SIXTEEN YEARS AFTER the collapse of the USSR, the Russian military remains fundamentally unreformed. The critical problem of defense policy is that the failure of political and military elites to sort out what type of conflicts the country should prepare for inevitably prevents the formulation of a consistent grand strategy and doctrine. In other words, politicians and generals seem not to have reached a solid consensus on who their enemies are and how to fight them in a potential future war. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Russia's top brass and many leading politicians are stuck in Cold War mode and continue to insist that the main threat to their country remains the United States. (Curiously, both political and army leaders seem to be bothered little by the rapidly increasing military power of neighboring China. …

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