The Remains of the Soviet Super-Power

By Tuck, Christopher | Contemporary Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

The Remains of the Soviet Super-Power


Tuck, Christopher, Contemporary Review


Despite the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in the emergence of national defence and security forces within the Soviet successor states. The process by which these have evolved and the challenges facing them today are the subject of an important study.(*) Richard Woff has a long involvement in the study of the Russian armed forces and expectations regarding this major work may therefore be high.

Woff does not disappoint and has, true to form, produced an impressive investigation into the current armed forces of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and their development. Woff's magnum opus is in three volumes. Volume I consists of two sections: the first details the CIS Joint High Command; the second (all 39 chapters) examines the armed forces of the Russian Federation. Volume II deals with the Transcaucasian States (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia); Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Khirgizstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan); The Western Borderlands (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova) and the Baltic States. Volume III gives biographical details on an exhaustive selection of the major players in the defence forces of the respective states. In order to overcome the natural problem of the march of events, the work comes in an innovative ring binder form. Regular updates are available to ensure that the reference work remains current.

Russia is the single largest state in Eastern Europe and, despite an array of socio-economic and political problems, it remains the most powerful. The continued instability within Russia makes an examination of its armed forces extremely relevant. Woff's investigation of the Russian armed forces covers an admirably wide range of subjects; from the creation of the Russian armed forces, their organization and structure and education, manning and personnel, to the military's relationship with the Russian Government. The discussion sheds light on an array of problems facing the armed forces: a dearth of economic and technical resources; clear doctrinal problems; and difficulties with recruitment and manning.

The problems of defining a new role for the armed forces and, linked to this, in framing a coherent defence doctrine have had a significant impact upon the Russian military. Whilst the collapse of old-style Communism has lessened the ideological input into doctrine, conflicting military and political priorities have conspired to make it difficult to define the nature of the threats that Russia faces and the means by which they should be met. Many nationalists continue to view the West as a serious long-term threat; others focus on China, whilst some regard instability on the Southern borders as the pre-eminent threat. The Russian military doctrine which was approved in November 1993 thus defines a variety of 'dangers and threats' including territorial disputes and local border wars, attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Federation, action by nationalist and separatist organisations, the suppression of the rights of Russian citizens in foreign states and the expansion of military blocs to the detriment of Russian security. The military roles and force structures required to meet these threats are not clear beyond the obvious post-Cold War chestnuts of military 'mobility and flexibility'. Quite how these threats can be reconciled with other doctrinal assumptions, such as respect for state sovereignty, inviolability of state borders and non-use of force except in self-defence remains to be seen. The lack of doctrinal clarity reinforces one of Woff's central themes; the importance of Russian (as opposed to simply Communist) military traditions and historical constants in framing current forces.

The resource problems that Woff outlines have far-reaching ramifications. Economic problems have not, it is true, prevented a certain amount of restructuring from taking place in the Russian military. In this respect, one important development has been the emergence of special mobile forces. …

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