Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#7 - JRL 2008-134 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
July 18, 2008
Armed With Nukes and a Vague Plan
By Simon Saradzhyan / Staff Writer
Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of reports about the key challenges facing Russia today. Previous reports can be found at www.moscowtimes.com.

When Vladimir Putin became acting president on New Year's Eve in 1999, he took over a country whose armed forces were struggling to fill combat-ready units to fight guerillas in Chechnya.

More than eight years later, Chechen separatism has been all but squashed, and Putin's successor, new commander in chief Dmitry Medvedev, is in charge of a military that is strong enough to keep Chechnya relatively calm.

However, the armed forces have yet to complete their transition from an expensive Cold War model designed for a global conflict against an entire bloc of hostile nations to a leaner, meaner modern war machine capable of effectively fighting not only large-scale wars, but also low-intensity conflicts with insurgents.

In addition, the military is struggling with internal challenges such as poor recruitment levels, low salaries, hazing, ineffective procurement and lack of transparency.

On top of all that, U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe have thrown a wrench into the drafting of a post-Cold War military doctrine.

The primary problem, however, seems to boil down to the lack of a clear vision of what kind of armed forces Russia actually needs.

"The political leadership, most probably, has no point of view of their own," said Vasily Zatsepin, a leading Russian military expert.

Medvedev has said little about his vision for the armed forces since his inauguration in May, although he did replace the chief of the General Staff in a sign of support for his civilian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, who had quibbled with the ousted general over reforms such as downsizing the officer corps and auctioning off unneeded assets like land plots and buildings.

But Medvedev will find it more difficult to continue military reforms than did Putin, who combined "his personal experience as a security services officer with his macho as a judo fighter," said Zatsepin, an analyst with the Institute for Economy in Transition.

Medvedev, a lawyer and former businessman, will be much more dependent on his "not always skillful speechwriters and military advisers" than Putin in shaping the direction of the armed forces, he said.

A Medvedev spokesman declined comment for this report.

Need for a Vision

A key challenge for Medvedev will be to embrace a vision for the armed forces, which analysts believe might be stretching themselves too thin despite Putin's fix in Chechnya.

Even the military admits that the current vision is vague, if not outdated. The military doctrine has drawn criticism from retired military officers and independent experts for failing to clearly outline the hierarchy of current and future threats and ways to tackle them.

The head of the Russian Academy of Military Science, Makhmut Gareyev, promised in 2007 to present a new military doctrine by year's end, but the completion of this key document has been repeatedly delayed.

In the absence of guidance, reforms aimed at bringing the armed forces on par with post-Cold War challenges are muddling along. Among them are the transition to fully professional combat units, an overhaul of the procurement system and the abandoning of redundant functions and assets.

Teenage conscripts who lack skills and only have to serve one year instead of two under a Putin-directed reform continue to account for the bulk of the 1.13 million-member armed forces. As of last year, only about 140,000 people had voluntarily signed up to serve as privates and sergeants, far from enough to fill the ranks of the vital combat units in places like submarines and hot spots.

In addition to a lack of professional skills, the conscripts pose a major headache to commanders by getting involved in the hazing of younger or weaker soldiers. Dozens of commanders have also been convicted of beating their soldiers, and the military prosecutors have reports that other crimes remain rampant, including embezzlement and theft among the underpaid officers, many of whom collect less than $500 per month but have access to valuable material assets, especially in logistics and support units.

"You should simply come and look at the new foreign-made cars parked outside the building where the logistics guys work," said a retired senior officer, who asked for anonymity in order to provide a candid assessment of the military without angering his former commanders, many of whom remain his friends.

The Defense Ministry declined repeated requests for comment for this report. As of Thursday, its press service had not responded to questions submitted on June 15. The chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee, Viktor Zavarazin, and a member of his committee, Svetlana Savitskaya, also had not responded to questions submitted on June 15.

The military says things are getting better. In November, Defense Minister Serdyukov said hazing incidents were on the decline and the overall number of criminal offenses had dropped by 20 percent over the past year. He also noted that the number of soldiers killed had fallen by 16.5 percent, giving credit not only to commanders but also to nongovernmental organizations that monitor military abuses.

The Defense Ministry had planned for recruits to account for 44 percent of all soldiers this year and make its sergeant corps fully filled with these volunteer soldiers by 2011. But the plan hangs in doubt because the military is offering recruits a basic wage of only 8,000 rubles ($345) per month and is providing only a fraction of them with housing. As many as 150,000 of them are without homes, according to press reports.

"Neither the executive nor legislative branches have done enough to support a volunteer army," said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. general and former defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "Specifically, those two branches have not dedicated enough money to the process, resulting in wages that are too low to attract enough high-quality men or to retain enough good junior officers and sergeants."

This lack of support might be contributing to seasoned generals' fears about putting more authority into the hands of civilians in the Defense Ministry, he said.

Ryan described the recruiting situation and the effect it is having on junior ranks as "horrible." Going to the one-year service commitment will fail if there is insufficient incentive for those recruits to volunteer and stay on past the first year, he said.

The retired officer concurred. "I would say the quality of personnel is the biggest challenge that needs to be addressed. What we have now after the chaos of the 1990s is a long cry from Soviet days, when personnel were well paid, kept busy training and regularly zombie-fied by political drill officers on how they should be prepared to fight for the motherland," he said.

In addition, he said, other agencies with troops, such as the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, offer higher salaries and better equipment than the military. "When thinking about this, I keep wondering whether our country remembers that nations that do not provide for their own armed forces properly will have to feed someone else's army," he said.

Missile-Defense Puzzle

The underpaid military, meanwhile, may face a serious external challenge from U.S. plans to install elements of the missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow has repeatedly expressed concerns that the planned facilities could be expanded and reconfigured to target launches from Russia. As president, Putin threatened to point missiles at the Czech Republic and Poland if they hosted the shield components.

A U.S. shield would not only affect Russia's military planning in relation to Europe and the United States, but could also spill over to its overall planning. Russia's military doctrine is linked to international treaties that the country has signed, and a lack of an agreement on missile defense threatens to destabilize increasingly fragile existing pacts.

The international arms-control regime has already been undermined by the U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bans global missile defenses, the subsequent nullification of START-II and Russia's moratorium on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Next year, START-I will expire unless Moscow and Washington agree to prolong this accord, which is one of the remaining cornerstones of strategic arms control and which provides verification regimes for the arms cuts stipulated in the Moscow Treaty.

At the same time, Russia's armed forces commission only about 10 new Topol ICBMs per year as they prepare to decommission hundreds of aging Soviet-made intercontinental ballistic missiles in an effort to reduce the country's strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,700 warheads in the next decade, compared with 10,000 during the Cold War, according to estimates by Alexander Pikayev, a defense analyst with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

The production of land-based Topol missiles has been going smoothly, but the defense industry is experiencing serious problems completing the development of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile for the naval component of the strategic nuclear triad. Several test launches of the Bulava missile have fallen flat. In an embarrassment to Putin, he attended one of the abortive launches in 2004.

More Money for Nukes

Faced with a chronic lack of cash, the government and military have disproportionately skewed financing toward the strategic nuclear forces, which they see as the main deterrent, at the expense of conventional forces. This trend has continued even as the country's military budget has grown, reaching nearly 1 trillion rubles this year.

Signaling the importance of the nuclear forces, Medvedev visited a nuclear-missile base in Teikovo, about 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow, during one of his first trips after his inauguration in May.

Policymakers are doing the right thing, said Mikhail Barabanov, editor at the magazine Eksport Vooruzhenii (Exports of Armaments). "Military planning should be based on the assumption of the worst-case scenarios," he said. "It is the availability of strategic nuclear forces that ends the risk a large-scale military confrontation with other military great powers."

An example of how funds are divided is seen in the Navy, where the Project 955 and 955A nuclear submarines consumed 70 percent of all funds allocated for the construction of warships last year, Vlast magazine reported Feb. 25.

Whether the strategic decision to try to remain on par with the U.S. Navy in the number of nuclear submarines armed with missiles is the right one remains an open question. But the Navy itself has made no secret that its conventional forces may soon find themselves in dire straits.

In 2005, then-Navy Commander Vladimir Kuroyedov said the Navy would have to begin a "massive and irreversible" decommissioning of warships after 2010, leaving about 50 combat warships in the Black Sea, Baltic, Northern and Pacific fleets, as well as in the Caspian Sea flotilla by 2020. Of these units, only the Northern and Pacific fleets remain ready for combat, Vlast said.

Other components of the conventional armed forces, including the Air Force and Ground Forces, are also not being adequately replenished, according to reports in the national media. Furthermore, conventional forces also lack modern precision all-weather systems and command and control systems. Only 20 percent of conventional weaponry operated by the armed forces could be described as modern, according to the authoritative independent military weekly Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye.

"The problem is that Russia tries to maintain a Soviet-sized military on a post-Soviet-sized budget: trying to carry too large a force on a budget that is way too small," Ryan said.

The solution, he said, could be to downsize both the conventional and nuclear forces while increasing their budgets. He said the military could afford to downsize its forces by at least one-third while simultaneously raising the defense budget so as to properly fund the remaining two-thirds.

Gennady Gudkov, member of the State Duma's Security Committee, agreed that military financing needed to be boosted, noting that while defense expenditures have been increasing, their share in the overall expenditures has been dropping despite robust economic growth. He said defense expenditures equaled only about 2.1 percent of the gross domestic product last year, compared with about 2.8 percent several years earlier.

"Only an increase in defense expenditures accompanied with an increase in the control and efficiency of the spending will allow the development of a more efficient army with adequate arms and quality personnel attracted into military service by good salaries," Gudkov said.

Zatsepin offered an even more radical approach for personnel cuts, proposing that the armed forces be more than halved from the current total of 1.13 million soldiers. "For this level of threat, even 500,000 servicemen would be enough," he said.

The defense minister is planning cuts, but not as deep. The armed forces will be cut to an even 1 million, a Defense Ministry official was quoted as saying in the June 16 issue of Vedomosti.

But the downsizing of troops with an increase in funds will not help to re-arm the armed forces unless the system of procurement is reformed. After years of consecutive growth, the Defense Ministry's secretive procurement budget has exceeded the more than $6 billion that foreign countries spend on Russian arms every year. Yet, the ministry gets only single samples or small series of weaponry systems annually, while the foreign clients receive dozens of planes, ships and tanks for their money.

Most of the procurement budget is classified and, thus, closed to an independent audit.

"The inefficiency of the procurement suits the military, which does not see a real threat, politicians and defense industry executives," Zatsepin said. "If we were to try to achieve progress without changes in the political system, then we would need to increase transparency in state financing while decreasing the level of secrecy in the federal budget by 10 times."

He called transparency the single decisive issue in the military that Medvedev needs to tackle. "The real problem of the Russian military reform is not hardheaded military men but their unwillingness and incapability to get and open up military information," Zatsepin said. "This would be a very good task for Medvedev's first term in office."


The Problem: Military Reform

What the Government Is Doing:

The General Staff is drafting a new military doctrine.

The Defense Ministry plans to cut the 1.13 million-member armed forces down to 1 million, phase out conscripts in combat units, and stock sergeant corps with recruits only.

The Defense Ministry plans to get rid of redundant, noncore assets, such as the civilian-use facilities that it owns.

Proposed Solutions:

Political leaders should define clear-cut goals for the development of the armed forces and identify the hierarchy of threats that they need to tackle.

The military should downsize both the conventional and nuclear forces by one-third while increasing their budgets to procure adequate numbers of modern weaponry systems.

The number of soldiers should be halved from the current 1.13 million in order to completely fill the ranks with recruits who are adequately trained and well-paid.

The government should sharply increase the transparency of defense expenditures, overhaul the ineffective procurement system and streamline financing.

- MT